There's been a lot of talk about the new (book) edition of The Great Gatsby, with its movie tie-in cover that's been dubbed terrible by some and enticing by others. But there's a whole world of re-imagined book covers for classic novels well beyond those Leonardo Di Caprio editions of Gatsby. Take a look, for instance, at book designer Neil Gower's new cover for the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra, which was released April 30. (It's the one in red, above, at right, next to the 1934 classic designed by Alfred Maurer.) There are many, many examples of old books done new again, like Drop Caps (see below), the stand-out series from type designer Jessica Hische and Penguin VP Executive Creative Director Paul Buckley. And there's Coralie Bickford-Smith's lovely Cloth-Bound Classics series for Penguin, in which she turns books into collectible, cloth-bound artifacts (scroll down to see them; they're the row of books with spines facing toward you below The Portable Dorothy Parker).
There's no shame in redesigning a classic. "Given the fact that the classics have been around for many years, it is no surprise to me that they have been re-jacketed numerous times," Bickford-Smith told me. "I truly admire some of the iconic covers from the past for certain classic pieces of literature, but from a selfish point of view as a designer of books, if the original cover had stuck, I would have never have got to design covers for such a incredible bunch of historic authors."
From conversations with Bickford-Smith, Buckley, and Gower, here's how the designers make covers for the books you know and love new again.
Finding Inspiration Through Drop Caps
The Drop Caps series comprises 26 collectible hardcover editions of books authored by people from Jane Austen to (they're currently up to L) Chang-Rae Lee. The series was born when Buckley pitched Elda Rotor, the Penguin Classics Publisher, three different ideas for a series. The one based on samples of Jessica Hische’s Daily Drop Caps won out, and Drop Caps began. "I was sure I wanted the covers to be a collaboration between Jessica and myself," Buckley explained, "so what I asked her for was a black and white drop cap that had elements of the story in it, so each cap is custom-made to each classic." He creates the surrounding design, including spines and front and back copy.
The added benefit of a series is that an entire collectible library emerges. "We had an amazing opportunity to do something cool with how the whole series would sit on your shelf — it is, after all, my job to entice you to buy all 26 — so I devised that we would roll them out as a color spectrum," he says. "The first few titles are in the reds, then the next few are in the orange family, then the yellows, and so on down the line until there is a full rainbow on your shelf." L, which combines "two wildly different drop caps into one intertwined letter form to show the stark contrasts between the two very different worlds the book’s protagonist is living in" is Buckley's favorite of the series thus far.
Always Reading the Books
When I asked if it was imperative to read the books before approaching new designs for them, Buckley responded, "Of course we read the books – does a chef taste his food before putting the dish on the menu? Content is everything." Bickford-Smith agreed: "If I don't understand and immerse myself in the content how can I communicate the insides on the outside in a way that will speak to an audience?", she asked. And Gower said that his process, pending deadlines, involves reading and taking notes on characters and recurring imagery, "in an effort to locate the essence of the novel, the germ of the author's intent, so that I might produce something as faithful to it as possible. Once I've established the basic overall thrust/mood of the design, I can then concentrate on the details — those visual touches that might intrigue at first and only explain themselves as the reader progresses through the book," he explains.
Nodding to the Original
Though it has a definite roaring '20s sort of style, Neil Gower's Appointment in Samarra design has nothing to do with Gatsby. "Gatsby wasn't on my radar when Paul presented me with the manuscript," he said. "I devoured every last eloquently coarse word in one sitting. I loved it. Sure, the tale is a bleak one, but I also detected humor in O'Hara's voice (a side of this book which I feel is still under-appreciated), and I was keen to hint at this too within the obvious Country Club vortex of thrown highballs, jazz, dancing, sex, and cars." Gower's technique is to think about both author and editor, placing himself between both, and considering "what the former might want to communicate to the latter — [as] a kind of interpreter, I guess." He keeps in mind, too, that the reader will continue to look at the cover each time he or she picks it up, and adds nuanced, secondary details to pull interest beyond initial impact. "I like it when designers occasionally give a subtle, knowing wink to previous covers for the same title (for example, the car on my Appointment is a nod to the car on Alfred Maurer's original 1934 design)."
Knowing They Have But a Split-Second to Catch the Reader's Eye
Buckley explains the rules of book design as such: "We are here to represent the book, to get readers excited about the book, and to sell it — and we have a split-second to catch your eye as it scans the crowded bookstore. Hence the cover must stand out with distinction, the copy should be readable, and the overall effect should be enticing. This is true for every book, regardless of genre."
Honing an Approach That Works for Them
Bickford-Smith says she initially approaches all of her designs in the same essential way: "For me it's about visually representing the text inside in the best way for the book, not about appealing to a specific audience or playing to a particular genre. I think the process of designing should be fluid and free from such considerations and restrictions."
