08 June 2005

Design Geekery As Applied To Some Book Covers By One Author

I think I sort of alluded in one of the comments a while back to being a bit of a design geek, especially digging the work of Chopping Block and Shawn Wolfe's Beatkit-Era Stuff (his newer stuff seems to just be Beatkit-Retreads, only minus the... spark or something). I've even gone so far as to write a fan letter to Chopping Block -- never heard back; my guess is that they thought I was looking for an internship or something. I wasn't -- I just wanted to say "hey, your stuff is awesome!"

I've never actually taken any design courses; mostly because I am terrible at drawing. I've done some home-made design type stuff. I've designed almost all of the TODCRA Productions record covers, some of which I'm actually relatively proud of, and I've done a bit of other stuff, too, mainly for other things of mine. I think I'm relatively decent for an amateur who can't draw, but most professional stuff, not-surprisingly, blows me out of the water. I tend to think of good designs, it's just a matter of putting them down. (The closest to any training I've had, though, is in a Newspaper Production class, we had a typographic design project. It was pretty simple, but I did pretty well on it.)

So, basically, I'm a complete Armchair-Designer, here. I'm sort of the equivalent of those guys who sit and watch football games and yell at the TV about who the coach should have put in and whatnot. Since I can't stomach most sports that aren't bowling, that's pretty much out for me, so I just go and yell at books about what font should have been put in. Anyway, though, aside from design type stuff, I'm also a big readin' type guy. I have way too many books. And, well, books typically have covers on them -- covers that have been designed by someone (I think people might see where I'm going with this bitchen segue)...

Anyway, not too long ago, Haruki Murakami's new book came out in an English translation -- Kafka on the Shore. Murakami's one of my favorite authors (though I infinitely prefer the Alfred Birnbaum translations over Philip Gabriel's translation work, which I find clumsy and kind of awful -- who unfortunately has been doing the newest translations, but that's a subject for another post.), and I ended up ordering the book before the release date, as I could hardly wait. It's a pretty good book, actually -- my favorite is still Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and Kafka on the Shore is a strange book in that it sort of reads more like commentary on Hard-Boiled than as a new novel -- lots of repeated and similar themes; not really a retread or anything, though, but definitely a strange animal.

Anyway, though, that's also getting off topic; the main thing I want to talk about here is the cover. Which is, well, pretty awful, I think. And it's even worse in person. (Although when I took it with me to a doctor's appointment, the receptionist commented on the interesting cover, so it could just be me -- though she didn't specify "interesting" as in "Intriguing" or "Amazing someone would put that on their book", so....) Compare it, however, to the UK edition -- it's not great, but it's got sort of a simple elegance going on.

However, here's the problem, while Chip Kidd is continuing to do the Hardback designs (who is normally excellent, actually -- my guess is that he merely got hit in the head for this one, and perhaps Sputnik Sweetheart as well), his publisher got a new designer for the US paperback editions. Which is even worse that it'd normally be, since the older editions were actually pretty decent. But yes, let's take a look: Here's a list of the redesigns:

Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End Of The World | The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle | A Wild Sheep Chase | After the Quake | Dance Dance Dance | Sputnik Sweetheart | South of the Border, West of The Sun | The Elephant Vanishes

If you notice, there seems to be a recurring theme. Especially in covers like Hard-Boiled, Dance, Sputnik and South. Mainly "THIS DUDE IS LIKE JAPANESE SO WE GOTTA PUT JAPANESE PEOPLE ON THE COVER SO THEY WILL KNOW THAT THIS DUDE IS LIKE JAPANESE!!!111111". I suppose that shouldn't annoy me, and, to be honest, it wouldn't if it weren't so ineptly done. Especially the cover for South of the Border; the hardback (also by Chip Kidd -- see what I mean? Kafka is clearly the fluke.) cover was actually simplistic and somewhat pretty in its simplicity, but the new cover is just... terrible. Although, this is easily Murakami's worst book, so perhaps they wanted a lousy cover for a mediocre book?

What does kind of amuse me, though, is that one of these is actually an improvement; witness, the original Sputnik Sweetheart hardback cover. The spine of it is the same image, only flipped vertically as well. It's... pretty terrible really. This is another Chip Kidd, but the only other one of his Murakami covers I dislike; though if I had to choose, I'd much rather have this jacket than the Kafka one.

Another terrible design -- look at the new Wild Sheep Chase again, and answer me this -- what is the deal with the star? I don't mean "How does it work in the story?" because it comes up in the novel; so I suppose the designer does get points for either actually having read the book or knowing someone who did[1]. However, they don't get credit for, what appears to be just half-assedly cutting out a star and pasting it over a photograph of a sheep. The version I have (sorry for the small image) isn't too terribly much better, but at least it's got a different sort of mediocre design. The UK edition seems to be a bit better at what the new US designer was going for, although I tend to wonder if this novel is just destined to have a mediocre-at-best cover.

