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Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Black Swan redux

US cover design by Thomas Beck Stvan

I'm really interested in gathering more of your thoughts on books without titles on the front cover, as the few comments left on the original post for The Black Swan are about as diverse as they can be.

One reader loves the UK version w/ no title: "Who needs a title on the cover when you have such a great visual statement? People will stop, pick up the book, turn to the spine, and THERE is the info. So, the publisher has effectively grabbed their attention enough to actually pick up the book."

Another is not so fond of it: "Book design has a job to do: to identify and sell a book...given the job it had to do, I can only see it as a beautiful failure."

I don't know that I agree with the above definition of "book design's job," but I want to know what you think -- about these covers in particular, about books without titles on the cover generally, about what you as designers would like to design, and what you as a book buyer are most likely to reach for in the bookstore.


Andy said...

I was receiving some advanced reader's copys of books the other day, and a very stark cover caught my eye, it was for William Gibson's new novel but i didn't even look at the title or athor's name, or the band across the book stating it was a draft. The striking black and white cover was what go me to look at the book. (the amazon cover posted has the white space colored with sky, I'm looking forward to seeking the completed cover in August.) I'd say I agree with the first poster, if your cover doesn't tell you the title but it's striking enough to get you to pick up the book than that is it has 'done it's job' the cover's there to spark interest, when it comes down to it, the title is another way to spark interest, not another required datum the cover must include.

trav said...

I'd have to stake my tent in the "covers need type" camp.
To me, the UK cover is as stimulating as a picture postcard at the airport.
I believe that there is a level of engagement that is achieved when the eyes and brain sync for a split second to read something and rationalize it with any visual cues given.
I think that spark is crucial to solid book design.
People have been doing image-only work ever since cavemen put charcoal to cave walls.
Using this designer's logic, there is no reason why the title shouldn't be "White Swan", which would be wrong.
My two-cents...

theoreticalk said...

Call me square, but I favor the US cover. Sure, the UK cover is elegant and catchy, but the US cover balances it's respective elements very well.

Plus, I'm a big sucker for typography. The US version does it's job (identify the book and create intrigue), and it does it very well.

L.C.McCabe said...


Feel free to put me down into the weird former bookseller category.

I'd love for you to include more than just the cover art. I'd like to see what the spines look like on these books.

That's because I quickly came to the realization that most books have only their spine to work their magic on browsing customers in bookstores. So I am probably one of the few people that think a good spine is more important than good cover art.

I saw one book when I was a book seller that had a white cover and the lettering was in pink italics. I have no idea what the book was, if it was fiction, self-help, whatever, all I noticed was how incredibly bad the spine was for no one could possibly read it.

To me a good spine should have bold contrast of letter to the rest of the cover and you should be able to read it several feet away from the shelf.

So to answer your question about the two covers, I happen to like the aesthetics more of the Origami black and white imagery sans words which might intrigue me to pick it up and look at the back cover.

If you could include images of spines to add to the covers sometime, I for one would like that addition. (Of course, I might be the only one who would care.)


alan said...

as Linda mentione above, the majority of books that hit the shelves will have to rely on things like a consumer's prior knowledge of the book, a legible, well-designed (interpret that how you will) spine, and/or placement at about eye level to be noticed.

what is considered "proper" cover design should be taken on a case by case basis; in the context of these two covers, the UK edition gets my vote. i would pick up this book if it was faced out in the new releases section of my local bookstore; the cover stimulates that sort of curiosity. this is not to say that the US version is terrible; the image on the UK cover is just stronger.

props to the designer on this one and to the publisher who had the willingness to go forward with such minimal representation of content.

Joseph said...

Linda: I would love to do more with book spines, but at this point the operating budget for The Book Design Review consists of the loose change that I find in my couch. It's easy to visit the bookstore and find cover images online; not so easy to find images of spines.

kbd said...

I think the two comments that you have on the main entry for this debate both have something valid to say. I used to be a bookseller and now work in publishing, and think that it IS indeed the designer's job to sell the book, but with just SO many books out there you need a cover that grabs someone's attention: a book cover without any text would certainly do that. It wouldn't be appropriate in every case, but here it's just gorgeous.

I also agree with Linda that the spine is really important... if only I had a dollar for every time I overlooked a book while trying to find it on a shelf full of blah spines.

Thanks for a fascinating blog.

Sergio said...

I designed the US cover for Taleb's last book, "Fooled by Randomness", and I have to give the Brits kudos for getting away with this... I'm very surprised to see a typeless treatment for the UK version of "Black Swan." Still, I have to say, it leaves me a bit cold....

On the whole I think that typeless covers need to have a rationale beyond the obvious satisfaction that comes from "bucking convention". Of course as a designer the temptation is always there. But only twice have I submited a typeless cover whose rejection by the publisher broke my heart.

As a case in point: The time that hurt the most was for a book that sought to be the definitive, "secret" history of America's Special Operations forces. I designed an all-black, typeless cover, with only a small image (cropped off into the upper right hand corner) of several American soldiers and an Afghani guide at night, taken through the green grain of a night vision scope.

Anticipating that this dramatic but completely typeless design treatment might not fly, I suggested we could include all of the info on the cover as well, but only as spot-glossed typography over the black so that one would have to shift the book and catch the light in order to see/read the text....

