How to judge a book by its cover

Prizes for book cover design are creating a space for visual and literary arts to meet

Art historian Alka Pande is multi-tasking. When talking about book cover design in the run-up to the Oxford Bookstore Book Cover Prize announcement anytime this month, she cuts out to handle something else for a minute. When she returns, she takes a minute to pick up the conversation again. “Attention span,” she says with a grin. “It’s also one of the reasons why the attractiveness and seductiveness of a book jacket becomes so important.”

Pande, who has been chairing the prize’s jury since its inception, is only half-joking. In a crowded bookstore, an eye-catching book jacket that attracts potential readers could be the first point of the book’s marketing success. With online marketplaces, cover design that is striking even in the size of a thumbnail becomes important.

Book covers have been around as long as books have, of course, but in recent years, a few things have put them in the spotlight: authors have been naming and thanking cover designers either in the acknowledgement sections of their books or during promotions, designers have been showcasing their professional portfolios and working on self-branding, and award categories for book cover design have emerged.

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The jury of the Oxford Bookstore’s Book Cover Prize 2023 arrived at their current shortlist of six after sifting through 300 entries. The Publishing Next Industry Awards 2023, which announced its winners in the last week of March, has three categories for book cover design: English (introduced with the first edition of their awards in 2016), Indian Languages (since 2019) and Children’s Books (intermittently since 2019). This acknowledgement of genre-specific design sensibilities in a category rarely fêted in India is pleasantly surprising.

Such diversity “is the sign of maturity and evolution in the market,” says Lisa Rath, partner at Delhi-based design and branding studio Itu Chaudhuri Design, which has worked on jackets of books such as Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things (IndiaInk and Penguin Books, 1997), The Doctor and The Saint (Penguin, 2019) and Mujib Rizavi’s Sab Likhni Kai Likhu Sansaara (Rajkamal Prakashan, 2018). She notes that the likes of a neon cover or a chalk-like typeface, common today, were rare a decade ago

The book cover is more than a rectangle. “I like to see an artist use the entire space, and the imagery flow from the front to the spine to maybe a flap,” says Danica Desilva, artist and jury member at the Publishing Next Awards for the last two years. While doing this, a designer ought to also think about bringing the book’s essence into an image, she says. 

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Rath calls this “depicting the temperament of the book”, making the job a balancing act between faithful interpretation and an original comment.

The book cover has become a space for the visual and literary arts to meet. “Book cover design is an inherently collaborative process,” says Antra K., who won in the Best Cover Design category at the 2022 Atta Galatta-Bangalore Literature Festival Book Prize for Saeed Naqvi’s The Muslim Vanishes (Penguin, 2022). 

Over the years, she has learned how to blend her ideas seamlessly with the author and editor’s inputs, while also accommodating the pulls and pushes of a book’s marketing team. “Art can seem like an insular process,” she says. “But with a book cover, I know I’m making it for the author, the reader and for myself—and that’s quite exciting.”

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