fair few readers have reader has asked why all the books in my “Moss Reid” series have yellow covers. Good question. I’m not sure; but when has that ever deterred me from making up excuses?
Short answer? I like the yellow. Not in a Coldplay kind of way (“I swam across / I jumped across for you / Oh what a thing to do / Cos you were all yellow”??? As if). It just seems to work as the main colour on a book cover, that’s all.
But the long answer? There must be 10 good reasons…
Yep, wasps. That yellow-and-black combination is as eye-catching as a drunken wasp in a late summer orchard. Thus, like a hi-vis vest – or a crouching tiger – or a string of black-and-yellow CRIME SCENE tape if you prefer (the Irish police actually use blue and white tape), the bright yellow stands out from all those dull, dark cliches used on so many crime novel covers today.
Mustardy yellow and black. I might not stick with the black though.
2. Less is more
Take the cover of Lemons Are Not Red by Laura Vaccaro Seeger. Here’s how CJ McDaniel of Adazing Book Design describes it:
“Nothing overdramatic or over-the-top, just an impossible to ignore yellow background that stretches from top to bottom, side to side, very large black letters which stand out perfectly against this yellow background, and a red lemon.
“And the red lemon may be what really captures readers’ attentions because one, it is a red shape against a yellow background and so stands out immediately. But also because obviously lemons are not red, as the title demands, and by having a red lemon on the cover, in direct contradiction to the title, adds a little bit of fun and mischief to the cover. This is the perfect example of ‘less is more’.”
3. Cheap fun
Yellow covers also have a venerable typographical history. OK, “venerable” isn’t the right word. Since the Victorians, yellow has come to stand for “cheap” and “fun”.
As Wikiwotsit puts it (this list relies a lot on Wikiwotsit and all its “citations neededs” )…
A yellow-back or yellowback is a cheap novel which was published in Britain in the second half of the 19th century. They were occasionally called ‘mustard-plaster’ novels. 
“Developed in the 1840s to compete with the ‘penny dreadful’, yellow-backs were marketed as entertaining reading. They had brightly coloured covers, often printed by chromoxylography, that were attractive to a new class of readers, thanks to the spread of education and rail travel…
“By the late 19th century, yellow-backs included sensational fiction, adventure stories, ‘educational’ manuals, handbooks, and cheap biographies. .
Chromoxylography. And there’s me thinking that it was a terrible rabbit disease. It’s a printing process that was perfect for the pulp fiction of the time.
So a yellowback isn’t just a frog species or a council worker in a fluorescent jacket but a type of cheap novel that first appeared at exactly the same time as Colman’s mustard adopted its distinctive yellow packaging and bull’s head logo. Coincidence? I think not. Yellowbacks were spicy books.
4. Scandal and stigma
Yes, yellow also stands for naughty or forbidden. Sabine Doran adopts suitably yellow-tinted glasses for The Culture of Yellow: The Visual Politics of Late Modernity, her scholarly exploration of the colour’s cultural significance.
As her publishers note, the book shows how…
…its [yellow’s] psychological and aesthetic value marked and shaped many of the intellectual, political, and artistic currents of late modernity. It contends that yellow functions during this period primarily as a color of stigma and scandal.
Doran examines “how yellow connects disparate cultural phenomena” of the time, such as:
- Mass immigration from Asia (“the yellow peril”)
- Mass stigmatization (the yellow star that Jews were forced to wear in Nazi Germany)
- The rise of mass media (“yellow journalism”) and
- Turn-of-the-century decadence (the “yellow nineties”)
5. The Yellow Book
The 1890s was a decade in which Victorianism was “giving way among the fashionable to Regency attitudes and French influences; For yellow was not only the decor of the notorious and dandified pre-Victorian Regency, but also of the allegedly wicked and decadent French novel”.
(Re that French connection, bear in mind the rampant Francophobia in Victorian England.)
The Yellow Book was a literary journal published in London from 1894-97. Aubrey Beardsley was its co-founder and first art editor, and is “credited with the idea of the yellow cover, with its association with illicit French fiction of the period”, and with its hint of horribly French and terribly scurrilous content within. Nice one, Aubrey.
6. More Wildean connections
Beardsley illustrated many of Oscar Wilde’s works, and yellow books are a recurring theme in Wilde’s writing and, indeed, in his own life.
In The Picture of Dorian Gray, a major corrupting influence on Dorian is “the yellow book” (possibly À rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans – a guidebook of decadence that Wilde adored) that Lord Henry sends over to amuse him after the suicide of his first love.
In An Ideal Husband, Mrs Cheveley says: “I have never read a Blue Book. I prefer books… in a yellow cover.”
And so on.
The media mistakenly reported the yellow book which Wilde carried to his trial to be The Yellow Book itself, when it was in fact a French novel – pure foreign filth of course.
The initial moment involving that book is apparently immortalised in John Betjeman’s poem “The arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel”, which has Wilde saying:
So you’ve brought me the latest Yellow Book
And Buchan has got in it now:
Approval of what is approved of
Is as false as a well-kept vow.
But Buchan? Is that the (Thirty-Nine Steps) John Buchan? For some strange reason it is, despite being historically inaccurate. I blame the yellow press.
(A quick aside: readers of my Moss Reid series will know that his PI firm in Stoneybatter is called “Wilde & Reid Investigations” – the running joke is that there is no Mr Wilde.)
7. From Victor Gollancz to the Sex Pistols
Early examples include Hodder & Stoughton’s “Yellow Jacket” series published in England from 1926 until 1939, and its second series that ran from 1949 to 1957.
Victor Gollancz also started using vibrant yellow dustjackets from 1928 onwards, and published a wide range of crime fiction within those covers, from Dorothy L Sayers to John le Carré.
The International Crime Fiction blog has plenty of splendid examples of these yellow covers. The blog also makes a few unusual connections, such as how the Sex Pistols used the very same palette as Gollancz for their “Never Mind the Bollocks” album. Brilliant.
8. Eurocrime yellow
The yellow trend wasn’t confined to British pulp fiction or punk rock either. It became a fad across post-war Europe as it was flooded with cheap thrillers and murder mysteries. In Italy the very word became synonymous with the genre.
The word ‘giallo’ is Italian for ‘yellow’. Its use as a label denoting the thriller genre derives from its association with a series of cheap paperback mystery novels, popular in post-fascist Italy, which were adorned with yellow covers.
“Giallo” went on to become the term for an entire genre within Italian cinema.
9. Yellow is a talking point
10. And I’m stuck with it now
It’s called brand recognition, OK?