The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

50 Covers for 2013


I decided to go in a slightly different direction with my covers list this year (see my lists for 2012, 2011, and 2010). It’s just a straight up list of the fifty covers designs with a few annotations and links a long the way. I’m sorry for woeful under-representation of Australian and NZ designers, and for completely ignoring the entire non-English-speaking world. I will try and do better in 2014. But until then, here, in alphabetical order, are my fifty covers of 2013:

1984 by George Orwell; design by David Pearson (Penguin Classics)

Although David Pearson’s brilliant design for 1984 crept on to a few lists last year, it was actually published in January. Even then it was clear it would be a contender for cover of the year.

419 by Will Ferguson; design by Dan Mogford (Head of Zeus)

Dan Mogford’s unexpected and beautiful abstract design for the British edition of 419 — published by new independent Head of Zeus — takes a very different direction from the movie poster-like Canadian cover, and is all more striking for it.

Dan also scared the hell out of everyone earlier this year by nearly dying. We’re all so very glad you’re still with us, sir. Keep up the good work.

Actors Anonymous by James Franco; design by Lynn Buckley (Faber & Faber)

Foil. Stars.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; Design by Abby Weintraub (Knopf)

We spent a lot of this year talking about how poorly women are represented by the book industry — particularly when it comes to their book covers — so it was wonderful to see to see this bold, type-only cover design for Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. It was just one of several smart jacket designs for high-profile women authors this year. But before you think the battle is won, many of the reviews of Americanah that I saw decided to run an author photo in preference to the cover. That was also true for Donna Tartt, whose The Goldfinch cover is below.

American Smoke by Iain Sinclair; design by Nathan Burton (Hamish Hamilton)

A book cover that folds out into a map. What’s not to like?

(American Smoke won’t be available in the US and Canada until next year, but it is already published in the UK).

Bird Flock Fish School by Edward Carson; design by David Drummond (Vehicule)

Brave Genius by Sean Carroll; design by Elena Giavaldi (Crown)

Creating the tricolour of the French flag with the red and blue lettering is a really great touch.

Coin Locker Banies design by David Pearson
Coin Locker Babies by Ryu Murakami; design by David Pearson (Pushkin Press)

After what felt like a relatively quiet year for David in 2012, he’s delivered a stream of remarkable designs for Pushkin Press in 2013. I love that he’s steered clear of stereotypical “Japanese” imagery on Ryu Murakami designs. I also like the Mexico 68 / vintage Atari thing going on here. David’s cover design for From the Fatherland, with Love is also terrific (see below). 

The Deep Whatsis by Peter Mattei; design by John Gall (Other Press)

John Gall’s cover for Peter Mattei’s novel really stood out this year. Not because it’s a riff on the hipster porn of American Apparel ads (although it is), but because it seems so contrary to the current trend of whimsical, illustrated, hand-lettered literary jackets. The UK cover is also, well, something

The Devil’s Workshop by Jáchym Topol; design Telegramme Studios (Portobello Books)

Dirty Love by Andre Dubus III; design by Evan Gaffney (W. W. Norton)

Evan Gaffney makes this look ridiculously easy, but it’s beautifully done.

Double Double by Martha Grimes & Ken Grimes; design by Christopher Lin (Scribner)

In our age of HD clarity, I really like the smudgy blur of Christopher Lin’s design for Grimes memoir. I’d like to think it wasn’t all done digitally, but I don’t know for sure.

The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith; design by Gray318 (Hamish Hamilton)

Another great cover for Zadie Smith by Jon Gray. I am in awe of the diversity and quality this man’s work.

The Enchanted Wanderer by Nikolai Leskov; design by Peter Mendelsund (Knopf)

While this does feel like a trial run for Peter’s new James Joyce covers for Vintage, it has a humour and lightness of touch that I really like.

F by Franz Wright; design by Carol Devine Carson (Borzoi Books)

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner; design by Charlotte Strick (Scribner)

Charlotte Strick’s design is one of the most memorable covers of the year and I was happy to see it everywhere. I wasn’t sure about the type at first, but it’s grown on me.

From the Fatherland, with Love by Ryu Murakami; design by David Pearson (Pushkin Press)

Another Murakami by David Pearson, but too good to leave out.

