top of page

The covers of Discworld: first hardbacks

Updated: May 6

I have been meaning for a while to do a really thorough dive into the history of editions of the Discworld books - at least in their native UK since that ought to be enough of a challenge.

Last year Transworld, who own the paperback publishing rights to the full run of Discworld books, started putting out some new editions. My mixed feelings about these has focused me on the questions underlying such a retrospective: what is the job of a Discworld cover? How has each iteration seen and approached it? And how well do they end up doing?

In contrast to His Dark Materials, a set of just three books which has had a lot of presentations, Discworld is a set of 40+ books which hasn't had many editions at all.

That's largely because of how many Discworld books there are. Spending the amount of in-house time, and spending the amount of freelance illustrator money, that it takes to re-cover 40+ books is a hell of an undertaking.

But another reason that the Discworld books haven’t bopped around different looks very much is that they got popular quickly. Even by the publication of the third and fourth books, Discworld had developed a significant readership, meaning that a. the design direction seemed to be doing its job and b. this look was already established as a bit of a ‘brand’.

However, that brand didn’t quite get started quite straight away.

Colin Smythe

The first Discworld book, The Colour of Magic, made its debut via small independent house Colin Smythe, and started out in in hardback with this cover:

Illustrated by Alan Smith, it’s actually lovely artwork, precisely painted in atmospheric shades, and with the ‘lens flare’ effect reflecting the explicitly cinematic tone Pratchett would so often use in describing his world. The lettering is gorgeous, pure 60s-80s ‘weird fiction’ vibes.

It’s a great example, then, of how something can be careful, thoughtful, high-quality - and still somehow miss the mark. By comparing this to what was to come I think we can see what was the difference between a good cover for the book / these books, and covers that helped turned these books into bestsellers.


At the time of the book’s publication it was common for paperback publishing rights to be bought separately from hardback ones, the markets for these formats still being considered fairly separate. A then-independant publisher called Corgi bought the paperback rights to The Colour of Magic. It was they who employed Josh Kirby for the first of what would turn out to be over twenty-five Terry Pratchett covers.

And because the work of designers is often so little understood, I should add they did more than point to an illustrator in a catalogue somewhere and say “that one”.

Kirby had by 1983 already had a long career. He started out on film posters in the early 50s and as the market for illustrated film posters dried up in the 80s moved into book covers. His real name was actually not really Josh at all, it was Ronald; his art school classmates had awarded him the nickname ‘Joshua’ in recognition of his Old-Master-esque technical skill in painting, likening him to Joshua Reynolds.

So the style with which Discworld fans are most familiar was by no means his only style, or even one that quite existed before the commission. Some examples of his pre-Discworld work show he was quite capable to many varied styles and tones:

The bottom right-hand sample is from the choose-your-own-adventure series Wizards, Warriors & You for which Kirby painted several illustrations and it was presumably this work that suggested Kirby to the commissioning designer at Corgi. But it is also Kirby’s movie poster work which makes him such an apt choice.

Kirby’s ‘Old Master’ skills and film poster experience allows him to make the most of Pratchett’s richly peopled story with art as full of figures and details as a Bruegel with composition and lighting carefully handled to keep positions and action perfectly clear. These are astonishingly rich pieces of work to be produced as commercial illustration and in that way he was an apt match for Pratchett too – a man who would produce complex and high-quality work with no fuss and in very little time.

It's easy to lose sight of just how good Kirby's Discworld jacket art is, across the barrier of changing tastes over time, and especially as so many editions have strugled to use the art well. So I think it's worth dropping a few of his full-jacket paintings here before we go on:

As you can see if you study any of these examples, Kirby's compositions were carefully arranged to house the inset boxes that Corgi would place for their paperback designs.

The choices of style and layout that Corgi and Kirby worked out for that first paperback publication of that first book were so solid they stayed in place for the Discworld paperbacks for the next sixteen years and twenty four books. Every paperback between 1983’s The Colour of Magic and 1999’s The Fifth Elephant retains the same design template.

... But all that is about the paperbacks, which I won’t be looking at in full until later.

