50 Books/50 Covers is back, better

[Tom Biederbeck] Through its long history, 50 Books/50 Covers and its predecessors have been the premier showcase for American book design. Now under the joint sponsorship of AIGA, Design Observer and Designers & Books, 50 Books/50 Covers continues to evolve…and the books are as visually appealing as ever. I asked William Drenttel, of Design Observer and Winterhouse, about the latest innovations and how they affected this year’s outcomes.

50 Books/50 Covers is sponsored by three entities. What does that offer?
We saw a potential to grow the show by increasing exposure to good book design across multiple sites, each with an existing audience: the AIGA Design Archives, the Designers & Books Archive, and the Design Observer Archive. If you’re a book designer entering this show, you know that if your book is chosen, it’s going to end up in three separate spaces. And all of us are committed to the winners living in permanent archives.

You made a number of changes to the process this year. What were they?
The first change we made was to define the books as not having to be American. Any book can be entered as long as it’s in English. As soon as you define the books as being in English—or at least partly in English, because a book could be bilingual and still be entered—you’ve moved beyond the American marketplace. This year we had winners from Asia, India, England…this expands the scope of the competition, and it increases value since it isn’t viewed as an in-ground competition of the New York publishing community. Of course we continue to have many New York publishers and their books involved.

A second change we made was not charging an entry fee.

You also added a 37-member advisory board. What was the intent?
It was to make sure we have leaders in the field who are viewing the competition [alongside] what they’ve seen in the course of the year. I think it’s interesting, for example, that one of the university press people nominated a really important winner in the fine printing space, but which had nothing to do with university publishing. We saw a number of instances where the advisors were reaching outside their areas of specialty.

Some advisors nominated quite a few books; others nominated only a few. But in general, the advisory board helped make sure the competition engendered significant numbers of nominations. By the time we opened it to the public, we already had base of nominated books.

That was the other change this year: opening the nomination process to the public. Anyone could nominate a book. You could nominate your own book; some did.

Did it affect results?
We haven’t done a post-mortem yet, but I do think we had more books nominated this year. So there were several factors going on: The advisory board was nominating books; we didn’t charge a fee; and we opened nominations to the public.

Can you remark on trends you saw this year?
From the very beginning, our intention was to reach beyond the traditional communities that have been involved in past shows. Having either chaired or been a judge before, my personal sense is that we saw a much larger range of books. Certainly, I felt I was seeing more catalog/art world books, and not just great novels with great covers.

A funny anecdote that I think says something about the times we’re living in: The cookbooks took on a whole new dimension. Michael [fellow judge Michael Bierut] and I kept saying, “Here’s another cookbook…for guys.” I don’t know what this means, but there seemed to be more books about how to barbecue, or how to butcher your own sheep. But I’m not calling this the trend of the year!

Other observations?
What gets lost sometimes is what it’s like to actually interact with all these great books—so exciting!

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