The writer and design critic Rick Poynor noted recently that, ‘No one minds when Jack Kerouac’s On the Road gets a new cover design. [But] woe betide the marketing genius who one day decides that Sergeant Pepper needs a graphic makeover’. And he’s right. You can change a book jacket as often as you like and it doesn’t seem to matter.
This tells us more about the colonisation of publishing by sophisticated marketing techniques than anything profound about the relationship between book jackets and classic album covers. There is, however, an interesting observation to be made about great record covers: they seem to have a symbiotic relationship with the music they encase, while in comparison most book covers appear to have an almost semi-detached relationship with the text they enclose.
The Beatles members commissioned the Sergeant Pepper cover themselves (with the help of art dealer Robert Fraser) and took an active role in its creation, thus establishing a blueprint for band/ designer collaboration that persists today. The link between Peter Blake and Jan Haworth’s cover and the Fab Four’s music – a symbiosis that exists with all great album covers – is there for all to see.
Will Self is said to have participated in the creation of the striking Brit-art series of covers recently produced by Penguin for his backlist. But this appears to be unusual, and the modern book cover rarely conveys the sense of authorial involvement that you get with, say, a Massive Attack, Pulp or Blur album cover.
The reasons for this are probably ingrained in publishing tradition. Publishing is a much older trade than the record industry. And e e traditionally, in the era before the paperback, the removable dust jacket was just a convenient place to put quotes from enthusiastic reviewers and list the author’s previous books. This allowed the notion to develop that book jackets were little more than point-of-sale items rather than the visual encapsulations of the author’s words. As a result, the book jacket acquired an ephemeral, impermanent quality, a characteristic further encouraged by the arrival of the mass-market paperback in the 1930s.
But, despite this, any greatest hits of graphic design would have to include a small library of book covers. Jan Tschichold in the early days of Penguin; Germano Facetti at Penguin in the 1960s and early 1970s; Willi Fleckaus at Suhrkamp in Germany; the austere jackets of Gallimard in France; Karel Martens in Holland; the work of US designer Michael Ian Kaye. I could go on.
And it is certainly not true to say that there is currently no outstanding graphic design or illustration. Actually, there’s some truly great work. Of course, I’m not talking about the airport blockbusters, those foil-blocked wood pulp bricks with their K-Tel aesthetics and their omnipresence, along with the suntan lotion, in the luggage of British holidaymakers. I’m talking about the jackets for literary publishing and, increasingly, business books.
But, cast a glance around the shelves of your nearest Waterstone’s and you also get the sense of jacket design having become almost entirely marketing driven (equally true of the modern record industry). Covers look as if they’ve been designed by committees or, even more depressingly, by retailers (a trend I can confirm from personal experience). Too many suffer from the impression that the picture editors of the photolibraries have chosen the main cover image. They look as if they have all been infected by a sort of designery sameness.
Of course, if we want publishers to produce exciting fiction, then perhaps we have to accept the fact that modern publishing has joined the world of the fmcg. This means that the marketing men and women, with their flip charts and focus groups, are now a permanent force in the design of jackets for contemporary fiction.
But surely the dead hand of marketing is less necessary in the realm of classic fiction? Surely the great authors are sufficiently well known to be spared cosmetic design? What about an author like George Orwell? Some would say that he helped to mould the modern British psyche. Surely he can be spared the one-size-fits-all approach?
Yes, seems to be the answer. A new Orwell series from Penguin comes with engaging and thought-provoking covers. Each of the four volumes has a classic Orwell novel as its centrepiece, and is accompanied by essays, reviews and letters. The covers, which are in Penguin’s Classics format (thin horizontal silver strip along the bottom, with author and title in discreet Trade Gothic typeface), are by illustrator Marion Deuchars and powerfully evoke Orwell’s abiding interest in political and social injustice.
The covers contain fragments of handwriting, bits of documentary photography and, in one case, a portion of the Union Jack: a sliver of the national flag is rendered in dusty colours as if it has been discarded in a remote tropical region. This reflects another of Orwell’s themes: the death throes of the British Empire. These, and other graphic elements, suggest a sure-footed understanding of Orwell’s work, and provide the bookshop browser with what Stephen Bayley, in a recent article on book cover design, called a ‘graphic haiku’.
As a child, I can remember seeing copies of Agatha Christie novels, wrapped in the distinctive green jacket that Tschichold created for the Penguin crime format, in my parent’s bookshelves. There were no colour pictures, just e e Gill Sans and two vertical stripes of green. The covers seemed like the pinnacle of sophistication. I imagined them full of adult wickedness. They looked edgy and endlessly alluring. Later, I discovered that Christie wrote books that were about as edgy as a cup of tea and a jam scone in a Hampshire tearoom.
A new set of covers from HarperCollins confirms Christie’s status as the maiden aunt of crime fiction. They look like Christie novels, but they also look like dozens of other covers on the shelves. They have nothing to distinguish them from countless other jackets. These covers look as if they are the result of a lazy trawl through half a dozen stock photography catalogues. They lack any sort of imagination or aesthetic unity and must rank as a missed opportunity.
Think what a bold designer like Angus Hyland at Pentagram could do with a range like this? He could do what he did for the Pocket Canons – Cannongate – a couple of years ago, for example. He could make people stop and reassess the queen of arsenic and old jam. As I said, it’s a missed opportunity.
As has already been noted, retailers exert enormous power in the creation of modern jackets. The Folio Society, a venerable institution in British publishing, sells its books by subscription only. This gives it freedom from the harsh realities and gladiatorial overtones of the retail arena. And it shows in the elegant and refined nature of its book production. But does it portray the work of its authors any better than publishers, who have to compete on the shelves of the nation’s bookshops?
Take their box set of Raymond Chandler: the Complete Novels. This year’s British Design and Art Direction Illustration jury got sufficiently excited to give it a Silver award. Don’t quite see it myself. It seems to promote the notion of this important writer as a sort of Christie of LA Noir. The seven books come in a sturdy slipcase, and when all the volumes are inserted in the right order the spines make a cliched image of a private dick with a hat and a gun. Oh yes, there is also a 1940s car and a palm tree.
These hackneyed images fail to capture the rich psychological hinterland of Chandler’s fiction. They’re not bad, it’s just that they don’t make you think afresh about Chandler, they don’t evoke his power as one of the creators of the modern LA-Noir myth, or that he was a complex character whose influence lives on in dozens of important contemporary writers, not least James Ellroy.
Things improve inside the individual volumes. A series of black and white illustrations by Geoff Grandfield pack an expressionistic punch. The illustrations are full of attenuated shadows, seedy locations and dangerous looking femme fatales, images that take us closer to the dark heart of Chandler’s world. Needless to say, the book production is, as you’d expect from The Folio Society, immaculate. Every detail is considered, perfect.
These three sets of books represent three distinct trends in design for modern publishing: the good, the bland and the predictable. Perhaps the book cover, like the record cover, is a thing of the past. Perhaps electronic media has already usurped the book. Maybe the next generation of cover designers are already working on-line, building hypertext sites with sound and streaming video. Somehow, I think not. The book, that ergonomically perfect artefact, made from paper, glue and ink, is likely to continue to attract intelligent designers for a long time to come. Or at least until we stop reading.
Adrian Shaughnessy is creative director at Intro