The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

March 23, 2018
by Dan

One Book, Two Titles

Writing for the Globe and Mail, Claire Cameron, author of The Last Neanderthal, takes a look why at Elisabeth de Mariaffi’s new novel is being packaged differently in Britain and Canada

A novel is like a question – what happens when…? [UK publisher] Titan Books is focusing on what happen when a child goes missing. “There is nothing more terrifying than the loss of a child!” publisher Miranda Jewess says. Meanwhile, HarperCollins Canada publisher Iris Tupholme says, “Our focus in positioning the book is less on the missing child, though that is a key part of the story, and more on the tension and mystery for [the mother] Heike.”

The book was originally titled ‘I Remember You’ when it was sold to the publishers. But when de Mariaffi brought forward ‘Hysteria’ as an alternative, Tupholme loved it because it “suggests the book’s complexity … the story’s focus on women.” Jewess also considered the new title, but thought ‘Hysteria’ “sounded like a more gritty action thriller.”

Both covers do tap into deep-seated fear. But the different focus of those fears may speak more to a transatlantic literary divide, says Kate Pullinger, a Canadian novelist in Britain and professor of creative writing and digital media at Bath Spa University. She sees the two covers as responding to each market for fiction.

“In Canada, the popular writer can remain literary,” but in Britain, though there are exceptions, Pullinger says “literary fiction is increasingly devalued and invisible in the marketplace.” In her view, the British cover is trying to connect to the commercial market; it ties into the tabloid newspaper culture that screams for attention. “Scary Sad Crime Happened Here!”

I seem to spend a lot of time in my professional life trying to explain why titles and covers for Canada (and the US) sometimes need to be different from their counterparts in the UK. I even put together some examples for recent trip to London. So I don’t know that this is a ‘rare’ as Cameron supposes. But, in any case, enough people have expressed interest in this that I am trying to expand that original deck into a more coherent presentation for a few other clients. If I ever get it finished I will share a version of it here. 

March 22, 2018
by Dan

2018 AU Presses Book, Jacket, & Journal Show

And the Sparrow Fell by Robert J. Mrazek (Cornell University Press); Design by Kimberly Gyder

The Association of University Presses recently announced the selections for their 2018 Book, Jacket, & Journal Show.

The show is the oldest continuous book design competition in the US, and I was lucky enough to join McSweeney’s designer Sunra Thompson in deciding this year’s cover selections. The book selections were made by designer Linda Secondari and writer Robert Bringhurst.  You can see all the selected entries — books and covers — in this AUPresses slideshow:

March 19, 2018
by Dan

ABCD Award Winners 2018

I am unfashionably late to the party here, but the winners of the 2018 Academy of British Cover Design (ABCD) Awards were announced last week. 

The ABCD Awards are always pleasantly surprising. Every year the shortlists include at least two or three covers I have never seen before, and I find it strangely reassuring that the winners picked on the night are not always the covers I would’ve chosen — somehow that makes it feel more democratic. 

The awards have a brand new website (designed by Joseph Bisat Marshall) where you can find this year’s shortlists and archive of the previous awards, but you will find all the winning covers from last week below… 

Young Adult

Surrender by Sonya Hartnett; design by Jack Noel; illustration by Jeffrey Alan Love (Walker Books / May 2017)


The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood; design by Suzanne Dean; illustration by Noma Bar (Vintage / October 2017)


Riot Days by Maria Alyokhina; design by Tom Etherington (Allen Lane / October 2017)

Series Design

Pan 70th Anniversary collection; design Justine Anweiler and Stuart Wilson (Pan / September 2017)


The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels; design David Pearson (Pluto Press / January 2017)

Children’s 0-5


Jill and Lion by Lesley Barnes; design and illustration by Lesley Barnes (Tate Publishing / March 2017)

Children’s 6-12

Think and Make Like an Artist by Claudia Boldt and Eleanor Meredith; design by Shaz Madani; illustrations by Jay Daniel Wright and Ola Niepsuj (Thames & Hudson / May 2017)

Literary Fiction

The Blot by Jonathan Lethem; design by Gray318 (Jonathan Cape / February 2017)


Dark Pines by Will Dean; design by Mark Swan (Oneworld / January 2018)

Mass Market

The Invisible LIfe of Euridice Gusmao by Martha Batalha; design by Sinem Erkas (Oneworld / September 2017)

You can find my previous posts on the ABCD Award winners here: 201720162015 and 2014.


