Friday Book Design Blog: Wolves, by Simon Ings

Jonathan Gibbs

This is a cover that has been bumping around on the bookish corners of the web for a while now, and I had been quietly admiring it as an example of eye-catching illustration matched with a serious, respectful design aesthetic, that refuses to upstage the work of the illustrator… until I realised I hadn’t been looking very closely at it at all.

ings wolves Friday Book Design Blog: Wolves, by Simon Ings

Jeffrey Alan Love’s black and white drawing of a wolf, adorning Simon Ings’ novel Wolves, is hiding a secret: look carefully at its chest and jaw, and you’ll see – unless, unlike me, you’re observant and have already seen it – the figure of a man, cut out in negative. Wolf/man. Man/wolf.

I haven’t yet read the book, so can’t really comment on exactly how this relationship or metaphor plays out in its story, but it certainly lays out a set of intriguing possibilities. Which, really, is the job of a cover: to suggest possible contents, without tying down any one of them.

Which, as it turns out, is sort of how Ings sees it, too, as he said when I asked him about the cover:

“Jeffrey Alan Love’s covers are like the kind of insightful reviews you almost never get – ways into the book you didn’t suspect existed, but which make immediate perfect sense once they’re put in front of you.  “Wolves” doesn’t have any actual wolves in it, so the last strategy I’d have thought would work would be to put the beast itself so prominently on the cover.

“The way he’s drawn it, of course, the wolf is defined as the environment defining the human figure – it’s not a formulation I could get away with myself without ending up in Pseud’s Corner, but since Love went before me, I can say with some pride that this is exactly the point of the novel: that shamanic relationship between the individual and the environment they step through.”

I asked Ings how much input he got in the choice of illustrator:

“I get, have got, and expect to get, absolutely no input on my covers beyond anguished howling. And this, I should quickly add, is how things should be.”

Which lack of leverage I find ironic, because Ings (who edits the New Scientist-linked fiction magazine Arc Infinity, and so knows the process from the other side, too) is an astute critic of design matters, and went on to voice exactly some of my own thoughts about the current state of book design:

“I think right now, stirred up by the requirement to sell things using images the size of a postage stamp, we’re entering a fascinating, innovative, hugely creative moment in book art. Things weren’t always this good, and no doubt we’ll hit the doldrums  again soon. It’s cyclical.

“Publishers are intermittently dreadful at marketing their own products. I’m thinking less of science fiction, which always gets a bad press, but more of that period in the 1970s when everyone got packaged like James Hadley Chase, with a half-bitten apple in the foreground of the picture, and maybe a bullet, and the same blonde nude poised maddeningly out of focus in the dun recesses of the bottom third. When things are bad, it’s very easy to assume you know better – you wrote the blessed thing, after all.”

And here is the story of the design process, from the designer’s side – and not just for ‘Wolves’; he has produced a covers for five more books from Ings’ backlist.

“Nick [May, Gollancz’s Design Director] and Simon [Spanton, publisher] wanted the series to be very graphic, stark, black and white with one spot colour per book which in a way was a wonderful brief to work from because once you have such tight limitations your brain can really let loose.  If they had told me I could do whatever I wanted I would still be working on the first cover probably, which is why I love illustration and working as part of a team.  I did around 50 or 60 sketches over a few weeks for Wolves while letting my brain wander around and get lost in the woods for a bit and sent the best of those to Simon and Nick.”

ings hothead headlong Friday Book Design Blog: Wolves, by Simon Ings

In fact, Love’s website shows quite a wide range of styles (“The thought of having to find one  method of working, one visual “style” within which to make my work, fills me with dread”) – though all of them generally recognisable as coming from the same pen. The first category in the site menu is Fantasy and Science Fiction, though none of it generically so – which must have been a draw for Gollancz, as Ings is a writer who sits very much on the border of sci-fi and literature, sometimes dipping more into one, sometimes more into the other, and this backlist redesign seems clearly intended by Gollancz to go some way to destroying that dichotomy in bookbuyers’ minds.

They are a very nice bunch of covers. There’s something of Ted Hughes’ The Iron Man to that Hotwire, and – though this wasn’t a book of Hughes’s  that he illustrated – Love credits Leonard Baskin as a stylistic influence to this series. (Baskin illustrated other Hughes books, most famously Crow.)

ings painkillers hotwire Friday Book Design Blog: Wolves, by Simon Ings

It does seem a particularly good match between author, publisher and illustrator, as acknowledged both by Love (“ I was a fan of Mr. Ings before this job came along and was thrilled not only to get to do the covers but also to read the manuscript before the book was released”) and Ings:

“Cover artists are like guns: you point them and shoot. If the cover misrepresents your book, chances are the publisher is misrepresenting it in everything they do – publicity, marketing, the works; and that may well be because your aspirations for the book aren’t matched by your editor’s honest opinion of it. Either way it hurts, but it’s no good blaming the messenger.

“Of course, sometimes the package just doesn’t work. That happened with the first cover design Jeffrey sent over for Headlong, one of the backlist. I could do nothing, really, other than offer my opinion, rather sheepishly at that – after all, I didn’t know how to fix the damn thing. Jeffrey did though – his redesign is my favourite of the whole set.”

A final word to Love, who said, kind of not at all answering one of my questions, and all the more touching for that:

“I love books, I collect them, and I wanted to create a cover that people would want to live with, to have on their bookshelves facing out at home.”

Which is just it, isn’t it? Books facing out isn’t just something that happens in bookshops. It should happen at home, too.

195 city of iron fishweb Friday Book Design Blog: Wolves, by Simon Ings

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