Local Knowledge: Covers Customised for the Australian Market

A post by ABDA member W.H. Chong

So a publisher wants to remake an overseas book cover for Australian shops. What are they thinking? What are the designers thinking? Why is a cover good for one place but not another? Australian designers reveal the local knowledge behind the makeovers.


A Wolf at the Table by Augusten Burroughs
Redesign by Josh Durham

The US cover was deemed to scary and aggressive which, much to its credit, it is! The book is quite harrowing, so the visual is quite appropriate. These were the days before Gone Girl-style black covers were acceptable, much like green covers before Christos Tsiolkas’ The Slap.

We had this picture of  Burroughs as a child. It was touch and go as the image quality wasn’t fantastic and it needed to be used big to work — the emotion in his face and his gaze into the middle distance hints at fear and is in its own quiet way is unsettling. I added the gingham to give it domestic context. The author had some success with Running with Scissors so we pumped up his name as big as it would go. I still prefer Chip Kidd’s US cover — it’s so powerful and a wonderful visual realisation of the title and subject matter.


Mélodie: A Memoir of Love and Longing by Akira Mizubayashi
Redesign by Mary Callahan


I am yet to understand why many French book covers fail to come close to the high style standards that typify much of French culture. Be that as it may, it wasn’t appropriate for the Australian market. With the photo of the dog from the French cover the only image that was usable, I combined it with an old map of Tokyo and the silhouette of a man walking his dog. This is all about dog love, people. The publisher was keen for a stylised look to the cover and did a most beautiful job of sending me examples of the style she was after, including her own mock-ups (that kept her fellow colleagues most amused). It’s not often a publisher picks up scissors and paper and gets cutting! Brilliant work. I’d put them up here, but I don’t think she’d approve.


White Sands: Experiences from the Outside World by Geoff Dyer
Redesign by Jess Horrocks


Geoff Dyer’s new collection of travel essays is heavily peppered with his trademark unconventional, unpredictable and introspective approach. The Australian publisher deemed the UK cover, designed by Peter Adlington, unsuitable for a local readership. It’s certainly well-executed, but the austere aesthetic is inconsistent with the author’s previous titles published here, the Australian covers being more focused on dynamic photography combined with sleek, narrow type and sparse, striking colour.

I put the photo of Dyer used as the endpapers for the UK edition on the cover, placing Dyer at the visual and symbolic centre of the composition: a figure steadily encountering, embracing and challenging his environment to challenge him back. The dusty pinks reflect the past glory of the monumental Spiral Jetty he is seen traversing, tying in his continual nods to the past with his visions of the future.


Inventing a Nation by Gore Vidal
Redesign by Philip Campbell


The brief described the book as exploring the building of the US as a nation state, how the republic was established, querying notions of democracy and looking at the architects of the constitution – Washington, Adams and Jefferson – and contrasting them with the deficiencies of then current leader George W. Bush. It pointed to the US edition with the images of the three Founding Fathers but asked for ‘no old blokes on the cover please!’ Presumably, those old blokes are not as recognisable here as in the US, and the original subtitle naming the three was dropped. As well, the local edition was to be a paperback not a hardback. Finally, the brief suggested using the US colours of red, white and blue. By simply deploying the American flag all bases were covered. Gore Vidal’s name was seen as a strong selling point and so I went full measure on that.


American Rust by Philipp Meyer
Redesign by Sandy Cull


The rusty nail US cover is a stunning representation of the gritty narrative within. American Rust is set in a small town in Pennsylvania, where the locals are devastated and struggling to cope, after the collapse of its coal and steel industries. The Australian publisher felt the nail was perhaps ‘too literary’ for our local, smaller market and especially so for a debut novel. This is often part of the reasoning for commissioning a new more ‘appropriate’ Australian cover.

I was looking online for tickets to the upcoming Kings of Leon tour and was really struck by the image on their UK album cover for their new release, Only by the Night. It’s a juxtaposition of four human faces and that of an ostrich-like bird. It’s a disconcerting image and immediately reminded me of the raw dysfunction and the desperate circumstances of the five main characters in American Rust. I liked how the individual faces jarred violently with each other, making a menacing whole. I had an emotional response to this album cover and it was exactly what I was hoping to elicit with my cover. I’m often asked to include a human element on a cover. There seems to be a belief that it’s more ‘relatable’, though it wasn’t necessarily part of the brief this time.

I decided to try something like this the first cover concepts. I took some time to find faces of how I imagined the five main characters. After a few tweaks, it ended up being one of the only covers I’ve ever only done one concept for, and even more of an anomaly, was approved in the first round.


The Notebook Trilogy by Agota Kristof
Redesign by W.H. Chong


Is design competitive? (You have one guess.) You don’t lightly redesign a cover by one of the greats as John Gall surely is. It sets up a challenge you can only overcome by redefining the terms of engagement.

I’m thinking of Arthur Ashe’s amazing triumph over Jimmy Connors in the Wimbledon finals of 1975. In that match Connors, the dominant player of his time, was utterly flummoxed by his opponent. Ashe literally changed the pace — Connors was partial to smashing and charging — by slowing the game right down, shortened the ball length and pioneered the offensive lob. Time and time again Connors was scrambling for a foothold on this shifting sand. In any case, Ashe, nine years older and not considered a serious threat, reframed the proceedings — it became his show.

Gall’s Kristof cover is very striking. The “mask” of cut-up and collaged photos on a soft, dull background proposes a forbidding, postmodernist game-playing text, especially as the title is long, with a complicated hierarchy and is strung out on the margins of the page in unconventional typography. We thought it made the book look like hard work, another way of saying that we read the book differently to Gall.

The trilogy turns out to be a propulsive and extraordinarily unsettling text about the trials of WWII in Eastern Europe, made accessible by a very direct, unornamented style, narrated in the first person plural by young boy twins. The effect is intellectually hair-raising and psychically bracing. For me, Gall provided a perfectly respectable solution, but one which did not evoke the book’s soulfulness or its straight-faced, pitch-black comedy.

Unlike Gall’s disembodied metaphor, my offering specifically references a scene in the book: the abandoned twins are working in their “grandmother”‘s country cottage where they learn to rear and slaughter farmyard animals, especially chickens and rabbits. A familiarity with intimate violence sets the tone for the moments of high drama that punctuate the story. The twins, who behave as a single entity and are each other’s best protector, morphed into a pair of vigilant black rabbits. We collapsed Three Novels of Agota Kristof: The Notebook, The Proof and The Third Lie into The Notebook Trilogy, centred in a simple classic font. Finally I placed my rabbits in a pencil and watercolour frame for European flavour. So it is that John Gall owns his court, but at the other end of the arena I’m playing a different game entirely.


W.H. Chong is a founding member of ABDA and currently serves as Secretary. In 2013 Chong was inducted into the Australian Book Design Hall of Fame.


Your email address will not be published. All fields are required.