The Art of Commerce sits on the corner of literature & the marketplace, asking the age old question: Who's got the right of way?  

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Episode XXXVI: "Find a 'more literary iguana'"

Published 10/28/15
In this installment, I speak with Allison Saltzman, a book cover designer at Ecco, Topics include how she got into the industry, her process, getting approval from the higher-ups, literary iguanas, what's in, white covers & more.

I’m here with Allison Saltzman, a book designer who’s currently the Art Director at Ecco (HarperCollins). She’s also spent time at Random House and Penguin USA. Her portfolio is not only impressive in its standout pieces, but in its depth as well—her designs are diffuse and varied and seem to wrap around the subject manner, instead of her own proclivities. Let’s start from the beginning: How did you get into book design? When did you first consider yourself a designer?

Thanks for the very nice welcome. I got into book design very circuitously--I went to college for architecture and midway through the program realized I was better suited to graphic design than to architectural design. I begged an internship with a graphic designer in my college town, and after a year, with a TINY portfolio, I tried to get a job with book publishers in New York. Although I got some interviews, unsurprisingly I got no actual job offers from trade publishers. But I was very lucky to land at Princeton Architectural Press--designing and editing books about architecture. After three years there, I made my way into trade publishing. I've probably thought of myself as a designer since I started architecture school at 18, though it took me a while to find the right field.

You've worked with some of the biggest and most respected houses in the world. How'd you find your way in?

Perseverance! I just kept sending work samples and letters to all the art directors I wanted to work with. Still no takers, because they saw me solely as an art/architecture book designer, not a trade designer. One art director at Random House did take a chance on me though (Fabrizio LaRocca, to this day my favorite boss of my entire career); he was at Fodor's, and although I didn't want to then get pigeon-holed as a travel book designer, I figured it was at least at Random House, so I went for it. And it was worth it. He taught me how to be a thoughtful and rigorous designer, and how to work collaboratively with editors and publishers. Anyway, from there I jumped to a job at Dutton. It wasn't an ideal match for me, but I was finally working on trade books--novels, memoirs, history, cookbooks, the gamut. I kept up my sample-mailing campaign, and was offered a job back at Random House, this time with the Random House imprint. It was a dream job. I was there for 7 years. When an RH editor I worked well with, whose books I loved, left for Ecco at HarperCollins, she talked the publisher into meeting with me--Ecco had no in-house art director at the time. Anyway, I've been here at Ecco for almost 10 years now, and again feel like I'm in the perfect spot. So how did I get here? Truly, perseverance. And accruing experience and skill and flexibility, and maintaining excellent relationships with editors and publishers.

For those with an interest in book cover design, but without any clue to the process, can you tell us (briefly) how a black and white manuscript gets turned into a representational image we see over and over, whether in person or online?

Whenever I can, I read the manuscripts. I take notes and doodle along the way, then I talk to the book's editor about their hopes and dreams for the book cover, to make sure we're thinking the same. Then I run my ideas by the publisher and the marketing/sales director, and if all goes well, I get to try to turn those ideas into a cover. I search for existing imagery, I create new imagery, I commission new imagery, I try out typefaces, I try out hand-lettering--whatever the case may be. Usually the idea mutates along the way, sometimes it emerges intact, And then a LOT of people have to approve the cover: editor, publisher, sales, agent, author, author's friends and family...even key booksellers. It's amazing anything ever gets approved. And it's exhausting when it doesn't, because you have to start over. Perseverance comes in handy here too--you have to be able to keep coming up with more ideas, whether you want to or not.

Let's dive into that—the approval process. As in any creative industry, it is the worst, and yet a crucial part, the reason why it's an industry after all. What are the most common requested changes? Is it a matter of "pulling back" an idea that might be creatively interesting, but also at risk of alienating a certain proportion of readers?

I'd say there are two kinds of change requests in the approval process: little ones (they like the concept and just want to see variations within it--typography, color, sizing) and big ones (they sour on the concept and want you to start completely over). Obviously, I prefer dealing with small changes. But the large changes have to be made if anyone fears the cover--for whatever reason--won't appeal to the intended audience of readers. Most of my discussions with the editorial department are about attracting readers, not about finer points of design.

I'm too curious not too ask: what are the usual setbacks in the second kind of change request? What, design-wise, runs the risk of turning away readers?

