Do book designers read the book before doing the design?
December 1, 2019 3:36 PM   Subscribe

Or do you know what and how they learn about the contents of the book before doing the design? I am mainly thinking of the cover design. Please answer only if you have some knowledge specific to book design. Then you can help settle a bet with my wife.
posted by NotLost to Media & Arts (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I have a friend who does book design for Fantagraphics. My understanding is that he doesn't, in most cases, read the book cover to cover but they do get a sense of what it's about, and particularly a sense of what the author's "deal" is (i.e. what sort of treatment their past stuff has had,what their "brand" is for lac of a better word) and what the publisher is hoping to get out of the book. Beyond that I am speculating but based on my discussions with many authors who have had to choose from a short list of designs for their book covers, there is usually what you'd call an "executive summary" given to the designer as well as some general mood pieces in terms of color or style. This varies hugely from whether you're going with a more bespoke sort of thing (Fantagraphics is, of course, very concerned with design) or a more mainstream press which would care more about what the marketplace was looking for.

I designed the covers for both of my books. In the first case because the designer had very clearly read nothing at all about my book besides the title and maybe a few sentences. In the second case it was because i had a clear idea of what I wanted and I put it in my book contract from the get-go. Most authors I know feel lucky if they're given a set of covers to choose from and one of them isn't awful. There is a LOT of pressure to pick a design that is given to you and not push back too much.

Feel free to email my friend if you'd like a first-person account.
posted by jessamyn at 3:43 PM on December 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

I've often created cover designs for books purely based on what the publisher wants. They're the one that's working on selling or distributing the book so they have an idea how it's going to be positioned. As a designer, I might dream up visuals from my own perspective of a text that don't at all mesh with the genre or the vibe the cover is meant for.

Designing the contents, you often don't see the whole text till it's under your hands. At that point you're not exactly reading every word, but you need to know a little about the style and weight of the book to pick good typefaces and set them appropriately for the contents.

From my experience, 90% of your knowledge of the project comes from discussions with the publisher, editor or (in these self-publishing days) the writer. It's the clarity of that communication that matters, not reading the book.
posted by zadcat at 3:55 PM on December 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

At major trade publishers of adult books consisting of mostly text: typically not. The book’s publisher and editor (and their assistants) as noted above communicate with the Art and Production departments. In some cases, a sample of the text may be provided as part of the summaries provided to the parties who need it, but the full final manuscript may not even be available at the design stage.
posted by kapers at 4:37 PM on December 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

Also, to your question as to how they learn the contents: usually at a sit-down meeting with Editorial and others (think people who make content, money, and marketing decisions), follow-ups via email.
posted by kapers at 4:41 PM on December 1, 2019

I've had experience in this area. There is no one answer, as it does vary, however generally designers and artists do not read the whole book before designing a cover.

They receive a brief that may be written or delivered in meeting/teleconference or perhaps both. They may read the first chapter or two, or if it's fiction they may be supplied with a chapter of the "scene" they are meant to be rendering on the cover.

There are some exceptions here and there. But in my experience, the majority of designers/illustrators do not read the books, no way. They don't have that kind of time/resource, and in some cases don't have that interest - they are designers; they may not like reading, reading that particular genre etc.
posted by smoke at 5:31 PM on December 1, 2019 [2 favorites]

I have worked at a number of publishing companies, and it really varies. At a major trade house for adult books (fiction and nonfiction), generally not. At a small self-publisher, sometimes. Currently children's publishing, our designers always read the full length novels but generally not the shorter 32-page books. We have cover conferences where the editor shares the basic plot, elements that could be considered, hopes & wishes from the author, inspiration or comparative titles (or similar titles to avoid). For nonfiction, there is a lot of discussion paid to whether what is pictured on the cover is included inside.

For what it's worth, the designer, editor and author don't get the final say - usually sales and marketing drive that.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 6:01 PM on December 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

MeFi's own Charlie Stross has written about the book cover process.

