||Books By Design
Although we may not always be consciously aware of it, the pleasure of buying and reading books is not just an abstract intellectual experience. We hold the book in our hands to see how it "feels," we gaze at the cover as if it were a work of art and ask, what does this image say to us? What does it say about this book that might make us want to take it into our lives? Why do we respond to it with curiosity, warmth, exhilaration, or indifference?
The people involved in publishing - publishers, editors, art directors; sales reps, and (sometimes) authors - think and talk and argue a lot about book covers. As one editor at a major house told me, "That`s the problem-there are too many of us involved in the design. It`s amazing that we get any decisions made" But the number of busy hands is hardly surprising; covers may not sell books on their own, but they do draw us to them.
To understand how covers signal to us it is necessary only to look at a genre such as the romance novel, where the typeface and image convey exact information as to the degree of misfortune a heroine will suffer and the explicitness of the sex. But "mainstream" books have their codes too, even if they are not as closely defined. Political memoirs have photographs of their authors on the cover. Business exposes and investigations of financial dynasties must look awesomely important and authoritative. And "upmarket" fiction (a term used by the industry in a rather desperate attempt to define readership) often uses a realist-style illustration or sometimes a reproduction of "genuine` painting. This is the tightrope that book designers walk: books must look familiar enough for readers to identify diem, but must still appear special, a cut above the rest.
But didn`t I also call book covers works of art? Well, I still think they are - that the best designers consider those limitations a challenge rather than a hindrance to expression. Occasionally a publisher even has the courage to break from convention. Still, a cover is also a sales pitch, which makes for a rather delicate hybrid. And depending on whom you talk to in the industry, it is more one than the other.
Take Robert MacDonald, an active freelance designer (50 books a year) and director of the Banff Publishing Workshop, where he lectures on design. MacDonald has also recently become an director of the Vancouver publishing firm of Douglas & McIntyre, taking over from an art director who made a splash with her sophisticated "New York-style` covers. "Designing has nothing to do with art," he insists. "I consider myself half a sales person and half an editor, and what I do is packaging. I do whatever I can to make sure that people notice a book in a store, that it has something about it that says, `Buy me!` That`s what people pay me for."
MacDonald might be deliberately overstating his case a little, believing as he does that publishers have to become more marketdriven to survive. Or maybe he`s right, and book covers have more in common with soap packaging than with the stuff you see in galleries. But somehow that`s not what I feel when I walk into my neighbourhood bookstore, and see those beautiful new titles beckoning to me.
In February 1990, Jan Walter, publisher of Macfarlane Walter and Ross, is listening to the radio when she hears that 1991 will be the 200th anniversary of Mozart`s death. Why not publish a book that helps people appreciate Mozart? Walter commissions Robert Harris, head of CBC Radio "Variety, to write the book. About the time she is casting around for a book designer, Tania Craan arrives to show her portfolio . She gets the assignment.
Walter tells Craan that the trade paperback ought to be "sophisticated, upmarket, whimsical." If successful, it may spawn a series of books on music appreciation; therefore the design must have a "signature" look.
Walter and Craan agree that the focus of the cover should be an image of the composer. Craan suggests: "What if we have Mozart wearing headphones?" Walter likes the idea. "Go to it," she tells Craan.
OF THE HANDFUL of freelance book designers working in Canada, Tania Craan may be the most sought after. That copy of Margaret Atwood`s Cat`s Eye that you couldn`t put down? Tania Craan designed it. Alice Munro`s The Progress of Love and Margaret Laurence`s Dance on the Earth? Craan again.
Because there are so few job opportunities for book designers, most come to it through circuitous routes in publishing or commercial art. But Tania Craan, who is 29, has cut for herself a determinedly straight path. After high school she entered Sheridan College in Brampton, Ontario, for a graphic design course, where she decided to major in book illustration and design. After Sheridan, Craan got a job at Nelson Canada, and then moved on to Penguin Books as the firm`s first inhouse designer. It was there that she designed her breakthrough book.
