Wednesday, September 03, 2003

Chip Kidd, book cover designer, unmasked
By Bob Minzesheimer, USA TODAY

NEW YORK — Whoever first said "You can't judge a book by its cover" has been lost to the ages, but Chip Kidd, the most celebrated of book cover designers, isn't arguing.

At 39, Kidd has designed more than 1,500 covers for authors from Michael Crichton to John Updike. But he says that judging a book by what's on its jacket is "irredeemably shallow."

He asks, "Would you want to be judged by your face?"

But don't people do that all the time?

"Yes, but it doesn't mean you should."

Kidd's work is now the subject of a book, Chip Kidd (Yale University Press, $19.95) by Veronique Vienne, a designer turned writer, who offers another view:

"Whether or not we know it, we all judge a book by its cover. Its role is to communicate not only what the book is about, but who will enjoy reading it. There is a subliminal language of images and typography that speaks directly to the subconscious mind of the potential book buyer."

Some covers, she says, can be misleading: "Serious anthropological studies can be disguised as mystery novels, but more often than not, they accurately reflect the mood, the style and the literary merits of what's between the covers."

And no one does that better, Vienne says, than Kidd, who has been described as a "design demigod," an "inky colossus" and "the closest thing to a rock star" in graphic design.

Such accolades seem to embarrass Kidd, who calls them "ridiculous" and admits to being "inky, but only on a dwarfish scale." He says the first cover he ever noticed was "no doubt for some sort of Batman comic I saw when I was about 3, enough said. Or maybe not enough said: the colors, the forms, the design. Batman himself is such a brilliant design solution."

A serious collector of Batman memorabilia, Kidd has designed and edited several books devoted to what Vienne describes as his "childhood obsession and lasting adult passion."

After graduating from Penn State, he went to work in the art department at Knopf, a leading literary publisher, in 1986. It was a time when books were replacing the covers of record albums as what Kidd calls the "cool, neat thing" for graphic designers.

Some of that had to do with the smaller size of CDs, which Kidd says "is not conducive to a bold, visual style," and the emergence of rock videos that make "the kind of visual statement album covers used to."

Vienne cites another difference: "Music stores are dark, with lots of reflective surfaces that make it difficult to look at graphics. Bookstores are more likely to use natural light and invite you to linger. It's an environment more conducive to graphics."

Kidd says the design process is "pretty simple, unless it becomes complicated."

It begins with the book's manuscript: "I read it, I brood, then eventually respond. Along the way, I may or may not involve photographers or illustrators or any amount of ephemeral detritus that washes up on my shores in the pursuit of solving the problem. And that is what it always amounts to: visually solving a problem." And that, he says, can take from 10 minutes to six months. He also talks to the author, who, he says at Knopf, "has final say, so it's a logical starting point."

Vienne, who teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York, praises Kidd's ability to stretch "the visual boundaries between words and visuals by choosing pictures that appear at first glance to be non sequiturs."

She cites his cover for The Abomination, Paul Golding's 2000 novel about a child whose sexual identity makes him an outsider.

Kidd used a simple black and white photograph of a child's stuffed bunny rabbit standing on its head.

"It's not obvious," Vienne says. "But it's unsettling. The image makes you want to find out more. A nice cuddly thing turned upside down. It forces the reader's mind to make a leap."

Kidd also wrote a well-reviewed novel, The Cheese Monkeys, loosely based on his college experiences, and is working on what he calls not a sequel but "Episode Two." He says, "I'm aware a vast majority of human beings didn't read The Cheese Monkeys."

In her book, Vienne foresees Kidd eventually reinventing himself as a writer "too involved with his own writing to design the jackets of his books."

But Kidd cites two factors: "A: I love my job. And B: It pays the bills." (He says Monkeys sold about 50,000 copies in hardcover and paperback. Not bad for a debut novel, but no blockbuster.)

He also says he finds designing a lot easier than writing but can see gaining more attention and respect as an author, rather than as someone who designs covers for other authors.

"Which is the way it should be," he says. "The content inside is more important than the image on the cover."

Chip Kidd has designed more than 1,500 covers since 1986. His comments on four of them:

Who's Irish ?

Gish Jin's 1996 collection of stories about the immigrant experience: "The key here is spirit — to project the exuberant joy and rebellion of the kid in the story. I felt that if I could get that across, then I could pull readers into it."

