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Publishers Training Abu Dhabi, Day 2: Lessons in Book Design

By Salwa Shakhshir

This week Salwa Shakhshir, a children’s book publisher from Amman, Jordan, is attending the second annual Publishers Training program organized by KITAB in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Read coverage of Day 1.

Salwa ShakhshirSalwa by documenting her experiences for throughout the week.

Day 2, Publishers Training, Abu Dhabi

From the minute I read about this lecture I knew I was going to learn so much from it and indeed I did! Mario Pulice, the Creative Director of Little, Brown & Company, was here to talk about Book Cover Design & Concepts. He started off by showing us covers of books that Little, Brown had worked on. I recognized a few which I already had like David Sedaris, Malcolm Gladwell, James Patterson and Stephenie Meyer. Some of the designs looked really elaborate while others were simple with text only, and I wondered how and who decides which should be elaborate and which should be kept simple?

Mario went on to show us how the same book cover can be packaged in so many different ways from one country to the next. Although I knew this from before, seeing all those covers from different parts of the world packaged in so many different ways, really illustrated how much design and art is representative of culture and what societies deem is acceptable or attractive or believable…

“When talking about designing the cover of the book” Mario said as he opened a book, “I’m talking about the front, the back and the spine.” I loved that sentiment and was sure to reiterate it loud and clear to my designer when I get back home! One of the participants commented on the positioning of the ISBN at the back of the book and asked if that bothered Mario as a designer. His answer was just great because when I first started in publishing that was one of my first fights…

Let’s be honest here, the ISBN is just ugly! Why does it have to be on the back? Why does it have to be so big?

Mario said he fought trying to put the ISBN on the inside of the jacket of the book. The only concession he received was to make the conceded the ISBN 10% smaller. It had to stay on the back cover because that is how books are tracked and sold. Any smaller, and the tracking machine won’t pick it up.

That was the end of the fight for Mario, and upon hearing that, it is definitely the end of the fight for me as well!

We then moved on to the process of designing the cover of the book, and of course, the steps start from reading the manuscript or the summary of the book to sketching, discussing, presenting and finally approving the design.

The process was quite detailed, and included a lot of people – each specialized in doing one area of the job in order to complete it in the best way possible. Over lunch, one of my fellow delegates, Azza Tawil (Publishing Manager of All Prints / Lebanon) and I spoke with Phillip Patrick (VP and Publisher at Crown Publishing) about the practice of having specialized people focused on performing one task to the best of their abilities, then handing it over to the next person to do the same, therefore creating a collaboration of skills and brains that end up producing a great piece of work.

Azza and I were lamenting how it is not the same in a lot of businesses in this part of the world, where the priority lies in getting the job done! There are exceptions of course, and many understand the value of having specialized people on staff, but in many cases you hear of this one person hired to do a specific job who ends up extending him or herself across so many different levels. The job gets done “all right,” but quality suffers.

The reasons, we decided, are economic: If one person can do the job why hire two or three. The other is that the industry is still immature. Therefore there aren’t any specialized people to hire in the first place. But if business owners don’t start developing these specialized people isn’t it a vicious cycle? Another reason we settled on was the mentality that keeps power in a business centralized – especially if it’s a family business — where the boss, not the system in place, is what drives the business.

It was an interesting conversation with pros and cons on each side. Phillip said that in order to have something done in an American publishing house, it had to go through an elaborate system that could take days, which could be very frustrating. While Azza and I noted that, as a single individual doing so much, you are forced to learn a great deal – and that the learning curve is just amazing!

Going back to design, the most fascinating discussion we had covered the various components that go into design, like much time and effort is put into deciding which font to use and what each conveys in meaning or feeling to the reader. We learned that some of the hardest covers to design are the all-type covers, those with no photography or illustration. Designing covers, like those on Malcolm Gladwell’s books, can go on for weeks, between choosing the right iconography and font. One rule of thumb for Mario was “If the typeface has a funny name, like Hotdog or Brushscript, don’t use it!” Another good tip was “when in doubt, stick to the classics!”

Mario explained how in the US readers rarely just buy one book from the author, but instead usually buy two or three — so branding the author and creating consumer recognition for that author is an important part of the design. Having a consistent graphic look for an author requires using the same typeface, but also doesn’t mean being so rigid as to have the author’s name in the same position or same size all the time. A good tip I thought, is that it’s important to remember that you are able to play around with the elements on the cover and present the readers with fresh designs, even in a template.

When talking about how to choose the right color palette for the cover, Mario explained that the color palette can either make or break the cover of the book, as sometimes you need fresh colors that are harmonious but not necessarily from the color palette of the picture on the cover in order for the type to be read well.

One of the books discussed was a book by Uwem Akpan called Say You’re One of Them, a collection of fictional stories detailing the struggles facing children in modern-day Africa. As soon as the book was recommended by Oprah, sales of that book shot up from 5,000 to 750,000 copies, something to which Omar Chebaro (from Arab Scientific Publishers/ Lebanon ) said “we need an Arabic Oprah!” We all agreed!

Finally we came to the topic of children book cover design, the part that I anticipating the most. Mario showed us examples of covers that were doing extremely well and had won awards, and ones that weren’t doing so well. The main thing he said is that if you’re doing children books, get children involved. He suggested coming up with surveys and showing children in the targeted age group different design concepts to see what they have to say. A thought that would seem like ABC to any children’s book publisher, right? But in reality this requires quite a bit of energy and effort to do, but one that I assure you I will be doing for our future covers!

Mario went on to show us how the children’s book illustration genre is changing. They’re becoming more unusual and striking, particularly as publishers are realizing that children today are exposed to so much more, and require even more stimulating art to attract them. Some publishers are opting to go to illustrators who have never drawn for children books to try out their style…hmmm… interesting…!

Towards the end of the lecture we were divided into groups again, and this time given the task to read a brief of the book and come up a concept for the cover. It was such a fun exercise, and being a visual person I had a great time doing it.

At the start of this blog I said I thought I’d learn a lot from this seminar, but I seriously feel I can go on forever! The amount of new information at the training sessions and the things Mario showed us was really something. I am so grateful I got the chance to attend this Publishers Training seminar so early on in my career in order to make use of it as much as I can in the future. So a huge thank you!

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