How We Judge a Book by Its Cover: The Cover Design Process

By Danielle Carnito, Trade Art Director

I get a lot of “Oh, you work in children’s book publishing, that must be so fun!” when people find out what I do for a living. And in truth it can be a lot of fun! We never tire of all the interesting facts we get to learn—and then foist upon others—when working on our books.

However, cover design is also a lot of dedicated work, a lot of communication, a lot of research, a lot of meetings, and a lot of problem solving. Children’s publishing is a big business, so catching the immediate attention of anyone who would buy a book is imperative. There is a lot resting on how the covers of our books look at first glance.

For that reason, there are quite a few people involved in the cover design approval process. And the process is different depending on what kind of product we’re looking at.

Here’s a brief overview:

Continuing series cover design

For continuing series that we add titles to every season, designers are not re-imagining the look of the covers. So, the approval group is smaller and the approval process usually takes a only few minutes at one cover meeting. Examples of continuing series are our Lightning Bolts or Searchlights.

Lightning Bolt Books cover design example

These discussions focus on picking a photo (out of the around 3 options the designer brings) that works in the allotted space on the cover and represents the content. This approval group can be comprised of designer, art director, editor, editorial director, publishing director, photo editor, production designer, and marketing managers.

New series and single-title nonfiction cover design

For books where the cover or series look is a newly conceived design, the process is lengthier. These types of books can a brand-new series of educational books or a stand-alone nonfiction title. One of our talented designers can come up with several design concepts. After discussing those with the (totally awesome) art director and sharing with the editor and photo editor for correct content, the design team presents to the editorial & marketing teams for discussion and feedback.

Outrageous Animal Adaptations cover
An example of single title nonfiction cover design. We had to make sure we have the right species of Outrageous Animal on the cover of this book! Who doesn’t love an axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum)?

That’s just the preliminary discussion. The cover options are narrowed down to top choices, and the feedback incorporated into the designs. Then at a later date the new cover is presented by the art director in what we call a “Final Cover Meeting.” Executives in marketing, sales, editorial, and the CEO & publisher join this meeting along with everyone who was in the preliminary meeting.

Novels and picture book cover design

For books where the authors and illustrators are also involved in the discussion, such as novels and picture books, the approvals are more involved yet.

The author, agent, or licensing partners (sometimes all, plus the illustrator) also are given a chance for cover review, so there is another layer of feedback and organization involved. The designer has to get a cover to an appropriate level of finish after the preliminary meeting but before the final meeting to send cover concepts to the external partner for consideration. Their feedback is brought to the final meeting along with the cover designs.

Honk Splat Vroom cover
We had quite the discussion on car color for Barry Gott’s Honk! Splat! Vroom! in one of our cover meetings, debating whether the lead car should red rather than blue. This resulted in one of my favorite quotes ever from Barry, on the lead mouse: “He has a couple of sad moments that I think define his little character more than the action.”

For another type of cover approval—this one involving buyer feedback— you can read all about The Disturbed Girl’s Dictionary cover design process in this blog post by designer Lindsey Owens.

230 covers in 5 months

And in case this sounds like a cake walk, keep in mind that covers don’t always get approved the first time out. We can go several rounds before hitting on the right look that will stand out in the crowd, be attractive to the target audience, and properly represent the book’s topic.

Add that to the amount of books we design per season (averaging 230) and the window we have to get them all done (about 5 months to finish all the covers in one season), and what we have is a dedicated team of awesome designers condensing a lot of creative energy into a short timeframe.

cover design meeting 1
Photos of some designers during our post-cover meeting notes review. Yes, we’re generally tired and a little loopy after a cover approval meeting, especially if the agenda is loooong. If you happen to be in the department at this time you may get pulled into a spontaneous post-cover meeting rejuvenation session. Sometimes there’s a piñata involved, sometimes baked goods, and sometimes the department may be completely empty as we’re all across the street at happy hour. Depending on the time of the meeting, of course. 

It’s not always the most creative cover that is chosen, or the most loved. (Let’s face it—all of my most loved covers would be purple or black and have pictures of Montana or cats on them. But that wouldn’t work for a book on cheerleading.) But it IS the cover collaboration agreed on between so many people that is the best way to sell each particular book. A book cover is, at its heart and in the market, a sales piece.

Yes, it is a lot of fun. We’re in this business because we love making books. And we love making covers that stand out. And we love creating visuals combined with words that make you think for a second.

I’ll leave you with one of our quotes collected from a recent cover meeting. Just think about this one ’till this book comes out:

“The spider taco wins.”

For more posts on book design, click here

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