This is the second half of our interview with Paul Buckley (read the first part).
Note: this interview contains language that some might regard as indecent. Blame D.H. Lawrence and Chester Brown.
III. Fighting the good fight.
HH: I see what you mean by the loud book covers. I have seen a few books that have very different covers in the UK than we have here in the States, and most of the time I prefer the UK counterpart (for example, this blog post) [Editor's note: neither covers are designed by UK designers. The book on top, published by Portobello Books Ltd (based in London), is illustrated by an Iranian illustrator]. I don’t think it’s a case of lacking design talent, rather I wonder if it's a case of where business objective comes before artistic considerations. How have you dealt with the business and aesthetics of book cover design? Does/can “what sell” translate to what is a good design?
PB: Personally, I believe there are good and bad examples of everything, everywhere, book design or otherwise, and unless you are an expert in the subject, I think it's cheap and easy to pull out a few examples and say “see, this is what i mean”. I am extremely aware, and see everyday, many UK covers. Same with US covers. I think there is a lot of talent on both sides of the pond fighting the good fight… and both sides have their unfortunate share of hacks as well. I don't like either of those covers by the way. A few UK designers I work with fairly often and am in complete awe of are Jamie Keenan and Jon Gray. John Hamilton and David Pearson are very talented as well. I’ve also hired a wildly talented Brit (now living in Brooklyn) to do our Penguin Press covers, Darren Haggar.
Luckily I work on imprints that rarely ask for the type of big book treatment I mentioned earlier. But when they do, they are extremely receptive to taste and balance and beautifully-cut fonts. With design, one takes the bad with the good… I’m stubborn to a point, and if I realize that this author or publisher adamantly want what they want after I’ve tried to sell a more tasteful avenue that I believe will strike the same chords and reach the same amount of people, then I give in. But I still do my best to make sure it's crafted perfectly, and to make myself or whatever designer I’m working with to embrace the challenge of making large gorgeous type. I think in this field it's easy to lose sight of how powerful a cover like that can be when not hacked out. Any one book is a group effort, and many people may feel just as strongly and if you don't pick and choose your fights, you alienate people and come off as combative. You will never achieve your goals this way. There will always be another book that you’ll be proud of to offset the compromises that got away from you.
Two covers art directed / designed by myself and 2 art directed by Darren Haggar – coming out of my dept that show how powerful, tasteful and beautiful big type can be:
HH: In the past year, I’ve noticed the “new” Penguin look. I believe many people my age (28) associate Penguin with the pale yellow and black classics they read in school. I noticed that two of my recent favorite book designs (Swann’s Way and Quiet American) are not your usual paperback, but ones with thicker, folded covers. This is the same with the new Steinbeck's. When did Penguin decide to redesign the classics, and why?
PB: Yes, we all went to college reading those fairly drab Penguin Classics. And for that reason, simply because they were looking so stale, we revamped them 6 years ago, and have done our best to use more dynamic art and design. For the final redesign, I chose a combination of two of my favorite fonts - Futura and Filosofia, which left the covers still feeling “classic” but much less stuffy and staid than their previous incarnation. I cannot tell you how happy I was to see that old look go and to watch how our Classics line is developing into the kind of imprint where I can pitch Tomer Hanuka to do Philosophy in the Boudoir and everyone gets excited by that idea. One of our recent Classics artists, Chester Brown, wrote his own flap copy on Lady Chatterley’s Lover and his headline was “Who D.H. Lawrence Fucked”, followed by a list of names / portraits… as I put this art out on the table, I thought for sure that this was going to go over like a turd in a punch bowl. But to my surprise, they just thought that the greatest thing, and it stayed, uncontested. When I told Chester that I could not believe he just got away with that, he told me how Lawrence fought for the normalcy of the word “fuck”, claiming it was not a dirty word, served a fair purpose in our language, got a bad rap, etc – it turned out Chester did his research well, and now somewhere, D.H. Lawrence is smiling knowing that his battle for that little word is still being fought.
The Classics you refer to with the French flaps and rough cut and fancy gifty production values are our Penguin Classics Deluxe editions. They are a blast to work on and a real opportunity to do something beautiful or fun, or both. Its interesting to note the difference in the two Classics options.
IV. "It would sell if you put a raw turkey gizzard on the cover."
HH: Here’s the inevitable, obligatory question: what makes a “good” cover? Do covers sell books?
