A couple of months ago, I had a fun and rambling phone conversation with writer Lisa Hazen that became part of this article which appears in this months HOW magazine 2008 International Design Annual-April 2008. On your newsstand now.
Design Disciplines Column, April 2008
By Lisa Baggerman Hazen
Reprinted with permission from HOW magazine, April 2008
Book publishing is a billion-dollar business with intense competition from inside and outside the industry. And now more than ever, top publishers are turning to design and marketing to help set their books apart.
ONCE UPON A TIME, the book business was pretty straightforward. Books were sold in bookstores. They were found stacked neatly on shelves that beckoned with predictable cover treatments—title, author and leading image. Whether it was a novel or a cookbook, few titles strayed from this general structure. A book was a book was a book. The end.
But book publishing isn’t what it was 10 years ago. It’s not even what it was last year. Interactive entertainment like videos, websites, games—even cell phones—compete with books for consumers’ leisure time more than ever. And books are no longer relegated to bookstores—you can find them everywhere from big-box stores to gas stations. One glance at a bookshelf reveals that there’s no longer a formulaic approach to book design, particularly when it comes to covers. In this marketplace, an inventive approach to book packaging and design can connect the buyer to a title before she reads a word.
THE DESIGN EDGE
Maybe they shouldn’t, but most people do judge a book by its cover. In fact, cover design is one of the most obvious and effective strategies publishers use to promote their titles. And the competition is fierce. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the number of new books published in the U.S. has more than doubled since 1996, with 172,000 new titles published in 2005. Factor in slowing book sales (a decrease of 4.3% between May 2006 and May 2007 according to the U.S. Census Bureau), and you can see that the market is saturated.
“It’s the covers that really advertise the work,” says Henry Sene Yee, creative director of New York City-based trade paperback publisher Picador. “The cover design needs to stop you in your tracks, make you pick up the book and read the flap copy. The best way to do this is to create a package that is smart, professional and—most important—designed to connect with the target consumer emotionally.”
When designing the paperback cover for Tom Wolfe’s “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” the story of a virginal college girl’s sexual awakening, Yee immediately faced some obstacles. The reviews weren’t as positive as hoped for, and hardcover sales reflected that. Although Wolfe was a well-established author, Picador wanted to market this particular title to a generation of college-aged readers who may not have been as familiar with Wolfe’s previous work.
“Some people saw the story as more of a young girl’s downward spiral into sexuality,” Yee says. “But I didn’t see it that way—I saw Charlotte as blossoming. I started playing with format and die-cuts as a way to represent this vision.”
To do this, Yee designed a two-tier system for the cover. The top flap is dark, with forms and twigs establishing the background, a white silhouette of the heroine and a die-cut in the shape of her dress peeking through to a chartreuse pattern on the page behind. When the top flap is opened, the title is revealed, along with flower blossoms and lighter colors. “This design was meant to reveal the true nature of the book—that she was blossoming,” Yee says. “It was fun to do something that was conceptual, but in a smart way.”
But successful design doesn’t start and end with a book’s cover. Considering a book’s entire package is key to a successful publishing strategy.
“We believe a good design is as important as good text, so we’ve always pushed to make the graphic design of our books work as hard as it can,” says David Borgenicht, president and publisher of Quirk Books, a Philadelphia-based publisher. The company describes its products as “impractical reference and irreverent nonfiction” books. For evidence of this, consider Quirk’s take on the traditional parenting book, “The Baby Owner’s Manual.” The authors provide practical and useful parenting advice. Yet, it’s written in a tongue-in-cheek manner, with an editorial approach that treats the baby as if it were a VCR. This tone is followed through with hip, iconic illustrations inspired by technical user manuals.
“We wouldn’t have sold 350,000 copies of this book if it wasn’t graphically amazing,” Borgenicht says. “It would be just another parenting book. Instead, it’s a parenting book that’s sold in the Tate Modern gallery in London.”
It’s naïve to think that it’s just the youth market that’s turning to video games, the web and movies for entertainment. According to a study by the Associated Press-Ipsos, one in four Americans didn’t even read a book in the previous year. Yet 34% of adult internet users play online games, according to Parks Associates Research and Analysis.
With an ever-precious window of free time for leisure, book publishers are looking for ways to make books relevant in a market that’s, frankly, less friendly to books. “We have the attitude of an entertainment company, not a book publisher,” Borgenicht says. “We realize that we’re competing not just with book publishers, but video games, the internet, DVDs, iPods and cell phones, so our books have to be as exciting as those things. Plus, we make our books as interactive as books can be. We have pop-up books, books with removable clues and more.”
