YPG and CoverSpy Go Undercover for April’s BBL

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On Friday, April 29th, 2011, AAP’s Young to Publishing Group hosted their latest Brown Bag Lunch, Cover to Cover, a presentation and discussion on the creative and business aspects of cover art design. Joining the discussion were Harper Collins’ Senior Art Director Robin Bilardello, Penguin Press’ Senior Designer Tal Goretsky, and Penguin Classics’ Editorial Director Elda Rotor. Each panelist presented a sample of his or her cover designs, explaining how a book’s content inspires a visual interpretation, and outlining the long process through which that inspiration becomes an approved book cover.

Unlike most artists, cover artists’ work cannot be entirely dictated by their own visions. Everyone involved in the book, from the writer and editors to the marketing and publicity departments, dictates how content should be illustrated. Oftentimes, the artists are given vague but authoritative instructions for covers to be “atmospheric”, “minimal” or “fantastical”. Like middle children resigned to their roles as unsung heroes of compromise, the panelists humorously discussed their tactics in converging several people’s conflicting visions into one cohesive and successful cover.

Robin used sample covers from Yannick Murphy’s The Call to illustrate the challenges she faces in meeting the demands of various departments. For The Call, Robin was asked to use 3 x 6 photographs of pastoral scenes. After settling on one particular cover, the publisher and editor requested to see it in more than ten different color schemes, until they ultimately deemed it unsatisfactory. Finding herself back at the drawing board, Robin decided to use silhouettes of farm animals set against a bright background to create a stark and simplistic cover. The publisher and editor were pleased with this result, but a long discussion ensued on which farm animal would be best, the chicken? The donkey? The horse? They finally settled on the cow.

Tal expressed similar frustrations in dealing with the conflicting and vague demands of the writer, editors, publishers and marketers. While designing Deborah E. Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches, he was told to make it “modern but old but modern.” Justifiably confused, Tal tried his best to make the cover simultaneously modern and old. After several failed attempts, he was struck with the idea to incorporate alchemy into the design after consulting the author and the art director Paul Buckley. Indeed, the result simultaneously evokes an ancient yet current feel, with large modern font set against simple alchemical and astrological drawings. In another baffling situation involving the cover design for Joshua Foher’s Moonwalking with Einstein, Tal found his ideas repeatedly rejected. With a guilty smile on his face, he explained that repeated rejection takes its toll on him, and he soon found himself creating animated covers of Albert Einstein doing the moonwalk. These entertaining but ultimately useless divergences seem to be Tal’s inspiration, for after this slump, he designed a highly creative and successful cover for the title.

The discussion took a turn when Elda presented work for Penguin Classics. Although Elda is Editorial Director of Penguin Classics, she is deeply interested and involved in the vision for cover art for Penguin Classics, also under the art direction of Mr. Buckley. Along with illustrating covers for new Classics titles, the Penguin Classics team also invents new ways in which to illustrate backlist titles. She is constantly exploring how classics can be refreshed to appeal to younger markets. In short, how can forgotten titles become hip again? The answer lies in exquisite, modern cover art. For a collection of modern classics including Keri Hulme’s The Bone People and J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for Barbarians, Mr. Buckley commissioned renowned tattoo artists to design the covers. Mr. Buckley also reaches out to young and talented illustrators, comic artists, graphic designers and visual artists to create fresh interpretations for age-old stories. For Penguin Threads, illustrator Jillian Tamaki recently designed covers for Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, and Jane Austen’s Emma. Tamaki hand-embroidered the cover art on a canvas, which was then photographed and then sculpt-embossed to create an exquisitely detailed cover. Penguin Classics features inspired textile pattern designs as well. In a collection of hardcover classics including Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Wilke Collins’ Woman in White, designer Coralie Bickford-Smith used symbols from literature to create repeating patterns on cloth hard covers.

Each cover that Robin, Tal and Elda presented had an entertaining back-story and a pervasive theme of inspiring persistence. As with any creative profession, the role of a cover artist can be disheartening at times. The panelists consider it routine to design more than fifteen covers for one title, only to learn that none of them will be used and that another artist working on the same title has created the winning cover. Such routine frustration and disappointment might render certain cover artists a bit bitter and lacking in confidence. However, for the designers participating in this BBL, recounting each title’s history with good-natured tenacity, incisiveness and wit, this is fortunately not the case.

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