Kid gloves: handling a sensitive cover

I stopped in my tracks when I read the Cover Brief for Alice Jolly’s memoir: Dead Babies and Seaside Towns.

What a title.

And the book delivers on it. Motherhood, grief and infertility all combine in a personal account of the author and her partner’s struggle to have a second child, and the lengths to which one can go to create a family. Set against Britain’s crumbling seaside towns, it’s a raw and honest description of events that families live through every day, and sometimes keep hidden.

How do you package a book with a sensitive subject like this?

For a good decade after A Child Called It, designers everywhere (including me) combined moody pictures of children with hand-drawn type for covers in this new sub-genre, somewhat morbidly called ‘Misery Memoir’. Thankfully, and like a lot of trends from the mid-nineties, it petered out, leaving us to think of more original ways to package books with provocative subjects.

The key to success here is a light touch. Instead of visualising a sensitive subject directly, which can put some people off, hint to it. Covers for books like Columbine designed by Henry Sene Yee, Tampa designed by gray318 and Lolita designed by Jamie Keenan, all create a mood. When combined with powerful copy, the covers achieve an authority, and demand that you investigate further. You wouldn’t know that these books are about a mass-shooting, underage sex and rape…

Lolita Tampa Columbine - Copy

The brief in practice

For “DBAST” (as it became known, I couldn’t begin another email beginning ‘Dead Babies’), the brief was key. Here’s what Isobel Frankish, Unbound’s Managing Editor, had to say:

Dead Babies and Seaside Towns is direct, unflinchingly so, and for a long time this has been a quality we rarely associate with the dialogue around miscarriage, infertility and surrogacy. We all know that people find these topics difficult to navigate – it can sometimes feel like a tightrope walk between frankness and sensitivity – and as a result their edges often become softened and blurred out of a sense of politeness, sadness, or even shame. And the irony is that grief isnt soft: it’s a rage that slices through you; both paralysing and galvanising – and it’s a feeling that Alice captures with such devastating candour in this book that we couldn’t have been anything other than committed to preserving that thread of truth in our approach to the cover.

So – no sepia tones and blurred photographs for Dead Babies: no nostalgic crops of clothes, of family photographs. There was no discussion of disguising the title – when you call a book Dead Babies and Seaside Towns, it’s because you want people to see that it’s called Dead Babies and Seaside Towns. But how could we make it arresting without being aggressive – without alienating the very people we knew would appreciate and enjoy this book? It was a difficult brief to put together.

In the end our market positioning was inspired by titles like H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, Late Fragments by Kate Gross and The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander. It needed to be comfortable sitting alongside other memoirs, but stand out in its boldness and simplicity. We also briefed around pale colour palettes – seaside towns in winter; the significance of which are really important in the book as a safe haven for Alice.

By the time we reached the final design we’d run through probably a dozen different rounds and even switched designers entirely. In the end we began to realise that the most respectful way to treat it would be to pare the design back and back and back until we reached the very essence of the issue: that Alice survived, even when she felt she never would or could, through desperate sadness and difficulty. And I hope you agree that what made it through that design gauntlet was a cover which is an honest, beautiful and true representation of her bravery and courage.”

The design

DBAST_BACKETC_WEB - CopyThe title said ‘water’ to me, so I led with the type and created a watercolour wave that changed from dark, stormy seas to calm, blue waters, reflecting the journey. Supported by the all-important quote for a hardback outing, and printed simply on an uncoated stock, the watercolour line design runs all round the cover.

If you pledge for an Unbound Subscribers edition, you get your name proudly printed in the back for your support. Usually a hardback or PPC (Printed Paper Case, you know, like those cookbooks without a jacket you have in your kitchen), they get the works in terms of Production and the design runs through to the hardback boards to full colour endpapers. UK trade publishing is still largely ‘vertical’, meaning a hardback edition is followed by a mass market paperback, so if this hardback design speaks to the more bespoke end of the market, I wonder how it will be packaged for a mass audience? Watch this space to find out….

If your book deals with a challenging subject, here are some pieces of advice that might help:

  • It’s all in the brief, write one that states what you want to see, and what to avoid.
  • Use a light touch in the design; showing a shocking subject directly can put people off. Hint at it.
  • Don’t underestimate the work that the title alone can do, underplaying a beautifully piece of copy – title or otherwise – is a mistake.
  • Don’t do the copy for the front cover at the last minute, a designer needs the title and shout line at the start, they work closely with the tone of the images.
  • Try things out, you can only know if something will work by seeing it.

Dead Babies and Seaside Towns is published by Unbound and available now. With thanks to Isobel Frankish, at Unbound and of course, Alice Jolly, without whom this wonderful book would not have crossed my desk.

Mark EcobMark Ecob is Creative Director of cover design company Mecob Design Ltd, and Associate Art Director at Unbound. After working at Hodder & Stoughton, The Orion Publishing Group and as Art Director for Canongate Books, he set up Mecob and now packages books for everyone from Amazon to your mum. His work has been awarded and exhibited, he teaches young creatives and lectures older ones. If you want a book designed, he’s your man.

cover design, design, Isobel Frankish, Mark Ecob, memoir, sensitive subjects, Unbound

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