Suffice to say for now that in 1985 Corgi had published the above edition of The Colour of Magic for the paperback market, and harback publisher Colin Smythe clearly saw that Corgi had knocked it out of the park.

Colin Smythe had treated their first publication of The Colour of Magic as a bit of a punt, printing only 500 copies (so if you ever see the Alan Smith jacketed edition in a charity shop I advise you snap it up!). But The Colour of Magic sold well in Corgi's paperback and when Colin Smythe went to a second printing of the hardback The Colour of Magic, they decided to rejacket and use Josh Kirby’s art to match the paperback - and they also commissioned him to cover the upcoming sequel in hardback, The Light Fantastic.

While Colin Smythe opted to use the same artwork as the paperbacks, they didn’t replicate the design.

Corgi had planned in the boxes, as seen above, that would house the text on the front, spine and back of the book. As we have seen, Kirby arranged his compositions to accomodate these devices, keeping certain areas clear of detail and centring action for how he knew it would be framed by these later additions.

The trouble was, that kind of design wouldn’t do for a hardback. Corgi’s look with its inset text boxes was a distinctly ‘paperbacky’ approach. While paperbacks were allowed to look more like the packaging of a commercial product, hardbacks were – and to some extent still are – supposed to lean more towards the handsome, decorative object. Hardbacks, the form in which novels debut, are supposed to look bespoke, whole and new. Whereas part of a paperback's basic identity is in being the 'later, cheaper' spin-off from the ur-edition.

The practical upshot here being: on a hardback you really gotta place text directly over the art.

I go into this this because the challenge of making Kirby's art work for anything except the paperback layout for which is was always primarily concived is one that never got satisfyingly solved.

However, back here at the start Colin Smythe actually made a decent, neat job of it.

In addition to the placing of lettering directly over the art, another choice more fitting of hardback was the style of lettering. Where Corgi had opted for a restrained, fairly anonymous serif font, Colin Smythe went for something more distinctive and decorative. A real fantasy-signalling font somewhat redolent of D&D publishing.

Extra bespokeness and decorativeness might be - or have been - necessary to hardback publishing, but the price you pay for distinctiveness and charm is a shorter shelf-life. On the paperbacks, the less distinctive lettering choices remained fresh-looking and unchanging across two decades. But with the hardbacks the lettering would be subject to constant change as we shall see.


Those hardbacks wouldn’t be published by Colin Smythe going forward. After completing his two-book deal with that small house (and now employing Smythe himself as his agent), Pratchett went on to sign with bigger publisher Victor Gollancz – then independent but now a division of Big Five megapublisher Hachette.

Gollancz bought the rights from Colin Smythe for hardback publication going forward of the exiting The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic, as well as the future Discworld books. They remained Pratchett's hardback publisher for a decade, their final Discworld publication being Jingo.

Gollancz’s stewardship lasting eleven years, from 1987 to 1998, it passed through some distinct design eras which I’ve grouped roughly here.

They continued Colin Smythe's decision to use Josh Kirby for the jackets and so inherited the challenge I've described above - making Kirby's art, primarily painted to suit the paperback layout, work for a hardback cover treatment. These days illustrators tend to work at least partly digitally, supplying layered files with moveable elements. But Kirby's art was one-piece paintings. Design work had to suit the paintings as they were or not at all.

Since hardbacks are published before paperbacks you might think that from here Kirby would start being comissioned by the hardback publisher, Gollancz, with a brief that suited its own intentions better.

But it appears not to have been the case. Perhaps there was soemthing in contract where Corgi allowed the hardback publishers to share the same artist/artwork they'd introduced to series branding, but retained the right to be in charge of comissioning that art to suit, primarily, itself. Because Kirby continued to produce work clearly designed to serve the Corgi layout very well, while Gollancz struggled during its whole tenure to find an approach to fitting the art to a strong hardback look.

After the matching pair of The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic, the next twelve Discworld covers are pretty varied.

This Gollancz run tended to use a recurring restrained serif typeface which was not dissimilar to the serif Corgi were using on the paperbacks. But as the run went on they started to break that pattern more than they followed it, starting with Eric where the title joke demands more playful typography. Moving Pictures got a wordarty allusion to classic Hollywood in its title treatment and for Witches Abroad the designer dipped into the fancier end of the font library.

