Monday, August 18, 2008

Some thoughts on Book Design

I was thinking recently about how hard it must be to be a book designer. I admire what they do so much, their thought and creativity that goes into the design of each book. I think I'm especially in awe of how covers of novels come to be--with pictures books, they already have an artist and images to work with and inspire them, but for novels they have to conjure up a design from thin air, sometimes. But what I think must be the hardest thing to deal with is knowing that ultimately their design is not "their own"--that they have to answer to so many different opinions. The editor has to be happy, the author has to be happy (even thought most authors don't officially have consultation or approval of the cover, of course we want them to be happy!), and in most cases, an entire jacket committee consisting of marketing, sales, design, and various editorial sorts have to be happy. And it doesn't stop there--we want the book buyers to also love the cover, and of course you're also trying to make the cover appealing to both the adult buyers (booksellers, librarians, teachers) and the kids, too.

And sure, as an editor, I sometimes think about all of these people while editing a text, too, but I also know that ultimately, the book truly belongs to the author, and although I may ask them to change something, they have every right to say no. When I bring a book to editorial meeting and then on to our acquisitions committee, sometimes (often) different people have different opinions. One person might hate a part of the book that was someone else's favorite part. Some people might dislike a plot twist that others think make the book special. It goes on and on. And so I've come to realize that when it comes time for me to edit the manuscript and work with the author on making the book better, I have to decide in my own heart and mind what I feel the book needs, regardless of whose feedback it goes against. Because I know that in the end, if the author can make it work (and of course they can!), the readers will accept it.

Designers don't have that freedom. They have to answer to all the people I've mentioned above. That's their job. And I know that in the past I've struggled sometimes with trying to balance the designer's vision with that of the author's--it's a shame when they aren't aligned. Personally, I trust our designers and their vision, and love working with them on cover designs. In some cases, I have an idea of what I want the cover to look like, but oftentimes I'll wait and see what the designer comes up with first so as not to taint their creativity. Sometimes I just have a feeling I want to convey. "The cover should be joyful, full of color and light" or "it should be thoughtful and quiet, have a very literary feel" or "I want to make sure that the cover has crossover adult appeal" and so on. And the designer takes this all in and works their magic. And although it might take a few takes, the designer never lets me down. 

There have been times where I'm discussing a novel with the designer and telling them, honestly, that I have no idea what I envision for the cover. One example is for the novel Firegirl by Tony Abbott, which is about what happens when a new girl joins a 7th-grade class. The new girl is a victim of severe burns on her face and body, and because of her appearance, some of the class fear her. The only image that came to mind when thinking about the cover, which I knew would not be appropriate, was to show a photograph of a girl being burned. And so I put it completely in the designer's hands. She came back with an idea I found absolutely perfect. This is one of my favorite covers for a book I've edited. What do you think?
Another thing difficult about book design is that everyone has an opinion about covers. It's inevitable. We judge a book by its cover, after all! And in the case of picture books (as many of my fellow BRGs know) and some novels, you're working with an illustrator or author who is an artist, and sometimes also a designer themselves, and then the designer has to adjust how they work even more, and weigh everything with their own expertise, and their own knowledge about what works and what doesn't in regards to the market and our own jacket committee. It's not an easy task. I feel lucky to work with such talented designers. They rock! Here's a sampling of some recent and upcoming novel covers our designers have done that I especially love:

In somewhat related news, I'll be speaking at the Mid-Atlantic SCBWI conference in October and have been asked to talk about the process of how illustrators are chosen. I'll no doubt be polling our talented design team for some feedback and anecdotes, and I hope to be able to share more posts about book design in the future.

Here are a few blogs dealing with book design:

Mishaps and Adventures is the blog of an art director
Jacket Whys discusses children's and YA book covers
The Book Design Review discusses the cover design of adult books

What are some of your favorite book covers?


Anonymous said...

Great post! :)

Two of my favorite covers:


CLEMENTINE by Sara Pennypacker

Christine Tripp said...

I still love Illustrated covers best (not photoshoped) So, not including PB's, off the top of my head, "Savvy" (the gorgeous swirls of yellows to blues) and the sweet simplicity of Matt Phelan's "the Higher Power of Lucky"
Hard to pick, there are so many. Oh, Shel Silverstein's "Where the Sidewalk Ends" too.

Vicki said...

Thanks for the book designer love, Alvina! And for the thorough breakdown of what a designer actually does. Now when people ask what I do all day (and why, perhaps, I need a glass or two of sherry when I get home), I'll direct them to your post!

Anonymous said...

Good post. I believe I'll add you to my blogroll.

As for book design and book designers, well, you're on to something about it being a source of some wonderment what we do--okay, "wonderment" is my word.

I try to cover a lot of that ground--the mindset, the tools, the process--on my blog at

Feel free to take a gander and suggest anything you might like to see addressed. Additionally, I'd be thrilled if you added me to your blogroll.