Monday, May 10, 2010

Design: Don't judge a book by its cover, particularly in France

Books are routinely given completely different covers abroad, often with baffling results. Tom Lamont asks the designers responsible to explain why

Tom Lamont,  The Observer, Sunday 9 May 2010 

The covers of Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated in the UK and in France. Photograph: Observer

Albums are sold across the world inside a universal sleeve, blockbuster films branded in a singular style. But novels, by a convention that nobody in the publishing industry seems fully able to explain, must be re-jacketed from territory to territory. It inspires all kinds of illustrative madness, and makes browsing foreign bookshelves a fascinating – often bewildering – experience.

What possible discussions took place in Germany, for instance, when publishers first received the manuscript for Martin Amis's House of Meetings – a novel that describes the misery of life in a Russian gulag – and set to work on a cover that featured six figures body-popping in the windows of a modern apartment block? What prompted Italian book designers to give junior wizard Harry Potter a hat shaped like a mouse, and why did the French opt against the monochrome design that jacketed Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated in the UK and the US, concocting instead a watercolour of somebody fondling a woman's breasts?

"What you are trying to get across on a cover is the essence of a book, quite an ambiguous thing," says Nathan Burton, a British designer who created the striking cover for Ali Smith's The Accidental, based on an image of a dead woman. "Designers in different countries read and interpret the fiction in different ways." It doesn't quite explain how Germany arrived at silhouetted dancers for House of Meetings, but "the germ of an idea can come from anywhere," says Burton. He points to the Swedish cover of The Accidental, on the surface a starkly different treatment – "but there's a photograph of a girl, bold sans serif type... You could argue that they are born out of a similar thought process."
The full piece at The Observer.

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