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How a Book Cover is Made

Book covers are a unique market for illustration, however not many illustrators know about the long, arduous road they go through to be produced. Since I’ve worked both in-house at publishers and on my own as an illustrator and art director, I thought I’d shed some light on that journey. [Note: I work mainly in YA, which is a little different than adult books, so there may be some discrepancies.]

A book cover originates with the editor. He or she will typically type up a cover memo that outlines the central plot of the book, the main characters, the target demographic, comparable covers, and any ideas the editor and author may have. This cover memo is then given to the creative director who assigns it to an art director or designer.

Once the art director/designer has it, he or she will hopefully have time to read the manuscript if one’s available (occasionally they’re not). It’s not necessary to read the entire book—sometimes all it takes is just getting a sense of tone or enough to see what the story and motifs are—but it’s always beneficial to be able to do so. During that time, the art director will jot down notes, sketch in the margins, and gather material and inspiration as it comes, paying attention to the things mentioned in the cover memo. Then, he or she will work up comps. This can be anything from fully-realized designs using stock photography if the cover will be photo-based, or his or her own crude doodles with supporting illustrator samples if it’s to be illustrated. The art director/designer may even create a Frankenstein mish-mash using samples from the illustrator to fully sell his or her concept and the proposed artists.

Once the art director/designer has enough promising comps, he or she will show them to the creative director and editor for approval. This may take a few rounds to make them happy, but it’s an important step because the trio will need to present a unified front when taking them to the jacket meeting.

Jacket meetings are weekly (and sometimes bi-weekly) meetings where covers are reviewed in their various stages and everyone gets to weigh in on their direction. People in them usually include:

  • The creative director
  • The top art director(s)
  • The design assistant (for taking notes)
  • The publisher
  • The vice president
  • The head of sales
  • The head of marketing
  • The editorial director

Throughout the grueling two hours, designers and editors are called in, one after another, to present their titles in front of the committee. The committee will most likely have problems with the proposed cover that need to be addressed, oftentimes causing the art director/designer to tweak it, rethink certain aspects, or completely start over from scratch. It may have to be brought back in multiple times until the committee is happy.

Once the committee is confident with the direction, the editor may send the approved cover concept to the author and his or her agent to get their blessing, depending on their involvement. 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. You can imagine the drama that could ensue. When everybody’s finally onboard, it’s time to actually make a book cover.

Assuming the cover will be illustrated (this is an illustration blog, naturally), the art director will reach out to the illustrator or the illustrator’s rep, presenting the concept, the due dates, the fees, and asking about the illustrator’s availability and interest. There may be some back and forth as specifics are negotiated, but once everyone is in agreement, the art director will forward on the manuscript (if one’s available), the contract, and any other direction the illustrator should know about.

The illustrator will typically have anywhere from two to three weeks to sketch out a cover. Sometimes, though, the timeframe is significantly shorter depending on how much of a crash the book is on, and may even need to deliver sketches that very same week. The illustrator will hopefully also be able to read the manuscript, but may opt not to or just read a part of it like the art director/designer might have. He or she may also choose to provide additional concepts besides what the art director commissioned if the publisher is open to it.

Once sketches are delivered, the art director/designer will show them to the creative director and editor to get their input and approval. The author may even be involved again and it may possibly go back to a jacket meeting if the book is important enough to warrant the oversight. It may take a couple of weeks to get feedback or it may be the next day—it’s a bit unpredictable depending on how crucial the book is, who may or may not be on vacation at the time, and how much of a crash schedule the book is on. Regardless, the chances of going straight to final after the first sketch are probably around 2%. Sometimes the requested changes will be extensive. Sometimes minor. But, much like death and taxes, an illustrator can be certain he or she will have to make some. Once the sketches are approved after (hopefully!) a couple rounds, the final art is commenced.

Final art can be due anywhere from a few days later if the publisher’s in a time crunch, to a few weeks later if the deadline’s healthy or the illustrator requires it (realistic oil painters, for instance). It will then be fully designed by the art director/designer and taken back into a jacket meeting where it goes through even more intense scrutiny. It’s also shown to the author and his or her agent again for final approval. Of course, the cover is rarely given the green light and there will probably be even more changes—either for the illustrator or the art director/designer or both. Occasionally, after seeing the final cover, the jacket committee may even decide the direction isn’t what they hoped and will completely scrap the cover, forcing the art director/designer to kill the illustration and start over from scratch with a whole new concept.

Eventually, a final cover is somehow agreed upon, but it’s not over yet. It’s put on ARCs (advance reading copies) or bound galleys which are used by the sales team to sell the book to their buyers and given out for reviews well in advance of the printing date. Most of the time, this goes smoothly, but sometimes certain buyers have issues that need addressing. For instance, a buyer at Barnes & Noble may feel that the particular cover direction won’t sell as well for them as an alternative one and will request the publisher change it or they’ll order significantly fewer copies. Or the cover could get a negative response from a library association or other group that gives the publisher pause. This may then require some small retooling or the cover may be trashed completely and restarted from the very beginning. Additionally, now that the ARCs are out in the world, some exciting reviews or endorsements (otherwise known as blurbs) may also come in that the publisher may want on the front cover. The art director/designer will then have to rework the cover slightly to include these things and, of course, bring it back to a jacket meeting to get final approval on.

Finally, eight to nine months after this journey initially started, the cover is completed and shipped to the printer. Proofs are reviewed, errors fixed, and OK’s given. It’s printed, coated, applied with any special effects, wrapped around the novel, and shipped to the bookstores to begin its life out in the wild. After all the struggles, the heartache, and the exhausting late nights from everyone involved, the book cover is now, officially, done.

Until, of course, it goes into paperback.

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