Cover appeal

Books are looking better than ever as publishers go out of their way to make their titles stand out. Yolanda Zappaterra checks out Hodder Stoughton’s latest initiative – commissioning a range of artists to create covers for modern classics

Surely bookshops have never looked so enticing. Like sweet shops filled with colourful delights, the shelves are stacked with books that are so appealing they’re begging to be picked up.

Whatever the reasons, this new trend for books as something more than just a delivery platform for written content can only be good for readers, publishers and designers, particularly when they’re design-led initiatives driven by the creative process rather than the bottom dollar. The Sceptre 21 Classics for the 21st Century series, to be published next month, is a great example of such an initiative.

To celebrate the 21st anniversary of its literary imprint Sceptre, Hodder Stoughton commissioned 21 contemporary artists and illustrators to come up with original covers for a range of its titles, including Barcelona Plates by Alexei Sayle, The Long Firm by Jake Arnott, Peter Cook: A Biography by Harry Thompson and Heaven and Hell, a biography of Kurt Cobain by Charles R Cross.

Such a disparate group was likely to prove a headache in terms of creating a cohesive collection, but as Jocasta Brownlee, senior commissioning editor and editor for the series, points out, ‘Most consumers aren’t interested in which imprint/publishing house has produced a book and are unlikely to feel an overwhelming need to rush out and buy 21 books, so we didn’t want to create a formal series look – instead, allowing the books themselves to lead the direction of the covers.’ Each book has the Sceptre logo and a structured back cover, but other than that, Hodder wanted each title to be individual. To achieve this, it set about reversing its normal design process.

As Alice Wright, deputy art director, recalls, ‘Usually, we get a brief from the editor which tells us the visual direction, positioning in the market, content of the book, who it is aimed at, comparison author and so on. This time we decided the process should be design-led; we asked the art team to pick out contemporary artists they’ve always wanted to work with. We laid all the samples out on the table, eliminating work that had been used before on book covers or seemed too commercial. We then went through a synopsis of each book and matched the artists to each title. For example, I knew that Parra’s Biro work would translate perfectly into a portrait of Kurt Cobain. I wanted the book to look and feel quite raw and hand-drawn, so I asked Parra to do the portrait as well as the type, logo and barcode box for a unified feel.’

Designer Mark Read remembers ‘seeing Gregory Gilbert-Lodges’ work on a mail-out and loving his solid, simple colours. I knew he would make Peter Cook look cool’. Si Scott ‘got the feel of The Long Firm just right with strong, “blokey” bold type and beautiful organic lines. We were given almost free rein on the covers, which has never happened before – it meant that covers were much more creative, cool and fun,’ says Read.

In terms of briefing the artists, the series’ designers again had a lot of freedom. ‘If a designer put forward an artist, they could commission that person. All ideas were discussed as a team before briefing, so there was a clear direction for each title, but the artist had freedom to interpret the brief in their own style and add their own ideas,’ Wright explains.

‘Of course, the proof of the success of the campaign will come when we see the impact they’ve had on sales,’ admits Brownlee. ‘But there are many books that deserve to be read for years to come and it’s important that publishers make sure they’re still available and exciting to new audiences.’

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