Designing book covers is famously difficult. It's so hard we have an entire idiom that asks us not to judge the worth of something just because its cover turned out really, really ugly.
And boy howdy, have there been a plethora of terrible book covers over the years. As such, you can't exactly blame designers for copying, echoing, mimicking, stealing, and repeating a particular design when they stumble onto something that works. Take the famous "women with missing heads" trend of 2008, or the "plague of women's backs" unleashed on books in 2013, or the more minimalist "flat woman" variation of 2015. Blame everything from Getty Images to the rise of eReaders: There tends to be a whole lot of sameness on bookstore shelves.
The headless woman trend is mostly (but not entirely!) a thing of the past, thankfully. What's replacing it is something less troubling, but just as strange. It's what I like to call "blobs of suggestive colors."
The blobs are eye-catching. They're colorful. You're not quite sure what they're depicting at first — are those hands? Wine glasses? Is there a body there too, or is that just a suggestively-shaped patch of fuchsia? The cover is weirdly alluring yet tells you almost nothing about what might be inside. It invites you to investigate, and by that point, you're already sucked in. The cover has won.
The cover blobs often come in womanish shapes that more or less achieve the same purpose as the headless, flat, or backwards-facing women of yore. As Slate explained in 2015, "By not showing the female character's face, a publisher assumes that readers will be able to use their imaginations to fill in what she looks like." The 2020 variation is to make the woman so abstract you can't attach a specific identity to her.
Sometimes this totally makes sense, like the cover of Sahar Mustafah's forthcoming The Beauty of Your Face, which would otherwise invite judgment if it paired a photorealistic image with its title instead of an abstract. Other times, though, these covers seem to just be following the trend for the sake of it.
Covers have been moving toward blobs for awhile now, though. In 2019, you can dig up examples like Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner and Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson. What has shifted is the degree of abstraction. The blobs have become so amorphous they no longer resemble anything but shapes.
Aside from the scant clues offered by a title, the blob covers remain tantalizingly indiscernible, although the use of warm or cool colors might suggest a general tone:
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There is also a parallel trend emerging of using colors in bands rather than in organic blobs, a design that can be traced back at least to The Interestings in 2014. Whether there's an additional image involved, or the cover is only stripes, you're drawn in, like the blobs, by the clashing colors and left searching for more detail.
It bears clarifying that even if all of these covers are pretty similar, that doesn't necessarily mean they're bad. In fact, at least from a business standpoint, it likely means the opposite: that designers have hit on something that readers are buying. I think the covers can be quite artistically pleasing too. Verge, above, will almost certainly be one of my favorite designs of the year.
I'm a sucker for the hand-drawn illustrated covers of yesteryear, but it's understandable why publishers are moving away from expensive original artwork these days. Considering how disastrous other alternatives can be — see: these digital collages of stock images — blobs really aren't so terrible.
So brace yourselves. Bookstores are about to be awash in dappled, spangled, banded, and blobby covers over the next few months. Personally, the overload of clashing colors makes me, a chromophile, delighted.
And if the blobs aren't your thing, just remember: It's the inside part that really matters.