Sunday, February 20, 2022

Book Cover: Please Be Advised

A really fun project I had this winter was designing the book cover for Christine Sneed's next book, Please Be Advised. It's an epistolary novel of sorts—except that instead of being written in the form of letters, it's written in the form of office memos. Here's how it was described in Publishers Marketplace:

Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction winner Christine Sneed's Please Be Advised, pitched in the vein of Dear Committee Members, a humorous novel in corporate memoranda chronicling the implosion of a “miniature office products” company through the work lives, extracurricular relationships, and dubious business strategies of its employees.

And here's something Christine mentioned in an email to me, that I think is an even better, deeper description of what this book is all about: " overall goal was to write a book that expressed the absurdity and accidental sadness of office culture, i.e. how nuts it is that many of us are forced to spend most of our waking hours doing jobs we don't like alongside people who, in most cases, we don't like much either."

When we first started working on the concepting for the cover, Christine shared some of these memo pieces with me, and they're witty and clever and hilarious.

Christine suggested that the cover, like the book itself, be constructed of memos, and of course this was perfect. In my head it was one memo for the title and one for the author name, arranged askew and with some office detritus scattered around. I pictured the cover as an organized mess, reflecting the "implosion" of the office world Christine had created.

And maybe there could be some particular object sitting on the main (title) memo. "A coffee cup," I tossed out to Christine and to editor Kurt Baumeister, "a bunch of crumpled paper, one or more of those miniature office products mentioned in Publishers Marketplace... Is there some funny element that could be hanging out on top of the memo? Spilled coffee?"

When Christine wrote back to say she liked the way I was thinking, she shared one of the specific memos from the book, and it was all about spilled coffee, and it was so good that I went all in for the coffee spill concept.

I started by arranging some pieces of paper and my husband's overturned coffee cup on the cutting
board in my kitchen and taking pictures of it. Then I got on illustrator and recreated the pages and the coffee cup. See, this is how simplistically my design work starts. ------->

As I constructed my cup I was thinking on how best to arrange it all: memos, title, author name, coffee cup... where might a blurb go, where does the book's subtitle want to be? What other remnants of office life want to be included? I thought about the edge of a keyboard but that felt too overpowering. A lot of the challenge of this cover was balance. Enough of the coffee cup has to be in the frame that the viewer instantly identifies it as a coffee cup, but then does it overwhelm the more important elements of title and author name? Make the coffee cup smaller and it doesn't look realistic against the size of the paper. Add the edge of a keyboard and you likely don't have any place for the blurb to go.

I constructed some small objects that could evoke office without taking away from the important stuff. A pen.

A paperclip. 

And finally I started arranging my elements to match the layout that was in my head.

My first color scheme was lots of reds and blues. And browns, of course. That's another interesting thing about balance. You have to puzzle together the balance of the colors. And it's more than what colors fit well together in a space. Sometimes you have elements that guide the color. A coffee spill means there's going to be brown. The main text being in the form of memos means those spaces are going to be lighter colors than the text on top of them. Which means you need a strong color for the background. Here were my first couple samples.

Christine and Kurt didn't love the coffee spill sort of blurring and obscuring the author name, so we scrapped that. They both chose the layout I liked best, which is the one on the left with the blurb up top. Putting the subtitle on the pen was fun but the other layout worked better, so that's the one we went forward with. 

Christine said she didn't love blue, so I started to think on other colors. And while I was experimenting, I got a note saying, what if it were a martini glass rather than a coffee cup, to reflect the fact that, as Christine described it, "this novel has a drunk malcontent as a main character and quite a bit of raunch too."

Then things got interesting.

Alright, things were already interesting, but think about the new challenge of creating an object of glass, spilling a transparent liquid, out of simple colors and shapes. And what would this do to the balance of color, especially with the paper no longer being blue: would we have whites on whites on whites? What would this do to the balance of the layout, now that whatever was behind the martini glass would be partly visible?

I didn't have a martini glass in the house to position into my scene at the called-for perspective so I started to scour the internet for pictures that could. Then I went back to my shapes and lines to create the glass.

