The secret to a good book cover
Suzanne Dean designed the cover for the Man Booker prize winner 'The Sense of an Ending' by Julian Barnes. She talks about creating some of the most striking book jackets of the past 20 years.
To judge a book by its cover is so patently unwise that it has long been a metaphor for other forms of misinterpretation. But only a very naive author would suppose that the cover of his or her book was irrelevant. It’s the first thing we see, and there’s no way to make it entirely objective: a book’s cover offers an interpretation of its contents – some inflection, if only by its typeface or colour. And yet its effect on the reader is mostly subliminal. Book designers are the ultimate hidden persuaders.
Earlier this year, in his acceptance speech for the Man Booker Prize, Julian Barnes effectively outed one of the women behind his throne: Suzanne Dean, the creative director of Random House, who has been designing the jackets of his books for years. And it seems about time that designers stepped forward and took more credit: with the rise of e-books, physical books have become even more covetable as objects. If you just want to read something, you can do that electronically; if you want to own it, the book should be as beautiful as possible.
Dean, who started designing for Penguin almost 20 years ago, then moved from there to Picador and Random House, now oversees all of Cornerstone and Vintage publishing; this week, she was the only designer included in The Bookseller’s list of “100 most influential people in the book trade”. Over the years, she has come up with a vast number of diverse and memorable covers: the silver first edition of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, the hardback of Don DeLillo’s Underworld, Ian McEwan’s Atonement and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, to name a few. Yet she has only started to put her name on them in the last four years or so.
She feels very strongly that e-books offer designers of physical books the opportunity to be more creative. “I absolutely think we should seize the initiative and make the best books we can,” she told me in her office earlier this week. “I can’t imagine a world that didn’t have books on shelves – it would be like having no paintings on walls or photographs in frames. All of these things are part of what makes you who you are.”
In the gamble of deciding how expensively to produce a book, Dean has found that making something extraordinary often pays off. With Barnes’s Arthur and George, for example, a Victorian green cloth cover, or Tom McCarthy’s C, which was wrapped in doodled acetate, word quickly spread that only early print runs would take that form. People rushed out to buy the collectors’-items-to-be, and Dean heard of fights breaking out in bookshops.
For this year’s Man Booker winner, Dean tried out, in her own estimation, about 20 different jackets. Working with the book’s themes of time and memory, she ordered vintage watches from eBay, and even smashed them up in her garden. She tried period photographs of schoolboys, and an image of a couple. Each version tilted one’s reading of the novel quite distinctly. Julian Barnes took about seven covers home and thought about them. Just as he was about to settle on one that featured old rulers and a watch, Dean had second thoughts. “I asked him to give me two more weeks.”
She spent those weeks gliding into abstraction, first asking a letterpress printer to blur wet ink, then realising she’d have to paint the letters herself. She printed out A3 sheets with the title and author in the faintest possible type, then went to work with a brush and Quink ink, which she felt the schoolboys in the book would have used. Still working the ideas of time and memory, she asked herself, of the type alone, “How far can I take the disintegration? How much can I take away?”
She spent almost two weeks just painting. (“I’m a little obsessive,” Dean says with a smirk.) Then she shunted the letters to the right, smudged them into darkness, and realised she needed to ask the production department to make the ends of the book’s pages black. “That’s when I got a little flutter,” she says. It was the closest thing to an “ending” that anyone could render graphically. She added, very delicately, a blown dandelion to the back, and showed it to Barnes and the book’s editor, Dan Franklin. “We all had that buzz from it,” she remembers, “that feeling that it was right.” The book has become the fastest-selling Man Booker Prize winner since records began.