Answers, Part Two: How it Works.

Yeah, Part One was insanely long. I’m kind of surprised that anyone actually read it! Sorry, I’m not a good condenser. Part Two is going to be a little easier to read, though, I promise!

Do you read the books before you design the covers?

Yes, for the most part. I’m very conscious of wanting to respect the author’s intent when I’m working on a cover, and as a reader, I know how nice it is to read a book and see the imagery on the cover start to take shape in words as the story progresses.

See that photo up at the top of this post? Those are all uncorrected manuscripts, and I’m usually reading one or two of them at any given time. Usually they just come to me as a stack of loose papers, but every now and then I’ll get a bound copy or a previous edition of the book if it was previously published elsewhere (in the UK, for example, or by a self-published author whose work took off). I usually clip together about 50 pages at a time to read during my commute to and from work so I’m not dragging the whole thing around with me. While I’m reading, I’ll fold pages that are visually evocative. Sometimes I’ll take notes if I get a specific cover idea that I don’t want to forget, but usually I just try to absorb the tone of the book and pay attention to recurring themes and any special objects in the book that might hold significant meaning.

The only times I don’t read a book before getting to work are, obviously, if the manuscript isn’t available yet (this tends to be the case with most non-fiction titles, as well as with some authors who have scheduled, multi-book contracts), or if the book is serial genre fiction (mystery, romance, etc.) with a pre-defined “look”. At the very least, I’ll get a short description of the book and its plot, and I can usually ask the editor to ask the author for character descriptions and location details.

How much say do authors have in the cover design?

It really depends on the author. Some are very easygoing and hands-off, and others prefer to get more involved and specific about exactly what they’d like to see. In general, though, by the time my art director comes to me with an assignment, the publisher, editor, author, and agent have all discussed the subject and taken various factors (sales of previous books, comparable competitive titles, publication season, etc.) into consideration.

As the process progresses, the publisher and editor will decide which submitted covers to share with the author and agent, who will then give feedback and request changes. In other words, there may be dozens of cover options that filter through various channels within the company before the author even sees a single one, but generally speaking, nothing goes to print without the author giving a stamp of approval.

Does the author get to decide who designs their cover?

It’s very rare that this happens, but when it does, it’s usually an outside designer with some kind of personal connection to the author. The publisher will always have the final say, though—Aunt Betty doesn’t get to design a cover in Microsoft Word just because her nephew with the book deal wants her to. If Rodrigo Corral is your best friend, though, then yeah, you can probably pick him to design your cover.

What’s your favorite part of your job? Least favorite?

I have a lot of both, but the best moment for me is always getting an email from an author letting me know that they love the cover I designed for their book. That’s the best feeling—even better than seeing the book hit the New York Times bestseller list (that makes me feel good too, though!). I really appreciate it when authors take the time to thank their designer. Not all of them do.

My least favorite part of the job is probably getting stuck and running out of ideas. This usually happens when I’ve gone through a dozen rounds of revisions and 30–40 different covers, and I’m nowhere closer to having an approved cover than I was on day one. That’s a bad feeling, and usually culminates in me getting very teary-eyed and sad when I come home at the end of the day. I don’t like feeling as though I’ve disappointed everyone.

Do you keep copies of all the books you’ve designed?

No. I design a lot of book covers—at least a hundred or so every year. Out of a hundred books, I’d say I’m happy with about ten of the final covers. I keep copies of the ones I like, though, as well as any that I might need to refer to in the future when working on subsequent books by the author. I don’t bring any of them home, though—they’re all on shelves in my office. I have an arm’s length mentality about that kind of thing.

How long is your commute to work?

If I’m coming from Newburgh, it takes about two hours door to door (ferry, train, foot). If I’m in the apartment in Manhattan, it’s about 35 minutes (subway, foot).

Do you ever get to meet with the authors face-to-face?

Yes, sometimes! Just a couple of days ago I got to meet Liza Marklund, who was lovely and charming and very kind when speaking about the cover design for Red Wolf. Sometimes authors I design covers for will find me online, which is fun. A couple of them read this blog! I always try to let authors know when I like their books, too. One of the best side benefits of my job is getting to read stuff I might not have known about otherwise.

Okay, that’s enough for now! I still have a bunch of questions to answer, and I promise I’ll get there. Thank you for reading along this far…

22 comments
  1. AdamSep 16, 201010:14 pm

    Thank you for the insight into your career! This answers a lot of questions that I never seem to remember to ask you when I see you in person!

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  2. BriSep 16, 201010:24 pm

    Thanks for showing us into your work world a little bit, it’s fascinating! I’m a mechanical engineer and I have nothing but respect for someone who can develop 30 or 40 design ideas on a single project- especially working on a new project every three or four days. That’s an incredible volume of work! We’re lucky if we come up with a dozen solutions to an issue and we usually only have to implement one (ok, sometimes two) of them. Kudos to you!

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  3. jennifer in sfSep 16, 201010:27 pm

    Clearly you haven’t seen what Aunt Betty can do with MS Paint!!

