John Coulthart Book Art Gallery
John Coulthart is an illustrator and comic artist resident in Manchester, England. His work has included album cover designs for Hawkwind, paintings for Magic: The Gathering and collaborations with David Britton on the controversial Lord Horror comics series from Savoy (as featured in Clive Barker's A-Z of Horror, 1997). His Lovecraft-inspired illustrations and comic-strip adaptations of the past ten years have recently been collected in The Haunter of the Dark, a 128-page volume from Oneiros Books. This includes many previously unseen works plus an exclusive story/occult invocation, The Great Old Ones, by acclaimed comics writer Alan Moore.
BiblioMania: The Fine Art of Books
Jeff VanderMeer's City of Saints & Madmen: Treating the Book as Art and ArtifactIt is rare to find a book in which the design details -- fonts, illustrations, layout, jacket -- all play a part in the reading experience. These physical attributes of City of Saints & Madmen not only contribute to the story, but also testify to the loving attention that this book received when it was put together. It is a prime example of the book as art object.
Prime, a new fantasy publishing house in Canton, Ohio, has just released the deluxe hardcover version of City of Saints & Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer (the original trade paperback was published in 2001). This groundbreaking project of innovative artwork and design combined the efforts of seven artists and three designers and included elements rarely, if ever, attempted in fiction. The sumptuous feast of text and illustration includes the author's award-winning novellas "Dradin, In Love" and "Transformation of Martin Lake." Garry Nurrish served as chief designer and John Coulthart contributed several title pages.
Publisher's Weekly gave the book a starred review, and it has also caught the attention of The Washington Post, Rain Taxi, Library Journal, and The Review of Contemporary Fiction. The result of all the attention? A Borders book tour in Florida and Georgia, lecture appearances, requests for readings and signings, and much else.
We asked Jeff VanderMeer about the project -- how he was able to push the design envelope so far, and how he feels this will affect the book's sales and marketing potential.
Vandermeer: "When I received permission from the publisher, Prime, to guide the design of the book, I turned my attention to the cover first. As it turns out, we actually played against most current ideas on how to promote a book through its cover, but I feel we've achieved great success. Anyone who sees the book is fascinated by it. I carry it around with me everywhere because invariably anyone who sees me with it--in a department store, in a elevator, etc.--asks me about it, which allows me to convert new readers in a very personal way."
"Since the publisher was kind enough to include me in most of the marketing decisions, I wrote down some facts about the book from a marketing perspective: (1) Prime is an independent publisher with less bookstore presence than large commercial publishers; (2) The book's contents are idiosyncratic; and (3) The book's interior pages will have an innovative layout that still reflects a kind of pseudo-Victorian sensibility. These three facts led me to the conclusion that the book's cover should be both innovative and yet, in some sense, traditional."
"The fact that Prime books sell as much over the Internet as in bookstore chains meant that (1) we could take more chances with the book's cover and (2) even if we failed to achieve the desired effect, the damage to the book's sales would be much lower than with a traditional publisher that relies on bookstore sales."
"I then thought about traditions in book publishing that could be 'updated' to create an innovative effect. The one that leapt to mind was of illuminated manuscripts, with their attention to detail, painstaking illustration, and subtextual connotations. The idea of using an illuminated manuscript in a modern context interested me because of the nature of my book. City of Saints & Madmen is a collection of interrelated stories-a kind of 'mosaic novel'--set in the fantastical, imaginary city of Ambergris. Ambergris has a baroque feel to it and competing religions play a large role in the daily lives of its citizens."
"Imaginary world fiction can also be more difficult for readers to get into, so I decided the design of the collection's cover should incorporate a vignette using a pseudo-illuminated-manuscript look-and-feel. The cover art for the collection, by Scott Eagle, lent itself to this idea because it incorporated collage from the work of Brueghel, Bosch, and other painters alive when the illuminated manuscript was still a viable tradition in Europe. Readers could ignore the vignette, considering it just part of the cover's design. But if they read it, they would receive an introduction to Ambergris that made their journey through the rest of the book easier and more enjoyable."
"With all of these thoughts in mind, I provided Garry Nurrish, Prime's lead designer, with the general specifications and the cover text. Garry then incorporated Eagle's artwork, chose an appropriate font for the text, and determined the color of both text and the background." "The reaction has been extremely gratifying -- not only because we'd done something different, but also, I think, that we acknowledged the tradition of the book as artifact and as art. Readers have been delighted by this. In fact, I recently received a request for a signed, numbered copy of the book from the distinguished Lilly Library of rare books at the University of Indiana. Book collectors appreciate the care that we took with the book's design -- but more importantly, they can look at the book and recognize a tip of the hat to the past."
"Once we'd established that the cover could be nontraditional, I began to search for other ways to make the book both unique and playful -- mostly by transforming the traditional elements of a book. For example, the dust jacket cover flaps contain a fake author's bio, both humorous and mysterious, that helps advance one of the metafictional plot threads found throughout the stories. The cover flaps also reinforce the playfulness exhibited by the cover."
"Fonts were carefully chosen to allude to other books and other authors. For example, the Everyman Library editions of Vladimir Nabokov's books are set in Caslon, as is the main text of City of Saints, since Nabokov heavily influenced my approach to fiction while I was growing up."
"To exemplify how Ambergris becomes a kind of real world, the experimentation with the traditional elements of a book does not end with the front matter. In the back, the reader will find that the font notes are mischievously written as if the fonts had been created in Ambergris itself. Even the acknowledgments veer between the "real" world and Ambergris. In all of these ways, I transformed the traditional ephemera connected to a book into something different and new-something to delight the reader. Granted, these are elements the reader will not encounter until well after they have already bought the book. But, again, the attention to detail in the cover design seemed to insist that we do so."
"In terms of the marketing-it has been very simple: get a copy of the book in front of anyone who matters. At the same time, the publisher has tried to provide a pretty extensive press release that explains the concept a bit and introduces me to reviewers who may not have heard of my work before."
"Books vanished at an astonishing rate at the recent ReaderCon in Burlington, Mass. They seemed not so much to fly off the shelves as to pirouette, puff out their dust jackets, and then disappear into thin air. I would be lying if I said I derived no spark of pleasure from watching readers become ensnared by it. One buyer, at first perplexed by the unconventional approach to cover design (and much else), became curious, then skeptical, read the fake bio note and smiled, and then, leafing through the pages, became a convert. As this was exactly the reaction--the sense of discovery--we'd been after with the design, it was highly gratifying to get these positive impressions of the book."
Jeff VanderMeer was born in Pennsylvania in 1968, but spent much of his childhood in the Fiji Islands, where his parents worked for the Peace Corps. This experience, and the resulting trip back to the United States through Asia, Africa, and Europe, deeply influenced him. Although VanderMeer has pursued careers in editing and publishing, he is primarily a fiction writer. His work has appeared in ten languages in 16 countries, including in publications such as Asimov's SF Magazine, Amazing Stories, Weird Tales, and anthologies such as Nebula Awards 30, Best New Horror 7, and The Year's Best Fantastical Fiction.
VanderMeer's publishing house, Ministry of Whimsy, founded in 1984, publishes challenging but entertaining fiction, usually with a science fiction, fantasy, or horror flavor. Currently, the Ministry publishes the highly acclaimed Leviathan series and a number of trade paperback novels and collections. In 1997, the Ministry's The Troika, by Stepan Chapman, became the first independent press book to ever win the Philip K. Dick Award. By day, he works as a technical writer/project administrator for a software development company in Tallahassee, Florida. A fine collection of Angela Carter and Frederic Prokosch first editions is the highlight of his library. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.