Book covers: some history and a quandary

I’m “rebranding” my Moriarty series, which mostly consists of redesigning the covers. I love my cover creator, but I wanted a fresh take on the whole situation, so I hired the amazing Jane Ryder of Ryder Author Resources to study the scene with me. We spent quality time (on my ticket) browsing images: Victorian mysteries at Amazon, Victorian sensation novels in the British Library online catalogue, and endless Google image searches for things like “nineteenth century painting man on stage,” which yielded bupkiss. (It’s hard to find images of sufficient quality for a paperback.)

In olden days

An alchemical treatise bound in 1568. Be prepared before you open this one!

A book cover, according to Wikipedia, is “any protective covering used to bind together the pages of a book.” The article notes that books were originally handwritten on parchment, so that each page was an expensive item. The covers, often luxuriously decorated with leather or velvet, with gilding and even jewels, were meant to protect those precious pages and keep them together.

Obvious, you say; but not any more. Where are the pages being protected in the digital books I’m mostly concerned about? I sell paperbacks too, but my covers are chiefly designed to catch the eye, not entice the fingers. They’re attractive images which serve no tangible purpose. I rarely look at the cover of the books on my Kindle, once I’ve downloaded them. They don’t look like much in black and white anyway.

The dawn of the popular

 old-bookAlong comes the printing press, and that stack of paper isn’t so valuable, in and of itself. What’s wanted is quantity. It’s not the publisher’s job to make sure the product will survive for centuries, so now we get covers of simple printed pasteboard. They might be covered with thin leather and sewn closely, for a more expensive volume. But they might be pretty flimsy, almost like modern paperbacks. 

You’d enter the shop and flip open the cover to read the frontispiece, which is where the marketing happened. Consider these favorite examples.

Not that the author’s name isn’t shown. This short book was published anonymously. It’s loaded with scandel-mongering scurrility.
By the inimitable Christopher Marlowe, here spelled Marloe. 1593, the year he died.
Don’t you love the way Francis (Bacon, of course) had them dude up his first name there? He was Baron Verulam at this time, the Roman name of St. Albans, the town nearest his home at Gorhambury.

Onward, into the recent past

You have to have lots of readers as well as lots of paper to produce a truly popular press. So we fast-forward to the late Victorian period, after the new and improved public school program (the Elementary Education Act of 1870) has managed to push literacy out to the masses.

But are the masses clamoring for an updated copy of Francis Bacon’s Great Instauration in Latin? No, they most emphatically are not. What they want is sensation, thrills and chills. They want tales of romance obstructed and rewon; tales of battles, tales of strange occurrences. They want fun!

Scholars of literature date the novel from the early 18th century. Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, was written by Samuel Richardson in 1740. I recently tried to read another early novel – Daniel Defoe’s 1724 Roxana: The Fortunate Mistress – but I got bored and gave up. I should’ve read the blurb: I didn’t know there was a murder in it! (Wait. 1724 is before 1740. Isn’t Roxana a novel? Also, I think Thomas Nashe’s 1594 The Unfortunate Traveler is a novel. That one is a fun read, if you don’t mind early modern English. But I’m not qualified to define the term ‘novel.’ I just write the things.)

Genre fiction

A plain and sturdy cover

These days, ‘genre’ means ‘fiction that falls into one of several recognizable categories.’ Romance was the first, but by the late nineteenth century, the time toward which I struggle verbosely, we also have crime (mystery, thriller, suspense), fantasy, science fiction, westerns, and horror. The list at Wikipedia includes inspirational as a genre, but I think that’s more mid-20th century. Before that, all literary fiction was supposed to be uplifting.

But we don’t care about all that. We’re looking at covers. Many of the ones you find if you search for “Victorian era book covers” are practical, sturdy, leather-bound volumes that look like they were meant for the burgeoning library trade. You probably had to know which book you wanted when you went in. You’d fill out a slip at the desk and the librarian would go get it for you. So you cared as much about that cover as I do about the books on my Kindle.

