Project: Design for book covers, for Hawthorne Books

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Hawthorne Books
Design for book covers

Starting from zero: ten years and counting of covers for an independent literary publisher

Every independent publisher starts out as a small press. Our goal for Hawthorne Books, whom we have served since its inception in 2001, was to get them out of the ghetto of the small press section as soon as possible. And so when we started on their first title, we kept in mind that books are the foremost expressions of a publisher’s brand, as well as literature. This sounds cynical, but it is possible – and desirable – for a reader to have a relationship with a press beyond a particular author. Early Penguin books make an apt example. You want a reader to think: I liked this book; and this is also a Hawthorne title, so I might like it, too.

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First principles

Up front, we devised a set of simple rules: a common page size (a bit longer than the standard 8.5 inches, and in fact a golden rectangle in homage to Tschichold’s work at Penguin), and a set of overlapping squares to serve as a guiding principle. The common page size was an economic measure: it keeps us from having to start fresh with every title. The simple grid of squares means that even though the illustrations and compositions of every book in Hawthorne’s catalog differ, you get a sense of family – of unity of intent – among them.

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Follow-through

These are trade paperbacks. They’re better-made than most – we use acid-free papers and sewn bindings – but they’re paperbacks. We do try to include as much of the casebound experience as possible, however: the covers have flaps, which add a bit of heft and are double-scored, so that they can be used as bookmarks. And we engage the whole cover; here, the reader doesn’t even encounter the grass component of the design until she opens the book: it is a liminal moment, between holding and reading. This is part of the Hawthorne brand promise: we can’t be bigger, but we can be different, more thoughtful, and hopefully better. Below are the results.

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September 11: West Coast Writers Approach Ground Zero
2002

For Hawthorne’s inaugural title – a curated anthology of west coast reactions to the Al Qaeda attacks of September 11 – we took the texts of the individual submissions and layered them over one another to create a palimpsest of the fallen World Trade Center towers.

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Things I Like About America
2002

Poe Ballantine’s debut collection of essays detail the author’s search for satori via a series of low-paying jobs, bus travel and residential motels. The cover is a manipulated artifact of a mid-1970s motel postcard from our collection: the red, white, and blue of Old Glory were popular color themes in such items.

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God Clobbers Us All
2003

Poe Ballantine’s debut novel, an account of teenage ennui, hard partying and hallucinogen use in 1970s San Diego. We used an image of our kitchen window and a pattern of transparent Disneyfied ladybugs floating in the middle ground (real or imaginary ladybugs being a recurrent motif in the book). The ladybug pattern would fade in and out of the book’s text at various transitional points.

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So Late, So Soon
2004

For D’Arcy Fallon’s irreverent account of her years at a fundamentalist commune on the Northern California coast, we paired an ancient postcard detail of Raphael’s St. Catherine of Alexandria with our own image of the fog-soaked Pacific.

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Saving Stanley: The Brickman Stories
2004

Scott Nadelson’s nuanced book of stories documenting one suburban New Jersey family. The Stanley of the title is the book’s McGuffin, an elderly cat who totters from story to story, always at the lip of the curtain between life and death. The lillustration is an X-ray of our late, beloved 16-pound Manx, Joe. Saving Stanley won the Oregon Book Award for short fiction in 2003.

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Dastgah: Diary of a Headtrip
2004

The Australian music critic Mark Mordue’s diary of his travels in Asia Minor. We layered images from our collection of Near Eastern printed ephemera into a backlit selfie.

A brief, wonkish digression: We feel that the type on a book’s cover should relate to the type inside, which is why you’ll see a somewhat restrained typographic palette throughout these covers. At this point, we had been using H&FJ’s Knockout as our sans-serif face; although Dastgah is hand-lettered, we wanted it to at least feel like Knockout as used in the text – it’s more or less a monoline crow-quill riff on that typeface: distorted, to be sure, but with its internal proportions maintained.

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Core: A Romance
2005

Kassten Alonso’s debut novel is a neo-Faulknerian reading of the Hades / Persephone myth (Kore, meaning “the maiden,” is another name for Persephone). We opened up our Gothic trick bag (Victorian Bible, engravings of dead beetles, etc.) and created an obsessive collage around a portrait of a muddy bathtub (in the story, the bathtub stands in for the gates of the underworld, and mud stands for … mud).

