Iraq by the Book
Monday, December 11, 2006
The "Iraq Study Group Report" paperback could have been wrapped in a brown paper bag, its title scrawled in Magic Marker. It would still sell.
This is a book, unlike trillions of others on the market, whose substance and national import sell it, not its cover.
"People will buy the book because they are interested in it more than what it looks like," says Archie Ferguson, art director at Pantheon Books. And he knows book covers. He designed the cover for the 2004 "9/11 Commission Report," another case in which a spare jacket lent dignity to a book containing an official report of grave national significance.
Disproving the adage, this genre of book can indeed be judged by its cover. From the reports on the Warren Commission to Watergate, Iran-contra and now the Iraq war, such books are anomalies for a publishing industry that churns out covers intended to seduce readers, to reach out and grab them, and propel them to the cash register.
"I would think that when you're doing the authorized version of something like the Iraq Study Group, you're not going to have a cover with Baker and Hamilton showing a little leg," Peter Osnos, founder and editor-at-large of Public Affairs Books, says jokingly, as if the legs of James A. Baker III and Lee H. Hamilton could in fact lure readers. (Well, perhaps.)
The 96-page "Iraq Study Group Report" was published last week and immediately drew strong sales at $10.95 a copy.
It's like "The Starr Report" on President Bill Clinton's White House years, the 1998 book containing the investigative reports of independent counsel Kenneth Starr. Like "The Iraq Study Group Report," "The Starr Report" has a cover containing no hype, just type.
"Like a lot of the best porn, it was so salacious it didn't need a hot cover," says Osnos, who published that book. "Anybody who picked it up knew what was going to be in it."
With its black cover and presidential seal, "The Warren Report: The Official Report on the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy" is the classic of this genre. Its 1964 publication set the standard for how a historically important official book should look: sober, austere and, in the case of Kennedy's death, even funereal.
Though these books don't need dramatic cover art, they do need a minimalist artistic treatment befitting their historic stature. There is, says Ferguson, "an art to being appropriate."
And that was the challenge for John Gall, the cover designer and art director for Vintage, which published "The Iraq Study Group Report."
Originally, as he began pondering the book's cover, Gall focused on how to signify Iraq.