Designing for a Small Press. Big Rewards. (smaller fees) – Essay by Lon Kirschner

In the Fall of 1991, I received a phone call in response to a promotional mailing I had sent to publishers advertising my studio’s book jacket designs. The promotion was unique in that it was quite small, only 3 ½ by 5 inches and arrived in a hand-addressed envelope. This gave it the look and feel of a personal invitation, not another mailer from an art studio.

As I write this in 2012, printed mailings and telephone inquiries seem quaint but were a very human way to make contact with a prospective client. Someone had to take the time to open the envelope, hold something in their hand, read some copy and then, if you did it right, make a phone call and have a conversation. Aside from the conversation, this is much the same way a well-designed book jacket should work. Something sparks your interest, you pick it up, read some back or flap copy and, if the package is right, you’re hooked.

That phone call was from Martin Shepard, who along with his wife and co-publisher Judith, run
The Permanent Press, a small independent publisher of quality fiction.

Marty and I spoke for several minutes, long enough for us to feel each other out. During that first
conversation I learned several things:

1. Marty was a sincere and honest man who published because he believed in his authors and
their work. He published what he and Judy would want to read.

2. He had an artist’s sensibility and knew the importance of a good cover and its impact on how a
book would be perceived.

3. Independent publishers do not have deep pockets.

For some designers, point 3 could have been a problem, but we agreed to give it a try due to the fact that the print schedule of the press would allow me to work on several covers at a time, but the most exciting part of this venture would be the working relationship I would have with The Permanent Press.

There was Marty, and there was me. No account guy, no marketing guy, no focus group guy. It was just us two guys. This could be a dream client.

My first assignment was Postcards from Pinsk by Larry Duberstein. I read the manuscript, got to work and turned in my cover concept. Marty loved it. All was right with the world.

Then the phone rang.

It was Larry, “The character on the cover is too fat. Can we slim him down”?

Dream client?

It must be said that Larry Duberstein is a wonderful person and author and meant no harm in his comments. He genuinely loved the cover and even more so when an eraser (pre-computer) solved the cover’s slightly “weighty” appearance. We went on to produce another half dozen covers together (without ever once again
needing an eraser).

The point of this is that although my ultimate approvals come from the publisher, I as a cover designer have become very aware of the author and their feelings of wanting to be involved. Marty and I have developed a policy that works like this: “We welcome your suggestions and will always listen to them but we make no promises.” This sometimes proves difficult for an author. They have worked tirelessly on a book and have a unique and emotional relationship with it, they feel they know exactly how the cover should look.

Is it a good or a bad thing to let an author be involved in the development of a cover? After more than
20 years and well over 120 covers, I still haven’t fully decided. I can’t say that I have ever taken an author’s suggestion and created a cover based solely upon it. What I can say is that if you stop and listen, you may get a better understanding of the author’s intent even if the graphic representation presented may not be quite right.

This brings to mind a wonderful book, The Chester Chronicles by Kermit Moyer. The story of Chester’s life is told by stringing together a series of short stories. Individually, each story can stand on its own, but together they become a life. A life that is dominated by the relationship between a boy and his father.

Kermit did not make any initial suggestions for a cover design. The original concepts I created were not quite right. They just didn’t do the book justice. After several emails with the author I began to get a better understanding of where we should be going. The final cover, an image of a vintage car heading down the road has a nostalgic overall feeling. The cover reflects the power of the father figure and also serves as a subliminal reminder that life is a road that must be travelled. Combined with some retouching, a typographic treatment and color scheme, it became the complete package. When I found this image, I knew it was going to be the cover due to my contact with Kermit. When Kermit saw the final design he was thrilled, it was everything he wanted the cover to be.

Many times an author will make one little suggestion that in fact helps elevate the cover and gives it an extra push. A suggestion by the brilliant Leonard Rosen to include a figure of his protagonist on the cover of All Cry Chaos was something that both Marty and I resisted. We felt it would confuse the bizarre cover image but in the end, the addition of that figure in such a strange landscape set the stage beautifully for the first Henri Poincaré mystery thriller.

