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Who doesn't judge a book by its cover?

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Will Gompertz | 10:54 UK time, Friday, 5 March 2010

A semi-casual Tony Blair stares out from the cover of his autobiography, The Journey, which is due to be published this September.

Dressed in a black open-necked shirt, his piercing blue eyes lock onto the passer-by like laser-guided missiles.

The image portrays a self-confident, middle-aged man who - if we didn't know better - could be anything from a successful European lawyer, a member of a 70s prog-rock band or a perma-tanned TV personality.

All careers that might well have crossed the ex-prime minister's mind at some point during his life.

Tony Blair on the cover his autobiography, The JourneyAnd the choice of this image, the styling and the crop is not flippant. Hours, days and quite probably weeks will have been spent choosing the cover image for a book that pundits think will be the biggest-selling political memoir since Margaret Thatcher's Downing Street Years.

Never-judge-a-book-by-its-cover is a cliche that has at its root an anti-superficiality message. But the truth is that publishers and authors do want us to judge a book by its cover, otherwise they would simply produce books wrapped in block colours to denote a genre.

At a talk I recently attended by Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish writer, he explained that not only did he personally source and choose the cover image for his new book, The Museum of Innocence, he also rolled up his sleeves, switched on his computer and spent many hours on Photoshop to create what he felt was the perfect visual metaphor for his novel.

Book cover design is an artistic practice that goes back centuries and includes the illuminated manuscripts of the middle ages.

But it is in the 20th Century with the emergence of the professional graphic designer in concert with mass-market publishing that the visual language of book cover design has found a place in everyday life.

One pioneer was the great publisher Allen Lane, who founded Penguin. Design writer and critic, Phil Baines, wrote an excellent illustrated book published in 2005 called Penguin by Design.

It shows and tells a compelling story of modern graphic design, which really only got truly underway at Penguin when they acknowledged the importance of cover design by appointing Germano Facetti as the full-time Cover Art Director.

But even before that Penguin had the aesthetic sensibility to employ the great modernist typographer and designer Jan Tschichold to help them bring some design rigour to their books, which were already well known for their distinctive branding.

The ensuing Penguin Book covers now have a significant part in the history of graphic design.

And as from the 17 April the publishers Faber and Faber will be mounting an exhibition at London's V&A museum where they will, "put on display items from its historic archive in a display describing its dedication to book design."

It will be interesting to see what the future holds for book design as we move towards a digital age in book publishing. It is easy to imagine a digital version of the book cover with a groovy 3D image that animates like a movie.

But then again, Stefan Sagmeister sort of did that with his Booth-Clibborn editions book in 2001. That was a good cover.


  • Comment number 1.

    Seems a rather boring book cover really, but all autobiographies have a picture of the person on them haven't they? Book covers are generally designed to sell the book, but autobiographes are about the person and if you're that interested in the person you will buy it/read it no matter what is on the cover.

  • Comment number 2.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 3.

    One of our friends is a bookshop manager for "a major national chain". When publishers' reps come by with the latest catalogues, she orders the known best-sellers and then comes the more difficult bit of deciding which new and mid-list authors to order.

    These decisions, she says, are made purely on how striking or visually appealing the cover is. It might sound harsh but, as she says, (A) that's the basis on which most customers in the store decide which new and untested books to pick up and (B) she doesn't have time to read the blurb in the catalogue. She shapes the fates of a dozen new authors (at least in her area) in 60 seconds flat and says every one of her counterparts throughout the UK uses the same method.

    Thus, a dull cover dooms a new author before anyone has sampled a word of his/her finely sweated prose.

  • Comment number 4.

    Image of Tony Blair slightly to the right of centre. No change there then.

  • Comment number 5.

    I'm sure it will be an excellent book. Mr Blair's talents for fiction are unrivalled.

  • Comment number 6.

    @4 Nick Porter - He looks right of centre from our perspective. As far as he is concerned, he will think he's left of centre. As you say, no change there.

  • Comment number 7.

    Never book a judge by his cover

  • Comment number 8.

    4) That was my first thought exactly, and I can't imagine them having - very deliberately - positioned the image that way without there being any relevance or meaning behind it.

  • Comment number 9.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 10.

    Slightly reminiscent of the ill fated Cameron bill board - no jowls and very tight around the eyes.

    Airbrushed or nip and tuck? - and that's the book not the face.

  • Comment number 11.

    Those who sell books select by covers. Those who read books select by content. The two can be mutually exclusive.

  • Comment number 12.

    Changing my habits lately I now order my reads from the library so covers don't play such a big part in what I choose. Titles are probably more important. So, ''The Journey''. Are we nearly there yet?! Are we nearly there yet?!... No.

    Actually I think a better title for me would have been ''Why?''

    The image; have they tapered his face with Photoshop (and if his missus did it would it then be PhotoBooth (oh come on, it's Friday!))? He looks like an imp. Personally, and don't take this the wrong way but, I'd like the book better if he had a manly jaw.

