One-Minute Book Reviews

October 29, 2008

Rating the Book Covers — Steve Fraser’s ‘Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace’

The upside-down flag is a metaphor.

A few comments on the cover of Steve Fraser’s Wall Street, reviewed Monday:

This brief history of Wall Street is part of the small-format “Icons of America” series from Yale University Press. Because it’s a good book, you might want to look for others in the line. But nothing on the cover identifies it as part of a series, so if you’re hoping to spot its kin easily at a bookstore or library, you’re out of luck.

Wall Street and “Icons of America” are recent examples of trend at university presses to publish more books with mass-market appeal. The older Harvard Business School Press “Ideas With Impact” series is another www.hbsp.harvard.edu. And so far it’s been more successful, partly because it has a distinctive visual identity: You can spot HBSP books from halfway across the store at any airport Borders. Clearly Harvard had an advantage in that the “Ideas With Impact” series gathers articles from the Harvard Business Review, which itself has a distinctive look. But if U. S. News & World Report rated the covers of university-press books the way it rates colleges, Harvard would still win by a mile.

Apart from not establishing a brand identity, the cover of Wall Street uses yellowish tones that give it a retro look – a bit misleading given that Fraser carries the history of Wall Street into the 21st century. The cover appears to show a montage of shot-from-below pictures that suggest the dizzying, topsy-turvy action of the markets, partly through the upside-down American flag. It works well as a metaphor. For the same reason, you don’t want to look too long at it.

To its credit the cover avoids a static head-on shot of the New York Stock Exchange and visual clichés such as the Merrill Lynch bull. The montage also wraps in an interesting way around the spine and about two-thirds of the back of the book, which you can’t see here. On most covers, only the background color wraps front-to-back — the cover image stops at the spine to make for room blurbs or a large author photo. The unusual use of art on this one creates a handsome effect that says “money.”

Wall Street was reviewed on Oct. 27 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/10/27/.

Jacket illustration: Hirooki Aoki/Getty Images

Note: A thousand apologies to anyone who can’t see the image on this post. I’m working to solve technical problems that cause only part of the images to appear to some visitors, particularly those using browners other than Firefox. I’ll repost this page after I’ve fixed this. In the meantime you can see the cover on the Yale University Press site yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/book.asp?isbn=9780300117554. Thanks so much for your patience and for visiting One-Minute Book Reviews.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 24, 2007

Is This a Good Book Cover or Bad? A Review of the Cover of ‘Different Like Coco’ Tomorrow on One-Minute Book Reviews

You see hundreds or thousands of book covers — at least in your peripheral vision — every time you enter a bookstore or library, and they probably influence what you pick up and maybe buy or take to the checkout desk. But how much do you really know about why they work or don’t work?

Last week I wrote about why Katha Pollitt’s new essay collection, Learning to Drive, is a good book with a cover that doesn’t serve it well (Oct. 16 and 17). Tomorrow I’ll consider the cover of Elizabeth Matthews’s picture book about Coco Chanel for ages 4 and up, Different Like Coco, which I reviewed on Oct. 21 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/21/ and also liked. This book is undoubtedly one that the judges for the 2008 Caldecott Medal will look at when they meet to select the winners in January, partly because there are so few good picture-book biographies for children under age 9 that the American Library Association www.ala.org rarely has a chance to honor them. What might the Caldecott committee say? Good cover or bad? Can you give three reasons why the cover works or doesn’t? Check back tomorrow to see if your reasons agree with mine.

(c) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 17, 2007

When Bad Covers Happen to Good Books: Rating the Cover of Katha Pollitt’s ‘Learning to Drive’

Royce M. BeckerWhat was Random House thinking? Katha Pollitt handed the firm a gift-wrapped successor to Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck, the white-hot bestseller from its Knopf imprint, in Learning to Drive. Her book, like Ephron’s, is a stylish essay collection about being a wife, mother, girlfriend, daughter, New Yorker and writer.

Faced with this chance to strike gold again, Random House has – so far – blown it with Learning to Drive. Let’s leave aside the things the firm didn’t do for the book, such as publish a reading-group guide – Knopf didn’t at first post one for I Feel Bad About My Neck, either – and focus on what it did do: namely, give the book a cover likely to do nothing to help it gain the high bestsellerdom within its reach. Among the problems:

1. Visually the design doesn’t “pop,” industry jargon for “jump out at you.” It is way too dark and ambiguous. Except for the road sign, it looks a colorized mammogram. (Just what women want! A book that reminds subliminally them of cancer!) If you lean a few feet back from your computer, you may not even be able to read the title of the book (especially if you’re using laptop like mine, which isn’t brand-new and and has a relatively small screen). It just fades away. And that’s what it will also do at a bookstore or library where it’s surrounded by covers that do pop.

2. The gloomy cover, though a problem, might at least be defensible if reflected the tone of the book – if it appeared on, say, another paranoid Don De Lillo novel. But Learning to Drive teems with life as seen by a woman who is passionately involved with it. It is also entertaining. So where are the women, or even the people? Where is the wit? Yes, the cover shows a road, and the road is a classic symbol of life in literature. So you could argue that, theoretically, it fits the book. But marketing surveys have shown that a cover has 4-to-7 seconds to grab you. In those few seconds, how many people will make the symbolic connection?

