Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What is happening to book cover design?

My wife is a big fan of Ian Rankin and she bought his latest book from Amazon. I saw it on her night table the other morning and immediately was curious – for all the wrong reasons. Basically, it is butt ugly.

Now here’s a big-time author and he’s gotten saddled with a dog of a cover. The news got worse with a little further investigation. It looks as if his entire oeuvre is being reissued with the brothers, sisters and close cousins of the book my wife purchased, all in trade paper format.

These are the Orion editions of which I am speaking, but his American publisher for his backlist, Back Bay Books (a division of Little Brown), seems to be following suit with a similar if only slightly less homely design. Both companies are ultimately owned by Hachette Livre, so there is definitely something going on as far as design goes between the two divisions of this very large company.

As you can see from this one example, they’re going with a design that is meant to appeal to the younger crowd. (As a designer, I know these things so you’ll have to trust me. Heavy black bands with type in them are a hallmark of current “trendiness”.) The result here, though, is exceptionally clumsy and overbearing. There’s nothing wrong with trying to give a particular author’s books some sort of branding identity, but someone really dropped the ball on this design.

Upon closer examination I also found that the materials used to make the book are very, for lack of a better word, cheap. The paper is a rough hi-bulk type just a step or two above newsprint. The result is that the ink has spread on the paper, giving the text a very clumsy and uninviting heaviness. The cardinal rule in typography is “good typography is invisible”. This is an epic fail in that regard. Even my wife commented about how crummy the type looked on the page and she’s usually immune to that stuff. And, by the way, the cover stock is pretty cheap, too.

Now the kicker as far as value goes: this book is supposed to retail in Canada for $24.99! That is a heck of a steep price for what I consider shoddily manufactured goods. Initially my supposition was that they’d cut down on quality to keep the price low, but such is not the case.

Back to the cover design. Regardless of the design ethic of it, the cookie cutter approach allows Orion to basically slam together Rankin covers on the cheap. Change up the colour and background photo (a simple purchase from a stock photo supplier, not one specifically commissioned for the cover – another money-saving dodge in current publishing practice) and you can bang out a dozen Rankin covers in a day, very little design ability required.

Sad thing is, I’ve noticed this trend with other authors and publishers. They could certainly justify it from an efficiency, save the bottom-line aspect, but as demonstrated by the entire package they’re selling with Ian's book (cheap paper and cheap cookie-cutter design), this is just a money grab on their part.

Ian Rankin deserves better. We all do.


Aline Templeton said...

I do agree about the hideous covers, Rick. The British ones are the same, though a lot less expensive - £7.99 on amazon.co.uk!

Charlotte Hinger said...

Rick, I'm going to keep my eye out in B & N for other fiction covers that sabotage the book. I've noticed those where the design detracts, but haven't paid attention to the physical characterists. Good point!

Eve Kotyk said...

I agree Rick. I thought the cover was awful. Do you know I never even noticed the background scene of ocean birds until I saw it on your website. The heavy black boxed type reminds me of a ransom note made out of magazine cutouts, but I'm reading the book and haven't come across a ransom note yet. (I have the Kindle version which by the way was $14.95)

Melodie Campbell said...

That sad thing is - it eliminates one of the reasons for buying paper over ebook. The linkage of art and words is something that thrills me...but not with this one.

Vicki Delany said...

Good post Rick. I bought the book for Kindle. Never mind the cover, as a big Rankin fan, I was seriously disappointed by the book itself. Barely worth finishing, IMHO.

Rick Blechta said...

Thanks everyone for weighing in. There were also some good comments on Facebook.

Maybe we should hold a contest for the ugliest cover of the year.

John R Corrigan said...

Rick, This is a great and interesting post. Thanks. You got me thinking.

Rick Blechta said...

My pleasure, John -- and everyone!