Tuesday 11 June 2013

Describing the story and tone within one or two inches: An interview with Andrea Uva

Some publishers have not let the advent of ebooks kill their design instincts. Open Road Integrated Media publish a lot of digital-format books, and have the rights to the backlists of a lot of great writers, both “literary” and in various genres. I talked to Andrea C. Uva, Art Director at Open Road, about the unique challenges and possibilities of ebook cover design.

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CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: I’d imagine browsers in bookshops can stumble on a physical book serendipitously a lot more easily than they can an ebook, which is often something they need to seek out to find. Does this mean the challenge of cover design for ebooks is different?

ANDREA C. UVA: Yes, browsers in a bookstore are much more of a captive audience. Even if a person goes straight to an employee to request a book, he or she still must pass through tables and shelves before arriving at the book’s location, and there will be many more titles all around. On an ebook website, one simply types in the book title or author name and up pops the title. That system creates a lot less exposure. The digital platform means that viewers are exposed to fewer book covers than they would be in a bookstore, but that playing field is leveled because all ebooks are presented on an e-tailer site at almost the same size. Print-production marketing tricks like spot gloss, matte finishes, embossing, gold foil, hardcover opulence, etc., are lost on the digital platform. The reader can’t even tell how “thick” their ebook is, another clue that would give a sense of value from one book to the next. This means that ebook cover designers need to make covers that are appealing and call to the reader from the “shelf” without any additional dressings, and at a very small size. Most ebooks are displayed at about one to two inches high on an ebook retailer site. This means that in order to sell our books, titles must be made as large as possible to be readable at thumbnail size. Ebook covers are not a place for subtle art, either. The concept must be clear at a small size and not obstruct the type. It is much more difficult to be evocative within these parameters. 

Cover by Mauricio Diaz

Covers by Michel Vrana

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: A lot of the Open Road covers use lovely, rich colours that glow on a computer screen in a way that a non-backlit printed cover cannot do (such as the beautiful popping colours on Pete Hautman's ‘Drawing Dead’). Is the “screen-ness” of images and designs a factor in OR covers, or do you think the books would have the same look if destined for printed form?

ANDREA C. UVA: Ebooks are designed to be RGB, whereas print books are CMYK. (RGB is red-green-blue, and CMYK is cyan-magenta-yellow-black). This separations process is a plus for ebooks, because RGB colors, and the way they are lit on screen, produce rich colors that appear more pure than CMYK, mostly because the color black is not an ingredient in the process. It means that ebooks have less opportunity for the more subtle color transitions that you get with CMYK, but the RGB process is good for brights and contrasting color. The books would be similar in print, but the colors would appear slightly grayer, unless we decided to use special features like printing with a fifth color, which means that we overlay a pure ink of a particular color in addition to the CMYK that creates the rest of the book. When you see a very strong neon on a page where the rest of the colors look more muted, that is typically a fifth-color process.

Covers by Connie Gabbert

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: I’ve noticed that very few OR covers feature the sort of blurbs and “from the author-of”s that feature on many book covers. What's the rationale behind this?

ANDREA C. UVA: Ebooks offer the opportunity to feature a blurb of selling text next to the cover, which serves as a digital back cover or inside jacket flap. This means that information that would normally go on a print cover, like quotes or blurbs, can live right next to the book and still make it to the reader. Print book covers have a lot more room for this type of information because the reader is looking from inches away, and doesn’t need the cover type to be large. On an ebook, anything below about a twenty-four-point font can get lost in thumbnail size, and a very small-set quote or blurb mostly clutters an ebook cover and covers up the art rather than enhancing the book. For that reason, we do our best to streamline the amount of text on an ebook cover, reserving quotes, praise, and other info to the metadata that runs alongside it on the retailer site. 

Covers by Angela Goddard

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: A huge selection of OR books are backlist titles, often the complete or near-complete works of certain authors. What informs the design of a set of linked covers (say the Fred Kaplan or Fay Weldon backlists)? What can or can't you do, compared to working on a cover for a book that has no design connections with other titles by that author?

