What does a publisher do? Commission covers

What does a publisher do? is a series of posts designed to answer that question, interpreted not in the sense of “What functions does a publisher seek to fulfil?” but rather “What operations does a publisher (well, this publisher at any rate) perform?” This is the twenty-second post in the series.

The second post (‘What does a publisher do? Manage stakeholders’) in this series set out a framework for subsequent posts – a framework based on the types of stakeholders a publisher needs to work with. Today’s post focuses on a publisher’s relationship with the suppliers in the form of cover designers. So:

Owners, investors Workforce State
Clients, customers

As a book publisher, I have a three-step approach to commissioning covers.

First step

I provide a brief for the designer. The brief will describe the content, briefly. More importantly, it will describe the kind of effect I want the cover to achieve. I find this easiest to do by specifying the key words I’d like the cover to evoke in the reader’s mind. Examples might be, say, ‘trustworthy’, ‘traditional’ or ‘authoritative’.

More importantly still, I specify the market the book is aimed at. This information, which editors often don’t think to provide, helps designers to grasp what is required – without cramping their style. What I tend not to do is tell them what the cover should consist  of (in terms of images, placements, etc.) – that’s precisely what I’m hiring the designer to decide.

If the book is in a series – as all the books published by our company, The Professional and Higher Partnership, are –then the above will apply to the series design more than to the individual book. That is, the brief will seek to allow the designer scope to come up with the series look, after which each design will be specified in the sense that it is required to conform to that look.

Our policy on series design is to ensure that each book cover is unique, whilst being instantly recognisable as belonging to a series. For example, in our Professional and Higher Education series, each book has its own image – but each image comes from a series of paintings by Rika Newcombe and all of the other cover design components (e.g. font, placement of title) are identical.

The rationale here is, first, to encourage the reader to recognise the series identity (ideally so as to collect the set) and, secondly, to reduce the amount of decision-making required. This approach makes for an efficient workflow.

If a book is to be published using a series style, the input from the author is likely to be very limited (in the case of our series, merely choosing between a small selection of Rika’s paintings).

Firm project management is required in two respects. First, authors often try to overstep the mark by suggesting a brief that, in effect, imposes a design on the designer. In those circumstances I have no hesitation in explaining to the author that this isn’t their job – if necessary, I’ll ask the author whether s/he would be happy for the designer to rewrite the text: in other words I enforce an ethic of creatives respecting each other’s expertise.

Second, it’s amazing how often various stakeholders convince themselves that a book somehow constitutes an exception (“I know you normally use this look for the series, but…”). My preferred solution here is not to allow a chink of light (“When I say, the book’s cover will follow the series design, which bit of that sentence…”) – otherwise a good deal of friction is introduced into the workflow. Bespoke decision-making = inefficiency.

Second step

I review to the designers’ rough versions. To do this, I primarily rely on four formalistic principles provided by Robin Williams in her invaluable book, The non-designer’s design handbook. For those unfamiliar with this book – one of the best how-to books I’ve ever read – I won’t summarise all the principles here. But let me briefly outline one of them. Williams argues that one principle of good design is alignment. Whenever a designer places an element on a page, it should be aligned with some other element (usually either vertically or horizontally or both). I find that, left to their own devices, designers often fail to do this with those boring elements of back covers, such as logos and bar codes. It is as if they fail to ‘own’ these components and so do not fully integrate them: the resulting lack of alignment (with each other or with other components, such as the edge of the blurb) can leave back covers looking scrappy. 

When reviewing designs for print covers, I pay most attention to the spine, since this is how the book will be displayed most of the time. Designers sometimes overlook the importance of instant readability here, using insufficiently large font or over-busy backgrounds. I sometimes have to say, “Could we be a bit more BRASH, please?”.

Third step

Next I will consult the author. But when I do so, I don’t ask, “What do you think of this?”. That question would raise the risk again of authors overstepping the mark, seeking to impose their own sensibility on the design. Moreover, unless the author is commercially minded, it would tend to elicit a response based more on aesthetic, as opposed to commercial, criteria. Sometimes the publisher, whose capital is at stake, is engaged in a battle on two fronts (designer and author) to promote marketability (aka, in many cases, brashness) over refinement and taste. 

The question I ask, then, is not “What do you think of this?” but rather “Please let me know if there are any errors or other problems” – a much more limiting request, designed to prevent meddling or agonising.


It will be evident from my language above (“overstep the mark”, “impose”, “battle”, etc.) that I regard cover design as at least a potentially troublesome area of stakeholder management. The key, I think, to successful management is to avoid discussion of covers becoming a matter of competing aesthetic sensibilities.


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