Book Design

Designing for a Small Press. Big Rewards. (smaller fees) – Essay by Lon Kirschner

In the Fall of 1991, I received a phone call in response to a promotional mailing I had sent to publishers advertising my studio’s book jacket designs. The promotion was unique in that it was quite small, only 3 ½ by 5 inches and arrived in a hand-addressed envelope. This gave it the look and feel of a personal invitation, not another mailer from an art studio.

As I write this in 2012, printed mailings and telephone inquiries seem quaint but were a very human way to make contact with a prospective client. Someone had to take the time to open the envelope, hold something in their hand, read some copy and then, if you did it right, make a phone call and have a conversation. Aside from the conversation, this is much the same way a well-designed book jacket should work. Something sparks your interest, you pick it up, read some back or flap copy and, if the package is right, you’re hooked.

That phone call was from Martin Shepard, who along with his wife and co-publisher Judith, run
The Permanent Press, a small independent publisher of quality fiction.

Marty and I spoke for several minutes, long enough for us to feel each other out. During that first
conversation I learned several things:

1. Marty was a sincere and honest man who published because he believed in his authors and
their work. He published what he and Judy would want to read.

2. He had an artist’s sensibility and knew the importance of a good cover and its impact on how a
book would be perceived.

3. Independent publishers do not have deep pockets.

For some designers, point 3 could have been a problem, but we agreed to give it a try due to the fact that the print schedule of the press would allow me to work on several covers at a time, but the most exciting part of this venture would be the working relationship I would have with The Permanent Press.

There was Marty, and there was me. No account guy, no marketing guy, no focus group guy. It was just us two guys. This could be a dream client.

My first assignment was Postcards from Pinsk by Larry Duberstein. I read the manuscript, got to work and turned in my cover concept. Marty loved it. All was right with the world.

Then the phone rang.

It was Larry, “The character on the cover is too fat. Can we slim him down”?

Dream client?

It must be said that Larry Duberstein is a wonderful person and author and meant no harm in his comments. He genuinely loved the cover and even more so when an eraser (pre-computer) solved the cover’s slightly “weighty” appearance. We went on to produce another half dozen covers together (without ever once again
needing an eraser).

The point of this is that although my ultimate approvals come from the publisher, I as a cover designer have become very aware of the author and their feelings of wanting to be involved. Marty and I have developed a policy that works like this: “We welcome your suggestions and will always listen to them but we make no promises.” This sometimes proves difficult for an author. They have worked tirelessly on a book and have a unique and emotional relationship with it, they feel they know exactly how the cover should look.

Is it a good or a bad thing to let an author be involved in the development of a cover? After more than
20 years and well over 120 covers, I still haven’t fully decided. I can’t say that I have ever taken an author’s suggestion and created a cover based solely upon it. What I can say is that if you stop and listen, you may get a better understanding of the author’s intent even if the graphic representation presented may not be quite right.

This brings to mind a wonderful book, The Chester Chronicles by Kermit Moyer. The story of Chester’s life is told by stringing together a series of short stories. Individually, each story can stand on its own, but together they become a life. A life that is dominated by the relationship between a boy and his father.

Kermit did not make any initial suggestions for a cover design. The original concepts I created were not quite right. They just didn’t do the book justice. After several emails with the author I began to get a better understanding of where we should be going. The final cover, an image of a vintage car heading down the road has a nostalgic overall feeling. The cover reflects the power of the father figure and also serves as a subliminal reminder that life is a road that must be travelled. Combined with some retouching, a typographic treatment and color scheme, it became the complete package. When I found this image, I knew it was going to be the cover due to my contact with Kermit. When Kermit saw the final design he was thrilled, it was everything he wanted the cover to be.

Many times an author will make one little suggestion that in fact helps elevate the cover and gives it an extra push. A suggestion by the brilliant Leonard Rosen to include a figure of his protagonist on the cover of All Cry Chaos was something that both Marty and I resisted. We felt it would confuse the bizarre cover image but in the end, the addition of that figure in such a strange landscape set the stage beautifully for the first Henri Poincaré mystery thriller.

There is nothing more satisfying than having an author tell me that the cover is perfect. It is what I strive for. As a cover designer, I get one chance to state my case as opposed to an author who gets to build his case page after page.

Most of the covers I produce do not have the input of the author. I read each manuscript as I find it very hard to grasp a book wholly by reading several pages of a synopsis (unless that is all that is available). I have been asked many times if it is worth the time and effort. My answer to this question is that more than once the idea for the cover has come on page 209 of a 211 page manuscript.

This is not to say that I choose to illustrate a particular moment in the story, it is more likely that something in the text sets off an idea that in the end becomes the basis for the cover.

My hope is that when someone reads a book, they will look back at the cover and say to themselves “yes, that is what this book is about.”

The world of publishing is constantly changing. Internet shopping and digital delivery present new challenges to authors, designers and publishers, but in the end, no matter what the form, a book is still a book—an idea pieced together with words from an author’s unique idea. In much the same way a cover is still a cover—a package to present that unique idea whether it be printed on paper or illuminated on an e-reader.

