How to judge a book by its cover

old books

By Anne Perry

Posted on June 3, 2015 in Books with tags Book Covers

Everyone says you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

Everyone is wrong.

Today, Hodderscape will teach you just how to judge a book by its (beautiful, tactile) cover.

Let’s begin at the beginning: sizes! The hardback The Three there is Royal, which is the usual size for hardbacks and trade paperbacks. That’s usually the largest size for fiction. To the right is a proof of The Mirror World of Melody Black, which is demi (pronounced de-MY), then our two standard paperback formats: B (The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – B is now pretty much the standard mass-market paperback size in the UK) and A (Dune). A is the older mass-market paperback size. We generally produce it for export markets and you still see it in the US (though the have a few different sizes now, too.)

Cover Sizes

There are, of course lots of other, larger sizes… but these are the standard ones.

Our next examples are of different kinds of jackets and covers. A Man Lies Dreaming is printed directly onto the board binding. When I ask for this kind of cover, I ask for the cover to be ‘printed on the boards’ but other editors have different ways of asking for the same thing. With Those Above, pictured below, you can see the standard cloth-bound hardback with a separate, wrap-around dust jacket.




Here are some really fun jackets – this lovely opalescent jacket on The Catalyst  is printed on a special paper called, I kid you not, ‘Curious Metallic’. The colour is ‘ice gold’. Ooooo.

Curious Metallic Jacket Paper


The Song of the Sea Maid is printed directly on the boards and features not just foil but a lovely textured feel: it’s been printed on a nice rough white buckram.

White Buckram jacket paper


And what are these lovely things? These are coloured endpapers. The example here is from The Vorrh but you can also see a lovely recent example in Finders Keepers.

The Vorrh Coloured Endpapers


Great – we know everything there is to know about covers and jackets and boards. Now let’s talk finishes!

First up we’ve got my favourite, most tactile finish: soft touch. It’s instantly recognisable when you touch it, because it feels velvety (and smudges very easily). It also produces gorgeous dark colours with a lot of depth, which is why we used it on The Three and Day Four. It’s also a matte finish – that is, it’s not shiny.

Soft touch book cover


You’ll know this next bit from when you take your photographs in to be developed (do you develop photographs anymore?) Basically, after being developed, the photograph gets a protective coating  – a laminate, which is a thin sheet or a varnish – laid over or painted over it to protect it. This can be either glossy (shiny; causes glare) or matte (not shiny, no glare). We do the same with our covers. I’m, ahem, glossing over a lot of detail here, so if you’re interested to learn more about laminates, your friendly neighbourhood search engine will be more than happy to help.

Gloss laminate, which you can see in the Eye of Zoltar example, is lovely and shiny (though not chrome). Smiler’s Fair illustrates both the matte laminate finish (everything but the moon is not shiny) and a particularly nice foil – that is, the metallic gold moon.

We have lots of different colours of foils available to us, and every one of the Hollow Gods books will feature a different colour!


Finally, spot UV is when you pick out particular design elements (spots) on a jacket with UV coating. Especially when done against a matte laminate or soft touch cover, spot UV can make these elements really stand out. You’ll have to forgive the less-than-great picture of Lagoon‘s cover here (and the cameo by my hand) but it features some particularly fantastic spot UV. The spot UV guide has to be done by hand by our art department, so when you see really elaborate spot UV, you know you’re looking at a lot of time and patience! (The hardback cover for Mr Mercedes uses spot UV to suggest rain to brilliant effect.)


Our next two finishes may be familiar to anyone who’s ever looked into letterpressing and wedding invitations: embossing and debossing. Essentially, words and/or features are raised or recessed on the paper. Mirror World is a great example of creative debossing and TimeBomb features some fabulous embossing – bot the title and some features are embossed, giving the cover a really cool texture. And, of course, TimeBomb is a glossy lam.



This is another feature I really dig: die cutting. You don’t see it too often but it’s incredibly striking and always worth a gander. Basically, a design is cut out of the cover boards to reveal the endpapers, as with Quicksand here, or a jacket is die cut to reveal something on the boards. You might  recall a die cut paper cover for the proof edition of Warren Ellis’ Gun Machine. (If processes are your thing, this Wikipedia article about die cutting makes for fascinating reading.)


A final finish: sprayed or dipped edges. That’s basically coloured edges to the paper, as here on Revival. We sprayed the edges of our proof editions of The Three in black to match the book’s (soft touch) cover and make the whole thing look a bit like an airplane’s black box. On Revival, of course, the blue edges are meant to match the bold blue of the cover image. It’s a striking effect!


Book Sprayed Edges


Curious about other finishes and effects? Check out this article on deckling, which is when a book’s pages have uneven edges. Marbling is a lovely, older style of making a book a beautiful object – you still see it around in new books occasionally, but most often in books from the 19th century or earlier. There are loads of effects to research and admire here. Finally, you can find loads of instructions about how to bind your own book online – including manuals from the 19th century and earlier. 

So, next time you see a cool cover, take a moment to appreciate everything that went into making it! Or, at least, impress your friends by dropping ‘matte lam’ and ‘soft touch’ into casual conversation. You’ll be the life of your next party, for sure!



15 comments on “How to judge a book by its cover”

  • Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin) says:

    educational! Thanks, Anne!

  • Rinn says:

    This is fascinating, going to have to remember all these terms 😀

  • David Greybeard says:

    Gods, I miss working in Print! Loved it! Love all that stuff 🙂

  • Andy says:

    Very interesting! Started work in libraries over 30 years ago when covers were straightforward and were distinguished really only by the different art work (and some of those were a bit urgh!).

  • Paula says:

    Great article! My favorite cover of all time is the lenticular cover on Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty – it is absolutely haunting. I think this would lend itself so well to fantasy/sf covers.

  • Sass says:

    I hate soft-touch covers, but only because they are absolute hell to get stickers off, and the bookstore where I used to work used price stickers, so trying to get stickers off without smudging was nearly impossible. I love some of the fancy foils and other effects detailed here, though!

  • crimeworm says:

    This is why e-books will NEVER take over! Loved that article; I’m not arty but I really appreciate seeing other’s hard work. Some of these covers are amazing!

  • A. R. Arias says:

    Great article, Anne. I do judge a book by its cover and I’ll admit I’ve bought many books mostly because of their unusual covers. Great for book collectors. Take that, Kindle! I’ve grown to love my Kindle, but these covers are amazing.

    Thanks for the links, I’ll be checking them out too.

  • Morris says:

    Interesting, thanks. (And I’m eager to read the Smiler’s Fair sequel).

  • Barbara says:

    I love some of the covers that are showing up for Classic books. Recently bought my daughter an Edgar Allen Poe book done in black and purple. Just delicious to look at!

  • Heather @ Random Redheaded Ramblings says:

    Great article, I love my kindle but this is exactly why I love an actual book. I have Day Four and it is the most tactile book ever!

  • Elizabeth the Evil Overlord says:

    I love this post, I learned so much. Many, many years ago I read Watermelon by Marian Keyes and the jacket was a scratch and sniff!

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