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Imprint on Open Letter

Over at Imprint there’s an interview with me, Nathan Furl, and E.J. Van Lanen on Open Letter, in particular our book design. J. C. Gabel of the excellent Stop Smiling magazine and books put this all together.

Here’s a bit from Nate and E.J. about our covers:

What immediately struck me about Open Letter Books was its strong yet minimal visual presence. Was there a conscious decision, early on, to make these books objects as well as books? And what were the major influences when it came time to flesh out how the catalog should look and feel?

Nathan Furl: Independent of any design, production, and marketing choices, printed books will always be objects, whether you care or not, so it’s really a question of how much attention you pay to those objects you’re making. For us, we knew early on that we’d like to give the books, as well as the larger personality of Open Letter, some sort of cohesive look—a family of materials and an identity that somehow all make sense together and, hopefully, that do a service to the books, the content, and the press as an entity. It’s not an uncommon idea, but I think it’s a great one for smaller publishers, especially, because it takes advantage of their nimbleness in order to achieve something that feels larger than any of the individual parts. As it turned out, successfully creating and agreeing upon that look for our first season was a real challenge. Eventually, we turned to a fantastic designer named Milan Bozic, who was a friend of E.J.’s. Milan built the foundation of our look by designing the covers for our first two seasons. With that difficult piece in place, we’ve been been working hard at it ever since. (I’ve designed a handful of covers, as well as all the interiors, catalogues, posters, etc., which we aim to fit within our larger personality, too. And, over the past season, E.J. has been designing nearly all of our the newest covers.) I should mention, too, that creating a whole visual identity for us isn’t a goal in itself. The point of all this, first and foremost, is to use any tools at our disposal to get English-language readers excited about international literature and to get our books into as many people’s hands as we can.

E.J. Van Lanen: There was definitely a conscious decision to think about the books as objects. There’s something that Dave Eggers said once that I really felt applied to us, and I’m paraphrasing, and misremembering, but when he was asked about the design of the McSweeney’s books, he said that they wanted their books to not only win readers in the bookstores, but to win on people’s bookshelves too–to be irresistible once they’re home. It’s one thing to get there, and it’s something else again to get picked up and read.

So we had this sort of idea from the outset. Our first decision on that front was to do our books paper-over-board, which is pretty common in a lot of book markets around the world, but isn’t so prevalent here, with the idea that this would be a way to stand out from the crowd. And we did; but it didn’t last, unfortunately, because although we were selling the books at paperback prices, people tended to think that the books would be expensive. It’s a hardcover format, and the natural tendency, after years of training by big publishers, is to expect hardcovers to cost thirty dollars. Maybe one day we’ll go back to that format, but I think the designs we have work really well on paperback as well.

For the look, we were really fortunate to work with a great designer, Milan Bozic, who works for HarperCollins, to develop the designs for our first 12 books. We wanted to have a look that would feel coherent from one book to the next, so that eventually our books would have some sort of Open Letter-ish feel to them, but we didn’t want to do something so rigid that we’d get bored with it or be trapped in a format that wasn’t really working or that we didn’t like. We also knew we didn’t want to use any photographs, nor could we afford to pay an illustrator. So, we sent Milan these parameters, which on reflection sound pretty limiting, along with descriptions of the books and a few ideas for images and asked him to see what he could do. Of the first six designs he proposed, I think three or four—The Pets, The Taker, Nobody’s Home—had this bold, sparse, graphical feel to them. And although they’re very different designs, they felt as though they somehow belonged together, I suppose because they all came from Milan and this was a mood he was in at the time. We asked him to continue on in this direction, and after the first 12 books were published, the mold had been set. Milan is far, far too busy for us now, and, frankly we couldn’t afford to pay him what he really deserves, but because the original notion was so strong, and so flexible, we’ve been able to approximate that look, with varying success to be sure, in his absence.

Click here to read the full piece and to see some Really Big jpgs of our covers.



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