Thursday, 2 January 2014

Non-Fiction Sidebar: Jacket Design (Part 1)

   One of the best - ie, fun and interesting but challenging - aspects of book publication, in my humble view, involves jacket design. 

   I've read about/heard of authors whose publisher basically informed them what the jacket will be, as in "Here's the jacket we've chosen." (This unbalanced relationship presumes, it seems, that the author either doesn't care about the trifling matter of the design of their own book or has nothing worthwhile to contribute to the sales dialogue, or else takes it for granted that the publisher, being a business with veteran marketing expertise, ought to adopt a paternalistic attitude because it knows better than any civilian what sells and what does not. Bubkes, I say.) For the most part, publishers with that exclusionary philosophy have not been my part of my experience.* 

   What should the jacket express (explicitly and implicitly), what colour(s) should it feature, what are the optimal fonts, what's best to avoid? These questions could strike some as onerous and unpleasant, as matters so consequential (as far as trifling book design goes: it's not like anyone's going to war and could lose a limb or a life) that they're best - and with gratitude - handed over to the design and marketing pros.

   (And, in truth, being a good mechanic doesn't mean you're a good driver. As much as I'm intrigued by design in general, and can at times fancy myself as someone with a keen eye or good taste, I also understand - or am forced to understand - my limits. 
   What I'm able to hazily envision in my head rarely turns out that way in reality. I accept that even if I regret it too.
   This situation began early, with a bike I spray-painted (baby) blue and (matte) black in elementary school (the effect? Just ghastly) and with the cedar spice rack of Woodworking 8 whose forlorn surfaces featured deep hammer indentations, unplanned and unfilled nail holes, and a tragically uneven coating of too thick varnish. (Yes, my parents kept the ugly specimen in the kitchen for years.)

   And just last year - lest I come to believe these failings are an event of my distant past - my hubby and I decided on the zombiefied ladies of ABBA as our ill-fated Halloween costumes. (I was Anni-Frid, the brunette.) Fancying myself an expert designer and sewer, I purchased a metre or two of pink satin fabric and proceeded to cut the pattern of a '70s-style butterfly-sleeve blouse that would have made ABBA wild. I measured. I cut. I stitched by hand. When I tried on my masterpiece, I couldn't fit my arms through the (carefully measured, I'd thought) sleeves. In a fit of fleeting rage, I tore up the whole undertaking and hurled it in the garbage. An hour later I was at a thrift shop downtown and had already found what I eventually wore. The lesson that day related to the vast distance between what I imagine I can do and what I can actually do.   
   As with celebrity designers, then,outsourcing the hands-on labour seems reasonable: "Here are some sketchy, half-baked, inconsistent, contradictory, and partially useless inspirations," says Jessica Simpson to her 'design team.' "When we meet up next month, I'd like to see how my clothing collection is shaping up." 

  For this jacket I asked my publisher if I could work with the guy - Finn at HonkHonk Graphic Arts in Victoria - who'd done such impressive work (I'd thought and still think) with novel #1, which started with and then modified an archival photograph of a '50s-era Vancouver beer parlour I'd located at the central library:

   For this new one, though, I didn't want CanLit dourness, doom and gloom and sadness and defeat seeping from every corner. This Location of Unknown Possibilities isn't particular sad or sober. It's a comedy. Instead of mournfulness and defeat I wanted cartoonishness, bright colours, busyness, mirth, a touch of the silly, all to reflect a plot that zooms from location to location and scenes that run from weird to silly and ridiculous.

   Since Finn knew virtually nothing about the story, I sent a list of key scenes and motifs. And I asked for lightheartedness and brightness. Lastly, I'd been stockpiling a few images that I'd noticed and thought inspirational. Basically, I wanted Finn to (a) read my mind, and (b) clarify my thoughts regarding the jacket, and (c) create something for me that already existed somewhere in my brain's innermost creative pockets and which I had no conscious awareness of. And do it all for cheap, of course.
   Good luck with that, right? (More on the process and results in my next posting.)

   These were the key images I sent—


  *My recent experiences with a scholarly publisher were interactive but less free. The marketing person asked for our ideas and recommendations for cover design. We send a handful that reflected our knowledge of our book's thematic concerns and its contents. A few months later we received a file of images that were terrific but had nothing whatsoever to do with ideas we'd pitched early. Oh well. Variations on a theme, the three images below, which are definitely eye-catching and cool, also indicate the choices given to us.


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