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The Color of Imagination: Interview with a Cover Artist

photo by Joan M. Mas

As one of the co-founders of WU, I’ve interviewed many a person over the years. This was one of the most fascinating and rewarding interviews I’ve given, because it allowed me the opportunity to peer into the mind of not just any book designer, but my book designer–the designer hired by my publisher, Crown, to create the bookish face for my second novel, The Moon Sisters [2].

It’s a pleasure to introduce you all to Kimberly Glyder. Kimberly’s work has been recognized by the American Institute of Graphic Arts in their 50 Books/50 Covers Show, the biennial AIGA 50 design competition for the DC area, the AIGA Philadelphia Design Awards, the AAUP Book Jacket and Journal Show, the New York Book Show, and in PRINT’s Regional Design Annual.

A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, Kimberly worked with museum exhibit designs and print designs–designing for catalogs and invitations–before moving into book design. After working for a Boston publisher she decided to open her own studio near Philadelphia, Kimberly Glyder Design [3].

Kimberly has given lectures to design classes, including students at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Her clients include Random House, HarperCollins, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Simon and Schuster, Johns Hopkins University Press, University of Minnesota Press, Storey Publishing, Graywolf Press, and Little, Brown.

Want to know more about evolving the ideal and most selling imagery for a book? Read on.

TW: How many book covers do you design in a given year? Do you read all of those books?

KG: I design approximately 60+ covers a year, plus 3-5 large book projects (interior and jacket) as well as a scattering of other design/illustration projects.

I do try and read every book, especially fiction, since all of my concepts are drawn from the writing. Some non-fiction books, such as biographies, are not as important in this regard.

TW: How do freelance cover designers work with a publisher? Is there a bidding situation, or a contract, or…?

KG: Generally a designer is contacted by an art director from a publishing house with an assignment that is determined to be a good fit based on style, schedule, etc. There is no bidding for book cover projects, but there is occasionally for large book projects (especially with museums, university presses, and organizations where budget and grants are a factor).

TW: Let’s say you’ve accepted an assignment. How do you read a book with design in mind? Do you take notes? Do you focus on themes or characters? Do you ever conduct outside research? How do you proceed?

KG: These days I read most manuscripts on my computer. At first I keep notes on my desktop, but before I begin any design I always sit down with a pen and paper and sketch out my concepts. I also rewrite notes I have from when I read the book (such as physical descriptions of characters, places, major themes) that help with photo research. Most concepts work themselves out once I start designing depending on the photographs /art I find. Sketching works as an outline for me to move forward in the design process.

Each book is different. For instance, if a book is set in a historical time period, I may have to do research on such elements as the style of dress and appropriate fonts. For The Moon Sisters, I had to research synesthesia. My Art Director, Christopher Brand, gave me notes on possible design directions and thoughts from the publisher/editor. For the comps shown (see below), my aim was to evoke synesthesia on the cover in a compelling way.

In terms of your book, it really came down to wanting to combine the color bursts with the figures of the girls. I think they wanted the female presence on the cover and this way they could get both elements. Your cover was one of those rare experiences where merging a couple comps actually worked and everyone was happy early on. I think the current design looks more like a trade hardcover “big book” and hopefully does well!

The Moon Sisters montage [4]
The final version of The Moon Sisters is the cover on the right. You’ll notice many of the covers include what look like stars or lights; that’s a hat tip to the bog lights (will-o’-the-wisps [5]) in the novel–something the Moon sisters hope to find. Notice how the third cover in the top row is the same photo used for the final, but with a different crop. The cover just beneath that is nearly identical to the final cover, but the colored letters don’t yet have their will-o’-the-wisp treatment and appear more as slashes of color. The cover my editor first presented to me isn’t shown here, but it’s almost identical to the final. I asked if Kimberly could change a few of the colors over the letters to better match my protagonist’s experience with colored letters; she has synesthesia [6]. Those changes were easily made.

TW: Are there different approaches for a cover depending on whether a book is a hard cover, trade paperback, mass market release, etc…?

KG: Generally, the paperback tends to be more “accessible.” We might have tried something conceptual on the hardcover to begin with and changed to a “safer” design. I hate to generalize this because there are so many exceptions.

