Montana Quarterly magazine is one of the true treasures of the state we live in. And we're not alone in counting ourselves lucky to have it. If not for the vision and gumption of longtime Montana journalist Scott McMillion, it would no longer be with us.
A few years ago, the Quarterly's previous operator, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, was poised to shutter the magazine in a cost-cutting move. McMillion, who'd been a senior writer with the Chronicle and a regular Quarterly contributor, stepped in with some investors and rescued it from the scrap heap, never missing an issue. In the summer of 2013, as Craig was preparing to leave daily newspaper work for a full-time writing and freelance career, he signed on with McMillion as the magazine's design director. He'd already been an occasional contributor of short stories, and he relished the chance to join the masthead.
They've been at it ever since.
Here, then, is Craig, with the rest of the story...
The reason the Quarterly cuts such a distinctive figure in Montana is that no other magazine in the state—and there are many—does exactly what it does. The magazine's central mission rests on two tent poles.
The first is that it produces deep, meaningful journalism about real life here, and it does so in a broad way—daring, inventive writing; stunning photography; a beneath-the-surface approach to storytelling where it doesn't so much tell you the what of the news but the why. Your daily newspaper can tell you something happened. The Quarterly will dedicate the space and the resources to explaining it.
Second, the Quarterly takes seriously its place in the arts and letters of the state. Every issue includes an author profile and a short story. Some include poems. Artists well-known and obscure are profiled. Every serious bookstore in the state sells the Quarterly, because the magazine means something vital to those stores' customers. And McMillion invests in the coming generation of writers through offering annual Big Snowy Prizes in nonfiction and fiction, work by young Montanans that gets the star treatment in the magazine every summer.
Here's a selection of page spreads from past issues of the magazine. Note how the presentation of the magazine is driven by the words and the images, as any well-designed publication should be. We endeavor for a clean, quiet look, one where there are no look-at-me design flourishes, because they're not necessary. The work of Montana's finest writers, photographers, and artists does all the talking.
Another reason for the success of the Quarterly, I think, is that McMillion is committed to continually putting out a superior product in print even as the world of daily journalism increasingly shifts to online. He has avoided the great conundrum of the daily newspaper, where most of the money is made in print (although less and less every quarter) while most of the readership gains are online. The Quarterly, not tethered to that daily reality, preserves itself as an experience best left to the tactile pleasures of reading on paper. And unlike the daily newspaper, which is fodder for recycling every 24 hours, research shows that the Quarterly's readers keep the issues long after they come out, returning again and again to the top-notch writing and the arresting photography. That's good news for us at the magazine, and good news for our advertisers, who can see the benefits of their ad buy paying off for months or years after the fact.
Working on the Quarterly—now 15 issues and counting for me—has been a singular joy in my professional career. It brings together a place I love and work I'm passionate about doing, all under the auspices of a magazine that I believe in. Every quarter, as I hunker down on another issue, I think I must be the luckiest guy around, getting to work with the best writers, thinkers, and artists my state has to offer.
You know what? I'm right.
Got a favorite magazine? Tell us all about it in the comments section.
Are you a Montanan, or a Montanan at heart? Consider subscribing to Montana Quarterly. You'll love it.
Welcome to the first in an occasional series of posts where we'll look at the elements of effective print design. Our first guinea pig, conveniently, is the next book we'll be releasing through our Missouri Breaks Press imprint: Julep Street, Craig's seventh novel. So, without further ado, here it is:
Julep Street will be released on May 9. And while there are certain creative advantages to an author doing his own design work, settling on a presentation for this book did not come without challenges. For one thing, it's an intensely interior work of fiction; most of the struggles of the protagonist, laid-off newspaper editor Carson McCullough, are against his own sense of regret, loss, and mortality. While there's no shortage of action, most of the physicality is born of Carson's interior degradation. And that can be a difficult theme to capture in any sort of overt way.
When we found this luminous photo of a bridge by Greg Kushmerek, we knew we had a winner. It's almost the perfect image for a book cover, with light and dark to provide contrast with the type. It's alluring (god, that lighting on the undercarriage of the bridge). Thematically, it's a strong fit, too. The bridge in the unnamed, fictitious Kentucky town where Carson lives has literal and metaphorical resonance in his life and in his story. It's the way out that he never took. It's also the vantage point for all the perspective he never appreciated.
