The trio spearheading the revival of book cover designs
The Business Standard recently caught up with three book cover designers to learn their insight into the niche sector, current pay rates and what gives them an edge in this business
"Don't judge a book by its cover," said wise men of the past. However, much of the world now prioritises looks and tends to judge others by their outlook, throwing the old adage out the window.
And when it comes to books, we are also seeing a shift. Throughout the world, publishers are giving more priority to the production of books so that the product is more visually aesthetic. In effect, this sector is coming to the fore while book covers are garnering much more attention than before.
Even in a book industry as small as Bangladesh's, vibrant book covers are creating a buzz among the bookworms of the country. So much so that the top cover designers are being celebrated as majestically as the writers, and their names are also proving sufficient on occasions to sell certain books like hotcakes.
Three such young cover designers, who have made it big in the book industry within a very short time and inspired others to stroll down the same route are Sultan Azam Sazal, Riajul Islam Xulian and Adnan Ahmed Rizon.
The Business Standard recently caught up with the talented trio to learn their insight into the once-neglected sector which is now booming beautifully.
While they presented an unambiguous picture of the cover designing sector of Bangladesh, revealing their current pay rates and non-acquisitions, they also held onto the belief of their creative value remaining intact and strong against the threats of artificial intelligence snatching away human jobs.
How book covers escalate a book's reputation
"I wouldn't go much back. Even five to seven years back, online reviewers wouldn't discuss the quality of book covers too prominently. Hence, publishers too wouldn't pay much heed to this," said Sazal, one of the torchbearers of a new generation of cover designers.
"But now the scenario is completely different. Names of cover designers can be utilised as an important market tool to create a positive impression about a book in readers' minds," he added.
Indeed so. Nowadays, whenever a book is at the centre stage of discussion in an online thread, not only its inside content but the cover design is also touched upon.
"I won't say my covers directly impact a book's sale," Rizon opined in a more reserved manner. "But the thing is, my name associated with a book definitely provides the readers with a strong message. I or other top designers of our time wouldn't take the cover designing job of a book if it did not maintain a certain quality."
To Xulian, the visual pleasure potential buyers can derive from an attractive book cover can make a lot of difference.
"Gone are the days when people would buy a book simply for the sake of reading a story. Now they have so many options to choose from, and innumerable sources to meet their reading appetite. So, for many, only books with eye-catching cover designs, illustrations and overall top-notch production can qualify as worthy of a collectable," Xulian chipped in.
No time to die
As the Amar Ekushey Book Fair is up and running in full swing, cover designers are currently going through their busiest times of the year – this is when they hardly have time to breathe.
Both Sazal and Xulian are planning to keep working on book covers till the last day of February. However, Rizon has made a public announcement on his Facebook account that he wouldn't do any more covers for the fair after 31 January. But he has already put off the timeline for another week, which might get extended further beyond.
Overall, Sazal and Xulian so far have 250 book covers to their credits, while Rizon claimed he worked on roughly 500 book covers across hard and soft copies.
This is rather extraordinary, given the fact that none of them has been around the publishing business for more than six years. It gives us an idea of how rapidly they are all accelerating in this field.
Is it worth it?
Are such hard work and continuous effort really worth it? The answer, presumably, is already known to everybody. "Ours is an industry where even writers can not make a living writing only. Most of them have other professions. The same applies to us, cover designers," said Sazal. And according to Xulian, "Apart from one Dhruba Esh, no one can make a living designing book covers only."
From each of their cover designs, Sazal and Xulian on average earn Tk3,000. So, apart from cover designing, they cannot help but to resort to other jobs or roles.
Sazal has completely dedicated his life to the book industry. His main income sources are the bookshop named Bibidh and the publication house Bhumi Prokash, both of which are co-founded by him.
Xulian, on the other hand, is a freelancer. He does graphic design as an online freelancer to make a living, apart from preparing himself for "a brighter future."
Meanwhile, Rizon works almost twice as much as a Sazal or a Xulian, but he takes Tk2,000-2,500 in exchange.
But there is a catch. He is currently working as an Executive of Product and Service Support at E B Solutions Limited, and he designs ebook covers for the company's sister concern, Boighor, a paid ebook app.
"This way, I have been able to turn my hobby into my profession," Rizon put in.
Respect and acknowledgement
"Maybe we do not yet earn as hefty as others, because our book industry is not very broad as of yet," said Xulian. "But the respect and acknowledgement we receive from book readers are remarkable."
Then he also added, "Plus, we have been able to establish our own signature styles as well. For example, regular followers now know that my covers are mostly vintage, gothic or retro. Again, Sazal bhai has made a name for himself with his elemental work."
For Rizon, such respect and acknowledgement were everything he sought to make a point to himself when he was just beginning as a cover designer. "When I finished my first translation of James Rollins' The Last Oracle, I designed a cover of it and shared it online. While some appreciated my effort, many started poking fun at me.
"It was a turning point for me. I also began taking cover designing seriously, because deep inside I felt the urge to perfect my art and prove something to none but myself. Now I can proudly say that I have worked with almost all the big publishing houses of Bangla Bazar," said Rizon.
The advantage of being writer
Aside from cover design, another identity can put Sazal, Xulian and Rizon on the same page, and that is writing.
Xulian is the author of one of the lengthiest fantasy novels in Bangla, Ashiyani. Sazal too has several original novels, while Rizon has over 20 translations to his resume.
It is beyond doubt that authorship also contributed to the trio's becoming some of the best players in their field.
"It is not always possible to go through an entire manuscript before designing its cover. So, I sometimes ask the author to share the key elements of the book with me. Based on those keywords, I create the covers. And then they are like, 'how is it so accurate?'" said Xulian.
"Actually, it helps big time when you are also a writer. Imagination runs riot inside a creative person's mind, and more so when he too is a storyteller," he explained.
Sazal also shared the same sentiment, "Making a cover is like recreating a whole universe on just one page. When the cover designer is a writer himself, he gets some upper hand in this process."
Can AI pose a threat?
Just like cover designers, AI apps like Midjourney are also capable of creating visual universes based on a few inputs. So, is AI poised to take away the cover designer's job?
"I always believe in the creative hierarchy. If the hierarchy is somehow dismantled, there is bound to be chaos," said Xulian, adding, "Having said that, the human touch will always be very special. No matter how accurate AI's outputs can be, they can not surpass a human being's creativity. So, I am not afraid of AI taking away our jobs. Rather, we can utilise AI to our benefit. But in the end, human ideas will be all that really matter."
Rizon was also open to taking AI's assistance. "In fact, I have already taken AI's help in the recent past. Getting an output with the help of AI and then modifying it can surely deliver us better artwork," he said.
And so, in spite of the sector not yet reaching its full potential and already being faced with the challenges set up by AI, Sazal was quite optimistic about the future of cover design in the country.
"We are just getting started. We have huge potential, which will be materialised in the coming years. I don't see the phenomenon slowing down anytime soon," concluded Sazal.