Too feminine, too masculine, too commercial (big type, simple obvious imagery), too literary (small type, more oblique imagery). Those are the main ones. If you're looking for funny ones, I was once told to find a "more literary iguana." And someone told me that a cover with gorgeous portraits by the painter Alex Katz wouldn't sell because "cartoon art" was not popular. On a more mundane level, everyone always wants to see colorful covers, not black and white ones, but green rarely seems to appeal to anyone. Brown, never.

Ah, so the iguana with the upturned lower lip and the shoulder patches on his corduroy sports jacket.

Some seasons you look at the hardcovers and there are two or three or, well, seven books with a similar look. Is this from the passive influence of the zeitgeist or trends or merely a matter of being inspired by what’s out there?

Well, some of it is zeitgeist--hand-lettering and hand-made art have been all the rage for a while, but now many designers seem to be turning away from that and showing covers with clean, deadpan, generic, computer-generated typography. And yes, we do all get inspired by each others' work. But a lot of the similarity is because publishers/editors/agents very frequently request "something like book xyz." I can't really blame them--if a book with a similar feel or story has sold well, they want potential readers for their book to be lured back for more. Although of course it's more fun to be given more creative freedom.

This is a small question, but one that bugs me nearly every day. Some covers, especially ones with white backgrounds, just do not work as well on the screen than in person. Honestly, some covers look lazy, or even like they’re half-covers when seen online, but then in person they couldn't be more fitting. Is the digital appearance of covers a strong consideration in the process?

I am always very aware of what my designs will look like at the size of a postage stamp. And whereas we used to send wrapped mock-ups to authors and agents, now we send jpegs by email. So yes, digital appearance is a constant consideration. (By the way, it's true that predominantly white covers don't read well online, but they also cause problems in bookstores--they get dirty easily, and show more wear and tear.) Similarly, a lot of authors feel that covers with white lettering look unfinished. Even the faintest hint of a cream color looks more polished.

And yet, we still have a large portion of releases with completely knockout covers. What about a cover that you had nothing to do with impresses you, personally, the most?

I'm a sucker for trompe-l'oeuil covers--ones that seem three-dimensional. Things seeming to pop up off the plane of the jacket, paper curling away, depth cut into the surface, etc. 

P.S.: yes, the covers that are total knock-outs DESPITE all the considerations...those are always amazing. When you marvel at how they could have gotten approved, that's when you know it's great.

What else besides those trompe-l'oeuils that always grab our eyes for an extra second?

Beautiful, unusual imagery always grabs me. Whether it's a photo or an illustration, it can do SO much toward conveying the tone and story of a book. I try to license imagery from independent artists as much as possible, rather than using something generic from a stock agency. Not to knock stock agencies--they are incredibly useful and have amazing imagery too, but you have to sort through a lot of dross to find the gems.

Also, I prefer covers that leave a little ambiguity. I like a slight disconnect between title and image.

There's no more suitable word for anything than "stock". It's a stock. There's good. There's bad. What do you look for in the concept phase of the project? What do you use for inspiration? Do you ever feel a drought in that regard?

The book itself is the biggest source of inspiration. I always envision something when I'm reading. But then turning what's inside my head into a cover design is where I can get tripped up. I'm not an artist, so I can't sketch as convincingly as I'd like. (Unless it's a building--those I can still draw very nicely.) I keep a file--a real, actual file--of images that I like. And I bookmark tons of artist websites and art blogs. I sift through all that as often as possible, and I'm constantly adding more. There are droughts, to be sure, especially when I've been worn down by repeated rounds of revisions and don't know how I'm ever going to come up with a new idea. But not droughts when it comes to new projects.

How much does your own personal engagement with a text affect your output? That is, more bluntly, do you ever get a manuscript that is just not for you?

One of the reasons I love my job at Ecco is because all the books are well-written and interesting. They may not be the exact kind of book I'd choose for personal reading, but once I get into them, I like them anyway. I more often have the opposite problem--I love the book so much that I worry about doing it justice. Not too tough a problem to have, I guess.

Fair. We’re nearly out of time, so let me ask one final, hard question. Play Nostradesignus here: what are the hot cover trends in the summer of 2017?

You've got me. I used to live next-door to New York's best bookstore, Three Lives, and by seeing their displays every day, I kept tabs on all the beautiful covers of the moment, and could definitely sense trends as they appeared. I would have been able to give you a brilliant and clever response then, I'm sure. But today, who knows?!

Thanks for your time Allison, and your words!

Thank you for inviting me.