For any book that's going to be sold in bookstores and online--and that's pretty much any book—cover creation comes with some built-in practical considerations. The design has to be eye-grabbing enough to demand attention at full size and color. And it has to communicate quickly in an online world where it appears at thumbnail size and often in black-and-white.
Let's see how the Julep Street cover stacks up in the latter environment:
OK, so in black-and-white, it's a dark cover (hard not to be when the image is a nighttime shot). But it's leavened considerably by the lighter movement of the bridge and by the white typography that still pops hard off the image. While nothing beats the gorgeous lighting and contrast of the full-color image, the black-and-white thumbnail version serves its main purpose: to stop a potential reader and say, "Hey, take a closer look at me."
Let's talk a bit about typography
In designing a book cover, the font the designer chooses, the size at which it's rendered, the color, the treatment (lowercase, small caps, all capital letters, whatever) all communicate something about what's on the pages inside.
For Julep Street, we wanted simplicity and elegance. It's a work of commercial fiction, but with a literary bent, so we chose a font (Bodoni Book, one of Craig's favorites) that is clean and well-weighted, that has an elegant italic option (see the lovely endorsement by Louise Beech), and doesn't lose its attractiveness at a larger size.
For a book with a different tone, a different font choice would have been in order. Consider how the combination of typography and imagery helps sell these books, all from different genres and all by authors we greatly admire:
Notice how everything works together to convey a strong sense of what's inside, whether it's romance, adventure, danger, the seamy underbelly of the city, or the poetry of the physical world. The B.J. Daniels book, for instance, is upfront in its intention to court readers of romance: Here's a strapping young cowboy who'd be fun in the sack (hey, why be coy?). Contrast that with the cover for Allen Morris Jones's A Bloom of Bones, a literary novel of quiet lyricism. All five of these covers are effective ambassadors for the work within.
We'd like to think we achieved the same objective with Julep Street: that if you pick up this book, you're going to bear witness to a work that is, in the words of Louise Beech, "full of gorgeous shade and light."
What's your favorite book cover, and why did it resonate with you? Tell us about it in the comments.
Do you have a design project that needs to communicate clearly with its audience? Contact us today. We'd love to work with you.
Here’s the deal: we love stories.
Between the two of us, we’ve been full-time storytellers for most of our lives, albeit in different capacities. Craig’s job was to tell a news story. Elisa’s job was to help students tell their own stories, be it in the form of a case study, a research proposal, or a personal essay. Then, around the same time, we both became full-time novelists.
As authors, we write novels with dynamic characters, dialogue you can eavesdrop on, and places you can reach out and touch. As readers, we feel most at home in bookstores and libraries, houses with a bookcase in every room and a book on every table. As humans, we dig movies and television shows and documentaries and plays and live music concerts, each one a story in one medium or another.
We are a storytelling couple. But we are also part of a storytelling culture.
Here’s the other deal: being an author, like so many other artistic endeavors, is a feast-or-famine business. The markets and trends change. If you’re lucky enough to make it to the top, it’s often difficult to stay there.
We wanted something to tide us over in anticipation of the lean times. But it couldn’t just be, you know, a job. The kind that keeps 9-to-5 hours and has bosses and two weeks’ vacation and requires a parking pass. (Cue Jerry Seinfeld: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that…”) When you’ve been out of that bubble for a long time, it’s hard to get back in. More important, we both feel strongly that work isn’t just something we do. It has to speak to a central part of who we are.
So we took inventory and assessed what we do well:
We’re good writers.
We’re good editors.
He’s a good designer.
She's a good teacher.
We’re good collaborators.
Our skills complemented each other. Moreover, what we do best are also the things we enjoy the most.
And we’re good at being together.
And so we realized that we wanted to help others tell their stories. Together.
Whether you are an author who needs help making your story—and your book—the best it can be, own a business that wants to better connect with its customers, or work for an organization that wants its members to better connect with each other, we can serve you.
We're in the business of telling stories, across a wide range of media. Here's how we do what we do.