Don’t book by its cover… the saying goes. But in truth, a cover is the first and I’d say, most powerful sales pitch of the book. It’s got to be intriguing enough to make the reader pick it up and look inside (or in this day and age – click on it) – it’s not only a billboard for the book, but also the first page of the story.
With that in mind, and having wrestled with designing my own book covers (with varying success), I thought I’d look back to some of the classic covers to some of my favourite novels and stories. Click on the covers to see the images at full size.
The Man in the High Castle
Philip K Dick
In terms of a dust-jacket acting as a billboard, the cover to this novel is almost perfect. Not only does it sum up the premise of the story (Roosevelt was assassinated during his first term, the Axis powers won the second world war, the US was divided by the victors, and the world – of course – is very different as a result), it’s also impossible to ignore.
Orphans of the Sky
Robert A. Heinlein
Not one of Heinlein’s masterpieces by a long shot, but I’m sure it was helped along by this stunning cover. I remember seeing this novel as a kid and spending ages just staring at this spaceship and its occupants, wondering what the rest of the craft looked like. It’s a standalone and fascinating piece of art.
The Silver Locusts
Artist: John Richards (1952)
This is actually The Martian Chronicles but the book was renamed to match the famous TV series. This image beguiled me. The red Martian landscape complete with canal, the weird red spheres and what look like a swarm of inter-continental nuclear weapons. Bradbury draws a colourful picture of an idyllic Martian existence, until an invasion by Earthmen throws the planet into disarray. Those pesky Earthmen are always causing problems!
The Rings of Saturn
Artist: Ray Feibush (1974)
You can’t really go wrong with such a fantastic title as The Rings of Saturn. I know this is a skull ‘looking at us’ from inside the planet Saturn, but my youthful mind saw instead an alien ‘staring forward’. It wasn’t till years later that I realised it was a human skull – which made a lot more sense if you read the novel that is all about humans colonising other worlds! Lucky Starr, the protagonist, is a joy to read about. This is the first in the series complete with a great little twist.
Artist: Chip Kidd
This idea behind this novel was truly inspired and I think that concept, above anything else, sold this book. The cover could have been overdone, but this is a simple masterpiece. I’m also pretty sure that if I was Michael Crichton, I would’ve tried my damnest to change it. But the iconic nature of the monochrome T-Rex skeleton is interchangeable with the book and also the movies.
Conan the Barbarian
Robert E Howard
This image of Conan, evil looking, black-haired, carrying a fuck-off sword and standing on a pile of corpses with some half-naked, impossibly curved young lovely hanging onto his leg, says it all. But in the hands of Robert E Howard, Conan is so much more than a muscle-bound thief, murderer and womaniser. Others have tried to write Conan, but only Howard managed to truly pull of such a rich and layered character.
I remember seeing this novel for the first time in some old bookshop in my home town. Not buying it was unthinkable. It’s such a simple, yet effective design with an almost C-3P0-ish vibe. Maybe that’s where the Star Wars guys got the inspiration from, although the design does somewhat lend itself to the robot from Metropolis. Either way, there’s something about the slightly upturned eyes that gives the machine a hint of real humanity. Classic.
Philip K Dick
This isn’t a great cover. They’re supposed to be on Mars and it’s not even red! But I chose this one simply because it was one of the first Philip K Dick books I read. It was both fascinating and disturbing to my young mind. Even now I can’t look at it without getting the same frisson of excitement as I did the first time I read it. It’s synonymous with my discovery of this great author so remains one of my favourites.
Journey to the Centre of the Earth
The tiny figures bravely navigating the hellish chasm create an incredibly vivid image, setting the scene for Verne’s famous novel perfectly.
I was going to write something myself, but I saw the above and thought ‘yes, that’s better than anything I was going to say’. It’s such a simple scene and evocative. I love it.
The Stainless Steel Rat
This is another of those books that I saw and bought immediately. I’d never heard of Harry Harrison, but this cover drew me in hook, line and sinker. And I’m glad it did. This novel led me to read all his work, which as a fast-paced adventure writer myself, I’m sure has influenced me along the way. Particularly his Deathworld series.
So there you have it. My top ten covers. It was quite difficult to decide on this list – I even thought that perhaps I should increase it to top twenty, but I restrained myself. I’d also love to hear what are your favourite covers and why.