How Designing Covers for My Books Helps Me Write Them

On Being a Writer and a Graphic Designer

By  Johan Harstad

Whenever I tell other writers that my publisher kindly allows me to do my own book covers, the reaction I get is usually something along the line of “wow, that’s great, wish I could do that.” And whenever I tell people working in the publishing industry the same, especially outside of Norway, they usually get seriously uneasy, followed by a smile that is not really a smile but a defense mechanism to buy them time while they figure out why they’ve suddenly thought of that fox in Lars von Trier’s movie Antichrist (the one that hisses “chaos reigns”). What follows is a mixture of disbelief and something approaching suspicion. It’s as if they’ve just heard me casually say I’m considering a coup’d etat as they suddenly envision more writers having this absurd idea and the world of shit and poor sales it will lead to. But even though I am the initial reason for their suspicion of impending shit, they never seem to blame me personally, at least not at this stage, but rather my publisher, who obviously has no clue about the importance of leaving book design to book designers or ANYONE else really, as long as it’s not the author.

Let me pause here give you some details: I’m not a graphic designer. Let’s be clear on this, out of respect for trained graphic designers. I’m a fiction writer who also happens to do graphic design. I have been doing graphic design for 16 years now, creating not only my own book covers but also, from time to time, doing commissioned work: book covers, album covers, movie posters, band merch, t-shirts and more. I’ve designed coffee mugs, which it seems you have to do at some point. I’ve used the Trajan font and moved on, a designer’s rite of passage (if you must know, I used it for a Norwegian edition of William T. Vollmann’s The Rifles and from what I heard he liked it, so it ended well).

So the flak I used to get from actual graphic designers has pretty much died out, and when I received an award from Grafill (the Norwegian Designer’s Guild) for the box edition of my 2015 novel Max, Mischa & The Tet Offensive (which, apart from the super-sturdy, assembled-by-hand-in-some-Eastern-European-country cardboard box itself, consisted of a five-foot accordion-style booklet, a few two-sided posters, a 200-page hardcover, full-color book made to look like one of the protagonist’s Whitney Museum Retrospective Art catalogues, complete with a reproduction of around 70 of her works and a few long essays written in the borderline gibberish of art critique-language, as well as, obviously, the 1,100-page novel itself), it felt like I was finally something more than a graphical nuisance. At least I like to think so.

Ever since I started writing I’ve been interested in how a book looks, how the design of a dust jacket and its typography can, when given the right and proper attention, create something that is not just a book, but an object unto itself, something more… complete. Among the first books to make an impact on me as a literary work inseparable from its design, were the Norwegian poet Jan Erik Vold’s collections from the 1960s and 70s. His poetry, inspired by jazz and its compositional freedom, was always published in a square format, soft cover with large flaps (quite unusual back then), the covers either done by himself or by artist friends, who also happened to be key figures in the contemporary art scene in Norway.

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“Why do they let me do it? Why does Gyldendal allow me to design my own book covers?”

When I did start writing for real, at around 15, I would spend countless hours typing up my poetry on a typewriter last serviced in 1966 (according to a stamp on the underside), and then spent an equal amount of time designing the covers—usually by hand, armed with scissors, pen and glue—so that I could sell or give away my intensely heartfelt poetry collections to whomever I could threaten into taking a copy with them.

Between the age of 15 and 19, that is between 1994 and 1998, I “self-published” 73 different collections of poetry, usually in editions of 1 to 10, through my publishing house Kranglefant (which translates to something like wrangler, but not in the sense of jeans or a person in charge of livestock, more like the definition “a person engaging in a lengthy and complicated dispute”). In retrospect, I wasn’t just producing these collections to become a better writer, I was also coming to understand book design as an integral part of the way I write. Writing was as hard then as it is now, and changing back and forth between text and design helped me focus my writing and navigate to a place where text and the look of the book became one. Or so it felt. I wasn’t interested in coming up with a design the sole purpose of which was commercial appeal; what I wanted was a cover that understood what the book was and completed it. Working with design alongside writing gave me the ability to think with two brains (and sometimes they had the courtesy to communicate with each other and shake hands). All of this made me a better writer, freer to take more chances, confident in covers that might explain as needed. Dust jackets protecting against more than dust, keeping the whole thing together.

Typically, when I have captured enough fleeting thoughts to assemble an idea for a writing project—which then manifests as a working title, I’ll start the cover design. Sometimes before writing even a single word. This sounds weird, I know, and alarmingly superficial. The thing is, I use these first design sketches to understand the project. I’m not trying to sell it to myself, it’s more of a way to capture the color of the book I’m about to write. Once I have a title and some sort of packaging for the idea, I’m free to run into the jungles of literature and get lost.

