What’s in a Cover: How Book Art is Made

It may sound strange, but for me, part of the power of owning and buying books is the complete sensory experience. What I mean is that I love all the things that make books tangible—the smell, the feel, the way they look all piled and stacked together under my window, all different colors and shapes and sizes.

And despite the platitudinal “don’t judge a book by its cover,” there is something special and enticing about a book that just looks good. A book cover matters to me. And it’s exciting when I learn that they matter to the artists that make them as well—that they enter the story completely to figure out just what it should look like.

So I got curious: what goes into the creation of a book cover? How do they come about and more importantly, who makes them?

A post shared by Reese Withersfork (@bookgirlph) on

First I turned to my own stack of books. I grabbed some of my favorite covers from my collection (including Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro) and looked for the cover art credit. Unsurprisingly it was printed on the back; I googled them all. Jamie Keenan is the artist who designed Ishiguro’s novel—I found that they said this on cover design: “When I read a book, I’m not sure if I experience in the way you’re supposed to do. It’s hard to describe, but from reading a book I get a sense, in quite an abstract way, of what the tone of the cover for that book should be. Each book seems to create its own world with its own rules and logic.”

Leo Perutz Little Apple Cover
Pushkin Vertigo

So the magic of a totally encompassing novel goes another step further to another artist, beyond just the author. I love that. I love imagining a book without a cover yet, and the artist stepping inside of the story to feel what it should look like.

What I found when I dug into Trainspotting is interesting as well: its cover is an image of a skull, but in its context, it’s more. Upon looking up the credited artist, I found that it is a single image removed from a series, called “The Growing Human Skull” from a collection called Wellcome which is a “free museum and library exploring health, life and our place in the world.” The series of images shows skulls in all their stages of development; this made me return to the book itself and think about how that image fits the story—why that, specifically, was chosen.

I kind of encourage you to do this if you find yourself bored or curious, because who knows what you’ll learn, and who knows what meaning you can find and make out of the images on your favorite book covers. How fascinating: that even the cover of a book gets so much intentional artistic decision-making put behind it. I love this—I love that I was able to learn even more about a story and the artistic process of a physical book coming together.

There is so much behind the stacks of paper we keep on our shelves—from cover to cover and the pages within, there is so much meaning.

What’s your favorite book cover?

Share some of them with us in the comments below!

Carliann Rittman
Currently at NYU, probably feverishly reading messy memoirs about musicians.