Stunning Design: Modern Book Covers for Classic Novels

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The act could be seen as cheeky or brave (or both): launching an independent publishing house in 2018 that focuses on classic titles, but with a modern reader in mind. But Ingrid Paulson, who has worked in the book industry for 20 years, primarily as an art director, knows what it takes to grab the attention of a potential reader.

INGRID PAULSON / Gladstone Press

His company, Gladstone Press, has already published four titles – The Wuthering Heights, Mrs. Dalloway, Age of innocence and The Hound of the Baskervilles – each with its own surprisingly minimalist cover containing only a symbol of history inside. The Wuthering Heights has a barren tree, Age of innocence binoculars. She also plays with other spaces on the cover, like filling the spine with text. Paulson spoke to the Globe about starting his business, real estate a book cover, and book cover design in the digital age.

Tell me about the founding of Gladstone Press. You’ve been in book design for a while, but starting your own publishing house is a different beast. Why did you start it?

After 20 years of designing books for others, I wanted to focus on a project that I was the client of and understand all the other steps, skills, and consequences that I have seen daily in so many of my peer editors. There’s no money in there – the book publishing margins are notoriously slim, and even more so with the small runs I’m working with right now. So it’s a project: do the readers see what I see, and do they want to approach, or rediscover, classic novels with very modern covers?

Why the decision to focus on the classics?

In an editorial design course in art school, I worked on a series design for Shakespeare. Even then, I was thinking about how to make these pieces appealing to today’s reader, and the idea stuck with me. Moreover, in Canada, designers rarely have the chance to work on larger projects such as reissues of classics, at least not with much freedom to reposition books outside of school and library markets. There are many historical covers for these titles. I wanted to see what would happen if they were treated as living and relevant texts.

INGRID PAULSON / Gladstone Press

Tell me about the decision to take a modern approach to the cover design of these classic titles? Was it a response to something you were seeing in the market?

It was. I love some of the new design directions that publishers have taken with their line of classics, especially Penguin UK, but I remember walking into a big chain to buy Anna karenina as a gift for my husband. There were three different editions, and all used historical and / or feminine images. I found out that I couldn’t relate to any of them, and yes, I read the book. i was wondering whatAnna karenina would look like if it was set in our time and designed to appeal to a contemporary audience.

When it comes to real estate on the cover of a book, how rigid are the rules of the convention? As a designer, are you free to play with what appears where?

From a designer’s point of view? I am as free as the publisher allows. However, the design of the cover serves two purposes: to best convey the essence of the book and also to better convey the reader’s expectations of the book. As a designer I’m bound by certain tastes in the market, really, and the bigger the book, the more opinions – of the sales staff, the publisher, the publisher, the author, the agent … all stakeholders, really – need to be considered. Account.

INGRID PAULSON / Gladstone Press

You have minimalist front covers, but chunky backs, what prompted the decision to play with this space?

My goal is to open these books to readers who probably distrusted them because they looked a certain way: too important, too historical, too white European, too gendered. So I decided that the fronts would show an important object for the book – but not to show faces – and the spine would use an interesting quote from the text. With these devices I try to shake off the preconceived idea of, say, The Wuthering Heights as a simple romance, or Sherlock Holmes as only for boys. The quote on the spine acts as a prompt for a potential reader.

What is your creative process for deciding which iconic symbol will appear on the cover of each title?

Oh, luck, really. I’ve been reading manuscripts and finding key symbols for a long time, so it’s just a matter of reading the books, paying attention to the settings and what the author is trying to say, and coming up with the right symbol. Eyeglasses for Age of innocence, it came to me because I brooded over social circles in the novel: gossip, lack of privacy. As I reread the text, I saw how Wharton used opera nights to stress these tensions.

INGRID PAULSON / Gladstone Press

Is the role or impact of the cover design changing now that there is Kobos and the Audible app etc. ?

Online shopping has certainly changed the approach to cover design. One of the results is that readers become more visually aware. They recognize symbols, colors, and shapes better now that the title and author names appear right next to the cover image online. There is also a pervasive desire to give the cover a hand-drawn look or revert to earlier pre-computer design solutions. It’s part of a larger visual zeitgeist; to make things feel like things, tactile, simple and human. I don’t see it going away anytime soon.


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