  • Comment number 13.

    ...and that's quite an ambiguous mouth. No change there then.

  • Comment number 14.

    I've always thought that the book jacket is the first thing about a book that catches your eye...unless of course you're already seeking the book for more intellectual or interesting reasons.
    Anyway, the jacket for "Tony Blair, The Journey" could have been much better.
    1. The picture is not centered; it favours the right, which is fine; but if the picture had been situated far enough right (I mean to match Tony's politics), all that should be showing is Tony's right ear and maybe a little cheek.
    2. The picture doesn't reflect the Tony that I know and have gotten used to; it reminds me more of Peter O'Toole in the "Night of the Generals". I think Tony should have used Richard Hamilton's Tony the Gunslinger because Modern Moral Matters.

  • Comment number 15.

    I design book covers. And most people do indeed judge books by their cover, up to a point. It all depends on the book. If it's a classic, like 'Frankenstein', or 'Moby Dick', or 'Pride and Prejudice', then people will want to read it regardless of the cover. As it will sell anyway, that's why most publishers won't go to the expense of paying an illustrator or photographer for a snazzy new cover, but will use an out-of-copyright old masterpiece to illustrate it.

    If it's who the author is that will sell the book, then they will use the author's name as the major selling point (see any Clive Barker or Stephen King book, where the name takes up 3/4 of the cover), or if the author is better known visually, through TV or films, as in the Blair book, then his or her face will do the job more effectively. Gordon Ramsey's cookbooks don't feature a kitchen scene, they feature him, because his face is going to stand out better than a kitchen work surface with a wet fish on it. As a designer, the creativity only comes into play when neither the book or the author is well known enough to sell by itself. Then it's a question of catching the browser's (or the bookseller's!) eye with a good image or typography, if it's fiction, or a 'does what it says on the tin' image if it's non-fiction.

    As a general rule, paperbacks tend to be more creative than hardbacks, as the competition for the casual reader is greater. People who buy hardbacks or first editions will probably buy it anyway, more for the content than the cover.
    Despite all that, the old saying is still true: I've seen terrible books with fantastic covers, and fantastic books with terrible covers. And of course, many books are bought for their covers alone, just because they may be done by a favourite artist etc.

  • Comment number 16.

    I have to say I think the cover of Anthony Sheldon's "Blair Unbound" is a more appropriate rendering of our ex Prime Minister. A black and white portrait, suited, weathered, troubled. The Blair we see here is healthy, confident, intense and available for public speaking (£157,000 for 90 minutes?). I rather suspect that the autobiography will be as just as self promoting and self assured.

    Although you have a point about being able to judge a book by its cover, I have to admit my wife and I are fans of the uniformity and privacy of Penguin’s earliest Edward Young designed paperbacks, featuring standard typeset, three horizontal bands (the central one in white, the two outers indicating subject matter) and universal Penguin logos. For the past couple of years The Times have been running a promotion with Penguin and have been randomly giving away a wide variety of books (ranging from Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" right through to Jeremy Paxman's "The English") echoing these classic designs. It makes for a nice collection because it's so ambiguous. Reading is such a private activity and I think the covers should echo that.

  • Comment number 17.

    He definitley looks like the character on the cover of Mad magazine. I have said this before, and I'm surprised no one else seems to have picked up on it. An intresting project would be to put the images side by side. The more I contemplate the Iraq war, and the chemical weapons used on civilians in Falluja, his statement about American and Britain, 'we share the same values', the more I'm convinced he's unbalanced, a closet dictator, and a religius hypocrite. Look at the maniacle stare in his eyes. The whole image says 'I'm here to justify my crimes'.

  • Comment number 18.

    I believe you mean "denote a genre", not "donate a genre". Typo or ...?

  • Comment number 19.

    I can see why Blair chose that image for the cover of his Magnum Opus; potential buyers in bookshops will see Tony's favourite icon as he sees it in the mirror. How could they fail to be as enamoured of it as he is?
    I see the great one has had his chipped front tooth seen to but hasn't had a photoshop teeth whitener tweak as usual for his photoshoots. "The Journey"..very evocative; does it indicate a new beginning or an ending?...does anybody care?...will it really be the biggest political publication of all time? If it is, it will say more about the dopes who buy it that it does about Tone.

  • Comment number 20.

    Although I feel sorry (sort of) for the publishers I won't be buying this book. I have no intention of this man gaining anymore than he already has from ruining this country, and I hope many others do the same. Quite apart from that I wouldn't think there will be any more truth in it than there was from Bliar at the Iraq enquiry - I'm prepared (just) to accept that HE might believe what he says - but that doesn't make it true.

    The idea that he might profit even more than he already has from his time as PM is abhorrent to me. Selling the UK down the river sure is lucrative business though.

  • Comment number 21.

    parag. 6: 'denote a genre'?

    Am wondering about the extent to which the Blair autobiography will be taken up by readers of much different political colours - his reign so recent.

    On the cover: quite flattering - very Blair.


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