The Hypothetical Library: Fictional Covers for Real Writers

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by Peter Terzian

Hypothetical cover for Gabrielle Bell
Hypothetical cover for Gabrielle Bell.

In The Sandman, the series of comic books by Neil Gaiman, there is a library of books that exist onlyin their authors’ dreams. This concept of non-existent books inspired Charles Orr, an advertising executive who designs real-life book covers, to create jackets for the never-realized or newly imagined projects of contemporary writers. Orr’s blog, The Hypothetical Library, was launched in February; nearly every week, he posts a new cover for a make-believe book.

About the Author

Peter Terzian is a Print contributing editor. His most recent book is Heavy Rotation: Twenty Writers on the Albums that Changed their Lives. His Print article "Kill Your Darlings" featured book designers talking about their favorite cover designs that never made it to the shelf. He also recently interviewed David Pearson and the designers behind the Vladimir Nabokov series as part of his ongoing series on book cover design for


Marquee-name authors have responded enthusiastically to his request for ideas. “I seem to have hit a nerve,” he says. Colum McCann, who won last year’s National Book Award for his novel Let the Great World Spin, was the first to respond to Orr’s request for a hypothetical book. McCann submitted an idea for a historical tale, set in the 17th century, about Irish indentured servants transported to the West Indies. Orr’s handsome cover features an inverted clipper ship—a play on the fictional book’s title, In the Country Below.

Novelist and recent Pulitzer nominee Lydia Millet gave Orr her idea for a non-fiction book—co-unwritten with her husband, environmentalist Kierán Suckling—about mass animal extinction. Orr created a spooky jacket image of a turtle shell imprinted with a death’s head pattern (above). His hypothetical design work has left Orr little time to take on real-world book cover commissions. He considers the site as an “ongoing conceptual experiment,” he says. “I feel like more of an artist now than I ever did when I was really trying to be one.” Seeing Orr’s realization of their covers has led a few writers to reconsider their shelved plans—a couple have told him they plan to write the book they proposed. Meanwhile, Orr watched his site meter soar to 10,000 hits in two days only a month after it was launched—after being Tweeted by Neil Gaiman.

A few of Orr’s make-believe books, below: