Books by Their Covers: best poetry presses, by design

Here’s some Not-News-To-Anyone: poetry doesn’t sell itself. Successful first books, in particular, depend on a poet’s overall visibility online, a real-world group of friends and friends-of-friends to assist in writing and publishing reviews, the poet’s willingness to go on a thankless monetary sinkhole of a cross-country “tour” with several other poets packed in the back of a beat-up 1997 Honda Civic with no a/c, and last but not least: the artwork and design of the book itself. Is it pretty? Would it look good on your pillow?

As we move into an e-book future, poetry might be one of the last battlegrounds for bibliophiles. Most poets still love the thingness of a book: the color of the paper, the smell of the glue (take a good sniff of FSG’s hardcovers sometime… amazing). Fiction-lovers might disagree, but I think poets are also more likely to return to a particularly beloved collection five, ten, twenty or fifty times, giving the thingness of a poetry collection an almost totem-like quality that novels and even story collections tend not to share.

Moreover, e-readers have been slow to figure out what to do with line breaks (or so I’m told), and seem geared much more toward linear reading habits than their made-of-paper predecessors, which is a problem when it comes to poetry… most of us don’t read a poetry collection from front to back, at least not after the first go-through. All this is to say that attractive, long-lasting and innovative design is more important than ever in the poetry world, and will likely only become more important in the next five or ten years. (After that we’ll all be cyborgs and will download books directly to our brains).

Unfortunately, poetry publishers have been slow to privilege innovative design. So here’s a list of the ten best-designed poetry publishers out there right now—the presses that have set the bar for what a poetry collection can look and feel like. I want to be clear: even the lower-ranking presses on this list are important publishers whom I respect deeply… pretty-looking but otherwise not-very-good/important presses simply aren’t included here, nor are good presses who employ less-than-adequate designers.

covers for Wave Books, Ahsahta Press, and Flood Editions#1, #2, & #3: Wave Books, Ahsahta Press, and Flood Editions, in that order. All three presses publish consistently gorgeous books, regardless of the designer behind the curtain, but the best-designed books from all three are done by the same person: Jeff Clark, aka Quemadura Design. Once you’ve seen a handful of Clark’s covers, you’ll be able to spot them immediately, which is something of a curse and a blessing, since part of being a good designer is letting the content speak louder than the design—or rather, to make the design feel like an extension of the content itself. Still, Clark’s the best there is right now; he knows how to bring all the essentials of poetry to the design table, making the smallest details speak volumes through smart and contemporary but non-flashy type choices and stark, minimalist layouts. Many of his more recent books have taken that minimalism to a new level, relying almost entirely on black ink and white or off-white paper, and getting away from some of Clark’s signature typefaces (ahem: is that Eurostile Extended? Whatever it is, maybe you should lay off it for a while, Jeff) to let the work speak more fully for itself.

covers for CakeTrain#4: Caketrain. This press deserves a lot more attention, in general, than it has received up to now, both for the quality of work it publishes and the overall marketing savvy of its publishers. What puts them at number four on this list, though, is their diversity of good-looking book covers, from Ben Mirov’s aggressively minimal Ghost Machine to the textured, collagey cover of Sara Levine’s Short Dark Oracles. They’ve yet to publish even a single hideous book, and their author list includes some of the best-networked emerging poets and fiction writers. It’s a press we should all watch.

covers for Ugly Duckling Presse#5: Ugly Duckling Presse ranks fifth largely for its distinctive branding. There’s something a little olde-tymey about the design of many of Ugly Duckling’s books, which befits the extra “e” on “Presse.” They pay a lot of attention to the paper stock of their covers, which is barely a concern for most other presses (Wave Books being a notable exception), and many of their covers are letter-pressed. The designs often possess a sort of Soviet or pseudo-Futurist quality, which blends well with the aesthetics and influences of many of Ugly Duckling’s poets.

covers for Black Ocean Press and Octopus Books#6 & #7: Black Ocean and Octopus Books have a lot of similarities: they’ve got some crossover both in their personnel and the poetics of their authors, and both presses do a whole lot with very little in terms of design: bright, contrasty color choices that scream from the shelf, and a consistency of look and feel from book to book that is important for the branding of any emerging small press. The risk with this kind of consistency and minimalism is making your press look like a book-factory: too consistent. Black Ocean’s type choices have longevity but risk boringness (sometimes I wish that Helvetica documentary had never been made), whereas Octopus’s type choices sometimes look to be pulled from open-source online databases (see Heather Christle’s The Difficult Farm) populated by amateur typographers whose fonts are guaranteed to look dated very quickly. All in all, though: good-looking books and smart branding!

covers for Fence Bookscovers for Slope Editions#8: Fence Books. At the risk of alienating myself from this press entirely, the way I feel about Fence’s cover designs is roughly the way I feel about many of the poets they publish: they remain on the vanguard of a hipster aesthetic, but in a way that will probably seem quaint in five or six years—the press seems doomed to re-design and re-brand on a very fast cycle… they’ll continue to be successful, I think, and to stay on the vanguard, but only as long as they can maintain the energy of reinvention. Like Black Ocean and Octopus, most recently Fence has favored loud, two-or-three-color covers, and like Octopus sometimes I think their type choices are unfortunate. For instance, I do like Joyelle McSweeney, and I’m excited to read her new book, but that titling and those graffitiesque drips remind me a bit too much of Urban Outfitters.

#9: Slope Editions makes some sexy books, too. Unlike Jeff Clark or the CakeTrain designers, sometimes they mis-step in their type choices, but the overall composition is usually beautiful. These book covers probably won’t age well, but for now they’re pretty gorgeous.

covers for Sarabande Books#10: Sarabande might deserve a prize for most-improved design, which is why I’m including them here. They’re still in desperate need of a revamped logo, but take a minute to compare the cover of Kiki Petrosino’s Fort Red Border to T. Fleischman’s Syzygy, Beauty or Gregory Orr’s The City of Poetry and you’ll see what I mean. Sarabande has been publishing terrific authors for a long time, but only in the past couple years have they taken strides to match that excellence externally. It’s too early to typify Sarabande’s new design, but whoever’s responsible for it deserves a stiff drink with Don Draper.

If You’re Feeling Inferior…

There are many publishers of good-looking poetry I haven’t mentioned here, partly because some of the best-designed presses aren’t actually very diverse or nuanced from book to book. Take the Poetry Society of America’s chapbook series, for instance: it’s the same basic design for every book in the series, but that design is stunning—it’s probably the best example of poetry-branding out there right now. The Library of America’s Poets Project similarly produced a series of Selected Poems that is brilliant and beautiful partly because the design of every book in that series is essentially the same. And that’s true of another of my favorite up-and-coming poetry publishers, Canarium, as well, which has managed to produce a series of smart-looking, no-frills covers that not only establish a secure brand but will continue to look good for at least a decade to come.

So, if you’re a publisher of bad-looking books (I could name some names, but would rather not commit career suicide… I’m still bookless, after all) think about this: you don’t need to hire a designer to churn out every book cover. All you need is one good, smart designer who is willing to build you a solid and versatile template that can be adapted for all your titles for several years. So: hire Jeff Clark? (Or, you know, me.)



About Sean Bishop

Sean Bishop is a poet, editor, and graphic designer who teaches in the MFA program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the founding editor of BETTER (bettermagazine.org) and the former managing editor of GULF COAST. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in ALASKA QUARTERLY REVIEW, BAT CITY REVIEW, BOSTON REVIEW, CRAZYHORSE, JUBILAT, INDIANA REVIEW, PLOUGHSHARES, POETRY, and elsewhere.
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16 Responses to Books by Their Covers: best poetry presses, by design

  1. Sarah says:

    Thanks for putting Sarabande in the top ten, Sean. We owe our upgrade in design to Kirby Gann, who took over about three years ago. Much also depends on the artwork authors provide…that’s part of our policy, letting the writer choose the image (which can vary in look, as you might guess). Any suggestions for upgrading our logo would be much appreciated!

  2. SNS says:

    Sometimes I look at all the poetry ARCs that pile up in our litmag’s office and get the urge to email my resume and design portfolio to a press or three–subject line of “WILL WORK FOR BETTER DESIGN.”

    • Sean Bishop says:

      jeez, I know! it’s an odd situation, since there are any number of talented, unemployed young people looking to build their portfolios—in the grand scheme of graphic design, book covers can get a designer good publicity for not-a-lot of work. I really think that part of it is the idea that design is a superficial concern (which I guess it is). Especially at University presses, sometimes the notion of branding or competitive marketing can feel either unnecessary or “beneath” academia.

  3. Matt says:

    I’m glad to see more conversation about the necessity of good looking poetry books, though I do find it interesting that 95% of your selections of presses would fit into (nearly) the same category based on the type of work they publish. I don’t have a name for that “school” (and I probably shouldn’t even call it a school), but I do read enough contemporary poetry to recognize it easily. They are good presses and do publish good and important work, but there are many other presses out there that also publish important (and different) work with good book designs. Perhaps another post is in order from a different poet, with different tastes, just as a sampler comparison?

