Friday, May 21, 2010

Don't judge a book by its hot-ass cover design

I read an interesting post yesterday on the Artifice blog about design. (It's based on an ongoing discussion from Big Other I didn't bother to read, sorry. No offense to the good people of Big Other.) This part in particular interested me:
But sometimes I get a little insecure about this. I like cool design as much as the next person. I get all fluttery when I look at Proximity or Ninth Letter or anything that featherproof books touches. And now Mule.

Because highly designed is “in.” It’s part of what makes the “celebrity culture” of indie presses run. How many times have you bought a book based on the cover design on a website? [...]

They flip the consumer switch in me, which doesn’t want fancy jewelry to show off, but rather understated little jewel-books. Is that bad? It is true that I first said about them, “I love Green Lantern Press; their books are so gorgeous” rather than “I love Green Lantern Press; the authors they publish are so good.”

Is this a problem? Are presses and magazines that focus on highly designed layouts giving people the carrot in order to try and convince them to like the stick, too?
This caught my eye, or my brain, because I have kind of a bug up my ass (is this an expression?? I keep wanting to say this) about design.

First of all, it's become a total cliche in reviews of small press books to comment on the books "as artifacts," to say "These are just beautiful objects to hold." If you're going to comment on the design, say something more interesting than that, OK?

Secondly, too much focus on design is just annoying -- not from the perspective of the press, the journal, the designers. They should absolutely devote resources to design. From the perspective of the reader. The point of design is not just to look good; it's at least as much about usability. A really beautiful spoon is not necessarily a well-designed spoon unless it's merely an art object; if you're actually supposed to eat soup with it, good design implies that it's pleasurable to use, that it gets the job done in an elegant way. And I feel like some journals, both print and online, put so much effort into looking hot, into trying to impress readers with the design itself rather than the content, that it's actually difficult to focus on or even physically read the stories. (Or, if it's an online magazine, it's difficult to navigate the pages.) A sign of good design is that the object is so functional you don't think about the object too much; it just does what it does and does it well. You can focus on the process at hand, in this case reading.

It's also weird how in Small Press Land, there's an insane amount of focus on who put a book out. If you say you have a book or just read a book, someone always asks immediately who put it out. What press is it on? This reminds me of junior high, when every compliment on an article of clothing or piece of jewelry was followed up with "Where did you get it?" or "What brand is that?" I remember being really embarrassed in seventh grade when someone noticed that my knock-off Birks were fake. Too much spooging over design feels like a kind of snobbery (duh, fancy design usually costs significantly more) and superficiality. When you're talking about a new album you love, only the ultimate music snob asks what label it's on.

It's not that I don't care how books and journals look. It's just that I think the look and feel should be in service of the writing, not a totally separate concern.


  1. For Flim Forum Press, design is a part of the press's message / mission as much as who we choose to publish. That our books are white, offer a lot of space on each page, that the page numbers are hidden close to the binding, etc., etc., are all very carefully chosen design elements that carry from one book to the next. We see our titles as part of a whole project--even if they are also part of another project (for example, Brandon Shimoda's book is part of his project--our aesthetic intersects with his). This doesn't mean the content isn't of primary importance; it means that the WHOLE book IS the content. There's no part of the book that isn't an expression of Flim Forum and the poet's project.

    Les Figues' Trench Art series design is more aggresive, in that it demands writers create with their design in mind (read their guidelines). Angela Rawling's book from Coach House wouldn't make the same sense with a different design. Changing the design would change the poem.

    These, of course, are examples of books that were conceived front-to-back, that is, not just a gathering of the poems a poet has written during a certain period in their life. Those books--collections--can be designed without the poet's input, and still make sense.

    Why do we care about the labels? We begin to learn who does good work, who chooses good artists. We begin to be able to rely on the editor/publisher, so even if we don't know the artist, we're willing to try them. The same is true about music labels. It's not snobbery (it can lead to snobbery, but knowledge on its own--no matter how specialized--is only a tool).

    You raise an important point: it's worth asking why, aside from a sales perspective, a book is designed as it is.

    (Flim Forum errs on the side of design that's bad for sales: not putting Brandon Shimoda's name on the from cover was something we and Brandon wanted; it's a terrible way to sell books.)

