See You on the Bookshelf | Episode 5
February 20, 2017
We talk with art director Jacqui McDonough about designing the cover.
Jack: Previously on See You on the Bookshelf, we talked about the work we did to make the book more squarely for a younger reader.
Jess Garrison: You know, it has to work for that 10-year-old. You don’t want your reader to feel like they don’t get something or they’re being left behind.
Jack: The challenge was to make the book really hit home for that kid reader, without losing some of the things that made it interesting to a wider audience.
Jess: You could give it to a junior-high-aged kid and they would get something else, and you give it to a teenager and adult and they would pull out other and different things.
Jack: And just like we have this challenge in terms of writing and editing, there’s also a design challenge – in translating that same appeal to the book cover.
Jacqui McDonough: It’s quite an unusual proposition, especially I think for children’s designers.
Jack: That voice is Jacqui McDonough, fiction art director at Penguin Random House Children’s in the UK.
Jacqui: My titles are everything from 7-year-old readers up to young adults, and I have a team of about nine designers and work as part of a much bigger team.
People generally aren’t 100% sure what the designer does. Over the years, I’ve had lots of people say, so do you draw the pictures?
Traditionally the designer would find an illustrator who doesn’t work in our company. They’re normally freelancers. And you would commission them to create the illustration and then you’d apply the type. Nowadays that’s much more of a gray area because you can obviously create illustrations on a Mac, in a way that you would never have done traditionally. So now, there’s a big mix of lots of different ways of doing it.
Jack: How did you get into publishing, and how did you end up over at Penguin?
Jacqui: Well, I studied graphic design at college way back when, and I’d always been a huge reader – a voracious reader. So we, as part of my degree course, we had to do a placement with work experience in a real-life company, and we had to do a minimum of three months. So because of my love of reading, I chose to do a placement at Penguin.
So I came here for three months, stayed for six months, and then went back and graduated. I had such a great time, I thought, I absolutely want to go into publishing. So I did a bit of freelance work and then went off somewhere else for five years and then was invited back. And I’ve been here ever since.
Jack: How long has it been since you were invited back?
Jacqui: Since I came back? 22 years.
Jack: Wow. I feel like – just from hearing the stories of other people I’ve been interviewing – is that people tend to stay at their publishing houses for quite some time.
Jacqui: Yeah. It’s more common than people would expect. There are lots of people here who’ve been here a very long time, actually. I mean, it is a great place to work, I have to say. Obviously, I wouldn’t stay here this long if I didn’t think so.
I think part of my reason when I graduated – apart from the fact that I loved books, and loved the environment here – I spoke to my fellow students who did their work experience in advertising and packaging and other parts of the graphics industry, and I just didn’t like the sound of that. And even on my work experience, I got to work on real-life projects. It was brilliant. Six whole months, working as a junior, basically – and compared to other people who were just basically making tea for three months.
Jack: Coming into this, I think the story I had in my head was that I’d be working with my editors on the manuscript for a while, and then at some point the designer would come in and start working on the cover. And I was surprised to find out that, at least in this case, Jackie got involved much sooner than that, even.
Jacqui: All designers work in slightly different ways, but probably as a consequence of the fact that I love reading so much, I generally get hold of the manuscript as quickly as possible – and usually actually before acquisition. I am in this team that will look at pre-acquisition manuscripts, because I always ask to see them so that I know what’s going on as much as anything else.
I just remember being really blown away and drawn in by the character of Alex himself, and just really enjoying going on the journey with him. And there were quite a few surprises along the way, and I just loved it.
It was really interesting – I don’t know if Anthea said when you spoke to her, but at one point, probably over a year ago now – actually it might not be that long ago – everyone, senior team, sits in a room, and we discuss our big debut fiction title. And everyone gets a little vote on what they predict will be the most commercial, which title is one that they love so much. And everybody who had read it at that point was just, I love this book. People are going to fall in love with it. That was genuinely the reaction. And it certainly was, genuinely, my reaction.
Jack: Now, there can be a bit of time from the acquisition to when work really begins on the cover. I asked Jackie what her process was for something like this.
Jacqui: I’ll probably read the manuscript and then decide who’s going to work on it. And that will be depending on who’s available in the team, who’s the best person … you know, just thinking, what’s the natural fit. And in this case, I decided that I was a natural fit. And it’s very rare I actually sit down and hands-on design a book nowadays. Cause I’m the art director now, because I’ve been here such a long time.