3. Above all, the cover of Learning to Drive doesn’t suggest what is unique about the book. Its image of a road could fit anything from Richard Ford’s short stories to Claudia Emerson’s poetry. The cover of I Feel Bad About My Neck showed a jar of skin cream with the title of the book on the label and would have suited no other book. That’s part of what makes it a great cover.

I’m not asking for a copy of Ephron’s cover. And I’m certainly not asking for pink. But there’s a middle ground between stereotyping women and denying that a book has anything to do with them. The cover of Learning to Drive renders women invisible, and – oh, irony of ironies! – that is what Pollitt has spent her entire career opposing.

Cover design for Learning to Drive: Royce M. Becker

Links: Learning to Drive www.randomhouse.com and www.kathapollitt.blogspot.com. I Feel Bad About My Neck www.aaknopf.com.

Why I chose Learning to Drive for this occasional series on book covers: This is case in which the publisher clearly could have done better. Many small firms can’t afford to hire great art directors (who oversee book design) and graphic designers (who often develop or execute the cover concepts). Random House can afford it. And some books have little chance of becoming bestsellers even with great covers. Others come from authors whose books will make the New York Times list if they look like dog food. Learning to Drive doesn’t fall into either category. With this book, Pollitt had the best chance of her career to “break out” — more jargon — and find her way to many more readers. She may still do it. But it would have been easier for her if her book had a cover that helped booksellers and others understand its uniqueness and position it correctly. Finally, this was a case in which a protest by Pollitt and her literary agent might have helped. Most authors have little or no control over their covers. Often their agents don’t have much clout, either, or won’t use it for fear of offending publishers. Pollitt has a strong following and one of New York’s best agents. There’s little doubt that Random House would have tried to accommodate them if they said, “This cover is unacceptable.”

Note: A thousand thanks to Sean Lindsay, the host of the site 101 Reasons to Stop Writing, for a) noticing my comment that I didn’t know how to add images and b) e-mailing me instructions for finding and inserting images. Without Sean, you wouldn’t be looking at the image of Pollitt’s book but reading a description. If you’d like to see a blog by someone who really knows how to pull one together, visit his informative and entertaining 101 Reasons to Stop Writing www.101reasonstostopwriting.com.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

October 14, 2007

What’s in a Book Cover? New on One-Minute Book Reviews

Filed under: Uncategorized — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:37 pm
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When critics get together, they never say, “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” If you get more than 500 books a week from publishers — as the editors of major book-review sections do – you know that a cover can tell you a lot. It can tell you whether a book technothriller (look for the metallic Stealth bomber) or a romance novel (look for the bare-chested man with hair longer than yours) and whether a book is a Library of America edition of a classic (black and white) or a “Complete Idiot’s Guide” to the Bible or Tantric sex (orange and white). And covers are becoming more important as the publishing industry becomes ever-more market-driven.

So there’s a new section called “Cover Story” at the end of some reviews on One-Minute Book Reviews that comments on especially strong or weak covers. The first dealt with the cover of Rebecca Gowers’s first novel, When to Walk www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2007/10/02/. These occasional remarks follow the reviews — instead of appearing in the text — because authors typically have little or no control over their covers. If the writers are lucky, publishers will listen to their views about them. But often they are unlucky. Do you think that the authors of books marketed to women really like those pink covers that publishers put on so many of them?

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

May 13, 2007

What Makes a Book Well-Designed? Quote of the Day #24

Filed under: Book Covers,Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:00 pm
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Why are some books more visually attractive than others? Here’s a partial answer from book designer Carol Goldenberg.

” … book design and typography are at their most successful when not immediately apparent to the reader. It can even be said that book design is a kind of ‘invisible’ art.

“In her book The Crystal Goblet (1956) British typographer Beatrice Warde likened good book-making to a crystal goblet of wine: ‘Everything about it is calculated to reveal rather than to hide the beautiful thing it was meant to contain.’ As she further pointed out in her metaphor, to pour wine into a solid goblet would be to disguise the drink – one would appreciate the vessel itself perhaps, but that is all. And so it is with good book-making – good design provides the form or framework within which words and images can shine through.”

Carol Goldenberg in The Essential Guide to Children’s Books and Their Creators (Houghton Mifflin, 2002), edited by Anita Silvey, a former editor-in-chief of Horn Book Magazine.

Comment by Janice Harayda:

The Essential Guide to Children’s Books and Their Creators is an excellent reference book for anyone with a strong interest in children’s literature. As this quote suggests, the encyclopedic text also offers insights into other kinds of books.

Design and typography are greatly underestimated partly because, as Goldenberg notes, we often don’t notice them. But they can make or break a book. (This is one reason why you typically see the font identified on the last page.) The best-designed books I have reviewed on One-Minute Book Reviews include Fiona French’s picture books for children, Easter (March 17) and King of Another Country (March 30), and Eric Hodgins’s comic novel Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (April 9), which has brilliant illustrations by William Steig. An example of stellar design that I haven’t reviewed here is Nick Bantock’s “Griffin and Sabine” series that takes the form of the correspondence between Griffin Moss, a London card designer, and Sabine Strohem, who lives on a remote island and sends him a notes on his postcards.

I chose Chris Costello to do the site for my novels www.janiceharayda.com because he has designed beautiful books, in a great range of styles, for major publishers of titles for children and adults, including Random House and Simon & Schuster. You can see some of his covers by going to www.costelloart.com and clicking on “Typography” and then “Children’s Titles.” Chris has won many awards for his work.

What books have you read that are exceptionally well-designed?

(c ) 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

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