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Designer Scott Richardson opens up about the cover of Nikolski

Few do the visual better than the French. Art, fashion, cinema, cuisine; les Français know the meaning of presentation. Even when they smoke they look better than the rest of us. Yet ask a French publisher to design a book cover and invariably they pull out the ugly stick. Maybe it's their literary heritage: the words, Marcel, the words are all. Maybe their words are too sophisticated, too important, too weighty to render down with tawdry Photoshop tricks and the latest trend in type illegibility.

Maybe they could care less what the world thinks of their book design. They certainly don't care what we think of their preference in comedians. But there are exceptions.

One of which is Nikolski's original publisher: a feisty Quebec entity named Les Éditions Alto. Not only did Alto break the mold of the typical design-challenged French publishing house, they did it thrice. In its first editions, Nikolski came attractively wrapped in three different covers (see above), each featuring a variety of illustrated fish as taken from the journals of Admiral Perry's 1858 expedition to Japan. (Spoiler alert: fish are a predominant theme in Nikolski. Perry less so.)

To design Nikolski in English, I was only too ready to stand on Alto's broad creative shoulders. Unfortunately the English publisher was not in a position to consider three separate covers, so I simply picked the best-looking fish Alto had already used to such good effect. From there the only enhancement I could imagine was typographic. A suggestion of shop window perhaps. As if these charming swimmers were on display at one's local poissonière, and the reader would do as I had done: select the most appealing fish for their own literary supper.


I tried decorative type. I tried heft and shadow). I hummed and hawed with colour.

Finally everyone (author, author's agent, author's friends, editor, editor's associates, publisher, publisher's assistant, sales, publicity, marketing, shipping and receiving, custodial staff — publishing is nothing if not democratic vis-à-vis design decisions — settled on the cover to your right: appropriate shades of aqua and just enough shadow to hammer home the how-much-is-that-fishy-in-the-window effect. (I think we may have even voted on whether these were in fact the most qualified fish for the job.)


That was the hardcover. As for the paperback (taking a page from the Fall on Your Knees design book), we kept what worked best — said fish — and gave the cover a bit of a paperback "spin." In this case, horizontal. Throw in a few watery effects (wavy lines, flowing blurbs, etc.) and, as Monsieur Proust might have said, voilà.

An afterword: it is a rare thing when a Canadian cover design, French or English, makes its blushing way onto a foreign edition. Usually every country thinks its own designs are stunning and every other country's are hideous. Nikolski is just such a rarity. Its U.K. publisher features the same design as the Canadian paperback, the same fish as the French — though the U.K. edition does not carry the Canada Reads burst.

But if British television hosts Richard and Judy ever get back in the book club game, I know just where the sticker could go.


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