"What are book covers?"

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Only 41, Chip Kidd has already attained a sort of pop nirvana for book jacket designers-he's a Jeopardy answer, and that was back in 2002. "His work at Alfred A. Knopf made Chip Kidd a superstar in designing these." It was worth $400, and now, for a mere $39.95, Kidd's million-dollar design career is about to be celebrated in a fascinating paperback retrospective, from Rizzoli, called Chip Kidd Book One: Work 1986-2006. The implication being that there'll be a Book Two someday.

After close to two decades at Knopf in New York, you'd think Kidd might have had his fill of book jacket design, but he's keeping his options open. "I'd been musing about leaving Knopf for a while, then 9/11 happened, and there's this profound sense of a need for security that just totally gripped me, as I'm sure it did a lot of people," he recalls. "I said to myself, 'This is no time to quit your job.' I've been asked by publishers to do monographs in the past, and I was like, 'I'm 35, it's time to take a look back at my career?' But now I figured I'm 40 and there's enough material to fill a sizable book, and if I waited longer it'd be harder to do it right and not exclude a lot of stuff. But I didn't want it to seem like a tombstone. So if there's never a Book Two, so what? I wanted to imply that it's part of something larger."

As is Kidd himself-what might be called the pantheon of living American graphic designers, though he self-effacingly rejects the notion that he's an "inky colossus" or a "design demigod," some of the epithets he's been slapped with in the past. The Jeopardy moment gets three rasterized screenshot pages in the book as a sort of tongue-in-cheek pop cultural artifact, because Kidd refuses to take the "superstar of book jacket design" idea too seriously; "I think it's largely a perception, based on a combination of things: I have this odd name that sounds goofy but at the same time is conducive to being remembered, and that weird name is attached to many really terrific books year after year, which happen to have interesting covers on them. In my mind, that's the scenario-if I'd left Knopf after five years and started my own business, we probably wouldn't be doing this interview right now, no one would give a shit. I really tie most of my career to the fact that I'm at Knopf."

Being an art fixture at a publishing house wasn't part of his initial employment plan, of course. Kidd grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania and studied graphic design at Penn State, where "I was thinking what most people at design school are thinking: I'll go work somewhere for a while and then I'll open my own shop. I toyed around with the idea," but it was never tempting enough to actually move. He does freelance anyway, though most of that is more book jacket design. "Since I'm known mainly for books, that's mostly what I get," he notes, but he's hardly complaining. He does do other work occasionally, including illustrations for publications like The New York Times Magazine.

As for Book One, it's curated and designed by Mark Melnick, but "I had total input," says Kidd. "I oversaw the whole thing, but I didn't want to do it all myself, I'm too close to it all. I need a good, objective eye, and, basically, somebody to deal with all the shit." The book is quite inclusive; though there are figures floating around as high as 1,500 for the number of covers Kidd has worked on in his career, he estimates it's closer to 900, with roughly 800 in the book. So in the course of a long career, he has to do some jackets he's not particularly thrilled with? "Yes. All the time. Originally, we were going to take the kitchen sink approach-here's everything, good and bad. But then Mark showed me several spreads filled with shitty jackets, and I was like, 'Wow, this is upsetting.' "

However, a bad cover, just like a bad title, is going to be an entirely subjective matter, since the sales/design equation, if there even is one, remains mysterious; "I'm happy to say there are no figures on record anywhere," says Kidd. "One of the great things about publishing is there's so little money involved, there's no test marketing. And if there ever was test marketing, I'd probably, you know . . . quit. The fact is, each cover is different." Mentioning two of his personal faves, Kidd notes, "I could say the Donna Tartt Secret History cover really helped sell the book, or I could say the cover of Geek Love forces you to build a relationship with it as you read the book-but there's no means of determining if any of that really works." At the same time, while a cover is clearly a sales mechanism, "it's more than that. It has to somehow be true to what I'd call the soul of the book." And the author, who could conceivably be a total design dolt, always has a say? "Some get jacket approval written into their contracts, while others don't, but here at Knopf, which is probably true of the publishing industry in general, we want the author to be happy with the jacket. Even if they don't have jacket approval, if they don't like it, it's a problem and we've got to deal with it-or somehow talk them into liking it."

