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Book covers

What’s wrong with this picture?

Left to right, they are the US and Australian paperback releases of Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner’s Freakonomics, and the same of Don Norman’s Emotional Design. So… what’s wrong with them? Could it be that each of these pairs is the same book with basically the same cover —though different enough to have cost a bit of the publisher’s dough— released simultaneously in two countries with no significant cultural differences that could necessitate such a redesign? Probably, yeah.

What’s interesting is that these aren’t very different takes on the same cover art, but they are different works nonetheless. They took time to create, and a graphic designer’s time costs money. Somebody got paid to take the Freakonomics paperback and make it “less hokey”. Spot the difference on those Emotional Design covers: some guy sat, literally for hours, recreating some other designer’s work… but with a different source photo. And for what?

I sympathize with package designers. I really do. Packaging can be a tricky business. After all, it is (depending on whose tripe you’re believing this week) the most important element of a product’s marketing, and marketing is a fucking tricky business all of its own. When a product goes international, the packaging must (inevitably, for reasons the company feels are important enough) make an attempt at remaining true to “the brand message” even as it adapts to the values of the target market. And it must adapt. The American housewife thinks differently about Tide than does her Indian counterpart, and the British shopper feels differently about Tim Tams than his Australian friends; if you try to sell the same product the same way to those wildly different markets, you will lose. Different strokes for different folks, as they say, so the packaging has to change. Big deal, right? An international transition already means alterations to weights and measures, to standardized nutrition panels, barcodes, even product names, so you expect the odd redesign! But book covers?

Book covers shouldn’t need redesigning

That’s really the bottom line. Books don’t have weights and measures. They don’t have nutritional information. A book’s title doesn’t change the way Rice Krispies become Rice Bubbles when they cross international waters. The barcode and the ISBN remain the same worldwide; the blurb, the pullquotes from the New York Times, and the “#1 Bestseller!” badge can move from region to region without a lick of editing. Crossing language boundaries, there’s another story, but this is Australia and the United States! Their tastes couldn’t be so divergent, could they?

Well yeah, apparently. And one can’t help but wonder why.


The American and Australian covers for a book of Gabriel Zaid’s Michael Honey points out another fantastic example: Gabriel Zaid’s So Many Books. Jess tells me she likes the American cover. I think she’s batshit crazy, but that’s the judgment I cast on women who are willing to date people like me.

Part of me suspects American designers of uglifying the paperback to drive sales of the hardcover. Lucky (?) for we in Oz, that is rarely the case, as the choice between hard and soft cover is often made for us. Still wishing I could get Freakonomics in hardcover though, alas alack.