It’s the oldest media around, and the only one people talk about with misty-eyed romanticism. Between 15th century clergymen painstakingly transcribing manuscripts by hand and today’s lightning fast communications and computer-generated info-edu-tainment, the humble book has hardly changed.
And although the fledgling publishing industry of the early 20th century would see today’s landscape of technology totally alien, the oldest truth in marketing lives on — make your product more attractive than your competitors, and it will sell better.
Part of that marketing is design, and although the field is a baby cousin to more mainstream counterparts, its prestige among commercial artists is undeniable.
Any Old Designer
Breaking into book design isn’t hard (no more than other design field at least). Even though the Australian publishing market isn’t nearly the size of advertising or other commercial fields, working on books is — after all — just another kind of design.
In fact, as recent Australian Publishers Association Book Design Award winner Mary Callahan explains, non-book designers come with their own qualifications. “Sometimes you see exciting designs from people who aren’t in the industry,” she says, “One of the dangers of only designing books is that people can lose a fresh approach.”
Be mindful of differences from other media. Be observant. Look at books, self-train about the conventions in text formatting and different longevity to other media. And as Rebecca Kaiser — Editorial Manager of Allen & Unwin — advises, love your own work. “If you’ve got the basic technical skills, that’s the qualification — but it’s more important to have an eye for what publishers are looking for.”
The Way In
There’s no magical approach to book design. The person you have to impress differs from publisher to publisher (be it the Publishing Director, Editorial Manager or Production Manager), but do your homework. Learn (and be able to show) what publishing — and an individual publisher — is about. “Pick a book you love and do some sample designs,” Kaiser says, “show a range that are appropriate for that book.”
Then — like always — be your own salesperson. Email, ring, ask for a few minutes to show your portfolio, send electronic samples. You’re at the mercy of luck, the culture of individual publishers, and your own tenacity.
Book designers have a non-linear fit into the culture of publishing houses — which are very individual beasts depending on their size and lists.
A large corporate publisher like News Ltd-owned HarperCollins has editorial, design and marketing departments that have to co-operate, so there’s a solid schedule to follow. In small publishers without in-house design and where the Publisher and Editor might be one and the same, it can be a lot more fluid.
In most cases, the author is approached for their design ideas (they presumably know the intention of their book the best). Since few authors are designers, in-house staff responsible for briefing the designer have to communicate the intended look and feel, sometimes based on a passage or pivotal juncture in the content). Most of the time the author and designer will have little to do with each other.
Roughs are then produced, and depending on the size of the company, marketing people will give their input. The designer then goes to work on the favoured ideas.
Judging a Book by its Cover
There are as many ways to design a book cover as there are designers. Sometimes, the designer art directs the project, commissioning artwork or photography from other suppliers in turn.
It also depends on the designer, the project and the publisher whether the designer works on the entire book. In Mary Callahan’s case, the whole thing is a unit. “I enjoy being involved from woe to go and creating something harmonious,” she says, “often I’ve designed the cover, seen it in a bookshop and not been happy with the interior.”
According to HarperCollins’ Shona Martyn, whether that happens depends on the project. “Sometimes, in the case of a complicated literary book, you’ll have a designer work on chapter headings and other elements,” she explains, “but in fiction publishing you’re almost working to a template.”
To Ray Coffee, Publisher of Fremantle Arts Centre Press, the separation of cover and text makes sense. “Most publishers have house styles,” he says, “we tend to use the same typefaces, only changing folios, chapter pages, the width of margins or leading. The publisher decides whether modifications need to be done and the designer fine tunes the interior, but it’s typical for it to be 90% done by the time the designer gets it.”
Of course, stresses Robert Sessions, Publishing Director of Penguin Books Australia, that’s not to say they’re two separate projects. “Neither should dictate the other, but the cover and text should be a perfect pair in the end product.”
Collaboration is key whatever the operations size — usually it’s only between the designer and a creative project manager. Most publishers and designers believe it’s important the designer has a close understanding of the book. At bigger, more procedural companies where there isn’t always time for the designer to read the manuscript, good communication by the briefing editor is critical.
For Mary Callahan, who’s worked closely with Nikki Christer of Picador for 5 years, it’s almost a double-edged sword. “When you work with a publisher for a long time you develop a shorthand of understanding,” she says, “by the same token, if a publisher gives you a brief you have to rely not just on their interpretation but what they think is possible. A good designer can go down a path nobody’s thought about without just rehashing a typical marketing solution.”
The larger the operation, the less likely it is for the designer to get involved with paper stocks, spot colours or other special treatments. If it’s a large, stylised cookery or picture book, there’s more cause for the designer and in-house production people to flesh out the details, but many publishers hold contracts with printers for fixed amounts of work which pre-specify paper stocks and sizes for simpler runs like commercial fiction.
Don’t let the prestige fool you. The money isn’t big in book publishing — for designers any more than writers. In a country with a fraction of the market of the giant US and UK publishers, most print runs for books are rarely more than a couple of thousand and there just isn’t the money to spend.
