Tag Archives: Q&A

The Life of a Book: An interview with Sales Manager Megan Sullivan about LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE

Ever wonder how a book makes it from the author’s mind to a reader’s shelf? We’ve we delved deep into two very different books before: But What If We’re Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman and Gemina by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. This time, we’re so excited to host an interview series all about Little Fires Everywhere, the second book by Celeste Ng. Her first book, Everything I Never Told You, was a smash hit and ever since fans have been waiting with bated breath. In the coming weeks, we’ll interview different people who have been a major part of making the book: a marketer, the book designer, a sales representative, and finally, Celeste herself! This week’s interview is with sales manager Megan Sullivan.

When you describe Little Fires Everywhere to book buyers, what is your hook? What is memorable or unique about the book? Why would they want it in their store?

First a little back story. I had been a buyer and bookseller at Harvard Book Store for many years and when I was hired to be his co-rep in New England, Karl Krueger invited me to an author dinner with Celeste and a bunch of booksellers even before I was a rep. I was excited to meet her as she lives just minutes away from me. Her book Everything I Never Told You was the first book I read as a PRH rep and is special to me for all this, so when I heard she had a new book coming, I hounded the editor (okay, asked politely a lot). I read Little Fires Everywhere as soon as the manuscript was posted, about 4 months before sales conference and I was immediately hooked. A sophomore novel can often slump a bit relative to an author’s first book. Not so this one—it dazzles. Rich characters and sense of place, Celeste is able to make you see the story from a variety of perspectives. I told my stores that this will be one of the biggest books in the fall and they should pile it up.

Megan's Workspace
Megan’s Workspace

What do you like about this new book? Do you have a favorite moment or line? Were you surprised by anything?

I think the character development is richer in Little Fires Everywhere. And there are so many moments to pause and think that I don’t have a favorite. Elena Richardson, the mother of the Richardson clan, surprised me. She could have been written as a cookie-cutter wealthy woman, unaware of her privilege, but I felt Celeste wrote her with some compassion.

What’s your favorite thing about your job? What would surprise a layman to know?

I love getting to read books so early! It’s so much fun to talk with booksellers when you know one of their favorite authors has a book coming. I often feel like I’m a bookseller still just in a slightly different role.

Do you have a favorite bookstore in the Boston/Cambridge area?

I love all the stores around here, but I spent 14 years at Harvard Book Store and it’s part of my DNA now.

Tune in next week for the next interview in this series, and learn more about the book below:

The Life of a Book: An interview with the editor of LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE, Virginia Smith, Senior Editor at the Penguin Press

