Pinch's long relationship with Hawthorne Books shows the primacy of patience and good communication – at any scale of endeavor.
Hawthorne Books came to life in March 2001, when a lively print broker named Rhonda Hughes met Kate Sage, a successful NY literary agent, and the two decided it would be cool to start a publishing company. Hughes had grown up surrounded by books, even tells stories about "how the covers felt," and wanted to make some of her own. Sage knew writers and how to deal with them. The two understood the venture would be a challenge – they quip "the best way to make a small fortune in publishing is to start with a big one" – but they pressed on.
Pinch's association with Hawthorne began because partner Adam McIsaac liked books and was interested in the design of text. "Modern books are ambivalent, at best, about their readers," he says. "They don't help you read." Pinch first went to see Hughes and Sage to help with their new company's identity. But he also wanted Pinch to do overall book forming. So, he tendered a lowish design quote and said, "Think about it." They accepted.
The ID project moved apace; eventually several treatments emerged, including one Pinch favored, which used the thorn of the Hawthorne tree as a drawing module from which a new tree was constructed (see fig. 1). When he presented these options to Hughes and Sage, though, they were non-plussed.
Fig. 1. Development drawings for Hawthorne Books' device, including the so-called "thorn tree" (below). The device above left was later repurposed for use on Hawthorne's Rediscovery series. FInal device is at right.
Hughes recalls the exchange. "When Pinch came back with logo ideas, they showed us a full-on thorn bush," she says. "Gothic, very dark and scary. Kate understood the image and the rationale, but she and I looked at each other and knew it didn't fit Hawthorne at that point in our company's life. Pinch loved it, though, which gave us pause. We yet had to learn how to communicate with each other, and unfortunately that was our first at bat, so we sent them a long email. Well, Adam phoned us right back saying, 'You don't like something, just call me. No emails. We talk.' There was a bit of tension. But after we talked and calmed each other, Pinch brought us another version, showing a spray of Hawthorne berries. We loved it, went "Ah, there you go," and the sailing smoothed."
In retrospect, McIsaac feels like he almost forced Pinch's way into Hawthorne. But he did know the publishing market and offered value to the partners. He also had ideas. "When we came in," Adam says, "Hawthorne's competition had a small press appearance and ethic, which is fine. But we thought Hawthorne's books should compete not with other small presses, but with the bigger houses."
Initially, to save page count – and money – Pinch compressed all non-text items: front matter – pages that announce the title, offer the dedication, give publisher information, and so forth; and chapter transitions (fig. 2). One author resisted, but as the approach was refined and came to center on reader experience, it began to make sense. "The idea was to keep the page count down, but not at the cost of reader experience," McIsaac says. "We sweated every line to make sure color was even, painstakingly worked out what white space we had available to keep sparkle on the page so that the reader wouldn't tire."
Fig. 2. Text standards for early Hawthorne titles, showing compression techniques described above. Text is Poe Ballantine's God Clobbers Us All.
Subsequently, production budgets have eased somewhat, and more recent Hawthorne titles sport an unusual asymmetrical layout, with the text set ragged right "to keep word spacing even," McIsaac says (fig. 3). "Full justification is a convenience to the publisher, as it allows a longer text to fit a smaller space. But that does the reader no particular favors."
Fig. 3. Recent typographic standards, showing asymmetrical layout and ragged-right setting. Text is Toby Olson's Seaview.
Since then, Pinch has executed all new Hawthorne editions with this easily recognizable, reader-oriented personality. "The fact remains, however," McIsaac adds, "a small house can't outshout the big ones; it has to offer a different benefit. So we make Hawthorne's books really worth the money people pay – more engaging, durable and mechanically sound than many of their richer cousins, with a calmness and interest in detail that's more like a casebound offering."
The proof of this pudding is in Hawthorne's cover designs. (fig. 7) Pinch feels, though a cover should compel a buyer to pick the book up, it also should serve as a meditative frame for the reading experience – something to look at and think about before one reads, and again before the book is put away. "We're not interested on one-liners," McIsaac says. "We want the book to sell, of course, so we want people to pick it up. But we pay as much attention to the spine and back cover and flaps (fig. 6), so that once picked up, the book is difficult to put down. With this approach, maybe the covers carry narrative content of their own, suggesting different ways to look at the stories."
According to Hughes, Hawthorne's approach is working. "Every time we attend a trade show, people pick up our books and comment," she says. "They like the finish, the tactile feel, and they always want to know who the designer is." She also points out the double scoring on the cover of Madison House, a recent title. "The book not only seems more substantial, but the reader can also use the flap as a bookmark. We got the idea from D&K's Eyewitness Guides."
Sage and Hughes each manage and edit one book per season, and since there are three seasons, that amounts to a total of 4–6 per year. There are expansion plans, though; the goal is to add another editor and run the total up to 8–12. "We both search for writers," Sage says. "Right now, the hunt's on for women because in our current catalog, women are 1 of 10."
And they can come from anywhere. Once, waiting in a hair salon, Hughes saw contest-winning essay texts in a copy of Glamour. "I read through a few and they weren't bad, so I contacted each author and asked if they wanted to submit work," she says. "You never know." Hawthorne has been garnering attention in the media, too, evidenced by a recent company portrait in Poets & Writers. "The higher profile makes us more visible, and more people contact us," Hughes adds.