Further, though I have said the 'inset box' thing isn't really appropriate to hardback, several covers do throw their hands up and use a version of the ‘inset box’ device to house their titles and bylines, presumably unable to find any spot to place text readably otherwise. Sometimes it works. The best examples are probably the covers of Pyramids and Guards! Guards! where the box feels successfully integrated into the art. The worst is probably Equal Rites, which looks amateurish.

Meanwhile Mort, Sourcery and Wyrd Sisters made a nice job of clearing space in the art to overlay titles without a box, and without the editing feeling clumsy. I appreciate it particularly because the treatment of Josh Kirby’s art in recent years have been much more ham-fisted than this, and those have the benefit of digital editing software to make the job easier.

While some covers here work better than others, overall for me there’s a pleasing variety and bespokeness to these earlier covers. They might not match one another in the way modern design would demand, but because Kirby’s artwork is so distinctive and is always used to its best full-bleed, baroque glory, there’s still an incredibly strong 'brand' maintained no matter what is done with the type.

However by the time of the last of the above books’ publication, Lords and Ladies in 1992, it has definitely started to feel as though there is a desire to break away from the thoroughly fantasy/geeky territory that the baroque, handcrafted, full-bleed art, serif lettering vibes across these covers communicate.

Lord and Ladies itself experiments with something more 90s and computer-designed for the lettering, though it seems especially badly judged on a book called Lords and Ladies and which is a Midsummer Night’s Dream pastiche with elves and witches.

The next three books saw a clearer and more successful break in this direction. Kirby remains the artist but here instead of his work being used at full bleed, parts of his wider paintings are used as an isolated spot illustration on a white background, framed by a huge byline and title.

On Men at Arms and Soul Music we see a real early-90s-blockbuster look which balances the existing baroque fantasy vibe of Kirby with something more readily signalling humour and mainstream-ness.

I talked at some length before about covers which edit Kirby's work to try and make them work as spot illustrstions and in that case fail badly. This Men at Arms and Soul Music, by contrast, really work.

The big, bold, flatly-coloured lettering contrasts well with the delicate and handcrafted lines and colour of Kirby’s artwork, with the white surround creates breathing room that gives the art its own weight and allows it to contrast rather than simply being ovwerwhelmed.

By the same logic, Interesting Times is the less successful of the three for me, since each part of its cover – the byline box, the title box and the illustration all have about equal weight and a similar feel, so the cover feels very unachored. The eye drifts listlessly axross it, not snagging on any big 'hook'.

Nevertheless it’s a bit of a shame Gollancz didn’t stick to something like the above approach. It’s worth remembering that Pratchett was writing at a particularly prodigious rate in the early nineties so all three books all came out in 93/94 – hardly enough time to say the market would have prompted another design rethink. Yet by the next book, Maskerade, Gollancz had reset the table again.

As it turned out this final change in Gollancz's approach to design was going to extend across only four new books, since Pratchett moved hardback publisher after the publication of Jingo. However, in addition to these last four new books coming out in the new style, Gollancz also reissued the older books in this look.

Gollancz called these ‘collectors’ editions’, a hint that Pratchett was beginning to be seen as more than popular in a flash-in-the-pan way but actually earning real regard.

The new look as we see imposed coloured bands at top and bottom to sandwich the illustration area between text spaces. These wide text bands gave a chance to have a really strong colour identity for each book so lined up on a shelf they felt both much more like a set, and with each book having a clear distinction within that set.

As for the illustration, Kirby’s paintings were now being framed in full on the cover. The idea might have been to showcase and celebrate Kirby's work, but unfortunately to me this doesn't seem a very intelligent use of the work.

Kirby's paintings were always composed tobecome full-bleed wrap-around jackets with, as mentioned, certain areas deliberately left emptier to accomodate the coming inset boxes. Reproduced as on the above covers both as a flat painting seen in one go, and of course necesarily much smaller than intended use, the paintings tend to look badly composed; a mess of hard to follow detail with empty middles. In a normal painting, the rough centre of the composition is where you'd expect to find the most interest and action. But when painting for a wraparound jacket, this is the part that would fall on the spine and so therefore arranged to be the least busy and interesting part of the painting. The actual centre of action and attention in a jacket painting will be in the bottom right-hand corner of the overall piece, which will of course is destines to become the front cover area in its intended presentation. So to sum up, presented flat Kirby's paintings look werirdly balanced with everything crowded into one corner.

