Three Possible Reasons Why Paperback Cover Art Was Better In The 1980s

Well, the day before I prepared this article, I happened to discover an absolutely awesome (but slightly hidden) second-hand bookshop in Petersfield. One of the things that amazed me about this shop was the sheer number of 1980s/90s horror and sci-fi books it had 🙂

And, although it might be a few days before I read and review any of these books, I noticed myself buying at least a few 1980s books purely based on the cover art. It didn’t matter if I’d already read them before or if I’d never even heard of the author, their cover art was miles better than anything produced since. Here are a couple of examples:

These are the covers for the 1984 Arrow (UK) edition of Peter Beere’s “Urban Prey” and the 1986 Star Books (UK) edition of Shaun Hutson’s “Relics”.

These are book covers! The cover for “Urban Prey” looks like an awesome mixture of an Iron Maiden album cover and something from “Blade Runner” (and it was published two years before Iron Maiden’s “Somewhere In Time” too). The cover for “Relics” looks like a really cool mixture of a horror movie poster and a heavy metal album cover. They are striking, dramatic, detailed and artistic book covers 🙂

So, why were paperback novel covers so much cooler in the 1980s? Here are a few of my speculations about the topic:

1) Mass entertainment: Although videogames, home video, television and cinema existed during the 1980s, they were either more expensive and/or more primitive. Likewise, options for portable entertainment were much more limited too. Not to mention that, although the Net Book Agreement was still a thing in the UK, books were probably cheaper to buy or borrow than videotapes were.

As such, with less competition from other mediums, paperback books were more of a popular entertainment medium than they are today. Since there were more people reading books, publishers had to make sure that their books stood out on the shelf. And, one way of doing this is with vivid, dramatic cover art that tells a story visually and/or suggests some kind of mystery.

So, because people read more books during the 1980s, there was even more of a reason for publishers to commission eye-catching cover art.

2) No internet: These days, finding out about books and authors just requires a quick internet search. And, if you’ve got one of those trendy smartphones, you can even look up reviews for an unknown book whilst you’re browsing in a bookshop. However, if you don’t have a smartphone, then you have to make judgements about an unknown book based on actually looking at it (and this can lead to finding some real gems 🙂 ).

This is probably one of the reasons why impressive cover art mattered more during the 1980s. After all, if you can’t guarantee that potential readers have heard of an author before, then you need to impress them with cover art. You need to make a cover that makes them want to read more. You need a cover that makes the book look too cool to ignore.

Likewise, the fact that the world wide web didn’t exist in the 1980s also meant that there was no online shopping. Although online shopping is really useful, most book covers are only displayed as small thumbnails on websites. This seems to have led to a design philosophy that focuses more on things like minimalism and/or having just one striking image on the cover.

On the other hand, books from the 1980s were designed to be viewed “full size” on shop shelves. As such, there was more of an incentive for publishers to use detailed artwork on their book covers. After all, the reader is going to be taking a closer look at it, so the quality and level of detail has to be higher.

3) Art materials: Whilst photography (and non-digital image editing) obviously existed during the 1980s, digital image editing tools were very much in their infancy (if they even existed). As such, if a publisher wanted a book cover that depicted a fantastical, historical, futuristic etc… scene, then it was probably much easier and cheaper to hire a painter than it was to stage a photograph.

As such, sci-fi/fantasy/horror book covers from the 1980s were usually produced by professional artists who often used the same traditional materials (eg: oil paint, watercolours, gouache etc…) that famous historical artists used. Yes, they probably also used some later technology (eg: physical airbrushes etc…) too – but novel cover art from this time is still very much “non-digital”.

This gives these old book covers a much more dramatic and timeless quality. Not only that, every artist has their own style, which also gives these covers a bit more personality and uniqueness too.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

When Does Cover Art Really Matter?

Whilst you (and your readers) probably know the famous adage that you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover, this doesn’t mean that you should skimp on the cover art. Seriously, good cover art still matters.

Not only does good cover art catch the reader’s attention and, with physical books, make them want to leave a copy of the book lying around – but it can also make an already good book seem slightly cooler too. The emphasis here is on “already good”. Whilst cool-looking cover art can be used to briefly disguise second-rate writing, it can also enhance the experience of reading a good novel.

Still, there are three main ways that cover art can have an effect on a novel.

First of all, there there are good and great novels that also have cool cover art ( that include things like visual storytelling, well-chosen and visually-striking colour schemes etc…). Whilst these are cool novels because of the writing, the cover art is one of the things that makes you want to keep a copy nearby and read it as often as possible. They are also books where the cover art is good enough that you’ll want to take a look at them, even if you’ve never heard of the author before.

Secondly, there are great novels that have ok cover art. It isn’t terrible but also isn’t as attention-grabbing as it could be. These are books that go for a more understated, generic or “respectable” look with their cover art (often featuring soft colours, minimalist design etc…)

They’re books that have to rely on things like the author’s reputation, word of mouth or a chance discovery in order for people to read them. And, although there’s the cool feeling of finding “an awesome thing in disguise”, the cover art probably won’t play quite as much of a role in getting readers to choose these books.

Thirdly, of course, there are mediocre novels with cool-looking cover art. I won’t show any examples (since, upon reflection, it seems a bit harsh), but you’ve probably encountered at least one of these type of books before. They are the books that gave rise to the old adage about not judging a book by its cover.

So, I guess that the main lesson here is that cool cover art matters the most for “really good, but not always truly great” novels. A great novel will still find a way (through word of mouth etc..) to reach those who will truly appreciate it. And, mediocre novels need all the help they can get when it comes to cover art. But, novels which are really good also need great cover art too – especially if they’re by less well-known authors.


Sorry for the short article, but I hope that it was useful 🙂