First Novel by Nicholas Royle; design by Suzanne Dean; photography Stephen Banks (Cape)

I like the recreation of the paperbacks, and repetition of the title, author name, publisher. The bookshelf apparently wraps onto the back cover, which is a lovely touch. It’s a very different, but I was reminded of David Pearson’s cover for Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction from Penguin’s Great Ideas series.  Apparently the model car and plane make sense if you read the novel (although I rather like how the plane echoes artist Fiona Banner’s 2010 piece Harrier myself).

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt; design by Keith Hayes (Little, Brown)

I like this cover a lot. I really do. It’s very well done and I don’t want to take anything away from it all. But it does also neatly encapsulate some of the design trends of the year — off-white papery backgrounds, hand-lettering, the appearance of wear, tear, and defacement all wrapped up with a knowing self-awareness of the cover as a cover.

Gun Guys by Dan Baum; design by Jason Booher (Knopf)

Jason Booher’s design puts the emphasis on the ‘guys’ not the ‘guns.’ Smart and funny.

The Hamlet Doctrine by Simon Critchley & Jamieson Webster; design by David A. Gee (Verso)

Black on black. And a skull. Fantastic.

HHhH by Laurent Binet; design by James Jones (Vintage)

The UK paperback edition of Binet’s HHhH received a striking refresh with bold vintage typography and lovely screen printed page edges.

Holloway by Robert Macfarlane, Stanley Donwood & Dan Richards; design by Eleanor Crow; illustration by Stanley Donwood (Faber & Faber)

In Case We Die by Danny Bland; design by Jacob Covey (Fantagraphics)

The Last Days by Laurent Seksik; design by David Pearson (Pushkin Press)

Like the cover for 1984 that starts this post, Last Days looks as if it was designed 60 years ago, yet you instinctively know it couldn’t possibly have been. They didn’t design covers like this in the 1950s. It’s a beautiful piece of work. Just stunning.

Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis; design by Jamie Keenan (Vintage)

This cover is just so smart. It’s having a laugh with the English working class not at them, and I love it for that. (I have a theory about this cover, but I’ll have to share it some other time…)

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri; design by Carol Devine Carson; Lettering Isabel Urbina Peña (Knopf)

Luminaries by Eleanor Catton; design by Jenny Grigg (Granta)

The Metaphysics of Ping Pong by Guido Mina di Sospiro; design by Stephen Parker (Yellow Jersey)

Middle C by William Gass; Design by Gabriele Wilson (Knopf)

A beautiful cover by Gabriele Wilson, and so well-executed. I wish I’d seen more of Gabriele’s work this year.

Miracles of Life by J.G. Ballard; design by Helen Yentus & Jason Booher (W. W. Norton)

Much more interesting than the conservative UK cover, and a nice twist on the classic autobiography headshot.

Needs Improvement by Jon Paul Fiorentino; design by Evan Munday with Jon Paul Fiorentino (Coach House Books)


Night Film by Marisha Pessl; design by John Gall (Random House)

I like the graininess and dark luminosity of this cover. Again, John Gall seemed to be purposefully pushing against the prevailing design trends.

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane; design by Charlotte Strick; illustration by Ariana Nehmad Ross (Faber & Faber)

This is just gorgeous. The irises of the eyes (and the title on the spine) are foil.

Odds Against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Rich; design by Oliver Munday (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

As if this cover wasn’t dramatic enough, the orange is actually fluorescent.

The Orenda by Joseph Boyden; design by Lisa Jager (Penguin Canada)

As David Gee recently noted, the Canadian cover for The Orenda should be applauded in CanLit circles for what it isn’t. It’s a bold design, and the contrast between the muted background and the sans-serif, headline-like type really worked in the bookstore.  (Interestingly, free from the expectations placed on this book at home, the US/British cover goes in a very different direction)

Paraphernalia: The Curious Lives of Magical Things by Steven Connor; design by Telegramme (Profile Books)

The Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen; design by David Pearson (Pushkin Press)

I know…it’s Pearson again, but holy shit, just look at this will you?  The typography is incredible. There’s no way that combination should work.

Scatter, Adapt, and Remember by Annalee Newitz; design by Emily Mahon, illustration by Neil Webb (Random House)

Although illustrated covers are currently all the rage, this stood out from the pack. Something about the colours, composition, and type just kept catching my eye in the bookstore.

The Son of a Certain Woman by Wayne Johnson; design by Terri Nimmo (Knopf Canada)

Like the cover for The Orenda, Terri’s design ticks a lot of necessary “literary fiction” boxes, but does it so with great deal of style. It also looked great on a subway poster too. (And yes, I like back of the head close-ups apparently).

