May 15, 2017

Does Graywolf Press design book covers based on walls? (Or, where are all these walls in Minneapolis?)


Instagram can be a silly place. As I open it right now, its algorithm has picked something about #trampolines to recommend: a frat bro (shirtless, of course) and a girl, on a platform above a trampoline. He benchpresses her by the feet and then drops her onto the trampoline off the platform. She bounces back up into his hands in benchpress position. High fives follow, and then the video loops back to the beginning. Silly silly silly.

When Instagram launched in 2010, it was a simple photo-sharing platform, with built-in filters to make duck lips look extra pouty. Book publishers, wise to its potential for showing off sexy book covers, got on pretty quickly and started gramming all their favorite covers. Several picture setups grew to dominate the landscape: There’s the classic of holding-a-book-in-your-hand, aka“the natural.” There’s the book-on-a-bed-like-it-just-woke-up, aka “somehow this is about sex and stuff.” Or the hipster move of book-on-a-table-casually-with-coffee, aka “I’m awake and reading.”

Six-plus years later, it’s getting harder and harder to cut through the mess of celebrity beach shots, gym selfies, and food pics to get people to see and engage. Publishers have had to get creative. The really bold ones invest in a whole apparatus and human marketing machines. Chronicle Books, for one, has developed a brilliant way of using natural light and invested in a little insta studio. Book Bentoa division of Read it Forward, which is owned by Penguin Random House—curates every photo to look like a perfect, minimalist place-setting on a table, accessories and all — something that seems easy but is actually quite complicated to do well (trust me).

And while all of these advanced Insta publishers are wonderful, I have developed a great appreciation for something more simple. Walls and books.

The folks at Minneapolis’s Graywolf Press have a magical ability to find the PERFECT wall to match each of their book covers. For months now, I’ve followed them and been shocked and confused at how well their city matches the aesthetics of their books.

A post shared by Graywolf Press (@graywolfpress) on

I reached out to Karen Gu, who manages their Instagram account, to ask how she found all these walls

“I walk a lot, and I’m on a regular hunt for good walls and outdoor spots for the Instagram…

“In Minneapolis, there are a lot of fantastic murals as well as old brick and stone buildings that have beautiful faded or peeling paint. I also think that there are great walls in most places if you’re looking!

“Also, it’s such an Instagram thing to take selfies or portraits in front of walls, and I think it’s fun and playful to apply the same idea to photograph books at their ‘best angles.’ My favorite photos are the most unexpected ones. This photo of 300 ARGUMENTS was taken on the back of a construction truck on a really snowy sleety day in Minneapolis. I was having trouble finding the bright blue of the cover, and then it was right there, a spool of bright blue tubing on the back of truck.”

You, too, can go through Graywolf’s Instagram and be amazed at the walls and locations Karen finds for the books. They often match in a way that’s almost inexplicable, as if the book had been designed specifically to be paired with the wall. A few of my favorites are below; I can only hope they keep it up. There’s something beautifully innocent about a book with a city as backdrop, almost like someone could stroll along, pick it up, and have their life changed.

A post shared by Graywolf Press (@graywolfpress) on

A post shared by Graywolf Press (@graywolfpress) on

A post shared by Graywolf Press (@graywolfpress) on



Peter Clark is a former Melville House sales manager.