But what if you’re browsing in a bookstore, for yourself or for a gift? Then the cover really matters. Also, let’s remember that the Victorians invented advertising, in the sense of big, eye-catching images with bald-faced lies around them. Perfect for fiction!

Here’s sampling of what we might have found.

rudyard-kipling-jungle-book            john-lang-the-ex-wife










Haunted House in Berkeley Square          book-cover-vic4


Spring-Heeled Jack was only a penny! That wasn’t a lot even back then. I would have read these by the barrow-load.

The Haunted House in Berkeley Square — actually, all of these — display most of the characteristics of a modern popular book cover. We also have a very abstract contingent, but for genre fiction, it’s still most commonly a frame of some sort in which the title and author’s name are displayed clearly. These books put the publisher on the front and even the price, for the penny dreadful. I don’t see any puff quotes — I guess Stephen King wasn’t around yet to tell us what a heart-pounding read this is. But we have the compelling central image that gives us an instant sense of what kind of ride that book is going to take us on. Moody and dark, for the Haunted House. Exciting, non-stop action for Jack.

A Walk through the Covers of Time

We can easily observe the changing taste in book covers by looking at everybody’s favorite lady novelist, Jane Austen. The first one is undated, but probably much like the originals in the late 18th century. Then we have a sensational one from the Age of Sensation, 1870. Then a milder one from 1946. Then one from probably the 1980s, when we’re reading Jane because we have to. Then we get through the whole Jane Reboot with movie after movie (all of which I’ve watched and loved, except for anything with Keira Knightley in it.)




The Quandary

If you’ve gotten this far, you deserve a big chocolate cookie. The quandary is which direction to go in for my covers. Not all the way to early c18, definitely. But neither do I wish to get into the full abstraction of literary fiction in c21. I don’t write literary fiction and my name is not that well known. I think my covers need images that give a good sense of content.

But should I go full-on Victorian? It’s not that easy to find images that are of sufficient quality for my cover creator to work with and also relate to my story. I’m spending a lot of time grazing for images… The have to be in the public domain, absolutely. I’m even considering commissioning some original art, but that’s probably out of my reach.

If you like this sort of thing and want to watch the process, you can tune in to my Pinterest board. Note that not all of these are in the public domain! They’re there so I can contemplate having something similar made for me by an artist.

Bacon's essays: Of Youth and Age

At last, an essay that mostly makes sense right off the bat. Of Youth and Age is conventional wisdom, mostly, with that special Baconian twist.

I’ll pick quotes out of order for a change of pace, looking first at Youth, then at Age, and at some gentlemen who don’t quite fit either pattern.

The upside of youth

Cosimo de’ Medici, Duke of Florence

“A man that is young in years, may be old in hours, if he have lost no time. But that happeneth rarely.” He means that a young man who knows how to buckle down and make the most of his time could be considered old in experience. But then where’s the fun? The lessons learned from youthful indiscretions?

Cosimo is OK, but dig this crazy coat of arms the House of de’ Medici devised for themselves!

“But reposed natures may do well in youth. As it is seen in Augustus Caesar, Cosimus Duke of Florence, Gaston de Foix, and others.”


“Young men are fitter to invent, than to judge; fitter for execution, than for counsel; and fitter for new projects, than for settled business.”




The downside of youth

“Young men, in the conduct and manage of actions, embrace more than they can hold; stir more than they can quiet; fly to the end, without consideration of the means and degrees; pursue some few principles, which they have chanced upon absurdly; care not to innovate, which draws unknown inconveniences; use extreme remedies at first; and, that which doubleth all errors, will not bucking_horseacknowledge or retract them; like an unready horse, that will neither stop nor turn.”

Let me unpack this a little. “Stir more than they can quiet,” means set more things in motion than they can manage or bring to fruition. Similarly, “fly to the end, without consideration,” means getting ahead of yourself. Most things have a tedious middle section that has to be gotten through, in between the bright idea and the exciting finish.