Many years ago, the Creative Director at Bantam Publishing said to me, “If I can get them to pick up the book, then I have done my job.” In this day of internet book selling and online browsing the rules may have changed slightly but the basic concept hasn’t: “If I can get them to click on it, then I have done my job.”

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Lon Kirschner is a graphic designer who has designed logos, packaging, film posters and of course book jackets. You can see more of his work at www.kirschnercaroff.com.


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The Karaoke Singer’s Guide to Self Defense

More great stuff from Featherproof Press, and once again I have to comment on the book design. The Karaoke Singer’s Guide to Self Defense looks, on the surface, like the kind of book you’d find left in a rental home — something published in the early eighties and left behind at the shore or by a lake and read (at least in part) or otherwise used by dozens and dozens of casual passers-by. Even the spine looks threadbare and well-thumbed. And appropriately so, because this book is about the used and the threadbare, not to mention the well-thumbed. Throughout the novel, author Tim Kinsella takes us down the dark rabbit holes of his protagonists’ desperate lives: a father embarrassed to the point of aggression at his son’s performance on the football field, a son’s questionable participation in his mother’s death, and a daughter trying to sort through the remains of her mother’s life are just some of the struggling, ambivalent creatures Kinsella offers. His prose is lyrical in a sardonic kind of way, lending the novel the air of George Saunders short story, while the sweeping scope and emotional depth of Kinsella’s work is reminiscent of John Irving. It’s the perfect book to read over the course of a rainy vacation and then leave behind for someone else to discover.

-Review by Marc Schuster

A Few Words with Steve Almond

A lot of readers probably know Steve Almond for  his fiction collections The Evil B.B. Chow and My Life in Heavy Metal (published by Algonquin and Grove respectively) and his nonfiction titles Candyfreak (Algonquin, 2004), (Not That You Asked) (Random House, 2007), and Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life (Random House, 2010). Yet while maintaining a high level of success with works from major publishing houses (including a forthcoming fiction collection due this Fall), the author has also gone the do-it-yourself route with his most recent titles Letters from People Who Hate Me, Bad Poetry, and This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey. With these DIY endeavors in mind, Almond recently took some time to answer a few questions about self-publishing and the effort that went into his labors of love.

You’ve published three DIY titles—Letters from People Who Hate Me, Bad Poetry, and This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey. What led you to publish these titles on your own rather than seeking a more “traditional” publishing arrangement?

Initially, I did it because I sensed that it didn’t really make sense to partner up with a corporation to make these little, idiosyncratic books. The editors I spoke to didn’t get what I wanted to do, or how it was supposed to make money. They were probably right about the latter. But now that authors can make books pretty easily, I just said, The heck with it, and did it myself. Here’s a more lengthy explanation: Presto Book-O (Why I Went Ahead and Self-Published)

I love the dimensions and overall design of This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey. The book has the feel of something religious zealots might hand out on the subway, or something meant to be concealed due to its subversive content. It also gives off a strong pulp-fiction vibe. How much of a hand did you have in the design? Was there dialogue between you and book designer Brian Stauffer? What was your process like?

Oh, totally. I always had in mind a book that would fit in someone’s back pocket, that folks could carry around. We experimented with a smaller size, then a bigger size, and finally settled on 4.5″ by 6.5″, which feels perfect. Brian’s a genius, so I let him do the interior design and covers. But I did talk with him a lot. It was a real artistic collaboration. As an example, in one early version of the cover for Minute, Honey, the lady in black is holding a “marital aid.” We both felt that was too overt, so Brian made it a whip instead. Much better.

Along similar lines, did you seek any outside help with editing your DIY titles? With marketing?

I show the manuscripts to my wife and three or four friends, all writers, all sharp editors. And I look over the inaugural edition of the book. As for “marketing,” I don’t do much other than look for opportunities to read from the books, and talk about them.

I notice your DIY books don’t have ISBNs. Was there a reason behind this decision?

Mostly sloth. But I also want the books to be regarded as artifacts more than commodities, and that ISBN number, with a serial code, is one of the things that signals that something is for sale.

Do you regard your DIY titles any differently than the books you’ve published through established houses?

Well, yeah. I think of them as much more personal and idiosyncratic projects. My intention isn’t to create a bestseller, but simply to find readers who might dig them. It’s a huge relief to set the bar a little lower in that way, to detach the work from the sales numbers.

Did you learn anything from publishing these titles on your own? Any advice you can give to authors or would-be publishers who might be thinking about doing the same?

All I’d say is that writers in the early stages of their career should really focus on the work, on making the best decisions they can at the keyboard, and not on how a book is going to move into the world. Those are separate issues. Also, as much fun as I’ve had with the books (a lot), it’s been a lot of work to take on the duties (design, printing, distribution, etc.) that a traditional publisher would handle.

To keep up with all of the latest news on Steve Almond, you can visit him on the web at stevenalmond.com. You can also click on the following titles to order copies of his DIY work: Letters from People Who Hate Me, Bad Poetry, and This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey.