The Role of the Book Cover

It is important to distinguish between a book cover, a book case and a dust jacket, as in recent years they have become interchangeable. A paperback cover wraps around the book block, whilst the jacket design is integrated with the cover as one piece. Usually, this is made of ‘cover card’ and has an average weight of 240gsm, although this can vary in 20gsm units between 220 and 280gsm; this choice depends on the intended life of the book and the brief set by the publisher. It will be printed using a four colour, CMYK process, although variations will be made depending on the cover design and publisher specification. Further finishes can be applied including lamination and spot varnishes, although these would incur an extra cost. These choices are determined in a conversation between the designer and the publisher. Depending on the book and its intended market, some covers may be printed on the long grain to prevent warping in the future.

A hardback book is usually protected by a ‘binding case’, this is made of a thicker ‘binder’s board’ and often covered in cloth, or an imitation cloth, such as Wibalin. Embossed to look like linen, this has all but replaced the use of real cloth, due to its reduced cost (Bullock, 2012). The jacket is produced separately and wraps around the case, though is often referred to as the cover, not the case.

Before 1820, books were sold as a block of unbound sheets or between temporary, protective boards; it was left to the end purchaser to commission a cover of their preference. After 1820, publishers began to bind books with decorative cloth covers that needed protection, whilst in transportation. The origins of dust jackets are rooted in the protective paper that once wrapped these volumes. (Tanselle, 2011).

In modern times, the cover and its design is an inherent part of the book and its marketing process. Gérard Genette defines the core role of a book cover, or ‘paratext’ as: “a ‘vestibule’ . . . that offers the world at large the possibility of either stepping inside or turning back.” (1997, cited in Matthews and Moody, 2007) The book cover and its design act as the primary enticer to the end consumer by encouraging a new readership to discover an author, or subject, of which they have no knowledge. It also helps to distinguish where the novel sits in the marketplace, its intended audience and genre classification. It could be said that due to the publishing industry not yet adopting ‘self-branding’, that genre and author identification via the book cover is “a form of branding . . . distinguishing products in the marketplace in order to capitalise on customer experience and perception of products and to maximise their visibility.” (Dibb et al., 1988 cited in Squires, 2009)

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