The Publishing Post
Sad Young Women on Book Covers
By Hayley Cadel, Mary Karayel and Alexandra Constable
“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” This adage has long been out of fashion with the rise of Bookstagram and Booktok emphasising the aesthetics of the books we read. Data from 2017 has suggested that 52% of us make the choice of reading a book based on the jacket artwork, proving that book covers are a worthy trend to look at in itself. By looking at the current books displayed in bookshops and on our social media feeds, we have seen one trend take the world by storm: book covers featuring sad-looking women. Depicting women covering their faces with their hands, slumping on sofas and leaning their heads against walls, the covers of new women’s fiction are starkly different from any kind of covers we have seen before. As a team of women, we can empathise with the feelings of exasperation, frustration and boredom that these covers convey, and it immediately makes us want to read these books about the lives of these women. There is a plethora of books satisfying this trend right now, making it one of the biggest book design trends of 2022.
The Sad Woman Imagery
The “youngish, well-dressed woman covering her face” image has been argued to be a move away from more simplistic designs made popular by books such as Normal People by Sally Rooney (Faber & Faber, 2018). The imagery creates a sense of potential relatability with the protagonist, who is covering her face, allowing the reader to project themselves onto her. Furthermore, this stylish but anonymous person alludes to the themes explored in the novels. Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2020), for instance, delves into the idea of reluctant mediocrity, with the main character oscillating between feeling like a terrible person and feeling distinctly important, and having to address being somewhere in between. The faceless woman slumped on a sofa in a yellow dress against a blue backdrop invokes the listlessness of a woman in her twenties. Not only can readers gauge what these books might be about from their cover, but the covers can also be copied online, with readers imitating covers and generating further interest amongst the online reading community. Sorrow and Bliss is currently tipped as the favourite to win this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, signifying how these book covers are certainly a trend audiences are receptive to.
The Emergence of “Sad Girl Lit”
Moreover, this cover also appeals to readers of literary fiction and is reminiscent of authors such as Joan Didion and Sylvia Plath. Therefore, there is a newness to this design that appeals to readers who enjoy 20th century women’s writing, as well as those who enjoy popular releases, as we see a merging of the two. In this way, it could be argued that these covers have almost created a new genre of fiction: “sad girl lit.” Finally, the anonymity of the sad woman to some extent romanticises the themes explored in these novels. Following the success of shows such as Fleabag, the theme of young women who are inexplicably sad despite everything is one which seems to be hitting a chord with readers, with even Taylor Swift creating the “sad girl” version of her song, “All Too Well”. These covers have therefore managed to be commercial and appeal to fans of literary fiction.
Another overarching theme that these covers allude to is mental health, particularly based on the exasperation of the figures used on the covers. For example, the striking cover of None of This Is Serious by Catherine Prasifka (Canongate, 2022) features a faceless woman in a mosaic of fragmented pieces, much like smashed glass. The novel is a bildungsroman about a young girl named Sophie and her friends, who are soon to be leaving their student life in Dublin behind. Prasikfa skilfully explores the mental taxation of navigating a new world in an age of obsessive social media and online presence. From the character’s eerie facelessness on the book cover alone, the reader is instantly acquainted with Sophie’s struggle for personal identity and individuality. The image of broken glass is fractured but unified, offering a whole and complete image of Sophie’s face, thus echoing the emotional conflicts she experiences in this coming-of-age novel. Ultimately, Prasikfa’s novel offers a heart-warming depiction of friendship and, although the cover ostensibly depicts Sophie’s struggling mental health, the colours remain bright, vivid and startling, just like this fantastic novel.
Like all book cover trends, this one will eventually peter out. However, thanks to the popularity of books such as Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2021) and Careering by Daisy Buchanan (Little, Brown, 2022), it is nonetheless influencing book covers across genres. Upcoming releases for this trend are I’m Sorry You Feel That Way by Rebecca Wait (Quercus, 2022) and No Hard Feelings by Genevieve Novak (HarperCollins, 2022).