Friday, 1 October 2010

SYP Evening: The Importance of Design

Tuesday evening: quite an interesting talk put on by the SYP (Society of Young Publishers, dontcha know) on the importance of design in publishing and the book trade. It sounds horribly industry and horribly boring to all you none publishers out there, but it was quite.. enlightening. Not only from my perspective as a newcomer to the publishing world, but also as a life-long reader.

Speakers: James Spackman, a big  sales and marketing bod in the publishing world (he can be found on twitter @blackpooltower and has a blog here) and Tony Davis, the head of Art Meets Matter - responsible for the Penguin mugs, towels, pencils, deckchairs and bags: the  must-have possesions of any book-obsessive middle classers with armfuls of tenners to throw at mugs (and book obsessive working class bloggers with no tenners to spend on mugs but an interest-free graduate loan).

Tony caught the crowd's eye by placing hundreds of free-looking boxes of his pencils at the front of the room, but James's talk was equally as colourful as the little lead-sticks: he launched straight into a really lively talk on how the copy on bookcovers influencers readers (who, in the eyes of publishers, are, I'm afraid, buyers). Apparantly, buyers are completely unaffected by marketing and advertising of books: they're more likely to listen to their friends, family or book critic than a poster on the tube. But they are - according to stats - hugely affected by what's on the front and back cover of the books they pick up. James admitted to  regularly lurking in Waterstones, trying not to be seen - such is the behaviour of the publishing professional. He noticed that 2 in 3 people who picked up a book immediately flipped it over. Then they were subject to the only 2 seconds of marketing they might ever take notice of: blurb, quotes and review snippets.

James made the point that whereas cover designs can set off "violent altercations" in meetings, most blurbs and cover copy is usually only worked on once: usually strained over by an earnest intern or editorial assistant, but then never again glanced upon. A little odd in an industry where everything is constantly scruitinized and endlessly edited. He showed how good blurbs and copy-writing had played a key part in the success of several books, such as the Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Emily Mackie's And This is True. (click here to see it on Amazon and scroll down the product description to see how bold and unusual the blurb is). Cover copy needs more attention, was his point: whether we leave it to the editors, designers or marketing guys it deserves time, as it's a key way of making sure we as an industry do what we're here for: getting books noticed.

Tony, self confessed "pretentious" person and an all round arty type, gave a rather more different talk. He quite coolly cued his points with different penguin book covers - "Great Expectations", "Art and Design", "the Common Reader", etc. His talk was interesting for two reasons: firstly, it provided a great insight into how an outsider views the world of publishing; secondly it showed, in my opinion, how important design is to the publishing world, and how it will only become more, not less, imporant with the advent and domination of the eBook.

As someone who lusts after the Penguin mugs on almost a daily basis, it was quite a surprise to learn that  they almost didn't come into being. Davis is clearly quite a hands-on sort of person, and he approached Penguin on his own: with a simple idea which he (as far as I could make out) pitched over the phone. He was met with interest but also internal bewilderment. Before the mugs were produced, Penguin had no internal structure to deal with merchandising or propositions like the mugs. "They had no-one with a job title suited to it," Tony chuckled. And so he found himself at a design exhibition in Earls Court, waiting fruitlessly for a rep from Penguin to come and look over a mug or two. All could have been lost if someone from the Guardian hadn't shown up (I love that my favourite paper helped create my favourite mug) wanting to showcase Tony's idea in their February issue. Tony dutifully submitted some photos and information. The months rolled on. February came. It took Art Meets Matter two weeks to get through the backlog of voicemail and incoming calls. The rest, they say, is history. There's now a board game, pencil sets, dozens of mugs, deckchairs and canvas prints.

It was quite refreshing, in such an industry environment, to hear about the products, because they've clearly been designed to be designed, to be lovely, worthwhile objects which are going to enrich your lives. The free pack of pencils I was given was the same size and shape as a Penguin Paperback, and their tagline was "completely unsharpened." The deckchairs have interchangeable covers, so you can adjust them according to your mood, and the boardgame comes with tiny paperback counters with changeable covers. Tony talked passionately about how these objects helped keep society and culture aware of literature: a worthy goal  which not only happens to make publishers a lot of money but (I believe) enriches society. And we do so desperately need designs like Tony's: the form which the book is evolving into is not one which pokes people in the eye. A grey accountant's toy such as the Kindle doesn't ignite the dull mass of black suits on a tube, nor does it stick an image in your mind which can be hunted down at the nearest bookshop or proudly displayed on a shelf. The content is intact, which is important, but the visual reminder of what that content is has been destroyed. Products like Penguin mugs and Faber and Faber bags aren't just coveted objects for bibliophiles the world over, but the new book covers: little post-its, dotted through society, peppering our lives with literature.


thefriande said...

I love the penguin merchandise!

Great insight into the marketing of books - I can't believe that cover copy isn't given enough attention. Perhaps this is why I hate blurbs so much?

Looking forward to more of your posts about publishing.

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