Thursday, March 22, 2012

What an old man thinks about book covers by W H Chong

After he had put in his prescription at the pharmacy I led my ancient father-in-law next door to our local bookshop, a little neighbourhood indie that's been operating for some 23 years.

In the crowded space their new release fiction is displayed on a wall of shelves next to the new non-fiction which has its own island table. I'm guessing this is due to the volume of fiction rather than a privileged status for non-fiction.

I swept my arm across the shelves and said, What catches your eye, and tell me why. He peered half-heartedly -- he's had a recent operation for a cataract, but there hasn't been much improvement, alas -- and after much prompting pointed out a few face out titles. The one that he picked first and most convincingly was the Michael Koryta thriller 'The Ridge'.

Why that one? Oh, he said, the colour (golden browns and black with white highlights). And that white…(pointing to the huge author text). It would have been too much to ask if the sense of generic thriller had seeped through.

As we left he said, very slightly peevishly, The cover doesn't worry me, you know. It's what it is about. And whether I know the author. (He likes reading thrillers nowadays: Lynda LaPlante, Stieg Larsson, but also has recently read Anna Karenina, all on his font-size adjustable iPad.)

Which I knew to be true; and I wonder if there's not a large groan (oops, grain) of truth here about his segment of the reading public -- folk, elder or not, who simply read for entertainment; to pass the time. The bookshop's adult Top Ten: 1, Tsiolkas' The Slap; 2, Winton's Breath; 3, Larsson's Girl-Dragon-Tattoo; 5, Doidge's The Brain That Changes Itself. That snapshot tells us a lot and fits in with the f-i-l's remarks about content (or genre) and familiarity of author (alternatively, reputation of a title).

I'm inclined to agree with the obvious: that covers are far more important for un- or lesser-known authors. And by extension, that covers matter much more to prospective readers who are either more committed to the adventure of reading (as opposed to the comfort it may provide) and who really might just read anything, from short stories by Alice Munro and Tower Wells, to novels by DeLillo and Annie Proulx. Which is a coarse description of the tiny audience known as Literary.

What covers can do and who they do it too is a large topic, suitable for an informal dissertation (which this is so thankfully not) and subject to any amount of contestation. But I'm inclined to think that, to paraphrase Jesus, it is only precious to the precious. And that, happily for anyone involved in the art and craft of book/cover design, it is an opportunity -- an artist's opportunity -- to obtain creative satisfaction from a daily practice, and, amazingly, one which might provide a living -- an extraordinarily rare kind of occupation in this difficult world. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, as Genesis so unplacatingly puts it. But this is a sweeter sweat.

This post was written for aboutbookdesign by WH Chong. W.H. Chong has been designing books for Text Publishing since 1992. He writes the blog Culture Mulcher for