Does It Have to Be Blue? The Purpose and Evolution of Book Covers in University Press Publishing

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Saturday, June 20 — 9:00-10:15 am

Chair: Rob Ehle, Art Director, Stanford University Press

Panelists: Tom Eykemans, Senior Designer, University of Washington Press; Julie Thomson, Direct Marketing Manager & Sales Associate, Duke University Press; Christie Henry, Editorial Director, Sciences and Social Sciences, University of Chicago Press

The last two decades has seen a dramatic shift in book cover design treatment at many university presses. At one time, covers were treated as tasteful ornament to serious work, often as restrained as the book’s scholarly prose, rarely eliciting spirited discussion. Cover designs are now treated as serious marketing tools, with multiple designs, multiple rounds, and, occasionally, heated debate. While academic writing is no more accessible today than it was twenty years ago, and print runs are likely to be way less than half what they used to be, are we deluded to care so much about book covers? Or are first impressions even more critical for those very reasons? Two designers, a sales manager, and an acquiring editor will discuss the phenomenon, doing their best not to come to blows. Afterwards, conversation will be opened to the floor, and then we will all go across the street for drinks, to brainstorm about other, more lucrative, careers.


PowerPoint: "Introduction" by Rob Ehle (Stanford) on AAUP's SlideShare

PowerPoint: "Author Guidelines" by Rob Ehle (Stanford) on AAUP's SlideShare

Introduction by Rob Ehle (Stanford)

Does It Have to be Blue?

[1] I’m Rob Ehle, the art director at Stanford University Press, and this discussion is called “Does It Have to Be Blue?” and it’s about how cover and jacket designs for university press books have evolved over the years, how the way they’re designed and the way they’re approved has changed, and what’s better, what’s more fun, and what’s not so good. We’re going to talk about this from four different perspectives. Mine, obviously, along with Julie Thompson’s, who is the Direct Marketing Manager at Duke University Press; Tom Eykemans’, who is Senior Designer at the University of Washington Press; and Christie Henry’s, the Editorial Director of Sciences and Social Science at the University of Chicago Press. We’re going to try to leave at least fifteen minutes for discussion among all of us.

The idea for this panel came to me after I saw a post to the design list by Tom last fall that began, “Hi everyone, allow me to vent for a moment, followed by shuddering sobs and a sanity check.” The gist was that he wanted to know if authors had indeed gone completely cuckoo with regard to their covers, or if it was just at UW. The response was quick and supportive, with everyone agreeing that yes, indeed, they had. Catalog season at Stanford has begun to feel to me like planning sixty weddings all at once. It was not that long ago that we didn’t have cover designs in our catalogs at all, and not much longer before that—at least at Stanford—that the first look the author had at her cover design was when she received advance copies. The majority of our books weren’t being sold in bookstores even when there were bookstores, and the feeling was that a scholar was either going to buy a book called Intertidal Invertebrates of California or he wasn’t, no matter what you put on the jacket.

It’s a little different today.

Now, for starters, we’re publishing about [2] twice as many titles at Stanford as we were when I started, and each one has an approved full-color cover design nine months before it’s published, no matter who the intended audience is, general public or specialized academic. In fact, when I look at the covers of the AAUP winners in the scholarly typographic category this year, the first thing I see—on these books that were chosen primarily for their beautiful treatment of type and layout—is that [3] every single one has a four-color cover, and every single one has an image. The closest we get to a typographic cover is [4] Matt Avery’s for Death is Elsewhere, and there its type has been distorted with a Photoshop “ocean ripple” filter. There were actually awards to [5] a couple of jackets that were type-driven, or used only spot color, but aside from the fact that they’re great looking designs, I almost think this kind of cover is appealing now because it’s so unplugged. These are designs you could imagine being done on mechanical boards, with tissue overlays.

So what happened?

Well, [6] desktop happened. [7] Photoshop happened. Print-on-demand happened along with a drop in the costs of four-color offset printing. All of this made [8] covers with more color and a more graphic look inevitable, I think, no matter what the subject of the book was. And overall it’s made university press lists [9] look quite dapper compared to days gone by. It also has sometimes led to four separate cover designs and three revision cycles for books on “cultural hegemony” and nematodes. It has introduced something called [10] “catalog season,” which used to be the bane only of the marketing and acquisitions department but now is the bane of all of us. It’s also made it very easy to throw together something at the last minute that doesn’t look as thrown together as thrown-together covers did twenty years ago . . . such as this slide show. [11]

Tom has [12] a great presentation showing the covers of AAUP book show winners over the last four or five decades, and he’ll be discussing how aesthetics have moved this way and that, how different personalities and cultural shifts, and technology, have affected the scholarly book cover. [13] Jenny’s going to give us the marketing department’s perspective on the cover process, and will discuss specifically how it works at Duke. And [14] Christie’s going to do the same with acquisitions.