TW: Is there an expectation as a designer to produce a cover that conveys a book’s niche? I’ll use an easy example and say if you were designing for fantasy, you might see a particular type of art–that flash of a sword, an elf, something that defines the book as fantasy. And do you gravitate toward or specialize in certain *types* of books?

KG: I don’t think there is any clear expectation every time. We all know what the market dictates…such as women on covers for women’s fiction. Many times I’m told to include a woman on the cover, but I think it’s important to present multiple options. Sometimes a publisher will go with an unexpected cover solution.

TW: Is there anything an author can do to help the designer? Lots of ideas? Only a few ideas? Send pictures? Stay out of the way?

KG: I actually think too much info is sometimes a hindrance since the author is investing so much in the visuals (and possibly without considering the general audience, how the book with be marketed, etc.). What works best for me is a great sense of the tone of the book. That said, it’s rare that I’m overloaded with too many ideas or thoughts from an author, though I think I get filtered information since I’m a freelancer. It’s more common that once comps are presented, the author will change their minds or offer more feedback.

TW: How do you create the actual art? Is it all done digitally?

KGD_card_2KG: Rarely is a single photo I source used “as is.” Most of the photography is found through photo stock sites. This is the case with The Moon Sisters, where the photo is manipulated to accommodate the type above. You can see more of the original photo in the earlier comps.

I also work with illustrators when possible. Much like sourcing photos, finding an illustrator is about matching the tone of the book to the right artist and their style of work. I also have been doing more and more of my own artwork, such as hand-drawn lettering, photographs, and illustration.

TW: You have something you’re excited about, that you’d like to show the publisher. What happens next? How many ideas do you generally present when you go to a publishing meeting? Do booksellers ever weigh in?

KG: I always send in at least three cover comps that are very different in feel and concept. The art director will present these designs in a meeting, or sometimes earlier to an editor just to get feedback. It really depends on the size of the publishing house how many people are involved in the approval process. Then the cover goes to the author and a sales meeting. The sales reps have a lot of sway, as do the booksellers (Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc…). If a book is slated for a large retail order (such as Anthropologie or Urban Outfitters), the retailers can also have the final word.

So many covers are rejected at any point in the process because sales has an issue with the design (the sales meeting tends to be one of the last steps). It’s often disappointing and as a freelancer, we’re usually left out of the loop as the approval process is happening. There is good and bad to this. The in-house Art Directors are the ones who bear the brunt of the criticism and have to then convey the revisions (or killed designs) if necessary. They usually try to soften the blow if a cover is not well-received. I’ve been on the other end, presenting covers in-house, and I know how the process works.

TW: How much back-and-forth do you generally see from this point on?

KG: Revisions can go on for a long time or never happen. I get a balance of about half and half. Some seasons I see a lot of revisions…and others not so much. I never know with a project.

TW: Once you have the approval of the publisher, the publisher then takes the art to the author. What are the most common issues you run into at this stage of things?

KG: As I note above, the author is one of the many voices in the approval process. Just like with sales reps and editors, getting the right tone of the book for a cover is important to authors. Sometimes it’s just a color change or getting small details flushed out. Other times authors come into the process with a very limited vision for their cover. My job is to be more evocative rather than specific. We’re trying to get book buyers to pick up a book in a store or “click” on the book online. What may work as a literal interpretation of the writing is sometimes not commercially viable.

Generally though I’m not told too much about the author’s reactions. Typically I hear from an author once a cover is final. This is one of the great parts to the design process…a happy author!

TW: Everything has been approved. What happens next?

KG: Once a cover is approved, the final files are prepared for print. I do design most of the mechanicals (the entire jacket including the spine, back cover, flaps, etc.). This will happen a few months after a cover is approved and the book is ready to go to press. Later, I’ll receive a copy of the book, which marks the end of the project for me.

TW: Have you ever had a hard time letting go of a cover you believed in, that your publisher didn’t, or is it fairly easy to move on to a new idea? Alternately, has a publisher ever pushed you to create a cover idea that you didn’t believe in?