These are by no means terrible covers, and I don't do them any favours in these low-res images. They look much, much nicer as physical objects. In 1995 we hadn't yet arrived at a time when it was important for book covers to look good and read clearly at thumbnail size. Further, these are explicitly 'collectors' editions, with a mandate less to communicate the attractions of the book to new potential readers than to give existing fans something. It's nice to have a set of matching editions lined up on the shelf, and it's nice to have a chance to pore over Kirby's paintings full and uninterrupted often for the first time.

Another trend we see coming in here is the standardisation of the byline and title treatments. The visual ‘branding’ of an author’s name is so carefully considered these days that it’s hard to believe that it wasn’t until this point, eighteen books and eight years in, that Terry Pratchett’s name started being given a 'lockup' for hardback editions.

These editions make a nice job by the standards of the time on that front. But the standardisation of the title treatments has not produced very good results on the whole over the years for Discworld. One trend I don’t understand in Discworld publishing, and which we shall see across all the covers from this point on, is the rather perfunctory treatment of the titles. Title on Discworld books are generally rendered small and/or made to sit in an unchanging and unarresting font. I suppose it’s the result of the series’ success. The bigger Terry Pratchett’s own name was plastered across the covers, the less space there was for other text. In addition, the 90s just weren’t a great time for typography as digital design took over from older traditions and fonts replaced hand lettering. In the 21st century, the aforementioned rise in the need for book covers to be readable at thumbnail happily gave rise to the swing back towards fabulous bespoke typography - and yet Discworld has still never really had typography-led covers.

And it’s a particular shame that Discworld hasn’t had a lot of great title typography because its titles are such a strong point.

Overall, I appreciate what these covers are doing, and if they feel a bit safe, dull and by-numbers it's more the era of book design they represent than individual failing though. We were all just very excited about the neatness and uniformity computer design could offer in the 90s.

Even so, and though these are definitely 'my' era of Pratchett design as I have some nostaglic attachment, I don’t feel especially attached to these.

It also feels as we have entered an era in which the covers of Discworld don’t feel the pressure to sell themselves – in other words to call out to potential new readers and suggest why they might enjoy the books – but more to serve an existing readership and I rarely find that produces great design.


As mentioned, Jingo was Pratchett's last book with Gollancz before moving to Doubleday (now a part of Penguin Random House). The above look initiated by Gollancz was one Doubleday more or less continued as they took over hardback publication post-Jingo, but they made a few adjustments, some of which I like, and some of which continue the trend of using Kirby's work increasingly poorly.

The layout of Doubleday's first five Discworld used a template that only softly updated the Gollancz look:

Doubleday shrank the byline vertically (by this time – 1997 – that kind of extreme taking-up-a-third-of-the-cover blockbuster byline was going out of fashion anyway) and did the same for the title space though the proportions of the letters there varied depending on the title. For instance, The Fifth Elephant, a long title, has narrower letters than the much shorter title The Truth.

Rather than the hard edged colour bands which sandwiched the illustration on the Gollancz covers, Doubleday’s covers instead have a gradient transition. The Last Continent and The Fifth Elephant look good, but there's sometimes a slight careless or clumsy look to the fade-out, e.g. on The Truth, probably attributable to the relative earliness of the design software being used.

A definite improvement is that Doubleday didn't keep using Kirby's full paintings on the front and instead cropped them down to sections that actually worked compositionally as cover illustrations.

All in all, Doubleday did a really good job of keeping continuity with Gollancz's 'collectors editions' while softly designing out the parts that could be improved.

So the transition of publisher didn't manifest as a huge shift to the aesthetic, but as it happened another change was to impose itself on the look of the series within a few years:

Josh Kirby passed away in 2001. His final cover was to be for the twenty-sixth Discworld novel Thief of Time.

Paul Kidby, already an established official Discworld artist via supplementary material, took over cover duties.

