Finding the Golden Nugget – The Signal and the Noise, Nate Silver

Nate Silver has precipitated the biggest shift to American politics since Donald Rumsfeld spelt out the difference between known knows and unknown knowns.  His statistical analysis of the us elections, broadcast to the world via his New York Times-backed blog, challenged the received wisdom of dozens of talking heads, whose gut feelings turned out to be little more than indigestion and indignation at how un-close the polls actually were.

Silver’s book, The Signal and the Noise, was published long before Election Day.  In it he brings his statistical and mathematical procedure to bear on numerous subjects, from baseball to hurricanes, and begins to lay out just how you can find the statistical ‘certainties’ among the background noise of screaming opinions and partisan (and even non-partisan, well meaning) bluster.

SigNoiUK                                                  SigNoiUS

UK Hardback                                                                             US Hardback

(Allen Lane)                                                                               (Penguin Press)

Both editions were published in February, to laudatory reviews in America.  Once the election ended so decisively, UK reviewers rediscovered the book among their proofs and have made it a publishing phenomenon over here as well.  The Americans -Penguin (US) Press, specifically- covered the book with a slightly sickly yellow cover, a colour sure to stand out, except for all the other outlandish colours in a typical bookshop.  It seems to me, at least, that cover design should always focus on transmitting the book itself. So many books are trying to stand out with bright colour seems that… Well, the ‘look at me’ scream of bright yellow is drowned out by the blues, yellows, reds and pinks of the other books surrounding it on the shelf. The ‘Signal’ is truly drowned out by the ‘Noise’.

The book’s cover does little, to my mind, to convey its exceptional contents.  The subtitle is writ large, in the centre of the image, so at least that explains the content, and given that the book was published before Silver rose to international prominence as an analyst, this is sensible, making sure the casual browser recognised the subject.  But the cover speaks little else to the prospective reader.  The vaguely electronic script suggests a scoreboard or even a line of code, while the dark yellow repetition of the title directly references the idea of finding important information (signal, title, subtitle, author) among the noise of the background.  It works, but to my mind may have been too ‘high-concept’ before his ascension to become a household name.

Now, the UK cover, published by Penguin (UK) imprint Allen Lane (in this blog, I expect to return to Allen Lane A LOT. Their covers over the last few years had become, to my mind, the leaders in the publishing world), is far superior.  Refined, and actually very well-placed to capitalise on the authors new-found fame.  A simple, white cover lists the author, title and subtitle.

The image below the words is simple and evocative.  Nothing more than a brand new, sparkling clean prospectors sieve, with a little nugget of gold sitting in it.  Unsubtle the analogy may be, the design makes for a classy, clean-looking book, and given Silver’s reputation as a man who brings order to chaos, nothing could be more appropriate.

For me second blog entry, I’m going to have to call this one for the UK edition… let’s see how the paperbacks come out!

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Welcome to the Great Anglo-American Cover-Up!

So, after a recent sojourn to the colonies (where I was born, so I ought not be too disparaging), and a trudge around some of Boston’s finest Barnes and Nobles, I got to thinking about the covers that publishers on either side of the Atlantic put on the same book.  I’m hardly the first to notice the massive difference between jacket design between the two countries, the result of different publishers buying the rights to the same work, and/or the differing sensibilities of the intended audiences.

Book-watchers such as The Millions who have been compiling an annual comparison (usually of titles of American Origin) for the last several years. But other than the occasional blog entry or newspaper column (often aimed, for some reason, at the YA demographic), no one else seems to be trying to catalogue the differences.  Well, time to change that.

The Guardian’s recent dissection of book design got me thinking, though it shows how steep a learning curve I may have in front of me in order to understand the terminology of good book cover design.

So, I may as well begin this blog as I mean to go on. A couple of pictures, a quick review, and a whinge about how shit one of the covers is compared to the other.  Simple structure, no?

Obviously, I will have bias.  I’ve worked with UK books for 5 years, and in general I feel the design here to be superior (with glaring exceptions).  The quality of the book itself, however, varies significantly in the UK, while US books generally tend to be better made (better paper, stitching more often, and except for mass-market rubbish, better glue when stitching isn’t an option).  I’ll try to tone down the bias.  But whatever.  MY blog.

So, here we go.  Why not start with a cross-atlantic favourite, Bill Bryson?  His latest, At Home, chronicles the history of domesticity one room in the house at a time, from the garden to the kitchen and the hall.  He runs through ancient Rome, via the Crystal Palace and through to the pile of 50,000 corpses that make up the local churchyard in his quiet village.

The Guardian loved it,

and so did the New York Times.

But what matters is how they tried to sell it to the public!

billbrysonathomeUKHB                              billbrysonathomeus

UK Hardback                                                      US Hardback/Paperback

(Doubleday)                                                       (Doubleday)


UK Paperback

(Black Swan)

So, the UK hardback (which is very much in keeping with the way Doubleday/Black Swan have been designing Bryson’s jackets for the last few years) knows, as the US one does, that Bill Bryson’s name is currently more important than the subject he’s writing on, so it’s there, it’s big, and it’s at the top.  Bryson is such a well-known figure that some years ago the Penguin Dictionary of Troublesome Words, which he published way back in 1983, before he was known for his travel writing, was renamed Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words.

The UK covers (which, unsurprisingly, I prefer), are a bit less brash than the bright red US one (which also commits the biggest sin in book design to my mind – the paperback edition I saw was GLOSSY!), and attempt more to tell the reader about the book.  The hardback suggests directly the home, forming an image of detached rural bliss out of an iron and a pile of laundry, hinting at the history of domesticity that lies within.

The paperback is less subtle.  While also placed in front of an interior wall, the four walls of a house burst with elements of the stories that lie within the pages, recounting the history of the house from the inside out.  Relatively simple concept,  enjoyable design, plenty of room for bloody quotes and accolades.

The US cover, first and foremost, reminds me of the UK cover of Wolf Hall, which I’ve been staring at in my line of work for months – at least the paperback isn’t red!  Beyond that, it just doesn;t say much about the book.  Perhaps it’s too high-concept for me – ‘you must open this book to unlock it’s secrets’, but to me, it could as easily read ‘James Patterson – At Home‘, and have been a Panic Roomstyle thrill ride.  Plus, did I mention, the paperback was GLOSSY!?

So, post 1.  1-0 to the UK (Not decided whether to keep score yet – it’s probably unfair given my bias)

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