March 16, 2018
by Dan

Book Covers of Note March 2018

Lots to see this month, including several YA covers (which I know will please some regular readers), some ‘big’ literary fiction, and a couple of confrontational nonfiction covers to round it out. Enjoy!    

Aetherial Worlds by Tatyana Tolstaya; design by Stephanie Ross (Knopf / March 2018)

Beneath the Water by Sarah Painter; design by Emma Rogers (Lake Union / February 2018)

Although it pains me a little to say it, I think Amazon’s ‘book club’ imprint Lake Union are doing an impressive job commissioning appealing covers for their intended market. I would be interested to hear about the process from designers who’ve worked with them.   

The Birth of the RAF 1918 by Richard Overy; design by Richard Green (Allen Lane / March 2018)

The type on this cover is ace. 

The Bleeds by Dimitri Nasrallah; design by David Drummond (Esplanade Books / February 2018) 

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi; design Richard Deas (Henry Holt / March 2018)

Don’t Call Me Princess by Peggy Orenstein; design Robin Bilardello (Harper / February 2018)

Emergency Contact by Mary H.K. Choi; design by Lizzy Bromley; illustration gg (Simon & Schuster / March 2018)

The End of American World Order by Amitav Acharya; design by David A. Gee (Polity / March 2018)

I feel like there are a lot of stars and stripes covers kicking around right now, but I like the ‘collapsing Venetian blind’ thing going on here.   

A Girl Like That by Tanaz Bhathena; design by Elizabeth H. Clark (Farrar, Straus & Giroux / March 2018)

Graffiti Palace by A.G. Lombardo; design Rodrigo Corral Studio (FSG x MCD / March 2018)

Gun Love by Jennifer Clement; design by Michael Morris (Hogarth / March 2018)

I like this cover very much–especially the type. The illustration and colour combination remind me of Matt Dorfman’s 2011 cover for The Pyschopath Test by Jon Ronson (Riverhead):

The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman; design by Nicole Caputo (Counterpoint / March 2018)

I read The Gunners earlier this year and it’s very good. Recommended if you enjoyed The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer.  

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin; design Yeti Lambregts (Tinder / March 2018)

It’s interesting to see the UK publisher go in such a different direction from the US cover (designed and illustrated by Sandra Chiu) which, as I noted back in January, seems very on trend internationally to me.

In Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist; design Marina Drukman (Melville House / January 2018)

In Full Flight by John Heminway; design by Janet Hansen (Knopf / February 2018)

The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman; design by Jaya Miceli (Viking / March 2018)

I felt like this cover might be a little too much when I first saw it online, but I bet it will look absolutely stunning in print and piled up on tables.    

I Wrote This Book Because I Love You by Tim Kreider; design by David Litman (Simon & Schuster / March 2018)

For reference, I have a pinboard of contemporary covers that make use of Lydian, the typeface used here. It was designed for American Type Founders by Warren Chappell in 1938, and it’s very distinctive (those ‘R’s!), so it’s interesting to me that it suddenly has this kind of cult popularity.   

The Largess of the Sea Maiden by Denis Johnson; design by Suzanne Dean (Jonathan Cape / February 2018)

The pencil shavings are delightful of course, but I did immediately think of Peter Mendelsund‘s covers for Leaving the Sea (2014) and The Flame Alphabet (2012) by Ben Marcus.  

The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo; design by Erin Fitzsimmons; illustration by Gabriel Moreno (Harper Teen / March 2018)

You can read about the design process for the Poet X cover on the Epic Reads blog.

Police: A Field Guide by David Correia and Tyler Wall; design by Matt Avery; illustration by Lauren Nassef (Verso / March 2018)

Can anyone tell me if there is a term for this kind of semi dust jacket? It seems like more than just a belly band. 

The upside-down ‘POLICE’ shield is an interesting decision. It gives the illustration a kind of authenticity (I assume it is based on an actual example), but it also subtly implies something about the contents of the book (as does the not so subtle decision to show a police officer in riot gear rather than more approachable attire!).      

The Sparsholt Affair by Alan Hollinghurst; design by Jenny Carrow (Knopf / March 2018)

Standpoints by Svend Brinkmann; design by David A. Gee (Polity / March 2018)

This is a bit like one Canadian designer called David doing an impression of the ‘other’ Canadian designer called David. Both of them are very idea-driven, and sometimes they do seem to think very alike! I believe they both worked in advertising before turning their attention to design. 

