Walker Editor Stacy Cantor Talks about Covers

One of the most frequent questions I get asked as an author is, “How do you come up with the cover?” The simple answer is I don’t–my wonderful editor, Stacy Cantor, spearheads that process, and she has graciously agreed to explain it here at the Mixed-Up Files. Take it away, Stacy!

First of all, thank you to the Mixed-Up Files blog for having me here today! I’m excited to talk covers and try to shed some light on this interesting and challenging process.

The first thing I should probably say is that jacket design differs greatly from one publishing house to the other. What I’ll be describing to you all is how things work at Walker, and the experiences I’ve personally had working on covers with authors and designers. The one universal truth I can probably give is my understanding that at every house, no matter their process, the decision is collaborative—no one editor, designer, sales person, or author makes a singular decision about what a cover will be. It’s always a long process weighed in on by many people with many different perspectives—which is how it should be, I think.

The first step in the process at Walker is a jacket memo. This is written up by the editor who’s in charge of the project (be that the editorial assistant, associate editor, senior editor, or publisher) and sent to the design department as a whole (art director and designers). The memo usually includes a brief synopsis of the story, detailed character descriptions, target audience, specific scenes or excerpts from the manuscript that are key to the overall design, and ideas from the editor as to how they believe the jacket should look. Sometimes we also include comparison jackets that we admire and we think convey the tone or essence of the jacket we’re striving to design. This is usually where we decide whether a jacket should be photographic or illustrated. This can vary depending on the tone or idea we’re going for, but generally speaking we tend to illustrate our middle grade and use photos for our YA. This is based on market trends and specific feedback from buyers.

Walker has jacket meetings every other week, where the editors and designers all sit down to show concepts and discuss jacket looks. The first time we discuss a new list, the designers usually come with concepts, either stock photos or illustrator samples, and we collaboratively decide on what direction is best. The subsequent meetings are where the designers will share progress and we’ll make tweaks.

Let’s say, for example, we’re working on a jacket for a realistic, contemporary middle grade and we know it should be illustrated. Oftentimes we’ll first consider jacket artists we’ve worked with before, based on criteria specific to the idea we have in mind: can this artist do good faces/people? Are they good with scenery or animals? Do they convey a light or fun tone, or can they do dark/mysterious? If there’s a comparison title that we admire, maybe we will seek out that same artist for the new book. Sometimes we contract artists based on samples we’ve received or websites we’ve come across, and we often spend time browsing artists on the major representatives’ sites, such as Shannon Associates. We won’t necessarily use the same artist for a specific author, unless that author is writing a series, of course. Different books bring different challenges, so jacket illustrators can vary. But it can be nice to keep an author’s look uniform so consumers in a store will recognize his/her book by the cover art, so if the tone or focus of the books is the same, sometimes the jacket artist will be too.

Once we’ve signed up an artist, they are given the design memo. Sometimes the artist will also request the full manuscript, which is great but not required by us. Sure, we’d love each artist to have read the book in full before beginning, but our time frames are usually quick (a few weeks, a month or two) and artists often have multiple jobs going at once. Our hope is that the design memo conveys all the essentials for a beautiful book—I can say, in my experience, that there hasn’t been any trend to better or worse covers based on whether the artist has read the book in full. The artist then comes back to us with thumbnails of a few different sketch ideas, and we usually pick the best one. (Artists can do anywhere from 2 to 20 sketches or more! And photographic jackets sometimes go through anywhere from 1 to 30 incarnations.) Since these are sketches, we’re mostly looking for setup, perspective, tone, etc. We won’t usually give feedback on the minutiae of clothing or facial expressions. We also usually share our sketch pick with our Sales team and the author/agent. If everyone’s happy, we move to final art.

A word on authors’ input: At Walker, we take our authors’ opinions extremely seriously. After all, it is your name that’s on the book, and there’s nothing worse than an author feeling unhappy with the final product after they’ve worked on it for so many years. At the same time, there have been instances where we’ve had to force a jacket through, even though the author has had concerns. Perhaps this is because a buyer at a store loved it, and will take a significant quantity if the jacket remains. Perhaps this is because everyone in Sales loved it, and these are the people who will be championing the book out in the marketplace. Sometimes these people are right, and sometimes they are wrong, but they are the professionals and the ones who can often make or break a book, so we take their opinions seriously. I will say that in my experience, the initially unhappy authors often do come around to loving their jackets. So if you are an author who has just received a jacket you’re not thrilled with, take some time to consider it and listen to the feedback your editor is giving you. It’s okay to give suggestions that you think will make the jacket better, but always keep your suggestions professional and not emotional.

