When Book-Jacket Art Goes to the Movies


WHEN the Tyrannosaurus Rex on Michael Crichton's book "Jurassic Park" became the icon for the Steven Spielberg smash hit movie, it brought book-jacket art into the spotlight.

Now an encore may be in order. This time Hollywood is eyeing another Crichton novel, "The Lost World," the dino-sequel to "Jurassic Park" set to be unleashed in bookstores Sept. 20.

While tinsel town long took its plots from books, this focus on cover art is something relatively new.

Book covers are changing with the times - especially under the influence of television and the "hipper" images on channels like MTV.

"When you're talking about book covers, you're talking about the single most important marketing tool you have in getting people's attention," says Whitney Cookman, creative director for Doubleday, a New York publisher.

When Hollywood notices, it's just added gravy.

With Crichton's latest book, red letters on the back of the black-and-white jacket announce "Something has Survived." It again features ominous carnivore bones and reflects the sequel's more frightening nature, says Chip Kidd, who created it and the original jacket for New York publisher Alfred A. Knopf.

While the price for the rights to Mr. Kidd's newest creation is under wraps, the New York Observer newspaper recently reported that should Hollywood come calling, Knopf and Kidd would hold out for more than the apparently modest fee Kidd was given the first time.

But such moviemaking machinations rarely surround the tens of thousands of book jackets produced annually by publishing houses.

Although the book covers of Peter Benchley's "Jaws" and Mario Puzo's "The Godfather" were also carried over to film promotions, most jackets are made with the consumer, not the movie producer, in mind.

Many in the industry differ over whether covers actually sell books, but all generally agree on the jacket's ability to get a book into a reader's hands.

"In many cases the jacket is a prime promotional piece for a book, in some cases it is the only promotional piece for a book, and I don't think one can underestimate how important a cover is to someone who happens to be just browsing," says Knopf editor in chief Sonny Mehta.

Across town at Viking books, publisher Barbara Grossman concurs, saying the cover "really is, in the end, the cheapest and the best way to get to a consumer."

The jacket has only a few seconds to achieve its goal, Mr. Cookman says, calling a bookstore "one of the most visually crowded spaces on the planet."

But the cover's target is often not the customer at all, says Michael Ian Kaye, art director at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. "We're competing for shelf space," he says, explaining that bookstore employees, especially in nonchain stores, are the ones who decide where and how a book will be displayed - face front or spine out.

In either case, using the jacket as a marketing tool costs publishers relatively little, say those in the industry. While costs have increased over the years, Cookman, a 16-year veteran, estimates it's in the neighborhood of 1 to 4 percent of a book's total budget.

"Ten years ago it was costing you probably $700 or $800 to create a book cover, and today it's costing you anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 to create the same cover," he says.

At Viking, the design costs range from $500 on the low end, up to $6,000 for a book with a print run of more than 50,000, says director of production Roni Axelrod.

Some art directors point out that they don't always need a lot of money to do what is asked of them. "You need a great idea; you don't need a great budget," Mr. Kaye says. He and others note that it can take minutes or months to come up with a book-cover design.

Today's book jackets are being influenced by cable TV - specifically MTV and Nickelodeon - Kaye says.

"All these networks ... opened the eyes of the American public to graphics that are a bit more eye-catching and a bit more sophisticated." He says that book jackets have "jumped on that bandwagon, if you will, and are definitely hipper."

But designers say that their freedom is often hindered by marketing departments unwilling to part with traditional styles.

For instance, large type is used on books by well-known authors that have big print runs; and certain colors, such as green, which some designers have been told consumers don't like, are no-nos.

The most frequently approved colors, says Paul Buckley, art director at Viking/Penguin, are - surprise - black, white, and red.

NEW technology also influences the look and production of today's jackets. In the past five years, art departments have started doing more work on computers and have decreased the work they give to freelance designers.

Carin Goldberg, a New York-based graphic designer, has been creating covers for years and gets enough such jobs to make ends meet, but says that in general it is "hard to make a substantial living in book jackets."

She says that in the last three years she has gotten one-quarter less work due to the switch to computers at publishing houses, and that other freelance designers have gotten even fewer assignments.

Still, at many publishing houses, 15 to 50 percent of the work is done out of house. Art directors say they have outsiders do covers to bring variety to the look of their books, and also because it's essential when a house publishes hundreds of books each year and has a small design staff.

With such emphasis on visual presentation, books today have a "much more sophisticated package," Mr. Buckley notes.

"People are definitely paying a lot more attention to books," he says, "and they're looking better than ever."


Crichton's latest comes out Sept. 20.

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