public domain [book cover] atrocities
May 12, 2024 1:12 PM   Subscribe

[B]ooks in the public domain—books anyone with a digital file, a printer, and a dream can produce and sell—can be a sweet side hustle for people looking to make a quick buck, and they are free to make their own choices when it comes to the cover art they select, but this one cracked me up because it is not even close to representing the contents or the tone of the book. I decided to do a deep dive into the world of public domain publishing, to see what else was out there… (Karen T. Brissette) Bonus: 50 Very Bad Book Covers for Literary Classics (LitHub)
posted by hurdy gurdy girl (40 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
I can confirm. These are ... bad.
posted by chavenet at 1:28 PM on May 12 [2 favorites]

Oh my, these range from "close, but no cigar", to "did you read the book?", to just plain random (and bad). Most of the market for classics is students being forced to read them for school so I guess it makes sense to go cheap on the cover, but still...
posted by tommasz at 1:30 PM on May 12 [2 favorites]

Oh my I lol'd
posted by supermedusa at 1:50 PM on May 12

So many of The Awakening reeeealllly did not understand the assignment.
posted by supermedusa at 1:51 PM on May 12 [2 favorites]

*squints* Is that Bishop from the X-Men?
posted by bettafish at 2:08 PM on May 12 [9 favorites]

I mean he's kind of a secret agent, from, like, the future timeline? That's totally what the book or about, right?
posted by cobaltnine at 2:20 PM on May 12 [1 favorite]

Moby Dick, the Whale.

Chef’s kiss. Mwah.
posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 2:25 PM on May 12

For me, nothing will ever beat Wordsworth Classics' Three Men In A Boat.
posted by BungaDunga at 2:30 PM on May 12 [15 favorites]

What gets me is that the TMiaB cover required at least a modicum of effort- they really did open up Microsoft Paint or Photoshop or whatever to produce it. It's not just a public domain image. Someone sat at a computer and intentionally created it to be the cover of this book, which was genuinely printed and available in bookstores.
posted by BungaDunga at 2:32 PM on May 12 [1 favorite]

what you wanna do is just post your ebook and every time someone looks at it make a new cover by using an ai image generator prompted with "a book cover for [title] that totally misses the point." Or, if your line of public domain ebooks has a theme, "a book cover for [title] but with a pretty woman standing in front of an exploding spaceship" or "a book cover for [title] as if it were an especially trashy romance novel" or "a book cover for [title] as if it were a richard scarry book"
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 2:48 PM on May 12 [1 favorite]

Unsurprisingly, Sheba Blake Publishing is well represented. Here’s a blogpost about them, with many examples. Excerpt:
Had the whole Sheba Blake collection been a series of random covers, it would make more sense. But someone seems to actually be designing these and picking the images. Are they seeing something in these classic works that the rest of us are missing? Or are they deliberately trying to provoke articles like this as a cynical publicity stunt?

We’d like to ask, but oddly the Sheba Blake website simply links to an unfinished Shopify page, which doesn’t suggest that they really do know what they are doing. Perhaps the more appropriate and aesthetically-pleasing books are the mistakes – I guess that if you assign random covers to enough books then you are going to occasionally get it right.
posted by Kattullus at 2:56 PM on May 12 [4 favorites]

This is one time where I wish I was better read on the classics so that I knew what more of these are getting wrong.

Also I now have a new reason for wishing copyright had a shorter term, so I could see more of these. Imagine what they'd do to 1950s SF for example; A Mission of Gravity wouldn't be HARD to do (my copy has a terrible cover) but I bet they'd still do a terrible job.
posted by Canageek at 2:58 PM on May 12 [1 favorite]

I would absolutely read the Kung Fu edition of The Brothers Karamazov, not gonna lie.
posted by Quindar Beep at 3:17 PM on May 12 [2 favorites]

From now on, that's the version of Little Women I'll imagine Moe Szyslak reading at the shelter.
posted by audi alteram partem at 3:23 PM on May 12 [1 favorite]

Kattullus: Ok, I recognize at least one of those as a Boris Vallejo painting, so they aren't using stock imagery or properly licensing their art, I'm sure.
posted by Canageek at 3:28 PM on May 12 [3 favorites]

"He had softly and silently vanished away
For the Shark was a Banjo, you see."
posted by dannyboybell at 3:44 PM on May 12 [4 favorites]

Both collections are great, but kudos to the second one for multiple terrible interpretations of the same title. Oscar Wilde is having a giggling fit in his grave.

Also, the Sheba Blake ones are in a class of their own: kind of well done yet extremely WTF.
posted by zompist at 3:51 PM on May 12 [2 favorites]

Every single one of these is wonderful and you are all wrong for hating them.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 4:42 PM on May 12 [7 favorites]

Listen, sign me up for a retelling of Little Women in Maoist China, but this is . . . not that. It’s just random Maoist iconography.

