Hen&inkblots: A Literary Blog

Selling a Book By Its Cover

July 18, 2013 by Elisabeth Buchet-Deàk

The Bookseller Book Design Conference, held at the Southbank Centre in London in association with book design website and consultancy Fixabook on July 8th, was a tour de force of creativity and inventiveness that had a resonating message: publishing is alive, and it may be more inventive than ever.  Elisabeth Buchet-Deàk was there.

Book design is first and foremost about communication, and the language it necessitates is ever-evolving as a consequence of formerly successful formulas losing their relevance and of the public’s changing responses and needs. That was the underlying yet prominent thread that encircled the presentations at the Bookseller Book Design Conference earlier this month.

Throughout the half-day event, speaker after speaker gave a passionate and personal account of their work and of the business of designing books – from the aesthetic and reissuing of classics to what the next technological shift will bring.

CAN UGLY SELL? And other questions…

Sylvia Plath and the new cover of The Bell JarFaber & Faber The Bell Jar cover debate in The Guardian

Auriol Bishop, creative director at Hodder & Stoughton, questioned the need for aesthetically pleasing covers, asking “can ugly sell?” Mark Ecob, founder of mecob design, argued in favor of the back of the book, all too often overlooked. Stephanie Seegmuller, associate publisher at Pushkin Press, spoke of the design, branding and marketing challenges facing a new and small publishing house, particularly one that publishes foreign—and often dead—authors. Seegmuller was the second to discuss the reinvention of classics, which was a theme throughout the morning, starting with Hannah Griffiths, publisher at Faber & Faber, and her art director colleague Donna Payne, who early on in the event defended their new and controversial cover for Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Suzanne Trocme, architecture and design editor for Wallpaper, and Katharina Bielenberg, associate publisher at MacLehose Press, presented the finalists of the MacLehose Press Design Competition, in which participants were invited to submit new covers for books published by the company, most notably Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

CAN YOU JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS THUMBNAIL? A second major theme—and the only one dominated by men—was the rise of digital media and the expansion within this field as well as the new challenges it poses in terms of design. How do you go beyond the e-book? What should you be thinking about when creating an app? How should the cover look? And the thumbnail?

GIVING CREDIT WHERE IT’S DUE: THE BOOK COVER. By the end of the event, I had learned that sometimes a new cover for a beloved book such as The Bell Jar can lead to more outrage than one that has obvious sexual connotation (just check out two articles in the UK press below); that it is good to break away from genre rules and not offer up a cover with a dark silhouette standing in the background of a dark, cold and foggy scene for a mystery; and, most importantly, that book design is a complex thing, where covers, marrying the general and the subjective, play a much bigger role in our relationship to book than covers are usually credited.

Watching the room full of designers as a panel critiqued works-in-progress submitted by attendees, I thought about Donna Payne’s closing words: “How fantastic that in this digital landscape a cover is still relevant.” She’s right, of course, it truly is fantastic, but I would argue that the cover of a book today, in our image-dominated world, is in fact more relevant than ever before, not in spite of the digital landscape, but because of it.

The Man Who Walked Through Walls

The very fact that classics like The Bell Jar and Marcel Aymé’s The Man Who Walked Through Walls—books that in the past barely needed a cover to sell—are being reinvented just goes to show to what degree design has become valuable to the publishing world and its survival.

And while I, like many, am deeply saddened by the terrible consequences of digital advancement on traditional print publishing, I choose to see this new phase in the realm of books as an opportunity for innovation and ingenuity. This needn’t be the end of the printed book, and maybe digital media is, ironically, what can save it. (Full disclosure: I have yet to purchase an e-book myself…). If we are to save the book, we need to understand the cultural landscape we currently inhabit and it’s clear to this participant that the designers who graced the stage during the conference can be trusted to do just that.