The cover for After the Quake isn't actually TOO awful... until you compare it with the original hardback issue (though, it's another that's more impressive in person; again, this is what Chip Kidd is typically capable of). The photo is a little busy, but it's very interesting; lots of stuff for your eye to absorb. And I really like the way they arranged the text on this one -- I find it very elegant, especially when combined with the small physical size of the book; it's a very good job all around. Similarly, the new cover of Elephant Vanishes is probably the best it's gotten, but that's more because the other editions aren't very good, either. (I couldn't find the other US ones at B&N or Amazon, so here's a german translation with another awful cover wholly unlike the awful US editions; strangely, it looks like the UK designer took a hint from his American Cousin and went the "Why bother doing anything about the title story? Whoa, JAPANESE GUY!!!!" route.)

The only one of the redesigns I actually like is Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, although the original is pretty slick, too (not shown in the... remarkably poor scan, really -- the design is, um, a real photo for one, not all.. bad like that, and also the cover's overlaid with an invisible/textured engineering schematic, designed by Chris Ware. It's really cool.) The hardback edition is far superior, but it isn't fair to expect them to reproduce that on the paperback (least of all because of the cost that would be involved), but this is an excellent cover for the paperback without the expense involved of reproducing the original cover.

Looking at the UK covers is kind of interesting too. Some of them aren't really that great, but they're way better than the recent US ones. A few interesting things: After The Quake, the new hit sequel to Infinite Jest! (Speaking of which, the UK paperback version of Infinite Jest is slightly larger than a mass-market paperback. Which is a real pain to read, as it's, you know, 1000 pages with 100 pages of footnotes. UK Folks: I really recommend you get a copy of the US edition, both because it's an awesome book, and because the US edition is much larger (the paperback's about the size of a typcial hardback; so, oddly enough, is the hardback).

I actually like the UK Dance Dance Dance cover, although I wish it were easier to see; Amazon.uk's scans are really awful; I think their maintainer figured that for "larger view", they could either have two different scans of different qualities, or they could just, you know, take the thumbnail and stretch it. The other, UK Panther edition cover is all right, but not quite as nice as the broken record cover.

Also, the UK South of the Border and Sputnik Sweetheart (questionably work-safe -- an aside; how weird is that to say in a piece about cover designs of books by a respected author?) -- just strike me as really odd. Almost more suited to, I don't know, perhaps a Terry Southern novel. (Though, erm, the recent Terry Southern covers are the subject for another post; I will say this, though -- it's kind of sad when you explicitly go to half.com to get past editions from a time when his books were more considered on the "Porn" end of the "Porn/Respectability" scale so you can have covers that are more tasteful... ecch...)

However, I have to say, that I really, really like the UK Hard-Boiled Wonderland cover. It doesn't have much to do with the book, but it might be my favorite edition of this. (The original Hardback's kind of neat, too; it's a Magritte-inspired painting of a rock hovering over a grassy plain with a purple sky. And the original US paperback is good, if a little generic.) I have to say, too, this other UK edition is kinda neat too. (And, from the same publisher, yet another mediocre Sheep, though, probably the least mediocre of them all. And a surprisingly elegant and beautiful if awfully literal Sputnik cover.

One thing I do find a little funny, though, is how most people would never redesign a record cover[2], especially recent albums, yet there's never any worry about completely throwing out old book cover designs and building a new one from scratch. Even books where the original author worked on the design himself. I suppose that's because bands are more involved in presenting the complete package of their albums (again, more so nowadays) where authors typically just turn in the manuscript, but still. I know it's about marketing and adapting to changes in design philosophy (i.e., I do find the new Godel Escher Bach cover more elegant than the original, although, no one would think of changing, say, Who's Next so it doesn't look nearly so early-1970s. I suppose it doesn't matter, though I wonder what the authors have to say; I would assume that with the possible exception of maybe the first edition, the author doesn't even get to sign off on the cover (especially in cases of, say, Haruki Murakami, where he's got tons of translated editions; if he has any control over the covers, I'd assume it'd end at the shores of Japan). I'd doubt on reissues and redesigns they'd get that luxury (for example, if that were the case, why would David Foster Wallace sign off on the paperback cover of Infinite Jest, when it's basically an unelegant version of the hardback edition. Examples like this make me think he signed off on the hardback (as it works with the novel and contains a subtle reference and basically is just really slick with the themes and whatnot), and then when it went to paperback, the publisher went "Well, he liked the hardback, so let's do the same thing... only updated, since, you know, lots of things have changed in the year or two since the original came out, so let's just, you know, fix things before we put it out!"