Brazzaville Beach

William Boyd's 1991 novel: "One of my favorite covers ever because it's SUCH a great book! What I did was try to mimic the scheme of great cigarette packages, because the heroine of the story chain-smokes. I attempted to 'ape' the design of an African cigarette package that would have been used in the novel."

American Rhapsody

Joe Eszterhas' 2000 semi-fictional version of President Clinton's personal problems: "My editor-in-chief, Sonny Mehta, said to me, 'With this one, let's just give everyone a big kiss.' So I did."

Jurassic Park

Michael Crichton's 1990 thriller: "The trick there was figuring out how to show a dinosaur without actually showing one, and the answer was to do a sort of X-ray silhouette of a dino-skeleton. The producers of the movie obviously agreed, because they bought it and ran with it."

© Copyright 2003 USA TODAY

Tuesday, September 02, 2003

Chick Lit
Genre Aimed at Young Women Is Fueling Publishing Industry

By Heather Cabot

N E W Y O R K, Aug. 30
— Bridget Jones's Diary, the 1998 best seller turned Hollywood hit, inspired a spate of similar tales, all starring imperfect career women looking for love.

This contemporary genre, known as "chick lit," short for chick literature, is now setting the pace for an otherwise struggling fiction industry.

"The mega authors — John Grisham, Michael Crichton, Tom Clancy — all have had a fall-off in sales," said Sessalee Hensley, fiction buyer for Barnes & Noble. "But the chick lit is growing, and they're growing exponentially."

In the $23 billion publishing industry, chick lit books earned publishers more than $71 million last year, and that's just the best sellers. Several publishers, including Harlequin, Broadway and Pocket Books, have created separate imprints to distribute the specialty titles.

The books feature everyday women in their 20s and 30s navigating their generation's challenges of balancing demanding careers with personal relationships.

"Nobody's got a great job," Hensley said. "Nobody has a perfect body, and God knows, none of them have perfect boyfriends."

‘Like Reading My Life Story’

The characters typically mirror the authors themselves. That's why 33-year-old Philadelphia writer Jennifer Weiner said chick literature captures a much more realistic side of women's lives. She believes it has an authenticity frequently missing from women's fiction of the past.

"I think that for a long time, what women were getting were sort of the Jackie Collins, Judith Krantz kind of books — sex and shopping, glitz and glamour, heroines that were fun to read about, but just felt nothing like where you were in your life," Weiner said.

A turning point in Weiner's own life inspired her first novel, Good in Bed.

She started the project at age 28, when a rough breakup left her dejected and depressed. The former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter turned her blues into a best seller by basing the lead character on herself.

The story of a plus-sized newspaper writer trying to navigate singledom touched a cord with her contemporaries and has sold more than 800,000 copies. Home Box Office is developing the book into a television series.

The women who packed a Weiner book signing in downtown Philadelphia one August weeknight reflected on the book's success.

"It was like reading my life story," said 30-year-old Danielle Medykowski, of Bucks County, Pa. "Just, I was reading it through somebody else's eyes."

A group of six Brooklyn-based writers hope to recreate that is the same feeling in their own chick lit manuscripts. Known as "The Little Red Writing Group," the 20- and 30-something women aspire to pen the genre's next best sellers.

For the last two years, the friends have met once a month over Sunday brunch to discuss their story development and characters. They strive to imbue their books with a tone that's similar to their chats among girlfriends.

"It has every single element: 'Oh, I'm so fat,' 'Oh, I want a date,' 'Oh, I don't make enough money,'" explained 32-year-old Elise Miller, who recently sold her book Star Craving Mad to Warner Books. "You know, it's all in there."

Author’s New Direction

Critics dismiss the books as nothing more than trendy beach reads. But the books appear to have staying power, now expanding into topics that move beyond the single life.

Recently, "bridal-" and "mommy lit" titles have become big hits, including Allison Pearson's I Don't Know How She Does It and Sophie Kinsella's Shopaholic Ties the Knot.

The heroines may face new challenges, but the books maintain the same true-to-life narratives, along with some self-deprecating humor.

Weiner, now married for two years, said exploring more mature themes like motherhood was a natural evolution for readers and writers.

In June, she gave birth to her first child, Lucy, and promised parenting will be a prime theme of her third novel. She's confident her core audience will follow.

"Wouldn't you love to read, you know, Bridget Has a Baby?" she laughed.

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