Secrets of the Book Designer: Paperbacks

Today’s post by Linda Huang originally appeared on on October 22, 2015.

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Secrets of the Book Designer: Paperbacks

On Creating the Paperback Edition of Dept. of Speculation


I’m a cover designer at Vintage & Anchor Books, the paperback imprint at the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. On average, roughly half our covers are adapted from the hardcover design, and the rest are entire redesigns. Whether or not a book needs a facelift depends on a number of factors, including (most importantly) hardcover sales, the hardcover design’s commercial accessibility, and its reproducibility in paperback. The goal of the paperback is therefore to reposition a book, capture a wider audience, or target a new market. We give books a second chance.

What this means visually is democratizing the design: making it appeal to more readers by showing more of a sense of place, time, character, genre, or mood. Generally, hardcovers can afford to be a bit abstract while paperbacks prefer to be more concrete. Although this can sometimes result in graphic sameness, readers do need cues to help them decide what to buy. The goal is, after all, to sell books. The internal struggle as a designer, then, is finding a satisfying balance between commercial accessibility and artistic standards. We try to push boundaries to create covers that are graphically interesting—which has a pragmatic purpose because it helps them stand out—while maintaining a level of marketability.

Before I begin work, I read as much as I can of and about the book and author—reviews, marketing strategies, and similar titles, jotting down anything I find metaphorically significant or visually interesting. If necessary, I collect art research for inspiration, especially for era-specific books. It helps to have a mood board containing the visual language I am trying to capture. I then ask myself:

What is the overall tone or mood of the writing?

Does it call for a photograph, an illustration, or a collage?

Is the author important enough to warrant an all-type cover?

I design as many iterations of a cover as necessary until I am happy with at least a few directions. My art director might make suggestions or help me narrow it down even further to present to the committee, who then select one to be sent to the author for approval. All this communication is handled through the editor. Unless you have a relationship with the author, designers rarely interact with them in the design process.

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