One arrival that caused a stir was PEN/Faulkner laureate Richard Wiley. He had been with Knopf, but disagreed with that publisher on a reprinting deal. "Signing Richard Wiley was a coup," Kate says. "Everybody here, including Pinch, charmed him. We bought the rights for the reprinting of Soldiers in Hiding (the PEN/Faulkner winner), and we'll get a chance to bid on his next novel as well. And that's not all. Wole Soyinka, the 1986 Nobel prizewinner in literature, may follow Richard here."
Anybody who has followed Pinch's work knows they are typographers first. McIsaac regards typography as discipline distinct from design, with its own objectives of analyzing, measuring and arranging content on a page to enhance information flow. What it looks like is secondary.
This attitude was cemented in McIsaac during a session at the Basel School of Design in summer 2005. There, studying with Wolfgang Weingart, a lion of post-WWII Swiss typography, he learned to work again with simple tools: paper, scissors, tape, exploring forms quickly and thoroughly before turning to the computer. A simple lesson, but profound: "We've been working with computers for twenty years now, and have gotten used to a project looking 'finished' long before it actually is. Working simply, we can look at a problem from a number of different angles without getting distracted by details. Those come later." Hawthorne's books – and other Pinch projects – are now designed using this process.
"The post-Basel typography (fig. 3 above) looks denser, more stern and masculine," Hughes says. "It has more literary heft. When he first showed it to us, there wasn't any rocket; it took us a while to digest. But now, we like it. It's right for books out in the world. The soul of the text is what Pinch looks for, and when they find it, it informs everything. It goes into their office, and it comes out a book; the process is amazing."
McIsaac and partner Eric Hillerns are voracious readers; they know about the books they design. Sometimes that results in close connections with authors. Richard Wiley, for instance, talking about Pinch's cover for Soldiers in Hiding (fig. 7), said, "I love that cover. It's darker and more evocative of the book's heart than I expected." From Wiley, who's had many people work on his books, that's a compliment.
"Most of the time the author's vision for a cover doesn't match what they get from designers," Hughes says. "Authors often don't like their covers. But D'Arcy Fallon approved hers right off the bat. Poe Ballantine is a fan. And now Richard Wiley, who's seen so many variations, loves his."
"That's because we're readers first. We read the books through – have to, because we're setting the text as well," McIsaac rejoins. "Others may just use a synopsis."
In any relationship, there are defining moments, and such is the case with Hawthorne and Pinch. Here are four:
Just take it. It was the winter of 2003, and Hughes and Sage were to attend a distributor's meet in Minneapolis. A catalog of Hawthorne offerings was required and had to look terrific. Pinch saw the need and built a one-off, 16-page piece, photographed a hawthorne tree in the arboretum for the cover, printed the book on the office plotter, and handed it to the partners, saying "Merry Christmas and bon voyage." (fig. 9) No charge. Hawthorne won the deal and stayed with that distributor for two years before switching to Publishers Group West, one of the largest in the country.
Pinch, please. "Adam's funny," Hughes says. He has sayings, like 'You look fetching,' or 'have a snort' when he wants a sip of scotch. Once, Kate and I thought, 'If he likes this Pinch scotch, we'll get him a $100 bottle of single malt – this was for Christmas last year – because he's been doing a great job. We felt it was a fabulous gift and he was going to be so happy. But he opens the package, looks and goes 'Oh, thanks ladies.' We say, 'Whaddya mean, thanks ladies?' That's the best scotch available and we're not scotch drinkers; we had to do research!'"
This may be emotional. "In our relationship so far," Kate relates, "Pinch has allowed me to express my true self – as a woman, a businessperson, a creative – and at the same time allowed me to show an extraordinary level of vulnerability. Because of ways he is, things he says, I've been more able to be my authentic self. And this extends into the rest of my life; it's an abiding value. I consider him a true and good friend I would turn to if I had need, in business or otherwise. He's also very good at what he does professionally. And both of these qualities coexist in our business relationship without one overtaking the other. That's so rare. And here's an image – these Pinch guys, who are so professional and impeccable, without second thought, grin and wave at me unashamedly when we meet on the street."
Rate increase? Pinch had been going on for years, charging the same rate for book covers and text. Sage and Hughes knew the work was worth more, so one day they told McIsaac they were expanding the budget. "We had to tell him," Rhonda says. "Left up to him, he'd probably not have touched it."
It's been more than six years since the Hawthorne / Pinch relationship began, and communications have become more natural. And more multi-dimensional – work and life are not so separate, which may explain Pinch's ability to understand author intent with covers.
"In terms of communicating," Sage says, "I'm the one who usually deals with Pinch when we have a design request or change, after Rhonda and I have discussed the issue and come to a position. I'm reflective and give his expertise room and sovereignty, but I'm not above asking for things, believe me; we dicker. Rhonda, on the other hand, is very intuitive and strong. And quick. She shepherds the schedules and business for Hawthorne, and she's terrific at it. So, if we're dealing there, Rhonda is the one on stage."
Both Sage and Hughes feel all of this starting to gel into a community. "And this is a thing we hope for from our work – building relationships as well as a bank account," they say. We've found we can have real, multi-dimensional relationships…and still create good interesting work that people are drawn to, feels true and real to us, and runs for more reasons than just business savvy. Pinch, our editors, our writers all put together these books as a group. This is a boon, and Pinch has helped make that clear. We can't ask for more."
Hawthorne Books are available at your bookseller or direct from the publisher (hawthornebooks.com) for a significant discount. You can see more of the work Pinch has done for Hawthorne here, here, and here.