The Word for Woman is Wilderness by Abi Andrews; design by Steve Panton; illustration by Lizzy Stewart (Serpent’s Tail / February 2018)

February 23, 2018
by Dan

Rams: Teaser Trailer

Filmmaker Gary Hustwit has posted the first teaser trailers for his documentary about designer Dieter Rams on his website

The documentary, set to be released later this year, will include in-depth conversations with the designer, and feature original music by pioneering musician and producer Brian Eno. 

February 22, 2018
by Dan

The Counterpress x Derwent

A lovely short film about The Counter Press, a design studio and letterpress workshop in east London: 

February 21, 2018
by Dan
1 Comment

Questions from the Audience


By Tom Gauld for The Guardian, of course.

This has happened at pretty much every event I’ve ever attended at a book festival. 

February 21, 2018
by Dan

Last Blog Standing

In an interview with Laura Owen Hazard for NiemanLab, Jason Kottke talks about 20 years of and the future of blogging:

Personally, I think I felt a lot worse about it maybe three, four years ago. I was like, crap, what am I going to do here? I can see where this is going, I can see that more and more people are going to go to Facebook, and to mobile, and to all of these social apps and stuff like that, and there’s going to be less and less of a space in there for blogs like mine. I can’t churn out 60 things a day and play that social game where you use the shotgun approach to spit stuff out there and see what sticks. I’ve got to do four, five, six things that are good, really good. Since then, though, I’ve sort of come to terms with that. I’m like: Okay, if I can just keep going it, just keep doing it, it will work itself out somehow. I don’t know why I think that, but I kind of do.

This might be a bit inside-baseball if you’re just here for the book covers and don’t care about blogging, but Kottke was one of the original inspirations for The Casual Optimist and so I tend to pay attention to what Jason has to say on the subject. I’m glad that he has found a way to make it work for him.

I’ve also been thinking more about the future of this blog over the past year or so. I’ve never done it for money (which is lucky because it’s never really been an option!), but I’m a slow writer at the best of times (too many thoughts in my head as a rule), and I’ve found myself blogging less and less in recent months.

And then The Casual Optimist turns 10 this year, which seems like… something. Is it finally time to call it quits? I don’t know…   

For some reason all this reminds me of this Onion article from a few years ago: Find The Thing You’re Most Passionate About, Then Do It On Nights And Weekends For The Rest Of Your Life:

I can’t stress this enough: Do what you love…in between work commitments, and family commitments, and commitments that tend to pop up and take immediate precedence over doing the thing you love. Because the bottom line is that life is short, and you owe it to yourself to spend the majority of it giving yourself wholly and completely to something you absolutely hate, and 20 minutes here and there doing what you feel you were put on this earth to do.


February 16, 2018
by Dan

Book Covers of Note February 2018

I such good intentions to post more often this year. Ah well… Here are this month’s cover selections at least…

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones; design by Jaya Miceli (Algonquin Books / February 2018)

Building and Dwelling by Richard Sennett; design by Tom Etherington (Allen Lane / February 2018)

Eat the Apple by Matt Young; design by Edel Rodriguez (Bloomsbury USA / February 2018)

Feel Free by Zadie Smith; design by Gray318 (Hamish Hamilton / February 2018)

Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi; design by James Paul Jones (Oneworld / February 2018)

The cover of the US edition, published by Penguin last month, was designed by Jason Ramirez

The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert; design by Jim Tierney (Flatiron / January 2018)

The House of Impossible Beauties by Joseph Cassara; design by Sara Wood (Ecco / February 2018)

Sara wrote a great piece about designing this cover for Literary Hub

The Kings of Big Spring by Bryan Mealer; design by Keith Hayes (Flatiron / February 2018) 

The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantú; design by Grace Han (Riverhead / February 2018)

She Regrets Nothing by Andrea Dunlop; design by Rachel Willey (Washington Square Books / February 2018)

Sunburn by Laura Lippman; design by Elsie Lyons (William Morrow / February 2018)

I included the cover of Sunburn and Elsie Lyons’s cover for The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn (featured last month) in a recent presentation about the differences between US and UK cover design. UK editions of both books have a much more conventional genre covers. They signal very clearly to readers that they are thrillers.

The US covers on the other hand have a much more literary, sophisticated look. They both have a distinctive, individual appearance (although I suspect we may see covers copying the approach of The Woman in the Window very soon!) that suggest that these are not your average thrillers.

It is not that one approach is necessarily better than the other from a marketing perspective (although I can guess which designers might prefer!), but it is an interesting contrast.

