October 2004

Sharon Adarlo


Judging a Book By Its Cover: The Fall Continues

I was a little wary starting "Judging a Book By Its Cover." I wasn’t really sure how to approach it seeing that there’s not much commentary about book jackets, but hopefully I have made you, the reader, think about book design a little more consciously. I’m not a graphic design professional who’s had years of training in type design and the like, but I have been through the masochistic gauntlet of architecture school and I am fairly familiar with design in general -- even though I don’t have that extra-Spidey sense of immediately distinguishing the differences between Stempel Garamond and Adobe Garamond, but I try to make a fair analysis of the book covers and hopefully spark lively discourse on book design overall.

On another note: this month’s subject will deal with, again, fall releases. There’s just a tsunami of books that have come out, and you know it’s that time of the year when publishers pump out whatever they consider to be noteworthy -- it’s the equivalent of the Christmas movie season, but not as much money is involved and writers, even the best ones, are really D-list celebs when it comes down to it. Next month, I will analyze more fall/winter releases. Just bear with me.

Colors Insulting to Nature: A Novel by Cintra Wilson
Fourth Estate
Cover design by Roberto De Vicq De Cumptich
Art by Wayne White
ISBN: 0007154607

In a land long ago and far away, this critic worshiped at the irony-ridden and smarty-pants altar of “contemporary art.” If I could, I would have had my home filled with Damien Hirst chochkes and Tracey Emin panties -- don’t ask what I was thinking. But I’m not so beholden to that strain anymore save for the odd piece here and there, and as witnessed by my recent flogging of John Currin, I really don’t have a lot of hope in art right now. It just doesn’t move me or it seems downright facetious and too downtown hipsterish, which makes it all the more surprising that I am really digging Cintra Wilson’s book cover.

Wayne White, noted painter and the voice for Randy and Dirty Dog at Pee Wee’s Playhouse, is the guy responsible for Cintra Wilson’s startlingly surreal book cover. He apparently goes around garage sales and thrift stores snatching up cheesy and cheap lithographs and prints, and he paints three-dimensional letters on them. Anything is really fair game -- from serene pastoral scenes to still lifes -- they all get painted with large nonsensical kind of phrases. Others I have seen are I Love the Whole Fucking World and Painting that Came to Life Only to be Mocked-Forgotten.

There’s this wacky and fun sensibility that informs White’s work and is perfectfully encapsulated in this particular book cover. It’s just perfect. The way he merges the lithograph and the title of the book is totally seamless. Shadows of leaves and branches fall convincingly on the letters. The last “e” in “nature” brushes up against some shrubbery. The creek reflects the letters in a realistic manner. The individual characters themselves resemble the multi-colored magnets you would have on your refrigerator. The cover painting is just really clever and funny in the visual parlance of a David LaChapelle photograph or those melting and surreal visuals that Salvador Dali conjured up, and indeed, White seems to tip his hand more and more at the direction of that befuddled and mustached artist in some of his later works where the letters stretch, bend, and tip into hilarious illegibility.

My only complaint? I thought the designer was being lazy in darkening the background under the handwritten phrase “A Novel” and the author’s name. He could have done a more deft job with that one like choosing a different font or picking out the right color instead of white so it could pop out more.

There’s also one other thing I have been wondering. What came first? The book title or the painting? I wonder if Wayne White gave permission for Wilson to use one of his paintings for the title and the cover or if Wilson asked White to make a special painting for her book. I’d go for the former. The title has the same zany air as his other pieces.

If I Knew Then by Amy Fisher and Robbie Woliver
ISBN: 0595324452

Amy Fisher is a soccer mom. Seems funny we should see those two nominally opposing subjects line up in the same sentence, but the former Long Island Lolita has finally grown up, served her time, got a job, married, and has a son and even a baby girl on the way -- a much better ending for our very own Dolores Haze. And she has a new book out that she’s been plugging on Oprah and various media outlets, and surprise surprise, it’s not put out by some big-name publishing house but instead by iUniverse.
I wonder what the rationale was for going with iUniverse. Knopf wasn’t interested? I really don’t think so. There’s a ready market for people who follow these kinds of stories. My guess is that Amy Fisher and her co-writer didn’t want to wrangle with an agent and publisher over the profits and instead cut out those middle men and make more money by self-publishing.

The book package itself is really nice. Maybe it’s the soft bigotry of low expectations, but the book cover is slickly done -- it’s really polished, really professional. I have to admit that if it was from a publishing house, I would dismiss the cover as kind of boring and conventional, but I am duly impressed by the high quality that iUniverse esteemed themselves to on the whole look of the book. It’s a trade paperback with a glossy cover finish. It utilizes some good old and dependable serif text face and basically gives the book an air of respectability -- if slightly pedestrian respectability. It doesn’t hurt that Amy Fisher is cute either.

