An Open Letter to Joelle Fraser

Ben Garrido's Author Page

Joelle Fraser is a memiorist and (soon to be) novelist. She has been published by Random House and Counterpoint Press to critical acclaim. She is also my editor. This interview will cover her first book, “The Territory of Men.” The Territory of Men follows a young Joelle as her mother bounces from man to man to man. On the surface, this is her mother’s search for enlightenment and equality but, in my opinion, it is also the story of a woman looking for a man to impose identity on her. The book plays on the tensions between women’s lib, the appeal of bad men and childhood. 


Dear Joelle,

I mean this in the most positive possible way, but reading your book disquieted me.  The reason, I think, why your book had this effect on me has to do with my continuing and, as yet largely unsuccessful, quest to figure out…

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The sweet smell of a great sorrow lies over the land
Plumes of smoke rise and merge into the leaden sky:
A man lies and dreams of green fields and rivers,
But awakes to a morning with no reason for waking

There are a number of typical reasons why people stop writing and posting, and usually everyone will say they have a very personal reason to add to that. I am no exception.

Perhaps the biggest one was the death of 2 close friends, in the same week. Then, the fact that I am waiting for a couple of publishers to be kind enough to pay me. Yes, it is surely a gesture of kindness: endless emails asking me to finish the work urgently, phone calls on Saturdays and Sundays (because of course a freelancer works for you 24/7) and after all the books are published and launched, I am sure they don’t find any reason to pay me other than kindness or some sort of sympathy. Then the usual lack of respect I get from people that ask me to “help them” with posters and various designs.

Nobody said this job was easy. I deal the best that I can with commissions, publishers. But sometimes I struggle to find the motivation to give my time to people outside that circle and their projects, when it is clear they don’t give a damn about anything but your skills. I don’t include my designs for sport clubs on this sentence. All of them are fantastic and never forget to credit me. A simple thing, to credit.

As there are good news in the middle of this, recently I got more commissions and they have also kept me busy. Nevertheless, I am still a bit disappointed. Chasing publishers to pay is a hard task, both mentally and financially. And the end result is one losing the trust we should build our work relationships upon.

A month or so ago, this post appeared in my twitter. And I´ll just leave a few thoughts here:

“Freelance workers, in particular, are often treated as disposable assets, either because their skills aren’t valued or because management think that there’s an indefinite supply to replace those who move on”

“Nothing puts suppliers off more than being treated as an optional extra, a disposable tool to be exploited and discarded. Instead, find ways to make your freelancers and contractors part of your team”

I could and I should write more about this article but honestly, I rather focus on the work at hand. I am not aware how many people read this, and after all, it does not matter anyway. I am sharing thoughts knowing this does not change nothing – the only change is that I am less and less willing to help anyone with posters, designs and stuff.

Eventually I will write more here as time goes by.

Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun

Witness the man who raves at the wall
Making the shape of his questions to Heaven
Whether the sun will fall in the evening
Will he remember the lesson of giving?

Set the controls for the heart of the sun
The heart of the sun, the heart of the sun

This Pink Floyd song is about suicide, many say. Other speak about setting goals, while others are keen that it is about love. Most of the time I like to reflect on Floyd’s rich lyrics and on this occasion I will use all these concepts to write about some bold cover designs – which include love of the book, trying to go a step beyond and in many cases, either a hidden death wish or a professional suicide. Depending on the publisher, that is.

So today and in the following weeks I will be writing on a few designers that actually set their controls to the heart of the Sun, starting with Suzanne Dean.

The Red House by Mark Haddon

The Red House is a brilliant cover, in all aspects. Even the type, which is not my favorite, is undoubtedly working both in position and dimension. Using a romantic and emotionally warm element such as china (could be cups or dishes), she sets a tone of familiarity that engages the viewer. The colors are also very appealing to the eye, especially in a book shop environment. When compared to other books, it almost seems bigger than it actually is. The cracked / broken element gives the reader a heads-up in terms of what is to come. In the words of Carol Birch,

The Red House is a closely observed domestic drama that gives the impression of being a random slice-of-life, but in which every character is coming to terms with something or experiencing a revelation. The action is subtle and often interior, and what really counts is not what happens so much as the sharp observations of how people behave and feel, and the gap between the two.

source: The Guardian book review

Bear in mind the letters are not slightly faded by change – they are yet another element to prepare the reader to what will be the effect of time in the characters. Yes, we do think of this while designing.

Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow

In this case, the challenge is to create a cover that will refer to the theme and yet will not place it into the moods of Twilight and other fiction. In the words of Alyssa McDonald,

A free-verse novel about werewolves might not sound entirely appealing, but Toby Barlow’s debut is a clever, absorbing thriller about the gangs or, more accurately, packs on the prowl in LA.

source: The Guardian book review

Bold red covers are not for everyone, and certainly not for any book. In a novel that writes about urban werewolves, placing what can be perceived as a common urban dog, mouth open and teeth well shown, is the recipe for the urban factor. It would be easy placing a night picture, gangs, or a pack of wolves photoshopped into a dark city street.  That is how brilliant this cover is – it steps out of the usual designer cliches and hopefully she had the go-ahead by the author to do so. The type is almost hand-made, placed into the dominant element instead of using the negative space. A not so unusual arrangement that in this case works pretty well. Also, pay attention to the fact that the teeth are gray instead of ivory white. White teeth would distract the eyes from the important bit – the title. Again, we do think about these sort of stuff when designing.

The Trial by F. Kafka

Those were hand-picked to show her diversity and the way she can move from one style to another. And this is what, in my opinion, set her apart from many other designers. Sure, she had the Kafka series with eyes, but a series does make you a one trick pony.

And this is because the covers are inspired by the “Kafkaesque”. Let’s look at the Wiki’s definition:

Kafka’s writing has inspired the term “Kafkaesque”, used to describe concepts and situations reminiscent of his work, particularly Der Processand “Die Verwandlung”. Examples include instances in which bureaucracies overpower people, often in a surreal, nightmarish milieu which evokes feelings of senselessness, disorientation, and helplessness. Characters in a Kafkaesque setting often lack a clear course of action to escape the situation. Kafkaesque elements often appear in existential works, but the term has transcended the literary realm to apply to real-life occurrences and situations that are incomprehensibly complex, bizarre, or illogical.

Numerous films and television works have been described as Kafkaesque, and the style is particularly prominent in dystopian science fiction. Works in this genre that have been thus described include Terry Gilliam’s 1985 film Brazil and the 1998 science fiction film noirDark City. Films from other genres which have been similarly described include The Tenant (1976) and Barton Fink (1991).[216] The television series The Prisoneris also frequently described as Kafkaesque.

Suzanne’s work for this series is based upon the element of the eye, which in turn is the dominant element of Kafka’s works – the world, stories, and characters, seen through his eyes, those weird, twisted eyes. In the other covers (seen in the link above – “eyes”) she plays with these elements, multiplying, structuring (as seen in the Trial cover) and with a single element she managed to create a list of titles with something in common and in the end, all different.

The type is carefully chosen not to be the focus. These are classic books and that alone sells them. They are normal serif for the author’s name and a handwritten type for the title. And this, while keeping the name of the author with the seriousness of what it stands for, allows the book title to be free. Free as in intimate, as Kafka tends to allow the reader to be in many cases a fly on the wall. Free as in supportive, as it eases the weight of being an acclaimed book and the big bold types, used to tell the shopper “HERE IS A CLASSIC, BUY IT”.

These things are important. While a classic might sell itself out pretty well, what would make you want to own that copy in particular? The answer is a design that makes you fall in love with the cover.

Of course Suzanne’s work is varied and goes out of the illustration based covers.

First Novel by Nicholas Royle


The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

As you might notice I did not focus on the suicide and setting for the Sun – because the covers do tell that story in full. They are bold and therefore possible to be perceived as in dangerous (from the designer point of view) . They do show a love for the work and they are clearly setting the bar higher.

Also, I was not trying to review her career. My point was to show how we can set our goals high, and yet maintain a strong concept. Book design is not just a photo with type on top. That is the easy way out. Sometimes that is what the publisher want, sometimes is the author that wishes that. If the designer is good, he or she will always want more.

If you google, there will be plenty of interviews and videos with Suzanne. Many blogs will do that favor for you. In this post I was more concerned in talking a bit about the elements that stand out and made these covers widely know as examples of genius.

PS – Do you know that the oldest bookstore in the world is located in my hometown? Have a look.

The Passion Of Lovers

The passion of lovers is for death said she, The passion of lovers is for death

Love, exciting and new.  All book designers should fear the day where love is theme for the book. I fear those days, I do. Not because I can’t do it or because I am not exactly a fan of romance. Because you might end up with the cover shown above.

It is a good cover, for the genre. Good type, well placed, the photo itself is really nice. The woman is beautiful without looking like an artificial model, and the lad looks fit but you can’t see his annoying six-pack. All round a good, competent work, and I am sure the designer will be happy with it – and so will the author and publisher.

You know what is the problem with it?



Book Design Blog


I have to admit that a lot of book covers look the same. The market often dictates what a cover should look like. Stock images play their role in covers looking very similar, as well as unqualified designers working on book covers. Ultimately, it’s the designer’s job to do the research and to come up with a unique looking cover.

Another reason is sales and market. The sales and market dictate how a cover is designed to a large extent. Especially true in large publishing houses. Perhaps not for all, but certainly for some. In many cases, it’s not about getting the right story from the author across. It’s about what will sell. Sometimes not a bad thing, and sometimes we could challenge this way of thinking a bit more.

So let me say this as simply as possible. If you work closely with your writer, editor, designer and marketer…

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