How a Publishing House Designs a Book Cover

book cover, book design, designer, book jacket, books, publisherIt all starts with the pitch. I can actually find myself on the edge of my seat when our editors present each season’s new books. It’s the art department’s chance to vie for which titles speak to us the most—which books might work best with our particular styles and skillsets.

After working at the same publishing house for four years, I can almost always predict which designer will gravitate toward a particular title. But inevitably, it ends up being a mix of interest, talent and workload that determines our selections. We give our creative director our first picks and she ultimately assigns the list. I’m fortunate enough to work with a team that is incredibly versatile; they can work across all genres successfully.

The list is actually somewhat fluid, so if I ever feel like I’m working on too much or too little, things can shift around depending on everyone’s workload. If I’m passionate about a book that I haven’t been assigned, though, I’ll often offer to assist on it. This could include doing photo research, setting up a shoot, or anything else that’s needed.

Being able to be on set with an author whom I’m passionate about is greatly rewarding and is always a learning experience.

Personal Touches

Stylistically, I tend to lean toward lifestyle books and gritty true-crime type stories. These are the types of books that speak to my personal style, and are where I feel like I can do some of my best work. On a personal note, I also enjoy reading these books, which I think tends to help the creative process (though isn’t always necessary, surprisingly enough). I may be biased, but I really do love the clean and modern aesthetic of our lifestyle books. The Life and Style imprint at Grand Central Publishing (my publisher) has been built into a successful brand over the years, which only makes it easier for our designers to have a list of successful in-house titles that we can base our aesthetic off of.

Again, though, I do also adore the grit and intrigue of a crime book. That style can offer some very interesting creative opportunities that you may not find in another type of book, and it’s always an experience to be able to do a deep dive and explore that world. Perhaps more important, it’s also fun as an artist to be able to move between different styles depending on the book. I think it keeps me engaged and also helps me to use qualities from one genre on something that’s unexpected in another.

The Process

When the titles are assigned, the work really begins. Sometimes, a book comes to us almost fully cooked. It’s been completely (or mostly) written, it’s got a concrete, confirmed title, and it’s up to us to capture the essence of the story on the cover. I think that’s how most people envision the book jacket process, and while it’s our best-case scenario, you’d be surprised at how rarely that actually happens.

Sometimes we’re given a book without a manuscript or even a full outline, and we need to rely on a synopsis or just some basic notes. Understandably, these can be the most challenging designs to capture, as it’s difficult to find that one visual feeling or icon that speaks to an overarching theme of a book. You can’t pull visual cues or themes from the book if the book doesn’t exist! But thankfully, there are other ways to crack the code.

If the author is active on Instagram, Pinterest or Twitter, I will always follow them. It’s important for me to not only understand the book, but to understand the author. Instagram and Pinterest are particularly helpful in that they give me insight into the author’s style and aesthetic .

Don’t get me wrong, though: whenever I’m given an early manuscript or any sort of glimmer into what the book is about, I’m grateful for it. I find myself constantly thinking of different designs and directions I could take things in, and find inspiration almost everywhere—from New York City itself to weird posters and ads in the subway or the streets, and most importantly, from other books.

Sometimes I’ll see a type treatment or style working on someone else’s book and I’ll be so inspired by it that I’ll need to put my own spin on it. I think more so than most designers, book designers are inspired by each other. We keep pushing the bounds and re-imagining what it means to design a book. Treating it as an object—that’s what carries the book from the shelf into the reader’s hands.

Book design is a creative outlet for me, and designing is the best part of my day. As in any business there’s paperwork, contracts and other office work that need to be handled, but I think I’ve struck a balance between the administrative and the creative.

I often find myself thinking about covers outside of work, and I think that’s a good thing. If I get an idea over the weekend, I’ll sketch it out, or even start working it out on the computer. I usually do start the design process with an actual sketch. If I’m running around between meetings, I’ll sketch something out in a notepad or on whatever I have in my hands at the time. There’s definitely a sense of urgency for me to get my ideas onto paper. You can refine a design later, but if you don’t get that flash of inspiration down on paper, you might not find it when you try to get it back.

More Work

Once I’m ready to take my vision to the computer, I usually start with the type first. I’ve been learning typography through my design peers and our creative director, and its importance has transformed the way I work. As a painting BFA, It would never occur to me to start with the words first; I would always try to start with the content or image. The problem with that approach, however, is that you end up trying to fit the type into a prematurely decided layout. I find making your type work first leads to a more cohesive design in the end. After all, images can be manipulated. Type is much harder to change, for a variety of reasons.

Seeing type as the anchor of the book has been a strategy that has worked well for for me, and one that I strongly urge other designers to pay attention to. Typography is a design element unto itself, and once you recognize that, your options are limitless. From the shapes formed in between letters to the overall shape a sentence takes on a page, a good designer can do amazing things with just 26 letters.

You’d be surprised at what you can discover from just playing around with type. When you’re using 100-point font, shapes and patterns can appear very quickly, often with interesting and appealing results.

After several years in publishing now, I only feel like I’m just starting my career as a designer. There’s always something to learn, no matter how experienced I get. Being able to think creatively will only get you so far; you need to have the technical building blocks to carry you the rest of the way. In being open to learning and seeing new things, I’m able to continue growing with my design community.

