Can you judge a book by its cover? Canvas asked the judges of the PANZ Book Design Awards how they've gone about the thing we're told never to do ...
Never judge a book by its cover - but we all do and it's what the judges of the PANZ Book Design Awards have done as they deliberated, discussed and debated which books are the best (looking, at least) in New Zealand.
Led by David Coventon, senior lecturer at AUT's School of Art and Design, the judging panel – graphic designer Jess Gommers, education design expert Simon Waterfield and bookseller Kiran Dass – selected 33 finalists for the annual awards. The winners will be named later this month.
Judges noted the flourishing children's book market: "Innovative design combined with impeccable production standards made the task of whittling down a shortlist challenging for this year's judging panel and in the end a record nine books were selected as finalists in the children's category alone."
They praised the number of new names appearing in the different categories, the "beautiful design solutions" and that book design in New Zealand is in good heart. Eight books are vying for the award for Best Cover: Feverish, People from the Pit Stand Up, The New Ships, Pasture and Flock: New and Selected Poems, The Bomb, What It Takes: Pacific Films and John O'Shea 1948 - 2000, Wanted: The search for the modernist murals of E. Mervyn Taylor and A Tale of Three Cities.
We didn't ask specifically about these books - that would be unfair - but we wanted to know how you judge a book by its cover – and whether, being interested in books as a whole, they've ever managed to get past this?
David Coventon: Somehow I cannot pass up a strong cover and begin to make a judgment on first encounter in a bookstore, on retail display new or second-hand. And that can be when overseas with non-English language titles! So yes, I do get rather sucked in by covers. For me, I immediately want to explore the spine, back cover, flaps (if there are any) end papers, the whole extent of the book. Flip it, sniff it, go back to front and then, maybe then buy it. What do I look for? That the cover conveys an idea of what the content is about, without giving it all away, supported or delivered with visual impact, typography that draws me in and an arresting image or pops of colour and it all combines to intrigue, surprise and make me pick it up and explore it.
Favourite book cover design:
Sticking my neck out here, Milan Kundera's Life Is Elsewhere, featuring Andrzej Klimowski's Illustration. Paperback, published by Faber & Faber 1987. Possibly a bit pretentious, but hey, it was 1988 and I was at art school, studying graphic design. Seeing this, reading this and getting to grips with the notion of a publisher selecting for a book cover what ostensibly looked like a cut and paste unfinished sketchbook idea, with lo-fi production texture, and a solid black block carrying quite formal typography deliberately obscuring part of the artwork and its hero image just blew me away. It gave me hope that maybe the obscure way I was working in my own sketchbooks might have a future after all. I then went on to read all the Kundera book's with Kilmowski's illustration covers one after the other. Ah, heady impressionable days!
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I do initially judge a book by its cover when I first meet it. A book's cover is part of its package and book lovers love the sensory, tactile experience of engaging with a book. The cover is part of that. Obviously, I sometimes have to get past that and I do. I'm reading an advance copy of a novel by one of my favourite writers; I can't bear to look at the cover because disappointingly it's pretty ugly and doesn't do justice to the beautiful writing. But the writing inside is extraordinary and I don't actually love the book any less. Bookshop customers might walk past it because it doesn't look that great, and that is when booksellers must work their hand-selling magic. So many book covers can have a dialled in "stock image" feel. I'm happy to see that the designers have finally moved away from the "sad lady in white dress" trend. And as an aside, reasonably often, the American edition of a book will be much more stylish than its UK counterpart.
In my job as book-buyer for Time Out, I sit with publisher reps and they show me pages and pages of forthcoming releases. Sometimes a strong cover will jump out at me and pique my interest so that I want to know more. I can envision it in the shop. It makes me happy to see face up stacks of beautiful books alongside each other. It's a pleasure. And let's just say that customers can be discerning. It's fairly common for a browser to instantly reject a perfectly fine book because they don't like the cover, the paper stock, the typography, the font size ... And they're probably more likely to take a punt on something they don't know if it's beautifully presented.
I've seen customer's responses to some of the books we have looked at for the PANZ Book Design Awards in the retail space first-hand. There are some books that are just so thoughtfully designed that customers instantly gravitate to them on the shop floor. And of course, to tempt them to pick a book up is half the job."
Favourite book cover design:
There is nothing wrong with simplicity and minimalism. One of my favourite examples of beautiful publishing comes from the exciting UK independent publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions. I covet anything published by them and their covers are a uniform and elegant joy, all with the same design for each release: Their fiction all has a lush deep blue cover with white text, just the title and author, and their non fiction is the same but with the colours flipped - creamy white covers with dark blue text. Some people might think that's boring, but to me, as a whole package, they're dreamy treasures. Going beyond just the stark simplicity of the covers; the endpapers, paper stock and typography are exquisite. I've seen people gasp when they see these books.
Jess Gommers: I definitely do judge books by their covers but it's not only a front cover that'll appeal to me – a well-designed spine, considered use of materials, a unique and/or deliberate production method = sold. I look for whether the cover design introduced me, as a potential reader/audience, to the content and ideas within the book. Does the cover help me delve from exterior into content? Is the journey fluid or am I interrupted … is the interruption intended?
Favourite book cover:
Strictly speaking, not a book cover but I'd always been captivated by the orange Penguin editions and then came the series of Wallpaper City Guides. Simple, brave and boldly consistent in layout and approach; individually colour-coded yet meticulously aligned within the set. For me these are the most perfect cover designs – more than 100 volumes in the series yet no ego nor shifting trend has pushed a letter out of place.
Simon Waterfield: I haven't got past judging books by their covers. If the design is lacklustre, I'm prejudiced against a book. The cover's a book's key information source ... it's the cheerleader for the book - and it's got some heavy lifting to do! I can't deny it – as a designer, a good cover is always going to make me buckle at the knee. I'm always a sucker for a bit of design cleverness, be it a judicious spot gloss or a clever die-cut. But that's only part of the package of the overall production: the binding, the paper choice. So, buying an unknown book online is pretty much impossible for me - I can't decide on a book based on the cover alone – I need to pick it up and peruse it, only then can I make a choice about taking it to the counter. A cover wants to ask a question and evoke a mood. It wants to have a sense of mystery and make you feel something. You want that initial moment of impact, whether that's a strong title treatment, or a great visual. For me often the best covers are simple, and/or have a clever twist.
Favourite Book cover:
Michael Chabon's Maps and Legends. Publishers McSweeney's have always pushed the envelope in terms of creating gorgeous book packages to be coveted and collected. The cover for Chabon's book of non-fiction essays, Maps and Legends, is the one that has always stuck with me as a gorgeous piece of art and production. Designed by American comics' creator Jordan Crane, it features no less than three belly bands, as well as debossing and foil on the fabric case, that peeks through the middle of the die-cut. Once you slide off, and explore the full illustration contained on each of the bellybands, the foil unveils itself as another reference to map motifs. You could say it's design overkill – but it all works together so beautifully, using illustration to evoke fantasy books of old in a thoroughly modern package.
•The winners of the Publishers Association of New Zealand Book Design Awards will be announced in Auckland on Thursday, July 25. The Gerard Reid Award for Best Book sponsored by Nielsen Book will also be revealed.