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The Greening of Ben Brown
2005

Michael Strelow’s novel concerns the struggle for the health of a river between a chemical company and a utility lineman-cum-ecowarrior who has been turned green by accidental electrocution. That’s our hand, and our landscape of the middle Willamette River, where the story takes place. By happy accident, a drawing of the Willamette watershed left over from another job tied the two images together and stood in for the lightning that transformed the hero.

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Madison House
2006

Peter Donahue’s Madison House is a historical novel dealing with the controversial regrading of Victorian Seattle. In a miracle of the internet, eBay delivered a postcard showing the regrading (leveling a hill with water cannon) of the self-same hill that forms the novel’s context. Type nerds: the custom lettering is a Victorianized version of H&FJ’s Knockout (see Dastgah for rationale).

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The Cantor's Daughter
2006

Scott Nadelson’s second collection examines moments of critical – though not outwardly dramatic – transition that occur in men and women’s lives. Mr. Nadelson’s stories are largely interiors, and jewel-like in their construction and attention to detail. Reading them, we kept thinking about the quality of light and narrative ambiguity in the paintings of Johannes Vermeer. You can’t tell if The Girl with the Pearl Earring is glancing toward you or turning away; we wanted something similar here.

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Soldiers in Hiding
2006

In 2006, Hawthorne began republishing celebrated, out-of-print modern titles under its Rediscovery imprint. The inaugural title was Richard Wiley’s PEN/Faulkner winner Soldiers in Hiding, which tells the story of American-born Japanese conscripted into the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II, and examines what became of them in the years following the war.

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Decline of the Lawrence Welk Empire
2006

Mark Conahan re-created Rousseau’s jungle on Lawrence Welk’s soundstage for Poe Ballantine’s second novel, which follows the antihero of God Clobbers Us All into the Caribbean wild in search of the Noble Savage.

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Seaview
2007

Published under the Rediscovery imprint, Toby Olson’s PEN/Faulkner winning Seaview follows a golf hustler across the American desert as he tries to return his dying wife to her childhood home on Cape Cod. The story also involves cocaine dealing, a Pima Indian activist named Bob White, and the abiding presence of Buckminster Fuller’s Tensegrity sphere, ably illustrated for the cover by Mark Conahan.

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Clown Girl
2007

The title of Monica Drake’s celebrated novel (soon to be a major motion picture) is not ironic or metaphorical. This book is about clowns and the people who love – and fear – them. Production note / miracle of the internet: it’s now easy to find a rubber chicken when you want one.

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501 Minutes to Christ
2007

A second collection of essays from Poe Ballantine, picking up where the first left off. The illustration features an artifact from an old Seventh-Day Adventist pamphlet, blown up to show the dot pattern: a visual reference to Mr. Ballantine’s first book.

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Leaving Brooklyn
2007

The third book in Hawthorne’s Rediscovery series was Lynne Sharon Schwartz’ novel Leaving Brooklyn, concerning a young woman’s coming of age and erotic awakening in McCarthy-era New York. We actually bought a photograph for this one, as our clip file is a little thin on interior images of the BMT in 1954.

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Faraway Places
2008

A Rediscovery printing of Tom Spanbauer’s elegant, harrowing debut, showing that the South cannot hold exclusive license on the Gothic, whose darkness falls equally in rural Idaho.

This book also marks our departure from doing everything in-house: Hawthorne was starting to make a little more money, and so we had some room in the budget for image research and purchase, which is kind of a mixed blessing.

 

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The Well and the Mine
2008

Hawthorne published the debut of Southern author Gin Phillips, whose nuanced coming-of-age tale of an Alabama coal-mining town during the depression returned superb reviews, and the “paperback rights” (an odd term, as the first edition was technically a paperback) of which were subsequently snapped up by Penguin. The cover features an image by another Southern author with whom you may be familiar: Eudora Welty.

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The Tsar's Dwarf
2008

Tiina Nunnally’s translation of the Danish novelist Peter H. Fogtdal’s The Tsar’s Dwarf is a dark histori-political romance about those in the periphery of courtly life during Peter the Great’s reign, as seen through the eyes of a female dwarf attached to his court.

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Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead
2010

A brutal, clear-eyed account of a young man’s descent into hatred and violence, his rise through the ranks of the White supremacist movement, and of his ultimate redemption. That’s the author shown on the cover, before he had his tattoos removed.

