Cover story | Compete with Digital Rivals

Books need to be beautiful to compete with digital rivals. A top designer explains how and focuses on four covers…

When Julian Barnes won the Booker Prize in 2011, he singled out the designer who made his novel into a “beautiful object”. As he explained: “If the physical book, as we’ve come to call it, is to resist the challenge of the e-book, it has to look like something worth buying and worth keeping.”

Look around a bookshop today and it’s clear that publishers have taken up Barnes’s rallying cry – not least at the independent Profile, which has strong EC1 connections including its Clerkenwell Press imprint. Pete Dyer, art director at Profile and Serpent’s Tail since 2008, previously worked for Jonathan Cape and Vintage, as well as running his own design consultancy.

“Every book is different, so every design needs a different approach,” says Dyer. His signature style is striking images, arresting photography and unfussy typography. “My aim with the cover is to catch the potential reader’s attention among many other books fighting for attention,” explains Dyer. “Not in a shouty way but in a seductive or intriguing way.”

Dyer’s work begins with a brief from the editor, and he reads all or part of the book before deciding on using illustration, photography or typography. With fiction, he’s aiming to convey the author’s voice; for non-fiction it’s about explaining the subject with a clever, eye-catching concept. As well as illustrators, he relies on a pool of designers. The cover is decided with input from editorial, sales, marketing – and the author. “If the author feels strongly against it then we will start again,” says Dyer. Sometimes it can take up to 20 designs.

Dyer believes it’s worth the effort to ensure readers continue to cherish the physical book. “Every book we publish is fighting for space,” he says. “With the rise of the e-book it’s more important than ever to make the books as beautiful and collectable as we can to persuade the bookshops to stock them.”

Raw Material by Jörg Fauser (Clerkenwell Press) The subject matter will usually suggest the best direction to take. If it’s quirky or funny for example, then it might suggest an illustrative approach or a hand lettering style of typography. Choosing the designer or illustrator that has the particular creative strength for the project, and directing their designs through the process without diluting their vision along the way, is part of my challenge.

after me comes the flood

After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry (Serpent’s Tail) Photography can be stronger on creating a mood or atmosphere – After Me Comes the Flood is a recent cover which really shows how atmospheric photography can be. We’ve also recently redesigned our Serpent’s Tail Classics series, which now have a very stripped-back, classic design that allows the photography to do most of the work.


Gone to Ground by Marie Jalowicz-Simon (Clerkenwell Press)
Finding a single image that conveys the book in some powerful way is the challenge. The Gone to Ground image did this for me. It’s the true story of a young Jewish woman who survived the Second World War by going to ground in Berlin. The picture suggested to me both a hint of danger and vulnerability, which echoed her story.


Glass by Alex Christofi (Serpent’s Tail)
When choosing an illustrator I tend to prefer bold graphic illustrations. It’s important that the covers can still be legible at smaller sizes when viewed online (this is particularly the case with e-books). They have to work almost like mini posters, with a bold, limited colour palette, for example See You in Paradise, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and Glass.