May 25, 2011
When I was in college, we English majors used to learn a concept that is often expressed in the Latin epigram, ars celare artem — usually translated as, “true art conceals art.” (This phrase is often attributed to Ovid, but Wikipedia says it wasn’t him and The Yale Book of Quotations, which I normally take to be definitive, doesn’t mention it at all.)
The phrase holds significance, of course, when considering great painting, sculpture or literature — or that which aspires to literature. But one might easily argue that it is at least as relevant in the realm of commercial arts.
Sadly, in this day when so many around us are bootstrapping their own creative careers, ars celare artem seems as honored in the breach as it is in the observance. I’m not talking about the content of novels — although the problem often exists there, too. I’m talking about the jacket or cover designs for those novels. In too many of them you can discern the labor, as if Photoshop were up on the screen at the desk next to yours with a novice working the mouse and employing techniques he discovered a few minutes ago. True mastery, however, conceals its own efforts.
Now, I’m not an expert on book jacket design by any means, but I do know that many book jackets today make me cringe. Most of those come from self-publishers or micropublishers, but plenty more bad ones arise at the major houses, for some reason usually (but not always) from divisions that publish direct to trade paperback.
The process of creating a good book jacket can go wrong in several ways. The designer may feel uninspired by the subject or may be asked to execute something that lacks authenticity — for example, to design a jacket that communicates something he or she knows the book doesn’t contain inside. Often, jackets suffer from design by committee — the designer trying to cobble together too many ideas suggested by others, to please too many constituencies. Or, alternatively, an inexperienced designer may be given too much leeway and not understand the demands of packaging for a given genre.
For the Primacy jacket, I tried to forestall most of these problems by hiring a top design pro, giving him only a broad idea of what I was looking for, and keeping the feedback team small. My instructions were simply to make it look like a thriller with big commercial potential. I shared with the designer the manuscript itself and an early draft of potential catalog copy, which suggested how the book would be positioned in the marketplace. That’s all any good designer should need. After that, my only instructions were: do your magic. There’s no point in hiring (and paying for) big talent and then getting in the way.
In case you don’t know already, Primacy is the story of a researcher in an animal testing lab who discovers that one of the bonobos upon whom she’s working has mutated for speech. Moral dilemma ensues, not to mention heart-pumping plot twists.
The designer first produced thirteen sketches. They looked like this:
The fourth of these in the top row (moving left to right) looked too much to me like a travel book, even with the band across it that said, “A Thriller.” (I had a sense that the designer put the band there because he knew, perhaps subconsciously, that the design didn’t speak to the genre.) The fifth design looked literary. The sixth and seventh suggested non-fiction to me.
On the bottom row, the second and fourth looked literary, too. The third just didn’t pop; it looked like it would disappear on the bookshelf. The first intrigued me, but the car headlights gave it the feeling of a mystery novel, rather than a thriller. I asked the designer to tweak that one and keep it in the running.
This process of elimination left a number of versions that might accomplish what I was looking to do. All of the remaining sketches, you will note, told a story. Some did it better than others.
Based upon that feedback and some other comments, the designer executed revisions. The next set of sketches — six in all — looked like this:
Of these, I liked the addition of the fifth and sixth, but they looked like horror novels to me, not thrillers. The fourth was sort of handsome, but it just didn’t make the hair stand up on the back of my neck.
The first sketch was interesting, but the bars as represented felt too much to me like an old-fashioned human prison — sort of Count of Monte Cristo — rather than a cage. Still, I didn’t reject it out of hand. The second one was the most beautiful and told the story of the novel best: the eerie lab, the clouds suggesting moral ambiguity, the ape face calling us to judgment. But I worried about whether it would jump off the shelf.
Number three was initially my favorite. It evoked a kind of moral seediness that I liked, and I thought it would stand out on a table in a bookstore (if I were ever lucky enough to get placement like that).
I ran these six past a number of people, including — most important — select sales representatives at the distributor. These are the folks in the field who have to push product out to book buyers. As such, they have a well-schooled sense of what works.
The salespeople — along with several of my “lay” test subjects — liked the second jacket best for the story it told and for its beauty. One of them suggested putting the title in red. Bingo:
This jacket accomplishes everything a great book jacket should: (1) the big red title jumps off the shelf; (2) it tells a story; (3) it suggests complexity; (4) it says “thriller”; and (5) it’s just damn good-looking.
Undoubtedly there are a dozen tricks the designer used to push all the right buttons, but these tricks do not call attention to themselves. The art is artless.
Does any of this make a difference to the potential purchaser of Primacy? Of course it does.
Consumers of anything — whether it’s soap or art — might not be able to tell you exactly what makes a package look amateurish or professional, half-hearted or authentic. But they process all the cues and draw conclusions in spite of their lack of expertise.
To paraphrase Associate Justice Potter Stewart (who was then famously trying to define hard-core pornography), you might not be able to articulate what makes one book jacket fail and another one succeed, but when the designer gets it right, you know it as soon as you see it.
Follow me on Twitter: JEFISHMAN
Follow Primacy on Twitter: PRIMACYBOOK
Publishing Primacy posts every Wednesday by 7:00 a.m. Eastern Time