Friday Book Design Blog: The Future for Curious People, by Greg Sherl – plus the rise of the Must-Have Proof

Jonathan Gibbs

Two trends in proof copies, for those who are interested in such things – and I’d say to those that aren’t that they do tell us something about the how the books industry sees itself, rather than how it wants us to see it.

First: the ludicrously high-spec, Must-Have Proof.

Exhibit A: The signed, hardback limited edition proof of Michel Faber’s new novel, The Book of Strange New Things, out in October from Canongate. In fact, the cover has already been revealed, but selected reviewers and industry insiders (not me, I hasten to add) have been luxuriating in their ownership of this beautiful object – a more solid production, it must be said, than plenty of actual books that you can, you know, buy, in shops.

Exhibit B: A few days later, you could find pics on Twitter of the proofs of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks (Sceptre). Again, the proof has nothing to do with the cover design for the final book – beyond the pink, and that labyrinth – which is out there (I covered it a couple of weeks ago on this blog). Again, it’s hardback, it’s got a ribbon bookmark. It’s exquisitely over-determined for the actual job in hand.

faber mitchell Friday Book Design Blog: The Future for Curious People, by Greg Sherl   plus the rise of the Must Have Proof

Left, the Michael Faber proof, and right: the Mitchell. Both images taken from the Twitter feed of Foyles' Jonathan Ruppin

Which is? Well, proofs fulfill two purposes. The first is to give the author and publisher something to read and check for errors and layout problems. Obviously, you don’t need a hardback for this, any old flimsy paperback will do – I know, I’ve got a proof of my own novel right here on my desk, and believe you me, it’s not signed, or reribboned, or hardbacked, or anythigned.

The second job of a proof – or, more accurately, an ARC (Advanced Reading Copy) – is to send out to reviewers and media contacts, so they can plan – hopefully! – their coverage, and to build a buzz.

That’s clearly what these limited edition proofs are all about. (Limited edition! I mean, please…) They’re there to cement the idea of these particular publications in the cultural conversation as ‘event’ books, to make people – reviewers – lust after them, so that when they do get their hands on them they’re so high on their anticipation and expectation they can’t see the prose for the ribbon, gilt edges and – in some cases, apparently, though perhaps not reviewers – personal dedication. I exaggerate. A little.

But there is another way. Rather than this refined, deluxe approach – which, you note, abjures the tawdry glitter of common-or-garden jacket design; that’s for the shop-going proles, these are serious objects, for serious people – you can tease your readership.

A good example is The Future For Curious People, by Greg Sherl, published by Pan Books. Not a writer I’d ever heard of – an American poet, with three collections to his name, this is his first novel – but my eye was certainly caught by the proof. Actually, in this case, let’s call it an ARC. Nowhere does it carry that ‘Uncorrected proof’ disclaimer, warning journalists not to quote from it in their reviews.

gary sherl Friday Book Design Blog: The Future for Curious People, by Greg Sherl   plus the rise of the Must Have Proof

The front and back covers show an old, analogue television set – a really old one, with a tuning dial, and telescopic aerial at back – with the author name and title neatly run down the side, and the screen given a vaguely reflective mirror-like surface. On the spine there’s a hashtag – #AREYOUCURIOUS – which, well, good luck with that. I’m yet to see a promotional hashtag really take off in book publishing (correct me if I’m wrong).

It’s made clear that this isn’t the actual cover design of the book (‘Cover reveal to come’ it says, inside) but still it’s intriguing. I like the sideways styling, always an attention grabber. It has got me curious, and the novel opening matches it in tone (“I’m breaking up with Adrian on the corner of Charles and Mulberry where he’s passing out half-sheet advertisements for his band, the Babymakers. He’s pale and weedy-looking, permanently anxious. His cheeks are flushed, his boxy nose red.” – We’re deep in indie/hipster territory here, the analogue set fits) and seems to justify the expense and effort. It’s a good opening.

But what does this tell us about the state of publishing? Well, that publishers feel that they have to shout more loudly than ever to be heard, or to shout in a more distinctive fashion… and that it’s not just the likes of Pan, pushing an unknown American author, who feel that. It’s Canongate and Sceptre, publishing Michel Faber and David Mitchell. You’d have thought that new novels from writers of that calibre would be ‘event’ books anyway, and not in need of such exquisite proof copies. That said, if that was their intention, then it seems to be working, proof copies and social media working together to build a sense of buzz.  We won’t know the real impact, though, until publication.

The proof, as ever, is in the pudding.

Even the pudding, for the moment, seems to be in the proof.

(Oof. Sorry about that.)

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