Book Jacket Design: A Sticky Business

Candy LoveYou know it’s not impossible to make candy canes in your own kitchen. It’s just a hot, laborious, sticky activity that can go wrong in countless ways, and since a box of candy canes costs just a couple of bucks, wisdom suggests you forgo that task.


You can pull your own teeth out. Most kids do this as they start to wiggle. You reach a certain age though when this loses its appeal and dental visits make more sense.

 You can cut your own hair if you want to,AnneD-StickyBHaircut lots of people do, but you can always tell who they are.

You can spend years lovingly writing a manuscript and then design your own book jacket. I will salute you if you do, but are you aware that there are professionals who specialize in book jacket design? Doesn’t sound like an honest living you say? I can assure you that it is and that book designers earn every penny of their salary particularly when it comes to jackets. I am a creative director for Macmillan. I oversee a design department and in the past 23 years I guess I have designed thousands of jackets, some that have been printed and many that have not. Thinking about how books are packaged is my day-in-day-out concern. What does the book jacket process look like at Macmillan? Here’s a little glimpse.

 The design department works in close relationship with the editorial team. In the simplest terms editors are responsible for the text of the book and designers are responsible for the appearance. So every day editors are seeking out manuscripts and acquiring them. They then bring their texts to my department.

The following is a very typical conversation about a hypothetical book project:

 editor(ED) to creative director(CD): Oh, happy day! We acquired that debut novel you looked at last week, Ship Tease/Romance On the High Seas. It went to auction. Three other houses were bidding.

 CD (thinking we spent a lot of money): Lead title?

 ED: Yes. Don’t hold back on special effects This has to scream off the bookstore shelves.

 CD: Describe the protagonist.

 ED: A 17-year-old girl named Mariah. She is sailing for Lisbon on a luxury liner. Mariah is a clairvoyant. She has fiery red hair and emerald green eyes.

 CD: Who is her love interest?

 ED: A ship hand named Blake who is stunningly handsome, penniless, and hides a troubling secret. This historical romance takes place in 1895, We are aiming it at young adult girls. We want a sexy cover that hints at clairvoyance, against a nautical backdrop. Leave room for a blurb, and we are thinking of a tagline like I Can Read Your Mind. If Only You Could Read Mine.

 CD: (Yikes!)

After this initial conversation, I assign the manuscript to the person on my team who seems most suited. They will read the text and then enjoy a brief period of seclusion to work up ideas to present back to me, the editor, and the publisher. When we are all agreed, cover comps, which are rough compositions often cobbled together with stock photography, are brought into our cover meeting where sales, marketing, subrights, and publicity join editorial and design. We talk about how suitable our proposed cover seems for each market and whether we feel our accounts will back our book with this cover.

Conversation around the table regarding our hypothetical book might go like this:

 CD: First on our agenda is our lead YA title Ship Tease. This is a historical romance set in the 1890s. You’ve all read the manuscript. Here is the cover we propose.

 Sales person (SP) 1: Is that the final title? It seems a bit racy.

 ED: I think we can change it. I’ll talk to the author.

 Publicity: I LOVE this jacket. Keep the design off the servers. I want to arrange a cover reveal.

 SP 2:  I love this design too, but it’s a bit complicated. I am afraid it won’t reduce down well on Amazon. Can we simplify it so that it reads well half an inch wide?

 CD: Got it.

 Subrights: Did we get world rights on this? I think I can sell it in Spain.

 Publisher: What kind of store placement do you think we can get in B&N?

 SP1: Get me a jpeg and I’ll show it to their buyer this afternoon.

 [Note here: No one is allowed to say for example that they think a jacket should be purple because purple is their favorite color. Arbitrary comments based on personal preference are considered very poor form in cover meetings.]

 CD: So to re-cap, we are generally pleased with the design, though it needs a bit of simplification for reduction purposes and we might be getting a new title. We will work on these changes and then send sales a jpeg to show B&N. We’ll wait for publicity’s go-ahead to release the jacket design.

So ends our discussion. Sometimes meetings go like that, sometimes designs meet with less immediate success. The editor meanwhile is keeping the author apprised of our progress with the jacket.

For as many years as I have been designing, this process remains challenging. The goal is to get everyone onboard and excited about the same design. Sometimes it takes several tries to get there.

This gives you a sense of the in-house approval process. What it takes to actually create the final cover is a subject for another day. As I said, if you are inclined to try your hand at designing your own book jacket, I salute you, and I mean that. It takes courage to enter into the fray of public opinion and people LOVE to comment on book jackets. Designing book jackets can be like making candy canes—a laborious and sticky activity that can go wrong in countless ways, but the rewards are sweet!

— By Anne D.

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