Draped on an armchair is a woman in a puffy yellow dress. Her head bent and her face protected by desperate, crossed arms, she is a pastel portrait of misery. After all, she’s on the Australian cover of Meg Mason’s 2020 novel Sorrow and Bliss.
Mason’s book was a huge hit around the world. Now, a catalog of well-dressed, seemingly distressed faceless women appear on the covers. Among them is Genevieve Novak’s debut album, No Hard Feelings, which will be released in Australia in March this year. The cover depicts a woman slumped on a bed, her legs bent and her arms stretched out to hide her face. The title is big, and followed by a teaser: “Hungover, underpaid and overwhelmed”.
Similarly, Kimberley Allsopp’s forthcoming album, Love and Other Puzzles, with its synopsis “Life Doesn’t Always Go To Plan”, features a woman in a bright yellow coat, leaning her head down and fed up against a pink wall. Paige Clark’s She Is Haunted, an early short story collection published last year, features the same bold title font and a woman looking out the window. And then there’s Daisy Buchanan’s Careering, which will be released in March of this year. Among watermelon greens and reds, and another sad synopsis (“On track…or who’s off track?”), a woman in pink skirts lies face down on a couch.
While an obvious trend emerges, the main source of inspiration for designing a book cover “is always the text itself”, says Mietta Yans, vice-president of the Australian Book Designers Association and designer from Novak’s cover.
“And all these books coming out are about distressed women in their twenties, reflecting on the chaos of life at that time. It may be the result of the pandemic, but I fully identify with these books,” she laughs. “I think it makes it easier for me to design them.”
“You know it’s a trend,” said Mark Campbell, head of design at HarperCollins. “Especially when separate designers from separate publishing houses come to the same place alone.”
“Illustrated covers have had their moment”
Campbell says “a saturation of illustrated covers” followed the publication of Normal People by Sally Rooney in 2018. The novel featured a large, bold title and a minimalist line drawing of lovers kissing in a box, against a backdrop of muted olive. Campbell calls it a “sad and lonely style of illustration”. A person frustrated with the world. It hit a nerve.
Normal People becoming a huge hit and winning numerous awards, “publishers wanted to follow its success – the designers say, ‘this book is similar, so let’s make it look similar,'” he says.
James Ross, operations director at Gleebooks, says he’s seen “variations on Sally Rooney covers” in his bookstore – such as Diana Reed’s Love and Virtue, Holly Wainwright’s I Give My Marriage a Year and international cover from Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss. They tend to appeal to “anyone who’s a fan of the big ones, like your Didions” as well as “a younger audience with geometric shapes and colors.”
“Bold, typographical, graphic and visual color palettes” are all design choices made to “romanticize the ideas and experiences of the book,” says Yans. Choosing a faceless woman over a portrait “adds an anonymity that allows the reader to imagine the story as her own.”
But “behind every trend, there’s something emerging that’s the opposite, or pushes it further,” she says. “As a designer, you’re looking for something that will reach the same mass audience…but in a different way, setting the story apart.”
“Pictured covers have had their moment,” says Campbell. After Rooney, cover designers opt instead for photographs to invoke “a similar feeling and message of that loneliness or frustration”. He remembers Victoria Hannan’s 2020 novel Kokomo as one of the first to go from the “illustrated uncomfortable person to the photographic version of the same”.
The first seeds of this trend, he thinks, came with the 2018 reissue of Rachel Cusk’s Outline books. There are no distressed women in sight – just arty Polaroid-style images, framed by a thick white border and based on bold type. But put them alongside titles like Sorrow and Bliss and No Hard Feelings, and “you start to see the trends blend together,” he says.
“You would see literary covers with artistic images, then business covers with big text and illustrated characters. Every publisher wants their book to land in the right place, and photo covers feel halfway between that,” he says.
In his bookstore, Ross remarked that cover trends “tend to change with a groundbreaking or nondescript book.”
“You need a book that doesn’t look like what you’ve seen before,” he observes. “A stimulating and intriguing text usually has a cover that is also stimulating, intriguing and fresh.”
And like any trend, all those sad young women will soon disappear from the covers. “Eventually, too many things look the same,” says Campbell. “Then a writer will come along and demand a different cover. They make us wonder, how do we reinvent the wheel? How do we get the dial going? How do we find the sweet spot in this genre without trying to look the same?
But it might not be this year, and we might see even more of that before the trend fades completely, says Yans, who plans to see more “type, color and design-focused things.” in 2022.
“That’s what the public wants to see,” she says. “And the more it works commercially, the more publishers begin to trust designers.”