Sorry Please Thank You by Charles Yu; Design by Cardon Webb (Random House)

Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town by Stephen Leacock; design by Seth (McClelland & Stewart)

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki; design by Jim Tierney (Viking)

Tampa by Alissa Nutting; design by Gray318 (Faber & Faber)

We saw a lot of Lolita cover variants this year that tried to be shocking, amusing or titillating, but none could match the visual double entrende of Jon Gray’s design for Tampa. It was breathtakingly unexpected, witty and smutty.

To Save Everything Click Here by Evgeny Morozov; design by Matthew Young (Allen Lane)

The Tragedy of Mr. Morn by Vladimir Nabokov; design by Pablo Delcan (Knopf)

The Wanting by Michael Lavigne; design by Linda Huang (Schocken Books)

The Wasteland
by T.S. Eliot; design by Jamie Keenan (Liveright Classics)

Brilliant. And hard to believe it is from the same designer as Lionel Asbo. If there are pencil sketches for this, I would love to see them.

Watergate by Thomas Mallon; Design by Evan Gaffney (Vintage)

A very different direction to Paul Sahre’s design for the hardcover (one of last year’s favourites), but it’s really nicely executed. The type is great and the image is perfect.

What the Family Needed by Steven Amsterdam; design by Jennifer Heuer (Riverhead)

Although coming at the end alphabetically, Jennifer Heuer’s design was one of the first covers on my list. Bright, clever, and nicely offbeat, nothing else looked liked this.

And there you have it. FIFTY covers. Thank you to all people who provided images and helped me fill in some of the details for this year’s list. Thanks to the good folks at Type on Queen West, Book City on the Danforth, and Ben McNally Books for letting me browse your tables. Thank you to Peter Mendelsund for coming to Toronto, talking about book design, and fighting the good fight. And thank YOU, because I’m especially grateful to everyone who has stuck by the blog this past year. I really appreciate it.

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  1. Very interesting list! Take a look at my favourite cover of 2013…it rocks!

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  3. Thanks for another great round-up article! I’ve just spent some shameful amount of time reading this, pondering the images, following up on things like “is the picture you linked to REALLY the WHOLE cover to the UK edition of The Deep Whatsis?” (Yes, it is!)

    That’s a really interesting point about some reviews using photos of Adichie and Donna Tartt instead of their cover images. (Hm… a photo of an attractive woman, or some artsy book cover that doesn’t even have an attractive woman in it… a tough decision!)

    Among covers I hadn’t seen before, Bird Flock Fish School was the one that popped out at me the most. The Goldfinch cover has never really clicked with me. Why is the (presumed) goldfinch so smudgy, indistinct, and not-gold?

  4. Brilliant – loved almost all of those. Would be really interested to hear what you think about the design work Walker did on my book Hello Darkness. It took me a little time to get used to it, but now I think it’s stunning.

  5. The Nineteen Eighty-Four cover is ill-suited to the book. No one ever sees redacted text in a completely closed society. Winston Smith never encounters one, since his approach to censorship, as an employee of the Ministry of Truth, is more thorough.

  6. For me, nothing beats the cover of Douglas Glover’s SAVAGE LOVE.

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  13. Wow! They are beautiful, aren’t they?

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  15. I’d buy most of them just to own the cover images, with no idea of what they’re about…

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  19. A number of covers inspired by Edward Gorey here.

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  24. great choices!! I particularly like ‘Sunshine sketches of a little town’ the choice of colour and composition really draws you into the design and holds the viewers attention. there is so much skill which goes into the creation of a book cover and it’s great to see an article which celebrates this.
    Dave R

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  26. There are some really great ebook covers. Especially the “Luminaries” is cool. All the book covers have a pretty creative and abstract approach havent they?

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  28. This is really such an interesting article. I think this is relevant also for smaller design agencies.

  29. Some of these covers are brilliant and the smartest covers I’ve ever seen.

    These days, in the increasingly galloping world of self-publishing and publishing in general, none of these covers would even pass the “first negotiation round” at the majority of authors.

    Unfortunately today the most important thing is that the book cover is eye-catching and good visible in thumbnail size. Those are the most common requests of authors which are being asked from the book cover designer.

    However, to be able to see and grasp a real smart book cover you need more than two or three seconds, which is the time period the authors “allow” these days.

    However, great choice of covers, the majority is great and some are even brilliant. ;)

  30. Thanks for stopping by and leaving comment, Alexander — I really appreciate it. I hope you’re enjoying the monthly cover round-ups as well.

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