The final version they chose was so conventional I can't even look at it. My heartbreak was not because typelessness itself is so desirable, but because in this particular case I thought it made so much sense both conceptually and aesthetically. With the UK Black Swan however, I'm not so convinced... Feels like graphic-ness for graphic's sake.

Joseph said...

Sergio: I will gladly post any comps you have and might want to share. Both of your original ideas sound awesome.

Megan said...

I think it depends on the cover. (Could I be sitting more squarely on the fence? Maybe not.) Most of the time, I think that titleless covers work; they're art in their own right. If I see a book with no title I pick it up to get a closer look. I read the spine. I read the back or the inside cover. I may not always buy it, but the titleless cover usually piques my interest.

Andrea said...

No title on the cover says "fiction" to me, for some reason. The UK cover is interesting, but the US cover tells me that it's something I might actually want to read. I'm sure many people who read this blog regularly have heard the statistic that (barring a later Oprah pick or similar phenomenon) books typically have 90 percent of their total-life sales within the first 90 days that they're out. I'm not positive that it's an accurate statistic, but it sure seemed right during my five years in bookselling. So unless there are media reviews or other coverage, or sufficient word-of-mouth for a book, the cover has got to convey some sort of idea of what the book is really about. How on earth would anyone know what this is about from the UK cover?

And thanks, by the way, for featuring this cover; combined with a review in the Wall Street Journal, your post made me want to add this to my "to read" list.

Michael DiMarco said...

IMHO, the UK cover (and those loving it) is a classic case of designers living in a bubble.

A cover can ONLY be called effective if it connects with the intended audience and prompts them to pick up the book. And purchases are the only way we can come close to quantifying if someone picks it up.

I agree with the other commenter that no text on the cover screams fiction. The fact that the cover is artful and abstract in its approach is a total disconnect for biggest market for a "Tipping Point" type of book: frequent flyer business readers. In fact, the publisher's description of the book states this:

"(Taleb) has a polymathic command of subjects ranging from cognitive science to business to probability theory."

Doesn't that just scream artful, abstract cover? /litesarcasm

To any designers reading, please, PLEASE, consider who the intended audience is and take time to ponder how they think. The average business reader, economist, and digital thinker will not take the time to pick up a book and turn it over because it has a textless artistic cover sitting in between "Blink" and "Freakonomics".

As a designer, you (and your tastes) are not the customer, nor is the publisher actually (though they write your checks,) nay, the real customer of the cover you design has no input until the book hits the shelf.

That said, maybe the average UK business book reader thinks differently than their U.S. counterpart. But I doubt it.

Eileen said...

To me- a book's cover is designed to do the following:
- attract attention (to pull a buyer in)
- build brand awareness for the author
- be memorable- so that if the reader sees it in one place they remember it when they go to the store- either the image, the title or the author. This way if they describe it to a salesclerk they can find it on the shelf.

The UK cover I think does the first in an amazing way. The second and third are done less well. The question is if the whiz bang job they do on the first point carry the other two.

jasfitz said...

Andrea said "books typically have 90 percent of their total-life sales within the first 90 days that they're out" and used that to illustrate her point that a cover only has a short time to communicate with the audience, and it needs to communicate something about the book.

For me, I felt like that point actually illustrated why the cover works: it has to make a big impact in a short time. I would definitely think that the UK cover makes a far larger impact that will hold, especially within the buzz of book release hype, within that period of time.

I also find it strange that we've arrived at the point where everyone clearly feels there's a "way to do things" and if that way is not followed, there's hell to pay. It seems to me that once upon a time, books didn't always have covers meant to be the ultimate descriptor of a book. I like the idea that we can sort of reference that past by refusing to "sell" the book in the standard fashion, but instead allow the cover to be simply an enveloping, protective thing. In this case, it does describe the content of the book through a reference to the title, and it strikes me as a happy medium between the standard people want, and the idea I just mentioned. I suppose I enjoy this debate about a cover's purpose because I don't think covers have always had the same purpose, and it excites me to think about what potential purpose they may serve in the future.

All this said, I entirely agree with the several comments that say the spine ought to work very well. I certainly hope it does in this case.

Anonymous said...

Two types of buyers. One browses. One knows what they want by title and author name, perhaps from a recommendation.

Both covers get the browser just fine, but if you're looking for that book specifically and have no idea what it looks like, the cover with typography serves the purpose a lot better.

Vered said...

I think it is important to use a title on the cover AND spine. While a great image like the cover of the Black Swan can stand alone as good art, I don't think it works well as a book cover. A title used creatively and intelligently would not have detracted from the impact of the design. I believe that the job of the designer is to not only create a work of art that relays something about the content of the book, but also to market and sell the book... A strong spine combine with a great cover is very important. While we all say don't judge a book by the cover, in fact- we all do just that. If the cover or spine does not compel us to pick it up due to good design and a catchy title, the book gets forgotten and lost on the shelf. Remember, most books are displayed by the SPINE so attention to that detail should not be overlooked.

Anonymous said...

I was browsing in the bookstore and this book caught my eye only because of the subtitle on the cover, "The Impact of the Highly Improbable". Also, I recognized teh author's name from his previous book. I bought it; it's a great book. If I had seen the textless cover I would have assumed the book was "literary fiction" or about art design. I might have picked it up but I doubt it. As one poster commented, you have to consider the audience.