So, yeah, I don't know. All I do know is that Good Design makes me happy, and Bad Design makes me sad. So very, very sad. And the Haruki Murakami novels, among others, used to have Good Design. And now they don't.

[1] One of my favorite examples of this is pretty much any cover of Alexei Panshin's Rite of Passage -- the narrator/protagonist is black, yet in every cover I've seen, she's depicted as white. I suppose a copy somewhere might actually have, you know, the correct race, but... (Unfortunately, I couldn't find my edition's cover, where she's an Aryan woman flying from a spaceship, nipples on display -- especially funny, since, IIRC, in the book she's around 13...)

[2] Though it's not entirely uncommon; it seems more frequent with older albums, though; when I was interning at KPLU, one thing I did was go through and pull out some of the duplicates, and I'd get thrown sometimes because I'd have to check the tracklistings on some the designs were so drastically changed. Although those were relatively recent Jazz albums; I got the impression that in the 1970s and early 1980s, the jazz labels all said "Hey, screw this! Let's make new, hip covers!" which ended up being way less hip than the original issues, which seem to be en vogue again.


Blogger Lee H. said...

I'm in the process of working thru this post, but I'm at work and keep getting interrupted. :P Didn't want you to think nobody was reading it. I'll catch up with you soon.

9:06 AM, June 09, 2005  
Blogger Rev. Syung Myung Me said...

Heh, no problem! Thanks! I know it's got a lot of links, asides and babblings...8) Although you could always be "Oh, I'm sorry, I can't cut that urgent story for you! I've got to read an essay on the Internet!"...8)

1:06 PM, June 09, 2005  
Blogger Lee H. said...

You're right that it's weird how little say an author has into what the cover of their book looks like. Having "replaced" lots of books in my collection over the years, I've noticed those changes, too.

One thing I don't like is when an author's work is reprinted, and all the covers look alike, like a boxed set. For some reason that bugs me. (Your Murakami paperbacks are exactly like that... all in the same style, all clearly hacked out by one guy.)

Paperback book covers, though, have long been one of the crassest kinds of "packaging" there is. As long ago as the pulp novels of the 50's (which is probably where this whole system got established), publishers were always about moving units... even if it means putting a buxom white chick on the cover of a book cpmpletely lacking in buxom white chicks. :D

That said, there's a Waldenbooks in CNN Center, and I'm always stopping to check out some of the cool, surreal cover art on the latest paperbacks. It never makes me want to BUY any of the books, since I'm so much aware of the disconnect between cover art and contents, but still, there are a lot of really good commercial artists out there making some really cool book covers.

BTW, that "After The Quake" cover with all the fish is just AMAZING.

9:30 PM, June 09, 2005  
Blogger Rev. Syung Myung Me said...

Yeah -- it's just something I find odd; most musicians have a say in the album art, even if they don't design it themselves/commission the design, they tend to usually have some say or veto power. (Not always, of course, and there's lots of stories of record companies taking the basic idea and redesigning the sleeve, usually to the detriment, and look at the various covers from different countries; there's lots of them where the home country will have the intended art, and another country's issue will just have some lame promo photo on the sleeve...) But authors -- not so much. I think sometimes they do, like Hofstadter, but it seems usually that it's just something the publisher goes off and does. Strange.

Box set type covers, I can take or leave; sometimes it's nice to have that thematic unity (especially if the books are a trilogy or something), and sometimes they can look kind of nice on a bookshelf, but there's also a distinct lack of imaginiation with them. And, well, if that person isn't a very good designer (like the Murakami Paperback Guy -- who isn't Chip Kidd, BTW, just wanted to clarify... the official US Murakami site (beware: sound!) has a cover gallery for "all" of the US Hardbacks (missing "Hard-Boiled Wonderland" because that came out on Kodansha, and also "Dance Dance Dance" and "A Wild Sheep Chase" since those were both either Kodansha or direct-to-paperback (not sure; haven't seen physical hardbacks of either novel)), with commentary, and also the new paperback covers, with commentary by their designer. I forget who it is, but, um, I do not think they're very good, if you couldn't guess from, you know, writing an 80 page rant about how I mock his skillz.

The previous paperbacks all (for the most part) had a similar style, but they were more thematically linked, rather than Knocked Out, if that makes sense; they all seemed to be by the same guy, but they weren't... badly so. Or somethin'. They weren't _nearly_ as phoned-in as these look. (And they had a distinct lack of asian people, which, you know, makes you wonder how people knew that they were written by a Japanese author?!?)