ANDREA C. UVA: Open Road has been breaking that convention from the beginning, and we’re very proud of the progress we’ve made in this area. In the past, book covers that shared the same author were designed one at a time, sometimes years apart depending on the books’ publication schedules, and according to the aesthetic sensibility of the particular year or era in which they were written. This results in a very disjointed backlist from an author, and designing a book according to the type and image design trends of the year in which the designer is working doesn’t always best serve the book or the author. Since we at Open Road consider ourselves a digital marketing company as much as a digital publisher, creating a unified marketing front for a collection of books by an author is a priority. We approach our authors as traditional marketing companies approach brands, and the way that manifests itself in the design is that the author’s name becomes their logo, and the look of one of their books becomes the look of their entire list. Though many of the books in a particular author’s backlist might not share the same characters, settings, or story details, they are connected by their writer, and that is what we draw upon when we create a redesigned backlist that unifies the titles visually. Within those parameters, there is lots of room to use imagery to differentiate time, place, and other details that set the books apart. 

Covers by Angela Goddard

Covers by Angela Goddard

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: What's your own design background? How did you come to working with ebooks in particular?

ANDREA C. UVA: I have a background that is split between graphic design and conceptual art. I have been designing and typesetting books, magazines, and newspapers on computers in some form since 1996, but my career in publishing began in 2003 at Simon & Schuster in New York City. At this time, ebooks were not a player. My design career in terms of books has been mostly print. I worked for a book packager that allowed me to design book covers for many publishers, including Harper Collins, Little, Brown and Company, Scholastic, Simon & Schuster, Penguin, and Sourcebooks, and I gained a broad understanding of cover-design aesthetics and how they vary from publisher to publisher. I also have experience in web design, and ebook covers are the merger of the more commercial print-book design with the technical aspects of web design. Coming to it from a conceptual education background has been integral in solving the particular challenge that ebook covers provide: describing the story and tone within a thumbnail parameter of one to two inches and presenting it in a way that the viewer can easily see and understand.

CAUSTIC COVER CRITIC: Ignoring budgetary constraints, publishing rights, and any other annoying details--is there a book you'd kill to have the chance to design a cover for?

ANDREA C. UVA: That’s a great question! Iconic books and iconic covers tend to grow organically. Very few bestsellers come out knowing they are destined for fame. This is why the iconic book art for many of our most beloved titles isn’t always the most clear, or even the best designed, but after time and the sales of many editions, they take on a life of their own. Look at Twilight, for example, or The Great Gatsby. To answer your question, I think it would be difficult to come at a book that is so well known and means so much to so many people and try to slap one cover on it that would meet everyone’s expectations. I would much prefer to work on an unknown book that becomes a best-loved classic, and have that original cover that I designed live on in infamy. To me that seems more true to the spirit of the book and to art than to try to rebrand a blockbuster title to suit the needs of everyone. If I had to name a book to redesign, it would probably be Les Misérables, as I think there is an opportunity for a graphic treatment that is referential to the plight of the characters.



Covey said...

It's great to hear the perspective of Ms. Uva and her thoughtful take on ebook design. Thanks for doing it, James.

JRSM said...

My pleasure--thanks!

Neil Ansell said...

Some lovely covers here....but, but, but...'Abnormal Occurences' ? Is this a deliberate spelling mistake?

JRSM said...

Hey, I hadn't noticed that. The book is listed in catalogues with the correct spelling... How odd!

Anonymous said...

Those Ishmael & Sturgeon covers are delightful. Although, as a big fan of Reed, I've always wished his covers had more dynamic / scintillating art to buttress their visibility. 'Reckless Eyeballing' is the only cover in my collection that isn't dated by its design, at least in re: the graphics. The text is pretty 80s.

All-text covers aren't very kind to highly visual authors, in my opinion-- cf. Pynchon's covers, which tend toward being dominated by text. ('Mason & Dixon' is a major offender, in my eyes. Ugh. 'Against The Day' at least avoids the pitfalls of being text-dominant by playing with the title & design in a semiotic way.)