Designing a book cover comes with a lot of responsibility, says Udayakumar, who has designed nearly 2,000 book jackets

First is the ‘come-hither’ look as your hand reaches out just to feel...there is something about judging a book by its cover. Udayakumar T.R. agrees.

A book's face

He has been designing book covers for the last 28 years and has to his credit close to 2,000 book covers. He smiles at the suggestion that his work is the point of contact between author and reader. After all the cover is a book’s face and designing it comes with a certain degree of responsibility. He nods in agreement. He has designed covers for Malayalam books published by DC Books, Prabhat Book House, Current Books, Sahitya Pravarthaka Sahakarna Sangham, Sahitya Academy, Kerala Balasahitya Institute besides a number of other publishers in Kerala.

Some of the authors for whom he has designed book covers include iconic and well loved authors such as M.T. Vasudevan Nair, O.V. Vijayan, M. Mukundan, Sethu, C.V. Balakrishnan, Kakkanadan, Zachariah and Madhavikutty besides a number of others. He has also designed covers for works in translation.

Since he has been working for close to 30 years he has seen two distinct styles of working.

Currently publishers are re-packaging books with snazzy covers to woo new readers, occasionally misleading readers with the covers. He says there is no reason to. As far as re-packaging a book goes, in Kerala, it is about redoing the cover. Udayakumar says. “After the second or third edition of a book, a publisher might want a different cover design. I just pick up another aspect of the book and work on it.”

Designing a cover was different in the old days, “I used to sit at the publisher’s office and read manuscripts and then design the cover accordingly,” he says. The number of books being written and being published were few and hence he could afford the luxury of reading manuscripts. “These days I am sent a blurb about the book. Or authors tell me how they want their book cover…it is based on camaraderie built over years of working together.”

In this digital age book covers are designed differently. “Technology has made working easier but the individualistic stamp of the old days is lost. However differently you try to do things you can’t get that stamp. There is bound to be repetition of images as far as cover design goes.” Things changed in the last decade or so, he says. Before that each book cover was painstakingly worked on by hand as most were paintings, “even the titles were written by hand.”

Udayakumar, a native of Kottayam, is a product of Raja Ravi Varma College of Fine Arts, Mavelikara. He was studying art when he designed his first book cover for Rajamani’s Mazha Meghangal. He has met and interacted with some authors whose book covers he has designed and others, he says, might not be familiar with him. Authors such as O.V. Vijayan, Chemmanam Chacko, C. V. Balakrishnan have complimented him on his work. “O.V. Vijayan particularly liked my work for his Gurusaagaram.”

Is cover designing a thankless job that nobody notices? “It is not. People notice and readers have complimented me on my work. For instance the cover for K.B. Prasanna Kumar’s Malakalile Kattu Parayunnathu, a travelogue, earned me a lot of positive feedback.” Udayakumar is also the recipient of the NCERT National Award (for cover design and illustration in children’s literature) for Ponnum Thenum.

The remuneration is not much, Udayakumar avers. “The sales of books leave a lot to be desired and it does not make sense spending so much on cover design alone,” he justifies. The payment ranges from Rs. 1,000 – Rs. 1,500 per cover and for freelance work he says he can ask for Rs. 2,000 or even Rs. 3,000 ‘depending on the work.’ “When I started out I used to get Rs. 80 for a cover…” When he is not designing book covers, he paints and has conducted exhibitions too.