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Caught My Eye : Made You Look!

November 13, 1994|DAVID EHRENSTEIN

If you've spent any amount of time in a bookstore lately, you've probably done a doubletake over the cover of David Sedaris' "Barrel Fever." You know the one: two '50s-era, fedora-topped businessmen with their tongues sticking out. Guaranteed to stop even the most hurried of shoppers dead in their tracks, it's a devilishly clever purchase-inducement ploy.

"What is that?" the shopper's inner voice can't help but ask as his/her hand finds itself moving irresistibly to pick "Barrel Fever" off the shelf. And as any sales expert will tell you, getting that hand to move is half the battle--particularly with a book like this one. A collection of wackily irreverent, Donald Barthelme-style tales of the absurd, frequently featuring a gay sexual slant (the narrator of one story discusses his love affairs with actor Sylvester Stallone and boxer Mike Tyson), "Barrel Fever" isn't the sort of item likely to get much attention in today's competitive, nonfiction-powered marketplace. But how can you ignore a book that's sticking its' tongue out at you?

"The cover reflects the spirit of the stories themselves: completely wild," says Steve Snider, an art director at Little, Brown & Co. who designed the dust jacket and chose the photographs. Chose the photographs; because the tongue-wagging, white-collared duo weren't specially posed for this cover but culled from a book of stock photographs purchased by Little, Brown's art department.

Consisting of blandly generic images (landscapes, skylines, household items, office furnishings and models posed in scenes meant to typify activities in various settings) stock photographs are generally used for advertisements, calendars and reference books. More creative art directors have used stock images to create surrealistic collages of the sort found on some of the more elaborately appointed rock music album covers of the pre-CD era. Put a photo of smiling housewife holding a layer cake in front of a shot of an atomic explosion and voila --instant social comment. The "Barrel Fever" tongue boys, however, don't need to be juxtaposed with anything to create an effect.

Art direction, like everything else, responds to the whim of fashion, so there's no telling just how long the stock boom will last. But according to Snider there are always new worlds to conquer when it comes to book cover design.

"I think that spines are the next frontier. Often times the way books are displayed in stores the spines are all you can see. Take a look at the spines the next time you're in a store. We're just starting to think about how to use them. Spines are the future!"

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