Perusing the iUniverse website, there are different levels of publishing packages that you can purchase if you are ever so inclined to self-publish -- all the way from “Fast Track” to “Premier Plus Package." My guess is that Amy Fisher picked “Premier Plus Package” for the relatively reasonable price of $748. With that, she got a custom cover design by some unknown graphics monkey, editorial review, “back cover copy polish,” and ten free copies of the finished product. Not bad, eh? I wonder if iUniverse is becoming a respectable alternative to publishing houses -- especially if you have a ready made audience who’ll buy your book no matter it’s provenance. Just imagine if Stephen King published his next novel on iUniverse! Would he make more money? But what’s actually more interesting has been its quiet use by famous writers to keep in circulation their out-of-print titles. Instead of whining to their agents about their babies not being available, they have taken matters into their own hands and self-published on iUniverse. Among this selective crowd are Lawrence Block, William F. Buckley Jr., and Joyce Maynard of all people. And yes, like Amy Fisher’s book, all the covers are nice and behave like obedient little children, and yeah, this critic is duly impressed by the professionalism of the book covers and packages, but I am waiting for the first iUniverse book cover to take an imaginative and more risky path. Maybe this is too much to ask.

Will They Ever Trust Us Again? by Michael Moore
Simon & Schuster
Cover design by Jackie Seow
Photo by Gregory Heisler
ISBN: 0743271521




My Kind of Place: Travel Stories from a Woman Who’s Been Everywhere by Susan Orlean
Random House
Cover design by Robbin Schiff
Photo by Henry Leutwyler
ISBN: 0679462937

Coming from somebody who did like Michael Moore’s latest documentary, I can say with no trace of partisan hackery that his new book’s cover is deeply, deeply ugly. It looks like the kind of book you’d find remaindered in the front shelves of Barnes and Noble where they keep all the bargain books corralled together. The book cover is ugly and cheap looking and suffers from a lack of focus. Not so much in terms of layout -- the design is pretty symmetrical and doesn’t affect some Pomo look, but instead I feel myself affronted by the use of too many fonts and styles. There are at least three different typefaces used on the cover with varying sizes and all used to ill effect. The use of italics for the main title is really cheesy and dated looking. It harks back to the Go Ask Alice book cover. The red san serif block type doesn’t jive with the main title. The fonts are all used with very little finesse and a unifying thematic approach. They just don’t fit together. Using Michael Moore’s face for the cover doesn’t help either. Must all his books carry his pudgy mug? I know, I know. Michael Moore is a brand now, but his overly sincere countenance and his hands clasped reverently around a small folded flag just seem so self-righteous and self-promoting. The Official Fahrenheit 9/11 Reader book cover is much better due to its tongue-in-cheekiness. Moore is much more convincing being satirical and snarky than he is at being sincere.

As for Susan Orlean’s book, it is a great read, but chuck the front cover. It sucks. Like the previous entry, Susan Orlean’s latest book cover utilizes too many fonts -- five actually. The particular fonts used and their grouping is not as egregious as Michael Moore’s, but almost. The thing about using too many typefaces is the lack of a thematic approach. The book cover will seem unfocused and at times, in Moore’s case, tacky. I think you can throw down an architectural equivalent to Moore’s and Orlean’s book cover. Have you ever seen an Eric Owen Moss building or any noted structure by a California architect? They have a tendency to use too many different materials and the buildings look too busy and verge on kitsch. Moore’s is like that. Orlean's book cover is helped by most of the words being grouped to the left and the author photo to the right -- it adds a little more visual interest. But yet again, there are just too many fonts! Did the designer have to succumb to the New Yorker-esque typeface for the writer’s name? I wish she used something less ubiquitous or clichéd. The vomit-puke green for the cover doesn’t lend any help. It’s a nasty day-glo color -- only fit for 80’s leg warmers and slime from the show You Can’t Do That On Television. The only good thing about the cover is Susan Orlean’s photo, but I have one quibble with it. Yeah, she’s cute and I love her tailored suit and stilettos, but if you have read her book, the photo doesn’t fit. She writes in this compassionate and deferential style where her voice doesn’t interject itself too much into any particular piece. She doesn’t really focus on herself a whole lot, but the photo is telling a different story.

On a last note, I have noticed that most books’ covers are designed with a minimalist bent. Not so much in that specific art style, but in terms of using simple and yet effective use of colors, photos, and most of all fonts. We used to have the artisanal tradition of embossed leather and gold leafing along with intricate patterns and designs on our books, and the present day equivalent of that would seem to be the over-use of fonts. I think that approach tends to dilute the effectiveness of what the cover and the book are trying to communicate. That approach just looks too busy, but in the right hands, and this is just a handful from what I’ve seen, it can be done right -- but very rarely. As for the books reviewed in this particular segment, I don’t care too much for Michael Moore’s book. I’m sure it will sell well despite the fact it’s an obvious rush job, but I wring my hands at Orlean’s book. I’m not kidding when I say it’s a great book, but how many people will be turned off by the ghastly green cover and the mish-mash use of fonts and not buy it at all?

Magical Thinking: True Stories by Augusten Burroughs
St. Martin’s Press
Cover design by Chip Kidd
Photo by Geoff Spear
ISBN: 0312315945

I should have known that Chip Kidd, book cover impresario, was responsible for this cover. When I was at Barnes and Noble researching this column, I saw a handful of people do double takes at the cover. It’s a very intriguing photo. How did the photographer coax a cup of water to disobey the law of gravity? Photoshop? Other than that, I appreciate the fact that Kidd gave the image front and center importance -- it ties in with the title, and the use of the Playbill font variant/kissing cousin adds a subtle touch of substantiability to the cover. A font with thin and attenuated strokes and combined with the overall blue color of the cover would make the title seem too flimsy, so it was a nice touch for Kidd to pick a type face with thick, slabbed serifs and hefty but nicely modulated forms. What a beautiful and simple antidote to the clutter we usually find on other book covers!