Books by their Cover

You can’t open Facebook these days without seeing a profile picture superimposed with a French flag. A year ago, profile pictures had multicolored hues in support of equal marriage rights or gay marriage. At various times of year, social media profiles sport pink for breast cancer, mustaches for prostate cancer, or various other regular designs to demonstrate solidarity or sympathy with this or that cause. Invariably, there are columns that comment or complain about a particular practice, the uncritical and uncomplicated adoption of potentially fraught symbols, and the deleterious effects of “slacktivism.” Most worry that a changed profile picture will substitute for political or social action and superficial expressions of sympathy, solidarity, or awareness will replace genuine engagement with issues. These concerns are so pervasive that they constitute part of the discourse of representation on social media and are in no ways less hackneyed or superficial than the practice that they critique. 

Personal branding on social media is no less complicated than personal branding in any medium and criticizing its simplicity is, in itself, a failure to understand the complications associated with branding and interpretation of branding across various media in our image rich society. My November mustache might be ironic, it might show I’m participating in “Movember,” or it might be that I genuinely like how I look with a mustached lip. Or it might be all these things. Most of us recognize the ambiguities present in these simple personal branding exercises (and even relish the potential for an un-ironic mustache!) and even appreciate the earnestness of people’s efforts to celebrate a cause, negotiate the political landscape, or just to show preference for one brand over another.

When it comes to branding a larger enterprise, we are less tolerant of this kind of ambiguity. I’m waist deep in type-setting a new book from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota right and beginning to think a bit about cover designs. I’ve been fortunate that my collaborators on this project have offered images and designs for the cover and these designs are all visually arresting. The book is titled The Bakken Goes Boom and it should appear early next year, but the cover design project represents another chapter in the larger Branding the Bakken project. From Alec Soth’s black-and-white images of the oil smeared worker to Sarah Christianson’s The Skogens’ bedroom window, images have dominated our apprehension of the Bakken boom. It is hardly surprising that my own work documenting workforce housing in the Bakken has generated over ten thousand of photographs and videos. 

The image-driven nature of our engagement with the Bakken means that selecting the cover of the first book-length academic study of the Bakken boom takes on particular significance. Each cover represents a different aspect of the Boom and a different point of emphasis in the book (as well as a different style). 

My co-editor Kyle Conway created an arresting cover image that shows a drill rig situated near his families property in Williston.

Bakken cover off center

Photographer Kyle Cassidy who has worked with our team in the Bakken and has a contribution in the volume offered several fantastic cover designs:

Bakken goes boom cover 1

Bakken goes boom cover 2

Bakken goes boom cover 3

Bakken goes boom cover 4

Bakken goes boom cover 5

Comments and feedback are appreciated!


  1. I think the last three are the strongest. Of those, I really love the titlework of the last most, but the final line with the photography credit gets a litttttle bit too close to the guy’s head, which makes it feel a little too crowded (even though its the most aesthetically pleasing of the titlework options!) So I guess I have to go for the second or third to last as my finale two. UNLESS You can shift the titlework up just a Smidge on the last one, or shift the guy down just a smidge to give him a little more headroom. Because seriously that is the best titlework — dynamic and with an air of “Well things just got a little turned upside down/sideways.”


  2. Hi! I think the cover photo with the guy in the foreground and a house in the background is the strongest, as this seems to be the main point of the book — understanding the lives of these people through their material culture — isn’t it? Moreover, a photo of a person always relates better to readers than a simply landscape picture. In terms of title, I prefer the third from below. The words “Boom” and “North Dakota”, which seem crucial for your book, really stand out here more than in any other. The only thing I would change is to make the ‘second title’ (“Oil and the …”) a bit separate from the first one. They now more or less merge into one another, if you understand what I mean. But in general all these covers look really nice!


  3. Kyle’s version, no doubt!


  4. Kyle, I really like the first one (of yours), marked cover-1. However, I would get rid of the treatment of the subtitle, even though I get the graphical reference to the fracking process. The picture of the man on the road with the house in the background is clearly the one to use, although you shouldn’t fill up the sky… the empty sky above and beyond makes the composition. So use that photo, but instead of using the sky as empty space for type, put the title in bottom right corner with subtitle right below. DONE. FINISHED. TO PRESS.


  5. I really like #2 but probably because I know about the situation from the New Yorker article and from Kyle’s photo shoot, so it resonates. As others have said, the photo of the man tells the story better. I would take the title text style from #2 and use it with the last photo, putting the editor & photo credit on the bottom beneath the photo. Exciting stuff!


  6. If the focus of the book is on the gas boom, I’d use the first photo because it’s the most relevant, imo. I think the lone gas well is a good representation of the industry. Where I live in Texas, at night the highways are dotted with the bright lights from the various individual wells that are planted around. I don’t think the photos with the man work well for this project because, for me, they distract from the title, even though you have to have people to have a boom. If I were going to include people in the cover art, I’d show guys working a well.


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