C hristopher MacLehose, the publisher who brought The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to an English-speaking audience, is imagining how a Renaissance publisher might have handled a modern-style book cover. “I like to think that books leaving the printer would have been protected by a plain, cream paper dustjacket, no words,” he tells me. A design might have allowed for “a brass on the front of each volume with the author’s or the book buyer’s or the publisher’s crest or escutcheon.”
As a series of sales at Sotheby’s illustrates, MacLehose’s speculation fits with the facts. There are plenty of crests and escutcheons on view in Bibliotheca Brookeriana: A Renaissance Library, to be offered at Sotheby’s New York and London. The library of T. Kimball Brooker includes some 1,300 books, predominantly 16th-century French and Italian volumes, in their original bindings. The collection represents a seismic shift in the way books were presented to readers. Ever since, readers have been (perhaps unfairly) judging the interior by the exterior.
Bibliotheca Brookeriana: The T. Kimball Brooker Library of Renaissance Books and Bindings
Highlights from Bibliotheca Brookeriana
The Brooker Library includes important books by Aldus Manutius, an Italian Renaissance scholar who revolutionized printing in the early 16th-century in Venice, then the heart of the printing trade in Europe. “Aldus is famous for producing lots of typographical innovations,” explains Charlotte Miller, Sotheby’s Books and Manuscripts specialist. “He was essentially responsible for transforming the Medieval book into the book that we know today.”
Aldus was the Penguin publisher of his day. His books could fit in the pocket and – with their legible typefaces – were easier to read. At the same time, the reader also changed. “In the medieval period most books were owned by religious institutions, and this changed with the Renaissance, with gentleman readers and collectors (such as Federigo da Montefeltro, the Duke of Urbino and Lorenzo de’ Medici), rather than just scholars or theologians,” Miller says. “Aldus also, unusually, treated modern Italian writers in the same way as classical ones – his editions of Petrarch and Dante look like Ovid and Sophocles.”
Aldus’ success was an early example of how books’ looks are guided by two forces: technological progress and the expectations of readers. And the history of those twin forces is a page turner.
The hand-crafted leather and vellum bindings found in the Brooker Collection – a feast of green, blue and russet morocco, arabesque decorations and strapwork designs – would remain the gold standard for printers for several centuries. In the early 19th century, however, the purpose of a book cover began to change. It went from signaling the artistry of the binder – and the status of its owner – to an indicator of its content. The cover of Jules Verne’s 1873 classic Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was awash with jellyfish.
With steam-powered presses, publishers (as opposed to specialist binders) began making their own covers and by the end of the century everything had changed: cloth had replaced leather, chromolithography introduced illustrations and designers became subtly suggestive: the 1897 first edition of Bram Stoker’s Dracula unnerved readers with its sickly-yellow cloth and blood-red lettering.
“Most publishers today will tell you that if a book is a bestseller, then the jacket must be a good one.”
The 20th century brought further innovations such as modern offset printing. “For a few brief years the arts achieved a unity unknown since the Renaissance,” observes British printmaker Kenneth Lindley. Dustjackets – which in the 19th century were for keeping volumes clean in the shop – became design classics: a copy of The Great Gatsby from 1925, with Francis Cugat’s foreboding jacket of a woman’s face hovering over a city skyline, sold at Sotheby’s in 2014 for $377,000.
Following the launch of Penguin Books in 1935, paperbacks created a second life for books – and a second shot at getting the covers right. Modern graphic design flourished. And the author’s face started popping up on the backs and inside flaps of dust jackets: books began to be judged on the author’s cheekbones as much as the cover art.
“Aldus Manutius was essentially responsible for transforming the Medieval book into the book that we know today.”
Today, book covers are “a thing” notes Suzanne Dean, Creative Director at Vintage, a division of Penguin Random House. A generation brought up online considers covers as “little pieces of art” to be browsed on picture-sharing platforms. Dean has been designing covers for two decades, for authors such as Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Donna Tartt.
Modern publishers have forensic knowledge of the marketplace and designers are given briefs that are “pages long and very thorough,” Dean says. Although, occasionally, she might just get handed an author’s manuscript: “Sometimes I think it is quite good to just go and pour your heart out into these things.”
A cover design can take a couple of months and the author’s opinion matters: after all, Dean notes, it’s their children she’s dressing. Her team of designers and picture editors visit galleries and museums and take city tours in search of inspiration. Fashion also plays its part: Dean’s covers possess a less-is-more aesthetic and feature bold colors akin to the recent trend for dopamine dressing. “What was interesting about book covers during COVID was that all designers were looking at the same thing. We were all looking at Instagram,” Dean says. “I was looking at people’s work and thinking, I’ve just had that idea.”
Of all her covers, Dean is particularly fond of her hardback dust jacket for The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2011. The cover featured a series of floating dandelion seeds veering towards the blackened edge of the book. “People were fighting over the last one in the shop,” she laughs. “I always liked that.”
“Most publishers today will tell you that if a book is a bestseller, then the jacket must be a good one,” says Christopher MacLehose. (Another publisher reflected that taking credit for a bestseller was like “taking credit for the weather.”) MacLehose maintains that a “good jacket will go on being excellent 25 years later. The original Ian Fleming hardback covers, for example, painted by a gifted illustrator and designed by a superb art director.” Today, James Bond first editions – wrapped in Richard Chopping’s ghoulish illustrations of skulls and daggers – are highly collectible.
For contemporary novelists, the cover is king. “They’re vitally important to me,” says William Boyd, bestselling author of Any Human Heart. Boyd’s latest novel, The Romantic, a 19th-century epic of globe-trotting incident, has a suitably adventurous cover featuring a period photograph of a hot-air balloon drifting over the rooftops of Venice.
“What I look for is an arresting, alluring image that has to be married-up with a font that looks right,” Boyd says. “The whole ‘design’ of the book cover has to be compositionally right, as well. Positioning of title, size of author's name. The Romantic is a case in point, it was a perfect cover.” But, he acknowledges, it is a precarious business: “So many covers have good images that are spoiled by naff lettering. You can tell I’m a nightmare author. I’ve rejected many a cover.”
At least Renaissance publishers didn’t have the problem of authorial cover approval. Most of the authors represented in the Brooker Collection, Charlotte Miller explains, “were long dead before the books were printed.”