The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

1/3 Alligator: The Book Cover Archive Q & A

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Lauded and linked to by everyone from The Guardian newspaper to the New Yorker blog (not to mention the really important folks like Drawn!Kottke, We Made This,  and Veer)  the dazzling The Book Cover Archive is — as the name suggests — a hand-picked archive of book cover designs and designers, collected “for the purpose of appreciation and categorization.”

Edited and maintained by frequent collaborators Ben Pieratt of General Projects and Eric Jacobsen of Whisky Van Gogh Go, it’s an indexed database of credited book covers sortable and searchable by title, author, designer, art director, photographer, illustrator, genre, publication date, publisher, and even typeface.

Earlier this month, I emailed Ben and Eric with a series of questions about the project.

What was the impetus behind BCA?

Ben: In all honesty, the Book Cover Archive is meant to serve as a passive teaching tool for people like me who suck at book cover design but want to get better.

Do you see BCA as expansion on Covers, the book cover design project you created for Fwis?

Ben: The two sites provide different services. The Fwis Covers blog serves as a platform from which to comment and critique. You can’t post a cover on Covers without commenting on it. Whereas the Archive is passive in its function and editorial voice. The only curatorial decision is the binary It’s In Or It’s Not.

R. Mutt ReadyMech

You’re getting quite well known—notorious even—for online not-for-profit ventures like Covers, ReadyMech, Schtock, and now BCA. How do you get started on these projects?

Ben: For every launched project there’s 10 failed ones that never got off the ground. It’s really just a matter of having ideas for projects that you know no one is ever going to pay you for and then running with it anyway because its fun as hell.

How did you become interested in book cover design?

Ben: Senior year of college I was struggling with my thesis project. I think I had been doing a study of “bad taste” and was just having a hell of a time with it. At around the same time my former business partner, Chris, told me to read Ender’s Game, a Sci Fi classic. I hadn’t read any sci-fi growing up because my dad kept feeding me non-fiction stuff. I loved the book but was embarrassed to carry it around because the cover was so incredibly bad. So I changed my thesis project to redesigning the book covers of science fiction classics. I’ve been mildly obsessed with both sci-fi and book covers ever since.

How do you select which covers to include in the archive?

Ben: I’m picky as hell.

Are there particular designers you look out for?

Ben: I’d like to think that I judge each cover on its merits alone, but there’s no question that I’m super biased. If its American and it’s coming out of New York then I’m probably going to love it.

Eternal Light by Paul J. McAuley, designed by Sanda Zahirovic

Do you have any recent favourites?

Eric: I’m very excited about the new promotional work that Gollancz/Orion has been putting out, the Future Classics and Totally Space Opera series. Besides being surprisingly conceptual and classy takes on genre fiction, I think they point at a trend toward collectible and fetishable books as a revenue stream for authors and publishers. I hope we’ll be seeing more of these kinds of editions soon. More on this in a below.

You’re actually designer yourself. How do you go about designing a new book cover?

Ben: I don’t think I’ve designed anything decent enough to merit being asked this question, honestly. I have no tricks beyond embracing the power of utter panic.

What do think makes a good cover design?

Ben: one-half concept, one-quarter contextual appropriateness, one-half design, one-half je nais se quois, one-third alligator.

And, I have to ask, what makes for a bad one?

Ben: I’m starting to come to realize that the biggest difference between a good design and a mediocre one is the typography. Most covers have a decent, if not passable, concept. Everyone has concepts. It’s really the typography that sets the best apart from the rest. That’s my current thought anyway, subject to change.

Which book would you like to redesign?

Ben: I really dislike the covers of Malcolm Gladwell’s books. They’re completely decent, but they rub me the wrong way. They take a visual from his books and find a piece of related stock art and slap it together. I think he’s earned better. I’d also love to standardize Stephen Hawking’s catalog into some kind of glorious uber-nerd package with a lo-fi sci-fi aesthetic.

Have you ever seen a cover and thought “I wish I’d thought of that”?

Ben: Jamie Keenan’s design for Faster makes me want to give up on life. Jon Gray’s cover for Steinbeck’s Murder makes me feel inadequate in any number of ways. Rodrigo Corral’s design for Invisible Monsters makes me question my sense of self. Most recently Helen Yentus’ cover for The Way Through Doors leaves me questioning if I should pack it all up and become a plumber.

