Interview with a Book Designer

Huzzah! My book-designer friend has graciously contributed another post’s worth of scrumptious nuggets of designery wisdom. Behold!

Q: You’re a book designer? Cool! So you illustrate book covers?

A: Nope. Unless you want your covers to have stick figures and obscure doodles on them. Sometimes the client provides cover art, or an illustrator is hired to create cover art, or I might generate cover art using stock photography. When I’m hired to design the cover for a book, my job is to do research to make sure that the cover will be both attention-grabbing and also accurately convey the book’s content; arrange all of the elements on the cover (including the spine and back cover, and the flaps if there is a dust jacket); revise the cover until it gets the publisher’s approval; and work with the printer to make sure it comes out right.

Q: Where do the ideas for book covers come from?

A: It depends. If you’re a designer working in a publishing house, you’ll get ideas from the editing team, the marketing team, and your fellow designers. I’m a freelance designer, so I have to depend more on my client to give me key information: what is the audience for this book? What genre does it belong to? What section of the bookstore will it be in? Then I go to that section (both IRL and online) for research. What colors are used? What fonts? What do the spines look like on the shelf? What kind of art is used on the covers? I ask myself a million questions until I feel that I can design a cover that is unique enough to catch a reader’s attention but not so unique that the reader will have trouble identifying what kind of book it is. Designing a book cover is a delicate balancing act, and it’s incredibly fun.

Q: My agent just got me a deal with Random House. Will I get to weigh in on the cover design?

A: Congratulations! And you may or may not have a say in the cover art. If you have ideas, tell them to your editor at the very beginning of the process, and ask to see what the design team is working on. Please keep in mind that they are professionals and they know what they are doing—trying to create a book that will sell. Even if you’re not 100% happy with the final cover design, your editor and publicist will be able to explain why the designers did what they did, and your book will probably sell better because of those choices.

Q: A small local publisher just accepted my manuscript. Will I get to weigh in on cover design?

A: Congratulations! And you may have a little more say in your cover art because a smaller local publisher may have more time to take a personal approach with their authors. Again, if you have ideas, speak up early in the process. Don’t wait until the cover art is finalized to say, “But I thought there was going to be a flying pig on there.” And remember: the design and marketing teams really are on your side. They want to create a cover that everyone—you, the publisher, and the public—will love.

Q: I’ve decided to self-publish an e-book. Should I design my own cover?

A: Congratulations! And, unless you happen to be both a writer and a book designer, I would suggest hiring a designer to create a cover for your book. There are countless websites willing to create cookie-cutter covers for you, so that is always an option, but you get what you pay for. With so many people self-publishing these days, having a professional-looking cover could make all the difference in your book selling well online or even getting picked up by a publishing house.

Q: Do you read all the books that you design?

A: Ummm . . . no. Sorry. I always feel a little guilty when people ask me this, because I would love to read every book I design, but I don’t have enough time. The most important thing for me to know is the overall message of the book, the genre in which it will be marketed, and the audience it will be marketed to. I depend on the client to give me that information.

Q: Huh. So you’re not illustrating the covers or reading the books. What else does a book designer do?

A: Covers are definitely the most visible part of a book designer’s job, because covers play such a huge role in marketing a book. But, beyond the seductively glamorous world of cover design, the entire interior of a book also needs to be designed before it can be printed. Someone has to take your Word (or Pages, or Google) document and turn it into something that looks like a book, with headers and footers and page numbers. As a designer, I go through every character of your document, strip out all of the formatting, and reformat it so that it looks the same but it will cooperate when it goes to the printer. I find handwriting fonts to match the parts you want to look handwritten, and I argue with the publisher and printer about whether we can afford to use green ink on certain pages because you feel it would really contribute to the impact of your story. I do all my work in Adobe InDesign. When I’m finished formatting in InDesign, both you (the author) and your editor take one last look at it, then I send your book to the printer as a PDF.

Q: How does the popularity of e-books impact book design?

A: I have only started to dip my toe in the vast ocean of e-book design. It’s very different from designing for print—more like designing for a website, since the user can choose the font and print size. I like the idea of a reader being able to customize a book to their needs. If they need larger print, why should they have to wait until the large print edition comes out? Why shouldn’t they just be able to make the print larger immediately, even if that makes the overall aesthetic of the page less attractive? So, while I feel that books are far less appealing to the eye when they’re on an e-reader screen, there are undeniable advantages. I love e-books (you can’t pry my e-reader out of my hands while I’m vacationing or commuting), but when I’m purchasing a book, I want the paper copy, too. Ideally, I’d like to have an e-version of every book in my physical library . . . but that’s another discussion for another day.

Q: Is this an actual interview, or did you write all these questions yourself?

A: I don’t see how that’s relevant. Back to book design. It’s one of those behind-the-scenes arts. When done well, it has a huge impact on the way you experience a book, but you aren’t aware of that on a conscious level—it’s almost an invisible influence. Except for the super-gorgeous covers that make you (if you’re me) buy a book immediately, without regard to price. For me, bookstores are beautiful, dangerous places; the library is much safer. For overall book design (both covers and interiors), my latest favorite is the Wolves of Mercy Falls trilogy by Maggie Stiefvater. For interior design (but not the cover), I’d nominate local author Laini Taylor’s Lips Touch: Three Times.

What’s the most beautiful book you’ve seen or read lately?

About Mary Elizabeth Summer

Mary Elizabeth Summer is an instructional designer, a mom, a champion of the serial comma, and a pie junkie. Oh, and she sometimes writes books about teenage delinquents saving the day. She lives in Portland, Oregon with her daughter, her partner, her two neurotic dogs, and her precious prince--er, cat.
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6 Responses to Interview with a Book Designer

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