top of page

Cover thoughts: Discworld

Updated: Jul 8, 2023

I've been working on a long post (or more likely series of posts) about the design directions of Discworld over the years.

In the meantime I've been playing around with a thought:

Writing about Discworld editions has reminded me just how impressive one particular set is. That is the editions that Gollancz started putting out in 2013, for which they commissioned the brilliant Joe McLaren, an artist who works with a scraperboard medium that has a woodcut-esque handcrafted mixture of precision and folky dynamism.

Gollancz (a division of Hachette) only own the rights to publish, in hardback, these first twenty-one books of Discworld.

Doubleday (a division of Penguin Random House) has the hardback rights to the second half of the 'series'. Fortunately they clearly worked something out with Gollancz because they did pick up the baton and completed the run in matching editions.

Altogether these are by far my favourite editions of Discworld. I'm fiercely defensive of the Corgi/Josh Kirby covers, which I feel are often too easily dismissed by younger fans, and their incredible success at meeting a very tricky brief, and incredible contribution in popularising Discworld, missed. But there's no doubt that the Kirby covers are covers of the 80s and 90s and impossible to measure by modern ideas of cover design success.

What is more, the Kirby artwork doesn't lend itself to reframing to more modern conventions of appeal and commerciality. As if to prove that point the current standard Discworld paperbacks, which do use the Kirby artwork, are pretty awful:

I haven't included here the post-Thief-of-Time covers which were illustrated by Paul Kidby since Josh Kirby passed away in 2001. While Kidby's art at least suits the layout better far, far better than these slightly butchered versions of Kirby's, I have other issues with the use of his work on covers. In quick summary, I think his work tends to appeal to existing fans more than conveying what makes these books worth picking up to new potential readers.

It's a particular problem that, in my opinion, the Kirby and Kidby artwork isn't doing that job at least in in their current usage, because it's not like it's being used on niche fan-facing editions. It's the artwork on the standard paperbacks. If you go into any but the biggest bookshops, these are the editions on shelves, the primary face by which Discworld interacts with the world.

Meanwhile, though the McLaren covers are for fan-facing collectors' editions, they actually do far better at expressing the appeal of the books in a way which a new browser might be attracted to. So fairly inevitably I quite wish that the Joe McLaren work created for those Collectors' Library hardbacks could be used on the paperbacks too.

It won't ever happen because Gollancz would have to allow paperback publisher Transworld (another division of rival Penguin Random House) to use all the McLaren artwork to which they own the usage rights, for books 1 - 21, in order to create editions that would then directly compete with their own. I mean, if there were two editions of The Colour of Magic on the bookshop shelf, both featuring the same gorgeous artwork but one a £9.99 hardback and one a £6.99 paperback... well, you can imagine the hardback sales would somewhat drop. Actually it's doubtful most bookshops would even bother to stock the more expensive, more space-consuming hardbacks where paperback versions of the same look were available.

But that doesn't stop me being curious as to the hypothetical design challenge.

Unlike Josh Kirby's, I think Joe McLaren's Discworld work both functions perfectly in its original use and lends itself to reframing.

SO what would need to change to recontextualise the basic art for standard paperback use?

The Collectors' Library is as I say designed to speak to a relatively niche audience. The books' natural marketplace is not online but the real bookshop. They are at their best encountered physically. They look amazing displayed as a set on a table. They are a pleasure to see in reality, and a pleasure to pick up - textured and spot-foiled. Re. the design choices, For gifty, collectory, prestige editions such as these it's not just OK for the commerciality to be dialled back, the title subtle, the byline relaxed. It's cruncial. These are editions designed not to look commercial but cool. Relaxed. Confident.

These are all choices which will have to be revisited for the differing and sometimes conflicting needs of a mass-market-facing paperback cover though.

As I've noted - as is the instigating point of this little project - I think the artwork is already appropriate for this different use. I might have cause to reposition and rescale the art somewhat to push particular feels and ideas, as well as for purely practical reasons, but the more key changes will be in the other elements.

