Cover versions: when less is more

Print publishing’s uncertain future is spelled out in the difference between a range of recent book covers that say too much, and others that are content to let the design speak for itself

Ulysses by James Joyce (Vintage). Cover by Peter Mendelsund

Print publishing’s uncertain future is spelled out in the difference between a range of recent book covers that say too much, and others that are content to let the design speak for itself…

Celebrating its 40th anniversary, Abacus Books has relaunched 18 classic titles from its back catalogue. They include Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory, Nelson Mandela’s A Long Walk to Freedom and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

Each book has an illustrated cover and there are enough intruiging new jackets that will no doubt attract new readers and prompt some of those who already know the texts to think about reading them again.

But there’s something else these covers do, which is evident in the little grey box top-left of each one: they say far too much. Here’s an example from the series – set on a striking typographic cover by Neasden Control Centre.

The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith (Abacus). Cover by Neasden Control Centre

It has been the blight of many book covers over the years – the author’s name, title and cover design supplemented by a few superfluous thoughts from the publishers, a few notes on why the book you are holding in your hands is really worth your time.

A Man Booker prize-winner might have a sticker attached; Oprah’s and Richard and Judy’s Book Clubs do the same thing, but even these elements have started to become permanent features of a book’s cover (AM Homes’ doughnuts cover a case in point).

Master Georgie by Beryl Bainbridge (Abacus). Cover by James Brown

Similarly with reissues of books that were first published years ago – and, in particular, those reprinted as part of an anniversary set – it’s a given that this information will be flashed up on the cover. Here though, in its desperation the text becomes intrusive over the actual design.

Again, it isn’t the artists or illustrators who are guilty here. It’s the design additions that appear on top of their work which do them an injustice. Over Nick White‘s otherwise great cover for David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day, for example, the grey box intrudes enough to compete with the first speech bubble in the title. Sadly it’s a technique employed across a whole series that does contain (as in the two shown here) some really strong covers.

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris (Abacus). Cover by Nick White

The alternative to the verbose nature of the these somewhat panicky cover additions is to take the opposite approach, and let the cover stand on its own; even allow it to get away with conveying the barest of information to the reader.

There are plenty of good examples where the book’s designer (and publisher) have confidence that the cover is strong enough to entice new readers, and that it conveys something of the book’s content without being too literal.

In a piece in the New York Times at the end of last year, a panel made up mainly of designers and art directors were asked to nominate their favourite book covers of 2012. Many of them were stripped back, unfussy but type-heavy; devoid of extraneous text or information – just simple, bold statements of intent.

On nominating Tal Goretsky and Darren Haggar’s cover for the US edition of Zadie Smith’s NW, book designer Peter Mendelsund said, “It takes a certain kind of bravery on the part of a designer to create a jacket this, well, ‘un-designed.’ (It also calls for a certain amount of gumption on the part of the publisher.) But the end result is a jacket that is eye-catching, elegantly proportioned and that exudes confidence.

“I’ve always been of the opinion that the less design interposed between a reader and a work of fiction the better. A novel is a feat of imagination, shared between a writer and a reader. There’s no need to add a designer into that equation.” (Mendelsund’s covers designs for two of Vintage’s new editions of James Joyce are shown at the top and bottom of this post.)

NW by Zadie Smith (Penguin Press). Cover by Tal Goretsky and Darren Haggar

Dave Eggers also took a back seat in his clinical approach to the design of David Byrne’s How Music Works, which also appeared on the New York Times’ list, selected by Steven Heller.

How Music Works by David Byrne (McSweeney’s Books). Cover by Dave Eggers

And using the merest hint of a recognisable form in the centre of his design for Thomas Mallon’s Watergate, Paul Sahre managed to convey one of the central tenets of an infamous political storyline.

Watergate by Thomas Mallon (Pantheon). Cover by Paul Sahre

Sahre went even further with his cover for In Dreams Begin Responsibilities by Delmore Schwartz, the only additional text no doubt a selling point for fans of both the author and the musician (NB: the book cover is on a black backgroud here):

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities by Delmore Schwartz (New Directions). Cover by Office of Paul Sahre

While these four examples are strong covers – and not meant as a direct comparison with the cover designs put out by Abacus – the point is that they are simply left to do their job on their own terms. There’s no unnecessary, qualifying text to reassure the reader of the book’s quality or content, or, in Abacus’ case, of the reason for its existence in yet another edition.

Earlier this year, in his new cover for George Orwell’s 1984 designer David Pearson demonstrated that, sometimes, saying even less than the above examples can prove highly effective.

While of course he had the might of Penguin and, indeed, Orwell’s sizeable reputation behind him, it was nevertheless a bold move from both designer and publisher to treat a famous text like this. Essentially, Pearson took a censorial approach and blanked out the title and author’s name altogether. Through the clever use of debossing and a matt black foil, however, both are in fact legible in the right light.

1984 by George Orwell (Penguin). Cover by David Pearson

Back at the Times’ list for the covers of 2012 and reductionism went even further. A designer at Penguin herself, Coralie Bickford-Smith chose Jon Gray‘s cover for Albert Espinosa’s The Yellow World as her favourite.

“[It’s] a brave cover, just like its writer, whose decadelong battle with cancer is detailed within its pages; no title, subtitle or author, just shape and color,” Bickford-Smith said.

“The ability of a designer to distill a book’s contents down to total visual simplicity is a rare gift indeed, and for a publisher to proceed with such a bold concept, rarer still. It’s liberating to see a book cover that draws you to it like a piece of art on a gallery wall.”

The Yellow World by Albert Espinosa (Penguin). Cover by Jon Gray

As Mendelsund implied, the most successful and rewarding covers are often those where the cover doesn’t get in the way of the writer’s relationship with the reader, perhaps just initiates it. And if the designer has been left to do their job, this in turns allows the cover to perform its role. Then the books can do the talking.

Dubliners by James Joyce (Vintage). Cover by Peter Mendelsund


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