PB: If you noticed it and it allured you long enough to read the front cover copy, then its a good cover – clearly it did its job. This premise is the same for all fine art, commercial art, and design, music, acting, etc – whether it be something that grabs your attention in a museum, on your radio, or that poster on the bus stop. But hopefully it's also done with taste, and leaves you feeling smarter, not pandered down – I think that's the struggle all corporate artists must constantly deal with. There are a lot of people who do not feel safe unless they are doing something that's been done over and over. Growing up in an artistic family, I did not realize this, and when I entered the corporate world, it really floored me. It still does. Whenever I see a young editorial assistant coming up the ranks, I think “ok, we're going to do some cool stuff for this person when he / she starts signing up books”; and then when they say “can't it just look like (insert big nasty trashy book here)?”, my heart sinks every time. You realize taking risks and wanting to try something new has nothing at all to do with age - it's a type of person, and when you find them, stick to them.
I think covers do help sell books, or help destroy books. There are so many books flooding these stores unless you walk in knowing exactly what you want, then a good book cover needs to stop you from looking at those other books. That's why distinction is key, and not big type. I know someone who is always pointing out big type covers to me and telling me how well they are selling, and I’ll counter “but that's (insert world-famous, 65-year-old author here) latest book, they are booked on every talk show, and it would sell if you put a raw turkey gizzard on the cover.” Right next to that book will be some first-time author with a gorgeous restrained cover that is also on the bestseller list, but that is always just “dumb luck”. Of course a bold cover is great, but there are many, various ways to achieve that. Covers are very important for first-time and mid-list authors – it helps them stand out from the crowd.
HH: What’s your process? Do you listen to music or drink beer while designing?
PB: I approach fiction and non-fiction differently. With a novel, I read it first and see what imagery comes to mind as I’m reading, and later I’ll figure out how to execute some of those ideas – with the right help, if you can think it, it can be done. With non-fiction, I’ll read it as well, or as much as I need to, and start researching the subject matter, or metaphors for the subject matter. In both instances I also want to know what the editor and publisher are thinking, and if the author has anything they’d like me to explore. The creative process usually starts with me percolating, thinking here and there at odd moments about a multitude of projects and solutions, it all mixing together and then starting to separate to form their own territory. Then I begin cleaning my office, fussing, and stalling until I start to panic. When panic sets in, I wait till most of my staff go home and won’t bother me. I then get a large coffee, stay till midnight or later and get something down on paper, or screen, focus on one job. I can often be happy with these first ideas, but more often than not, I come in the next morning and think it shite. Often during these nights as I’m sleeping or about to fall asleep, things come to me, the most recent being solutions for Special Topics in Calamity Physics and Talk Talk happening during the same dream. But its most important for me to just get something started as it lays out a path and a vehicle, and then I’m usually good to go on that job.
During the rare occasions where I’m just not feeling it, I walk away from that project for a day or two and see if another project sparks me. I’ll also look at books – photography, design, art of some sort. It helps me get out of my own head, my own box, and see how others solved things.
Music is a mixed bag – late at night if I’m working on something and the focus is clear, then loud music is great. But if I’m still in an experimental mode it seems to hinder my thoughts and I need quiet. And as unsexy as this sounds, NPR can be perfect if I’m in a production mode.
No, beer is never involved in my design process, though it does seem to help with my photography and my pool game…
V. Wife & Sleep
HH: Now, to conclude our interview – what do you do when you’re not designing? You did talk about snakes…
PB: Aside from my snake fetish, I’m pretty normal and it's so darn boring to see it in writing – I watch too much tv, I sleep too late, I like booze too much, I read a lot, I obsess too much over my lack of hair and weak chin, I travel as much as possible including two uber manly Canadian fishing trips twice a year that annoyingly as of yet still leave my chin undefined, and occasionally I drag my wife into the woods or the jungle with me to look under rocks and logs – for which I must later that day then take her to a nice restaurant to make up for. After removing the ticks from each other, of course.
HH: Ok. Last question, and a quick one, what are the three things you can’t live without?
PB: Please know I’m not the type to say Helvetica, Pantone 195 and my fabulous collection of art books. My 3 things would be sleep, my wife (how can I get away without saying that..?), and those two things together in one bed.