    Regardless of this observation, I appreciate your thoughts.

    • Sean Bishop says:

      Sure, Matt. I debated trying to juggle poetry-aesthetics against design-aesthetics, but since this was really a post about design and not poetry, I gave design priority. For what it’s worth, I did comb through every press listed on SPD, and viewed their covers, and boiled the list from +/- forty unranked to ten ranked… I didn’t simply think of my favorite presses and make them the top ten. These are the presses that, based on a day of research and ten-or-so years of part-time experience as a designer, I felt were consistently the best.

      Which is not to say the ranking isn’t subjective. Obviously, it is. To the extent that you’re right about there being a common “school” among these presses (if there is, I should say that I don’t think Sarabande, at least, fits that bill at all, nor does the PSA chapbook series or the American Poets Project series), I think that many of these presses are concerned with appearances and flash and cleverness… that is to say, a degree of self-conscious superficiality. And to me, it just makes sense that the presses whose poets sometimes share an element of self-conscious superficiality are also the ones who care the most about making good-looking books.

  4. Erik Kennedy says:

    ‘Most poets still love the thingness of a book.’

    ‘I think poets are also more likely to return to a particularly beloved collection five, ten, twenty or fifty times.’

    You may not have even realised, Sean, that you conflated poets with readers of poetry. ‘Fiction-lovers,’ of course, mentioned in the same paragraph, need not be writers.

    This is not an indignant criticism (it really isn’t), but it’s a fact worth noting. I don’t think that this conflation is uncommon. There is probably an unconsciously ‘writerly’ aesthetic operating somewhere behind this list, an aesthetic that demands an unusual unity of presentation and purpose. I’m not sure that a well-designed book really needs to be an art object.

    And, for the record, I imagine that one either loves Wave designs (I don’t) or finds them, to put it plainly, flat, matte, and in need of a picture or two (I do).

    • Sean Bishop says:

      Hi Erik. I’m aware I made that conflation. I think that most readers and buyers of contemporary poetry in the U.S. really are poets themselves, or at least are occasional writers of poems. The proportions of just-readers to readers-and-writers of fiction are substantially different… which is why novelists can make serious money and poets, generally, don’t: they have a larger audience of not-writers.

      Re: the design part of your post—to each his own. The ranking is subjective, it’s just my opinion, albeit the opinion of someone with ten-or-so years of design experience. When I look at the Wave books I see a designer who understands typography, knows how to use white space, and knows how to translate the intrinsic spareness and minimalism of poetry into a design befitting not only each poet but poetry itself. It’s about the relationship between form and function.

  5. Lisa Cihlar says:

    Both Dancing Girl Press and Crisis Chronicles Press published chapbooks of mine this year and the covers are stunning. The books are selling. First because of the covers I think, then because of the poems.

  6. Sean Bishop says:

    I should give a shout-out to David Martinez, too, who is currently running a series of smart posts on the Hayden’s Ferry blog about the best-looking lit-journal covers of the past few years: http://haydensferryreview.blogspot.com/2012/06/best-literary-journal-covers-of-past.html

  7. I am–as you can easily see–quite biased on the matter, but I’d encourage anyone interested in book design to check out Tinfish Press’s books and chapbooks, a broadside and a couple of “maps.” Our designers are mostly young, mostly local (we’re in Hawai`i) and are asked to respond to the work we offer them. Unlike Jeff Clark, whose work is very fine, these designers are not doing it for a living. So there’s a deliberate inconsistency, even if you can (yes) recognize most of our books by the covers. Thanks for paying attention to this aspect of publishing. Often goes unremarked upon, or glanced over. Susan http://tinfishpress.com

  8. Henry says:

    Have you taken a look at our books? We even had a cover featured for its design on the New Yorker website.

  9. Henry says:

    Ah, forgot to mention who I’m writing for: Saturnalia Books.
    http://www.saturnaliabooks.org
    Interested to know what you think, Sean.

  10. Take a look at What Books Press of Los Angeles, all of whose knockout covers are designed by LA artist Gronk, and whose book design in general is tasteful in the bookish sense. Look at the covers on whatbookspress.com.

  11. Nice post. I came across this cover and think I’ll use it as template for my next opus:

    http://i48.tinypic.com/142byhd.jpg

  12. Pingback: Carleton Wilson: book typography and cover design | thecanadaproject