The Late Age of Print has been receiving lots of praise since its release back in March. What’s intriguing from an author’s standpoint is that the book’s cover has received almost as much attention as its content.
Some writers would be put off by this, believing that what really counts is the stuff that lies between the covers. Not I. I’m acutely aware that books are meant to be sold as much as they’re meant to be read. In fact, in my undergraduate “Cultures of Books and Reading Class,” I have an assignment in which I ask my students to “judge a book by its cover” — that is, to explain what they can learn about a book and its audience strictly by virtue of its design.
Anyway, scores of people have commented to me in person about The Late Age of Print’s eye-catching cover, and many have asked me to share the story behind it. I figured some of you reading might be interested to hear the story, too.
On the one hand, I had a strong sense of what I absolutely did not want to appear on the cover. Far too many books about books (as the genre is called) feature over-stuffed leather armchairs, hand-engraved mahogany bookcases, leather book marks, stacks of printed books shot in soft-focus, readers relaxing comfortably under a heap of toasty blankets — you get the drill. Basically, most books about books tend to aestheticize the printed book as an object by stressing its relationship to high culture. Since Late Age is largely about the book as an industrial artifact, I wanted something much grittier — plus, it never hurts to have a book cover that doesn’t look exactly like everyone else’s (more on that later).
On the other hand, I didn’t want to go too far in the opposite direction with the cover. That is, even though I didn’t want to overly-aestheticize books, I also didn’t want to convey a sense in which they were simply moribund things of the past. There’s a growing contingent of books about books that unfortunately tries to do exactly that. Most feature cover images in which book text is replaced with binary code or something to that effect, as if to convey the inevitable digitization — and by extension the disappearance — of the printed word. Books are changing, no doubt, but for my part I remain convinced that print in some form is here to stay.
So I didn’t want a cover that made books into romantic objects, nor did I want a cover that suggested that print was dead. The Late Age of Print is a book about the past, present, and future of book publishing, and so I knew early on that I wanted some type of cover image that would represent the themes of permanence and change. Much later, as I looked at the books about books appearing on my bookshelf at home, I decided that I wanted a more abstract type of design, since many titles in my opinion overly-literalized their subject matter.
To my good fortune, a friend of mine from graduate school happened upon the work of the Houston, Texas-based photographer, Cara Barer. Barer purchases old books, wets them, dries them, and then photographs them. I loved her process and the resulting images (there are many more besides the one appearing on my cover), which to my mind strikingly captured both the fragility and endurance of printed books. This was exactly the message I wanted to convey.
I wasn’t sure if my publisher, Columbia University Press, would be inclined to use one of her images, if for no other reason than I figured they must be pricey given their beauty. When filling out the section on cover art on my author questionnaire, I almost didn’t mention Barer’s work for that reason. In the end I decided to let it fly, and a few weeks later the designer returned with what is now the cover of Late Age. It was a stunning exercise in design minimalism, at least as far as I was (and am) concerned.
The postscript to this story is that others, apparently, have now discovered Barer’s images. The most prominent example can be seen in Michael Greenberg’s upcoming book, Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life (Other Press, September 2009), which a friend of mine alerted me to this summer:
Galley Cat noted the similarities in our covers earlier this week, and a commentator there linked to a whole blog devoted to look-alike covers. For my part I’m not bothered at all by the similarities, though I’d now be curious to hear the story behind Michael Greenberg’s cover.