Ever wonder how a book makes it from the author’s mind to a reader’s shelf? We’ve we delved deep into two very different books before: But What If We’re Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman and Gemina by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff. This time, we’re so excited to announce an interview series all about Little Fires Everywhere, the second book by Celeste Ng. Her first book, Everything I Never Told You, was a smash hit and ever since fans have been waiting with bated breath. In the coming weeks, we’ll interview different people who have been a major part of making the book: a marketer, the book designer, a sales representative, and finally, Celeste herself! Let’s kick things off with a Q&A with the book’s editor, Virginia Smith. Read on below! What do you look for when you acquire a new book? How does that apply to Celeste Ng? It depends on the kind of book, of course, but I love to encounter a fully-realized world. And Celeste does that as well as anyone writing today. From the first line of Little Fires Everywhere, you are dropped into a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, where everything is meticulously planned. And where something is deeply wrong. The gun is loaded, so to speak, and you’re dreading the moment it fires. I was traveling when Celeste’s agent Julie Barer sent me the manuscript for the novel, and I read it in one furious sitting, stuck on the tarmac at La Guardia in a cramped, delayed plane. I cried, I gasped, I laughed, I cheered, I hummed along to the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. By the time we finally landed, everyone else on the flight was asleep, but I was nearly bouncing in my seat, excited to get out and tell my colleagues how wonderful Celeste’s second book was. How is your work different with a debut vs. a second book? One obvious difference is that you don’t have to “introduce” a non-debut writer. And that was certainly the case with Celeste, who immediately established herself as one our most captivating writers with her stunning first book, Everything I Never Told You. The love that book received was so heartening to see, especially in a difficult time for debut fiction. But it was a reception truly earned. And now Celeste has created something even more exceptional: a triumphant second novel. These are a rare species, but Celeste is a rare talent. The job of the entire team at Penguin Press is to spread that good word to our bookselling partners, to media, and most importantly, to readers.
Author Celeste Ng
Author Celeste Ng
What do you think was your biggest impact on Little Fires Everywhere? In my mind, I am her ideal reader. By happenstance, I am exactly the same age as both Celeste and one of the main characters in Little Fires Everywhere. And while every person’s experience is unique, I felt like my personal history gave me insight into the world Celeste has created. The novel is set in and around a high school in the late 1990s. Celeste artfully evokes the quality of teenage life in that period, and I could read those aspects of the novel out of my own experience. I knew Celeste had nailed the landscape. Now, twenty years later, I find myself the mother of two young daughters, so the novel’s beautiful exploration of the possibilities and pulls of motherhood also resonates with me on a deep level. What do you think would surprise a layman to know about your job? What is your favorite part? People who aren’t in publishing are generally surprised that editors are involved in all aspects of a book’s publication. And I enjoy that. It’s an honor to advocate for creative work I love. I trained and worked as an actor before coming into publishing, and I appreciate how important that support is for an artist. It’s also a great privilege to work in a community of people who are all so excited about writing. And I enjoy all aspects of bookmaking, from the puzzle of editing to the aesthetics of the physical book. I’ve been lucky throughout my career to work with wonderful mentors who have taught me the importance of all of those aspects of publishing. I find the sales process invigorating. Our launch at Penguin Press is fun. Ann Godoff is just the platonic ideal of a publisher, and I decided to be an editor after hearing Scott Moyers pitch Tom Ricks’ FIASCO at the Columbia Publishing Course in 2006. Working with the two of them makes me better.
Virginia Smith
Editor Virginia Smith
How are you involved with the other aspects? Art, marketing, publicity? I’m very fortunate to have talented colleagues who bring experience and expertise to bear on books I love. I enjoy seeing the vision of the art department worked out in the cover design, strategizing about a publicity campaign, and getting into the weeds on the marketing plan. It is particularly great in this case because our whole team worked with Celeste on her first book. We all had such a lovely experience partnering with Celeste for Everything I Never Told You, as she is just a delight and a star in every sense. Why will readers want to read this book? Because it’s just fantastic? One of the things I love most about Celeste’s work is her profound empathy. Every character in her Shaker Heights is fully realized—and the novel is still completely propulsive. We are plunged into a chilling mystery from the opening line; a seemingly perfect family is undone by secrets; the underlying racism of a community is uncovered; and mother-daughter relationships are powder kegs ready to detonate. Celeste’s meditations on the complexities of motherhood are worth the read alone, but the novel’s examinations of identity, belonging, and the nature of art are equally powerful and rewarding. She writes about issues that polarize us today with such heart for all involved. She tells a good story, which of course is job one, but she is also searching for what motivates each of us—and what sparks a fire. Tune in next week for the next interview in this series, and learn more about the book below:

The Book Lover’s Guide to Publishing Part #4: Design & Size

Who’s ready for the fourth and final installment of The Book Lover’s Guide to Publishing?! This week, we’re speaking to Jeanne-Marie Hudson, the Vice President, Associate Publisher, and Director of Marketing for Berkley. Have you ever wondered why books come in different sizes or why the same book can have multiple covers? Read on to find out! What’s a mass market paperback? Mass market paperbacks are a smaller trim size and more inexpensive than trade paperbacks. The original mass markets, or “rack sized” paperbacks were designed to fit in racks at supermarkets, drugstores, and other non-traditional book outlets. There is also a larger trim and more expensive “premium” mass market that is now quite popular, particularly for bestselling authors. How is a mass market paperback different from a trade paperback? Trade paperbacks are essentially the same size as the hardcover, but with a different binding and a lower price. They started as primarily bookstore product, but now are also in mass merch accounts. What about movie tie-ins? Movie tie-ins are paperback editions of books that have become movies (or TV shows, which is of course a TV tie-in). They are published in mass market, trade, and some movies or TV shows warrant both formats. They utilize the movie studio art to create a clear connection for the consumer. Interestingly, we frequently also see dramatically increased sales for the original art paperbacks alongside the sales of the MTI, even if the title of the movie and MTI is different from the original work. A huge thank you to Jeanne-Marie, the rest of our employees who took the time to be interviewed, and to YOU for reading along! We hope you learned something new about the world of publishing. Happy reading, Penguins!