Have you ever bought a book just for the cover design?

Eric: Lots, particularly from McSweeneys. I also re-buy a lot of books I already own when newer, nicer editions come out.

The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin by Gordon Wood, designed by Evan Gaffney

Ben: I was looking for a good book on Ben Franklin recently and bought the Evan Gaffney-designed The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin specifically because I hated all the other covers. Great book, by the way.

With the growing popularity of e-books, are you concerned that book cover design may soon be a lost art (hence the need to archive it)?

Eric: Nope. See next question.

Ben: The only thing I’m worried about is animated covers. You know that shit is coming.

Are we finally seeing “The End of Print”? What’s next for books?

Ben: I have no idea. I don’t think I’m qualified to have an opinion on the issue. I certainly don’t think so. The tactility of the technology is going to have to improve significantly before people are willing and ready to abandoned their hard[cover]ware for hardware (sorry, I had to). As far as books are concerned, I assume the industry will go through the same pains as the music industry. The number of independent publishers and self-publishers will increase dramatically as technology allows them to bypass the major booksellers altogether.

Eric: I think that due to the nature of reading and readers, adoption of e-books will be much slower than that of digital music (a similar paradigm shift), so even if e-books herald an ‘End of Print,’ it’s at least a decade off.

Will it even happen at all? I think so. I hope so. When I read about objections to e-books, it’s usually a lot of hemming and hawing about tactility and comfort and even the smell of pages; these complaints rarely touch on such trivialities as book availability and overall readership, which e-books would certainly expand.

E-book detractors have of a strange idea of what most books are. Those beautiful dusty old encyclopedias, that rare first-edition of Ulysses, even your fancy new Vintage paperback? That is not most books. The Grisham and Grafton paperbacks at the airport, Chicken Soup for the Spirit, college textbooks — that’s most books. Does anyone really care if the next Janet Evanovich thriller has no corporeal form? Wouldn’t that be an improvement?

Those who fear e-books should have a discussion with audiophiles. While CD sales have been steadily declining all decade, vinyl — the choice of music lovers everywhere — has gone up. iTunes downloads didn’t destroy the serious album market; it got more people listening to more artists, at the expense of bulk CDs (which “real” music fans sneered at to begin with) by one-hit-wonders. Listen to audiophiles talk about the “warmth of sound,” fidelity and tactility of vinyl, and compare their words to those of bibliophiles talking about the scent of pages; these are kindred spirits.

Here’s a possible future scenario: e-books become wildly successful, at the expense of  “airport paperbacks” and the bestseller list. Big Box bookstores go the way of Virgin Records. Readership and literacy grows (this is already happening), leading to more bibliophiles and Serious Book Lovers. As the market of crappy, badly designed books diminishes, the demand for beautifully crafted, fetishable books grows (sparking an unexpected return of the Independent Bookstore). There will ultimately be fewer books “in print,” but more awesome, well-designed books than ever.

Thanks Ben and Eric!

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5 Comments

  1. Great interview, Dan, although I don’t know about that “everything coming out of New York is great” bit.
    Loved the ending on eBooks. Makes sense that they become objects more than ever.

  2. “as the market of crappy, badly designed books diminishes, the demand for beautifully crafted, fetishable books grows (sparking an unexpected return of the Independent Bookstore). There will ultimately be fewer books “in print,” but more awesome, well-designed books than ever.”

    I couldn’t agree more whole heartedly.

    Anne Twomey

  3. Hallo friends, I’m an Italian independent publisher, and agree with you.
    In some way, ebooks will improve a new way of reading, and “true readers” and book lovers will look for good crafted books.

    I agree totally with Anne.

    In the next few months, we will start our ebook line, but we are trying to improve, and in the best way we can, quality of jacket print
    little specials in the paper books

    Love to you all, I like and read “casualoptimist” with true pleasure

    Marco
    Marcos y Marcos Milano Italy

  4. Pingback: The Scenarios » Blog Archive » good sci-fi book covers? c’est impossible, non

  5. Pingback: The Scenarios » Blog Archive » Fetishable Books

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