  2. As for presses, I've also heard people ask other people, "who is it with" or even "who are you with." Yikes.

    Ah, High School.

  3. Adam, the majority of your design considerations are in the service of the writing, correct? Lots of white space and hidden page numbers seem to help readers read the poetry you publish, not deter from it. I think that's good/important. I'm not saying design doesn't matter, I'm saying design should be in service to the poems.

    My point about labels is that we may believe/pretend all we are doing is looking for quality writing vetted by editors we trust ... but I think a lot of times it's an excuse not to judge the work on its own merit, which is harder and takes more time. And we begin to connect pretty design with good writing, and it doesn't always work that way.

    I feel a little uneasy about the concept of the book just being the content, though. What if Flim Forum Press dies? Does that mean Brandon Shimoda's book has to die too? Can the poems not live outside the object you created? I think of poetry as an entity separate from the page it's printed on.

  4. Your last question simply excellent, Elisa--I was thinking the same about Rawling's book. If a book like Rawling's or Brandon's is taken up by another press, it's an opportunity to reinterpret the poem. Just as each production of a play brings new ideas to it / changes it. I think that's exciting. Different from a play, of course, in that a book could be reproduced, even by another press, nearly exactly--a play is certain to be different.

    Flim's The Aps is *a* version. I'd love for there to be others in the future, but there are some presses I wouldn't trust to do The Alps.

    You're right about design's power to convince readers a book of poems is good even if it's not--in some cases, it's like mass hypnosis--I won't name names. I've been fooled. I am fooled. It goes beyond the design, too--the presentation as a whole (does the press have a cool site? Are the editors funny/cool-weird? Is the poet handsome / cute / funny / stylish?

  5. I like the comparison of the printed book to the produced play, as an interaction.

    Yes, a lot of it comes down to being cool. JG is right, all life is high school.

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  8. When I see a book of poems that seems to me to be heavy on the design, I instinctively get a little suspicious. Not that I would never buy or read a lavishly or complexly designed book of poems, but I would want the poems to prove to me that they are as rigorous as the book design. A high maintenance book design tends to make me wonder if the poet and/or the publisher are trying to distract readers from weakness in the poems.

    I get your point about people asking immediately "who's the publisher" or however they phrase it. At the same time, I understand the sense of the question (though it's not necessarily the first question I ask if someone tells me they have a book coming out).

    Obviously the poetry itself is what I look at first in deciding whether to buy or read a book. That's always the decider for me.

    There are a few poetry publishers that have consistently published poetry I've really liked, and (similar to what Adam commented above) when I find a new book from one of those publishers, by an author I'm not familiar with, I'm more likely to take a chance on it than a book from a publisher and author I'm not familiar with.

  9. A comment from James Tadd Adcox, who was having trouble posting:

    Hi Elisa,

    On books as artifacts: Part of the reason it seems that so many print publishers (us included) focus on the design is that the book-as-object, the book that you want to hold, is one of the things that can possibly distinguish a print book from an electronic book--and, to my mind anyhow, if you've made the decision to go print over electronic, you've got to offer readers something that an electronic publication can't.

    Your point about design not getting in the way of the text, not making a book harder to read, is a good one, and one that Rebekah and I have talked about quite a bit. In some ways, it strikes me that what this discussion is ultimately about though is an artistic continuum, from those books that are primarily literary, that foreground the word (with design always at its service), to those that are primarily visual, those that foreground the design (with the word acting as the opportunity for or the subject of the visual design elements). Though I too like Adam's metaphor of the book as performance of the literary work...

  10. Hey all,

    I actually think journals are probably more in danger of being overdesigned than books. Since journals feature a variety of different writers and the work changes with every issue, a highly design-y journal can feel like the visual aspects have nothing to do with the work inside.

    One assumes, however, that a book is designed with the content of that book in mind.

  11. I am on my way out of the house, and just now saw that you followed up on my post. Thanks! I'm going to read this in the car and think about it.

    I too agree that journals are more in danger than books, and perhaps my post on the Artifice site didn't clarify that (using Green Lantern as my example, for example).