The Book Lover’s Guide to Publishing Part #3: Printing & Production Process

We’re back for another round of The Book Lover’s Guide to Publishing! Scroll down to learn about typos, binding errors, and book covers. Why do typos happen? Typos happen because no matter how many people are carefully scrutinizing a book as it makes its way to print, people remain, unfortunately, fallible, and one eye or brain blink at the wrong moment and, well, there’s your typo. I’d add that it’s quite possible, though, to produce a book without a single inarguable error in it, and we do that a lot. And that the number of typos called to our attention—which we’re always eager to fix in reprints of print books and, immediately, in ebooks—is delightfully minuscule. (Ben Dreyer, VP, Executive Managing Editor & Copy Chief Random House) Why do binding errors happen? Binding errors are too quite rare, and because of careful oversight during the manufacturing process—and of course we look at finished books here in the office as soon as they’re printed—flawed books rarely make it out of the warehouse and into consumers’ hands. Occasionally a book will escape with dropped or miscollated pages, but even when that occurs the error tends to be isolated to a few copies from the print run. (Ben Dreyer, VP, Executive Managing Editor & Copy Chief Random House) How are book covers designed? Designers are usually given a brief and a manuscript of each book to read over. Once we’ve got an understanding of the book we put together concepts and work with our art directors to hone the design and make sure we’re clearly communicating the message of the book. From there, we show comps to the editor and publisher, and once a cover is chosen it goes to the author for approval. (Colin Webber, PPG Designer) Why is the paperback cover different from the hardcover cover? The paperback is different from the hardcover for a few reasons. Most of a book’s life is spent as a paperback, so something like a noteworthy quote becomes more important in grabbing the attention of passersby. The production and price point factor in as well. Certain designs lend themselves better to a smaller paperback than a jacketed hardcover (and vice versa). Sometimes the paperback version falls under a different imprint with a different publisher than the hardcover. Different publishers might have different visions for the book, and try to reach different audiences. (Colin Webber, PPG Designer) A huge thank you to all of our employees who took the time to be interviewed. We hope their answers have helped you better understand the publishing process! Check back next week for our fourth and final installment of The Book Lover’s Guide to Publishing!

The Book Lover’s Guide to Publishing Part #2: Publishing Process

Welcome back, readers! Have more questions about publishing that you’ve been dying to ask? See below to find out if your question has been answered!

Why is the book cover different in different countries?

Essentially the reason for different covers is because there are usually multiple international publishers for any major author’s titles, and we (PRH U.S.) do not always have rights in every country to every title, or we license to a company that is not part of PRH. So, for example, John Grisham is published in the UK by Hachette UK, George R.R. Martin is published by HarperCollins UK, etc. They will design cover treatment and print quotes which are relevant to their marketplace. Same for any given non-English speaking market. (Cyrus Kheradi, International Sales)

Why is [book title] not available to purchase in my country? The Penguin Random House international sales team works with distributors, wholesalers, and retail booksellers all over the world to reach readers in over 240 countries and territories. While we have robust international sales and marketing reach, our distribution is formally limited to a list of territories the publisher negotiates with an author’s agent when purchasing book rights. Rights to the UK and British Commonwealth are often sold separately and exclusively to a British publisher. Territories outside the exclusive domains of the US and UK—the “open market”—are generally shared between the two publishers on a non-exclusive basis, but may vary at the country or regional level. Every book is different, and one of the exciting challenges we face in international sales is keeping them all straight and getting copies into readers’ hands everywhere we have the rights. (Kelly Roberts, International Marketing Manager) What are the other jobs associated with publication? (Sales, Marketing, Publicity, Subrights, Special Markets) In addition to editorial, there are a wealth of other departments in a publishing house that help bring the books to life and to the marketplace. Our managing editorial, production, and art teams usher books through the process that creates the physical objects. Our publicity teams bring them to the attention of the media, while our marketing teams bring them to the attention of consumers. Our subrights team coordinate getting our books published internationally, and also get excerpts from our books placed in magazines and newspapers. Our sales and special markets teams bring our books to retailers and the marketplace so that consumers can buy them. And this is only the tip of the iceberg! (Casey Blue James, Manager, Business Development Penguin Publishing Group) A Huge thank you to all of our employees who took the time to be interviewed. We hope their answers have helped you better understand the publishing process! Check back soon for another installment of The Book Lover’s Guide to Publishing.

