Professional Art Directors Explain How to Make a Book Cover

We’ve just uploaded the latest installment of the Artist’s Market Online Remembers series, the 2007 article “Creating Book Covers: How to Get An Art Director’s Attention” by Carol Pinchefsky. In this article three art directors from major publishers explain how to make a book cover and share what they look for in freelance illustrators and artists. You can read the entire book cover design article here, or read on for an excerpt including book cover art, book cover designs and tips for approaching art directors.




Here, three hardworking art directors from major publishers discuss what they look for in a freelance artist. Richard Aquan is an art director with HarperCollins. Vivian Ducas is an art director with Harlequin. Susan Mitchell is an art director with Farrar, Straus & Gioux.

The Producer: John Hammond and the Soul of American Art

The cover for "The Producer: John Hammond and the Soul of American Music" was very much a group effort says Art Director Susan Mitchell. "My Editor, Paul Elie, and I went over piles of photos but there was not one of Hammond in the same room with the performers he produced." Joe Ciardiello's spirited watercolor caricatures provided both a solution and a memorable cover. Reprinted with permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc. Illustration: Joe Ciardiello. Art Direction/Design: Susan Mitchell.

What kind of promo samples really prompt you to take a chance on an illustrator you’ve never worked with before?

Richard Aquan: I look at consistency when I’m looking at the work. I don’t want to see one good piece, I want to see 10 good pieces. I gotta know the guy’s consistent, and unfortunately I pretty much only use the top guys.
It’s the person’s work: If I like the work, I use it.
But the important thing when you assign something is finding the right person for the right book. If you’re doing a romance book you want a romance illustrator, because if you give somebody inappropriate subject matter to paint or design, you’re not going to get a good job. That’s the most important part about art direction.

Vivian Ducas: It all depends on the freelancer.  I have worked with freelancers who I’ve never worked with before who found my name through Artist’s and Graphic Designer’s Market. One of the designers was very consistent: every couple of weeks she sent me a postcard, and I could tell she geared it toward the book publishing business. When I finally contacted her, she offered to go through a little bit of a test. I then referred her back to our Web site to look at some books and give me three examples of covers she thought she could do better and why. She took the initiative to understand our product and took the creative initiative to approach it three different ways, not just one way. She was able to discuss it and rationalize and learn from it, so it gave me the confidence to know she is someone I can collaborate with. Another fellow wouldn’t do the test. I don’ t know what’s become of him.

Susan Mitchell: If I really liked a sample I would want to see more; I don’t think one sample is enough to prove anything. I do not hire an illustrator because of their previous work in terms of content, I want them to give me something that doesn’t look like what they’ve done, something that shows fresh thinking. I don’t want people to repeat themselves, but I want the quality that they’re known for.

Do you read the book you’re designing the cover for?

Aquan: Some people do read them. I don’t have time. I’m not a fast reader. I do 160 books a year, of which time I have allotted to design is usually eight to 10 weeks, 12 weeks tops, to make it for the catalogue. I rely heavily on he editor to give me a synopsis of he book to work on it. They have to present an idea, and from that I’ll design a cover based upon what they tell me they want.
On the science fiction list, we’ll call the author, and say we need a scene for the cover. They will give us an outline and tell us what they want—a cathedral and a winged guy—and I’ll work with that. I’ll send that to the illustrator, and the illustrator will then do sketches. I’ll look at it, suggest changes if needed, and once we get a revision, back it goes to the editor and the author for a second pass before we go for a finish.
If the artist wants to read the book I’ll send it to them. Unfortunately most of them are busy, and they like a synopsis.

Ducas: We work either six months or a year in advance to you  quite often can’t read the book. We have a synopsis to work with and to discuss with the editors and marketing people.
The art directors do more than “choose” art for covers. Art directors work closely with the editors and marketing people. They are responsible for the total package so art directors collaborate with talented and skilled designer, typographers as well as illustrators and photographers. Some are in-house, some are freelance. Check out the exciting work we do at

Mitchell: I can’t speak for anybody else, but as for the people that work with me, they must read their books. We still value originality, and the artist is going to find a different take from the author’s text. The author’s words are going to bring the artist to a different place. If you’re working at a company whose writers are great, which ours are, the artists find inspiration in the author’s words, and it’s going to guarantee you something fresh and original.

Her Better Half

Harlequin covers are no longer typically the windswept couple embracing on a hilltop, or a swashbuckling pirate staring down his object of desire. The publisher has changed and so has the art they choose for covers. In the Harlequin NEXT series, a quiet image of two coffee cups evokes a relationship. Sylvie Daigneault's illustration sets the stage for "Her Better Half" and invites us into the characters' inner lives. Art Director Vivian Ducas appreciated the artist's portrayal of the setting in the street scene details and many nuances. Reprinted with permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited. Illustration: Sylvie Daigneault. Rep:

Is there a difference in the look of paper back and hard cover books?

Aquan: There’s a tremendous difference between hard cover, mass market and trade paperback. Each one is designed to a certain need and you can’t just design them the same. The trade paperbacks tend to be more highbrow, more literary. The mass markets have to be big, hit-em-over-the-head type, big author, big title, and they use more illustrations. The hardcovers tend to use more photography. The bottom line is you still have to know the marketing of publishing books.

Mitchell: I think the form changes the look: if you take a cover and wrap it around a hardcover book with a spine and a flap, then you trim it and fold it around a paperback, you have a different look because of the physical properties of each.
The distinction is changing and evolving. There are mass market books now that have a trade look to them, a little more sophisticated, a little finer typography, simpler, cleaner, more tasteful looking.

Where is book cover art heading in the future?

Aquan: That’s a tough thing to say, because things that artists like are different from what market wants to buy; we speak a higher visual language. Where the books will go is more about marketing trends.
But history repeats itself: everything you can think of has been done before. You ust have to find a new way of inventing and repackaging it. Foil has been around for years, but only in mass market books. Now hard covers use it all the time.

Ducas: “Trends” is a funny word. I just know that readers are very visually literate and sophisticated now, and we’re just doing it for them. That’s where freelancers come in, because they’re out there, discovering new looks and different styles. The art director makes the perfect connection with that perfect illustrator, typographer, and/or photographer and can take your look or your style and apply it. Collaboration is really the fun part of the job.

Mitchell: This is a complicated answer. You can be too far ahead of the curve and miss the market, but if you don’t push that envelope a little bit, you’re caught in Tiredland. I think book cover art is in a decline right now, if I may be honest. The form is being challenged by the agent, author, bookseller.
I wonder where it’s going. I feel the market is driving a lot of what is done. The people in charge are not the people who should be calling the shots; they’re making covers uniform. I don’t try to write the copy. I’m not a writer, but I am a reader, but do I offer my opinion? Mutual respect is very hard to find right now, yet it’s essential to the process of growing.


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