July 6, 2012

Notes on design: Fifty shades of imitation


Every once in a while, a book cover comes along which is so striking and iconic it immediately realigns its entire genre. Before Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight hit the bestseller lists a few years ago, no young adult novel had ever looked so beautifully stark, but it didn’t take long for nearly every book on the YA shelf to appropriate its look, with dark, simple imagery and lowercase serif type. As noted in a Times article last week, the Twilight cover’s influence even expanded to the realm of classics, as HarperCollins issued a teen-oriented (and plainly Meyer-esque) edition of Wuthering Heights. Now, one imagines, it can’t be long before the dystopian Hunger Games knockoffs begin.

In the meantime, we needn’t look further than the romance—I’m sorry, erotic literature—genre to see another example unfolding before our eyes. Even though everyone I’ve spoken to who admits to reading E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey on the subway has taken pains to hide the cover from fellow passengers, there’s no denying it has an iconic look in its own bland way, and other publishers are clearly taking notice.

One marvels at how quickly Penguin was able to turn around its take on the form, Sylvia Day’s Bared to You, with erotic interest Gideon Cross’s patterned cufflinks filling the role of Christian Grey’s tie. (Penguin UK’s cover takes a similar approach, only with a stiletto heel.) Considering that Bared to You is sitting at number four on the Times paperback bestseller list (right after the Fifty Shades trilogy), the strategy seems to be paying off.

No one would accuse either cover of representing brilliant design, but it is at least a fresh idea in a genre better known for photos of women swooning over oiled-up pectorals. Fifty Shades—and Bared to You—refuse to employ pulpy photos and lusty lettering to talk down to their readers, so it’s no surprise the books have won so many of them.


Christopher King is the Art Director of Melville House.