In the Soviet era, when distribution and publishing were state-owned operations, there was little need to distinguish one book, or publisher, from the next. Today, a vastly different picture has emerged: it is that of a fully privatized Russian book industry, a crumbled distribution network and an increasingly competitive marketplace flooded with new titles. Limited shelf space and shorter shelf lives means books have to fight for consumer attention. Content by itself is no longer enough to sell a book. Design and presentation sells too.
Naturally, the concept of design as branding is new to Russia’s book industry, and few publishing houses spend much time on it or take it seriously. But not Corpus Books, an imprint of AST. To editor-in-chief Varya Gornostaeva, design is crucial in projecting books as cultural objects. “When this imprint was established in 2009, I decided then that it was crucial for our covers to have simple yet practical design elements that could cross genres and yet give each title an individual flavor while at the same time unifying all of them as uniquely Corpus.” Gornostaeva visualized “a very long row of different Corpus books united by the same vision, target audience, quality standard and artistic approach, which was what I communicated to our designer Andrey Bondarenko for the new imprint.”
The result was a basic design structure consisting of a horizontal bar with the author’s name, the book title and the logo on the right for the front cover, the same logo for the book spine, and a horizontal bar on the back cover with the author’s photo and the synopsis. The design has been successfully used to promote the titles under the imprint regardless of genre or author. It applies equally well to a series of titles by different writers in the same genre or individual titles by different authors. Despite having different designs, colors and photos, the titles project a similar feel and identity that is unique to Corpus Books.
Most of the time, Gornostaeva works with award-winning illustrator Bondarenko, “who is one of the best, if not the best, book designer in modern Russia. We have been collaborating for the past 13 years, since I was with Inostranka Publishing House. Even though he works for us on a freelance basis, I consider him as our resident art director. I have tried in vain to find other designers to take some of the pressure off him. Sometimes he works on more than 10 new titles per month. Occasionally, when a project requires many illustrations and complex designs, he would commission his friend Dmitry Chernogaev of Artonica Design bureau, another well-known designer, to help. We also work with Arseny Mescheryakov of Agey Tomesh bureau, another of Andrey’s friends.”
The secret to a really good book designer, she adds, is not just talent. “That is not enough. He or she must read widely. I am absolutely sure that, without reading the manuscript, even great designers could not create a really nice and appropriate design. Andrey reads through the text, not just the synopsis or fragments of a book. He would do 10 different drafts at times or just one draft when he knows he has nailed the perfect design. Usually, the two of us would decide which design to use. If the choice is not obvious, then the whole editorial team gets together for a brainstorming session. But task of making the final decision often falls on me,” adds Gornostaeva, who attributes her feel for design to her architectural background.
Three years after the branding system was established, Corpus books are widely known among Russian readers not just for their high literary quality but also for their distinct, refreshing and appealing designs. There are of course occasions when Gornostaeva wanted a totally different look for some titles to mark a special collection by an outstanding author (such as Umberto Eco’s collected works) or a series of titles in a totally different genre (such as a science series).
“We also created a series of literary thrillers and adventures written by distinguished authors such as Scarlett Thomas, Albert Sanchez Pinol, Jonas Jonasson and Felix Palma. All the books in this series have gold foil stamping on the cover and a colored edge. The series looks very nice and stands out on a bookstore shelf.”
But not all translated titles are given a new look at Corpus. “We loved the original cover of Scarlett Thomas’s “The End of Mr. Y” and so we retained it. Sometimes a book is so well promoted worldwide that it simply does not make sense to change it. In the case of Walter Isaacson’s “Steve Jobs”, which we launched in November, every international publisher keeps the original cover, although it is not stipulated in the rights agreement.”
Even the inside pages of a book receive similar attention at Corpus. “Special layouts require more effort, time and money, but eventually you get a book that grabs attention, sells well and wins awards. Publishers who consider a book to be a cultural object—and not just a product to earn money—want their books to be done in a modern way, with the content dictating the design and layout. But there are not many such publishers out there.”
Gornostaeva does not follow any design trends that sweep through the Russian book market every now and then. “At times, a certain element or a specific font would become trendy and fashionable all of a sudden, and it is funny to see books from different publishers starting to look alike after a while. But such trends would die out just as abruptly as they started. At Corpus, we pay close attention to how our books should look, and we have our own idea of how to achieve that look.”