The Ideal Weight and Heft

A discussion on book design.
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Over a 48-hour period, writer and editor Michael Holmes and design guru and magazine publisher Bill Douglas interviewed each other about creative freedom and restriction in book design, the "ideal weight and heft, texture and shape" of books, and the necessity of good faith between designers and publishers. The interview was conducted via e-mail.

air stream land yacht

Michael Holmes:

Bill, I’ve admired your design aesthetic for quite a number of years, and I’ve been envious of so many of the books you’ve worked on, often wishing their covers were my own. Years ago I nearly had the opportunity to work with you on a book of my own, but unfortunately that didn’t work out. More recently, as I’ve acquired literary titles for my imprint a misFit book with ECW, I’ve admired what can probably be best described as the feel or sensibility you helped create for the reemergent and reinvented Anansi. You definitely helped make an Anansi book an Anansi book. Which I guess leads to something I’d love to talk to you about: what’s the process of book design mean to you and what does it involve? How do you see your role?

Bill Douglas:

Wow. The process of book design. I think during the making and after the completion of each book project my thoughts on that subject likely change quite dramatically. After 600 or so book projects I still don’t think I’ve figured out the process. Within the industry it seems to change every couple years. As for the parts of the process I can control, it probably hasn’t changed that much since I first began designing books. Probably the first thing I try to do is get a sense of the personality of the book. I think designers need to look beyond the writing and attempt to envision the object. How the object should look and feel. I think every novel, or political book, or collection of poetry has its ideal weight and heft, texture and shape. Once I can envision it, that is where I like to begin the graphic design. As for my role? The best thing I can do is attempt to visually represent the writer’s work in the best and most telling way possible. I love to give writers, especially first-time or lesser-known writers, a fighting chance on the shelves and tables of bookstores. If I can make a book look like it is something that should be paid attention to then I’ve done my job.

MH:

I like that you’ve brought up the idea of what a designer can control – and obviously when you’re talking about books, there’s much that you can’t. Generic restraints, industry conventions, and the financial and technical realities of publishing and printing mean some things are decided for you: whether a book is going to be paper or cloth; its general size and shape; what kinds of inks or special effects you can use (metallic foils or embossing, that kind of thing). But what are your feelings about the point where form and function have to meet, where the art part of a design has to also work as a sales or marketing tool – get folks in a store to pick up a book? When I’m working on the look and feel of new titles at ECW, I often find myself taking on the role of mediator. There’re a lot of opinions to listen to: my colleagues; the writer and sometimes their agents, most obviously; but also sales reps and bookstore people. And sometimes those opinions differ wildly from a designer’s. For a book of poetry, or even a novel, the pressure or conflict is often less intense – for works of non-fiction there’s more often a bottom line, the need to come to a consensus that says "the consumer will get this cover." So for an editor, it’s sometimes difficult. I like to think I respect the designers I work with as artists – the same way I respect my writers. Ideally, the look and feel of a book as a product is therefore a collaboration – a felicitous confluence of words and graphic art – that creates a new whole, a completely new work of art. But, sometimes... sometimes it just doesn’t work out. Can you ever avoid the frustration of designing what you feel like is the perfect cover, only to have a press or an author reject it? I know you’ve worked closely with many authors, collaborating with them or at least involving them in the design process. (I’m thinking particularly about the striking binoculars cover you did for Michael Winter’s book a few years back.) Is that how you prefer to work – does that make things easier? Or are there pitfalls for a designer in that, too, getting too much input?

i tania - brian joseph davis

BD:

