Actually, You Can Judge a Book By Its Cover

black oceanJanaka Stucky stands in the Black Ocean space (6 Vernon St., Studio 33), which you'll be able to check out firsthand during Somerville Open Studios. Photo by Adrianne Mathiowetz.

In Fact, Black Ocean Publisher Janaka Stucky Wants You To.


As the publisher, editor and designer at the helm of Black Ocean, Janaka Stucky isn’t only in charge of what goes in every book his independent press puts out, but also what goes on each cover. And he’s pretty adept at pairing poetry with visuals; more than one super-fan has gotten art from a Black Ocean title tattooed on their body since the publishing house was founded in 2004.

How does Stucky go about translating the written word into a visual aesthetic? Are there things that sully an otherwise great cover? And what’s the secret to creating designs that feel fresh after doing this for years? We asked the poet, performer and self-described “book fetishist,” who recently set up shop at Vernon Street Studios, to tell us how he makes books you’ll want to share your home with.

Scout Somerville: Okay, first things first—people say, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” but you must know they’re going to, right?

Janaka Stucky: Oh, definitely. In fact, I encourage people to judge books by their covers! While a poorly designed book isn’t necessarily a poorly written book, it’s not a promising first impression. If a book is ugly, it doesn’t speak well of a publisher’s judgement, skill or vision.

SS: How does the process start for you when it comes to designing a cover—I assume you read each and every title? And how long is that process from start to finish?

JS: I do read each title because I’m not just the book designer, but also one of the editors, and the publisher. I know some great designers out there that don’t always read the books—and that blows my mind. So for me, first step is to read the book. Then, once the book is under contract, I ask the author if they have any images they want to use as inspiration, or any aesthetic gestures.

black oceanBut Black Ocean also has a very specific, minimal visual aesthetic, so once the author throws out some ideas—whether I’m doing the cover entirely myself or with one of the handful of extraordinarily talented designers and illustrators I collaborate with—those have to be translated through our lens. Every once in a while an author tells me to just do whatever I want because they trust us, and those covers can either be the most fun or the most challenging to create.

SS: You’ve mentioned influences “from early silent films to early punk rock.” Can you expand on what inspires the publishing house’s style?

JS: If we’re talking how those influences impact strictly our visual aesthetic, I suppose you could say it’s informed by stark contrasts, bold gestures and minimal designs—but also colorful ones. I recently joked to one of our authors, for whom we did a pink cover with metallic blue foil, that “we boldly go on the Pantone spectrum where no press has gone before.” But those influences aren’t just visual; you could also interpret “from early silent films to early punk rock” to mean innovative and rebellious, which I think would be accurate as well.

SS: Here’s something from your website that caught my eye: “We manifest our aesthetic in celebrations around the country.” I am so curious what that means, exactly, and I have a feeling you might have interesting things to say about the intersection of literature, the visual arts and in-person gatherings and artistic demonstrations.

JS: Well, before we started Black Ocean I was producing events around Boston—film screenings, rock shows, burlesque shows, interactive art installations, zine fairs, etc. So when Black Ocean began I wanted it to be more than just a publishing company; I wanted it to be a foundation for this kind of cross-pollination of media. I wanted to popularize poetry without dumbing it down, by helping our books find their audience.

But beyond that, these in-person gatherings are critical to our social wellbeing. I’ve written and spoken publicly about the bookstore’s value as a “third space” that exists between the workplace and the home, and— especially in the current political climate—there is growing appreciation for the social value of gathering as an almost inherently revolutionary act—not against any particular administration or political affiliation, but against the tyranny of dehumanization. Furthermore, when you inject any kind of ecstatic creative energy or aesthetic experience into the mix, you generate an environment in which we suddenly experience the possibility of being both immediately ourselves and eternally free. This is the magic I think we’ve all experienced at some point during a party, concert, performance or festival. That magic, to me, goes hand in hand with the similar but infinitely more quiet experience of reading.

black oceanSS: I read in the Globe recently that you’re something of a “book fetishist,” which is so relatable! These are things you interact with physically for hours upon hours. Would you say that’s part of why you emphasize publishing such beautiful collections?

JS: Absolutely! For me, reading is a sensual experience, not just a mental exercise, and so I want to engage with the book on a somatic level: its texture, weight, smell, trim size … how the spine is constructed, and the tone of the paper in various kinds of light … that all factors into the reading experience for me, and so I’m mindful of those elements when I publish books as well.

SS: Can you talk about current trends in cover art? I’m also wondering how much you play into versus don’t want your books to play into trends.

JS: Oh, I’d say I’m a pretty terrible person to answer this question because honestly I don’t pay conscious attention to current trends. I dislike most contemporary book design. I’m influenced simply by what I’m drawn to, which are more commonly works of visual art, theatrical posters or album covers. I don’t think a lot of publishers treat book covers like visual art, but rather what has market appeal. A lot of research and money goes into that kind of data, but I operate more intuitively; if I see a design that moves me on a visceral level, I want to pay homage to that on a book cover.

SS: Following up on that—I mean, there are billions of books, right? How do you go about doing something that feels fresh and new in 2017?

JS: [Laughs] Probably by not paying attention to what’s already being done? I think it’s harder to fight influence than to embrace it, so I focus on exposing myself to what I love rather than worrying about what others are doing. I think being voracious helps too; the more I immerse myself, the more I evolve.

SS: Are there certain things that make any cover great? And are there certain things you avoid doing at all costs?

JS: I think a lot of designs often make the mistake of too much text: catalog copy, gushing reviews, blurbs from other famous authors, accolades and awards— the book cover starts to look like the poster for a blockbuster movie and not something you want to share your home with. I mean, I get it: publishing is like swimming upstream, and we’re doing everything in our power to attract an audience, so if you have a work of serious merit you want to trumpet that any way you can. But you can create too much noise in the process, and lose someone’s attention before they even pick up the book. A book’s cover needs to seduce me—to provoke me to pick it up, maybe turn it over, and then—eventually—open it.

SS: I’m sure it’s tough to play favorites, but what are some of the Black Ocean covers you’ve loved most?

JS: One of my favorites has to be the cover I did for With Deer, which is just a black silhouette of antlers set upon a “hunter orange” background. The book itself is utterly wild—a maelstrom of surreal, nightmarish imagery that would be impossible to adequately represent with any sort of literal illustration—so I stepped back from it, and chose both image and color that more subtly suggested something ominous, the danger of a threat inside. On our very first date, my now-wife saw that book sitting on the coffee table in my apartment and has told me that when she found out I designed the cover it immediately amplified her attraction to me. I’m not sure what that says about her! But, how could that not become one of my favorite covers?

This story originally appeared in the March/April print edition of Scout, which is available for free at more than 220 drop spots throughout Somerville (and just beyond its borders) or by subscription

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