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Little Green
2010

Loretta Stinson’s bildungsroman follows a sixteen-year-old runaway as she negotiates love, betrayal, violence and transcendence along the nooks and eddies of the I-5 corridor in the 1970s.

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The Chronology of Water
2011

Nudity! And it’s the author, no less. This one had to ship with a belly band to appease more family-oriented booksellers, yet the cover pales next to what’s inside: a dark memoir of drug use, sexual adventure, and questionable impulse control in the author’s youth as a competitive swimmer.

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Aftermath
2011

Scott Nadelson’s third collection of stories continues to plumb the existential depths of New Jersey suburbanites, particularly in regard to the rewards and risks of intimacy.

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The Luminist
2011

David Rocklin’s debut novel is set during the revolution in colonial Ceylon, and is loosely based upon the life of photography pioneer Julia Margaret Cameron, whose portrait of her niece (who later became Virginia Woolf’s mother) is on the cover. In a rare moment of author/designer serendipity, this photograph turned out to be the very one that inspired Mr. Rocklin to write the book.

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A Very Minor Prophet
2012

Jim Frost’s tragicomedy of an unlikely – and diminutive – religious figure in Portland, Oregon is part novel, part ’zine, and its illustrations carry much of the spiritual water. We had to break format with this one, as the illustrations couldn’t be reproduced smaller than 8½ × 11 and still be readable.

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Holding Silvan: A Brief Life
2012

An unblinking and very well-written account of the brief life and death of the author’s first child.

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Dora: A Headcase
2012

Viagra is Chekhov’s pistol in Lidia Yuknavitch’s riff on Freud’s famous case study of female sexuality; the eponymous character could also be described as a bit of a pill.

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Stories for Boys
2012

A deeply felt memoir about fathers, sons, and secrets.

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The Next Scott Nadelson
2013

The accomplished short story writer gets jilted at the altar – his fiancé leaves him for a drag king – and uses the experience to turn his remarkable powers of observation on himself.

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Wedlocked
2013

A memoir written to help the author understand the balance between his identity as a faithful husband and his inner life, which calls him to another woman.

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Love & Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere
2013

Part true crime, part confessional, Love & Terror is an inquiry into an unsolved murder in the author’s tiny Nebraska hometown, and an open-handed examination of his rocky marriage.

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Brilliance
2013

Brilliance uses the story of the unlikely relationship between inventor Thomas Edison and financier J.P. Morgan to explore the nature of intelligence, the forms it can take, and the ways it can corrupt or transcend. That’s Morgan at lower right; and, yes, his nose did look like that.

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The Mary Smokes Boys
2014

Set in rural Queensland, Australia, Patrick Holland’s novel is a rich meditation on fraternal love and responsibility, and about how our relationship to landscape can define us.

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I Loved You More
2014

The critically acclaimed author’s fifth novel examines eros and agape across a thirty-year friendship. The title comes from Auden’s poem “The More Loving One.”

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The End of Eve
2014

A dark, funny account of the final days of author Ariel Gore’s heroically narcissistic, film-noir-obsessed mother. Cover lettering is adapted from the main titles of The Maltese Falcon, her mother’s favorite film.

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Food Lover's Guide to Portland
2014

Cover for the second edition of the Portland food writer Liz Crain’s lively guide – not just to restaurants and food carts, but the the raw materials that feed their kitchens, and yours.

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The Diamond Lane
2014

Karen Karbo’s second novel, originally published in the mid-1980s and offered in a completely new edition by Hawthorne in 2014, is a comic romance of art, commerce and Hollywood at its transition from the studio system to marketing machine.

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Call Me Home
2015

Megan Kruse’s celebrated debut novel is a gripping story of escape, self-discovery, and transcendence set in the Pacific Northwest and the Hill Country of Texas. Cover lettering by Mia Nolting.

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Life is Short – Art if Shorter
2015

David Shields and Elizabeth Cooperman compiled and commented on this paean to brevity and concision – in writing, and in life.

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The Inventors
2016

Peter Selgin’s memoir examines his growth as it relates to ambiguous relationships with two men – his father, an accomplished inventor; and his eighth-grade English teacher.

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Violation: Collected Essays
2016

The first published collection of the celebrated essayist’s work, spanning 30 years of difficult and meticulous inquiry.

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Credits/colophon
Production
5.5 × 9 in.
4c offset lithography + matte laminate
Typography
Various – mainly Knockout, Stratum and ITC Bodoni
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