Getting back to your earlier points, absolutely, many elements that go into the end result are fixed. Some publishers have a house look or aesthetic that needs to be worked within. Budget can also have an effect on the final outcome but I’ve personally never felt constrained by a small budget and actually enjoy working under those constraints. Hey, this is publishing so I’ve had lots of experience designing on a shoestring! But at the end of the day I really think the best atmosphere to work in is one of faith. That being the publisher showing faith in the designer and the designer having faith that the publisher is working toward the best possible design result for the book and writer. One thing that the bestseller lists prove is that there is certainly no formulaic look of a bestseller. I look at some of the titles I like that have become bestsellers and I know there had to be faith taken, even a leap of faith taken in what the designer was presenting. I know when I designed the cover for Ronald Wright’s A Short History of Progress it was unanimously loved by everyone at Anansi without even the smallest change just for the sake of change. I really felt that the publisher was willing to have faith in me that both the concept and the little details were there for a reason and that in my professional opinion I felt this design would represent the work well. Certainly in other working situations I would need to be prepared to hear it all: A monkey on the cover? People will think that’s Ronald Wright!... Why’s the monkey got his back to the audience?... Can you make the title bigger?... Let’s lose the "by" before Ronald’s name.... Can we try a different background colour?... It’s too white.... Could the monkey be holding a little history book?

I had a similarly good experience creating the jacket for Michael Winter’s excellent This All Happened (the binoculars cover as you described it) back in 2000. This cover was definitely a departure for the Canadian industry seven years ago. The publisher again had to take a leap of faith as there was no way for me to accurately present the printed end result in the comp stages. My plan was to print tiny numbers from 1 to 365 in a grid across the back and front of the jacket. The numbers would be printed only in a gloss varnish on top of the matte jacket consisting of a close-up shot of the author looking through binoculars. A little detail but integral, I felt, to creating intrigue and expectation for Michael’s memoir-like novel which was in effect made up of 365 numbered mini chapters or entries. Design is, as they say, in the details.

I was thrilled when I was asked to design Michael’s latest novel, The Architects Are Here, but unfortunately that experience did not go well. It actually started out great with basically the first cover option being signed off on by his new publisher. That was over a year ago so I was not too surprised when they came back a couple months later saying we were back to the drawing board. Three more reads of the manuscript and twenty cover designs later the publisher decided they needed to go in a new direction. It had become clear to me over the months that this just wasn’t going to work as confusion and disorder abounded. Not to mention a serious lack of faith from the publisher in me. I was immensely disappointed that after almost a year working on the project creating what I felt were many very good cover options, I wouldn’t be creating the final design for my friend’s cover. I was even more disappointed and disillusioned when I saw the cover they stuck the book with. Ouch.

But I’m sure, working on the other side, you have lots of stories good and bad about the process of deciding on covers.

MH:

Certainly, I’ve been on both sides – the wonderful and the, um, not so very good experiences – when it comes to both covers and what’s in between them. I’ve actually worked closely with an author for more than a year and numerous drafts of a novel that I thought had amazing potential, only to find both of us becoming frustrated. To the point that everyone lost sight of what the book was really about – or whether it was really any good. It made sense for me, and the writer, at that point, to cut bait and try something else. Thankfully, that’s happened only once in more than a decade. I actually lost track of how many books I’ve edited when I passed 100 – but I look back positively at almost every one. Even the failures. Because, yes, some of them failed. But I’m proud of the fact that the books I’ve worked on, including my own, when they’ve failed, have failed because they’ve tried to accomplish difficult things, have pushed to achieve something new, different or just beyond what, at the time, was possible. Ultimately, I think failure is much more interesting, and in some ways more important, than success. It means you’re reaching, striving, pushing for something more – which is what excites me about art. It’s also part of the reason why I call my imprint a misFit book – because often the projects I pursue don’t quite fit comfortably into CanLit’s norms.