Seems to be a well-red book.
posted by AlSweigart at 5:00 PM on May 12 [7 favorites]

These are amazing. Thank you.
posted by doctornemo at 5:03 PM on May 12

You can’t judge just the title to get a book cover. Or something along those lines…
posted by njohnson23 at 5:55 PM on May 12 [1 favorite]

Look, I would totally read this book. But this book would not be Frankenstein
Oh, yea. Me, too.

Well, everyone knows that Frankenstein isn’t a work of autofictional erotica...
Just don't be so sure of that. Read between the lines, baby!

Shelley and Austen--These covers bring a whole new different interpretation to their works!
posted by BlueHorse at 6:05 PM on May 12

You know, I could juuuuuust about buy the Dorian Gray cover in the second link with the guy doing a face reveal (the idea works, the model...does not). The cryptkeeper Dorian Gray would also work if the pretty Dorian had, um, pupils. (The Ivan Albright portrait got there first, really.)

I have no idea what's happening with this Jane Eyre cover--I must have missed the chapter where Jane goes to the beach. I don't think Charlotte Bronte would have appreciated the rather scandalous Countess of Blessington on her novel, either. Similarly, I'm unsure how someone put Daniel Deronda together with train tracks (boats yes, trains no), let alone silhouettes of romantic twenty-first century couples overlooking an ocean (anything involving water in this novel usually does not go well).

Bizarre cover art can be a Victorian thing itself, oddly enough--cheap publishers like John F. Shaw would just slap anything onto their novels, so you'd get a late-Victorian maiden cheerfully adorning a novel set in the fifteenth century.
posted by thomas j wise at 6:13 PM on May 12

All Quiet on the Western Front is one of my favorites (appears in the LitHub comments)
posted by one for the books at 6:18 PM on May 12 [9 favorites]

The Little Women one is just baffling
posted by BungaDunga at 7:19 PM on May 12

The Property Brothers edition of The Brothers Karamazov appears to no longer be for sale, but is preserved on Reddit and I like it even better than the martial arts cover.
posted by Jeanne at 7:25 PM on May 12 [3 favorites]

Looking at these, I can almost sympathize with Disney assiduously working to protect the mouse copyrights in perpetuity.

(Also: screw Disney!)
posted by Insert Clever Name Here at 7:33 PM on May 12

Some of these claim to be "color illustrated," or to be an "illustrated platinum edition." Any word on whether those illustrations are as magnificent as the covers?
posted by nobody at 7:49 PM on May 12

OMG so many good ones here, but using Slash to somehow personify Essex Tales has got to take the gold for me. That or Maoist Little Women, just because yeah, the concept of an actual reimagining of Little Women in Maoist China sounds amazingly readable, but as a cover for the original Alcott text that's just utterly WTF.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:52 PM on May 12 [2 favorites]

The was a day when the main character on Twitter was the cover of an edition of All Quiet on the Western Front, or more specifically the character of a cowboy gazing out across a vast plain. Wrong kind of western, wrong kind of quiet.
posted by mark k at 11:28 PM on May 12

I'm reminded of Julius Haldemann, the publisher who issued classics with the titles changed to be salacious and the covers made to look like Tijuana Bibles, so that young bros would read them.
posted by ocschwar at 5:05 AM on May 13

I was going to say that Bishop is a secret agent of sorts because he might have a secret identity, but no--his last name is actually Bishop.
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:24 AM on May 13

They are soo bad, some of them I would buy just for 'kitch-factor'!
posted by BohaGlass at 8:34 AM on May 13

I can't find a copy of it now but I saw at Half-Price Books once an edition of Frankenstein with a cover modeled on Rebel Without a Cause with a leather-jacketed monster on an old motorcycle and back cover copy that technically was an accurate description of the story but twisted to sound like a 50's moral panic movie or pulp novel.

I really wish I'd bought it, if only for the novelty.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:00 AM on May 13 [2 favorites]

We used to get Wordsworth Classics to fill out the school reading shelves at the bookstore where I worked. It was always a happy day when that box arrived and we got to take a look at the wonderful wonderful new covers.
posted by mygothlaundry at 9:08 AM on May 13 [2 favorites]

Mod note: Hey, this post has been added to the sidebar and Best Of blog!
posted by Brandon Blatcher (staff) at 6:17 AM on May 14

"He had softly and silently vanished away
For the Shark was a Banjo, you see."

What I typo three times is true, I guess.
posted by The Bellman at 6:26 AM on May 14

Thank you for bringing these to our attention and making my spouse laugh really hard several times this morning.
posted by brainwane at 8:28 AM on May 14 [1 favorite]

Say what you will about the lack of any oversight on these covers, but I love my copy of (I kid you not) "The Complete Works of Jane Austen, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky".
posted by kyrademon at 5:28 AM on May 16 [4 favorites]

Say what you will about the lack of any oversight on these covers, but I love my copy of (I kid you not) "The Complete Works of Jane Austen, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky".

"The Complete Works of Jane Austen, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky" by Jorge Luis Borges
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 8:13 AM on May 16 [3 favorites]

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