My latest novel, Max, Mischa & The Tet Offensive had over a hundred sketches and ideas for the cover, a wide variety of designs made between the summer of 2009 (when I started writing) and the summer of 2015, when the book was being proofed. As the designs changed, so too did the title: Cleveland, Hansen, then back to Max, Mischa & The Tet Offensive, then, for almost a year in 2013, Rothko Days before settling back to Max, Mischa… Looking at them now is like reading a diary of the writing process, seeing how and when I was struggling to get a grip on what the novel was becoming. On top of that, the different sketches and designs tell me where I was in the writing and what was most important to me at any given time, as various motifs from the novel (leafs blowers, for example) would show up on covers. These visual iterations helped me move the project along, a solid framework that allowed me the freedom to explore ideas in the writing.

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Also, design is easy. Except when it isn’t. But when writing seems an impossible uphill battle, I’ll allow myself a couple of days (or more) to just listen to music and casually design the jacket of a book I’ll never write. This isn’t to say graphic design is something to be taken lightly—I come across stuff all the time I could never do or would have to spend serious time on to figure out. In other words, changing between writing and designing is a way to summon Han Solo’s words of wisdom: Don’t get cocky. Compared to writing, which is almost purely cerebral, design is first and foremost visual, spatial work which, for me, is often easier. Rewriting a page to change the tone or to make a minor plot adjustment can set me back a day or more, procrastination under the guise of thinking and rethinking, all while aimlessly walking around my apartment.

The same adjustments to a jacket design can involve much of the same for-and-against business except much faster, and is therefore often a welcome break from the draining work of writing. In mere moments I’ve changed colors, tried different fonts and moved through a plethora of typographical options—tracking, kerning, leading—moved or replaced elements, adjusted levels of opacity, layer order and blending modes, etc. I’ve created numerous slightly different works that can then be viewed and reviewed in order to almost instantly find out what works. The eye is generally a yes-or-no kind of guy whereas the brain’s language department is more of a sure-but-having-said-that-I’m-not-totally-convinced-guy. The problem with literature is that it takes a lot of time to find out what works (and sometimes you never quite do, even long after a book is out there).

Real graphic designers may object to this oversimplification and might feel compelled to violence while explaining why graphic design is actually more difficult and complex than writing. That could be the case. All I am suggesting is that real intelligence is recognizing your level of incompetence. That I find writing harder and more complex (also more rewarding in the long run, even if design is better for instant gratification) doesn’t make it more honorable to spend time on, or cooler. I just love design because it gives me a break from thinking in words.

Further complicating all this talk of book covers is the way which different markets have distinct design aesthetics: translated books will, as a rule, be published with a different cover design than the original edition. A UK edition of an American novel will for instance look very, very different from the US edition, even if not a single character or comma has been changed in the book itself. In France, most books will have their meticulously executed design replaced by generic typography, as this is what works in France. Apparently. So, ok France is an exception here, they read literature in another way, so I can understand that. But for the most part, I just don’t get it. I’ve stopped trying to convince my foreign publishers to use my original design and on the rare occasion when they use even part of it I’m flabbergasted. In a good way.

A couple of my novels have been published with close to twenty different designs each; the Danish design bears no resemblance to the Swedish or Finnish or Icelandic and the German and the Dutch couldn’t be further away from each other. And so on. Sometimes the editions I get sent to me look absolutely stunning, way better than anything I could have done myself. More often, they just look bland. Or disastrous, in an unintentionally funny way. But that’s ok. I don’t mind, it’s not my battle to fight. And I do believe trained designers need jobs, so… It should probably also be mentioned here that I’m throwing stones in a glass house, as I myself have redesigned translated titles, like the aforementioned Vollmann or Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides.

“Compared to writing, which is almost purely cerebral, design is first and foremost visual, spatial work which, for me, is often easier.”

On the other hand I do believe that the majority of published writers truly don’t care how their book covers look. I mean, they might want them to look nice, but they’ll leave it up to someone else to figure out what needs to be done. I can understand that. I can respect that. If you’re a writer and you have no interest in graphic design or if you believe that Photoshop is a program that develops your films for you, then I have no problem with that. You need to focus on the writing part, that’s hard enough.

But what I find almost comic are writers who go to great lengths to announce to the world how mistrusting they are of anyone who does care how their book looks—like it’s impossible to have two thoughts in your head at the same time or to see the design as part of the work itself—and that they personally don’t give a flying fuck how their books look when published (and that a writer should be a writer and nothing but a writer and if you’re a writer who occasionally thinks about other stuff than writing then you’re not really a writer, but simply in the advertising industry). I’ve met a few of these. Some of them are great writers. I sometimes dream of being commissioned to design their next book and just slapping on some lo-res pictures of cute cats and Comic Sans all around, to see how they’d react.