You mention the idea of a publisher’s "house look," their general aesthetic, and I should acknowledge that for a while I believed that the nature of the books I acquired for ECW as a literary editor meant that there couldn’t be one. As time’s passed, I’ve realized that’s both naïve and counter-productive. Putting on a different editorial hat, working on some of ECW’s commercial non-fiction, I quickly realized that establishing a feel for our books helped establish them in the eyes of the reading public. In fact, one of my favourite recent covers and guts success stories revolves around three very different ECW wrestling books: National Wrestling Alliance: The Untold Story, Brody and The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Heels. All three, in three very different publications, were called "the best wrestling book of all time" by three very different reviewers. The cover and interior artwork was a part of what was being praised in each case. Each book was designed by someone different, but each was recognized as having a signature ECW Press wrestling book feel. I loved reading that.

What was it like, for you, playing such an important role in helping to, in effect, "brand" House of Anansi? What were your concerns there, and how were they different from designing an individual title?

pain and passion

BD:

I designed my first Anansi title over a decade ago and I think the rebranding began there. At that time Anansi was part of the Stoddart family and like Stoddart was in desperate need of a new design direction. Over the years with titles such as This All Happened, Sheila Heti’s The Middle Stories, and the Massey Lectures series, the house began to take on a grass roots branding. People would comment that Anansi books were becoming recognizable against the backdrop of titles in the stores. When Anansi was bought by Scott Griffin, the time was right to complete the makeover. I worked closely with then-publisher Martha Sharpe – with whom I had a fantastic working relationship over the years – on the logo redesign and corporate identity. I approached the job as I would any other identity gig except for the fact that I felt close to this company; almost like I was designing for myself. Now the books finally had a logo that seemed to fit the ideals of the house.

MH:

There is something wonderfully clean and modern, edgy and in-your-face about that logo now – and yet it’s also classy, timeless. I’ve envied the way it subtly gathers and articulates that company’s long and important history while also invoking something anarchic. That’s no small feat, especially when there are so few truly memorable new publisher’s logos – a number of the old classics, Penguin’s penguin for example, say "book"; but not many really brand. That is, few tell you anything about the spirit of the book, or about a company’s publishing aesthetic. You write, Bill, about identity and designing for yourself. You edit and publish a design magazine, Coupe, and recently you and your wife Sacha opened a gallery / performance space of the same name. When the gallery opened, some of your own artwork was installed. You’ve hosted book events there, and even a wedding or two. Where do the magazine and the Coupe Space fit? Or better, how does your own art and how do your own passions intersect with the work you do on Canadian books? Are they all pieces of a puzzle, coming together to define a Bill Douglas aesthetic?

coupe magazine

BD:

Yep. It’s all about me! Not really. Coupe Space is kind of like Andy Warhol’s Factory, just replace the soup cans, drugs and models with Gump Worsely, food, and books + magazines. Actually, the models are still welcome. Ya, we have this big street front space down on Queen East which houses the design studio and the magazine headquarters. And the space has hosted a bunch of events, some book oriented like the Anansi Poetry Bash, and a HarperCollins retirement party for Phyllis Bruce. We also put on our own events here like Sacha’s Coupe Space Tasting Club (which is amazing), "Salon" nights and mag launches. And hopefully some day, a misFit book launch or two. How’s misFit coming along? Let’s hear the lowdown.

MH:

I think misFit does what it’s supposed to do – it began as a home for challenging and at times wayward books, for emerging and occasionally marginalized voices. It’s an imprint and an aesthetic that really is created by the books themselves – each title and each author changes a misFit book somehow, makes it grow organically in unexpected new directions. I hope its thriving, and I know I continue to enjoy it very much. I’m especially proud of the books that have been published in the last little while. Emily Schultz’s Songs for the Dancing Chicken, an exploration of Werner Herzog and his films among so many other things, is among the strongest first collections of poetry I know. Brian Joseph Davis’s I, Tania, which is just about to be released, is a remarkable fictional investigation of our relationship to history, American pop culture and celebrity. Sky Gilbert’s Brother Dumb is, I feel, an important, groundbreaking book – both for Sky and for CanLit. First books by Rick Crilly and Jacob Scheier introduce important new voices – and Stephen Brockwell’s third misFit offering, The Real Made Up, is quite simply one of the most challenging and rewarding books of poetry published in English in years. Yeah, of course, I’m biased – but I really believe that all of these titles are pushing the limitations of form and language in remarkable ways. Plus, everyone at ECW collectively decided that these titles deserved to be produced as beautifully as they were written – we’ve invested more in their design and manufacture, and with the help of great printers like the folks at Coach House, I think misFit has produced some gorgeous books. Books that, as you said earlier, have their ideal weight and texture and shape.

