Secrets of the Book Designer: Sometimes I Don’t Read the Whole Book
On Capturing Fragments of a Story, and the Pleasures of the Backlist
Jenny Attiyeh: You’re known to be an ideal reader, by many writers. Why do they say this about you? What kind of a reader are you?
Michael Silverblatt: Jenny, I think the trick is, I read all the books.
I work in the art department at Alfred A. Knopf, designing book jackets. There is always too much to read. At any given moment, I maintain several running checklists: books to read for work, recommendations, the canon/classics, and contemporary fiction. When we launch our seasonal lists, I am responsible for anywhere from ten to twenty jackets. This doesn’t afford the ample space to read the way one might for leisure. These manuscripts take precedence, and I am forced to hit pause on the other titles on my checklist. It is my job, after all.
Recently, the lines of demarcation between work-reading and pleasure-reading have come into sharper focus.
In the past discussing my process, I have been guilty of embellishment, advocating for a ‘deep dive’ into the text; a ‘close read’ with an assiduous penning of notes in the margins. I make it sound sacrosanct: I get home, don my favorite robe and enter my dimly lit study where I proceed to flip the crisp pages of an 8.5 x 11 manuscript into a neat pile as I read. There is a highlighter at the ready, a glass of Port nearby.
The truth is, I read most manuscripts on a packed subway car to and from work in an uncomfortable negotiation of limbs, trying to sip an iced coffee in one hand while maintaining a sound grip on my device with the other. Sometimes I finish, sometimes I don’t. It depends on the workload, the book, and my own patience. Sometimes reading for work is a pleasure, but it is inevitably mediated through the job—a job that has to be done, a job with hard deadlines and money on the line. Tethered to these stresses are sub-stresses. Jacket styles and aesthetics, genre cliches, B&N’s commercial proclivities. Often I read until I have found what I am looking for, other times I read a text in its entirety and feel utterly lost. The process from book to book continues to surprise me. It is in constant state of flux.
* * * *
I came across an interview with the literary critic Michael Silverblatt, as part of a 1990s local TV program called Book Talk with Jenny Attiyeh. In it he claims boldly to have read “all the books.” I was reminded of the inevitable first question people ask me about my work: “Do you read the books you design for?”
I never have a simple answer. Earlier in my career, I considered it a must to read a manuscript in its entirety. But sometimes, it isn’t possible for us to read a manuscript, simply because there isn’t one ready yet. Other times only a partial version is available. We are forced to take what little we are given and turn it into something more. Occasionally, this might even be to the cover’s benefit.
* * * *
On a recent list, I worked on a novel called Divorce Is In the Air by a Spanish writer named Gonzalo Torne. After a discussion with the editor—who had read it in Spanish and was waiting for it to be fully translated into English—she mentioned that it might not be ready until after the covers were due. The first 16 pages would be available, however, and that might be all that I would have to work with. This posed an interesting situation: a short excerpt from the book had to serve, for me, as its ostensible whole. A synecdoche.
When I got the pages, I read quickly and got an initial taste for the book’s dryness, wit, and emotion. After considering the idea of a dissolving marriage, the image of a pair of scissors came to mind. It was a simple, immediate icon that spoke to excising, splitting, removal. A harsh metaphor for divorce. I drew a terribly grotesque pair of scissors. When tracing the loops of the handle the second time around, I had the a-ha moment. I saw the two bands, the simple wedding rings floating in space; coming apart. (I am in constant search for the visual double entendre.)
I designed a draft of the cover, drawing the scissors in a simple, flat style. The typography begged to be deadpan. It took a matter of minutes. I soon shared the idea with the editor, and she loved it. After sitting with it for a while she suggested a minor amendment: removing the diamond on the right ring, which skewed a little too cute for the tone of the novel. It was just what the minimal cover needed.
I was thrilled with it, and the jacket eventually made it through all silos of approval: author, agent, sales, and the publisher. Afterwards, I reflected on the process. If I had set out to read the text entire, would I have ended up with something like this? Was it ok to just get a taste of the book? Sometimes I have the sneaking suspicion that the closer I get to the text, the more difficult it becomes to respond to it visually. A cursory glance allows for a different kind of distillation. Rather than attempting to pack 400 pages into a single image—a daunting task—I’m given something manageable to work with. A teaser-trailer in prose. And what’s a jacket if not a visual teaser for the book? In many ways a book jacket and the beginning of a novel serve the same purpose: to entice potential readers.
Could reading so little be a good thing?
Or am I making excuses?
* * * *
Being considered an ideal reader would be the ultimate compliment for a book designer. The more I read, the more I scrutinize the type of reader I am becoming. One the one hand, I understand Silverblatt’s answer. I enjoy an immersive reading. I too want to read all the books. On the other hand, I am expected to read as a designer, which is to say economically and diligently. I am more objective when reading in that way. I don’t have the luxury to indulge the text in the way in which I might a classic. I would love to become an ideal reader when designing—thoughtful, critical, thorough—but it’s possible that being an ideal designer conflicts with this. I may have to settle for being two things at once.
* * * *
Over Christmas break, I was at a dinner party with my mom. I was chatting with a friend of hers, an avid reader, about her favorite books of the year. She finished her mouthful, grabbed my arm and said, “A Girl is A Half Formed Thing, by Eimear McBride, bar none.” I was excited to hear that because I had loved it, too. She described its effect on her, how moving it had been. She loved the terse, disjointed style. She said it reminded her of reading Beckett in college. In a moment of over-excitement, I attempted to describe my own visual analogy for the way I thought the text came together. “Imagine aligning many thin strips of paper, with seemingly incoherent marks,” I said, “but after a while, a picture emerges.” She looked at me like I had kale in my teeth. “Huh,” she said, “I didn’t really get that from the book.”
