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The Raw Shark Texts


Alistair recently bought a book he knew nothing about. Here's his step-by-step account of what happened to make him do it:

"I was heading to Borders to look for a magazine, and some posters in the window of Foyles caught my eye. They were for The Raw Shark Texts, the debut novel from Steven Hall. Partly it was the visuals, which looked kinda cinematic, partly it was the wordplay of the title that tickled my cerebellum. (Though not enough to make me cross the road.) I went into Borders, and saw the book right in front of me on one of their display shelves.

It was a hardcover, with no dustjacket. I'm not a big fan of hardcovers, as they're less easy to carry about, so that was working against it. But the lack of a dustjacket was a good thing - I always take them off when I'm reading a book. The cover looked interesting, so I flipped to the back to read the blurb there, which was really compelling, and made me want to know more. I noticed that the publisher was Canongate, who I don't know a huge amount about, so there were neither negative nor positive associations for me there. The cover review by Toby Litt was incorporated into the design of the spine, which was interesting, and made me think that the book must have something going for it. I wasn't sure who Toby Litt was though. I recognised his name, but I think I also confused him with Toby Young; anyhow, I figured he was just a mate of the author's, so wasn't about to trust the review too much.

There was a piece of Post-It Note advertising on the title page, with a quote from Mark Haddon, saying the book was "The bastard love-child of The Matrix, Jaws and The Da Vinci Code". That almost made me put the book back. The Matrix and Jaws are good films, but who wants to have their book compared to a film? And The Da Vinci Code? Tripe.

But, I flipped through the book, and the layout had some really interesting stuff going on, with text used as image, and even some colour used on one spread, which I'd seen done on Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close.

So I guess it was a combination of cover design, synopsis, and text layout that made me buy a book that I knew nothing about. I'm half way through it so far. And it's great. (It's got an interesting website too.)"


This all got us thinking. As cover designers, we think about this stuff a fair bit. But we thought it might be good to write it down. Why do you buy the books you buy?

Normally it'll be because of one or more of the following: a personal recommendation; a shop recommendation (in-store or on-line); a glowing review; previous experience of an author; or because you saw it in a bookshop and just picked it up.

If it's a situation where it's only because you saw it in the bookshop, and you knew nothing else about the book or the author (hey, let's call you an idle browser), then something had to make you pick the book up to begin with. That could be the cover design, the title of the book, or some point of sale material.

So, blam, you've picked it up. Then there are various things that might encourage you to choose that book once you picked it up: the cover design, the synopsis, quotes from reviewers, or perhaps even reading a short excerpt.

The phrase 'never judge a book by its cover' is an absurdity when it comes to the process of choosing a book. (Though certainly, you might judge the book differently once you have read it...) The cover is fundamentally important to whether an idle browser picks up the book in the first place: it has to call out to you amongst a sea of other books. It has to say "Hey, over here, come take a look, you'll like me. Heck, you might even love me." Then, once you've picked the book up it has to seduce you further, holding your attention while the synopsis and quotes go to work on you.

As cover designers, the tools at our disposal are colour, typography, illustration and photography, as well as printing techniques like embossing, lamination and varnishing. We use these tools to create visual and tactile cues, signifiers that the idle browser can pick up on as they let their eyes ramble across tables of books. It's all a question of semiotics, innit?

And in the case of The Raw Shark Texts, the design worked perfectly.

A big thumbs up to the publishers , the designers, and the author Steven Hall, who besides being a talented writer is also a designer, having not only designed the layout of the text, but also the slipcase (shown below) for a limited numbered edition run of the book, available here.


posted: 13 March 2007
categories: Books
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