ABCD tends to recognise and reward brave, striking and fresh approaches, rather than more “conventional” cover aesthetics. I ask the pair whether they feel designers have more freedom these days; whether, as books become imbibed with more longevity and are seen as less disposable, publishers are more amenable to the idea of cover art as art, rather than as a marketing tool. They are reticent; Keenan responds: “It’s strange, because when you do see a weirdo cover – for a reason, not just for the sake of it – quite often they are really successful. If you think of a book as an actual package and compare that to other forms of packaging, its really old-fashioned in a lot of ways.
“Imagine a poster for, say, the next iPhone, and it has a quote on it like you’d see on a book cover – ‘this is the best phone I have ever had!’ – you just think, this is so old-fashioned, that kind of endorsement idea. On a book cover it’s the norm. A lot of advertising you see, you aren’t really sure what it’s for but it draws you in, whereas a lot of book covers are really overt – they tell you exactly what the book is about. We’re supposedly becoming more and more visually literate, but book covers are still, in some ways, quite naïve.”
Gray concurs: “It feels like a real nervous habit, the quote on the front. Is that really helping a book to be sold? Can [shoppers] not just read that on the back and get the same idea…on the front, is it really making someone think: ‘aha!’?”
“The greatest and the worst thing about book cover design is that no one really knows if it’s incredibly powerful or a complete waste of time,” Keenan says. “Quite often when you get a brief, you’ll be sent other covers that the [client] likes and some of them will look absolutely terrible…but it was a bestselling book! So that automatically becomes, in their eyes, a sort of ‘good cover’.”
“There’s no science to it,” Gray agrees.
You can almost hear them sipping their pints.