A decade ago, when my publisher, OR Books, emailed to say they had finalized the cover for my debut novel, Ivyland, they told me to brace for something different.
We’d been going back and forth on a few concepts, including one design that featured a large respiratory mask seemingly strapped around the book itself — a reference to a fictional gaseous drug in the story. The updated version that landed in my inbox kept the mask but changed the background to a violent red. It also removed my name and the title of the novel, relegating those to the spine alone. The front cover had become a striking, enigmatic image without context, one that invited curiosity and even a slight alarm.
I realized why my publishers had worded their message so gently: not every young author will be thrilled to see themselves removed from the prime real estate on their finished work. I loved it, though, and not just for the arresting visual; I also knew there was nothing like it in any bookstore I’d visited. This was something wildly unusual.
Wouldn’t it be nice to have that experience when browsing contemporary fiction today? To pick up a volume because it stands out as peculiar on its face? Too bad. As critics and influencers continue to point out, cover art has in recent years regressed to a sort of algorithmic average: the colorful, crowded blobs. For all their potential verve, these geometries are a far cry from the emphatic expressionism that dominated 20th-century painting — they are tepid and hesitant, more like the palette itself than any arresting vision one might create with these saturated hues.
It’s important to say here that neither authors nor the artists themselves can be blamed for the trend. It’s not a case of one or two designers running amok. Nicole Caputo, creative director at Catapult Books, contributed to the abstract fashion with her cover for Zaina Arafat’s 2020 novel You Exist Too Much, imbuing the art with attractively shimmering gold stripes, and selected similarly vibrant, dancing flames for Shruti Swamy’s story collection of that same year, A House Is a Body. But on other projects, she has turned to clever photography and vivid painterly detail. Lauren Peters-Collaer, who gave Brit Bennett’s 2020 novel The Vanishing Half perhaps the seminal blobby book cover, has a portfolio bursting with diverse and impactful compositions, and only occasionally returns to the splotchy fields of color — as on the 2021 novel After the Sun, by Jonas Eika. Notably, both books are from the Penguin Group’s Riverhead imprint, suggesting an in-house directive.
There are even larger industry forces beyond an artist’s control. Among these is Amazon’s recommendation engine, a mechanism that constantly equates products as interchangeable and therefore incentivizes a kind of uniformity. Maybe you recall when every book was titled “The [Blank]’s Wife” or “The [Blank]’s Daughter,” another outcome of the publishing world trying to style new novels according to the blueprint of established bestsellers. Or perhaps you’ve noticed the more recent phenomenon of long and precious lyrical titles, in the vein of Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.
By (quite literally) blurring a whole group of authors together with bright, often meaningless shapes, the major book publishers hope to maintain a financial consistency through an aesthetic one — playful but inoffensive, Instagram-baity though refined. This strategy doesn’t just create a pet peeve for engaged readers who’d prefer to buy books with more individualistic outward personality, it also does a disservice to the writers, because there is no perspective to it, just the vaporous vibes of existing, or whatever.
No, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Neither should we lump books together under this murky camouflage as if they are broadly alike. Although many of these narratives wrestle with themes of identity as experienced by women and people of color and diaspora, few have a specific visual identity themselves. It’s not cost-effective to represent the spirit of the page, and safer not to stray far from the zeitgeist. The stories told between these covers deserve a more intentional artifact. Especially in the Age of Kindle (speaking again of Amazon’s flattening influence), a book should be a joy to hold in your hands.
We’re leaving so much else on the table. Beautiful, searing photography. Paintings that aren’t just serviceable placeholders but have a life or character all their own. Graphic ingenuity that causes us to look twice, and maybe rethink how we are looking. Austere covers full of chilly space or disorienting fields of skewed, chaotic lettering. Whatever doesn’t make it seem as if you’re taking a new kind of Rorschach test. There’s an unfortunate air of preschool to the blotches, isn’t there — you realize it when you pick up a U.K. edition and come face-to-face with a strong, bold cover that feels grown-up compared to the U.S. version.
Several years ago, I’m sure, the colorful, abstract cover had a psychedelic punch, announcing the arrival of a new voice. Over time, however, it became a cheap optical shorthand for authors of any marginalized or underrepresented groups, and helped to cleave this literature away from that written by white, straight, cis authors. This segregation is in nobody’s interest (except those who, knowingly or not, want to maintain a separate, restrained prestige for what they deem “serious” art), and it reduces a huge variety of experience to a single nebulous socio-political genre. You can almost imagine book-banning Republicans going through a library and tossing whatever adheres to the blob formula, reasoning that it must subvert or critique our existing power structures.
Okay, a little far-fetched. Conservatives aren’t smart enough to crack that code, and they’re busy challenging Captain Underpants at PTA meetings. Nevertheless, we should be able to admit when a trend has run its course and needs to find a conclusion. The patchy, prismatic template has to go — if not for its condescension and laziness, its indifference to the subject matter and obvious calculation of exotic familiarity, then for the plain old crime of cliché. It’s now so common that you’re better off trying to design your book as a statement against it.
I wouldn’t wish every author an intense, unnerving cover like the one I got when my novel made it into the world, because that would render the shelves of bookstores equally dull. I’m happy to say that ten years later, I still haven’t seen a cover like it. What I’d most love for my peers is that each might have their labor of love packaged with such care, shown to the reading public as distinct and worthy of close inspection. In writing, you want to be immersed, and when the exterior image achieves the proper, special mood, that’s what first draws you in. Otherwise, our gaze slides right over, clocking only more of the same.