At the forefront of her field and having worked alongside some of the biggest names in Australian publishing, Mary Callahan — although studying full time since 1998, admits to taking on some corporate clients out of economic necessity.
David Harris, Senior Publisher of Scholastic Australia, is realistic. “The range is about $800 to a couple of thousand dollars because most publishers have to get their books designed for about $2,000,” he says, “A designer in America would probably be getting five or ten times that much.”
Of course, even though everyone agrees that book design is far from lucrative, not much can stack up to the excitement and pleasure of seeing your work on the shelf.
Your Own Boss?
The industry’s relative leanness works both ways — it creates more opportunities to sell your wares freelance. “Most publishers don’t have in-house design,” says Allen & Unwin’s Rebecca Kaiser, “It’s reasonably good for young and aspiring book designers. All media are suffering but books are more resilient than most — there’ll always be a demand for good designers.”
And publishers don’t just like freelancers because of economics, they watch out for fresh talent like anyone. For Shona Martyn, Publishing Director of HarperCollins, it’s a matter of creative range. “We use freelancers because of workload issues but sometimes because they all have different strengths,” she says, “And at HarperCollins, where we publish so many kinds of books, there are lots of different skills required.”
The consensus is that there’s plenty of work around for those in what one production manager calls the ‘inner circle’, it’s just a matter of getting in. And as Hodder Headline’s Fiona Hazard explains, it’s no easier for a publisher to take on someone new than for an aspiring designer to break in; “If I start with someone new and it’s not quite right so we have to keep starting again, it’s difficult to pull work away from them and start with someone else without compromising deadlines.”
Dog Eat Dog World
We all know there’s never a shortage of bright-eyed innocents coming straight out of art and design school looking for work. When asked about similar droves of would-be book designers fighting for publishers’ attention, HarperCollins’ Shona Martyn says they’re the same species. “The people who come into book design are the same who come from art school or other media,” she says, “People can move from one to the other quite easily — you just have to learn the production and technical aspects of the book trade.”
But, where a studio job could mean designing a huge four colour brochure and changing the phone number in a mono newspaper ad in the same day, book designers tend to carve their own niches. “Rarely will you find a designer who can work across all genres.” Says Hodder’s Fiona Hazard.
Publishing is also prone to the ‘I Can Use Microsoft Word’s Drawing Tools So I’m A Graphic Designer’ phenomenon, as Scholastic’s David Harris laments. “Because a lot of people have access to desktop technology they imagine it makes them a book designer,” he says, “There’s a lot of mediocre book design around.”
And when you’ve got there, how do you know you’re any good? It’s too easy to connect design with sales — they’re generated from good marketing or good writing (which creates its own marketing buzz). Books that have done well at the APA Design Awards haven’t always been big sellers.
Sales generation is certainly one benchmark. To HarperCollins’ Shona Martyn, book buying is a unique behaviour. “People browse,” she says, “The first thing they’ll see is the cover, which needs to be good enough to get the right readers — not the wrong readers — to pick it up and read the back.”
To some, however, it’s more important how accurately the design reflects the book’s intent. “When something is working well, there’s a consensus amongst experienced people that we’ve got it ‘pretty right’,” says Penguin’s Robert Sessions, “Occasionally there’s real excitement at the way a designer has captured a book’s qualities and translated them successfully to the design.”
It’s also critical to remember your medium. Unlike newspapers or film trailers — which are pretty ubiquitous, books have to work hard, and — despite their longevity — fast. “One of the book’s most important design elements is the cover,” say’s Allen & Unwin’s Rebecca Kaiser, “Books have a very short face-out shelf life in a bookstore, and that’s the only time the cover is going to attract people to pick the book up.”
The book world also has its own superstars that influence the grey area of successful design. Says Mary Callahan, “The success of the design and the success of the book are two different things. If you put a really ordinary cover on a Bryce Courtenay book, it’d make no difference to the number of copies sold.”
But as Scholastic’s David Harris points out, sometimes a publisher has more control over a book’s destiny than they realise. “Sometimes it’s a self fulfilling prophecy,” he says, “We spend more money on the books we think are going to do well and they do well because of that.”
A Hard, Rewarding Road
A book designer’s lot isn’t easy. For starters, you won’t be rolling in money unless you’re among the country’s best (and just like in Hollywood, stars flare brightly and disappear).
Plus, aside from the worldwide downturn in media because of dropping advertising revenues, publishers were also slugged by GST. “GST immediately added 10% to the price of books without adding anything to the publisher’s income,” says Scholastic’s David Harris, “so we’ve effectively had 10% knocked off our profitability.”
But despite being a small industry, it’s an exciting one — you’ll be working in a media people love instead of one that clogs their letterboxes with junk mail. And who, after all (designers as much as writers) hasn’t imagined the excitement of getting a ‘yes’ from a book publisher?