Understanding the Cover Design Process

I actually love the cover design process. It's a chance to take part in the visualization of a novel's tone and mood and statement. It's very fun.

I've worked at three Christian publishing companies and have written novels for a fourth, so I've seen covers being designed at a number of houses.

At all four houses, and presumably most others, the cover design process goes through the same four phases:

  1. Initial concept design

  2. Selection of a direction

  3. Refinement and discussion

  4. Finalization

Initial Concept Design

In this phase the point person—either a designer or the person who will interact with the designer—finds out what the novel is about, what kind of novel it is, and what feeling the cover should have, and then goes off and creates a number of "first try" covers, called comps.

Sometimes the designer gets this information through a written document, something the author or acquiring editor has written up to explain the new book. Sometimes the designer meets with the acquiring editor and discusses the book. I haven't heard of it happening but I suppose it's possible that the designer could also speak directly to the author at this phase.

At NavPress there were no cover designers on staff. They had an art director who would manage all the covers and act as point person for the freelance designers who would be hired to do the actual covers.

The art director would sit down with me and interview me (in my capacity as manager of the fiction line) about the tone and genre and story of a given novel and that would give him an idea of what designer to tap for the job and what information to give him/her for the initial designs. I thought that was a good way to work it.

The designer then goes off and creates two-to-four comps, or possible design directions, for the book. I loved getting those comps back. It was like Christmas, seeing how the designer had imagined the covers.

Selection of a Direction

When the comps come in, a small group of decision-makers at the publishing company gets together to review them. This group usually consists of the designer (or art director), the acquisitions editor, the editorial director, and hopefully a representative from sales and from marketing. Sometimes the VP of editorial, or even the publisher himself, would sit in on covers meetings.

Very often, out of the four comps one of them would be the group's clear favorite. They love the main direction but they'd like the image to be slightly brighter or the title to be slightly bolder, or whatever. Tweaks remain, but everyone usually likes one cover more than the others.

Many times, though, there is no favorite. Either all the comps are good and no one can decide (rare) or none of them quite captures the feeling the group was hoping for. So it's back to the drawing board...literally. The design team goes back to the first phase and generates a new set of comps.

Eventually, the group will decide on a cover direction and the process moves to the next phase.

Refinement and Discussion

This is usually when the author is brought into the process. Once the team likes a cover they'll send it back to the designer for refinements and they'll send a .jpg to the author for review.

Publishers are funny about letting the author into the huddle on covers (including back cover text). Sometimes a publisher gives great power to the author, either because it's in the author's contract, it's an "important" author they don't want to offend, or because they just want the author's input.

Other times a publisher will all but shut the author out of the design process, fearing that authors (who aren't typically very artistic, in terms of graphic design) will mess up a good thing.

For every publisher with a horror story of an author who ruined a perfectly good cover by her "helpful" input there is an author with a horror story about being shut out of the design process and ending up with a perfectly horrible cover that killed the book.

It's a touchy subject. But in the best scenario the author loves the cover and gives a hearty thumbs-up to the design team.

So the cover enters the refinement process. The covers group may see two, three, or more iterations of the cover before the design is finalized.

This phase is also when the designer goes ahead and purchases the images used in the design. Most covers are designed from pieces found through stock photo providers. They're put into the comps but not paid for. When the design is "locked" the publisher authorizes the designer or art director to actually pay for the images to be used.


In this phase, last-minute tweaks are made to the cover but by and large the design is locked. This is the version that is put into the catalogue and used in ads.

What they're working on in this phase is the spine, the back cover design, and the back cover copy.

Back cover copy (bcc) is usually generated by the marketing department. These are the folks who know how to write text that will make people buy the book. For fiction, bcc is usually two parts teaser about the plot and one part endorsements from famous people saying the book is great and you should buy it.

Here again the author is brought in somewhat reluctantly. Authors, especially novelists, have earned the reputation of not always being good marketers. They sometimes want to mention every last wonderful thing about the novel instead of letting the bcc just be the sizzle that entices someone to buy the whole steak.

Ideally, the author loves the bcc—or has a congenial relationship with whoever is responsible for the bcc and can provide helpful suggestions to better capture the feeling of the book—and the team quickly arrives at bcc that everyone likes.

Then the overall design is tweaked, the bcc is proofed, and the design is finished.

And the shopper sees it on the shelf, can't help but pick it up, and runs madly to the register to buy not one but three copies of it. And there is much rejoicing.

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