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Books Spine-tingling design: Modern book covers for classic novels

The act could be considered brazen or brave (or both): launching an independent publishing house in 2018 that focuses on classic titles, but with a modern reader in mind. But Ingrid Paulson, who’s been in the book industry for 20 years, primarily as an art director, knows what it takes to catch a prospective reader’s eye.

INGRID PAULSON/Gladstone Press

Her company, Gladstone Press, has already published four titles – Wuthering Heights, Mrs. Dalloway, The Age of Innocence and The Hound of the Baskervilles – each with its own strikingly minimalist cover containing only a symbol of the story inside. Wuthering Heights has a barren tree, The Age of Innocence opera glasses. She plays with other space on the cover, too, such as filling the spines with text. Paulson spoke to The Globe about launching her business, a book cover’s real estate and designing book covers in the digital age.

Tell me about starting Gladstone Press. You’ve been in book design for awhile, but starting your own publishing house is a different beast. Why did you start it?

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After 20 years designing books for others, I wanted to shift my focus to a project where I was the client, and figure out all the other steps, skills and consequences I’ve watched so many of my publishing peers do on a daily basis. There’s no money in this – margins in book publishing are notoriously slim, and even more so with the short print runs I’m working with at the moment. So, it’s a project: Do readers see what I see, and want to approach, or get reacquainted with, classic novels with very modern covers?

Why the decision to focus on the classics?

In an editorial design class in art school, I worked on a series design for Shakespeare. Even then I was thinking about how to make these plays appeal to today’s reader, and the idea stuck with me. Also, in Canada, designers rarely get a chance to work on larger projects such as classics reissues, at least not with a lot of freedom to reposition the books outside of the school and library markets. There are plenty of historical covers out there for these titles. I wanted to see what would happen if they were treated as living, relevant texts.

INGRID PAULSON/Gladstone Press

Tell me about the decision to take a modern approach to cover design for these classic titles? Was it a response to something you were seeing on the market?

It was. I love some of the new design direction publishers have taken with their classics line, particularly Penguin U.K. But I remember walking into a large chain to purchase Anna Karenina as a gift for my husband. There were three different editions, and all of them used historical and/or feminine imagery. I found that I couldn’t relate to any of them, and yes, I have read the book. I wondered what ​​Anna Karenina would look like were it set in our era and designed to appeal to a contemporary audience.

When it comes to the real estate on the cover of a book, how rigid are the rules of convention? As a designer, how free are you to play around with what appears where?

From a designer’s perspective? I’m as free as the publisher allows. However, cover design serves two purposes: to best convey the essence of the book, and also best convey a reader’s expectations of the book. As a designer, I’m bound by certain market tastes, really, and the more important the book, the more opinions – from sales staff, the publisher, the editor, author, agent … all the stakeholders, really – must be taken into account.

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INGRID PAULSON/Gladstone Press

You have minimalist front covers, but jam-packed spines, what was behind the decision to play with that space?

I’m aiming to open up these books to readers who were probably leery of them because they looked a certain way: too important, too historical, too white European, too gendered. So, I decided the fronts would show an object significant to the book – but not to show faces – and the spine would use an interesting quote from the text. With these devices, I’m trying to shake one’s preconception of, say, Wuthering Heights as merely romance, or Sherlock Holmes as only for boys. The quote on the spine acts as a prompt to a potential reader.

What’s your creative process for deciding the one iconic symbol that will appear on the cover for each title?

Oh, luck, really. I’ve been reading manuscripts and figuring out key symbols for a long time, so it’s just a matter of me reading the books, paying attention to the settings and what the author is trying to say, and imagining the right symbol. The lorgnettes for The Age of Innocence, that came to me because I was mulling over the social circles in the novel: the gossip, the lack of privacy. Rereading the text, I saw how Wharton used opera nights to highlight these tensions.

INGRID PAULSON/Gladstone Press

Is the role or impact of cover design changing now that there are Kobos and the Audible app, etc.?

Online purchases have certainly changed the cover design approach. One result is readers are becoming more visually aware. They recognize symbols, colours and shapes more now that the title and author names appear right beside the cover image online. There is also a pervasive desire to make the cover look hand-drawn or hark back to earlier, precomputer design solutions. That is part of a larger visual zeitgeist; to make things feel like things, tactile and simple and human. I don’t see that fading away soon.

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