Up Up, Down Down by Cheston Knapp; design Anna Laytham (Scribner / February 2018)

Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki; design by Michael Morris; illustration by Oliver Wilson (Crown / February 2018)

I will admit it was the photo-realistic painting that first drew my eye to this cover, but I also like that the blocky typography echoes the cover of the author’s previous novel California

January 16, 2018
by Dan

Book Covers of Note January 2018

I was sure that 2018 would be different from 2017, and yet here we are… Happy New Year! 

The Age of Caesar by Plutarch; translation by Pamela Mensch; design by Catherine Casalino (W.W. Norton / January 2018)

The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch; design by Rafi Romaya; illustration by Florian Schommer (Canongate / January 2018)

Bloody January by Alan Parks; design by Chris Gale (Canongate / December 2017)

(I’m including this partly because I spend a lot of my professional life trying to explain the difference between the cover needs of Canada/US and the UK. This is a rare genre cover that — it seems to me at least — does a decent job for both sides of the Atlantic) 

Getting Off by Erica Garza; design by Zoe Norvell (Simon & Schuster / January 2018)

The Gist of Reading by Andrew Elfenbein; design by  Anne Jordan and Mitch Goldstein (Stanford University Press / January 2018)

Green by Sam Graham-Felsen; design by June Park (Random House / January 2018)

Heart Spring Mountain by Robin MacArthur; design by Sara Wood (Ecco / January 2018)

I Am Thunder by Muhammad Khan; design by Rachel Vale (Pan Macmillan / January 2018)

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin; design and illustration by Sandra Chiu (G.P. Putnam’s Sons / January 2018)

This cover seems rather on trend to me. It is very nicely done all the same. 

(Something about the shape and colour of the leaves on black background also reminds me of the illustrations in Jon Klassen’s picture book This Is Not My Hat). 

The Job of the Wasp by Colin Winnette; design by Michael Salu (Soft Skull Press / January 2018)

The Ministry of Nostalgia by Owen Hatherley; design by Keith Dodds (Verso / January 2017)

OK. So I’m a year late on this cover. But I saw it recently on Twitter. The cover of the hardcover edition of The Ministry of Nostalgia designed by Andy Pressman was included in my January 2016 post and my annual round-up of notable covers that year.   

Interestingly, the new cover for The Ministry of Nostalgia reminds me of Matthew Young‘s refresh of Pelican Books.

Being Ecological by Timothy Morton (Pelican / January 2018) is a recent example: 

The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce; design by Kimberly Glyder (Random House / January 2018)

Neon in Daylight by Hermione Hoby; design by Strick&Williams; photography by Marc Yankus (Catapult / January 2018)

Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Lianne Oelke; art and lettering by Colin Mercer (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt / January 2018)

Peach by Emma Glass; design by David Mann (Bloomsbury / January 2018)

David’s cover was adapted for the US edition by Patti Ratchford:

A Very British Coup by Chris Mullin; design by Dan Mogford (Serpent’s Tail / 2018)

The Woman in the Window by A. J. Finn; design by Elsie Lyons (William Morrow / January 2018)

January 2, 2018
by Dan

The Rest of the Best 2017

Happy New Year! Let’s hope it’s better than the last one, eh? But before we finally bid adieu to 2017 and toss it onto the flaming garbage fire, here’s are some of the other lists that looked back at the year in book cover design…   

Spine Magazine were ahead of the pack — as they have been all year — with their eclectic list of 50 ‘Book Covers We Loved’.

Designer and New York Times Book Review art director Matt Dorfman chose his ‘Best Book Covers of 2017‘ for the Times. Matt’s lists always have a lot of personality, and this one is no exception. I think it’s probably the list I look forward to most, and I suspect it’s also the list that matters most to many American designers too. 

At Literary Hub, Emily Temple asked 20 of her favourite designers for their picks for best book covers of the year. While Matt Dorfman’s cover design for Hollow by Owen Egerton was the top pick, Oliver Munday was the most popular designer with seven covers on the list. 

CMYK, Vintage UK’s design blog, also posted a short but sweet list of their designers’ favourite covers of the year.

I contributed to two lists (aside from my own) this year. I gave Vulture my two cents for their list of the ’10 Best Book Covers of the Year’.

And Danny Arter enlisted me as part of a panel to round up the best book covers of 2017 for UK trade magazine The Bookseller. Danny also took a look back at some of the cover design trends of the year for the magazine. 

You can find my round-up of the year in covers here, and my YA list for 2017 here.  

December 27, 2017
by Dan

The Ghost of Future Book Sales

Tom Gauld for The Guardian.

Tom’s latest collection of cartoons, Baking With Kafka, is in stores now. 

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