Anticipating the next trend in book cover styles

I recently dug out some of the military histories I wrote in the late 1990s-early 2000s, largely because Intruder Books are reissuing some of them and I wanted to check out the old cover designs. Not to use those covers again – the license isn’t available – but to remind myself how they looked, way back when, and just how far styles have changed.

I commissioned the artwork for the cover of my 1998 book on the RNZAF. I still have the original painting. That meant I also had license to use it on the cover.
I commissioned the base artwork for the cover of my 1998 book on the RNZAF, which Reed NZ’s designer used as the basis for this cover. I still have the original painting.

A lot of that change, I think, flows from the way new technology provokes new styles. Actually, that was happening even before software oozed into the process.

Wright - Kiwi Air Power 200 px
Same book – 2015 cover. Click to buy. Go on, you know you want to…

Way back, sci-fi book covers were bright yellow and plain, in which case they were published by Victor Gollancz. Or they were traditional for the day – a cover painting (sometimes full colour), usually by Ed Emshwiller, with often hand-lettered title at the top and the author’s name at the bottom. Just like every other book on the planet, except that the sci-fi featured a spaceship or googly monster or something.

Then, around the turn of the 1970s, a young British artist named Chris Foss cut loose with an airbrush and a new concept – multi-faceted, amazingly detailed fantasy spaceships floating on abstract clouds. And he set a trend. As in: Bam! A Trend! Three milliseconds after Foss’s artwork adorned the Panther editions of Asimov’s Foundation ‘trilogy’ (it was in the 1970s), every sci-fi book cover on the planet suddenly featured fantastic, multi-faceted, hugely detailed spaceships floating against billowing backgrounds.

This book of mine was pretty hard to structure - took a lot of re-working via the 'shuffle the pages' technique - to get a lot of social linear concepts into a single readable thread.
Superb, superb design

For me, the best cover ever designed for any of my books remains the one Penguin commissioned from an Auckland designer for Guns and Utu. Just awesome. (Want a copy? Email me.)

Today’s covers are all Photoshop layer blend and SFX effects, which I can usually spot from about half the distance of Jupiter (I began working professionally with Photoshop in 1988…) Every cover on Amazon has a sameness which I just know has been done with Photoshop layer blends in various flavours. Sigh…

I’m determined this over-use of glow won’t happen for the New Zealand Military series I wrote from 1997 to 2009, half a dozen titles of which are due to be re-released by Intruder Books over the next two years. Layer clipping paths? Sure. But not glow. We’ll see.

Meanwhile, the next release is coming up in time for ANZAC day. Western Front: The New Zealand Division 1916-18. A tenth anniversary reissue, in fact. Watch this space.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


4 thoughts on “Anticipating the next trend in book cover styles

  1. Love the new cover. Isn’t it funny, you can tell “ages” by covers, just as you can by watching an old television show and immediately go “yep, that’s the 70’s” or whatever era you are looking at. I remembered how I used to like Quincy, an American Medical Examiner show (this was when, though fingerprints have been around since the late 19th century, it was expected that cops with filthy shoes dropped cigarette butts right there in the crime scene, handled items in the house with bare hands, and did other things that make me CRINGE…. I saw it was on Netflix a while ago and tried to watch . . . between the 70’s clothes, the women portrayed as a single step up from monkeys and the cops I wanted to bang over the head with a forensics manual, I just couldn’t do it…. the same with your book. The old cover would never catch my eye at all, but the new one? My eye was drawn to it and it caught my interest – which is just what a book cover is supposed to do!

    1. Thanks! The old cover was good for its day and worked well at the time. But it definitely needed updating. The second in the re-release series follows the same style. Doubtless in another 20 years they will look dowdy in turn, but that’s how it goes.

  2. Ah, you can’t beat an amateur cover photo by the author and some clunky fonts with drop shadow to say exactly what a book is! *kicks her own first novel under the couch*. But ‘proper’ designers can get it very wrong too when they forget that every book sold online, whether ebook or print, relies on a small thumbnail cover image. So often those tiny filigree shoutlines vanish into obscurity. We live in different times and I love to see what ideas work and which ones fail – check out the monthly contest on thebookdesigner for some real howlers!

    1. I must have a look! Yes, part of the brief for any cover these days must be that it has to be effective down to thumbnail size. I actually suspect that its impact at that scale is more important than if it’s at full size. A lot of old – and even new – print books simply aren’t in the league.

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