Books are precious and valuable things, and it only makes sense to dress them in such a way that requires deep thought and consideration for their content. If you respect the book and its merits, it will show on the cover.


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7 thoughts on “How a Publishing House Designs a Book Cover

  1. PHYLLIS AZAR

    Nice piece Lisa! Good to see you’re doing well and enjoying the work. Hope to see you at the next publishing event. Oh, and say hi to your fab sis. Best, =p.

    Reply
  2. Michael W. Perry

    “Once I’m ready to take my vision to the computer, I usually start with the type first.”

    Excellent advice. I’ve seen all too many covers ruined by a title that’s almost unreadable because it was slapped over an already completed and often too cluttered background. The background provides the setting for the title not vice-versa. Think of a cover as like a diamond ring. The setting should showcase the diamond or title.

    Working for giant Hachette, Lisa probably has little say about the title itself. But if you work for one that’s smaller, tweaking its wording can make it easier to place on a page. A one- or two-word title is easily placed on a single line in a large size. Three words often get complicated unless their significance allows you to emphasize the first or the last word, making it large enough to be almost the same width as the other two. If that doesn’t work, A four-word title might be better than three. More than four words often means more that two lines for the title and that may mean it dominates the cover rather than simply being showcased by it. That’s usually not good.

    Here’s a draft of a cover I’m working on now. “Embarrass Less” not only works well visually, it’s a perfect description of the book. But alas, the subtitle is still in need of work. “A Practical Guide for Students, Doctors, Nurses, and Patients” does fit nicely on two lines at an appropriate font size. That I like. The hitch is that its target audiences are medical and nursing students along with hospital staff. Can I make it “A Practical Guide for Students, Doctors, Nurses, Hospitals and Patients”? I’ve tried and three lines seem to be required, which looks cluttered. I could replace “Patients with “Hospitals.” But although the book isn’t written for them, there’s a lot of benefit patients could get from its content. I hate to rule out that large a group of readers. Yes, that debate means more trouble for me as a designer. But having to wrestle with the subtitle in the context of the cover helps clarify the issues involved. Too long a subtitle to fit well on the cover may also be too long in other ways.

    https://indd.adobe.com/view/094714fb-82c3-4f13-bfa1-07215cc064d1

    How a book is printed also matters. This book will be published print on demand and both Lightning Source and CreateSpace have serious issues with spine alignment. That’s forced me use the same background color for the front, spine, and back. After the first in the series, My Nights with Leukemia, I’ve opted for a white background, for a clean, uncluttered look. And when you think about it, both patients and staff in hospitals live in the white backdrop with white sheets, walls and often floors. A cover background that’s dark, urbane, or woodied would be totally out of place.

    By the way, those who work with InDesign will find that the accompanying tablet app, Adobe Comp CC, is very handy for evaluating what fits and what doesn’t. It’s also marvelous to use almost anywhere you find yourself. Once a design looks good in Comp, it can be exported to InDesign with the greatest of ease. That’s how created the cover above.

    Reply
  3. Jessica Norrie

    Thank-you for a fascinating post. I’m a self published novelist so was without the help of professionals, but between us my agent, me. a photography mad friend and another friend who uses a lot of photoshop at work, managed to put something together and it’s received a lot if praise and I think been responsible for many sales. Wish we’d known about sorting the type out first though – that woukd have saved a lot of angst!

    Reply
    1. Lisa

      Andrew, thank you for your comment! Although I wrote this post from the perspective of the process within the publishing house, the author is part of the cover design from the very beginning in the form of what we refer to as a ‘cover brief’. This outlines exactly what the author and publisher are trying to achieve visually for the book. It often times includes covers that the author loves as well as visual aspects that they find appealing. The author is able to give feedback throughout the design process.

      Reply
  4. Peter Taylor

    Greetings from Australia!

    Many thanks for your insights, Lisa. Cover and book design fascinate me. I’ve had six books traditionally published and the designer has always created a far better looking book than I would ever have conceived or produced on my own or that I would have instructed a freelancer to produce if I had self-published. As you might expect, as author, I had no input into the cover or illustrations of a children’s picture book, or the cover of a book that included science experiments, though for that one I was asked for sketched ideas for illustrations.

    Way back in the mid 1980s a designer set the margins of a calligraphy book, but after I had written the text and a heading of a sample page, I was left to design and develop whatever I wished and hand-calligraph the other 200+ pages in black and red on A2 sized paper – but the publisher shot a photo for the cover with no input and I wrote the cover and spine wording in calligraphy. The pen they featured on the cover was not a variety I would normally recommend for a beginner – I wish I had had input. For another calligraphy book in 2010, the publisher typeset the pages and the cover and designed and laid out all internals. I did get the pen-nib on the cover modified in Photoshop – their choice would not have written calligraphically. The publisher of my book on calligraphy for greetings cards and scrapbooking used two designers who asked for extra artwork for page decorations, headings and to be screened for page backgrounds, which I would never have imagined to include. The end result looks fabulous! They asked for a cut and punched-paper border for the cover and for their chosen type style to be re-written by hand to their layout, which I did on rough watercolour paper to add character.

    Do you ever choose hand-lettering and give precise requirements or allow creative calligraphers to provide a range of ideas?

    I’m surprised by colour combinations that some designers choose. Men like me who are somewhat colour-blind never see red and green as contrasting.

    Reply

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