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On the face of it

Enough about authors. Here are the people who make the books be seen and wanted. Damini Purkayastha takes a look.

books Updated: Jul 10, 2009 23:43 IST
Damini Purkayastha

When Bangladeshi writer Tah-mima Anam received the first optional cover for her novel, A Golden Age, she was taken aback. For her story that follows the life of Rehana Haque, a widow, the publishers sent her a cover with a young woman in a pink sari. Her publishers brushed aside her objections. “Don’t be so literal, they said,” recounts Anam.

Malaysian author Tash Aw says stereotyping is rampant in the covers designed for Asian writers. “They always come back to me with houses on stilts.”

Frivolous as these anecdotes may make the book cover seem, designing it is a serious task. Satyajit Ray was so particular that he not only designed his own covers, but even designed covers of the books that his characters were shown reading in his films.

As marketing trends become even more entrenched in the world of publishing, cover design has become a serious enterprise. Some publishing houses have their own dedicated design team, others have regular freelance artists on board.

Bena Sareen, art director at Penguin, explains that until about seven years ago, most publishing houses in India worked with freelance designers. About 10 years ago Penguin India set up an in-house design team and Sareen signed on as director. A cover artist today interacts not only with the author, but increasingly also works with a marketing agent. There is only one intention: to get the book noticed and have it off the shelf. “As a designer, though, you have to keep in mind the voice of the author, you have to remember that the cover is for people who have not read the book,” says Sareen.

Cover artist Pinaki De, also a senior lecturer at Raja Peary Mohan College, Uttarpara, West Bengal, says people in India are getting cover-savvy now. Cover artists, he says, have great creative freedom, but it can become a lengthy process. “First you go through the design team or the editor, then the marketing team. Ultimately, it is not only art.” He says that marketing is a lot more opinionated when it comes to non-fiction. “My original cover of Amitabh: The Making of a Superstar was overturned by the marketing team.” For the cover of The Japanese Wife, writer Kunal Basu worked closely with De. “He’s a friend so it was a comfortable process,” recalls De.

The artist-author relationship is usually an important one. “Authors like Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth and Arundhati Roy are very involved in the process. In fact Arundhati engages a lot with the designer and there are endless hours of conversation with her,” says Sareen.

Shuka Jain, art director at HarperCollins, a cover designer herself, has designed covers for several several titles of the Perennial series. She explains that writers have a large say in the matter and are in close coordination with the artist and editorial.

Designing the cover for a children’s book is that much harder as children are tougher to attract. Ajanta Guha-

thakurtha, head of Puffin and Lady Bird Design, explains, “For children the cover is the face of the book. One has to be very careful about its colour.” For chick-lit, she explains, the formula is always that of a mass-market cover — a little ‘loud’, smart and trendy with special effects of embossings or spot lamination.

Old books, when reprised, also get a new cover. After the success of Slumdog Millionaire, not only did Vikas Swarup change the title of his book from Q&A to the name of the Oscar-winning film, but the book was re-printed with a filmy cover. Chetan Bhagat's book, One Night @ a Call Centre was also relaunched with a new cover. “We thought it was time to reintroduce the book in the market,” says Kapish Mehra, publisher, Rupa. “And we got a completely new person who hadn’t read the book before to design the new cover with a new perspective.” Mehra explains that new editions arise in two cases: either when the book fails to sell as expected, or when they do really well.

In other words, get the reader hooked all over again.