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Friday Book Design Blog: Taipei by Tao Lin

Jonathan Gibbs
friday taipei front Friday Book Design Blog: Taipei by Tao Lin

The US (left) and UK (right) editions of Taipei

A slightly recherché take on the familiar ‘UK vs US cover design’ post, this one. When my wife was in America recently she asked me for a shopping list of books. Which was nice of her. Unfortunately, she was travelling to Houston, Texas, where the only bookshop within reach – without a car – was a warehouse-sized Barnes and Noble, which, though staffed by interested and helpful people, didn’t stock any of the books I wanted – except Tao Lin’s Taipei, easily the least obscure title on the list. I knew it was coming out in the UK, but thought it would be nice to have the US edition, seeing as it was being offered me on a plate.

Then – of course – the UK edition, from Canongate, dropped through my letter box. And look at them: they’re exactly the same. Or nearly exactly the same. So it’s not a case of ‘Who’s done the cover the best, the Americans or the British?’, but rather, ‘What are the differences, and what might they tell us about the different markets they serve?’

Before I get bogged down in minutiae, however, let’s take a general look at the cover. It’s black, with large blocky letters done in a shiny silver material (“holographic foil”) that flashes and catches the light.

The coincidence of six letters each for Lin’s name and the book’s title – and the letters they share – are made a feature, making it look like a form of code, or a pattern. This blank glitziness – at once showily come-hither and frostily opaque – is off-set by that handwritten ‘a novel’, perhaps giving a sense of the human scale the book evokes – tiny figures dwarfed by the global-metropolitan grandeur and homogenised flatness of contemporary existence. (And might the eye-watering effects of the holigraphic foil, if you look at it too long, be a visual analogue for the incessant drug taking in the book? – click on the animated gif below to get an idea of it.)

Taipei cover image sml 194x300 Friday Book Design Blog: Taipei by Tao Lin

Click on the image for an animated version

Enough of that. Let’s look at the differences (and here I tip my hat to Canongate designer Rafi Romaya and editor Francis Bickmore, who answered my perhaps rather bizarre questions on the book).

Firstly, I wanted to know how common it was that the UK publisher simply goes with the US cover. “Very unusual,” said Romaya, “but in this case Cardon Webb’s cover design was so strong both in terms of its design and positioning we thought it perfect for our edition too.” And there’s no arguing with that. It is an excellent, attention-grabbing cover, that absolutely suits this hip young writer – as much written about as read, you might think, and with the general hope or sense being that this might be the book that launches him onto a mainstream literary readership, after the coffee-house experimentation of his earlier novels ‘Richard Yates’ (nothing about Richard Yates) and ‘Eeeee Eee Eeee’ (very much about, well, that).

The most obvious difference at first glance is size – the US is a touch taller and wider. Inside, though, the typesetting is the same, which means that what you’re getting for your $15, as opposed to £10, is slightly wider margins. Oh, and thicker paper. The US edition is a whole 4mm thicker from front to back, which might not seem much, but how about if I put like this: the US edition is 25% bigger front to back. Does this change the reading experience? Well, the US version does feel a little more luxurious, more ‘first run’, but perhaps that fits with the ‘positioning’, the sense of where Lin currently is and might soon be in the literary market here and there.

This is perhaps borne out by the fact that the UK, but not the US edition has a quote from Bret Easton Ellis on the cover – though the quote is there on the back of the Vintage edition. Over there Lin doesn’t need his celebrity endorsement racked up quite so prominently. Over here, he does. I don’t really mind the quote on the front of the Canongate edition – I can quite understand why they have it – but the font, and that use of blue for Ellis’s name, are a little soft, a little safe, a little don’t-frighten-the-horses.

friday taipei back1 Friday Book Design Blog: Taipei by Tao Lin

Similarly, the Canongate back cover has a quote from inside the book, together with three more recommendations, all centre-justified, in a rather friendly font (Gotham bold?) and more of that blue. Taken all together, this seems to go against, or mitigate, the weird severity of the prose inside. The US back cover, on the other hand, is fuller and fiercer, far more busy, with five quotes (including two reasonably lengthy ones), horizontal lines, and an author portrait, by Keith Witmer, in a strange ‘stippled’ style that I’m really not sure about. The UK edition has the image on the inside back cover – much the more usual place for it – though I suppose that putting it right out there makes sense in the US, where Lin is more of a known quantity.

That much larger amount of information on the back – split into two columns – is certainly a trait of US publishing. I think I like it. Put side by side (and this is a general comment, rather than a specific complaint about the Canongate cover), it makes the UK approach seem rather timid, as if as readers we’re not ready for that amount of detail; we just want a nice one-line quote from a recognisable name, rather than anything that looks like analysis.

Compare “Moving and necessary, not to mention frequently hilarious” (Miranda July, from the Canongate) to “Everything about Taipei appears to run contrary to the standard of what constitutes art. And yet, the documentary precision captures the sleepwalking malaise of Lin’s generation so completely, it’s scary.” (Publishers Weekly, from the Vintage). The US approach just seems to treat the reader that much more seriously.

  • willshome

    The key question surely is – is the book funny or isn’t it? A British audience would certainly want to know. If it is, the American blurb doesn’t get this across at all – it’s more “don’t buy this unless you’re really, really smart (or want to look that way)” which is not respecting the reader’s intelligence but short-changing it. Judging by the cover alone, the book is far better written and less pretentious than the reviews quoted. I’d say, therefore, that the British cover serves the author better by connecting him with more of the readers he deserves.


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