Don’t judge a book by its cover…

by Nick

How much difference does a well-designed cover make to a history book? Well, perhaps no difference to the quality of the arguments presented in it. But to a bibliophile, it can make a significant difference to the experience of reading the book – the wider aesthetic of reading as opposed to just the experience of the text. Which is shame given the practice in many academic libraries of removing the dust jacket from hardbacks rather than laminating them. But then again, some of the quality of design behind history book covers is so dull that maybe the libraries have a point. Here for example is the Mercurius Politicus handy patented guide on how to design the cover of a book about the seventeenth century.

Step One: find an engraving or woodcut that’s ever so vaguely related to the subject of your book. In my case I’ve used a nice picture of a whale or something like it.


Step Two: pick a colour. I’ve gone for a nice subdued brown.


Step Three: pick one of the standard Microsoft fonts.


Hey presto! Your cover’s done. And you thought the publishers had to employ some fancy graphics designer. Rubbish, you can do it all yourself in MS Paint.

I’m being facetious of course but my example above is not too dissimilar to many books about this period for the last 30 years. Here’s one from the 1970s:






And from only a few years ago:


Each decade will have its particular quirks, of course. Medals and shields – anything round, basically – seem to have been popular in the 1970s for instance:

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And a zoomed in detail from a painting now seems to be in vogue for many books on high politics:


But equally both Adamson and Worden’s books are more commercial than most. However, it does seem a shame that publishers can’t do more interesting things with history book covers. Here for instance are two nice examples from recent books, both designed for the mass market:

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What about you? I know this blog has at least a few regulars… does it make a difference to you what the cover looks like on your well-worn monographs and set texts? Does it matter whether you own the book, or whether you’re just reading it in a library? Do you have any particular favorites, or any particularly horrible examples?

NB – apologies for the slightly ragged covers on some of the photos, they are all from my bookshelf. The Rump Parliament in particular has taken a bit of a battering over the years.