I'll be changing the byline lockup. Again, the one on the Collectors' Library covers works great for their purpose. But for commercial paperbacks you need something clearer and more slick. Specifically, you'll need the standard lockup that PRH uses on all it's adult Discworld books since they would be the company hypothetically putting out these editions.

I'll be adding a 'series name' line. I'll go into that more presently, but suffice to say for now that this is an idea that the Collectors' Library editions originated, labelling books as 'Discworld: The Death Collection', 'Discworld: The Industrial Revolution Collection' etc. They featured the information on the spines and back covers, though not the front covers. The actual new paperback editions that PRH are putting out continue of this idea of including 'series names', and this time that info is right on the front. I'll be following suit.

Finally, and most importantly, I'll be changing the approach to the title treatment and how dominant it is.

On the Collectors' Library covers, you can count three distinct elements that make up each cover - the artwork, the author byline and the book title. Of these, the title is the lowest rung in the visual hierarchy. The eye takes in the imagery first, then the byline and lastly the title. That's great for the intent of those Collectors Library editions but needs to be completely reshuffled to serve the needs of a commercial paperback. The title must be paramount.

However that doesn't mean the title treatment needs to get fussy or even varied. I'm going to keep the unfussy sans-serif all-caps approach to lettering that the Collectors Library editions have. It works as a good complement to the bold lines of the artwork. I'm just going to make my lettering a little more computer-slick, more standardised in terms of position and alignment, and a lot bigger.

Since the title needs to serve as an anchor that unifies the look across the wider Discworld set, since the artwork itself is so individual, I'm also going to stick to a single colour treatment. There's not many approaches that work with all palettes, and I'm going for a gold effect, assuming this would in practice be a spot-foiling.

So here's some Death books trying out the look, with original Collectors' Library editions alongside for context:

Considering how many ways I've standardised the title treatment, it's surprising how much power lies in the relatively small choices of variation still available (as well as the also relatively small relatively small but crucial choices regarding how to handle the artwork).

For example, with Mort I've made the title big. Of course that's a practical choice (Mort is a short title which can go big) but it's also playing to a specific sensibility. Mort is something of a children's book or adolescent novel, a comic-of-age narrative about a young protagonist. So I've played to adolescent-novel-cover choices of an unabashedly big shiny title, and I've also made the illustration subject large in line with the adolescent literature preference for unabashedly dominant character art.

By contrast I've pushed back the size of title and illustration for Hogfather, to play instead to a sense of restraint, the sinister and mystery.

To be clear, these tones and senses of audience are implicit in the artwork. But there remains the power to play up and down specific ideas and angles with apparently small and apparently purely functional design choices. After all, my problem with the current Kirby-artwork-using paperbacks boils down to the fact that the way the artwork is edited and the design framework into which its placed feel totally out of sympathy with the art in question.

On those covers, it's not just the artwork that feels handled carelessly, even resentfully. I get the same feeling about the titles. The current Kirby covers have the titles crammed into a space and over a background which muddles and lessens them.

And it's such a waste of resources because Pratchett's titles are phenomenal and one of the most powerful tools at the disposal of those marketing these books. A title like Mort is not just a neat pun but tells you at a glance what the premise of the books is, and also that it is going to be clever and funny about engaging with it. Reaper Man is poetic and slightly punky. Hogfather has a funny ring but also a slightly sinister one, and one that hints immediately (especially coupled with the imagery) at exactly what idea the book will be playing with.

It's not just the current editions that seem to throw away the titles. Across almost all editions we have so far seen on these books, the titles have been downplayed compared to illustration and bylines. The fact is that until recently, the priority has always been on presenting Discworld as a single big matched set.

I think it's definitely a need that is changing, and as I've mentioned more recent editions like the Collectors' Library and the latest paperbacks coming out have started including sub-series names on the jackets ('Discworld: The Death Collection' etc).

One day I would love to see editions of Discworld which really go for individuality and which lead with beautiful, bespoke typography that make the most of each individual title. That's not something for now, though; McLaren's art is already the star of the show, and there's no room for highly artistic typography to feature alongside.