Look no further than “Graceland: An Interactive Pop-Up Tour” for proof. “This is a book you want, even if you’re not an Elvis fan,” Borgenicht says. “We wanted this to be a pop-up book that had a reason for popping up. We went all-out with the design and paper engineering. I think it appropriately represents the kitsch and coolness of Elvis.”
Some publishers have found ways to incorporate different media into the books themselves. “We’re increasingly integrating DVDs and CDs into many of the books we publish,” says Patti Quill, senior marketing and publicity manager of art, architecture and design for San Francisco-based Chronicle Books. “We recently published ‘The Designer’s Toolkit,’ a book that includes not only strategies for grid design, but a companion CD with 500 ready-to-use templates.”
And in “Lennon Legend,” Chronicle Books reinvented the traditional celebrity biography by creating an interactive package. In addition to the book, there are archival photographs and reproductions of Lennon’s handwritten lyrics, drawings, an audio CD and more. These types of elements serve to broaden the book’s appeal.
But it isn’t just the quirky books that lend themselves to format innovation. Published by the Harper Collins imprint William Morrow, “Kockroach” is a literary novel that literally takes Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” and turns it on its head—author Tyler Knox’s protagonist is a cockroach who awakens to find that he’s become a man. Will Staehle, a Los Angeles-based designer with more than 100 covers under his belt, was tasked with designing the book.
In addition to a noir-ish treatment for the cover, with a cartoonishly out-of-scale men’s shoe about to flatten the book’s title on a city street, Staehle incorporated an interesting design element that went beyond the cover. “When you flip the pages, you see a reverse animation of Kafka’s metamorphosis,” Staehle says. “It’s little stuff like that that can set the book apart and keep it true to the story.”
BEYOND THE BOOKSTORE
The Book Industry Study Group reports that there are 15,000 stores in the U.S. that carry books, but only 8,000 of these are traditional “bookstores.” This also impacts the way the books are designed.
When Oprah Winfrey chose Jeffrey Eugenides’ book “Middlesex” for her book club, publisher Picador was thrilled. But this unusual book about a first-generation Greek hermaphrodite needed to be packaged in a way that would convey its story in an appealing way to an enormous nationwide audience.
“Despite the fact that this was going to be a book with a wide commercial audience, I pushed for the cover to be a series of grays rather than color and metallic,” Yee says. “I wanted to show restraint as a way to represent the different gray areas between gender, culture and generations that the book represents. I used interconnecting smoke and clouds to tie together illustrations on the cover that represented different aspects of the book. Everything just started clicking.”
The approach paid off with an elegant cover treatment that worked on a variety of levels, including an attractive mass market package that was still true to the book. “I like to strip things down to their essence,” Yee says. “You have these books that are so complicated. Different themes, tones, plot points, etc. It’s necessary to take all this information but not make a kitchen-sink design. I wanted to create something with complexity that identifies this book among a sea of books.”
But just because there’s increasing concentration on sales outside conventional book venues doesn’t mean that publishers are neglecting the traditional booksellers. Keeping close relationships with bookstores is as important as ever. “Chronicle still maintains a strong relationship with all the traditional avenues,” Quill says. “We do direct outreach to schools, direct marketing, one-on-one meetings. We’re not losing any of the
tools in the toolbox. We’re taking advantage of any and all possibilities.”
BINDING IT ALL TOGETHER
Editorial, marketing and design need an integrated approach to promote books effectively. But, in many ways, it’s how design is leveraged that helps complete the package.
“Design is central to Chronicle’s strategy,” says publishing design director Sara Schneider. “That’s not to minimize anything else, but it’s never an afterthought. During the concept phase, we constantly ask, ‘How will we make this book distinctive, spirited?’ A unique look and feel is essential to this.”
HOW has its own line of design books that caters to creative people of all stripes. But it’s HOW’s brand structure that keeps the books’ promotion in motion. “Our core graphic design titles, like Jim Krause’s Index books, are promoted in the magazine, on our website, in our e-mail newsletters and on our blog,” says Megan Patrick, senior editor for HOW magazine and books. “For HOW’s other books, the bulk of our marketing efforts are focused on behind-the-scenes tactics like getting our books on display at major retailers and doing big promotions at book-industry events like Book Expo America.”
But just because the market is changing doesn’t mean that books are being displaced. “We know there’s still an audience out there for books,” Schneider says. “But we’re looking at what inspires and delights people about books, and capitalizing on that. We’re not abandoning the book as a form, but capitalizing on what is most appealing about it and taking it even further.”
Lisa Hazen has more than 14 years of experience in publishing, ranging from being a former HOW editor to a book author to working as the web director at Chronicle Books for more than eight years. She now owns her own Chicago-based writing and web design firm.