Well, sort of designed it. Penguin was going to bring out a Canadian paperback edition of Anne Tyler`s best seller, The. Accidental Tourist. The American edition showed a stuffed armchair with wings sitting in a living room. Craan was given an odd restriction: she was told to use the winged armchair but not the background. After scratching her head for a while she came up with a simple and brilliant solution. She hired another artist to paint a new background -a blue sky crossed with wispy clouds. On the Canadian cover the winged armchair has taken off into the air.
Craan wasn`t at Penguin long before moving again, this time to McClelland & Stewart, where she soon rose to the position of art director. And then at the beginning of 1990 she decided to go freelance, so that she could have fewer distractions from designing and make a better income in a notoriously low-paying industry. Now she works out of a small, spare studio near Bloor and Bathurst streets in Toronto. Her equipment is minimal: a drafting table, a light table, some basic rulers and knives, and books of typefaces. A fax machine and a copier are just down the street. On the day I visit she has two rough versions of the forthcoming Alice Munro paperback, Friend of My Youth, on her drafting table. In one version the type is bold, even a little insistent; in the other it is gentler and more elegant. The people at Penguin have chosen the latter.
"I like to read the manuscript and get a feel for what the book`s about," Craan says of her approach. "I work with the art director, or the editor, or sometimes it`s the production manager. We talk about what the house feels is important. Are we selling the author, are we selling the title? Then we talk about the market-whom are we appealing to? Sometimes it`s determined by the print run. If you`re selling 2,000 copies you`re not concerned about pleasing that many people. But if you`re selling 50,000, you know right away you have to appeal to a wider audience.
"The way 1 see it, a cover has to grab the viewer from a dis. tance, like a poster. Then when you pick the book up it all has to work together. 1 see a cover design as different layers, a kind of perspective. There`s always something that stands out first, and then something else, in a series of steps. And you can control that with type and image and colour."
Paradoxically, the key to Tania Craan`s success is her own anonymity as a designer. She never indulges her own artistic "personality" or creates a design that draws attention away from the book itself. Her covers are characterized by clarity and elegance, but what makes them special is their understated and appealing warmth. Her books never seem intimidating to the reader, but open and inviting. She gives books a human face.
It`s that warmth that brings Craan so many fiction titles to design. Alice Munro, by the way, is among those writers who have control over the design of their books. So do Margaret Atwood and Timothy Findley; publishers like to keep these authors very, very happy.
In their second meeting, Tania Craan and Jan Walter choose an illustrator from Craan`s file. The illustrator, in Montreal, uses a technique called "scratchboard" to achieve an effect similar to wood engraving.
Next Craan sends Walter three different roughs of possible cover designs. They all show a decorative frame around the sides of the cover, the Mozart image inside the frame, and the title and author`s name in a vertical box in the upper right comer. Jan and her partners Gary Ross and John Macfarlane subject the roughs to a rigorous examination. They decide that the frame isn`t necessary. They choose the rough that uses the simplest and cleanest type. But isn`t the vertical box taking too much space away from the illustration of Mozart? Walter gets out her knife and cuts up a Xerox of the rough to make the box shorter. Better, they decide.
AS BOOK DESIGNERS, about the only thing that Tania Craan and Gordon Robertson share is a dislike of the kind of gimmickry and over-designing that can be seen on all too many books. Robertson discovered his own remarkable talent only by accident, and fell into a position that gave him the kind of freedom most designers can only dream about. Indeed, it is only now as a freelancer that he is learning to balance his own artistic impulses with more commercial demands.
While Craan works best with illustrators, Robertson prefers to design primarily with type and blocks of colour. Craan sees a cover as a series of three-dimensional Planes; Robertson imagines it as a flat, modernist surface.
The cover that Robertson is best known for in the industry is Michael Ondaatje`s In the Skin of a Lion (McClelland & Stewart). Unlike his work for his former employer, Coach House Press, this cover is dominated by the image of a painting: Frederick B. Taylor`s muscular Hull Rivetting. Robertson says that he, Ondaatje, and the editor Ellen Seligman "drove across hell`s half acre" to find the right painting, a powerful representation of men and labour. But what makes the image work are the strong black lines that frame it and the condensed modern typeface; they give the cover the energy of a 1930s political ban, net, but with a touch more refinement. Robertson, who is 35, grew up in Vancouver and lived for a time on a farming commune in the Cariboo. He was interested in writing (not until years later did he realize that he was buying second-hand books for their design), but took a production job with Harbour Publishing in Madeira Park, British Columbia. In 1981 he signed on with Coach House Press in Toronto, and when he wasn`t stripping film and doing layout, he was studying the rows of books in the archives, produced by Coach House`s succession of quirky and talented designers.
