An Art Director Shares How Book Covers Are Made
Categories: Work

An Art Director Shares How Book Covers Are Made

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but when the cover is insanely gorgeous, who can blame you? Definitely not Alyssa Nassner, an Associate Art Director at ABRAMS Kids. Her job requires creativity; browsing through bookstores; and working with editors, artists, and book sellers to come up with a beautiful cover you can’t wait to add to your bookshelf. Sounds like a dream gig to us.

We caught up with Nassner and got the 411 on how she nabbed her spot at ABRAMS, what she’s up to when she’s at her desk, and more. Scroll on to find out more about her dream job!

What Does an Art Director Do?

When it comes to selling books, there are A LOT of cooks in kitchen — not just authors, but also editors, sales teams, and bookstore buyers. With all those voices, it can be a challenge to come up with an exciting book cover everyone agrees on.

That’s where Nassner comes in. She tells us, “It’s my job as the designer to mediate between the two voices [sales and editorial teams] and find a creative solution that’s both true to the vision of the book, but also saleable and competitive with the titles it will sit next to on the shelf.”

For Nassner, art direction combines two things she loves: “looking at a problem with a business lens and finding a creative solution that also meets market demands.”

How Does A Book Cover Get Made?

When an editor acquires a book, they’ll send Nassner guidelines on cover design ideas — similar book titles, age ranges, author feedback, and vision. The sales team weighs in too, “based on what’s selling, what’s not, what our accounts like Barnes & Noble and Target require.”

From there, Nassner works with the creative director to come up with mood boards for the editor. She says, “We will pull trends, look at designers, do bookstore visits, and overall try to get an idea of what this book should like and where it will sit in the store.” Once the editors are happy, Nassner hires a designer to conceptualize, and/or an illustrator to execute the design concept.

Nassner tells us, “From here I’ll share the sketches/concepts with all of the teams involved and collect their feedback. We’ll decide what the priorities are and work with the artist to develop solutions to address them, which then go in front of the team again. It’s a pretty long process and we learn new things at every step.”

How Do You Become an Art Director?

Before she worked in publishing, Nassner was a textile designer for Target’s in-house children’s brands. On the side, she was a freelance illustrator, creating artwork for stationery products, children’s books, and greeting cards. Nassner had illustrated five books for ABRAMS before she landed a full-time Art Director gig — without a book design portfolio or even specific publishing experience. “It goes to show that career experience doesn’t have to be linear for a candidate to be right for a position.”

Advice for Aspiring Book Cover Designers

1. Create a portfolio of covers. If you’re interested in freelance cover design, Nassner suggests “starting to build a portfolio of covers, either redesigned published titles or imagined, that showcase strong conceptual thinking and design aesthetic.” She says it’s important to show off what you know, like market and design sensibilities, illustration skills, and photo editing abilities. At the same time, you don’t have to include skills you hate — instead, think about ways to highlight what makes you passionate. “In math class your teacher always told you to ‘show your work,’ and I think it’s true for book cover design as well.”

2. Buff up on your software design skills. Nassner tells us that it’s also important to be realistic about the job — it’s not just designing covers all day. She’s also flowing and designing interior text, making text corrections, doing photo clean-up and manipulation, and working with production to proof jackets and interiors. Buffing up on your typography and inDesign skills is mandatory.

3. Work and study hard. Nassner says, “All of that being said, I came into my role with minimal book design experience, so I think it’s possible for trend and industry knowledge, good taste, and hard work to trump the technical skills you will learn on the job.”

Designers You Should Know About

Nassner tells, us, “Right now I’m working with two super talented ladies whose work I’ve admired for some time. Na Kim is designing a cover for the second book we’re publishing from Sarah Nicole Lemon, author of Done Dirt Cheap.

Kimberly Glyder is working on a middle grade novel called Every Shiny Thing that is sure to dazzle. Her Instagram feed is one of my current favorites. Both of these women have killer portfolios, and you can’t go to the bookstore without seeing their titles face out on the shelf (one of the highest merchandising honors)!”

“In addition to people I’ve hired, I’d like to recognize my friend and fellow designer Maria T. Middleton. She was my mentor at ABRAMS before she joined the design team at Random House. Her passion for book design is infectious, and the amount of care she gives to every detail of every book she designs — not just the cover — is truly inspiring.

What’s your dream job? Tweet us @BritandCo and let us know!

(Portrait images via Sung Park, book images via ABRAMS)