We’ve all heard the old adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” The saying isn’t actually talking about books, of course, which is a good thing because we all judge books by their covers. Constantly. Even if we choose which books to read based on recommendations from friends or critics, even if we pour over Goodreads and Amazon reviews in search of info, we have at least some reaction when we first lay eyes upon a cover. If we’re just randomly wandering bookstores? Covers are the first thing to draw us in.
With this knowledge in mind, it’s hardly a surprise that publishers, or authors if they’re self-published, invest a lot of time and money on the covers of their books. Designing a book cover is a long, collaborative process that merges art, marketing, finance, and more.
Note: the section about traditional publishing is based primarily on a large publisher like Penguin Random House. Smaller publishers may see a different, more contained process.
The process of book cover design in traditional publishing
When I first started looking into the process of book cover design, I was surprised by the large number of people involved. There isn’t just an art director and a designer. The timeline looks like this:
- The editor passes off the brief to the creative director/art director/senior designer/whoever is in charge at this particular publisher
- The art director then chooses a designer from their team and passes off the brief to them.
- The designer reads the brief, sometimes reads the full book, and gets to researching and making the first visuals.
- A number of meetings (at least three, but sometimes up to twenty) occur, where a lot of people give their opinion. These meetings are staffed by the editorial team, the heads of various departments (including marketing and sales), and the managing director.
Notably absent from these meeting participants is the author. Jackie Barbosa, a now self-published author of historical romances, recalls about her days as a traditionally published author, “I’ve had some traditionally published books and waiting on cover art (and worrying about it) was not one of my favorite things about that process.” Neil Swaab points out that, “authors are typically the last people to be consulted because it can be problematic if one gets excited about a direction but the jacket committee hates it. […] When everybody’s finally onboard, it’s time to actually make a book cover.”
Monique Sterling, a freelance graphic designer and former Senior Designer at Penguin, offers another perspective.
“In my experience designing for the children’s side, if an author strongly dislikes a cover, their concerns and feelings aren’t simply dismissed. It usually starts a bigger conversation of asking the author to trust the publishing team’s experience and understanding of the market along with the designer’s (or art director’s) vision. Or trying to find a middle ground on fulfilling a small or major part of the author’s request. Within the imprints I’ve worked with, we also regularly shared cover sketches with the author for feedback and approval before moving onto to final art. Just to ensure everyone’s on the same page. However, the process might be a lot different when working with adult books or just varies overall by publishing house and imprint.”
Let’s break down this rather overwhelming timeline of cover design, shall we?
The first steps: briefs and research
Every month, editors give the art departments briefs of upcoming titles. These briefs, also called cover memos, include an outline of “the central plot of the book, the main characters, the target demographic, comparable covers, and any ideas the editor and author may have,” explained Swaab.
Sterling says that “for picture books, it was much less formal. I would usually get all the project info from a kick-off email and/or meeting. And in that meeting or email, I’m given the basics about the book, which includes the title, author, illustrator (if one’s already signed up), short summary, format, any special requests, and the pub season.”
The Creative Director will then assign the books to the members of their team most suited for each one, who will proceed to the research process.
The creative process: first visuals and beyond
Although the designers will read the brief, reading the actual book is optional. Most will opt of reading the full book, but some may read at least a few chapters to get a comprehensive idea of what the cover should look like. Still, regardless of whether they read the full text or not, the designer will liaise with the editor to make sure they know the most important information, that which absolutely should come through in the cover.
From then on, it’s a matter of researching and creating the first visuals. Research may look different for different designers. Designer Marianne Issa El-Khoury said: “I dedicate the first couple of days to research. For me, this means needing to read at least part of the manuscript to pick up on small elements I can incorporate into the cover. The wider process can vary from book to book, but I always start this way.”
Suzanne Dean, Creative Director, points out that “if the book is a classic title I’ll start by looking at any of the previous covers, as I don’t want to repeat anything someone has done before me. I make notes in the margins of the novel, and from there I go to my creative notes.”
Research also involves knowing about trends and understanding target audiences. In keeping up with trends, Sterling said that it’s “very important! But it’s also imperative to find a balance, if possible, between staying on trend and stepping outside the box. The design still needs to have some level of uniqueness to it—pulling the attention of your target audience to a style they’re used to and comfortable with while mixing in something new that’ll “wow” them. Otherwise, it can come across as just replicating what’s already out in the market, which can get visually tiring. Although, sometimes it can be tricky to step outside of comfort zones and try something completely different, because it can ultimately affect the book’s sales.”
