Perhaps you will never have the chance to select a face according to your preferred criteria; however, you would have to confront a similar issue if you were asked to pick a cover for a book you had written.
This was the analogy used by American author and illustrator Tim Kreider. In his discussion, published in July 2013 in The New Yorker, Kreider exposes the process of deliberation between the author and publisher in designing a book cover. The author is often biased towards his text, as a reflection of its essence, whereas the publisher is more concerned with boosting the appeal to readers. Publishers believe the cover can determine the fate of the book, and thus the fate of its sales. In addition, Kreider describes the incessant volleying of designs between himself and his publishers for several of his books.
The author of We Learn Nothing extends his initial analogy by linking the similarities in the concept of identity between a human face and a book cover. He states there is an “embarrassing disconnect” between the image a person tries to project and the reality of how it is perceived. This is why we ask our friends for their honest opinion on how we look. This line of reasoning illustrates what drives publishing houses to hire professional illustrators to design book covers, without giving writers much say.
These professionals often do not consult the text. They view the book cover as a “crucial marketing tool.” It is on this basis, that they advise authors, whose books are stacked across library shelves, to change their covers.
Publishers in the Arab world are not immune from this process. To the contrary, Arab publishers attribute greater importance to covers and boast a unique “artistic” tool that can embellish them: Arabic calligraphy.
The elements comprising book covers are not many: the style of the font of the title, the illustration or photograph, and the colors. These elements, however, must be in harmony so as to create a distinguishable identity for each book.
Thus literary works have their own artistic style. Textbooks must retain conventional colors and sizes; they need basic presentation for clarity. Similarly, academic or scholarly books are predominantly plain. Children’s books, they are printed with special patterns and colours.
Graphic designer Pascal Zoghbi, owner of the “29 Letters” studio, told Asharq Al-Awsat that he treats each author as a distinctive case.
“When I like a book that I am working on, I feel compelled to portray the impact this book had on me. On some occasions, I detach the protagonist or the main plot in favor of a detail that grabbed my attention. Thus, I give the reader a glimpse without depriving them of the joy of discovering the book for themselves,” he said.
The design journey begins at the publishing house with a discussion the editor or translator, in order to brainstorm a range of ideas that suit the text.
Zoghbi continued: “Afterwards, I take the work to the workshop. . . . I flick through the pages, searching for a detail that may release the demons of creativity. Sometimes, I need to do some research on the author know about their personality. At other times, I have to read the entire book to gain inspiration for the cover either from the novel or the hero.”
Zoghbi stressed that each story, regardless of how fictional it is, cannot be entirely detached from the author. There is always an element of truth in the text—the truth lived by the author. This is why it is important to understand the author and his objectives.
A mystery writer, for example, would not want a cover that gives away the mystery of the story. Neither would an academic scholar want a cryptic cover, nor would a thriller writer want a flowery and fluffy cover.
Nevertheless, the majority of publishers do not give authors much say in designing a cover—at least, not when they can afford to do so.
Pascale Kahwaji, an editorial manager at Arabic publishing house Hachette Antoine said: “Famous authors prefer to supervise every detail in the cover: from colors, to font to illustrations and pictures.”
The main example she gives is The Casual Vacancy, the recent work of British author J.K. Rowling, who also penned the famous Harry Potter series.
“When we [Hachette Antoine] were granted the rights to translate her novel into Arabic, we realized that we would have to report back to Rowling regarding every detail during several phases of the publication process. We even had to adopt the same book cover design that was used in the original English version of the novel. The only leeway we were allowed was the Arabic calligraphy. Thus, we resorted to Pascal Zoghbi to design for us an Arabic font that emulates the English one used in the original version of the book.”
Zoghbi elaborates how he “created the font” from scratch as “there is no existing electronic font that is similar [to the one required].”
In order to replicate the Latin alphabet, Zoghbi had to draw the design by hand.
The Casual Vacancy was not particularly difficult for Zoghbi. There are more demanding designs that require a greater “innovative” effort, particularly the ones that require the illustrator to “condense a complex novel with many characters and events in a single image.”
Whilst the success of a book is attributed to the author only, the responsibility of ensuring success remains with the army of anonymous soldiers behind the book’s production. From a design perspective, the final published version of the book goes beyond what is first envisioned. It is sometimes suitable, sometimes not.