Once the final art or photograph is decided on, an in-house designer works on the full wrap jacket: that includes front cover type, spine, and back cover design. Spines are something we think about quite a bit: after all, unless you are lucky enough to have placement in a bookstore, your book will be represented on the shelf spine-out. The title needs to be readable and inviting from far away. We try to bring some of the elements from the front cover (a person’s face, a design element, etc.) onto the spine whenever possible, to add interest.

I’m not sure if there are any specific trends happening in middle grade covers right now: most do tend to be illustrated, showing characters in some form or another. Their faces tend to be less obscured than you find on YA covers; I think this has to do with the younger readership wanting to visualize the characters more specifically, whereas teens sometimes want to imagine themselves in the character’s role instead. We want to attract both the readers and their parents/teachers at the middle grade level, so we strive for a look that conveys the story’s plot and essence, as well as an inviting and friendly tone. Some of my favorite middle grade jackets that we’ve done at my company are The Summer of Moonlight Secrets by Danette Haworth, Sugar and Ice by Kate Messner, Dragon Slippers by Jessica Day George, and Pickle Impossible by Eli Stutz. All four are very different from each other, but I think they succeed in conveying what appeals about the stories within.

I hope this has been an enlightening and helpful discussion of the jacket process!

Thank you, Stacy! It was very enlightening!

Here are the covers Stacy mentioned in her discussion:

Danette Haworth is the author of The Summer of Moonlight Secrets, Violet Raines Almost Got Struck by Lightning, and the upcoming Me and Jack (2011), all edited by editor extraordinaire, Stacy Cantor.

Danette Haworth
  1. This is a fantastic synopsis of the behind-the-scenes process. From a buyer’s perspective, cover (and title!) are critical. We have about three micro-seconds to catch and hold a child’s attention. Everyone involved in the process brings something different to the table and while we all fight for our options, we all have a common interest – to sell books! For the art department, the process seems thankless but the result is so rewarding. Ya gotta feel for those people. Thanks Stacy!

  2. As an illustrator who hopes to create middle-grade cover art in the future, I found the process at Walker very interesting. The time frame is a lot shorter than what I had expected. Thanks for sharing the inside scoop.

  3. It’s so great to get the editor’s pespective on a cover. Thanks!

  4. Thanks for this great post! I want to add to the bragging and say that Stacy is my editor and has been amazing to work with through the whole process. We’re in the midst of figuring out my first cover and I didn’t know what to expect because I’ve heard from so many other new authors that they felt left out of the process. But Stacy asked for my input right from the start and I’m thrilled that it’s a collaborative effort.

  5. It’s nice to see some wonderful illustrated covers. (Moonlight Secrets is gorgeous!) Maybe folks are starting to get tired of stock photos?

  6. I seem to always be attracted to Walker’s covers. I’ll be in a bookstore and when a cover grabs my attention it’s often a book published by Walker. And then, of course, I have to buy it. Well done!

  7. Interesting process. I sure hope the design memo helps prevent situations like what happened with another publisher and the cover of the YA novel “Liar”.

  8. Good insight into the process. I enjoyed that.

  9. I’m in the midst of cover conversations, too. This was really insightful. Thank you!

  10. I LOVE these kinds of stories and the insight about what goes on *behind closed doors* so to speak. I know what it’s like on my end as an author, but the inside discussions are fascinating. Thank you Stacy!!!

  11. I can’t help but brag about Stacy–she is exceptionally responsive and will always take the time out to explain something, even to an audience of one (me). Though I now have three covers (one yet to be publicly unveiled!), I gained a lot of insight with this article.

  12. Wow – this was great. I’m in the process of getting the cover to my book finalized, so I’ve experienced and/or learned about some of this already, but most of it, especially the in-house work, I no idea about. Thanks for sharing!

  13. Thank you both for sharing this great info with us! It’s interesting to hear the entire process. The Walker covers are always amazing! The spines stand out from many of the other books on my shelf. I love the way the design carries over into the spine…like the grass and trees on the side of Violet Raines Almost Got Struck by Lightning.