Which makes me wonder – what would be your dream book project? What can be done with book design, with different materials? Is there anything that isn’t being done that should be? If you had an unlimited budget to work with, what would you like to try?

short history cover

BD:

I’ve never been much for going too crazy with materials. I like to work within the classic book format and push it wherever possible. I don’t really have much of a desire to experiment with velum or acetate slip covers, rubber, metal or any of that stuff. I feel too much like an interior designer. I do love to get away from conventional sizes whenever possible. If I never see another 6 x 9 book again, that’s fine with me. I would like to experiment more with paper stock in my book design. I’ve done a lot of that with my magazine Coupe, running several different stocks in one issue. I think that would be an interesting thing to do with a novel or a book of poetry. I’d also like to collaborate with a writer and create a visual work. I designed the cover for Ken Babstock’s poetry collection, Airstream Land Yacht. I read the collection in it’s entirety a few months later, in the Dominican Republic while I was bed ridden with a nasty case of food poisoning. It may have been the E. coli influencing me but I thought it would be a great idea to do a visual edition of his book. That would be a cool project.

MH:

A visual edition of Babstock’s poetry would be fascinating, and somehow filtering it through your D.R. delirium seems perfect. Do you read other works of contemporary lit for inspiration at all?

It seems to me that it would be much easier to find a fitting design for work you truly like. Are there recent or even classic books you wish you could have designed, things you would have presented differently? And, what about other designers? Who or what has really informed your style when it comes to working on books?

BD:

I read works of lit for inspiration but not necessarily for design inspiration. It would be interesting to redesign some classics. I’d like to give On the Road a crack. Maybe some Steinbeck. Anything by Richler. I just read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I have yet to see a cover for it that I thought really captured the incredible grim beauty of the book. As far as other designers, there are a ton of great designers working out there from all over the world. I get to meet a lot of them through Coupe and it’s inspiring to see what’s going on. I think I’m very much inspired by my surroundings more than anything else. In book design it’s always inspiring to work with like-minded people who trust your instincts. I’ve done book and jacket design for dozens of publishers over the years and I’ve been lucky to work with very supportive people – some more supportive than others – who have allowed me to suggest and sometimes get away with some pretty wacky stuff. Which goes back to what you mentioned earlier about trying to accomplish difficult things and attempting to create something new.

MH:

I feel the same way, Bill – books always seem to work best when there’s faith in, and as part of, the collaborative process. Working with a writer isn’t all that much different than working with a designer: the best experiences come when you challenge each other, and trust.

bill douglas

Bill Douglas is the founder of The Bang, a multi-disciplinary studio specializing in book and publication design, and has created works for dozens of publishers and hundreds of authors including Sheila Heti, Mark Kingwell, Michael Winter, Ray Robertson, Ronald Wright, Margaret Atwood, and Marshall McLuhan. He also publishes and art directs the international visual culture magazine Coupe. His work has been recognized by organizations and institutions around the world, and in March 2007 he exhibited Coupe in Luxembourg.

michael holmes

Michael Holmes writes fiction, poetry, cultural criticism, and literary journalism. He has published four books of poetry: Parts Unknown, james i wanted to ask you, Satellite Dishes from the Future Bakery, and Got No Flag at All. He is also the author of the novel Watermelon Row and a Senior Editor at ECW Press, where he publishes literary titles under his imprint, a misFit book.

The views expressed in the magazine are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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