A collaborative endeavor
As mentioned above, a lot of people are involved in the process of cover design. When I asked Sterling if the number of people involved in the decision-making process made it difficult to strike a consensus, she answered with an emphatic yes.
“There are lots of cooks in the kitchen when working on a book. Along with [editors, creative directors, and designers], the author, publisher and sales team can also bring their voices to the table. And depending on who feels the strongest about an aspect of the book’s design, that’s who might have the final say.” She values that “everyone’s voice is heard.”
Anna Billson, Art Director at Penguin Children’s Books, agrees.
“Collaboration is part of the whole design process – from working with different teams and illustrators outside the company, to sharing inspiration or unlocking a problem, it helps us create the best possible book covers.”
The process isn’t painless though. Ben Hughes, Deputy Art Director also working at Penguin Random House, expands, “You have to have a thick skin because your work gets pulled apart. Sometimes you come out of the meeting and they’ve asked you to change something and it can be your favourite part of the cover! But nine times out of ten, when you start working on it, you realise they were absolutely right, which is why these meetings are so important.”
A new layer is added when a cover is illustrated: that means adding an illustrator to the mix. Sterling explains that “usually, we’d present illustrator options as a team and come together to decide who would be the best fit for a book. Then once the illustrator was signed up, we’d kick things off with a meeting to go over project specs, deliverables, vision, schedule, and other important aspects of the project. Artists were responsible for sticking to the schedule we outlined and if things were ever falling behind, we’d send a nudge and adjust the schedule accordingly.” Because Sterling’s specialty is picture books, working with the illustrator can be a huge part of the process.
How long does it take from conception to completion?
Put quite simply, it depends on several factors. Sterling enumerates them when she says, “the team that’s managing a specific title plays a huge part in how long the entire process takes. For picture books, if everyone involved provides timely feedback and stays on schedule, it can take up to a year. If there are disagreements, unforeseen circumstances or slow feedback, it can delay the book’s production schedule. And in those cases, it can push the completion time out another 6 months to a year since it’ll need to be slated into a new publication season. However, almost half of the production process can be spent on actually printing the book.”
As you might expect, it takes less time for novels.”The cover design process can take just a handful of weeks or months depending on the design direction and speed of team feedback and deliverables, ” Sterling adds.
The process of book cover design in self-publishing
Like everything else, self-publishing comes with its pros and cons. On one hand, the author needs to do or delegate everything themselves, from editing, production, marketing, sales, and — you guessed it — book cover design. On the other, this grants them a level of control that traditionally published authors simply do not have.
Jackie doesn’t take this control for granted. “There are a lot of things a publisher does for you that I’d love to divest myself of, but cover art isn’t one of them.”
Book cover design looks different from the self-publishing side of things: the only interactions happen between authors and designers/illustrators, and that’s it. No multiple meetings where everyone gives their opinion are required. When I asked Barbosa about the process she and her designer, fellow author Beverley Kendall, go through in order to do her covers, she explained that, “Bev and I can kind of read each other’s minds after this long, but we generally always start with a stock photo of a couple (because I still like clinches, damn it, and I’m not giving them up!) and then discuss color palette, scene setting, etc. She’s pretty good at running with it from that point on.”
I did wonder how many versions of the cover of a self-published book there may be, and how involved the author is. Barbosa said, “how many versions I see really depends on a number of factors, but there’s usually one MAJOR revision and then a few tweaks after that. I don’t know that I’ve ever had to ask Bev to completely redo a cover from the ground up once she’s showed me the first draft. Sometimes we’ll change the color palette a bit or change the backdrop, but those are pretty minor things.”
A Parting Word
I already admired graphic designers and illustrators who work on cover design, but after reading up on the process and speaking with professionals, that admiration has increased a thousandfold. It is a fascinating, complex field that requires collaboration, out-of-the-box thinking, and a wealth of knowledge that spans multiple subjects.
I don’t know about you, but I’m walking away from this discussion with a newfound appreciation for the beautiful covers on my shelves.