At Stanford our book covers over the last twenty years have seen a noticeable metamorphosis. In the early 90s they were [15] often handsome but always recognizably serious, in keeping with their serious subjects. We weren’t embarrassed, often enough, to do just [16] a version of the title page or a very straightforward type treatment. Time had been taken with that title page, after all. We didn’t do more than two four-color jackets a season. Most importantly as far as the design approval process is concerned, our covers were the last things to be designed . . . typically about three weeks before the book was to go to the printer, and although I wasn’t designing back then, I do not recall a comp that was ever rejected. This cannot be true, but certainly for the most part, [17] the cover comp went by the acquiring editor for a thumbs up, the marketing manager for a thumbs up, and the production editor for a check that “hegemony” was spelled right, and then the [18] mechanical was put together, proofread, and it went out the door.

I’ve already said the cover design is now the first piece of work done when a manuscript comes in—and increasingly, before it comes in, if we’re close to deadline with a catalog. Two thirds of our covers at Stanford are designed by a pool of freelancers, few of whom have much experience in text design. The average number of designs presented for a book cover is three, the average number of rounds before we arrive at a favorite is probably two, though I’ve had one cover that went through [19] eight, and whose InDesign file had sixty pages of variants.* Covers are very serious business. They are hilariously serious—though not as hilariously serious as the authors sometimes think they must be. My favorite expression from an author is when she starts talking about “the design team” in one of her e-mails, as if there are six of us hunched over boards like Sterling Cooper. “Damn it, Don, how am I supposed to convince this author we know what we’re doing with her book on Poverty and Distributional Outcomes in South Korea, Chile, and Mexico when you put a Hershey Bar on the cover?” [20] “Because, Pete, every one in this room has their own story to tell about a Hershey Bar, especially me. When I was a child, growing up in a whorehouse . . .”

In general, at Stanford the shift has been from seeing the cover as a component of book-making to seeing it as a branch of marketing. I know most book designers don’t see why it can’t be both. But let me pursue this, and then I’ll get back to that. The cover can no longer be merely an ornament for the text. It’s a billboard.[21] In fact, these days, it’s primarily a billboard. Even for nematode books. But it’s a billboard to a slightly different audience, in a slightly different way, than the cover of a New York trade book is. And this is what I’d like to talk about, among other things today. Easily two thirds of the books we publish are still scholarly titles directed to a narrow, scholarly market. It’s still true that you’re either going to buy a book on 16th-century Yucatec farming practices or you’re not. But what isn’t true is that, as a scholar whom Stanford is seeking out to sign, you don’t notice book covers (no matter what you claim). The market isn’t just the potential buyer. The market is also [22] the midlist author. Especially if your press is competing against [23] a trade publisher for a book that would be in the middle, or back, of their catalog but in the front of yours, having a lot of very eye-catching covers [24, 25, 26] on your website could tip the balance. It’s a double-edged sword, of course. I can’t tell you how often I’ve had an aquiring editor say to me, “We’re paying the poor man almost nothing, the least we can do is put his [27] baby picture [28] on his cover.”[29, 30] But that’s the second thing—having a certain appearance be the standard for your book covers, you can say, “Look, I can do this for your author, or this, but I can’t do a bad cover. I can’t do one that will be an embarrassment alongside the others that are going to be in the catalog.” Or at least you can try. That’s the argument I use.

Going back to the idea that the cover design can be good advertising as well as work as a whole with the book itself—I agree one hundred percent. We used to have some beautiful designs that actually covered beautiful interiors. But I’m working with what I’ve got now, and what I’ve got is me and a very dedicated in-house designer-typesetter who’s setting [31] eighty to a hundred books a year and has time to actually make [32] an original text design for about three or four of those. I love it when he does them, or when an outside designer does them. These we enter in the book show, and occasionally we get lucky, though not like the old days. This saddens me. I would like to get a real design department back someday. But I don’t want to get it only to have my employer go into the red a year later. In the meantime, we do still keep getting the awards for scholarship,[33, 34] and we do have authors looking forward to their pretty covers.[35, 36] Each of us is working it out their own way.

The one thing I do know is that there’s no going back on the tradey cover designs. They’re here to stay. The authors have gotten too used to them, the publishers have gotten too used to them, they’re fun to do even for the print runs of 300 copies, and the only thing to work out now is how not to lose our minds in March and October.[37]

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