KG: I have many, many covers that I loved that never saw the light of day. It’s ALWAYS disappointing when you like a design and believe in it, but it’s all subjective. People approve the covers and those people have their own intuitive feelings on colors, visual sensibility, etc. No one knows for sure what a successful cover will be…and it changes as trends change. When I began working as a cover designer, I had many publishers scoff at using hand lettering as too YA (Young Adult) and now it’s used on so many adult fiction covers. Sometimes a book sells well and then a publisher requests that the cover you work on has that same “look” and suddenly one cover becomes the standard-bearer for a great design.

The reality is that we’re designers, not fine artists, and we have to bow to the direction given to us. Ultimately this is work for a client. My goal is to make the best design possible, with as much of my own design sensibility, even when I’m faced with multiple revisions that I’m wary of. I find that a little time away from the project helps with refocusing. Art directors aren’t going to rehire someone who isn’t willing to revise or be adaptable. I have a personal stake in the outcome of every cover design because my current work is what gets me hired for future work.

The hardest “lost” covers are for books where I loved the writing or admire the author. Those are the painful ones if the covers get killed. There are also times the covers get approved right away and move forward quickly, which is always a great outcome!

TW: Do you ever go into a book store and look for your covers? (I would do this, if I were a cover artist! And I would probably turn all of my covers face-out, too!)

KG: I most definitely go to bookstores and check out my covers. It’s a little bit like an out-of-body experience since I know all the details on how the cover came to be. It’s hard to be objective about your own work. Mostly I’m checking out all the other books, flipping them over or checking the back flap to see who designed them!

TW: What are your favorite covers–that you’ve designed, and/or that others have designed?

KG: Here are some of the fiction covers I’ve designed that I like best:

black background - her covers [7]

And here are some of the covers I admire from other designers.

covers she likes [8]

These are just a few of the covers I like. The list goes on and on. Every time I walk into a bookstore it’s a mixture of awe….and jealousy!

TW: Have you ever worked with self-publishing authors? If so, do you have any advice you’d like to pass along to them?

KG: I get many inquiries from self-publishers and have to turn down quite a bit. Because the books interested me, I tried taking on more last year, but with mixed results. While I think the covers turned out nicely, I realize that working with self-publishing authors without the structure of a publishing company is complicated for multiple reasons. One issue is the amount of time it takes to guide someone through the design and production process. Typically, I’m not having to do this additional consultation since I’m working directly with art directors. Also, while most of the authors are wonderful to work with, some would do well with the input from editors to refine their writing/general direction of their books. Also, this is where marketing and sales are key! Without the benefit of these professionals, many self-publishers rely only on family or friends to make decisions on covers rather than having the benefit of professionals who market/sell books for a living. I realize the irony here because on the flip side in traditional publishing many designers would note that having so many people review their work weakens the end result.

There are exceptions…I’ve had some great collaborations with authors who have dedicated themselves to researching the process and working with the right professionals (editors and publicists) and ultimately have been quite successful. At the end of the day, it’s always nice to have a happy author!

TW: Is there anything more you feel a writer would would be interested to know? I find it all fascinating, but I may have missed an interesting aspect of the process or of your perspective as a designer.

KG: Just that authors may not realize how many people are involved in the design process. Designers reinterpret the writing from a visual standpoint, so there is no literal translation.

Thanks so much for your time, Kimberly, and for my book cover!

Readers, you can learn even more about Kimberly and Kimberly Glyder Design on her website [3], and by following her on Twitter [9]

What are your favorite book cover designs? Do you have a cover story you’d like to share? The floor is yours.

About Therese Walsh [10]

Therese Walsh co-founded WU in 2006 and is the site's editorial director. She was the architect and 1st editor of WU's only book, Author in Progress [11], and orchestrates the WU UnConference. [12] Her second novel, The Moon Sisters [13], was named one of the best books of the year by Library Journal and Book Riot; and her debut, The Last Will of Moira Leahy [14] was a Target Breakout Book. Sign up for her newsletter [15] to be among the first to learn about her new projects (or follow her on BookBub [16]). Learn more on her website [17].