F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby was published by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1925, thereby turning 95 years old in 2020 and officially entering the public domain.
With the copyright expired, what the New York Times described as the “Great Gatsby Glut” began. More than a dozen new editions of the novel were published in 2021 alone, including a free version from our very own W.S. Cole Press.
This raises an obvious question: With so many editions available, how should a reader choose?
Of course, one can select by price or who wrote the introduction, but of us are going to do exactly what we’ve been warned against our entire lives: judge a book by its cover.
Publishers know this, so the stakes of designing a Great Gatsby cover are high. That said, designing a Great Gatsby cover is also a singular challenge. The original dust jacket ranks among the most iconic in American literature, so should a design reference it, or make a clean break? The novel has become a shorthand for the Roaring Twenties, so it’s also very tempting—though seldom a good idea—to employ vintage fonts and other symbols of the era. (Champagne, anyone?)
Generations of designers have created scores of solutions to the Great Gatsby problem, and my goal is to collect and critique as many covers as possible. Which raises another important question before beginning: what makes a great Great Gatsby cover?
At the risk of sounding like the infamous Dr. J. Evans Pritchard, I think Great Gatsby covers can be judged on two scales. The first is how artfully the cover is rendered, and the second how successfully it communicates the novel’s essential themes.
In my humble judgment then, the best Great Gatsby covers are those that skillfully use the design toolkit of typography, color, layout, and illustration to evoke the novel’s signature admixture of glamour and tragedy, or what I like to call “Calamity Glam.” Which also explains why the original cover remains the one to beat. (And, as you’ll see, covers that focus exclusively on glamour to the detriment of tragedy are legion.)
Finally, if there’s a specific edition of The Great Gatsby you’d like me to add and review, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.