There is nothing more satisfying than having an author tell me that the cover is perfect. It is what I strive for. As a cover designer, I get one chance to state my case as opposed to an author who gets to build his case page after page.

Most of the covers I produce do not have the input of the author. I read each manuscript as I find it very hard to grasp a book wholly by reading several pages of a synopsis (unless that is all that is available). I have been asked many times if it is worth the time and effort. My answer to this question is that more than once the idea for the cover has come on page 209 of a 211 page manuscript.

This is not to say that I choose to illustrate a particular moment in the story, it is more likely that something in the text sets off an idea that in the end becomes the basis for the cover.

My hope is that when someone reads a book, they will look back at the cover and say to themselves “yes, that is what this book is about.”

The world of publishing is constantly changing. Internet shopping and digital delivery present new challenges to authors, designers and publishers, but in the end, no matter what the form, a book is still a book—an idea pieced together with words from an author’s unique idea. In much the same way a cover is still a cover—a package to present that unique idea whether it be printed on paper or illuminated on an e-reader.

Many years ago, the Creative Director at Bantam Publishing said to me, “If I can get them to pick up the book, then I have done my job.” In this day of internet book selling and online browsing the rules may have changed slightly but the basic concept hasn’t: “If I can get them to click on it, then I have done my job.”

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Lon Kirschner is a graphic designer who has designed logos, packaging, film posters and of course book jackets. You can see more of his work at www.kirschnercaroff.com.


15 comments

  1. How cool that you posted the essay by Lon! As you know (Marc), Lon contacted me after I’d written my review of The Grievers. I thought THAT was so cool in and of itself [that the cover artists would contact me to begin with!], but he said my mention of his work was the first time his work had ever been mentioned in a review! Heinous! His and his company’s work is incredible! But I meant it, not just as a catchy stolen-from-a-movie opening line–as good as your book is (it is–BUY IT, people!), it was truly the cover that first grabbed me. I remember just sitting there and staring at it in awe of it perfection.The color, Genius of simplicity and use of space. White gloves. All that WASN’T in there but was implied like hell. It is absolutely perfect for the story–and the fact that Lon actually reads the manuscripts is also impressive. I checked out his site–very nice.

    So, yes, it’s really very cool that you gave some air time to the cover artist, here. Now, that I think back on the reviews I’ve read, it does seem that not much is said about covers (unless they’re dreadfully poor), which is a shame. A lot of thought and effort goes into them, and good people, like Lon, here, deserve their mention. I hope I can remember my own words in any future reviews I might write, but it’s serves Lon’s talents that, at least in THIS case, Lon did such an absolutely stunning and eye catching job I couldn’t HELP but mention him. Thanks, Lon, for all your work on The Grievers! Between your artistry and the Marc’s guts, hopefully we can all sell the hell out this book! :-]

    1. Thanks, Frank — both for the kind words about Lon’s excellent work and for the continued support of my book!

  2. I always wondered if the author got her say. Now I know. Thank you for this very interesting piece. I recently wrote a little piece of my own about book designing–or, more precisely, about visual representations of stories– and I wish I had read this first.

      1. I do know of others that read the entire manuscript. I guess this would depend on a persons schedule. I love to read and don’t find it a chore. I consider it one of the pleasurable aspects of the job. I also feel that the author deserves this attention and in the end, it makes my job easier.

        I am glad you enjoyed the article and it gave you some insight about the process. I have also worked for the big houses and my experience has been that an author (unless they are a superstar) does not get the same type of input but this could be changing.

  3. What a pleasure to read Lon’s thoughtful essay. I was fortunate enough to have Lon design the cover art for my first two novels and was extremely grateful for his dedication to capturing the essence of the books. That he cares enough to read each book in its entirety speaks volumes.

  4. Book cover graphics, including typography, are a universal language which shluld abstract and depict the spirit of a book. Lon is a master of this art. His cover for my BOTTOM LINE perfectly caught the heart of the story.

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