The Life of a Book: An interview with Andrew Unger, events and publicity manager of the BookCourt bookstore

We’re going deep inside the making of a book, with interviews from Penguin Random House employees in editorial, marketing, sales, and more.  If you’ve ever wondered about all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into making your favorite books, this is the series for you.   But What If We’re Wrong? went on sale last Tuesday, and Chuck’s launch party was held at the Brooklyn Bookstore, BookCourt.   Chuck read from his book and signed copies for fans… and it was a packed house!  Today we’re featuring an interview with  Andrew Unger, events and publicity manager of Brooklyn bookstore, BookCourt. What is your job title, and what does that mean? What’s your day to day? What would surprise a layman to know? I am the events and publicity manager. My daily schedule is varied and unpredictable, but focuses primarily on acting as the voice and public face of BookCourt. I manage our Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and the back-end of the BookCourt website. I do all of this in addition to coordinating events for the store. We have one of the most robust calendars of any bookstore in the city, supporting over 300 authors every year. I think everyone, layman and professionals, are surprised to find out just how genuinely moved I am by the opportunity I have to work at one of the premier independent bookstores in the country. What’s it like working at BookCourt vs. any other bookstore? Jonathan Lethem has this wonderful quote he gave us once where he said that BookCourt was a university and a party in slow motion. I’ve always loved that way of talking about the store. As usual, Jonathan Lethem was able to put it so much better than me. On the weekends, we see a vast array of people. Old, young, local, tourist … it’s hard to not get a little whimsical about the “scene.” When you’re here and you’re the one that people look to for a recommendation or for a friendly conversation about one of your favorite books, it always feels almost too good to be true. I’ve only ever worked at BookCourt, but I don’t know that this particular blend of magic could be found anywhere else.   When you order books from a publishing company, what do you consider? What makes a book attractive to you and your customers? We have store bestseller list at the front. This list features the bestselling books from the previous week. Consistently, these books reflect the same taste as reviewers for the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books. Our customers prefer something sophisticated and intellectually stimulating. Proud as all of us are of our libraries, there’s just no escaping a good cover. Many bad books have been sold through good cover designs and, far and away, too many great books have been relegated to a dusty corner of the shelf because of an ill-advised cover. Occasionally, a truly great book will arrive in the store. Gone Girl or Building Stories. These are anomalous and rise to the top with a momentum born from nowhere else except the compelling narrative itself. IMG_2560 Tell me about some of the events and community-building at BookCourt.  In the early-aughts a Barnes & Noble opened up just a few blocks away from the store. It’s presence was intimidating and unwelcoming. The communities of Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens rallied behind us in an impressive way. There are many great neighborhoods in New York, but these two have helped curate and foster one of the most impressive booms in Brooklyn. Today Court Street, as it runs from Atlantic Avenue into Red Hook, is ripe with local, family-owned businesses. In an age when small business is struggling for air, the residents of Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens have created something truly special. Because of their dedication to us, we’ve dedicated ourselves to serving them. Our events are free and open to the public and through these events we are able to feature internationally celebrated authors as well as local and debut authors. What’s interesting to you about But What if We’re Wrong? How would you describe it to a reader? Why would they want to read it? But What If We’re Wrong? was so engaging to me because it highlighted the best qualities of Chuck Klosterman’s personality. He is a friend of the store an often in and out. The writing is reflective of Chuck’s cadence and temperament. Thoroughly researched, he delivers prescient wisdom with a light-touch and a flare for the unexpected. The cover design, its simple, understated message of turning something on its head was ingenious and wonderful. I was the most surprised by how the footnotes at the bottom of the page operated as an aside to the reader in a way that looked at quick glance like a moniker of sophistication but read like a nudge and a wink. In almost every way, the book asked over and over again, the question of its title. Not often is a reading experience so cohesive and stream-lined.   Which books are your go-to books to sell? Any old standbys? People expect a booksellers to possess an intimate knowledge of not only all of their favorite books, but also of all the books they haven’t yet read. Great booksellers are up for the challenge. We all spend a lot of time pouring over reviews and ripping through as many books as we can. I don’t want to take the magic out of bookselling, but here are some pointers. —Don’t recommend Bolano. Don’t be that guy. When you’re asked about it, gush appropriately because he’s amazing. Other writers that fall into this category are Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Dostoyevsky, J.D. Salinger, and Phillip Roth. (There’s a pattern) —Listen, listen, listen. What did they do that day? What movies do they like? Are they quiet, nervous, excited, busy, jaded? Most of the time, people know what book they want, you just have to listen to them describe it and pull it off the shelf. —Here is what you recommend in a pinch: —The old stand-by: Stoner —Once in almost 5 years of bookselling, a customer came into the store and asked me to give her my top five favorite books of all time. No one ever asked me this before and took me seriously. Ask any bookseller what book they wish people would read more and they open up completely. For me, I think William Gass‘s The Tunnel is one of the most unappreciated masterpieces ever written. James McElroy’s Women and Men slipped out of print almost a decade ago and no one noticed … it’s the equivalent in my eyes of discovering that a DaVinci portrait was forgotten in the basement of a church abbey for generations. What’s the best thing about your job? No one rolls their eyes at me when I gush about the ways that certain books completely changed my life. Listen to our interview with Chuck Klosterman and his editor, Brant Rumble:  Read first post in this series here, and find out more about But What If We’re Wrong here: 