    I kid. Thanks for answering all these questions. It’s super interesting.

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  4. PeteSep 16, 201010:37 pm

    Thanks for the great post. Good advice! I always thinking fixing up your home is a love hate thing. It can be extremely rewarding, but it can be a second job too. This was a great post though.

    I stumbled upon this blog like I did yours. Thought it’s humor on home fixing might be enjoyable: http://burisonthecouch.wordpress.com/2009/12/31/our-house/

    Thanks for the post! I’d love to see more like it.

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  5. kay*Sep 16, 201010:56 pm

    wow. this is so so interesting. it sounds like such a…cool (for lack of better words) job. (i would LOVE to read books before they are published!)

    & i literally laughed out loud when you mentioned Aunt Betty…too funny.

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  6. Cher@NRSep 16, 201011:23 pm

    You have a pretty AWESOME JOB! I would LOVE to do something more creative with my life (sigh)

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  7. MariaSep 16, 201011:38 pm

    This is fascinating!

    I, too, used to work in a bookstore, and used to wonder about some of the covers.

    And I forgot to mention when I asked my question that currently I work in a video game dev house. :)

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  8. LisaSep 16, 201011:39 pm

    Book designers are awesome. When my book came out a few years ago, the designer came up with something I would never have thought of in a zillion years. My own ideas had been the obvious go-to ideas, which is why writers aren’t designers (except in your case, Anna). Thanks for the informative post.

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  9. MichelleSep 16, 201011:59 pm

    I love hearing about other people’s job and I love that you have done these posts! I also can’t believe you have to spend 2 hours to get to work!? I thought an hour was bad in LA Traffic….

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  10. SarahSep 17, 201012:17 am

    I’ve really been enjoying these posts. I work in an ad/promo department at another large publishing house and while I almost always see a couple different versions of a cover at various points throughout the process , I definitely never see the 30-40 iterations.

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  11. Sarah B.Sep 17, 201010:38 am

    This is endlessly fascinating to me, especially as a book lover and aspiring author! Thanks so much for sharing. I look forward to hearing more!

    (And have you met Jennifer Weiner? She seems like she’d be loads of fun!)

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  12. GaelleSep 17, 201011:36 am

    great thanks!

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  13. Jenna @ sweetfinedaySep 17, 20104:18 pm

    this is cool, to see the creative process in a different discipline in design. I can sympathize with the frustration of running our of ideas, though. Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions.

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  14. AimeeSep 17, 20109:28 pm

    Thanks so much for sharing this process! It’s great to read. I’m so glad to hear you read the books, for the most part, before designing. One of my biggest pet peeves in life is book covers that are at odds with what’s inside. (e.g., romances with people on the covers who are nowhere NEAR the physical descriptions in the story) Somehow, I knew you wouldn’t be the one designing those. ;)

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  15. dkzodySep 17, 201010:47 pm

    A two hour commute? Ooh, that would wear me out. From my house to school, when I was teaching, I would drive, and it was around 25 minutes. Now, at the tiny apartment, I walk to the subway, two blocks, 10 minute ride, walk two blocks to work. It’s lovely. I only do this two days a week. Of course, when we travel between house and apartment, that’s about a 4 hour drive. Not so much fun.

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  16. LLSep 18, 20106:06 am

    I have a near 2 hour commute to and fro as well. You can get a lot done on that commute! Although staying awake in the am is nearly impossible. :)

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  17. Rosa, CopenhagenSep 19, 20105:25 pm

    Thank you for answering all the questions – I now know so much more about book publishing and your part of/in the proces. I’ve always been very curious about creative (artistic) jobs so much different from my own – although math is very creative in its own way;-)
    Thanks again.

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  18. cvjnSep 20, 20105:00 pm

    anna,

    i was reading this and i saw the part about 30 or 40 covers and dozens of revisions and i had to tell you a quick story. back in the olden days, i worked for a company that made movie trailers. sometimes we would have have to submit revisions over and over and over to the studio and we’d get so frustrated when nothing got approved. once, my boss got so annoyed, he resubmitted the first version (but called it version 28) and it was approved! the very first one, before all the tinkering!

    it’s not you or the work, sometimes other people don’t know what they want!

    love your blog!

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  19. Anna at D16Sep 20, 20105:04 pm

    @cvjn: I’ve done the EXACT same thing!!!! Don’t tell anyone. ;)

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  20. MeganSep 23, 20102:23 pm

    How would you get a gold embossed looking cover, and how much does something like that cost?

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  21. Grumble GirlSep 26, 20104:17 pm

    I think you’re so interesting… you’re not boring at all. Hee!

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  22. MandaSep 14, 201212:48 pm

    Hey Anna,

    I love your book covers and the range of your design skills. I noticed most of your book covers have photography used on them. If you don’t get a photo of the author or the person the book is about – do you take your own photography, hire a friend, use stock? Regardless, love your work (I, too, am a font/typography fiend).

    Manda

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