    Lyle's point about being suspicious is a good one - I wonder how much of that is a response to seeing "designed" things as "advertised" things, and part of the larger advertising culture? Because I have the same repelled/appealed feeling.

  12. My mom couldn't get out of work early, so I have no way to find my way to Brookline, and to your signing.
    I will buy the book from the internet. I promise.

  13. If I ask what press a person is published on it's because certain press have particular aesthetics, which means if a poet is on Octopus or Fence then I have a better idea of what I might encounter on the page- I also know that I can easily find Octopus, Wave, and Fence at my bookstore, but with a press like Birds LLC or even Tarpaulin Sky then I know if I want it, I best order it online which makes a difference 'cause I tend to be an impulse buyer.

    In regards to journals- yes overdesign has definitely tricked me into picking up some weak content, but never the case for a book of poetry.

  14. I approach this entirely differently. Lately I think of writing and design as inseparable. That is, I know exactly how I want the writing to appear, regardless of media (book, journal, internet) as I'm writing it. I think of the writing and the book as one entity, or work. To take either element away would ruin the integrity of both. This has meant that in some cases I can't have publishers who have a house style or particular design publish my poems--I mean, it's unreasonable to tell a publisher, "this must be hardcover, with this type of paper, this size, etc etc". I make compromises for appearing in journals, but I nearly always think of the form of the book when writing these days.

  15. "the page numbers are hidden close to the binding" <--huge turn-off, i have to say

  16. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I sort of feel like some commenters are responding as though I came out against design.

    I'm pro good, thoughtful book design, and I can think of lots of books where the design contributes hugely (and positively) to the way the work is read.

    Nonetheless, I think "design" is often misinterpreted in a superficial way, so that it's reduced to looking cool, and the cool-looking-ness seems applied after the fact on top of the poetry, instead of having some organic connection to it. Basically, it's cargo cult design. That's not what design is.

  17. Late to the party because I've been traveling, but I don't think the "who are you with" question re: presses is always (or even very often) an expression of some kind of immature clique-ishness. A lot of presses--Rose Metal Press, for example, which focuses on hybrid work, or Switchback Books which is a feminist publisher--try hard to establish clear missions and aesthetics, so a lot of times the answer to that question contains important information about the content and focus of the book.

  18. Likewise, the store your clothes come from usually conveys information. (For example, the relative cost, the style, who the clothes are marketed toward, durability, and so on.) I don't think that really negates my point.

    If someone is curious about the content and focus of a book, why not just ask "What's the content and focus of the book?" rather than asking what press it is on, which is an indirect way to get that info? I just don't see why this should be the FIRST question people ask.

  19. As another example, the company you work for says a lot about your job, but if you want to know the details of someone's job, you usually ask directly what they do rather than who employs them.

  20. I don't think it should be the first question necessarily either, but I don't think it's a crazy/bad question to ask. Everyone might not feel this way (nor am I saying everyone should), but as a small press editor myself, I really like to ask what press a book is on--it's as fun to know what the presses are up to as it is to know that a poet/writer has been published by a certain press, does that make sense? By asking that, you can learn, for instance, "Oh, so that's the latest addition to Featherproof's list." Also, it's not exactly like asking about a person's job. It might be more like asking someone what kind of perfume they are wearing. I'd be interested in knowing that something is Donna Karan Gold, just as much as having the person say "it smells like amber."

  21. Also, for the job example, sometimes you *do* want to know who they work for because it's so value expressive. Like being in marketing for the commercial sector is very different from doing marketing for a mission-driven non-profit.

  22. But if you ask the name of a perfume, it's so you can find out more about it/buy it. That's more equivalent to hearing or reading a poem and wanting to know who wrote it and what book it's from, which is info you'd seek out before you asked who published it (or in this example, what stores carry it or what umbrella company owns the Donna Karan brand).

    I don't think the question is "crazy" or "bad," I just think it's a kneejerk, unexamined habit that most poets have.

  23. Good grief, I never said there is anything wrong with knowing what press something is on or what company someone works for. I repeat: I don't understand why it's the first question poets ask. It's a quirk of the small press world.

  24. Not saying you did! I was responding more to JG's characterization of that question as somehow being "High School."

  25. Damn it, I wish my comments had threaded replies.


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