Of all the aspects that go into shaping the fate of any given book, its cover, apart from the merit of the title, is perhaps the most significant. In today’s times, when the calibre of a novel is based on its Instagram likes and Facebook shares, “do not judge a book by its cover” is nearly lost in time. And yet, the faces behind these covers are the real unsung heroes of the publishing industry. How are the book covers created and who creates them?
The process usually begins with a briefing. The editor-in-charge, after consultations with the author, presents a few ideas to the art director. It consists of book dimensions, a synopsis of the book, the editor’s/sales inputs, author’s suggestions and sometimes references to other covers in the same category. The brief is sent to the art director, who then assigns it to a designer.
A couple of years ago, for example, Penguin India was planning to rejacket all seven books in the Vikram Seth’s poetry series. And the designer handling the project was Bhavi Mehta. She started out by taking some time off and immersing herself in the books.
As Mehta read, she knew exactly what the books demanded — “something sublime that rang true to his writing” — and thus came up with a few probable sketches in her mind.
“My initial idea was to get a new illustrator on board for every book and commission an illustration for each of the seven books. But due to shortage of time and budget I decided to go with sourcing the right illustration for each book. There was one catch (there almost always is): To find seven illustrations by seven artists that were different and yet came together as one cohesive whole.
“After browsing through hundreds of illustrations by artists all over the world and a couple of weeks’ hard work, the final seven were selected and approved by everyone. Next was the Herculean task of clearing permissions for all, which took another two weeks. This was one of the most gratifying projects I have been lucky to be a part of,” Mehta, well known in the book designing world, had earlier told this correspondent.
But it is not just as easy as it seems. What if the proposed covers were rejected by the author, editor-in-charge or anybody up the hierarchy? At the end of the day, a designer’s job is to serve the author’s body of work in the best possible manner. However, it’s equally important for a designer to not just blindly do as they are told and find the right balance on what works for the book and what looks good. There are some books for which there have been as many as 30-40 drafts and yet the final cover ended up being the first draft that the designer made.
When all drafts for a particular jacket are “killed” at the editorial meeting, the designer goes back to the drawing board and starts afresh. Sometimes the process is tiring and involves drafts after drafts, until they reach a cover, which, if not liked, is at least approved by all.
“You never know which draft might be the final one and you try and make each draft your best one. It can get frustrating when you feel that you’ve done the right work and then it gets rejected, not because it’s a bad design but on a mere whim. Such covers that may never see the light of day, usually end up in a folder on my computer called Morgue,” Mehta explained.
Once the draft is approved, it is fine-tuned and sent to the author for final approval. The author’s suggestions, in most instances, are accommodated. The jacket is then art-worked, which means it is laid out with proper dimensions/margins/bleeds and the text is flown in.
Once the cover is fully laid out, it goes through rounds of copy checking by the editor-in-charge till the text is all in place. After it is copy-checked, a jacket is ready to be sent for production. At this stage the designer and the production team try and decide on post-production of the book in terms of paper to be used, any effects such as emboss/UV and the final finish of the cover. All of this, of course, is subject to the budget of a book. After this, the cover finally goes to print.
A few weeks later, you enter a bookshop and are immediately attracted to a particular book. You know it but you don’t say out loud, that it is often just the book cover that propels you to pick one particular book from a shelf of hundreds of books in the bookshop that houses several such shelves.
Coincidentally, the long list of the Third Oxford Bookstore Book Cover Prize will be announced at the Oxford Bookstore here on Thursday followed by a panel discussion on “Visual Language: Judging Books by the Covers”.