A display of books covers and titles that have the same color blob trend

How Digital Media is Changing Book Covers

Have you recently gone to a bookstore and noticed the majority of the books displayed in the front all resemble similar book cover designs? These clone-like copies are actually very purposeful and mark a new age of book cover designs.

As much as we hate to admit it, judging a book by its cover has become a necessity. Whether it’s a spine wedged between others on a bookshelf, a purposefully staged book at the front of a bookstore, or a thumbnail on the Amazon website, we all do it and publishing companies and designers make sure we keep doing it.

One popular trend that’s been on the rise in 2022 and 2023 is the “color blobs” and minimal line art. For reference, look up book titles like Normal People by Sally Rooney or The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett. These books and many more upcoming novels are following this trend of big and bold typeface, simplistic and minimalistic art, and bright colors.

One reason we can point to for this infectious trend is the age of digital media. According to an article in The Guardian, is that most people are looking at books at the size of a phone or smaller due to social media and ebooks. Social media, especially, is a beast of its own and is heavily saturated with a plethora of content that people scroll through at a constant rate. Therefore, images and posts have to be eye-catching; they have to immediately reel people in in order to surface from the ocean of content. Designers and publishers have to be competitive when making their social media posts because they want their books to sell opposed to their competitors.

So why the color blobs? In an article in The Week, Jeva Lange explains that these blobs are “alluring” as well as vague enough so the reader can make their own depictions and fill in the outlines of a face or the crude drawings of a woman. In other words, publishers are starting to realize that people don’t have time to sit and ponder what an art piece means on the cover of a book, they just want to be dazzled enough to pick it up and buy it.

However, just like any trend, it can fall victim to burnout. Looking at the “instagrammable” book covers on the Penguin Random House website, we can see just how similar these books look when paired side by side; it’s almost unfeasible to tell the books apart. Which leads us to question if publishers and book designers should follow the progression of digital media and its fads or strain to differentiate book covers? It’s a tough conundrum since book companies don’t want to be left behind when the train of digital media is traveling like bullets, but they also don’t want their books to get lost in the pile of books that are starting to meld together like actual blobs.

Some books that I think find a happy medium between the two spectrums are titles like, Song of Achilles and Circe by Madeline Miller. These books follow the same formula of bold typeface and bold, bright colors, but Miller has created her own distinguishable style with the gold overlay that pops out on each of her books as well as the continuity of the grecian style. Maybe adding subtle signs and symbols of identification can help books stage themselves without falling victim to trends and fads.

Hands forming heart with rainbow color overlay

Queer Book Labels: Are They Helping or Hurting Sales?

While cultural movements abound trying to increase queer inclusion and understanding, it’s no wonder that there has been a rise in queer books being published and, according to NPD Bookscan, a rise in queer book sales as well. It seems that being an LGBTQ+ book is a good thing right now, at least for sales. But what if, in some ways, those same labels are losing sales as well?

Consider, for instance, the pros and cons of these queer books ending up on various published “banned books” lists. When a queer book ends up on a banned books list, there is a possibility of the book gaining an audience, rather than being repressed, especially an audience that wants to fight back against this oppression and will go out to buy the books in support. This leads to increased sales of certain books.

Unfortunately, of course, not all books benefit from “banned books” lists in this way. This article argues that many books will just fall by the wayside and be forgotten. This is a tragedy, especially for all those potential readers from wherever they have been banned.

For now, however, many publishers still feel that queer books need queer labels to be discoverable. There are other aspects of the books that can be marketed as well, but according to sources in this article, a large percentage of the audience still finds queer books because they are looking for queer books. And that audience isn’t just queer people, either. This article is from 2020, so it’s a bit outdated, you could say, considering how quickly some things change, but the current trends in LGBTQ+ books being sold suggests this may still be the case.

But, even with this seeming success for the books that are making it, we publishers need to ask ourselves, is this actually what we want? Are these people just buying books because they are labeled “queer” or are they actually going to go home and read the book, process the book, and hopefully even love the book and want more like it? Is this trend actually a sign of cultural change or just a phase that will blow over like so many others have?

There are other things to think about as well, in a less philosophical vein. Are such explicit queer labels on our books actually helping reach our intended audience? For instance, this librarian warns that making queer labels too blatant can scare off some of the very people we are trying to reach because they aren’t ready or feel safe enough to walk around with an obviously queer book.

And what about people who would love these books, but aren’t actively looking for “queer” books? Some people are willing to read books with queer characters, but aren’t looking specifically for queer books. Not to mention, there is more to a book than just being queer. For some books, yes, the main point is being queer, with queer characters, and addressing various aspects of queer life, but for other books, it is the genre, the adventure, the plot, etc. that are more central, with the queer characters/stories being a bonus on the side. Are we doing these books an injustice by labeling them as queer, rather than letting them shine for their more central themes?

For now, yes, it still seems like queer book labels are not only helping sales, but one of the leading causes of their sales, despite whatever backlash might come from that designation.

But, hopefully, someday LGBTQ+ characters will be such a normal, accepted part of culture it will be an expected possibility in the books we read. Someday, we’ll be able to go out, look in any category, and find plenty of queer books right alongside their counterparts because it will be accepted that any book, anywhere, may reflect real life with real characters.