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How a book designer plucks a vision from an author’s pages

August 28, 2014 at 6:45 PM EST
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: Some people may judge a book by its cover, but what does it take to create a cover that best represents a book?

Jeff recently talked with a man who does just that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Book lovers — and you know who you are — will recognize the covers of numerous books that have appeared in the last decade, from reissues of classic writers to new novels and works of nonfiction.

The man who designed these covers is now stepping forward with two books of his own, one that investigates the act of reading itself called “What We See When We Read” and, the second, a glossy compendium of his work and his thoughts about it entitled “Cover.”

Peter Mendelsund is the associate art director for Knopf Books.

And welcome to you.

PETER MENDELSUND, Author, “What We See When We Read”: Thank you for having me.

JEFFREY BROWN: What are you doing in creating a book cover? What — how do you see the job?

PETER MENDELSUND: The job is really to represent the author’s words.

We read the manuscript when we get it and we try to find some way of translating those words into a visual that can sort of bear the weight of the narrative.

JEFFREY BROWN: You actually read — I was almost surprised — maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that you actually read it.

PETER MENDELSUND: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you do a deep reading of the book.

PETER MENDELSUND: Yes.

It’s a serious responsibility, and I like to read the work as closely as I can. It’s very important to me that the cover that ends up on the book not be in some way dissonant with the author’s project as a whole.

JEFFREY BROWN: You write about reading in a different way. You’re looking for different things than I would be as a general reader.

PETER MENDELSUND: It’s an extremely strange process reading as a designer.

I’m very interested in finding those visual emblems or occasions in a book that I can then translate into something visual. It could be a scene, it could be a character, it could be a metaphor itself, but just anything in the text that could be made visual, and then that thing can be sort of the vessel that the whole book can be poured into.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, when you say you bear the responsibility, that goes to, do we judge a book by its cover, right? You’re coming between the author and potential readers.

PETER MENDELSUND: Yes, it’s a very serious responsibility. And I feel a tremendous amount of guilt when I get it wrong.

It’s very important to me in my responsibility to the author to make sure that they’re comfortable with the thing that wraps their — their baby.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, have you developed a theory about what makes a great cover, and vice versa?

PETER MENDELSUND: I would say — well, there’s two answers to that question. One is a great cover is, as I said, a cover that really does a great job of representing that particular story, but, of course, a great cover is also a cover that sells a book well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

PETER MENDELSUND: And my theory about what sells a book well is not a popular theory, but I think any cover that looks very different from all the covers around it, that cover is going to draw your eye.

So if all the covers on the table are colorful, and you make a white cover, it may seem bland by itself, but that white cover, just by virtue of being different, will draw your eye and draw you to it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me give you — I want to give an example. One of the biggest sellers in your successes is Stieg Larsson books. Now, why did that work?

PETER MENDELSUND: Well, I think — I also have another theory, which is that, if you make something pretty enough, it doesn’t matter what it looks like, people will want it.

(LAUGHTER)

PETER MENDELSUND: And I think this is an extremely violent murder mystery.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

PETER MENDELSUND: And the cliches and tropes for jacketing those kinds of books are shadowy guys in trench coats, murder weapons, a lot of blood.

You can pretty put blood on any kind of jacket image and it will signal to you that it’s a crime novel.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.

PETER MENDELSUND: In this case, there’s no blood, and it is very sort of delicately wrought. And the color is very unusual. It’s sort of a very bright DayGlo yellow.

And I think that kind of proves my earlier point, which is that it just looked so different and hopefully was visually appealing enough that, when you were in a bookstore, and you saw it, at the very least, you would come a little bit closer to it. Sort of it would appeal to the magpie in the shopper. You just wanted to kind of pick it up.

JEFFREY BROWN: And did you know it away, or does the — do sales tell you that you have succeeded?

PETER MENDELSUND: It was a horribly arduous process coming up with that cover. I probably did 50 to 70 different versions of it.

JEFFREY BROWN: Really? And is that normal? You do that many?

PETER MENDELSUND: It depends. Sometimes, lightning strikes away, and you have your eureka moments.

But I do as much work as I need to do unlike I feel like I have done my job. And in this case, even after it was made, there was still some hemming and hawing about whether it was the right cover, which also just goes to prove that you can never get consensus on these things.

(LAUGHTER)

PETER MENDELSUND: But I was happy with it. And I’m not sure if it’s a good cover by association or whether it’s generally a good cover, but I’m proud of it, for what it’s worth.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the — we will call the smaller book, you ask the question, “What We See When We Read.”

Now, you’re actually talking about what we see, what we imagine. And I’m wondering. We’re in a visual culture now, and this obviously ties to the kind of work you do as a designer of covers.

PETER MENDELSUND: That’s right.

I mean, it occurred to me at some point I was plucking, as I said, these sort of visions out of an author’s work. And it occurred to me that it was a very strange process. It wasn’t quite the way that I had imagined it. And the way that I think I had imagined it is the way that most people imagine it, which is that the author provides you with their vision of a particular world that’s populated by particular characters.

And you read about them. And you see the author’s people and places. And then you close the book and it’s over. And the strange thing was really, I realized when I started to examine these kind of visions, that, in fact, the author’s prompts weren’t mattering that much.

He might — Tolstoy might tell me that Anna Karenina has a certain kind of a hair. It’s black hair and it’s tightly curled.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I’m not actually picturing that?

PETER MENDELSUND: No.

You know, when I’m reading about Anna, I’m picturing whatever the closest analogue I can come up with to the woman that Tolstoy very, very narrowly describes for us. And that might be a teacher of mine from grade school. It turns out, once you really start examining the process and parsing it, that we all do this. We sort of co-create the book along with the writer.

JEFFREY BROWN: And do you think that all of this is changing because of a changing technology, a changing society that is more visual, perhaps, than print-oriented?

PETER MENDELSUND: In a way, it makes this idea of imagining things for ourselves, this kind of nebulous, amorphous world that we occupy when we’re reading, it makes it more valuable than ever, because we’re so bombarded all the time with visual stimuli, that there are very few other places, maybe other than when we’re dreaming, where we get to have this feeling of occupying this kind of metaphysical realm.

So it becomes very special in that regard. We text pictures to each other. We see pictures on the Internet all the time. Everything, you said, is visual. So it’s nice to think of this more, as I put it, kind of amorphous place that doesn’t exist in the corporeal world that we can sort of occupy. It becomes more precious, I think.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, “What We See When We Read” and “Covers.”

Peter Mendelsund, thank you so much.

PETER MENDELSUND: Thank you for having me.

GWEN IFILL: You can find a photo gallery of Peter Mendelsund’s work on our Art Beat page.