Book Covers
A Language of Its Own

A striking cover allows a book to stand out from the crowd.
A striking cover allows a book to stand out from the crowd. | © Frankfurter Buchmesse/Marc Jacquemin

Thousands of books vie for the attention of readers each year, and an appealing cover can catch the eye of a potential customer – but is it really the key selling factor?

“I can’t remember the author, but the cover was blue”. This was what was written on a card in the window display of Marburg bookshop “Buchhandlung am Markt” – an ironic and somewhat ambiguous reference to customer habits and to the difficulties faced by booksellers. The statement highlights on the one hand how important a book’s design is in terms of catching the eye, and on the other how hard it is for booksellers to research exactly what it is that customers want, for our memories can all too often prove misleading. This is something Agnes Bötticher, general manager of the Marburg bookshop, knows only too well: “All the same, the cover is an important feature”, she says, “as it is what attracts the reader to the book in the first place.” This was what gave her the idea of creating a window display consisting of books of just one colour – sometimes green, sometimes red, sometimes blue. Every genre has a cover language of its own, adds Claudia Ordelmanns, who runs the Frankfurt branch of bookstore chain Hugendubel. “Thrillers always have very dark covers – that’s sort of their trademark.”

Any cover begins with the people who create it – its artists, illustrators or graphic designers. Ideally, their job is to ensure that a potential customer can tell from the cover what the book is about and the style in which it is written. Tilman Göhler from Munich publishing house Verlag Antje Kunstmann believes that a reader should be able to distinguish at a glance between a thriller and a love story. That is why love stories tend to use more blurry photographs or softly drawn images. Furthermore, the font type is of particular significance.

Eye-catching red stiletto

Experience has shown that love stories in particular fare well with a somewhat more striking cover design. Konstanze Berner, art director at Verlag C. H. Beck, recalls the negative response to the cover of French bestselling author David Foenkinos’ novel Souvenirs, which shows a couple from behind who are watching the sun rise over the Eiffel Tower. “The Spiegel wrote”, explains Berner, “that the cover could have well done without such a platitude”. It certainly did no harm to the book’s commercial success, however. “In fact, we sold more copies of the ‘platitude’ than of any of Foenkinos’ other novels.” Customers spend little time looking at the cover and often fail even to notice the title or the author. “I would be more likely to remember a red stiletto on the front cover”, believes Berner.

That sounds rather as if any book could be sold, regardless of its quality, just so long as it has an attractive cover. But that is not at all what either Tilman Göhler or Konstanze Berner means. As Berner explains: “We sell text, not pictures.” Göhler has never found that “a bad book with a good cover sells adequately.” That said, there are cases in which a book that in itself is good is let down by its poor cover design and fails to sell as well as it should. Claudia Ordelmanns remembers a novel for teenagers by Donna Freitas entitled The Survival Kit. For the German version the publishing house had chosen a white cover with gold letters, and did not achieve the sales that the bookseller believes should have been possible. “White and gold are not acceptable, especially in the teenage market – the immediate association is with theology.”

Almost anything goes

Every year, around 10,000 new books appear on the German book market. It is difficult to identify clear trends in terms of cover design. It would appear that almost anything goes: illustrations, photographs, monochrome or brightly coloured backgrounds, figurative or abstract designs. There are certain tendencies, however. Tilman Göhler from Verlag Antje Kunstmann points out that excerpts from major historical artworks are very popular, while Konstanze Berner recalls the practice of portraying the film poster on the cover of a book that has been made into a film. The considerable craftsmanship that goes into designing a contemporary book is striking, with for example new print techniques being applied or silhouette designs being used. Techniques such as embossing, gloss finishes and luminescent designs are often used too.

What all the examples prove above all is just how much attention and care publishers devote to designing book covers in Germany, in stark contrast to their counterparts in France, for instance. Until recently, what was known as the blanche reigned supreme there – the simple, ivory-coloured soft binding of the Gallimard publishing house. And in England? “The approach is similar to that in Germany as far as the use of colour and the love of design are concerned”, says Tilman Göhler. “Technically speaking, however, the quality is not the same. Germany simply leads the field in cover design.”