Shades of white on white on white made the martini glass disappear too much (unfortunately I didn't keep any samples of that, that I could show here) so I decided to experiment with light yellows for the pages and hints of blues in my grays for the glass and spill.

I stayed with reds and reds for the moment, and of course with a martini comes an olive, so that added a bit of green (although too bright in the shade I have it in, in the above). We had to lose the second pen because it competed with the shape and smaller footprint of the glass.

I liked the yellow for the pages. It definitely brightened things up a bit in a design that had been looking a little heavy, colorwise.

Once I got the martini glass to work, it was just a lot of small adjustments as I talked back and forth with Kurt and Christine, and then later got thoughts from Leland Check, the publisher. Playing with colors. Moving and enlarging the subtitle. Playing with the text of the memo that shows behind the glass. 

And in the end they chose the iteration that they liked best, and we switched out the blurb for a mention that Christine is a bestselling author and a prizewinner, and we had a cover:

Please Be Advised will be out in October of this year. More info on 7.13 Books is here. More info in Christine Sneed is here. And enjoy a very funny excerpt from the book below.



Date:   September 12

To:       All Quest Industries Employees

From:  Ted Kluck, Junior Partner, Gounes and Flinderman LLC

Subj:    New Doughnut Policy

This memorandum serves as your formal notice that forthwith and without exception, all doughnuts that appear in Quest Industries’ communal spaces must be shared with everyone. Quest doughnuts may not be thrown into the trash due to someone’s punitive relationship with food, hoarded at anyone’s desk, or resold on the neighboring streets to children and dimwitted tourists.

This memorandum does not serve, however, as an endorsement of doughnut-eating in general. Doughnuts are widely considered by licensed nutritionists and other healthcare professionals to be a source of empty calories, if not an outright danger to one’s health due to the manner in which they cause one’s blood sugar to spike and subsequently plummet with life-threatening swiftness.

We are cognizant of the fact they are extremely delicious treats, but nevertheless advise you to consume them at best infrequently and with humility.

Please direct any questions about this matter to President Bryan Stokerly’s executive assistant, Hannah-Louise Schmidt, not to me, i.e. Ted Kluck. This is my last day in Chicago for the foreseeable future, as I am heading to Washington, D.C. where I will be serving on a federal grand jury focused on corporate malfeasance, offshore banking, red light camera abuses, money laundering, and rooftop gardens.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Book Cover: House Fire

Recently, I had an email from Leland Cheuk, the publisher of one of my favorite small presses, 7.13 Books, asking if I had time in my schedule to design a book cover. All he said in that initial email was, "It’s a special one!"

Leland's promotional text for the back of the book explains it best:

From an automaton navigating a forbidden relationship with a man in post-apocalyptic Australia to a reimagining of a friendship between Franklin Pierce and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Nawrocki’s short fiction ranges from futuristic to historical and everywhere in between. House Fire, the winner of the 2009 James White Poetry Prize, judged by Mark Doty—a book that was never published—blazes with poems that are erudite and precise, even when confronting the messiness of love, grief, and mortality.

The work of the late Jim Nawrocki, who died of cancer in 2018, is poignant, rangy, and genre-bending, and House Fire is a debut collection from a literary voice gone far too soon.

So, a special one, indeed. I've never before designed a book cover for someone who wouldn't see it. I definitely felt the tension of that as I experimented with colors and shapes and lines. And what a tragedy that the original book never happened for him in his lifetime. But how lovely that, recently, when Jim's partner Jason approached Leland with a pitch for finally making this book happen, Leland said yes. 

Jason had two thoughts about the possible design direction. First, he shared that when Jim's book was initially going to be published, Jim had suggested a famous piece of stencil art by David Wojnarowicz for the cover. "But after 12 years," Jason told me," and a Whitney retrospective, it might be too popular now. (Also, I think another book used it for a cover design in the past year or two...)"

Then Jason shared that another image that had been talked about for the cover of that original book was an old photo of two men that Jim had picked up somewhere, an antique store or a bookshop: "Jim had always projected onto the photo the idea that these two gold rush-era men were lovers or partners of some kind."