The Life of a Book: Publication day! An interview with Chuck Klosterman and editor Brant Rumble

We’re going deep inside the making of a book, with interviews from Penguin Random House employees in editorial, marketing, sales, and more.  If you’ve ever wondered about all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into making your favorite books, this is the series for you.   Today we’re celebrating the publication of the book with an interview with the author, Chuck Klosterman and his longtime editor, Brant Rumble. In this episode of Beaks & Geeks, we talk about serial killers, Moby Dick, the publishing industry, sharing music, phantom time, and much more.  Read first post in this series here, and find out more about But What If We’re Wrong here: 

The Life of a Book: An interview with Aileen Boyle, VP, Associate Publisher, Director of Marketing and Publicity for Blue Rider Press and Plume.

We’re going deep inside the making of a book, with interviews from Penguin Random House employees in editorial, marketing, sales, and more.  If you’ve ever wondered about all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into making your favorite books, this is the series for you.   Today we’re featuring an interview with  Aileen Boyle: VP, Associate Publisher, Director of Marketing and Publicity for Blue Rider Press and Plume.  What do you think is special or unique about this book? Why will readers want to get their hands on it?

Where to start? In this particular case, the reader should feel free to judge a book by its cover: the contents may turn your worldview upside down, or at least challenge you. 

Designer Paul Sahre and art director Jason Booher hit it out of the park – this book could sit under glass at the Whitney and fit right in.  Great design is such a helpful tool for a publicist to get the media’s attention as well as to stand out in a bookstore.

Now that we’ve gotten the reader to pick the book up, what should they expect between the covers?  This is where the fun really begins. Chuck is a brilliant cultural commentator, not only in the way that he makes a point or constructs an argument, but in how he gets the reader thinking. But What If We’re Wrong? has something for everyone: literature, music, politics, science, philosophy and more. I’m not a sports person, but the chapter on football is fantastic and now I can drop that knowledge on my brother-in-law (finally).  Other readers will likewise learn a few things, without question. 

How would you describe your job and how you worked on But What If We’re Wrong? to a layman? What are some of the steps you take when you first start working on a title?

I’ll start with the end goal of my job: to have a reader discover a new book and get interested enough to buy it. 

Booksellers, media and social media influencers are my outside partners to help me reach this goal.   Booksellers have events.  The media does reviews or interviews.  Social media allows us to talk to readers or those they care about directly.  My job, alongside my brilliant team, is to pull all of these levers for a book’s publication.

When a dynamic and popular writer like Chuck pens a provocative, forward-thinking book that can be read by a wide variety of people, I’ve got a lot to work with.   I collaborated with author, publisher, editor and agent to set goals of how we wanted to reach readers and the message we wanted to convey.  We started working on this early –about nine months (or more) ago.  It’s exciting to be almost at the point of publication after all of this anticipation in-house.

Describe the book in one sentence.

A book that makes a persuasive case for the importance of doubt – sorely needed in an age where we think we know everything.

Do you have a favorite line from the book, or a section you particularly love?

While there is no material benefit to being right about a future you will not experience “there are intrinsic benefits,” Klosterman writes, “to constantly probing the possibility that our assumptions about the future might be wrong: humility and wonder.  It’s good to view reality as being beyond our understanding, because it is.  And it’s exciting to imagine the prospect of a reality that cannot be imagined, because that’s as close to pansophical omniscience as we will ever come.”

How closely do you work with the editor, art department, etc. when working on a title?