Jack: How would you describe the difference between an art director and a designer?
Jacqui: In very black and white terms, the designer is somebody who sits down and chooses the exact font, chooses the exact color, and literally puts it together. The art director is usually somebody who oversees that process – usually the team of designers – and we’ll sort of give more general feedback. Sometimes it’s very specific, sometimes, “I don’t like that color, change it.”
[ laughter ]
But generally it’s just more of an overarching role to make sure that all of the designers are producing work to the standard that is expected, certainly here at Penguin.
But then again, probably my favorite bit is commissioning the illustration. So I absolutely love reading the manuscript, thinking about the right people to work on it, possibly thinking about what image I want to use. Because, for instance, I also work on Rick Riordan books. So, very different from See You in the Cosmos. But again, that’s very much commissioned illustration. So I was thinking about the concept and just finding the right illustrator.
In this case, I suddenly thought, I know who I want to get involved in this project. I know the team that I want to commission to do the illustration.
Jack: And that was The Heads of State – they’re this design studio in Philadelphia that’s probably best known for their work doing editorial illustrations and concert posters.
Jacqui: – the poster for Wilco, in actual fact. And I thought, I think they could do something really cool. And I didn’t in this particular case give them a really tight brief. That was quite unusual – we normally would say, I want this illustrator and I want to tell them what to do. But in this case, these guys are designers as well. I thought, I’m just going to give them an open brief. I’ll let them read the manuscript, if Anthea will let me send it – which I think she did – and I will give them some direction about how we want to position the book and then just say, okay, come to me, send me your concept through. And so that’s the approach we took this time.
Jack: You heard Jackie say that she gave them a brief. A brief is basically just a writeup of the design objectives – of what we need this illustration or cover to accomplish.
Jacqui: Usually we’d have a very specific reader in mind, either by age, or quite often by sex, unfortunately. Quite often it’s like, it’s for a boy, it’s for a girl, which is, you know – it’s not great. But that tends to be quite often what our brief is. Or by genre – it’s young adult fantasy or 8+ boy’s fiction who like adventure, or something like that. In this case, though, that was quite challenge as a designer to think, well actually, there are so many different readers of this book. So how are we going to make that work?
Jack: One thing we haven’t mentioned yet is that we also needed a cover that would work for both the US and UK markets, which can have their own tastes. In fact, on the US side, my editor Jess had her team at Dial Books for Young Readers also exploring directions for the cover. So there’s a bit to keep track of here. The cover had to do all these different things for us.
Jacqui: And I think the approach that we took, and hopefully the result that we’ve arrived at, is to keep it simple and just trying to pull somebody in by making a really attractive but simple cover. Trying to arrive at something that wasn’t off-putting for a particular reader. I mean, obviously the problem with that sometimes can be that you end up with a compromise that doesn’t appeal to anybody.
Jack: So Jackie gives The Heads of State this brief, and one of the first mock-ups they send back – and the one that’s first presented to me – is of the main character, Alex, and his dog silhouetted against a blue starry night sky. The title of the novel is above them in white lettering, and there’s a small rocket above that in orange. Now, if you’ve seen, See You in the Cosmos online, you’ll notice that I’ve pretty much just described the final cover.
Jacqui: I think they submitted a few different ideas, although it wasn’t a huge range. Because usually we would sort of say, actually, can we see a few more options? But we didn’t really need to because what we got in the first draft – everyone thought, actually, this is really strong. It’s not quite right at the moment, but we think that this the right direction. Which is unusual. Normally you have to go through a few more hoops before you get to the cover people think is right. But actually, everyone from the word go really liked this direction.
Jack: That included myself. I was like, yeah, this is a great, great start. It also included the design team here on the US side. So in the natural way that Jess at Dial Books kind of took the lead with editing, Anthea and Jackie ended up taking the lead on cover design.
Here they are again, my editors, Jess and Anthea.
Jess: My feeling about it was like, you know, if you found your wedding gown on the first trip out, then you found your wedding gown. You don’t need to keep looking.
[ laughter ]
Jess: And I think that was sort of the feeling I had with the cover. I was like, well, that’s it. I mean, I know it’s rough. We need to make it a finished design and everything, but like, that is sort of what I had in mind, even though I didn’t necessarily know it.
