An Interview with Talking Covers Founder Sean Manning

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As the author of a memoir and editor of a few anthologies that feature some of today’s most prominent writers, Sean Manning knows something about the book business. In May 2012, he started Talking Covers, a fascinating site dedicated to telling the stories about how book covers come to be, soliciting commentary from authors, photographers and designers. On March 2, Manning will be at The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles, chatting with Jonathan Lethem, as well as some of the designers who have worked on Lethem’s covers. Manning was kind enough to answer a few questions via email.


Question: You started Talking Covers in May 2012, using your memoir as the first example of how authors try to work with publishers’ cover designers. Was the experience of seeing the cover of your first book take shape the impetus for the site or did your interest in this intersection of writing and design exist beforehand?

Manning: Publishing the memoir definitely made me more appreciative of and curious about cover design. But mainly, I started the blog in response to eBooks. I used to be really anti-eBook. I even edited an anthology in defense of print books. But I’ve come around — anything that gets people reading more. And I think the new format could change storytelling in a lot of really exciting ways.

But I do worry that if bookstores go extinct, so will the experience of picking up some random book just because of the cover. I’ve discovered so many of my favorite books and authors that way. That’s how I first got into Joan Didion. I was 21 and found a first edition of Play It As It Lays — hot pink and orange with a big, black snake. I didn’t know who Didion was, but that cover was so cool I had to read it. It’d be shitty to lose that. So I started the blog to help show how important book cover design is and how much work goes into it. These things aren’t just tossed off in five minutes. It’s truly an art. Getting comments from the authors was essential. There’ve been a few blogs that discussed covers with designers, like The New Yorker’s short-lived Under Cover. But getting the authors to weigh-in shows how important cover design is to them, too — how much they value the way their work is presented to the world. I will say, when it comes to eBooks, most designers I’ve talked to are excited about the challenge. They think having to come up with something eye-catching for an Amazon or iBookstore thumbnail will lead to a lot more experimentation and innovation.

Question: There’s no shortage of internet depositories for thoughts about books and design, but Talking Covers hits this sweet spot where authors share their experiences of participating in the cover design process. You’re lucky to have corresponded with many high-profile authors and designers. Do you think that publishers are more open to hearing out an author’s idea if that author has a notable track record?

Manning: I can’t speak for all designers, but the sense I get is that most are welcoming of feedback from authors, regardless of their track record. They appreciate how many years of hard work that the author has put into his or her book, and ideally they want the author to approve. But most of the time, the final cover isn’t up to the designer. The publisher and editor and creative director and marketing department all have some say. That’s one of the more fun and fascinating things about the blog — getting to see rejected comps. It’s pretty awesome to see the evolution of John Gall’s design for Jim Shepard’s story collection Like You’d Understand, Anyway. Even when Gall settles on the right image, there’s still the size and font type to figure out. It’s crazy that the subtlest change to a cover gives it an entirely different impression.

Question: Speaking of the Shephard book, in terms of the real nuts and bolts of book publishing design, that’s one of the most informative posts. First published by the Random House imprint Knopf, featuring an incredibly recognizable cover by Jason Booher, Gall had to follow-up with a new cover for the Vintage edition. His task was further complicated by the fact that this book was nominated for a National Book Award, meaning the cover design would have to accommodate a silver medallion to announce the prize nomination. Gall told you, “Award-winning books are the best thing that can happen to a book — for the writer, the publisher, the company — for everyone except the art department. That sweet medallion has messed up many wonderful designs.” What are some of the other real practical issues that arise when it comes to designing a book cover, both from the author’s perspective and the publisher’s?


Manning: I think blurbs are really interesting. Sometimes they don’t come in until after the cover is ready, and then the whole thing has to be changed to fit the blurb. That’s why I really love the cover of Shani Boianjiu’s The People of Forever Are Not Afraid. Almost always, a book by a debut author features a blurb on the cover, to help give it more credibility. But Boianjiu’s novel doesn’t have one and I think it makes the cover so much more intriguing.

Question: Heidi Julavits’s The Vanishers strikes me as an interesting case study in that both the author and designer, Doubleday’s Emily Mahon, were both a bit out of their comfort zones, but the end result, a striking floral collage, or, in Julavits’s words, “STD man on acid cover,” thrilled everyone. Mahon admitted to you that typically she doesn’t have lots of contact with an author, but Julavits had loads of ideas and even got Mahon to visit the Alexander McQueen exhibit at the Met. “It’s the first book cover I’ve had that made me proud of my book — I was honestly more proud of what I’d written BECAUSE of that cover. I was proud that my book had inspired such a talented designer to create this mesmerizing visual representation,” Julavits confessed. Have you found it to be true that the authors and designers get along well because ostensibly they both have the best interest of the book in mind? Or can authors be too close to it and lose sight of marketing concerns?

Manning: Heidi’s and Emily’s working relationship is pretty rare. Most designers have limited communication — if any — with the authors. I was never in
touch with my memoir‘s cover designer, Nupoor Gordon. My editor showed me a couple designs and I gave feedback to him and he passed it along. That’s one of the things I love most about the blog, that it gives designers a chance to hear what the authors have to say and vice versa. Just as I’ve found most designers welcoming of author feedback, I’ve found most authors willing to defer to the designer and publisher when it comes to the final cover. As Rick Moody wrote, “I see my role as being the guy who makes the interior of the books. Therefore, it is important for me to try to stay out the jacket discussion, unless I really love what is on there, or if I am so unhappy that I think I will not be able to let go of my feelings.”

Marke Your Calendar: LA-based The Lost Bookstore and Talking covers present Jonathan Lethem Talks Covers on Saturday, March 2. Don’t miss this opportunity!

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