CMAP #6: Why did you pick such an awful cover for your new book?
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 6:53 PM on December 1, 2019 [4 favorites]

Sci-fi illustrator Wayne Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials is based on the premise of actually reading the text and showing 50 aliens as they are described. He complains in the introduction that as a cover designer he was rarely given any information about a story’s content. The nonsense results would make readers unhappy.
posted by migurski at 9:41 PM on December 1, 2019

You get a creative brief from the marketing people, who already know what they want and have sat in a million meetings talking about it already. By the time it gets to the artist, they are hiring you to produce the idea they have already conceived, not read the book.
posted by bradbane at 11:21 PM on December 1, 2019

An author I read was recently presented with an entirely unsuitable cover picture. She writes historical romances, and her major publishing house considers her a major name in their stable, probably their best historical romance author. The cover they had come up with was totally generic. There was photograph of a genuine Georgian great house, with a woman in a regency gown and poke bonnet in front of it looking towards the house across a garden so that you had a three-quarter rear profile, and thus actually could see nothing of the woman herself, just the costume. Her hair colour and age might have been anything, and she was of a middling sort of build.

It sounds perfect and inoffensive. But what they publishing house had overlooked was that the photograph of the National Trust Georgian great house was an authentic view of what the house looks like now, complete with prominent modern garbage bins and signage.

Author notified them of this, and photoshopping was done and they went with the same cover. And of course sharing the unsuitable picture with her fans was good advance publicity.

It looks very much like there was a colour scheme thing going on - there was a purple sort of great house picture and a blue sort of great house picture and a yellow sort of great house picture in the same series. So we know that the cover was part of a set designed to match, she had no expectation of any say, and efforts had been made to create a generic cover that would have worked for any random book she wrote, but without thorough attention and care.
posted by Jane the Brown at 4:30 AM on December 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

In some cases, publishers have a design template and the image and text will change, but little else. The site isn't updated, but interesting.
posted by theora55 at 6:17 AM on December 2, 2019 [1 favorite]

I self-publish, so different process than trad publishing, but one of the things about covers is they're meant to signal things about the book without necessarily depicting anything in the book.

Seconding what everyone has said about trad publishing: it's a discussion between the editor, marketing, etc. who provide a creative brief. Sometimes the cover designer gets an excerpt so they can match the feel of the text (i.e. a very lyrically written book should probably have a cover that at least doesn't contradict that, a very snarky book may need a different style of cover.) They might get some visual references especially if relevant clothing or architecture styles aren't well known.

Sometimes they get a description of major characters but this is hit or miss: sometimes the cover design is really specific, as in this discussion of the Gideon the Ninth cover, but often you end up with people on the covers who look nothing like the descriptions in the book. Who wins that argument mostly depends on how much the marketing folks care.

For my own books (and I gather this is pretty common for self-pub), I give my cover designer a paragraph or so of specific elements/things worth signalling in the cover, she comes up with something that fits the series design we've done (because having the series look cohesive matters), and then we go back and forth a little about details. She doesn't read the books, but does take stuff like "This one's about the dressmaker, can the background riff on one of these color." It took us a bit longer to come up with the overall series design.
posted by jenettsilver at 9:16 AM on December 2, 2019

I have worked in editorial at major book publishers since 2003 and I can say confidently that this is going to be different for every book/designer combination, even within the same imprint.

For times when the designer doesn't or can't read the book, they would base their initial designs on a cover memo put together by the editor, which would have information about the book along with other things, like sales points, target audience, and/or thumbnails of comp titles. A publisher might have a formal procedure for this which would change frequently and be ignored frequently due to special circumstances.

If the editor and designer have a close trusting working relationship, this might come in the form of me (the editor) going to the designer's office and saying "this one has a horse and a pond" and telling them the working title.

Just in my limited experience, I've personally experienced the whole range from designers who have a policy of reading the whole manuscript the moment it's available (which notably will be different relative to the cover schedule for each book) to designers who won't even read the cover memo and want the editor to tell them out loud what they want, and everything in between.

Cover ideas/sketches/other stages might be reviewed by marketing but rarely begin with marketing.
posted by lampoil at 1:59 PM on December 2, 2019

Thank you. These are all informative answers.

I won the bet with my wife. She thought designers read the books before doing the designs.
posted by NotLost at 7:28 PM on December 2, 2019 [2 favorites]

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