Here’s why you should judge a book by its cover | brunch$feature | Hindustan Times
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Here’s why you should judge a book by its cover

Beautiful book covers are not only works of art in themselves, they also help sell books.

brunch Updated: Jan 17, 2016 13:29 IST
The final eight: The shortlist of eight book covers for the Oxford Bookstore Book Cover Prize displays a diversity of styles.
The final eight: The shortlist of eight book covers for the Oxford Bookstore Book Cover Prize displays a diversity of styles.

Fun fact: before it was turned into the face of the Jurassic Park movies, the black skeleton of the T-Rex, with its freakishly short arms, silhouetted against a red and yellow background appeared on the cover of Michael Crichton’s book Jurassic Park. Designed by Chip Kidd, one of America’s finest graphic designers and an art director with New York-based publishing house Alfred Knopf, it was so chilling that the film’s producers retained it as the logo for the franchise. That’s the power a well-designed book jacket has: it can tell the story long before you turn the first page.

However strongly you deny it, the fact remains that you do judge books by their covers. While the Penguin classics with their bright orange borders and bold black text against a white background give you room for imagination, the jackets of the books in the Harry Potter series trigger an urge to pick the books up.

The introduction to any book begins long before you read the first paragraph. It begins when you decide to reach out and pick it up to see what lies between the covers.

“There are times when I buy books in languages I don’t even understand, because the visual language of the cover catches my attention,” says Priti Paul, director, Apeejay Surrendra Group, and the creative force behind the Oxford Bookstores. Spearheading the first ever Book Cover Prize in the country, the results of which will be declared on January 22 this year, Paul believes that “every story has a face” and the cover is a point of connection between the authors and their audience.

“Sometimes designers tend to treat their reader very naively,” says photographer Dayanita Singh, a jury member for the competition, “but for me a good book cover has to provide an ambiguous image, intrigue me and allow my imagination to play along. What’s more interesting is when there is a tension between the text and the image.” When browsing in a bookstore, Singh says, she looks for a balance between the text and the cover image, or for a complementary image for the “beautiful prose” that the pages conceal. “I am definitely not a big fan of narrative covers that spell out the story for the readers,” she says.

Jury duty: The jury looks at book covers at Tijara fort in Rajasthan; (from left) hotelier Aman Nath, art curator Alka Pande, photographer Dayanita Singh, writer Namita Gokhale.

Adds writer Namita Gokhale, another jury member, “Book covers are the most intimate form of everyday art. When you are looking at the book cover your imagination is already unleashed. It’s a daily encounter with art, which we don’t cherish enough.” She says that the jury went for a quiet weekend to Tijara to discuss the book covers that were in contention.

The Cover’s Story

Book designers must precariously balance the beam between what the author wants and what the publishing house requires.

“When you buy a book, you spend a good amount of time with it,” says Moonis Ijlal, a writer and journalist who designs book covers as a hobby, the man responsible for the the vibrant 50th anniversary edition of AL Basham’s brilliant history book, The Wonder That Was India. “For me, designing a book cover is like crafting an accessory. It’s something you would hold, sleep next to, and carry around.” Steering away from readily available image banks, Ijlal prefers to work by hand.

The sensibilities of Indian book cover designers are unique; different from how the rest of the world sees things. “We have our own vocabulary,” says Paul. “The Indian visual sense is a distinctive style altogether, and I’m curious to see how it develops further.”

According to Poulomi Chatterjee, editor-in-chief and publisher at Hachette India, “The designing of a book cover is a nerve-racking process but working hard on it pays off. I was very proud of the covers we did for Krishna Udayasankar’s The Aryavrata Chronicles Govinda, Kaurava and Kurukshetra. While Kunal Kundu did the brilliant designing, the perfect lettering came from Gunjan Ahlawat. We got it ‘just right’ each time.”

Walking a tightrope between clarity and mystery, a book cover serves as a sneak peek into the world of the writer.

From HT Brunch, January 17, 2016

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