By: R.E. Hawley
I’m going to describe an image for you; maybe it’s something you’ve seen before. It’s a canvas filled with amorphous daubs of warm, bright color, intersecting with one another to form different hues in the overlapping spaces. There’s no discernible pattern, but the blobs still feel intentionally placed—if you squint hard enough, a few of them may converge into the implied shape of a braid, or an eye, or the side of a woman’s face. On top of the canvas, a blocky but refined sans serif spells the title and the author’s name, while much smaller text in a handwritten script reads “a novel,” or, “a memoir,” or, perhaps, “a New York Times bestseller.”
I am, of course, describing a book cover—or rather, the book cover, that of the current literary zeitgeist, whose abstract splotches are a ubiquitous presence in the new releases display at your local bookstore.
This design trend, well into its third or fourth year in the major publishing houses, has attracted plenty of nicknames and attendant discourse online—culture critic Jeva Lange calls it “blobs of suggestive colors,” while writer Alana Pockros calls it the “unicorn frappuccino cover,” and New Yorker writer Kyle Chayka once referred to it on Twitter as “the Zombie Formalism of book covers.”
The highly cyclical nature of book design is, of course, far from breaking news. Like most other areas of design, publishing jumps from trend to trend, the aesthetic cycle of breakthrough to omnipresence to total exhaustion as tried and true as it is in any other industry. That is especially true of genre fiction categories like romance, horror, mystery, and young adult—may we never forget the legion of Twilight look-alikes that came out in the early 2010s, or the year or two that flat illustration ruled the world of beach reads. Within these categories, “effective” (as in high-selling) cover design for different subgenres often carries such specific, reproducible properties that the actual design process closely resembles an algorithmic exercise rather than a creative one. As Cory Matteson noted in Eye on Design back in 2019, the same stock photo of a man’s silhouette or a sepia-filtered woman staring into the distance can easily show up in dozens of books if it evokes the perfect mood for a particular strain of mystery or horror novel.
Among books bestowed with The Book Cover, too, some common factors jump out. They are usually fiction and nearly always written by women, often women of color. They have literary sensibility but broad enough appeal to contend for the bestseller list; they’re the sort of books that generate a good deal of buzz and media coverage, likely candidates for an Oprah Book Club nod or a spot on a major literary prize’s shortlist. They also tend to come from the Big Five publishing houses, whose considerable budgets leave few expenses spared for design and marketing. The sameness of these particular covers doesn’t appear to be principally driven by austerity, as design trends so often are in other industries. So what does this trend represent, beyond, well, a trend?
Over the past decade, the publishing world engaged itself in a breakneck race to the bottom; as writer Margot Boyer-Dry noted in Vulture, Amazon’s dominance and price-cutting have led to a massive loss in profits among publishers, even as sales have increased considerably.
“This leaves publishers with a killer combination of higher stakes and fewer resources,” wrote Boyer-Dry, “which leads in turn to safer [design] choices.” Part of “safer” in this context means visually grouping new releases with recent comparative titles, the way that Amazon does with user-data algorithms. As a marketing tool, cover design can get deployed to bring algorithmic logic back to the physical world. “If you liked The Vanishing Half, you might also like You Exist Too Much and The Death of Vivek Oji,” these covers seem to murmur enticingly from the bookstore display.
There’s nothing inherently awful about The Book Cover’s colorful, abstract formalism. Like all trends, the canon contains good and bad executions, including some genuinely masterful work such as Rachel Ake Kuech’s cover for Torrey Peters’ novel Detransition, Baby. Still, The Book Cover seems to epitomize an approach to book design that I cannot help but feel a bit rueful about. Pick up a book, and before even opening it, you get bombarded by clues as to the author’s literary cohort and influences based on title, loglines, and blurbs (i.e., “so-and-so is her generation’s Zadie Smith”)—is it really so necessary that the design also signal such similarities? Perhaps the idea of a cover as the element of book marketing meant to intrigue and beget double-takes in the bookstore is overly romantic. But I’m a sucker for that breathless feeling of seeing a cover on the shelf that looks like nothing I’ve seen before, the way I’ve recently felt about the covers of Dahvana Headley’s 2020 Beowulf translation or Patricia Lockwood’s 2021 novel No One Is Talking About This. What gets lost in the pivot toward safe, reliably marketable design in literary fiction is in many ways the same thing we risk losing to Amazon’s algorithmically-driven vision of readership—the thrill of encountering the unexpected, of being thrown from one’s course and wandering the bookstore with no idea what you might be looking for.
What’s more, something is disconcerting about this “safe” route disproportionately taken in service of women of color and debut authors in particular. These writers are deserving of what is so often afforded to their white and/or male literary counterparts: design that feels specific to the style, preoccupations, and general ethos of the author, a cover that wouldn’t have been created for anyone else. That seems like a failure of algorithmic thinking. Amazon’s user-data analysis can’t easily group novelists by whose prose is deftly funny or sweeping and profound, who’s earnest and who’s cynical, or who experiments with form in which way nearly as well as it can group by demographic categories.
Some day, likely sooner rather than later, there will be a new cover trend in literary fiction, one that may even have us wistful for the colorful blobs of yore. But for the sake of readers and writers alike, I hope it is a bit less ubiquitous. For all the certainty an algorithmic approach to design can provide, good books deserve covers that stand out, polarize, and take risks.