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the Complete Review
the complete review - publishing / art design

Penguin 75

edited by
Paul Buckley

general information | our review | links

To purchase Penguin 75

Title: Penguin 75
Editor: Paul Buckley
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2010
Length: 251 pages
Availability: Penguin 75 - US
Penguin 75 - UK
Penguin 75 - Canada
  • Designers, Authors, Commentary (the good, the bad ...)
  • Edited and with an Introduction by Paul Buckley
  • With a Foreword by Chris Ware

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Our Assessment:

(-) : nicely illustrated, some interesting comments

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Penguin 75, somehow tied in to the 75th anniversary celebration of Penguin Books, collects seventy-five examples of cover-making and -design among (recent, American) Penguin titles. In each case there's commentary to go with the designs -- from the designers, artists, authors, or art directors (the latter generally Paul Buckley) -- and occasionally also pictures of previous or alternative designs. It makes for an attractive volume, with a variety of interesting cover-pictures, but, for all its heft, it's still a rather thin volume.
       One gets little sense of what does go into book-cover design: the various parties have their say (or complaints ...) but it seems almost random. Quite a few of the designs are last-minute rush-jobs (and a few, then, aren't), making the whole process seem slapdash; occasionally Buckley explains the choice of a specific designer/illustrator, but rarely beyond the 's/he was the perfect person for the job'-superficiality. The actual steps that go into choosing a designer and a design largely remain a mystery, as do whose opinion matters most (apparently marketing and publicity -- whose comments and attitudes are, however, unfortunately only (and rarely at that) presented second hand here).
       It begins promisingly enough with the cover to 100 Facts about Pandas -- a book with a September 2010 US release date, i.e. months after this volume came out. The authors dislike the design -- finding it "completely so very wrong", and closing their comments with: "Crappy publishing jerks" -- while Buckley comments: "I hope it sells well, which might prove to the authors that Gregg's cover is indeed excellent. Better than their book, maybe !" It's too bad a book that hasn't been (US-)market-tested is one of the few where the disagreement between author and design-crew is so publicly aired out; among the few others is Garrison Keillor's Love Me, where Keillor wonders about the cover-illustration: "Maybe it was designed for the Penguin edition of The Trial by Franz Kafka, and Kafka didn't like it so they stuck it with me."
       The individual covers and commentary are moderately interesting, but those books where preliminary and/or alternate designs for the covers are also provided obviously are of greater interest -- Ron Currie Jr.'s Everything Matters !, for example. Still, more explanation on what goes into the final choice would have been welcome throughout.
       There are interesting titbits along the way: the removed veil on the bicyclist on Randa Jarrar's A Map of Home, or designer Alexander Knowlton kicking himself for having asked for his credit to be removed from a book when the publisher changed the type of his design, a book (Melissa Bank's The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing) that turned out "to be the biggest bestseller I've ever worked on". And there's William Vollmann explaining the photograph he took for the cover to The Royal Family, complete with itemized bill ("Four street prostitutes' modeling time @ $40 each", etc.) and model release ("The 1st 2 ladies disagreed on the date. The 3rd theirfore refused to write a date.")
       Overall, there is considerable variation in the cover-designs, though an unfortunate comic-book-illustration trend is observable. The most successful, to a conservative, unimpressed-by-covers reader such as myself, remain the standard Penguin Classics, with their black uniformity and little playroom for design. The vast majority of the covers had Buckley as art director, so his would seem to be the dominant eye and presumably much of the appeal of the covers and hence this volume would depend on how close one's tastes are to his (mine -- not so much, I fear).
       It would be great to have had some more guesswork about what works and what doesn't, but there's little of that here -- it's pretty much all surface, with rather great care taken not to tread on any toes (except, occasionally, in would-be humorous fashion). An attractive leaf-through volume, with lots of pretty glossy cover pictures, but without much substance or information.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 July 2010

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Penguin 75: Other books of interest under review:

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