Covers and creative compromise
The reality of book jacket design was revealed in an illuminating discussion at the Hay Festival
In any collaborative creative process you'd expect a number of people to be involved but book jacket design, Hay Festival attendees discovered today, includes everyone (but the reader, normally) in producing covers.
Journalist Gaby Wood was talking to a Random House Editorial Director Laura Hassan, Creative Director Suzanne Dean and freelance designer Jonathan Gray - who has designed such covers as Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated and Zadie Smith's forthcoming N-W - about the art of good jacket design. What the audience discovered was that on the one hand you have a designer and creative director with distinctly arty preoccupations and at the other the need to sell books and please retailers.
Hassan emphasised that, in the age of ebooks, beauty and stand-out in the printed edition is even more necessary - and in fact Booker winner Julian Barnes thanked Suzanne Dean by name in his acceptance speech. Her success was the result of a near-obsessive search for the right image that saw her going through more than 20 jackets, many including the image of a watch. "We're spending much more money on producing something desirable," said Hassan.
This need for an attention-grabbing images makes covers meetings at publishers the most fraught and exciting discussions, said Dean: "There are so many people [involved], it's a wonder good covers ever get through."
One perfect cover that did get through was that for Ian McEwan's Atonement. The image - of a girl on stone steps sitting looking into the distance - was the fifth option. The other four all featured the girl reading in the library, posed, while the final shot was taken at the end of the day when the girl was staggeringly bored. Dean said they used it because "she is so distant and natural".
But customers aren't the only people to please. Between publishers and readers stand retailers, and two, in particular, hold considerable sway over jacket approach. "We have so few places to sell books now and the big orders are going to come from Waterstones and Amazon," said Hassan, while Gray agreed that jackets have to work at a small size for Amazon as well as at poster size for outdoor advertising.
Hassan and Dean gave the example of an upcoming short story collection, Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close, as a book whose cover was directly changed because of Waterstones. Initially designed with an illustrative cover that Dean said was "beautiful", though Waterstones loved the book it asked for a different jacket - the final one is now photographic. Dean added: "The designer had to turn it around in a day." Gray said later in the session that, as an experienced designer, "You think you know what you're doing… Then there's a new buyer at Waterstones who doesn't like blue - it's hard."
Hassan noted that, "Amazon don't give that sort of [critical creative] feedback because they're not handselling books the way that Waterstones do."
And for anyone who has bemoaned the infinite covers of obscured women's faces or men walking away (showing a large selection of the latter raised a chuckle from the audience), Hassan's statement rings true: "If you're trying to package it too consciously like another book then I think you have failed as a publisher." Revealingly, Gray described how for his paperback jacket of the new Jeffrey Eugenides novel The Marriage Plot he was pointed towards the design of David Nicolls bestseller One Day. "I'm not so pleased with my cover," he admitted slightly sadly. "There's definitely a case of the publisher wanting to sell a lot of copies and looking around for what has sold."
If all this sounds like compromised heaped on compromise, Gray's creativity was one of the high points of the session, in which he showed rejected book jackets featuring origami, a jigsaw (for In Cold Blood) and even cut-up apples (for A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian), and explaining how the jacket for Everything is Illuminated was inspired by a book of handpainted church signs.
Meanwhile, Hassan showed off a new series of James Bond covers, for a repackaged set due this autumn, inspired by the work of Hitchcock artwork designer Saul Bass, and the jackets for a new series of children's classics, adding that in consulting children they found certain aspects of character had to be adhered to, such as Peter Pan wearing green (he wears brown leaves in the book).
In an era where book jackets are disappearing behind the drab grey of the Kindle, this even reminded readers that art breeds art, creativity breeds creativity. That is something to be maintained and treasured.
An exhibition of rejected book jacket designs is showing now at Booth's bookshop in Hay