Cover story

As the literary world moves online good cover design has never been more important.

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It's a vintage cliche: "Don't judge a book by its cover." But we all do it. When we're standing in a bookshop, surrounded by enticing three-for-two deals, we spend our money on the covers which not only look the best but will make us appear fashionably well-adjusted when they're on our bookshelves. But for how much longer? Not long ago, a good looking album cover was a vital part of the image of a band and its fans; unsubtly leaving beautiful, sought-after records around your living room was like a window into your cooler-than-thou world. Now, such designs are hidden away in hard drives. The top-selling single on iTunes is, at the time of writing, Roll Deep's Good Times. The cover is about as uninspiring as it gets: those same words in plain white lettering on a black background. It must have taken, ooh, two minutes to create.

So for those of us who love what a great book cover signifies, the warnings are clear. The slow rise of digital reading devices such as Amazon's Kindle and the immediate impact of the iPad means more and more of us will be visiting the iBookstore to download our literature. And so, as iTunes has already made design less important for music, the future of good book design looks decidedly bleak. Richard Bravery is a senior designer at Penguin, so perhaps it's to be expected that he's not predicting the imminent death of good-looking books. But he does believe we are getting very close to a time when some books will only exist in a digital format.

"They'll probably be the more transitory, trend-based books though," he says. "I believe there will always be a place in society for the physical book. Perhaps not to the extent to which they're prevalent now, but just as you don't put every picture you take on the wall, publishers will become more selective in what they print for our bookshelves." Surely, though, that means the role of the designer is marginalised into work for special editions, much like Radiohead might release a limited, artwork-heavy vinyl version of a new record alongside its digital download. Doesn't he fear for his future as a designer?

"You can't fear the future, absolutely not," he argues. "Progress is the natural way of things, and as as cliched as it is to say, you either embrace it and move forward or you get left behind. And for designers, actually, I don't see a lot changing in the immediate future - we've been designing covers that will look good at a particular size on the Amazon website for years now. Perhaps the most obvious change will be the finishes to the book."

By "finishes", Bravery means the techniques designers have always used to make their books stand out from the crowd, embossing covers and using foil and varnish. Of course, these don't translate into the digital world. "A gold foil approximated for web use is a very unappealing, muddy yellow," smiles Bravery. "But New Moon, the second book in Stephanie Meyer's Twilight series, had a very innovative shaped emboss when it was first published," he adds. "So it'll be intriguing to see what the next generation of bells and whistles will be."

It's interesting that Bravery should mention the Twilight saga. The four books in the vampire series feature, respectively, an apple, a ruffled tulip, a ribbon and some chess pieces. Mysterious images laden with the symbolism of blood, life and death, thanks to a limited colour palette of red, white and black. These covers are not just the visual brand of the series either - they have also become hugely influential. LJ Smith's Vampire Diaries is a 20 year-old book series, but catapulted up the charts thanks to a slightly shameless Twilight-style makeover to tie in with the new television series.

And it's not only bloodthirsty adventures that have received such treatment. Charlotte Bronte's Wuthering Heights hit the bestseller lists all over again last year when it was republished with a by-now very familiar white rose on its pitch black cover. Such sales spikes proved that book design is still important - even among the kinds of people (teenage girls) who would probably feel most comfortable browsing for and downloading books online. These imitations functioned, in a way, as an unspoken "if you like that, try this".

But is this good design or canny marketing? Someone who really has judged a book by its cover is Paul Martin, from The Page Design Consultancy. Last year, he was on the judging panel for the British Book Design And Production Awards, an Oscars-style ceremony for book design. And he's not surprised the Twilight series has been so influential. "They were superb examples of good illustration and beautiful typography," he says. "You could argue that it's been done before, but when you look more closely at the cover, the detail in the image and the elegance of the typeface really come alive."

Like Bravery, Martin talks of the "feel" of a book having its own beauty. He's also pretty sure that the printed book isn't in mortal danger quite yet.  "The digital age does have its place for the consumer," he admits. "It's handy to store all your books in a small portable device. But I don't think you'll ever beat that feeling of flicking through the pages of a book. "Perhaps designers and printers alike will have to look at how they can enhance the printed book, but I'm just like anyone else: I often buy books because I like the author, but on occasion a cover of a book will really grab me and make me want to buy it."

So if good book design isn't quite dead yet, what makes a good cover in 2010? As the designer of the beautiful bestsellers Half Of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Dave Eggers' The Wild Things, Richard Bravery is perfectly placed to explain. "Really, th e trick is to keep things simple," he says. "When you're designing a cover it's important to remember that the person who will see the book in the bookshop hasn't read it yet, so the cover just needs to be individual and interesting and set the right tone. It's just about giving the book a personality and giving the potential reader something to identify with.

"The most successful cover designs are the ones which articulate the idea of the book - if you appeal to your chosen audience, have a clear message, and both stand out and fit in on the book shelf, then a cover will both jump off the shelf and be desirable." Still, it may not be long before a simple, clear message for a generation of digital readers is indeed a banal cover in the Roll Deep style. Indeed, two of the biggest selling literary novels of last year - Sarah Waters' The Little Stranger and Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall - had incredibly shouty, text heavy and design-light covers, so perhaps such a shift has already begun.

But Bravery genuinely believes that there are 21st century books which continue to break the mould - and herald bright new authors. "You know, I actually remember where I was when I first saw the cover for Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything Is Illuminated," he says. "It looked like nothing else I had seen and went completely against the grain. It was love at first sight." He bought the book, as did millions of others. The cover? White text on a black background. But, at the risk of descending into geekdom, what white text. Eight years on, it still has pride of place on my own bookshelf too - so the power of good design still works here. Having said that, the albums are now in the loft...