Dust Jackets

My novels, printed in hardcover, come with the cover art printed on the book itself, and with no dust jacket. Though this is clearly superior to the flimsy paper which easily tears and makes reading more difficult it one tried to do it without setting the dust jacket aside, it did make my books (printed by a small indie publisher) feel less real, somehow. Wondering why a superior bookbinding felt less real, I looked up the history. It turns out to be interesting and different than I expected.

Apparently until the 1820s books were not (typically) bound by their publishers. The publisher’s job was to print the book up, it was left to a bookseller or the customer to bind it in whatever way they wanted. It was a man by the name of William Pickering who, in 1819, first offered inexpensive books bound with a cloth binding. These books were quite popular and it changed the publishing industry forever. It was not long before publishers started making the bindings fancy.

An issue which came up is that fancy bindings do not do well with the rigors of distribution such as being carted around in boxes on trains or thrown into carts. In order to protect these fancy bindings, publishers began to wrap the books in dust jackets, though they were more akin to a paper version of modern plastic wrap—wrapped all around and sealed. Being paper they were not transparent, so some indicating of what book was inside was found to be a good idea, and a name was often printed on this paper, though very plainly. The expectation (and frequent reality) was that the bookseller would remove the protective paper as he was stocking the books in his store.

By the 1850s, the all-around dust jacket was replaced the dust jacket that folds around and is tucked inside the cover, as we typically know it today. It was still very plain and meant to be discarded, but this format provided the requisite protection without costing as much either in material or labor to wrap, as well as to unwrap for display in a bookstore.

In the early 1900s the economics of books changed and since it was cheaper to make the dust jacket fancy than it was to make the book binding fancy, that’s what happened. It seems like the transition was mostly complete by the 1920s, when the price of a (harcover) book was moved to the inside flap, rather than the spine, where it would not get in the way of appreciate the cover art.

Thus hardcover books remained until recently. With printing technology having changed to use what are effectively (as I understand it) industrial scale laser printers and even industrial scale color laser printers, together with other machines of automation and more advanced plastics, it became viable to inexpensively print durable cover art directly onto hardcover books.

This is better in every way than the dust jackets which dominated the twentieth century, and yet it’s curious how powerful associations can be. Instinctively, I still think of a book with a plain, dark cover wrapped in a dust jacket to be better, somehow. In spite of the fact that it is typically much worse, including having no water resistance on the cover. In fact, so annoying is this, that I actually used wood finish on the cover of a beloved copy of Pride and Prejudice in order to make it resist the occasional unlucky drop of water (the dust jacket wasn’t very good and has long-since been lost).

There is a curious relationship, I think, to how we grew used to thinking of classical marble statue as monochromatic (white). In its day it was painted bright colors; by our time the paint has long-since flaked off. We took the simplicity to be deliberate and learned to appreciate it, associating it with good judgement because it so commonly went with good judgement.

But it was accidental.