The mystery of the covered-up book cover …

Wandering into my local bookshop the other day, I was shocked to see this:

Nineteen Eighty-Four cover

Rules that break the rules: David Pearson’s January 2013 brave new cover design of ?

W – as some people say in cyberspace – TF? What’s going on here? How can you buy a book if you can’t read what it is? How’s this supposed to work on Amazon? Is this bad design or a printing disaster?

Before I tell you what it is – tease, tease – there’s some interesting backstory about the way organizational politics drive collective decision-making to outcomes we don’t notice, but which have powerful consequences.

Most book publishers have sales conferences where editors make presentations of forthcoming titles to the sales representatives whose job is to sell them to book buyers in bookshops. These events are widely considered motivational for the sales force, whose goodwill and skills are key to successful publishing; they’re also a chance to complete a learning loop for the organization, modifying the agendas of the comparatively sheltered editors and designers with the down-and-dirty ways things work ‘in the real world’. At these conferences, therefore, reps routinely savage proposed book covers that – to quote one comment I remember – ‘you can’t read from the other side of the room’.

This is a perfectly reasonable thing to say – there are thousands of books to choose from; a cover design has, at least, to make it easy for us to buy. This is even more true in online bookshops, which have even smaller display real estate than their high street equivalents. But there have to be exceptions. Unfortunately tired maxims and lazy thinking get built into the power structure of most organizations; their would-be Realpolitik is a totem of support for hard-working reps and the marketing department. In tough economic times, power relations and default values become more explicit. ‘Sensible’ is easier to justify to bosses and investors, so in the corporate tightening-up that precedes full organizational arthritis, creativity/flamboyance is the first thing to go.

So what, this cover design asks us, gets lost?

1. The power and reach of hype – how many other editions of this very well-known book are getting free publicity in the blogosphere?

2. Attention – we all want to find about about a mystery or a puzzle. ‘Sensible’ is good, but note that most of us are extraordinarily straightforward about what we want. I don’t think it’s reductive to say we want a feeling: we want to feel happy, to love and be loved, to enjoy the richness of our life. Most consumer marketing is a promise to do this. We want to believe, so promises have to be believable. Creativity – as with this cover – finds intensity, truth, freshness, surprise. More simply, isn’t this cover getting loads of attention anyway?

3. Potential for evolution. If all your organization’s creative choices are safe, you’re not inventing your future. As Bob Dylan says – in ‘It’s alright, Ma (I’m only bleeding)’ – ‘he not busy being born is busy dying’. We need to take risks because what, long-term, is more dangerous than playing it safe? I can’t imagine anyone is proposing a series of this kind of design, but just this one creates waves that will bring other innovatory books and products to this publisher in the future.

4. Brand value. This publisher is re-creating a reputation for boldness, flair, wit, imagination and courage. Compare Lord Sugar and Steve Jobs – who most fully understood these ways of being fully alive and integrated them with their business model? Neither of them are/were saints, but who created more brand value for his company, industry and country?

5. Meaning, for publishers, is a very special case. I don’t believe that even mass-market books are products like instant coffee or soap powder. While any commercial object must make sense to some people at some level, ad-people and mass-marketeers dream of the depth of consumer engagement that publishers take for granted. If indeed depth marketing and brand storytelling are the future for commerce in our era, retrospectively the crass market-led culture shifts of the 1980s seem like a sad long-term loss of brand value for the publishing industry as a whole.

You might be able to see that the cover is embossed. Image from

You might just be able to read it … Black foil blocking and embossed too. Both images from

So meaning for any publisher is a precious asset they must nurture with their commercial lives. If their books don’t mean something to somebody, then what are they?

Why, then, does this cover mean something? Meaning isn’t just words: here it’s a fascinating translation of words into a completely different and idiomatically visual experience – some of the images on previous covers are good, but what do they really mean? This one is tactile too – we want to pick it up and touch the embossed type, like Braille. In a world where – here comes the reveal, I can’t hold it back any longer! – Big Brother is watching you, touching is a subversive act of autonomy and freedom. Yes, you can’t touch the lettering on the web or on an e-book, but could it be that the designer and publisher are suggesting (shock horror probe) the web doesn’t necessarily make us shiny, happy or free?

