US designer Michael Ian Kaye deserves special mention this week. Not only is Kaye senior creative director of the boutique New York ad agency AR, but some of his former roles – US creative director of publisher Little, Brown & Company, US art director of Penguin Press – mean that he is perfectly placed to still do the odd book design from time to time. And boy, was last week’s odd.
It’s been almost ten years to the day since the acclaimed US novelist Thomas Pynchon released a work of fiction. Pynchon, the hazily notorious author of books such as V., Gravity’s Rainbow and Mason & Dixon, has nurtured a cultish following over the years, owed as much to his anonymity as to his avant-garde narratives (Gravity’s Rainbow has been compared to James Joyce’s Ulysess in scope).
Pynchon hasn’t been photographed for 50 years, doesn’t do interviews and aside from his appearance on The Simpsons (his character had a bag on his head), he is rarely heard from in public. Conspiracy theorists even suggest he is actually a fiction, himself the product of a cabal of literary miscreants.
So, come last Tuesday, when his latest 1000-page tome Against the Day was released, there was more than a little expectation. There had been no clues it was coming, and no details of Kaye’s involvement, until his name revealed itself on the fly leaf of the dust jacket. But how much more than the dust jacket has Kaye actually designed?
As late as Monday evening, the day before its simultaneous publication in the US and the UK, there hadn’t been a word about it. No publicity. No pre-launch copies. No reviews (just one preview in The Guardian). No marketing. No branding. No speculation in the book trade.
This could hardly have been deliberate could it? Some viral, or guerrilla, campaign? No – this was brand silence – and how refreshing it was.
Kaye could not be reached (it was Thanksgiving), and the UK press officer was on holiday. Traipsing around Waterstone’s on Monday night, there wasn’t a copy in sight, just a few vacant spaces on the odd black display case. No posters. No anticipation. No speculation.
‘It’s not in yet,’ the assistant at the desk said, checking, ‘We’re due to get 12 copies, but I don’t know when.’
By ten o’clock next morning, there they were. A small stack of hardbacks, quietly depleted. A curious low-level pull emitted from the book, despite the lack of marketing noise. Perhaps it was the design of the cover.
‘Perhaps it’s something to do with the seal Michael designed on the spine?’ suggested the publicity director at Jonathan Cape. ‘No doubt there will be lots of significance attached to that.’
Kaye was suddenly starting to sound as cryptic as the author, so some enquiries were in order. Suzanne Dean, the UK creative director of Random House, explained that uniquely, Kaye has total control over all creative aspects of a book, ‘from the galleys and the cover to its advertising’. Was there more to his involvement than met the eye?
Pynchon’s distinctive covers are often as minimal as the appearances of the author; many are purely typographic and scant on imagery, rather like those of the novelist JD Salinger, points out Acacia Avenue partner Martin Lee.
‘Salinger was famous for never allowing any cover treatment on any of his books, which is why often they were purely typographic and grey,’ says Lee. ‘But this “anti-marketing” stance eventually came to be iconic and ended up being part of the source of Salinger’s fame. So much more effective than spending lavish amounts of money on cover art.’
John Simmons, a co-founder of 26 and a director of The Writer, discerns a very real brand plot amid the casual nature of the book’s ‘launch’ and, like Lee, says it would not have been the first time this had happened.
‘Pynchon is from the same school of reclusivity as Salinger. Of course, we love the mystery that this professed lack of hype suggests, but actually it’s only another form of branding. The Pynchon brand is based on principles of “no hype, no marketing, no excessive display”. I’m sure Pynchon’s publishers are using similar thinking to their commercial advantage even if Pynchon himself feels “pure”.’
‘Maybe the publisher is banking on the rumour-mongering about the new Pynchon that’s been circulating for ages,’ says Lee, himself a former marketing man at Waterstone’s.’ Allowing a cult of misinformation and leaks to emerge is an effective way to manage the publicity.’
‘Or maybe Pynchon is insistent on no publicity of any sort, and the publisher has been forced into it as part of the contract with the agent – Pynchon may have achieved that high status where he can call the shots,’ Lee adds.
Whatever happened last week, something important was highlighted with the launch of Against the Day. Purely and simply, it was the deliciousness of brand silence.
MICHAEL IAN KAYE – CV
• Senior creative director of AR
• Former creative director of Ogilvy & Mather’s Brand Integration Group
• Worked as creative director of Little, Brown & Co
• Also worked as art director of Penguin Press
• Now heads luxury and fashion brand development for Salvatore Ferragamo, St Regis, Elle Accessories, and Carolina Herrera Fragrance