It so happened that Hogarth had purchased the paperback rights to A Girl is A Half Formed Thing, and subsequently McBride’s next book. One of my good friends runs the art department there, and on a recent afternoon over Gchat, he asked if I would be up for working on something: McBride’s new novel, The Lesser Bohemians.
When I began McBride’s new book, I became a hybrid reader: part designer, part fan. Pleasure and work were converging. I couldn’t rid myself of the preexisting ‘strips’ metaphor that I had failed to pitch at the party. I was reading The Lesser Bohemians seeking to legitimize or affirm the idea. I felt guilty forcing my conception of her past book onto the new one, one that deserved to be treated as singular. Even though the idea came to me during a personal read of the first book, in some ways it was the designer in me that thought in graphic metaphors. It was a struggle between my two selves.
I began designing halfway through my reading. I pulled a few photographs and images that were evocative in the right ways. I started to tinker, creating a mass of graphic ‘strips,’ curious to see what would happen if the positive shapes housed the images. It was visually striking in the way that I had hoped, especially with one photo of a young woman who looked (in my mind) to resemble the main character. The gaps in space were meaningful in the composition, just as the absence of words in McBride’s sentences were. I tried a few other designs out as well—a blurred photograph with staggered type, a mask with a floral imprint, and an old statue of a Greek actor—but the original conceit won out. I felt affirmed as my hybrid self, though I never did end up finishing the manuscript.
In a turbulent economy, with publishing changing and adapting at every moment, the pressures tied to a book’s success are continuously compounded. This hinders a publisher’s willingness to take risks, which degrades the process of reading for a jacket designer. I’m loath to take creative liberties when the sword of Damocles swings just above. I am being dramatic, but these anxieties are ever present, and prove hard to shake. This sounds dismal, but there is a utopian space where reading and designing happily coexist. It isn’t very far if you know where to look.
* * * *
Down in the proverbial basement, tucked away on dusty shelves you will find the venerable titles of a publishing house’s backlist catalog. Classic titles. Tried and true, they sell a modest, if respectable amount year round. Every so often, one of the books comes up for a reprint. If a designer is so inclined, he may, with caution, suggest a cover update. It is often only a matter of supplying new files to the printer, without accruing any additional cost. This is the holy grail, the golden goose of cover design: a backlist repackage.
I discovered a novel on Pantheon’s backlist—I serve as one of the imprint’s art directors, along with my duties at Knopf—called The Assault, by Harry Mulisch. After some further investigation, and minimal provocation I got the thumbs up from the editor and publisher to update the cover. Mulisch was long deceased, and there was no estate to consider for approval. Carte blanche, baby. I ordered a copy and got to it.
I adored the book, and my experience of the novel settled into something that closely resembled reading for pleasure. It is a beautiful, moralistic novel about the convergence of atrocity and chance, and how the effects of an unimaginable horror continue to morph over a lifetime. The story begins with a minor piece of WWII history: the murder of Fake Ploeg, a Dutch collaborator in a Nazi-occupied Haarlem. He was assassinated one evening while riding down the street on his bicycle, and in the ensuing panic his body was left outside the home of Anton, the novel’s protagonist. What ensues is a wrenching story about Anton’s reckoning with the ramifications of the murder.
As I made my way through, an early scene stayed with me. Anton and his family were staring out of a living room window following Ploeg’s murder. A panic set it as they feared the imminent Nazi reprisal. I kept seeing the upturned bicycle, its wheels in a slow spin. This was the impetus for the book’s unfolding. When I was about mid way through, I imagined those wheels in a kind mesmerizing spin in place of Anton’s eyes, feeling an excitement as I envisioned it. It became apparent, after finishing the book, that the wheel could also be seen as a symbol of chance itself. I wasn’t forced to consider the manifold reasons why the idea might not work, or to anticipate the objections that might be raised. Instead, the image could rest in my mind’s eye, undisturbed as I read.
To the computer I went, eager to render the idea. I paired a simplified silhouette with an illustration of a period bicycle, and dropped it in place of the eyes. The type is a black, handwritten scrawl, lending a bit of hazard to the cover. Everything clicked. I thought I was done, but an old professor’s sagacious words echoed in my head: “You should always throw out your first idea.” I tried a few variations, and ended up being happy with them, as well. This led me to a truly rare position of autonomy: having to chose what would end up on the cover. I took the layouts over to my friend Peter, a fellow designer and invaluable editor in my design process, and he said he liked them all, but the first one was most unique. He had affirmed my initial inclination. It was the most striking and unusual, and part of the excitement of a backlist project is the potential to entice a new audience with something unexpected. I soon realized that I had designed the cover with this in mind, hoping to reach an audience made up of readers like myself. I presented the cover to Pantheon’s higher-ups. It comes out later this month.
As designers, we are forced to read quickly, and incisively, mining for the clues to the coveted iconic cover. It can feel careless at times, leading me to believe that my reading skills are being dulled. I think of the author in this process, and in some ways the guilt that I may feel about a less-than-ideal reading of their text is exceeded by the potential of presenting their book with the best possible jacket, one that their audience of ideal readers will appreciate. A cover that feels simultaneously unexpected and inevitable.
I used to aspire to a process that created an expanse for reading each text, one that merged the ideal-designer and ideal-reader into one, but found the boundaries of distinction too severely marked. It would be amazing to have the time, space, and inclination to read an entire text when designing its cover, but I have realized that is not essential. There may be times when my two selves are reconciled, but in the event that they exist separately, a reading designer, divided against himself, will remain standing.