Another Penguin edition

A previous Penguin Classics edition. Image from

Is Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, then, just a historical novel set in the past, or is it deeply relevant to our own age? How does a lively and exciting publisher seek to engage us with this book? Use a cover like this old one on the left? Lovely big type, reads from the other side of the room, thumbnail images look good on your smartphone. It is also insufferably bureaucratic and passionless. Who cared about this cover? Even if sales were excellent, I suggest safe solutions like this lead eventually to brand collapse. And since when was Nineteen Eighty-Four a ‘safe’ book?

I am not saying David Pearson’s new cover has the same burning political commitment as Orwell’s text, but why should covers and texts match up emotionally? The variety of tones and visual/text modalities is rich and interesting – I mourn for it on my Kindle.

Nineteen Eight-Four 1954 edition

The Penguin 1954 edition. Image from

The new design is partly retro/playful – why otherwise ‘complete’, ‘unabridged’? Its direct copy of the first paperback (right) is also postmodern and ironic, but just as Nineteen Eighty-Four was a projection forward from 1948, it makes intelligent if inverted good sense to cast back from 2013 to the first paperback edition. More seriously, the blacking-out forces us to experience for ourselves the subjection of Soviet-style revision of history and distortion of language as key instruments of political power. And the Soviets were not the only culprits.

The arresting visual language of the black bands comes from the West and our own era. A major 2004 news story exposed the US Army use of torture (‘waterboarding’) when interrogating suspected terrorists in Iraq. At this time the word redaction seemed to arrive out of nowhere to substitute – in a way Orwell would have liked us to notice – for censorship. So in the Pearson book cover the title and author have been redacted. For comparison of graphic conventions see the 2004 CIA Special Review title page (left). I wish we could think the absurdity was funny.

Lastly, some credit where major credit is due, in a nicely understated quote in Creative Review by David Pearson about his own cover:

‘It’s obviously the risk-taker of the [new complete Orwell] series,’ says Pearson, ‘and I can be very grateful to Jim Stoddart, Penguin Press’ art director, for safeguarding its progress in-house. It takes a fair bit of confidence to push something like this through and I can only assume that Jim had to deal with the odd wobble.’

Fine work from designer and art director, matched by some brave and creative strategic vision from the publisher’s senior management.

Apparently, back in the ‘real world’, a blogging designer’s mum bought a copy but thought it had been discounted because of the ‘duff’ printing. Even if it’s a sales disaster, though, at the next reprint can’t the publisher just change it?

About Propagandum

I’ve been working in book publishing for over 30 years – an industry now in rapid transition. So I’m interested in foundational principles for media, writing and language – what lessons can we learn for how we can and should communicate? How can we make sense of media/technology? Can we transfer some skills from the old to the new? I hope to share (every week-ish) some things I think are wonderful, rich and important. I write longish posts because our complex and fascinating world cannot be reduced to soundbites. Please let me know what you think – contact me at
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5 Responses to The mystery of the covered-up book cover …

  1. Pingback: REVIEW: BBC Sunday Night Theatre – George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four (1954) – Arcadia Pod

  2. Pingback: BBC Sunday Night Theatre: George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four (1954) | An American View of British Science Fiction

  3. If you hadn’t told us what the book was, I’d have guessed either “MPs’ Expenses: the facts” or “Mid-Staffordshire Hospital: the staff speak out”.

  4. Very timely…as Askance launch a book cover design competition. You also might enjoy this….one of my recent creations. Defacement is my thing

    • Propagandum says:

      Let me know about the competition – I’d really like to see it.
      I can feel the power of your work – it speaks to the mana of the book. This is a clear contrast with works that slice up the insides (e.g. the Pottermore home page) – they seem disrespectful of reading or things that are just old.

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