“Well, you can’t make a living doing jackets, you know.” Over 5,000 book jackets later, Paul Bacon is one of the most prominent book design artists of his generation. He sat down with us to discuss all things design.
When do you think was the best time for books?
I think the glory days of publishing, as far as I’m concerned, were the 50s, 60s, maybe 70s. A lot of those books would not be published today. I guarantee it. I don’t think The Invisible Man, I think he’d have a hard job selling that to a publisher. Gatsby? What is it? Rich people are not very nice? You call that a book?
Were you a big reader before you started designing dust jackets?
Yeah, I’ve always been. In fact, somebody told me I was reading when I was four.
Did designing dust jackets change the way you read a book?
To some extent, yeah. But I always read the novels because I found… I think a lot of the guys in my trade would have said the same thing, that regardless of the quality of the house, and the brilliance of the editors, nobody can really tell you how you should do it. Fortunately, nobody ever said, “This is how we see it, Paul.” Thank God.
Does the author have any input in book design or do publishers come up with the cover? *Question submitted by a fan on Twitter*
Somebody of real status, like Heller, would be like a tiger. His attitude was, “I don’t do that. You do that.” I’ve got it written down somewhere that somebody asked him about me and he said, “I like him because Anna Schutzman likes him.” That’s good enough. But the publishers always try to keep us from knowing too many writers. They are right because in the middle of the night there bound to be, the phone would ring and it would be, “Hey listen. This is a suggestion. This is what you want to try to do… You got to get a Studebaker and have it…”
Did you get to meet most of the authors you designed book covers for?
I met very few. I met Mailer once, and I had a funny bit about Mailer’s girlfriend’s picture. I was working on a jacket for An American Dream and I got a call from the publisher saying, “Would you be willing to do a favor for us?” I thought, I don’t see why not? I said, “What is it?” They said, “Do you know Norman Mailer?” I said I never met him. “He would like to talk to you and I’m going to give you his phone number.” I was fascinated by Mailer, a remarkable guy. I called him. At first it was really weird, “Mr. Mailer,” “Mr. Bacon,” then finally he said, “Come on, this is what this is all about. I love the jacket, everybody likes it, but how would you feel about adding something to it?” I said that that would depend on what I was adding to it. He said, “I don’t care if it’s about the size of a small postage stamp, that’s my girlfriend in that photograph.” As it turns out it didn’t do it a bit of harm, it is meant to be partly inexplicable, so was the rest of it.
How did you do the color blending on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?
That’s the only one I ever did like that. I had some sheets of theatrical gel that they put in the big league lights. I had a whole bunch of them, I’d forgotten why. If you got one started, and you did this, it would make these, completely jagged, no smooth. All of those were just torn. Because it’s three colors, it’s pinky red, yellow. It’s all overprints. I made the thing out, but I think I must have made a notation to the printer that these were to be mine, dropped out. This color came for solid red and solid green, that’s it. That’s one of my favorite jackets, by the way. I love the damn book. It seems to be right. A little bit insane.
Between Meals by A.J. Liebling. That’s my actual favorite jacket, I think. I think it it was not so easy to do. It seems to me, just exactly right.
Garamond Italic. But the best one ever designed is Bodoni.
Favorite instrument to use when designing?
Tissue and pencil. Then later on, ink. A lot of ink. Then Winsor and Newton Designers colors. They came in jars. They may still be for all I know. I haven’t used them in quite a while. There were certain things that were de rigueur at that time. Winsor and Newton brushes, by far the best. Their colors were terrific, too.