I loved the photo—and the back side even appeared to have the names of the men on it.

But I did worry about copyright issues in using it outright on a book cover. Even with antique photos, copyright stuff can be a bit of a minefield. And then I saw that the image was too small to reproduce well in print. 

But I started thinking. Why not combine both of these directions into one? Why not make a stencil of sorts out of Charlie and Roy's picture?

I started by drawing lines around the various areas of the men's forms and creating shapes in Illustrator

After I had created Charlie and Roy simplified down to just three colors each, I worked on a couple layouts incorporating title, author name, and place for a blurb. And added some stencil-like texture. The lettering I played with was a stencil font, which I figured I'd refine and make more my own if they decided they liked that direction. My original idea for color was reds, oranges and yellows—fire colors.

So, okay, it's a little harsh on the eyes.

Tarantino-y is what Leland called it when I sent him the samples. 

He said he and Jason liked what they saw but were interested in a softer, more obviously historical tone. "The stories and poems are wide ranging," Leland said, "contemplative, about art and history and gay identity. There’s a level of erudition in the work as well. Would love to see something a little softer to reflect that."

To get more of that historical feel, I chucked the stencil font and played with adding a decorative border. I experimented with different color schemes, including shades that could evoke a sepia tone. 

They liked the border and the sepia-like color scheme, and we refined it further. Bringing the colors up a little brighter. Trying a very deep red for the main text.

When we finally had a finished cover we loved and I started writing this post, I asked Jason for a little more information about the James White Poetry Prize, the book that hadn't happened, and the path it took to become the book it is now.

"I actually read about Leland and 7.13 in an article/blurb in Poets & Writers magazine," he said, "which Jim was still receiving for a bit after his death. 

"After reading more about Leland’s journey, I wrote him a heartfelt email (taking a chance to stray from the usual query letters I saw Jim had used for many of his past submissions) about how similar their journeys seemed to be, with one major exception—Jim didn’t make it through his illness.

"I felt like I needed to do this for Jim, to finish his life’s work ❤️❤️❤️ As I wrote to Leland, who wouldn’t do something like this for someone they loved?"

House Fire will be out in the world on May 18th. More info on this and other 2022 7.13 titles is on the 7.13 Books site here.

And here's a little sneak peek from the very first story:


Severin Park was, almost literally, a work of art. The creation and crowning achievement of Chansen Soo Park, the eccentric, reclusive, and infamous cybernetics genius of Seoul, Severin had been the world’s first fully functioning automaton (to use the archaic parlance his creator preferred). He was virtually indistinguishable from a human, but for the strange and almost ethereal cast of his skin, which Park père had fashioned from a mysterious kind of advanced ceramic, durable and specially developed for his robotics work.

Severin had become a celebrity of sorts. He’d been deliberately gifted with a combination of a face and physique considered both unusual and attractive. Seen often at art and fashion-world fetes, he had more or less stumbled into a kind of side career as a model, appearing in several high-end European fashion magazines. He’d had some roles in films in what had been called independent cinema. He was even something of a playboy; his creator had also taken care to endow Severin with not only the functioning anatomy required for physical intimacy, but the desire (albeit a moderate one) to use it as well, and there hadn’t been a shortage of women, or even of men, who coveted the chance to earn a turn in Park’s bed.

His wealthy creator had appeared indifferent, at least publicly, to the unusual life assumed by his handiwork. His only formal statement on the matter had been a manifesto, which, true to his preference for old technologies, he published in a limited edition and expensively produced letterpress book On the Moral Autonomy of Automatae. As its title suggested, one of its proposals was a radical addition to the system of Linnaean taxonomy, a recognition of cybernetic creations and artificial intelligences as worthy categories of “life.” The manifesto was quickly reproduced on electronic media and available to everyone. It was widely read and debated at the time. While it was clear that the inventor had used his considerable wealth to finance Severin’s emergence into the world at large, it was also evident that, after a certain interval, the quasi-human being he created had been able to support himself and live independently. Park and his creator had little contact after that threshold had been crossed.