When I was a cash-strapped uni newspaper editor, I got a lot of free books and CDs and movie tickets (ah, those happy days). At one stage I went to a promo event run by one of the cinema distributors. Before whatever film it was that we were reviewing began, one of the publicists stood up and gave a long slideshow and spiel about their other upcoming movies, and why all the boys and girls in head office were excited about them.
One of the movies they talked about was Jerry Maguire, a film I'm happy to say I've never watched. The promo poster for this was just a big picture of Tom Cruise's head, with his name and the film title in big red letters. The publicist said that, frankly, all they needed to promote the picture was that face and name--they didn't even need the film title, and nothing on the poster to indicate what the film was about. The very idea of a film with Tom Cruise in it was enough to excite her, and to get the masses buying tickets.
I found this both amusing and depressing, and not just because I regard Tom Cruise as a creepy undersized cultist with a punchable face and limited talents. It was more the shameless acknowledgement of how little thought often goes into promoting "big" products of an allegedly cultural nature (yes, I know, it was Jerry bloody Maguire, but bear with me here), and the (no doubt true) expectation of brainless reflexive consumption from the audience.
This came back to me when I was attempting to put together another of those bilious, scathing posts where I go through some country's top-10 bestselling books and sneer at their cover designs (see here and here). But Australia and the UK were no good for this, since their top-10s are still basically the Stephanie Meyer back-catalogue. So I turned to the US.
The problem with this is that there's not really much you can actually say. Here's a representative sample of current US bestseller covers.
These books haven't really been designed, in any meaningful sense. They've just been crapped out. They're the book equivalent of a poster of Tom Cruise's big head. "You know that book you read that was like all the other ones? Well, here's another one just like that." The publishers must wish, though, that these writers had one- and not three-syllable surnames, so that they could bump up the font size even more. (Conversely, could the name of the hack who actually wrote the two Patterson books be any smaller?)
The look of these books is boring and ugly, but in a sense they're criticism-proof. They're not meant to be objects to look at or like, or even think about consciously. They're just a minimal assemblage of triggers to get that mindless purchasing reflex kicking.
There was one bright spot on the US bestseller list, though: this wonderfully spare cover by Henry Sene Yee for Dave Cullen's Columbine.
See Yee's blog post, linked to above, for the background and other covers he mocked up along the way. It's a cover that requires the viewer's brain to be on and making connections, and which gains its chilly atmosphere because of what the viewer knows, and what the designer knows you know. It's an intelligent cover, and a bright spark in a night of bargain-basement crap.