Now, in my case, I obviously do care. So. The way I got to design the jackets for my own books was a bit of a coincidence. Gyldendal, one of the biggest publishing houses in Norway with both Hamsun and Ibsen in their catalogue, had published my first collection of prose in late August of 2001. Prior to that I had spent two years wondering how the book would look if I was ever able to get it published. When the contract was signed, I started making sketches and coming up with ideas for the jacket, knowing very well there was no chance I’d be allowed to design it myself, but dead set on presenting the art director with a concept he or she could then expand on. I remember being allowed a meeting with a designer in an ad firm who asked “Who is the target market?” while standing next to a whiteboard, pen at the ready; he would be going on holiday in approximately two and a half hours and had to nail down this assignment. I was 21 years old and devastated that this was how it was going to happen. The final design, though, was OK. He used the orange background color I had suggested and placed the figure I had cut out from a phone book—of a person lying on the ground awaiting first aid—exactly where I had wanted it to be. He even set the title in a font close to what I had asked for!

In hindsight, he probably did this because he didn’t have time to think of a better idea. But it gave me a (false) belief in my own ability to come up with a useable design. Having no clue about the do’s and don’ts of the business, when the head designer at Gyldendal called me to ask about the session with the designer, I bluntly told him about the post-design, stress-disorder-inducing whiteboard action and the target market comment, the horrible back cover and so on, not realizing I must have sounded like a spoiled brat with delusions of grandeur.

But somehow this head designer, Trond Egeland his name is, understood me and felt bad for me, and the year after, when I had finished my second book, a collection of short stories called Ambulance, he called me again and asked me if I wanted another designer to do the jacket this time. Having spent a substantial amount of time teaching myself design software since our last conversation, I then proceeded to tell him that, well, actually, I do have a complete cover ready, my hope being that whoever was going to make the final design would incorporate as much as possible from my files. Trond fell silent for a minute, no doubt envisioning future grievances from both me and the designer forced to deal with this pain-in-the-ass writer. Then he said: “Maybe you should just do it yourself, then.” Simple as that.

Since that day, I’ve been allowed to do my own cover designs, no questions asked, and I’ve developed a great relationship with Trond and the in-house design department at Gyldendal, benefiting from their expertise and guidance in all aspects of the process. I think (hope?) the design department enjoys the challenge when I show up asking can we do this or is it possible to get this and that with such and such effect. The design department rarely interacts at length with writers, so perhaps they appreciate this as much as I do (again, I hope).

But it still doesn’t answer the big question: Why do they let me do it? Why does Gyldendal allow me to design my own book covers? After all, it is a big publishing house and big publishing houses are constantly aware of sales margins and the importance of attractive, well-designed books. They take all this very seriously because numbers have to be met and things have to move in the right direction (not to mention there’s a hundred years of reputation to protect).

I’ve made a point of never asking, out of a fear they might stop letting me do it, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a few answers that might fit. The simple answer is that the first cover of Ambulance turned out well enough to let me have another go at it. Didn’t hurt that the book sold well, either, being a short story collection and all. And when my first novel came out and sold even better (not necessarily due to the slightly muted cover design, but still), there simply wasn’t really a reason to change the deal. Which really isn’t a deal at all, it doesn’t say in my contract that I’m to do the jacket design; on the contrary, there’s a standard clause in there stating that I’m allowed to express my views and give feedback to whatever’s presented to me.

Trond simply trusted me back in 2002 and made the decision to let me do it myself, and since then the rest of the house has done the same. Over the years I guess I’ve gotten better at what I do, graphic-wise, and so the trust is increasingly easier to gain. But surely Gyldendal would have sold more copies if they’d gotten a professional, trained designer to do more commercially attractive covers for my books? Possibly. Perhaps they fear they would lose me to another publishing house? Perhaps they let me have my way—which lately includes design for the inside of the dust jacket and the book itself, the physical format, suggestions of paper stock, layout and typesetting—because we both know they’re always free to say no, this design isn’t good enough or no, this’ll cost too much, you can’t have it (it does happen, but rarely). Because they know I respect that. If nothing else because we all know each other and belong to the same team; we all want to transcend that ‘just another book’-feeling and create something not just to make money, but rather something that feels special to both writer and publisher, and, is our hope, to the reader.

For more than a decade I’ve used the moniker Lacktr when credited for graphic design. The main reason for this has been to create some distance between the author Johan Harstad and the person who dabbles in the art of graphic design. I like being able to hide just a little bit, in my own books and increasingly in the works of others. The word lacktr doesn’t mean anything—I just wanted something that sounded nice and this was the best I could come up with. I once told someone it’s actually short for Lack of training. I could have been telling the truth.

The preceding is from the new Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which will feature excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition featuring 29 of the best emerging writers from around the world, is available now.

Johan Harstad
Johan Harstad
Johan Harstad made his literary debut in 2001 with a collection of short prose titled From Here on You Only Get Older and has since published the novels Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All The Confusion?, Hässelby, 172 Hours on The Moon and Max, Mischa & The Tet Offensive, as well as a collection of short stories and plays. He has received several literary awards, including the Brage Award, the Ibsen Award and the Hunger Award. He currently lives in Oslo.





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