Lots of people worth reading have posted about what book covers mean for our society, its views on race, and what exactly happens when a cover gets picked to sell books, forget what the book itself says. Yes, it’s important stuff—really now, if the author says the main character isn’t white but you put a Nordic-looking blonde on the cover, summin’ ain’t right—but I like to lurk in the dark underworld of academic humanities publishing. Thus, how to judge books by their covers, or make your Dusty Tome look like something worth reading.
The Solid Color Paperback
Prime Suspect in this category: Hackett Publishing Co. Anyone with any time in philosophy will have a shelf full of solid-color-with-contrasting-text Hacketts—they’re cheap, usually scholarly sound in both edition and translation, and easily available. Some of the ancient philosophy ones—like the gold and white of Hellenistic Philosophy or black and red of Lucretius—are actually quite striking. Others, like their whole line of medieval philosophy tracts, are responsible for me having a whole shelf of books in varying shades of taupe. Of course, most people who study medieval philosophy are either dull to begin with or have had all enjoyment of such aesthetic frippery beaten out of them by grad school, so I guess it doesn’t really matter.*
Honorable Mentions: Cambridge University Press will stick you with some real gems if your subject’s obscure enough, though the blue and red livery of their political history series is rather nice. Also, Loeb’s Greek green/Latin red/Patristic baby blue covers are classics.
The Tasteful Abstract Expressionist
Nobody does this one quite like the Oxfordshire 3—Blackwell, Routledge, and OUP. You can pretty much guess that any book with a tasteful combination of three colors in broad office wall art swooshes and a sans-serif typeface comes from one of these houses. They also publish pretty similar material to boot—good quality contemporary philosophy and contemporary studies of historical thought. It helps that two of them (Routledge and Blackwell) have the whole first-letter-against-white-background logo thing as well.
I usually attribute these to Routledge and actually correct my assumption when I’m wrong, which is about two times out of three.
It’s Public Domain, Right?
Penguin Classics has pretty much built a brand identity around this one, albeit with a healthy dose of Solid Color Paperback for flavor. Take a public domain (or at least old) image, slap it on an otherwise monotone cover, and call it good. If the feds ever passed a law against this, university presses would go out of business in a week. Good for history of philosophy (nothing like a smidgen of an illuminated manuscript for your medieval philosophy tract, no?), books on dead philosophers (see above), or just having a conservative-in-their-tastes readership who doesn’t mind owning a whole library with the same portrait of Kant on the cover.
It’s also good for when the university your press is associated with owns a very nice collection of medieval manuscripts. It’s not like the library’s going to deny your request for image permission, or sue you if someone screwed something up.
Of course, sometimes you get sick of peasants, ugly monotone covers, and corporate Rothko ripoffs. Even the most even-tempered marketing director begins to twitch if she has to approve one more instance of the same old thing. Thus, covers chosen by a rebellious bunch of editors and interns who decide to let aesthetics trump the house’s button-down reputation for once.
Exhibit A: the cover of CUA Press’s spring/summer catalogue, which, sadly, isn’t up yet.** (News Flash! It is now!) It has a giant metal hallucinogenic mushroom umbrella shading a lounge chair by a pond. If you’re trying to sell books, breaking out of the usual brown/tan/taupe academic color palate is probably good; adding a memorable image is even better. Harvard’s cover for Dworkin’s Justice for Hedgehogs is also a good example of this; while most of Dworkin’s other books are covered in a combination of monochrome and/or tasteful swirl, someone at Belknap made the right decision in putting someone’s extremely cute pet African pygmy hedgehog on the cover. Of course, if anyone reading this has good examples of this category, I’d love to see them—academic books that don’t look like they’re designed for beaten down (or just plain soulless) professors are all too rare, but most certainly appreciated.