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Friday Book Design Blog: Idiopathy by Sam Byers

Jonathan Gibbs

friday idiopathy us 196x300 Friday Book Design Blog: Idiopathy by Sam ByersIn terms of writing about book covers on the web, one thing you see a lot of is UK vs US covers, as in: who has the best designers? Or, what can we learn about the different markets on either side of the Atlantic, their assumptions about their readers, their priorities when it comes to the look of a book.

With that in mind, but not wanting to restrict ourselves to those two countries, here are some covers for Idiopathy, the debut novel from Sam Byers (who, disclosure, I know through studying Creative Writing at UEA). As this would have been his first experience of being published, I asked Byers how he found the process, and what he thought of how his books look in different countries – Idiopathy is being published more or less simultaneously in the UK, US, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Greece, with others including Poland, Italy, Israel, Denmark, Brazil and Spain to come.

friday idiopathy uk 194x300 Friday Book Design Blog: Idiopathy by Sam ByersOf the UK cover, first of all:

“I think seeing a cover for a book helps you start wrapping your head around the idea that your work is going to be put there in the world for people to see, and it gives you a sense of how the publisher is going to approach the marketing of it as well.

“I was shown a very early attempt and asked for my thoughts. The cow outline was in place, but the colours and fonts were very different. We bounced some ideas around and I think it’s safe to say my contributions were both minimal and misguided. My editor Mark and the designer Jo Walker did a fantastic job of making me feel involved in the process while still being aware that I don’t know anything about design and so, thankfully, keeping control.”

The UK cover is certainly arresting, but I’ve picked as the one at the top of the page – and so the one that will feature as thumbnail on the blog index – the US cover, by Joanna Néborksy, which I love (especially the detail of ‘a novel’ being formed out of cigarette smoke). The cow-headed people, in Néborksy’s “jittery ink drawings”/“retro-fried collage” (words taken from the artist’s website), are very hip, very now, but also show a close reading of the book.

They address that perennial question of how you depict characters on book covers – usually you never do, outside of historical fiction, or only from the back, or majorly cropped, or thoroughly cartoonised. Here the body language of Katherine, the bitter, ultra-cynical, self-disgusted heart of the book, tells you pretty much all you need to know about her.

friday idiopathy dutch 199x300 Friday Book Design Blog: Idiopathy by Sam ByersOf the other foreign covers, Byers says:

“I’ve had no input really. They’re sent to me for approval but at the end of the day the people working on them know far more about what works and what will look good than I do. My Dutch publisher Podium were very keen not to have a cow on the front, and so have gone for a different approach, but otherwise the cows are pretty ubiquitous.

“The thing that has been really fascinating is that they have all used the tag line ‘A novel of love, narcissism, and ailing cattle.’ That was actually just a little thing I wrote when I first made my website, because I needed something to go on the landing page. At the time I thought, ‘well, that will do for now, I can always change it later,’ but it’s become kind of a defining statement. I’ve taken great pleasure in seeing that translated ahead of seeing actual translations of the book. ‘Vaches en souffrance,’ for example, is lovely, as is ‘kranke kuhe.’”

friday idiopathy greek 197x300 Friday Book Design Blog: Idiopathy by Sam ByersI actually like the Dutch cover a lot – without knowing much about the Dutch market, this looks quite a lot like an cover from a US indie publisher. An interesting, too, how almost twee it is, with its hand-lettering and little stars. It looks great, but anyone reading the book with only this for a guide is going to find it dark, dark, dark…

For an intriguing insight into how fiction works in translation, look at the Greek cover, with the cute collage cow holding up a mirror to the reader. This is actually part of a series of translated fiction from Greek publishers Ikaros that includes – get this! – Cervantes, Burroughs, Kafka, and William Golding. In fact, there’s only one other living writer in the series (all wonderfully designed by Chris Kourtoglou – do look at them here), the American Anthony Marra. The mix of old and new is very refreshing, and makes a change from marketing classics as just classics.

As for my choice of the US cover at the top of this post, Byers inadvertently addressed that issue:

“I was always keen that the covers look good as thumbnails, since I think that’s largely how people will see them. All of the covers are visually arresting, so work well on that level, but the UK cover also makes a lot of the book as an object. It’s extremely tactile. The gold foil gives it that ‘bling’ factor, but the soft-touch finish on the matt black makes it a really distinctive object to hold. Obviously, this week is the first time I’ve seen it in book shops and I have to say I think it looks phenomenal. There’s something about it that makes you want to pick it up, hold it, experience it in a very physical way. In this age of clicking on two inch jpegs in order to buy things, it’s easy to forget the importance of tactility, and the way tactility can create a sense of intimacy.”

friday idiopathy french 197x300 Friday Book Design Blog: Idiopathy by Sam ByersI haven’t seen the finished UK book yet, and I’m sure he’s right, but the question of designing for clicks or for pick-ups is one that’s going to get more and more fraught in years to come.


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