Before Gutenberg, books were made by hand. Often by monks. Sometimes over the course of a lifetime. And each was treasured. The covers were embossed leather, wood or even ivory and studded with gems. While this pre-printing press-style scribing has not entirely died out, it’s now a curio.
Bookmaking as we know it today began with the printing press and, more importantly, movable type. Modern book styling was born from the ability to automate the printing process, although for a long time these books were still being bound individually. It wasn’t until the 19th Century the cloth book cover was finally invented.
At first pulp covers were wonderfully lurid and low-brow, even on high-brow books, but over time paperbacks became almost industry standard. Then the “trade paperback” and “literary paperbacks” made them respectable, a shift which set the tone for covers for many years IMHO.
Then came the copy machine revolution (full disclosure, my first publications were in zines), and now, of course, ebooks threaten to sweep away the need for a book cover entirely. Which, despite the old saw that you should “never judge a book by its cover,” is sad to some of us.
Things are changing. Book art is quickly becoming an anachronism. A new revolution is happening. Wikileaks has nailed its ninety-five theses to the castle church of the internet. There may always be images that help sell stuff, but that’s not the same.
In all the excitement I hope that we never forget that great book covers are something worth celebrating.