His and Hers Book Design

I used to be a bit cynical about book cover design. That was before I worked in book publishing, however. Contra the cliché, it is pretty easy to judge a book by its cover. Publishers and designers want you to be able to make certain assumptions about the content that lies within based on the cover. And there is no real upside to tricking people into buying books they are not going to enjoy by raising false expectations. A satisfied reader is the best word-of-mouth bookseller; a disappointed one the worst.

So a reader should be able to make intelligent guesses about a book's genre and style, and assess whether they are part of the intended audience or not, from the font, the style of photo or illustration, the colour scheme, and the surrounding text - endorsements from popular or high cultural sources, claims to bestsellerdom, etc. If the book belongs to a series, it will be displayed with the others and have a shared design theme, so you know that if you enjoy the first one, you can binge-read the rest - as that seems to be the preferred way of consuming all cultural products these days, in mass quantities.

So I was amused to notice as I was browsing one of the larger bookstores recently two acclaimed series of books on display not six feet from each other. What struck me was the contrast in their cover designs.

On the one hand, you had Karl Ove Knausgaard's multi-volume autobiographical novel 'My Struggle', with his own brooding Norwegian visage on the cover of each instalment. Sorrowfully downcast on volume one, 'A Death in the Family'. Stern if also coquettish - in a macho sort of way - behind his salt-and-pepper locks on 'A Man In Love'. A little more open and friendly on volume three, 'Boyhood Island', the hue of the title resonating with the blue of his eyes, deep (and frigid?) as the Nordic waters out of which his particular lament springs.

It would be interesting to ask readers who know nothing about the series whether they would be inclined to read it based on the cover design. The dark black covers; solid, sober font; and lack of fussy decorative detail all communicate that this is SERIOUS LITERARY FARE - meaty as blood sausage, masculine as vodka and cigarettes - substantial stuff that you can boast about having read at sophisticated parties or to friends  suffering through the tortures of grad school, who only wish they had time to read 3,600-page tomes just for fun.

But the books are, at least in terms of writing style, very easy to read. There is nothing difficult about his prose. You can turn the pages as swiftly as you would any good thriller from the same part of the world, anything by Stieg Larsson or Jo Nesbø, for instance. Yet, I suspect the sheer SCALE and apparent IMPORTANCE of these books - communicated as much by their design as anything else - will deter a lot of more casual readers who are not put off by thick paperbacks in more familiar and comfortable genres.

Then, not three paces away, you have the Elena Ferrante series of so-called 'Neapolitan novels', another series that has won raves from critics. The covers are, as with the Knausgaard books, all of a piece - in terms of their design - again, promising readers that once they are hooked they'll be able to keep getting their fix for some time to come.

These covers, however, are the polar opposite in terms of the mood they convey. They are self-consciously feminine: the pastel colours, the flowing dresses on women and children alike, the sandy beaches, the azure sea, the angel and/or butterfly wings and presumably magic wands. These look like they are meant to be READ at the beach, as breezy as the gentle wind blowing through your hair as you swiftly and effortlessly turn the pages. They look, that is, like the lightest of popular women's fiction that you might buy at the drugstore, impulsively, as you wait in line with your cosmetics and your sunscreen.

This has to be deliberate, and yet, the books have won acclaim from all the most austere gatekeepers of literary virtue (James Wood, et al.), and are no less serious in that sense than the Knausgaard books - difficult, philosophical, providers not of easy pleasures but of hard truths about life.

Interestingly, the two series seem to have a common thematic thread: an unsentimental, even brutal candour about the less attractive side of raising children.

Knausgaard "walk[s] around Stockholm’s streets, modern and feminized, with a furious nineteenth-century man inside [of him]", struggling to write GREAT LITERATURE while changing diapers and attending humiliating 'Rhythm Time' classes with his toddler, where he is reduced to sitting on the floor, singing idiotic songs and rattling cheerful noisemakers with a bunch of gleefully oblivious modern mommies.

But Ferrante's female protagonist describes motherhood in similarly stark terms: "I was like a lump of food that my children chewed without stopping; a cud made of a living material that continually amalgamated and softened its living substance to allow two greedy bloodsuckers to nourish themselves."

So, one suspects the design choice for the Ferrante series is intended, quite the opposite of the Knausgaard case, almost to trick readers - with a breezy outer wrapping - into reading more substantial literary fare than they might otherwise be inclined to, much the way parents trick children into eating their vegetables by slathering them in cheese. This is book marketing by (semi-)stealth. Again, it would be interesting to talk to readers who know nothing of the series and to see what assumptions they make about it based purely on the cover designs. I suspect a goodly number of them would be quite shocked, after the almost Anne Geddes-like sweetness of the image of those two little girls with the angel wings, to hear them described as "greedy bloodsuckers" devouring the "living substance" of their mother!

In both cases, these are books that deserve to be read by a wide audience. It is just interesting to note the ways in which design is deployed to help - or, possibly, inadvertently hinder - them reaching that audience.

For a professional view inside the design thinking and decision-making process that goes into creating a great book cover, see the regular monthly Quill & Quire feature: Cover to Cover.