But there is room for title treatments here to be somewhat individual and, though matching across the set in many ways, not crowbarred into an unchanging approach. somewhat bespoke to the the individual vibes the artwork is already leading.

To experiment further, let's look at some City Watch series covers:

Again I think you can see the difference in tone that small choices like letter size can make. Jingo and Thud! both have short, single-word title. But on Jingo I've used quite made the title quite large which I think suits the bombastic, aggressive idea it embodies, and on Thud! while the instinct might be to go large, since the title word is short, quite comic and emphasised with an exclamation mark, I think it works better as small, recessing, a little soft and sinister like a sound heard distantly.

On Guards! Guards! I really like how the dragon's wing separates the two instances of the title word' because it plays so well to the dynamics of the spoken phrase. A title treatment should always work to enhance meaning and phrasing. In this case the visuals make the first 'Guards!' feel quieter, and the second louder - just as it would go if someone was yelling this.

Next some Witches novels:

With Equal Rites I've gone for bringing up the character subjects nice and large and also having a large title for the same reasons as with Mort - that this is something of a children's novel and suits leaning into the cover design tropes of that age-range. Meanwhile I've gone much more restrained with Lords and Ladies for a more grown-up, mysterious, folk fantasy feel.

It's not just the sizing and placement of art and titles, the colours that the byline and series name line pick up on can really pull the tone one way or another. For instance, on Witches Abroad, the decision to pick up on the green really emphasises the Wizard of Oz / Wicked overtones, which wouldn't be nearly so present if these elements instead used the white.

Talking of series names...

I've touched already on how it is becoming a priority in new editions of Discworld to signal to new readers that the Discworld books are not one big series but rather a collection made up of various series and standalone novels.

That's something I'm 100% behind. The misapprehension that Discworld is one big series is not just inaccurate but I think potentially off-putting to new readers. It's daunting to think about starting what appears to be a 40+ book series and it's not something that promises high quality. What series can sustain so many books as while continuing to offer quality and meaning and development? How could it be anything more than diminishing returns as the author tries to wring more and more stories out of cash-cow characters? So I feel it's well worth expressing the truth that rather Discworld is more like the 'cinematic universe' model we're all now so familiar with. A collection of stories which operate within the same narrative universe, which allows for a rich shared world and the possibility of cross-over, but also allows for huge variety and independence of story.

The Collectors' Library collect every single book under the heading of a series - 'The Death Collection', 'The City Watch Collection', 'The Witches Collection' etc. And that's straightforward enough whre it's applied to the Death books, the City Watch books and the witches books. Those really do manifest as genuine series.

However, I do think there's a bit more of a crowbar job when it comes to other books.

The Discworld books are magnificently unique as a set. They don't all neatly fit into series of equal lengths, or series at all.

I approve of the invention and including of series names because it genuinely and helpfully reflects the way the books operate that offers potential new readers a handhold in how to best engage with the books. But it stops being helpful if the orgainsing fervour takes over and you're having to pretend books like Moving Pictures and Interesting Times speak to one another as part of a distinct series because they share the relatively arbitrary quality of featuring graduates of the Unseen University as protagonists.

You can sort the more standalone books into sets, but for me the question should really be, does doing so benefit the books or the reader at all? I would say no.

I think the organising principle is seductive but over-imposing it can only detract from great books by pretending they’re something their not.

So I prefer to label the books I really do think forms series as such (seen above), and ones that have looser connections with any fellows simply as 'A Discworld Novel'.

Even amongst the definite series though, there are some questions. I've always felt that Night Watch and Snuff are really more Sam Vimes books than they are City Watch books, and I've experimented with labelling them as such here, though it's probably a step too far. Again, information which only makes sense to someone who has already ready the books does not belong on the cover.

To finish up, here are three definitely standalone Discworld novels.

I was curious how The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, the longest of the Discworld titles, would work given the format I had worked out for titles, but I'm gratified to see that it looks pretty good.

Anyway, I've gotten it out of my system! I guess I've proved to myself that if the artwork were ever to be liscenced for paperbacks use - which it surely won't - it could work great. So huh. You know. Time well spent.


bottom of page