Young people may not have the experience to avoid fruitless paths. “Care not to innovate,” I think means, “don’t mind innovating” even when that creates more inconveniences. I could be wrong on that one, but I don’t think it means, “don’t like to innovate,” because young people love to innovate. It saves having to learn stuff from the boring old past.

Not being willing to acknowledge your errors is one of the most annoying things for the people you work with. And Bacon is right: it totally makes things more difficult, either to go forward from the botch or to repair the thing. Own your mistakes, boys and girls. Say, “I screwed up. Let me fix it.”

The upside of age

Septimius Severus

“Natures that have much heat, and great and violent desires and perturbations, are not ripe for action, till they have passed the meridian of their years; as it was with Julius Caesar and Septimius Severus. Of the latter, of whom it is said, Juventutem egit erroribus, imo furoribus, plenam. [His youth was not only full of errors, but of frantic passions.] And yet he was the ablest emperor, almost, of all the list.”

Anyone recognize the name ‘Septimius Severus’? Severus Snape, perhaps? An able emperor, but a complex YA fantasy character.

Bacon is saying that passionate, wild-tempered, we might say hyper-active people, are going to be a hot mess in their youth, racketing from one thing to the next, getting into fights and bad affairs. Age slows them down enough for their reason to prevail. Then all that energy serves them well as they get older.

“…heat and vivacity in age, is an excellent composition for business.” 

“And certainly, the more a man drinketh of the world, the more it intoxicateth; and age doth profit rather in the powers of understanding, than in the virtues of the will and affections.”

Older people love the world more, in all its complicated weirdness. I’ve noticed that myself, now that I’m on the high side of sixty. Old people and middle-aged people look at things and laugh (not all couple-old-peoplethings, but ordinary life stuff), where young people are gaping in outrage and saying, “That should be stopped.” It’s perspective. You can’t make people stop being jerks or fools or whatever they are, so you might as well laugh.

I’m not sure about the “virtues of the will and affections.” Maybe he saying youth is more wilful, which might be true, somewhat. If he’s trotting out the old saw that youth loves more deeply than age, he’s wrong. Youth is just more single-minded about it.

Another thing he doesn’t note is the lessening of self-consciousness with age. There’s an old saying for that, apparently not as old as Bacon: In your twenties, you worry about what people think. In your forties, you don’t care what people think. In your sixties, you realize people haven’t been thinking about you at all.

The downside of age

“Men of age object too much, consult too long, adventure too little, repent too soon, and seldom drive business home to the full period, but content themselves with a mediocrity of success.”

Good enough to get along with; give it a lick and a promise.

old_women“…the errors of aged men, amount but to this, that more might have been done, or sooner.” This follows from consulting too long.

“A certain rabbin, upon the text, Your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams, inferreth that young men, are admitted nearer to God than old, because vision, is a clearer revelation, than a dream.”

This old saying was old in Bacon’s day. Now I have to look it up. Oh! It’s from the Bible, Acts 2:17. Who’d’ve thunk it?

A couple of guys that just couldn’t make it happen

“There be some, have an over-early ripeness in their years, which fadeth betimes.” Like a child star who never gets an adult part.

“These are, first, such as have brittle wits, the edge whereof is soon turned; such as was Hermogenes the rhetorician, whose books are exceeding subtle; who afterwards waxed stupid.” 

I would never want to hear Francis Bacon say I had waxed stupid! This is Hermogenes of Tarsus, surnamed The Polisher. What did he polish, we wonder? Arses? He flourished in the reign of Marcus Aurelius (AD 161–180).

Waxing stupid isn’t the worst thing that’s been said about this poor shlub. Here’s Wikipedia: “His precocious ability secured him a public appointment as teacher of his art while he was only a boy, attracting the note of the emperor himself; but at the age of twenty-five his faculties gave way, and he spent the remainder of his long life in a state of intellectual impotence.” Ouch!

I like the method of having one’s faculties grow stronger with age, except of course the knees and the eyes.

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