One of my favourite sessions at each year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival is the session on book design, which typically follows the Australian Publisher Association’s Book Design Awards night. This year was no different, with some engaging presentations from award winners as well as the added perspective of design from a publisher’s point-of-view, in this instance from Helen Boyle.
Book design is such a crucial part of getting books into the hands of readers. The old adage ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ might well be true of people, but it’s certainly not true of books – as Boyle noted. I think we need to put a spotlight on the tremendously creative people who create the not just the face of our books but the entire look and feel of them, cover to cover.
The first talk was by the charming Allison Colpoys, a freelance book designer and illustrator, whose slide on the creative process was hilarious (including one section whose name I can’t repeat and another called ‘panic’. It provided a great framework for discussing the process she went through in designing Penguin’s Australian Children’s Classic series, which won the award for Best Designed Children’s Series.
She described the limited colour palette that was chosen to give the series a vintage look and feel, and commented that the vintage look was becoming more widespread in book design. There are ten works in the Penguin series, and she showed the rules for colour, text panels, as well as icons and section break ‘dinkuses’. She showed some of the options developed for Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock. Allison also showed two of the new additions to the series, A Fortunate Life and The Power of One.
Allison was also the joint winner of the award for Best Designed Literary Fiction Book for her cover for Sufficient Grace by Amy Elspeseth, with its striking shadowed trees and drips of blood. It really sets a mood for the story and wants you to pick up the book.
Our next speaker was Daniel New from Lantern Books. He also spoke about series design, offering six categories, from brand series (such as Penguin orange classics), through figurative (think Peter Carey’s newer covers), to genre conventions, to decorative, to conceptual (such as Penguin’s blank white covers that asked readers to draw their own covers and send them into Penguin), to creative partnerships.
Evi Oetomo from Lantern won the Best Designed General illustrated Book for Things I Love. One of the elements of good one-off cover design, Daniel said, is the notion it could easily be made into a series. He offered several images of potential titles in the series that used Things I Love‘s design as the template. Very interesting.
We then heard from Helen, from Templar UK, who backed up what I’ve been hearing at these sessions for the last three years, namely that book design is increasingly important in the digital age, particularly in the thumbnail version of the cover design. She spoke about some trends in UK publishing, particularly in YA fiction, with a predominance of black covers. Ironically, she noted, the ones that have white covers stand out much more now next to their black-faced neighbours, a fact she proved with a shot of a stand of such books.
This sense of trends in cover design was picked up by our final speaker, WH Chong, who has been working for Text Publishing for ‘twenty years’, and is responsible for many of the covers we all know, such as Kate Grenville’s The Secret River and all seventy(!) covers for the Text Classic series. Chong was the other joint winner of the Best Designed Literary Fiction Book, for his cover for Murray Bail’s critically acclaimed The Voyage. He was also inducted into the Joyce Thorpe Nicholson Design Hall of Fame last night. That there are only seven others who have received such an honour speaks volumes for Chong’s work over many years. A hearty congratulations, Chong!
Chong spoke about Stephen Romei’s recent piece in The Australian on the prevalence of the backs of women in current fiction covers, and the debate over softening of books marketed toward women.
I was expecting him to go on to explore his cover for Sarah Thornhill but he went instead to other covers, exploring the question of publishers not wanting to show a face because it potentially creates an image in the mind of the reader as to what the heroine (or hero) looks like.
One fabulously striking cover that slipped through this filtering was Stasiland by Anna Funder. Chong also mused about covers for Kate Holden, Madeleine St John, and one that we’ve all seen recently: Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project, throwing up some international (Canadian and Taiwanese) versions to show how the local design has been translated overseas.
He also mentioned Helen Garner’s quote at the recent Stella Prize award night, where she pined for a day when book ”designers no longer reflexively put a picture of a vase of flowers or a teacup on a woman’s book cover, even when the book is about hypodermics and vomiting and rage and the longing to murder”.
Her most recent book is The Spare Room (my review), about a cancer sufferer and her carer friend – which Chong designed. It was an interesting discussion, and Chong at times questioned himself in an admirable way, believing it was not a reflexive image, but that it might have been trying to soften the theme for the audience (he offered up some mocked alternatives of possible covers showing angst and suffering which provided a stark alternative from a marketing/aesthetic point-of-view. It’s not easy selling a book whose front image is one of suffering.
And of course selling is want authors want, what publishers want, want the marketing departments want, and what is front and centre in all design briefs given to our book designers. No pressure then!
I was going to ask Chong about the different briefs he received for Kate Grenville’s The Secret River (a perfect cover in my view) and sequel Sarah Thornhill, books tied together by story and theme but receiving such different cover treatments. Alas, time was called before I had a chance to ask.
There is a huge amount of thought that goes into good book design. It is, of course, much more than just cover designs. But for a work of fiction the cover is the most important aspect of design. A successful cover is more than reflective of the book’s content or theme. It is a marketing tool, requiring careful positioning, focus groups, and the ability to turn heads. Our panel of talkers had this ability in spades. If you ever get a chance to attend this session at future SWFs then I’d highly recommend it.
Congratulations to all the book design award winners, which you can have a look at here.