Anthea: Yeah. And then, what further confirmed that is when we had a covers meeting here where we sort of show covers at different stages from the first direction. And they’re shown to sales, marketing, PR … everybody. It’s a designer-led meeting, and it was a really quick – like Jess said, you find your wedding gown. That’s not always the way –
Jess: It is never the way. I feel like it’s rarely like, yes, that is what you’re wearing.
[ laughter ]
Anthea: It was just unanimous that everyone just went for this direction. And then of course, behind the scenes, I know Jackie would be smiling if I was making out like it was a completely easy and smooth process.
Jacqui: It’s interesting, we recently just signed up the final files to go to production, and the editorial director said to me, oh, I’ve always loved this cover, and it’s been such a straightforward one. And I laugh because I think, to the wider team – they do feel like that. But in actual fact, there have been lots of tinkering. And I think it’s a case of the more simple a cover seems – you know, there’s not a lot on this cover – but you have to get every detail right.
And, you know, there was a lot of detailed work going backwards and forwards looking at font, looking at the shape of the rocket, looking at the shape of the dog, looking at the shape and size, age of the boy … and lots and lots of conversations going backwards and forwards. Even once we decided we wanted the blue sky that we’ve ended up with – the blue-green sky – the changes it went through backwards and forwards to how blue, how greeny-blue … it’s right up to the wire.
So I think it’s interesting now, looking at it. And as I say, people looking at the cover would go, oh, you know, that’s such a simple cover … but behind the sort of simple ideas and simple concepts and covers, there’s actually normally a lot of work.
Jack: There’s one thing I want to make sure we don’t gloss over, and it’s when Anthea mentioned the covers meeting that they have at the publishing house. Here’s Jackie again, describing the same thing.
Jacqui: We have what we call a covers meetings – some people call them jacket meetings – and they happen once a week. And the senior people who really have a say in how things are going to turn out attend that meeting.
Generally it’s chaired by the art director – the divisional art director who I report into – and I sit alongside her and we present covers. It’s an hour long meeting and there’s quite a lot to get through, so it’s fairly fast and furious. And at that meeting, there are the senior sales team, publisher, editorial directors, editors, rights, marketing, publicity … so a lot of people. And basically we literally present the cover. Sometimes if it’s a completely new cover that people have not seen any visual for before, the editor – Anthea in this case – will sort of just precis to remind people what his is – perhaps not everybody around the table has actually read it, you know. So we do that and then we just get feedback and instant reaction from people as to whether they think they like or don’t like, or what they do like and what they don’t like about our cover.
Quite a long time ago, it was probably slightly more relaxed. It was probably fewer titles to look at and possibly there was less emphasis on sales input. But that is very important now because they’re representing our key customers or booksellers. So we have to hear their opinion. And quite often we will seek – if a bookseller is a very important account 00 we will show them the visuals as well to see whether they think it’s going in the right direction for them. Not always, but if it’s appropriate, we will do that.
Jack: Okay. That kind of blows my mind, not only for how many other people are involved in giving their input, but because I think this is the first real instance when you’re actively thinking about what’s going to get your audience’s attention. What’s going to sell.
What I realized in working on this episode is that the book cover is one of the key places – maybe the key place – where the art of writing and being an author meets the commerce of publishing a book.
Jacqui: It’s one of the things that you learn, right from the get-go, is that everyone is entitled to have an opinion on the cover. I think one of the major challenges for any designer, working in publishing particularly, is being able to focus on what is right for the book and not allow design-by-committee. You have to know which voice to listen to, what’s appropriate, and really stick to your goals when it comes to designing the cover.
I mean, we’re not artists – we’re designers. It’s a commercial process; we have to think about the end consumer. That’s important. That’s absolutely key. What you really can’t do as a designer in publishing is be extremely precious and just say, well, I don’t care what the consumer thinks, I think this is a beautiful cover. Well, regardless, you have to think about what the consumer wants.
Jack: So as we move further now from writing and editing to publishing, and selling, there’s another meeting that happens within the publishing houses – with even more stakeholders, and voices. It goes by different names, but one of those names, perhaps appropriately for this book and podcast, is launch. More on that – you guessed it – next week. On See You on the Bookshelf.
Thank you to Jacqui McDonough of Penguin Random House Children’s in the UK. You can find her on Twitter: @jacquimcd. Thanks also to Jess Garrison and Anthea Townsend. Music for this podcast is by Saint Benjamin (now known as Ben Johnson Music Factory).