Best Gift Ever ?

I’ll do something outside of the usual parenting thing today.

In a case of ‘coals to Newcastle’ I received a subscription to the New York Review Books monthly book service for Christmas this year. I’ve always read a lot, but when Mr. C was a baby, I tended to read a lot during his naps. In the fight between ‘cleaning the house’ or ‘reading’, reading would usually win. We already have more than enough books in the house, but a few more won’t bring down the floor boards will they ?

As someone who worked in Marketing for publishers for many years, I think that New York Review has come up with a brilliant way to market their books by creating a consistent and distinctive design across all titles. Their books all use creative details of paintings or photos, with a large square design in the center of the book for the title. A great way to create customer loyalty, and also a great way to get the buyers who just like nicely designed books to buy more. That would include me of course, since I’ve bought several titles based entirely on liking the cover. I’m someone who reads the fine print in the back of books to see if there is a ‘Note on the Type’. I also check to see who designed the cover, and can usually tell if someone well known like Chip Kidd was the designer. As an added note on my crazy obsession with book design, I collect books that were designed by Richard Powers who was the Art Director for Ballantine paperbacks in the 50’s and 60’s. One of the first NRYB copies I bought was a Patrick Leigh Fermor book with a detail of a Bruegel painting on the cover. The designer for NYRB is Katy Homans, who does an excellent job with each one I’ve seen.

As far as the books themselves go, I don’t think I’ve come across one that has been out right ‘bad’. Many are somewhat experimental such as ‘That Awful Mess on the Via Merulana’ by Emilio Gadda, or a bit odd like ‘A High Wind in Jamaica’ by Richard Hughes, but at least they are all very memorable. Most have been excellent, such as ‘Warlock’ by Oakley Hall, and ‘The Way of the World’ by Nicholas Bouvier, and a long series of Georges Simenon books that have been restored to print here in the U.S..

Considering that they concentrate on reprinting books that they feel have been neglected, with an emphasis on works in translation from the early to mid 20th Century, it must have been a hard sell to get noticed at first. But with those distinctive covers, I’m sure that they have a very loyal following now. There’s not a lot of other publishers that have created such a distinctive brand. Penguin of course has been publishing their Classics line for many years with their brand specific black cover, and their earlier color coded covers. Vintage Contemporaries is another that has done a good job. Hard Case Crime has done a great job bringing back some out of print crime novels with well designed books, and there’s a few Sci-Fi publishers that do a good job of standing out from the crowd. But mostly, publishers design for each specific book rather than trying to create their own brand.

The way the subscription service works is subscribers receive a new book published by New York Review Books each month. They choose the book, there’s no advance notice as to what it will be, and no returns. So it’s a mystery what each book will be.

This month, the selection is ‘The Human Comedy’ a selection of short stories by Balzac, with a detail from a Della Rocca painting on the cover. The story I heard about Balzac is that his writing was fueled by non stop coffee drinking which gave him heart problems and eventually led to his death. I had read some of his work in college, but nothing recently. On to the To Be Read mountain it goes! I put the question mark at the end of the title of the post since I’ve only received the first book so far! I wonder what next month’s book will be ?

Here’s a few from the collection so you can get an idea of how they tend to look.



7 thoughts on “Best Gift Ever ?

  1. Very interesting post, Peter. I will look at book covers a little differently now.
    I knew you were in marketing, but I didn’t know you were in publishing! It appears we have something else in common…I worked for Houghton Miffllin early in my career, so I worked in publishing too!

    • It’s a small world, especially in publishing in Boston!

      Houghton Mifflin was one of my clients a few years ago. I worked with the Academic Marketing staff on College textbooks. Everyone I knew there was let go when Riverdeep took over in 2007. Some people had been there for many years.
      At least there’s been some small companies stepping in to keep things interesting though.

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