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DIY Poetry Publishing Cooperative

March 20, 2008

Elsewhere: What is your book cover trying to tell us

Gary Sullivan has spent the last few days looking at poetry book design on his blog Elsewhere, examining some of the cliches and conventions of covers. Something for DIYers to consider, since many of us do the designing ourselves.
Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

Part 6

A few related posts on other blogs:

K. Silem Mohammad at Lime Tree

Elisa Gabbert at Pshares

Peter Davis at Hitler's Mustache & again (NB: I love Peter's cover, as well as the book it wraps.)

Clay Banes at Eyeball Hatred

Fran├žois Luong at Voices in the Utter Dark

I'm sure I've missed some? And check out this cool assembly of small press book covers pulled together by C. E. Putnam (from which the image above is clipped, gracias).

In addition to a bunch of the same things mentioned by these folks--especially the Big Game stuff, Katie Degentesh's The Anger Scale from Combo Books, James Meetze's designs for Tougher Disguises--here are a few covers I think work particularly well:

That's Johannes Göransson's A new quarantine will take my place, from Apostrophe. (NB: Dear Apostrophers, that link to JG's book page is broken! working now.) At their book table at AWP, I immediately gravitated toward this anti-design cover. The bold, flat ground with tiny abstract-looking black graphics is compelling, and interesting because it fails to observe any of the rules. Soon you realize the abstract markings on the front cover are actually the negative spaces which would be enclosed by the letters of the title, if the title were not the same color as the ground, i.e. invisible. The title does appear conventionally on the spine, and in mirror image on the back. You can also see (via that link above) that this second book from Apostrophe bears some visual relation to their first book, Catherine Meng's Tonight's the Night. Both books feature the title in/around the center of the book on a solid ground, with the author's name at the bottom. So there's some coherence, without them being identical. More on this idea below. (Also, the ghosting/repetition of Meng's title has a kind of tremelo or reverb effect that's interesting in light of the book's Neil Young connection, but that's a bonus for people who already know that.)

I'm already revealing a personal preference, no? A bold, flat, graphic style--a little pop, a lot mid-century mod, a palette of primaries or brights, "clean" designs with lots of space. (Well, that's one kind of thing I like.) Another example: I've always really liked the look of Toner by Ron Silliman. Annoyingly, there's not a single jpg of it anywhere on the internet. (WTF?!) It's a flat red-orange ground with TONER in yellow about a third of the way down, a pyramid of yellow dots (like a rack of billiard balls, but just 6 in a 1, 2, 3 formation) and his name in yellow below. The back is flat yellow with red-orange type. (Potes & Poets.)

Update: Ron comments to offer this jpg (thanks!), says he designed this one himself (cool), and explains that what I called billiard balls is the low-toner symbol from some copy machines. (Never seen that myself--the copiers I've wrestled just say it in lame prose. Heh.)

These next two are by Jeff Clark, a.k.a. Quemadura, already mentioned several times in the posts and comment streams above.

(So, yeah, I'm a fan, as I'm sure I've mentioned here or on my main blog before. I think Quemadura designs sometimes overuse italics tho. And Clark has a distinctive style--maybe too distinctive? His designs are recognizably his, sometimes to the point of distracting from the press branding or inherent book identity--the book sometimes feels more like a Jeff Clark product than that of the press or the author. Am I making sense? There's no denying that the books are beautifully done, and individually they are knockouts.)

Anyway, what I like about these John Clare books is first that they work well together as a set (though they are sold separately). The paperback design (I haven't actually seen in person the hardcover shown here) takes the classic "portrait painting of a dead author" convention and infuses it with with contemporary feeling, by using halftone screening and clever cropping. At the spine, the portrait wraps and continues without the screening (so as it appears on the hardcover) after a "violator" bar containing the spine copy. I don't have a shot, but that puts a seductive slice of the poet's face on the spine--most of an eye, his handsome nose and slightly parted lips. Spines are usually so spare--mainly because poetry books are so thin. On the back, a bare hint of hair, facial contour and half an eye peeks in from the edge. Even though the portrait itself is very lovely, the usual treatment of slapping it centered on the cover would have placed this paperback square in boring dead-author territory. This would be hard to repeat, however. Or rather, too easy to repeat.

Which brings me to my next point. I go back and forth on the "series design" idea for much the same reason I sometimes find the Quemadura "house style" a little distracting. The uniformity of the City Lights pocket books, the textured & uncoated Black Sparrow covers, or the New Direction B&W covers work as a branding device for sure--very effective. The templates are hot, but the resulting coherence tends to overemphasize the press identity rather than say anything about the books/authors themselves, to my mind. This is less important with reprints than with first editions--so for the Penguin Classics or Everyman's Library, etc.--this kind of thing seems fine. It also works fine for Vintage (under the direction of Chip Kidd?) on their Black Lizard crime novel series and other stuff like the Philip K. Dick catalog. One of my favorite series: these old-school Penguins, yum.

I can think of at least one instance where the poet & poems come through, being supported rather than muted by a series design. David Trinidad's books from Turtle Point: Hand Over Heart, Answer Song, Plasticville, etc. They share certain elements--poppy colors, stripes, an op-art kind of flatness. Unfortunately I can't find a pic of Hand Over Heart or find my copy in this mess right now--but it's black with a hot pink heart and some stripes if I remember correctly. Even his new book, The Late Show incorporates some stripes, while moving away from the flat graphics to a sketchier, warmer style:

My favorite book designer is Charlie Orr. Of course, he's one of my very best friends and a huge influence on my own design sensibility, so I'm plenty biased! I should post a bunch of Charlie's designs, but it will have to wait for another post. I've dawdled here long enough today.

What are your favorites?

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  • A JPG of Toner can be found here.

    One of just two covers I've ever designed.


    By Blogger Unknown, at 3:12 PM  

  • Also the rack of billiard balls is also the "toner out" symbol on many a corporate copying machine.

    By Blogger Unknown, at 3:20 PM  

  • thanks! i've updated the post.

    By Blogger shanna, at 5:07 PM  

  • I really really really loved those Black Lizard books. And I collected them, no matter who they were by, as they were coming out.

    I mean the first series of Black Lizards, which looked very noir-kitchy ... these were done in the 80s. Shanna, are those the ones you mean? Did Vintage buy out Black Lizard and then start doing them in a taller/wider more contemporary format?

    That's my memory, and my memory is that the changeover happened in the early 90s. But, my memory is awful.

    By Blogger Gary, at 8:56 PM  

  • I love Frederick Seidel's debonair mugshot on Ooga-Booga. I mean, wow, your own face, on the cover, large and centered, looking at the camera... who does that?!

    I also love 70's Ashbery on Three Poems, as well as a similar picture on a 1984 copy of Convex Mirror I just picked up, in which he appears to have his top three shirt buttons undone.

    By Blogger Matt Walker, at 1:41 AM  

  • gary--yeah, vintage bought black lizard and in the 90s i think, don't remember exactly when. and yes! the old pulpy illustrated ones is what i meant--vintage has used a style similar to the original black lizards on some of their reprints. (they have a few different styles, actually, i think to designate whether the book is classic or contemporary. the contemporary stuff is black with neon and tho the spines are kinda cool, i like those less.)

    matt--i like poets faces on book covers too. gary posted nada gordon's Foriegnn Bodie, which is her face with lots of hair. always loved that one. and the ashbery too (though i'd never seen that till kasey posted it; my copies of his stuff are newer.) on the other hand, sometimes just an author photograph can be kinda boring. i guess it needs to have some SWAGGER or something, like john with his 'stache. :)

    By Blogger shanna, at 5:36 PM  

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