Authors seem to love Kidd. John Updike, who notes of Kidd that, "In an edgy field, he is not only edgy but deep," wrote the introduction to Book One, and a few dozen additional writers who've enjoyed the Kidd cover cachet contribute appreciations. Kidd himself, of course, is an author; The Cheese Monkeys, a novel inspired by his undergraduate design school experience, was published by Scribner in 2001. He did the jacket design himself, and the book is not with Knopf "because I made a decision not to have the book with the Random House conglomerate so it wouldn't seem like they were publishing it just to make me happy. I don't want that nepotism thing. I was going to have to fight that 'He's a designer and he wants to be a writer' thing anyway; people were going to be skeptical enough. I was very lucky that Scribner wanted to do it." The cover got an all-type treatment, "but actually it was supposed to have no type at all, just a rebus until you pulled off the band, but I wussed out halfway through the process and decided to switch them. I got too nervous that people wouldn't get it and they just wouldn't pick it up at all." As for the quirky title, were there concerns that it sounded like a children's book? "No, but I heard a lot of, 'What's a cheese monkey?' Titles can be hotly contested during the publishing process, and they sometimes change mid-course, but Scribner ultimately liked this one.

"Talk about sounding like a children's book," Kidd continues, offering Donna Tartt's The Little Friend as a case in point-a title that was "heavily disputed" at Knopf, "but it survived, so I wanted something to contrast with and complement it." Hence "the creepy doll head. Somehow that image made the title make sense," Kidd believes. "The book was a hit, but of course there's so much more to it than the title and the jacket. Our publicity people are tireless and brilliant; for a couple of weeks you couldn't open a magazine without reading about the book. To me, that's way more important than a jacket."

But does he hear a lot of whining from those brilliant salespeople that a cover will never work, it just doesn't have that grab factor? "Yes, I do." Being an inky colossus, does he just ignore it? "Well, I try to discern from the editor-in-chief [Sonny Mehta] to what extent I can ignore it, and if I can ignore it, I will. But that's up to him. These things come up all the time. We may have a cover where the author likes it, Sonny likes it, the associate publisher likes it, and then at the eleventh hour we'll hear sales just doesn't think this is right. It can be a fucking nightmare. You know, 'Women won't buy this' or something. But it's all conjecture. It's all based on previous experience, it's second-guessing and it can be very counterproductive." Kidd does not, it should be noted, run the art department. "Thank God. That involves being responsible for the entire Knopf list, which is an awesome responsibility. It can be a real pain in the neck."

He's working on his second novel now, also to be published by Scribner, and something of a pain in the neck, too. He'll do the cover, but "that's the easy part. You'd think the writing would get easier after a first novel, but it just doesn't. If someone asks me to write the introduction to someone else's book, I can knock it out, no problem. But the idea of a novel where you're going to commit these great thoughts to paper for the ages, that just freezes me up. I need to figure out a way to make 'real writing' happen much more prolifically." He's certainly prolific in Book One, which features extensive Kidd commentary about his work, making for an unusually engrossing look into the mind and the workaday world of the designer.

As for the book's unusual format, "it was Mark Melnick's idea to do it horizontal," says Kidd. "I was going to do it 9x12 vertical and he said, 'Actually, it'll work a lot better if you turn it on its side,' and I was like, 'Wow, you're totally right.' " The half-flaps on the front and back "were a great concern," he admits. "It's my idea and I kind of insisted on it. The concept is a book growing out of a book, and I also think from a tactile perspective it makes it very user-friendly to page through. We reinforced the end papers with card stock. They said, 'They're gonna get damaged, we're gonna get returns.' Yeah, the whole thing could backfire and kick me in the ass, but I feel good about it. I think this is the right thing to do, I don't feel like I've seen this before. I put pressure on myself because I want to do something that I feel is innovative but appropriate to the subject matter. It's tough, any book about books . . . they've been done a zillion different ways. It'll be interesting to see how people react."

Kidd, who has yet to get his own website going, though he's surely no Luddite, is confident of one thing: books aren't going anywhere. Movies, and particularly music may be in the process of becoming potentially package-free digital files, but books, he's sure, aren't following. Even if electronic readers catch on, and they don't seem to be, "I believe there'll still be a cover," Kidd insists. "I know from the industry that books need a visual representation, even e-books, which I truly don't see happening. It may be foolish optimism, but right now people don't want to read a book on a screen. Publishers have thrown tons of money at this idea already and if it was going to succeed it would be well on its way by now. The next generation of book buyers are reading about Harry Potter in a book, not on a screen. I think a book is in itself a perfect little interactive device, and computers aren't improving on it." As for comparisons with music marketing, "The nature of music is not visual to begin with, it's invisible. The whole idea that music needed a visual component was artificial from the beginning. I'm totally optimistic about the future of paper books."

Oddly, perhaps, Kidd, who's largely stayed away from album art, says his "main contemporary influence" is Peter Saville of Factory Records fame. "He's done some book work but he mostly does album covers, and I've been heavily influenced by that because it's so eclectic and it doesn't have any recognizable style from cover to cover-yet there's a certain indefinable sensibility about everything. If that can truly be said about my stuff, then I'm extremely flattered, because that's my goal."

OK, but we bet Peter Saville isn't a Jeopardy answer.

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