Buckley says that his process for restyling classics is very different from how he looks at new titles. "For me, taking into account of how a certain classic has been packaged through the various eras it has passed through, and then to get as far away from that as possible, is where I want to end up... of course I want the feel and visual content to accurately reflect the book, but I want to hire a tattoo artist, or an embroiderer, or a graphic novelist to reinterpret the material and show it in a way that makes us take notice," he says. "Distinction is king." His Graphics Classics series for Penguin (see Dorothy Parker, at right) offers examples of that sentiment, as do his gorgeous Penguin Threads and Penguin Ink series.
Gower approaches his design for books new and old in much the same way at first, "starting with thorough reading and a determination to do justice to the author's work," he says. Then the courses veer apart, because with a classic book a designer has some information about the reader ahead of time. "This can be both a blessing and a curse," he says. "From a design point of view a new book is, literally, a blank canvas, usually with a living author. With a classic there comes a sense of being entrusted with a piece of literary heritage, even in some cases a piece of book-jacket heritage." That means familiarity, in some cases, but "if there is an existing well-known cover-design, it can be hard to escape from its shadow." Think the original edition of Gatsby.
Being Aware That 'Sexy' Does Not Necessarily a Great Book Cover Make
I asked the designers what they thought about the trend in making classic book covers "sexier" to appeal to teen readers. Buckley pleaded his ignorance as to what teen readers want. Gower told me it must be handled carefully: "Young readers are very visually literate and, if there is too great a discrepancy between cover and content, they will easily spot a booby-trap!" And Bickford-Smith is not a fan of the trend at all. "It is so predictable and low-rent," she said. "I intensely dislike the idea that we have to dumb down literature to feed it to young minds. It's a cheap trick which shows little imagination on the part of the publisher, I feel sympathy for the designers that are pushed in this direction."
Considering the Sales of the Book, and Also, Always, the Reader
Buckley said, "One of the most ridiculous misperceptions I hear regarding designers is 'Oh, he or she just wants a cool piece for their portfolio and don’t care if the book sells.' Bullshit. He or she want to see that book fly off the shelves. Every Time. If they don’t, they need to be in another line of work." Bickford-Smith places herself, an avid reader, as her own audience, and thinks not only about reading but about touch, too: "I try to give a reader an experience that is enhanced by the cover I design. The Cloth Classics series are about loving the literature, how it feels in the hand (through the process of printing and materials used to bind the book), and evoking the idea of owning books that you pass down within a family."
Appreciating Covers, Their Own and Others'
There was, no surprise, a long list of favorite covers, past and present, from these three talented designers. "My favorite cover is currently Erica Jong’s The Fear of Flying," says Buckley, referring to an upcoming deluxe edition of the classic on its 40th anniversary. "No cover better sums up why I stay put at Penguin, why I love working with my Penguin Publisher Kathryn Court and our Penguin Classics Publisher Elda Rotor — they are courageous and fearless and embrace bold work. Many editors and publishers would outright say 'No, I’m not sending that to Erica,' and would never hear that Erica loves the new proposed cover." Other favorites for Buckley are "just about anything" Alvin Lustig did for New Directions and Gregg Kulick's recent Civic Classics designs.
Of her own work, Bickford-Smith has a fondness for her Dracula Cloth Classic — "I pretend that the illustrations of the garlic flowers that weave their way around the jacket are keeping the evil safely within the pages of the book" — but her all-time favorite design is "Alan Aldridge's cover for There Must Be a Pony! by Jim Kirkwood. To me it's just beautiful but odd and makes me laugh." She also mentioned Peter Mendelsund's Kafka series, "the exact example of why the trend to dumb down classic literature to appeal to a younger audience is the wrong approach, and how doing something new, unexpected, and enjoying the process of design yields such wonderful results."
Gower tells me, "I had a fat, yellow copy of Lord of the Rings when I was about 16 that I'll never forget. Not because it was a great design, but the fantastical painted mountains thrilled me. I suppose I have more favorite designers than books: Berthold Wolpe for Faber & Faber; Alvin Lustig, Paul Rand, William Addison Dwiggins for Knopf. More recently Jeff Fisher's designs for Louis de Bernières' novels were memorable, and today I guess David Pearson and Jon Gray in the UK are never less than thrillingly creative."
Knowing When to Stop — or When Not to
Buckley admits, "I think I’ve designed On The Road more than any other designer; now I give those projects I’ve already done over to fresh talent to see where they will take it." But there does appear to be a nearly endless opportunity to redesign book covers. "How many gorgeously distinctive versions of 'Amazing Grace' exist?" he asks. Gower adds, "I think the number of interpretations for a good book is infinite. The very fact that a book has become a classic indicates that it has depth and, thereby, the capacity to be looked at from any number of angles."