I actually tend to like those 1950s Pulp Covers, but they're sort of kitchy and fun. Although, I might feel differently if I were an author -- although, I think in the cases of many of those Pulp Novels, there weren't too many "Oh, this is my great statement!" novels as "Oh, this is going to pay my rent!" novels. (Not that there's anything wrong with that -- there's some great literature that's come out of that sort of thing!) But, yeah -- there is an interesting thing in that paperbacks are more Commodity and hardbacks are more Literature/Objects D'Art -- even in cases of paperbacks of High Literature or stuff that was in the Object D'Art pile just a year ago.

But yes -- I LOVE that "After the Quake" cover -- it's especially neat in person. I partially included that just because it's an awesome Murakami cover and an excellent example of How To Do His Covers Right, but also as a "See, Chip Kidd _IS_ good!", since I did tear into the Kafka cover so much (though I really honestly do think it is a terrible cover) -- even though I don't think Kidd really needs the bump-up, since he is pretty much considered the reigning king of Cover Design. And I do like a LOT of his designs -- it's just that I think his Kafka is a tremendous misfire, and his Sputnik Sweetheart wasn't so hot either.

2:47 AM, June 10, 2005  
Blogger CatsFive said...

I love these! How strange you have this passion about book covers.

Having spent a LOT of time around some of the world's best designers, I can tell you this: They're not all good at drawing. In fact, one world-renowned artist I worked under (who's such a reprehensible person, professionally, that I cannot summon him by name) is famous for just that-- his refusal to "draw," anything, at all. His work instead focuses on line, shape, and layout.

The thing I learned about watching designers work is that it takes a lot of work making it look easy. Some designers "throw down" the designs, sure, maybe through raw talent, but the truly successful designers crumple up their designs as quickly as they throw them down.

My ex girlfriend was a designer with some considerable natural talent (she was working at a Top 5 firm and had billboards in Times Square when we broke up) and she had some fascinating processes for getting her designs to work. Look up "Swiss Design" graphic design methods and once you understand them-- she explained it all to me patiently, in much the same way you'd explain "going on the paper" to a dog-- and you'll start seeing it all over the place.

10:03 AM, June 10, 2005  
Blogger Rev. Syung Myung Me said...

I just think book covers are neat -- I don't have a whole lot of them, because space is at a premium, but I've got a few instances where I've got different editions of books just to compare (like Infinite Jest, I also bought a UK edition just to see -- that's how I knew about the weird size of it). I especially like, say, Philip K. Dick type books, combining the designs from when he was just thought of as another Pulp Sci-Fi Author versus those of the same book when he's a Respected Important Author. And, of course, different countries' versions of each of those... IIRC, the handful of UK Dick Books (heh, that sounds bad...) I've seen typically put him into Mass Market Size, Genericy Paperbacks, where his US reprint publisher will put him in larger sized Arty looking PBs typically reserved for the "real" literature types, which I suppose reflects how he's thought of in the two countries -- I don't think he has the same cachet in the UK as he does here. Although some of the UK books are in the Larger ('real literature') size, but with Utterly Generic/Mass-Market-Type Cover Designs. So it's a little odd, the juxtaposition between the two. Of course, in the UK, they had a few of his novels in print that took forever to get back in print over here, like Counter-Clock World.

I kind of like the Lack-Of-Drawing type design -- stuff that's just pure typography -- quite a bit, really. But I really like design that can succcessfully bring in both illustrated and font elements, especially when they all look like a cohesive part of the whole. I've known a few designer types who were good at the Artwork Side of it, but _awful_ with fonts and typography. It's a special sort who can do both.

And I think that's true with all fields about the crumpling-versus-speed. And I'm not a person who puts import on speed anyway... there's a story about Sergio Aragones (IIRC, he's actually in the Guiness Book Of World Records as being the world's fastest cartoonist; he's also known for Groo and the marginal drawings in Mad Magazine (and the animations on Bloopers and Practical Jokes among others), and, well, for being an incredibly nice guy.) where he had a piece on sale for like, 200 dollars. And someone asks him how long it took to draw it -- he tells them, and it's something really really fast, maybe a half-hour, since IIRC, it was a pretty involved piece, at least according to the story -- never saw the piece in question. And the guy goes "Wait, you expect me to pay you 200 bucks for something it took you a half hour to draw?" and Sergio goes "Well, no, you're not paying for the 30 minutes it took to do the drawing, you're paying for the 30 years it took me to learn how to do a drawing like that in 30 minutes."

2:30 PM, June 10, 2005  

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