Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Book Design: Love In Infant Monkeys Writ Small

Another short story collection this year that has a design that caught my eye is Lydia Millet's Love in Infant Monkeys, published by Softskull Press, which Laura Miller of Salon just named as one of her Best of 2009 fiction picks.

The image of the half-peeled banana against a black background is striking. But the most original detail is what's on the peel—an actual sticker with the book's title printed on it. Aside from the effort it must have taken to apply a sticker to each copy, I can't imagine a commercial publisher would allow a title to be that small on the front cover.

Love in Infant Monkeys collects ten stories that in one way or another concern a celebrity (e.g., Madonna, David Hasselhoff, Noam Chomsky, Thomas Edison) and an animal (e.g., lion, dachshund, rabit, Komodo dragon). And each story has a title page with an illustration by Sharon McGill. (Hannah Tinti's 2004 collection, Animal Crackers, also concerned animals and had illustrated title pages for the stories, but the collections are, of course, very different.)
Out of curiosity, I contacted Denise Oswald, Editorial Director of Softskull (although it was founder Richard Nash who had acquired the book before he left the company). She put me in touch with Millet and the cover's designer, Jamie Keenan (who has done many arresting book covers). According to Keenan:
"I'd had the sticker on a banana idea for a while but never managed to get it through. After thinking about the monkeys in the title, I instantly thought of the banana idea. Softskull had no problem with the title being so small. In fact, when I sent them the comps for this, they were just about to publish a book called Rebels With Attitude, which has a banana on the cover and no type at all, so they probably thought I was playing it safe."
According to Richard Nash:
"The second Jamie suggested the sticker I loved it. I got our production manager to price it immediately in the hope I'd be able to make it happen, and it was pretty cheap!"
And here's Lydia Millet's account:
"I can't take credit either for the cover and its boldness or the interior illustrations, but I will say the cover is one of my favorites among my own books and the drawings inside have a heartbreaking quality for me. I walk around showing them to others proudly.
"It was Maria Massie, my agent, who thought of asking Jamie Keenan to do the cover and Richard Nash who actually asked him — and curiously, no one at Counterpoint ever quibbled (at least, with me) over the minuscule title print. And I didn't mind it at all in this case — the title incidentally is not my own, that is, it was Harry Harlow's title, the title of a famous paper he wrote on taking baby monkeys away from their mothers, his so-called maternal deprivation experiments.
"I will say this: If you look closely, you'll see the cover's banana is broken. We originally had an intact banana. Then that particular image turned out to be excessively costly. So I was asked, We can get this other, slightly broken banana for hundreds of dollars cheaper. Is that a problem? I said no. I welcomed the broken banana.
"But I like the symbolism. These days, apparently, you can't even buy an unbroken banana without breaking the bank."
By the way, Keenan also designed the cover of Joe Meno's The Great Perhaps. He's another Massie client and, of course, a 2008 Story Prize finalist.