The late bpNichol, an editor at the press, first gave Robertson a book to design, and before long he was doing all their titles. "Nobody at any time told me what to do," he now laughs. "Back then I thought it would be nice to have some advice, but since then I`ve decided it was a great way to start"
Most designers in Canada take their cue from the United States, but Robertson`s style shows a European influence. It`s as if he has inherited the spirit of the Bauhaus, German Expressionism, and Russian Constructivism. Among his best works is the cover of D. G. Jones`s book of poems, Balthazar. The words are placed within a design of black and red lines, bars, squares, and one circle, making up an exquisitely balanced structure, like a work by Mondrian. "I can`t tell you how many hours I spent designing that book," Robertson says. "I worked very slowly and meticulously. I could tell you every measurement between every line."
The height of his autonomy came the time he designed, printed, and bound a new book before anyone else saw it. But alas, all good things must end, and Robertson`s position was terminated during the recent shake-up at Coach House, marking the end of an era.
Now Robertson is a full-time freelancer, working in a computer-equipped studio in his house on Markham Street in Toronto. Among his recent designs are Diane Schoemperlen`s The Man of My Dreams (Macmillan) and Josef Skvorecky`s The Miracle Game (Lester & Orpen Dennys). He also designs for smaller literary houses, most notably for the Mercury Press, which he is helping to create a striking visual identity, as he did for Coach House. But Robertson knows that his bread and butter must come from the big houses. "If I could get away with designing books that are very austere and simply typographic I`d do it," he says. "But commercial publishers want more punch. If I don`t get more commercial with my design I probably won`t be working that much. Still, you can maintain typographical elegance. You can be commercial and do beautiful work"
Jan Walter receives the rough sketches of Mozart from the Montreal illustrator. But she`s unhappy: the roughs look stiff and serious rather than fun and whimsical. She meets with Craan and John Macfarlane. They agree the illustrator`s style isn`t working. The cancellation means a "kill" fee will have to be paid, raising the cost of the book`s production. Now a new search for an illustrator begins, but Walter still hopes the cover will be ready to show the sales representatives at the December sales conference. A cover will allow the reps to give their valuable opinions; after all, they`re the ones who have to convince booksellers to place orders.
Jan Walter brings in the book`s editor, Kathryn Dean; the author, Robert Harris; and the assistant, Suzan Wookey, for their opinions. Finally they settle on a caricaturist named David E. Smith, who works out of London, England.
The delay means that the cover will miss the December sales conference. Now Walter just wants to avoid holding up the spring publication date. When the illustration is finished, Craan makes the final design adjustments and the colour choices. The book is ready to be printed, shipped, and stacked on bookstore shelves, where it will compete with hundreds of other new spring titles.
JUST AS IN OTHER fields of art, book design has its trends. How historically quaint books from the `60s now look to us, with their 11 psychedelic" colours and typefaces. Computers have freed designers to stretch and bend and curve type at will, sometimes to the point of breaking the rule of readability. Four-colour covers are becoming de rigueur even on small-press books.
Yet despite all the attention that publishers give to book design, it has not yet been reduced to a quasi-science. Unlike movie companies and advertising firms, publishers cant afford polls and study groups to tell them which typefaces are the most inoffensive and which colour schemes the most pleasing. Publishers still must rely on instinct and experience, just as they do in deciding which manuscripts to publish.
Those instincts are telling some publishers that as competition increases and book buyers` resistance to high prices grows, book covers are going to be even more important in bringing attention to a new title. While a fear of hard times will bring out the conservativism in some publishers, others will become bolder. And that means that on some books the small band of Canadian book designers will be allowed to take greater risks, as they walk the tightrope between commercialism and art.