Friday Book Design Blog: The Art of the Novella

Jonathan Gibbs

art of the novella Friday Book Design Blog: The Art of the NovellaI’m taking part in a panel about book design at the LSE’s Literary Festival tomorrow, in which I’ll be talking a little about the alternatives to what I’m calling the ‘Chip Kidd’ approach to cover design, where each book is given an eye-catching design that is brilliant, individual and appropriate to its content. (I wrote about Chip Kidd on this blog here)

Which is great for big companies, but plenty of small, new and independent publishers often go in the opposite direction, choosing to produce covers that accentuate the publisher’s brand, rather than what’s inside – and still come up with beautiful objects in the process.

One of the publishers I spoke to was Dennis Johnson, co-director of American indie Melville House – who will be opening their UK list later this year. While MHP does design its frontlist (i.e. its new, original titles) in a traditional manner – each book designed to fight against other books in a bookshop setting, its cover made to tell its own particular story – it has garnered plenty of acclaim and approval for its Art of the Novella series, which takes a dramatically minimalist approach.

The novellas come in neat, pocket sized format – 177mm x 130mm – effectively showing off the ‘neither one thing nor the other’ form of the novella itself – a ‘renegade art form’, as the back flap copy has it. The cover is type only (the Conduit font pushed very much to the max) with a white trim down the spine and the rest of it a single colour, each book a different shade.

They genuinely look delightful, and seeing as the first five in the series were published in 2004 you’d have to say that they were rather ahead of the whole colour-design aesthetic that exploded a few years ago with the massive success of Pantone colour coffee mugs and related items.

Novella poster 640 Friday Book Design Blog: The Art of the Novella

One of the first tranche of books released was Hermann Melville’s Bartleby The Scrivener, which MHP have rather adopted as a literary mascot for their absurdist-modernist, obstreperous approach to the world – though they’re not going to get any praise from me for diversifying into mugs and tote bags. (No publisher is going to get praise from me for thinking a tote bag is an essential piece of kit.)

The series now runs to 52 books, with more still being added, and they look delightful, especially en masse – as Melville House well know, putting them on display in the bookstore downstairs from their Brooklyn office.

“You can sit and listen to people look at the novella series and discuss which one to buy,” says Johnson. “‘How about the blue one?’ ‘No, we’ve got a blue one.’”

It wasn’t an easy ride, though. Johnson recalls the barracking he and co-director (and wife) Valerie Merians got from sales reps when they pitched them. “I remember them shouting at us. A room full of sales reps. We stuck with it and went with exactly the design they are now. One of them said we had ‘wasted the real estate of the cover’, but a year later we were being hailed as design geniuses.” He’s including in that ‘we’, the series designer, David Konopka, whom Johnson describes as “even more militant than we were.”

Obviously, a big part of the appeal of the series – and the reason they can get away with such a stark, minimalist design – is that the stories inside to a certain extent sell themselves. The authors’ names are guarantees of quality. This was something MHP found when they tried to start a second, similar list publishing contemporary novellas. The design of the Contemporary Art of the Novella was an inversion of Art of the Novella, with the featured colour limited to the spine, trim and author’s name, the bulk of the cover being plain white.

contemporary art of the nov Friday Book Design Blog: The Art of the Novella

But, says Johnson, “it didn’t work. The whole series failed. Maybe you do need to have a name like Tolstoy on the front. We published a novella by the writer and translator Gilbert Adair, whom I love, and we just couldn’t sell it, and it broke my heart.”

He’s surely right, that classics are less in need of the Chip Kidd approach than front list books, but I also think the design of the Contemporary line just isn’t as appealing as the original Art of the Novella – and that was appealing precisely because it was contemporary; it was the frisson of seeing Melville, Austen, Tolstoy et al marketed in this way that made them stand out. Perhaps they should have slipped the new titles in among the classics and let them benefit directly from all that positivity? (Perhaps they could have reversed the white and black for the title and author name?)

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