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Friday Book Design Blog: My Struggle… the evolution of a proof cover

Jonathan Gibbs

knausproofs Friday Book Design Blog: My Struggle... the evolution of a proof coverWhat is the job of a proof, or ARC (Advanced Reading Copy)? Well, traditionally, it’s to get the words of a forthcoming book before the eyes of literary editors and reviewers, so they can plan their coverage ahead of time. A proof would usually be a plain thing, often blandly generic, with just author, title and publisher details on the cover, and a blurb on the back telling how much of a marketing push was going to be put behind the book, and why it was bound to be a big hit among book groups, or prize judges, or both.

coupland a 185x300 Friday Book Design Blog: My Struggle... the evolution of a proof cover Some proofs still look and work this. The proof of Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half Formed Thing I got from Galley Beggar Press was actually completely white on the front, which gave it an enigmatic feel.

But elsewhere this has changed, as with so much else because of the internet. For one thing bloggers are now (almost?) as much of a target as reviewers, and for another, people tend to tweet about the books they are reading, or have received. The ‘incoming’ picture that bloggers sometimes tweet (myself included) is sometimes all the coverage a book will get from them.

One of the weirdest proofs I have received is for the 2009 Douglas Coupland novel, A, which on the front has a nice design draft of the finished cover and, on the back, the statement that this is a ‘limited edition proof for Jonathan Gibbs’. A limited edition proof, just for me! Douglas, you shouldn’t have…

But the best example of the proof-as-buzz-generator cover is those given to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s six-volume memoir-cum-novel ‘My Struggle’, published in the UK by Harvill Secker, the third part of which, Boyhood Island, is coming out in March this year.

It’s interesting to look at how the covers have evolved over the first three volumes. The first, A Death in the Family, went through three versions (proof, hardback, paperback) of the same cover, an image of a weatherbeaten family house with a despondent tangle of forgotten Christmas decorations looped over a telephone wire. In its restrained, refined desolation it fairly screamed translated European fiction.

knaus a death Friday Book Design Blog: My Struggle... the evolution of a proof cover


For number two, A Man in Love, however, Harvill Secker did something different. They put the author’s face (also austerely impressive, it must be said) on the cover of the proof, or half of it, and plastered a list of adjectives down the side… as a resource for reviewers, perhaps?

knaus a man in love Friday Book Design Blog: My Struggle... the evolution of a proof coverThis led, whether through chance or design, to a brief fad for posting images on Twitter of a #knausface, a selfie with Knausgaard book held up over half your face. A fad, it must be said, approved and encouraged by the Harvill publicity staff – and who’s to blame them?

This was the point, following the hugely positive critical reception of the first volume, that people started to get properly excited about the series as a whole, and the buzz started to take off. I read the book, in proof, and was blown away by it, and happily partook in twitter and blog conversations about how great it is… and if any of that helped the book in any way achieve an online presence, then so be it. No one asked me to review it, after all.

The hardback release of the second volume followed on the footsteps of the first, with a strange interior photo of a Scandinavian-looking house, complete with slippers (the central topic of this book being the writer’s struggle against domesticity).

But, when it came to the paperback, they reverted to the #knausfacelook, though now too small to hold up to any but a small child’s face for comic effect.

knaus boyhood Friday Book Design Blog: My Struggle... the evolution of a proof cover


The third book twists the idea of the #knausface, giving us a boy’s face cut in half, in the same manner, and in fact this is going to be the cover of the hardback also, and so, presumably, also the paperback.

Which makes me wonder what’s going to come next? Clearly, the marketing of the series is evolving, as it progresses, and in response to its reception and in part in response to its reception online. Which makes it an interesting test case. Will the #knausfaces of volumes two and three have been an aberration? Will the publicity and design departments be able to generate the same buzz with later volumes without faces? How much is this mini twitter storm being factored in? All remains to be seen, but woe most certainly betide any reviewer I catch using any of those adjectives in their #knausreview.


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