As it happened, this changing of the guard was by several chances a much more staggered transition than you would expect in the circumstances.

At the time Josh Kirby died, Paul Kidby and Pratchett had already been collaborating on an illustrated Discworld novella, The Last Hero, which used Kidby's artist's work throughout and therefore of course on the cover too. Thus the next Discworld book due out already had a Kidby look.

And the next book after that was to be The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents. This was the first Discworld novel overtly for a junior audience and so had different design demands than its predecessors. Doubleday commissioned illustrator David Wyatt for the cover job, whose work is iconic of late nineties to 2010s children’s publishing. His style also happens to be in a similar school to that of Paul Kidby’s – highly proficient realism pushed into well-managed characterful stylisation, with a great skill for dramatic and atmospheric lighting.

Thus the next couple of Discworld books out after Kirby’s death were set apart from the main canon in one way or another, and were clearly always slated to employ different artists.

Finally, when Paul Kidby's first 'standard' Discworld commission did come along, the novel in question was Night Watch, a book with a darker, heavier, more emotional tone than Discworld had embodied before. Paul Kidby's style, tragic as its reason was for its use, felt like the perfect marriage of a new literary tone to a new artistic tone.

So the books across that transition period look like this:

Along with the new illustrator came further soft updates to the design template. Starting with Night Watch, the byline is adjusted to have 'TERRY' as big as 'PRATCHETT'. Starting with Monstrous Regiment the very narrow font for the title was often replaced by a more regular serif, depending on what length of title needed to be squeezed onto the front.

So here's the evolution of the hardback styling from Doubleday's taking over in 2000 to their publication of Pratchett's final novel The Shepherd's Crown in 2015:

Kiby’s artwork, probably both by nature and commission, is not the full-jacket, full-bleed style pieces of Kidy’s era, but much more frontispieces.

His first 'normal Discworld' cover, for Night Watch, feels the closest to Kirby’s approach, with its Rembrandt pastiche filling out the whole canvas with detail (he also paid tribute to his precessor by including a portrait of Kirby amongst the figures), but after this point his artwork becomes much more inclined to focus on a single character or small group framed clearly. Increasingly his artwork leaves lots of negative space outside this central action which accommodates the byline and title areas without the designer needing to do any further adjustment.

One aspect that the Doubleday run included which hadn't come up during the Gollancz era was the split of Discworld into children's and adults publishing. Discworld had from the start been a crossover hit and included novels which certainly felt like coming-of-age, YA novels led by young protagonists. Meanwhile Pratchett's non-Discworld publishing had been almost entirely for children. But it wasn't until 2001's The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents that Discworld got book officially published for the adolescent market. Following on from there, the Middle Grade/YA 'Tiffany Aching' sub-series made up almost half of his remaining publishing. Pratchett's final book, The Shepherd's Crown is a Tiffany book, though as I understand it merges rather more back into his general 'adult' Discworld approach. I don't know for sure - I can't bring myself to read it and thereby have finished Discworld forever - but if so it seems nice to end on that kind of synthesis.

There's a movement from divergence to uniformity in the design choices too. We've noted that The Amazing Maurice was deliberately moved away from the then-current wider Discworld look by comissioning David Wyatt instead of Josh Kirby to illustrate. As it happens it ended up matching into the series more than expected since around the same time Paul Kidy, who has as we've seen, quite a similar style to Wyatt, became the primary illustrator.

David Wyatt was also comissioned for the first Tiffany Aching book, The Wee Free Men. In addition to the different illustrator, the lettering as seen above breaks out of the adult Discworld conventions to be decorative and bespoke. But by th second Tiffany book, A Hat full of Sky, Paul Kidby was the illustrator. And by the time of the third Tiffany book, Wintersmith, the unique lettering has been dropped in favour of matching into the mainstream adult Discworld look. At this point the 'adolescent publishing' became physically indistinguishable from the standard Discworld publishing but for a slight differene in wording in the small supporting text on the cover - 'A Story of Discworld' instead of 'A Discworld Novel'.

And that wraps it up for Discworld as they all appeared on first hardback publication in the UK.


bottom of page