Friday Book Design Blog: Stickers – and not-stickers – on covers

Jonathan Gibbs

butchers crossing Friday Book Design Blog: Stickers   and not stickers   on covers
I do like what Vintage do with their classics paperback range: neat red spines, big image, a certain room for manoeuvre with the title, and there, up in the top right, the author’s name, but just their second name, with the ‘Vintage’ slapped in front of it: this isn’t any old Iris Murdoch book; this is vintage Murdoch. It’s a nice play on the name of the imprint, though it does fall down a little with authors who aren’t immediately recognisable from their second name alone.

A case in point is John Williams, the American author who was more or less unknown – in the UK at any rate – until the belated canonisation of his novel Stoner as “the greatest novel you’ve never read”, selling a massive 60,000 copies. Well, the Vintage approach has certainly done the job with Stoner (though I probably couldn’t have told you the author’s name off the top of my head before I sat down to write this), helped by a simple, classy cover, but then of course they’ll be wanting to capitalise on its success.

And, oh look! Here’s another slice of ‘vintage Williams’: the author’s second novel, Butcher’s Crossing. And look again! We know who it’s by because it’s got a sticker on the cover saying ‘By the author of Stoner’.

Only – oh! It’s not a sticker. It’s stuck, fixed. You can’t peel it off. It’s part of the design.

In fact, my copy of Stoner has one too – one of these faux-stickers – albeit a plain red one carrying that ‘greatest novel’ quote. As such, while it’s annoying, it’s really just a reformatting of the cover quote you’ll get on pretty much any paperback reissue you happen to pick up.

Now, you could say that the faux-sticker of the Stoner cover on Butcher’s Crossing is no different: it’s just a reformatting of the standard ‘by the author of’ detail. But the fact that the faux-sticker has visuals on it – and the visuals are so out of keeping with the stark bison-in-the-snow photograph of the cover itself – is a real annoyance. Okay, Vintage. I’ve seen the sticker. I’ve made the connection. I’ve bought the book. Now, please, let me peel it off… because I really want to peel it off.

I mean I REALLY want to peel it off.

I’m not sure when full-colour, previous-cover stickers like this started appearing on books, put on by the publishers – as opposed to the whole range of usual ‘50% off’, ‘Three-for-two’ ones the bookshops slap on them.

The first one I can remember seeing is Small Wars by Sadie Jones, which carried a colour sticker showing the cover of her big-selling debut, The Outcast. That was a removable sticker, though, as are some others I have – including another Vintage paperback: Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry, reminding us of The Time Traveller’s Wife. So the decision to go with a faux sticker was a deliberate one.

#notadesigndecision tweeted @CMYKVintage, the Vintage design department’s Twitter feed, in a reply to my original Twitter moan. Is it cost, then, that decides the faux-sticker? Is it just too much faff to stick stickers onto a whole print run of books?

Thinking about stickers, though, got me thinking about book covers that play with the idea of stickers, which are, after all, common to plenty of other consumer goods.

beigbeder Friday Book Design Blog: Stickers   and not stickers   on covers

Frederic Beigbeder’s novel £9.99, for instance, has a faux price label on its cover, but that carries the author’s name and title – and in fact the title is also the price. The second paperback edition was called £6.99, amusingly with the cheaper price labels ‘stuck’ right over the original, as if it had been knocked down for a quick sale – which really makes you wonder about the whole pricing structure of books, doesn’t it? (The original French edition was called 99 francs.)

But my favourite sticker-style cover is the US edition of Thomas Bernhard’s My Prizes, designed by the fantastic Peter Mendelsund. (In the UK it’s published by Notting Hill Editions, whose wonderfully presented books are a whole other blog post.)

bernhard prizes Friday Book Design Blog: Stickers   and not stickers   on covers

The book is a collection of essays about (and speeches from) the various literary prizes that the famously – and hilariously, and above all convincingly – misanthropic Austrian writer won over his lifetime. Mendelsund’s cover is a black and white author photograph, but plastered all over with a collection of sticker shapes in gold, silver and bronze – the kinds of ‘eye-catching’ circles and many-pointed stars that you find, in a variety of garish neon shades, in pound shop windows.

The point is clearly made: the author all but obscured by praise. (Think of the late Doris Lessing, and her response to the Nobel Prize.) The joke is even better in German: Meine Preise being translatable as both My Prizes and My Prices. What price fame? What price success?

What price the successful marketing of a book when you’ve got a big-seller under your belt and your publisher is worried the reading public won’t make the connection…

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