On the redemption of sf&f cover art

How many times have you bought a book simply because of the cover? How many times have you not bought a book, because of the cover? Even when it’s not the primary consideration, book covers can be a powerful deal breaker (or deal maker) in my read/buy decision-making process.

Unfortunately, bad cover art also meant that I avoided entire genres of fiction as a kid. Yes, science fiction and fantasy, that means you. As a young reader (back in the early 1980s), I was terrified by the images on so-called “pulp” sf and fantasy publications, and quickly formed general assumptions that I applied wholesale to all fiction that fell under these genres.  All science fiction stories were clearly about naked women with enormous breasts getting assaulted in outer space by tentacled aliens, and all fantasy stories were unwaveringly about naked women with enormous breasts getting assaulted in medieval times by dragons.

Fortunately, sf and fantasy publishing has moved on and now the problem [for me] is that I can be suckered into buying a book almost solely on the basis of its cover.  It becomes a thing I have to own, rather than a book I have to read.  But you know what? This is not a bad thing. Book-as-artefact has legitimacy.

I bought Stephen Baxter’s Evolution almost solely because of the tactile quality of the cover, printed in black felt on a black background. I knew nothing about the story contained within this lovely fuzzy cover (though I was familiar with Stephen Baxter) and to this day, I have not read beyond the first 100 pages or so.  But every once in a while, I will pull the book off the shelf and admire it (and yeah, stroke it too).

Evolution Stephen Baxter

It’s not always the cover design that will inspire me to buy a book. It can also be elements within the book, typography and design elements, a novel with footnotes, or maps and other paraphernalia. Just look at this page from Steven Hall’s Raw Shark Texts:

Raw shark texts spread

As a reader (and scholar) of fantasy literature, I learned to love a book with appendices, especially maps. Maps are almost genre-identifiers: is a fantasy novel without maps really fantasy? (tongue is in cheek, of course).

Sometimes, though, the very elements that attract me become distractions. The footnotes in House of Leaves drove me mad. The marginalia, drawings, and maps sprinkled liberally throughout The Selected Works of T S Spivet just annoyed me after the first chapter. Alas, ignoring them revealed a lack in the actual narrative, and I never finished the book.

For good or for ill, book design is an integral part of the reading experience. I’m just glad we have moved on from depictions of large-breasted naked women in improbable situations.

Books or artefacts?

Clever people do clever things with the format of books all the time, usually creating something that is as much artefact as book. S., by J J Abrams and Doug Dorst, for instance:

S by Abrams and Dorst

Or the recently published limited edition of Chang-rae Lee’s novel, On Such a Full Sea, which comes in a 3D printed white slipcase (more details, and a video here):


But such innovation is far from a modern phenomenon. In fact, a book bound in Germany in the 16th century far outclasses anything I have seen produced in the 21st century. Behold! The magical book that opens six ways!

dos a dos book

This book is held by the National Library of Sweden, who have shared their photos of this book and more over on Flickr.

‘Reboot’ and fore-edge painting

I recently read Reboot by Amy Tintera. Despite the dystopian setting and intriguing premise (see synopsis at end of this post), it was one of those books that just did not make much of an impact on me–it was not amazing, and it was not awful. I suspect if I was a tween I would have enjoyed it a lot more.

But there is one overriding reason I impulse-purchased it, which is the reason I am happy to have it on my shelf:  the edition is edge-printed! In fact, all three “edges” are illustrated, and the image is retained when you fan the pages because the printing sits on the edges of each page as well. Fore-edge printing uses a special process to print on the cut, outside edges of the book block of a publication.

Reboot strip

This is not something you see often on mass-market paperbacks, and it’s not something you would ever notice if you shop online for books, as I do 95% of the time.

Admittedly, this edition of Reboot is not quite in the same artistic league as, for example, the beautiful watercolour fore-edge painting on this 1976 limited edition of Watership Down:

Watership Down fore edge painting

The book experts at AbeBooks summarise the technique of fore-edge painting:

The front page edges of the book are bent back to expose a greater area and a watercolor painting is applied to this surface. After completion the book is closed and the painting cannot be seen. The opposite is also true. The painting is done on the edge of the pages so it can be seen when the book is closed but is not visible when the book was open.

The technique of fore-edge painting dates back to the 17th century (and even earlier, in other forms). I love the gifs of the 19th century “secret” fore-edge paintings from the Special Collections at the University of Iowa (more here):



Reboot by Amy Tintera

In this fast-paced dystopian thrill ride, perfect for fans of The Hunger Games, Legend, and Divergent, a seventeen-year-old girl returns from death as a Reboot and is trained as an elite crime-fighting soldier . . . until she is given an order she refuses to obey.

Wren Connolly died five years ago, only to Reboot after 178 minutes. Now she is one of the deadliest Reboots around . . . unlike her newest trainee, Callum 22, who is practically still human. As Wren tries to teach Callum how to be a soldier, his hopeful smile works its way past her defenses. Unfortunately, Callum’s big heart also makes him a liability, and Wren is ordered to eliminate him.

To save Callum, Wren will have to risk it all.