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Why is the cover of Fire and Fury so ugly?

A customer takes a copy of Fire and Fury from a table in Waterstones Piccadilly in London.
Hot topic … a customer takes a copy of Fire and Fury from a table display in Waterstones Piccadilly in London. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Donald Trump and subtlety do not go together naturally, but the cover of Michael Wolff’s bestselling White House exposé Fire and Fury greets the gaze like a towel-snap to the face: shouty, red capitals over a shouty, red man. While the red, white and blue cover is certainly eye-catching, its design has been criticised as too bland and simplistic for a book that has had such an explosive impact. “Why did they have to make the Fire and Fury book cover on Microsoft Word?” reads one derisive Twitter take, while a design website gave it faint praise for echoing “the raw immediacy and faux-outsider aesthetics that underlined Trump’s entire campaign”.

After he was approached by “some folks who think the existing cover is a disaster and a missed opportunity”, designer Edel Rodriguez (who made two striking Trump covers for Time magazine) came up with a new cover for Wolff’s book. His bright and bold design, featuring a fiery Trump looming over a tiny White House, is now being celebrated as the cover that should have been, with some readers even downloading it to replace the original on their e-readers.

The only problem with Rodriguez’s undeniably aesthetically pleasing design is that it is so out of step with current political publishing. A quick glance at the covers of any political imprint shows that boring is best: there are grand capitals galore, an overwhelming tendency towards Helvetica, and nary a picture in sight. Most of them, as covers go, are best likened to dry toast: a perfunctory formality, a vehicle to deliver something more delicious (political gossip, not jam).

Why do political books look so boring? It’s just the way they’ve always been – publishers seem to believe artistic restraint lends the contents extra seriousness. For book designer Clare Skeats, the staidness of Fire and Fury is appropriate: “It’s important that it follows the design conventions of political books, as anything more bespoke and crafted could restrict its potential audience and pigeonhole the content. Obviously, there’s scope for a more creative and explicit design response, but I think that misses the point with a book such as this,” she says.

Whether or not it was a rushed job, as some have speculated, the original jacket designed by Rick Pracher (who, it should be pointed out, has produced many a nice cover in the past) fits the conservative nature of political publishing perfectly. “Arguably, Fire and Fury would have become an instant bestseller with or without that cover simply because of the publicity it received (with a little help from Trump); the title could have been written in comic sans and it would have sold just as well,” says book cover designer Stuart Bache, adding: “Political books don’t need to have aesthetically pleasing covers, they’ve existed for years with a simple photo and serif typeface for the text – and that’s because it works well in its market.”

In recent times, publishers’ renewed efforts to woo readers back to the printed form with attractive covers and nice dust jackets have been credited with many things, from driving customers back to the physical bookstores to a decline in ebook sales.

But when a book as boring-looking as Fire and Fury has gaggles of readers fighting for copies as fiercely as they would over a new Harry Potter (as they did in Washington last week), a truth more terrible than Trump’s diet is revealed: you can’t judge a book by its cover.

This article titled "Why is the cover of Fire and Fury so ugly?" was written by Sian Cain, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 10 January 2018 03.38pm

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