All members of our imprint work closely together.  Publicity and marketing is the midwife in a book’s birth. The book has been gestating for a while– being written, edited, designed, printed, sold in by reps etc. – but then the labor begins, in the form of a publicity tour which can be physically exhausting and maybe even painful at times.  But publicists are there at the crucial moment of publication day (a book’s birthday!) and when it’s well-received and sells lots of copies, I personally feel happy and proud by association. 

(I might be saying this because my daughter kept me up last night and Chuck and his wife just had a baby, but I think the analogy is apt!)

Read first post in this series here, and find out more about But What If We’re Wrong here: 

The Life of a Book: An interview with Paul Sahre, Cover Designer of But What If We’re Wrong?

We’re going deep inside the making of a book, with interviews from Penguin Random House employees in editorial, marketing, sales, and more.  If you’ve ever wondered about all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into making your favorite books, this is the series for you.   Today we’re featuring an interview with Cover Designer, Paul Sahre. 

You’ve worked with Chuck Klosterman for years – how has your approach to designing his cover changed over time?

It’s remained remarkably consistent. This comes from the systematic approach I have always taken with his covers. There are a number of rules that have evolved over the years, cover to cover: starting with the typeface, HELVETICA BOLD (all caps). There is usually some structure involving the typography that either interacts with or is set apart from a conceptual image. All of the images we have created for Chucks covers are oblique is a way that I think feels right for the author.

The new cover is a departure in that there is no imagery and we went upper and lower case with the type. But then again, this book is a bit of a departure for Chuck so the cover reflects that. He is dealing with some big ideas here so there is a monumental quality to the cover design that is inverted. Yet it still feels like a Chuck cover.

What were some of your other ideas for this cover? Why did you choose to pursue this particular one?

There was a cosmic thumbs up (or down) depending on how you held the book. There was a typographic design superimposed on a photograph of the cosmos. There was a pretzel in the shape of an infinity symbol and there was a fallen over question mark. I think the best cover won out.

Do you interact with the author when planning your design?

We have never had any direct contact during the design process. His reactions/concerns are communicated through the publisher (editor and the creative director). They sort of act as a buffer, which I’ve come to view as a good thing. When designer and author get together it often ends badly.

What is your favorite part of your job? What’s the hardest?

Covers are interesting because they need to do a number of things at the same time that are sort of at cross purposes. 

On a purely functional level a jacket is there to protect the book, but I also like to think of a book cover as a door. It’s the beginning of the experience of reading. 

A book cover should be appropriate, it should feel right (in an unexpected way) but it should also create an experience of its own.

Then there is the packaging (selling) of a book. Covers help sell books, but as the designer I can’t be concerned about that when I am designing the book. This is the publisher’s job. For me this concern translates more as trying to draw people to the cover in some way. So a good cover should engage. 

Read first post in this series here, and find out more about But What If We’re Wrong here: 

The Life of a Book: An interview with Jason Booher, Art Director, Blue Rider Press and Plume

We’re going deep inside the making of a book, with interviews from Penguin Random House employees in editorial, marketing, sales, and more.  If you’ve ever wondered about all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into making your favorite books, this is the series for you.   Today we’re featuring an interview with Art Director, Jason Booher. What does an Art Director do? What would surprise a layman to know about your job?

An art director of any imprint does a number of things. But one of the most important is choosing what designer will work on each cover. In this case, Paul Sahre has always designed Chuck Klosterman’s jackets. And so the question was really, do we hire Paul to design the jacket, or do we do something else since this is Chuck’s first book with Blue Rider Press. It wasn’t a difficult decision, since Paul is one of the best book cover designers and his covers for Chuck are consistently fantastic. 

Getting good work out of someone like Paul Sahre consists of letting him do the good work. And, at some level, having him feel that if he works to make something interesting, we will go with it, even if it is a little risky. So fighting for something that is interesting or risky is part of what I do, and I knew Paul was definitely going to deliver something that is smart and bold and different. In this instance there was certainly a risk in an upside down cover, but everyone here loved and thought it was perfect.

Working with and trusting my publisher, editors, sales and marketing and gaining their trust is another huge part of my job. Like any team working towards an end, there are many pieces that are cumulative, and the jacket can be a focal point of a lot of things. So fostering an environment with my designers and pushing my design to bring things to the table that I believe in, and then working with my editorial team to massage those jackets into something even better. That’s the goal. 

As for a surprising thing someone outside of publishing might not know about my job; perhaps that I’m a reader and lover of books, and not just some art guy. Or that a graphic designer is more like an engineer or general problem solver—the end result just happens to be visual form. A design can be thought of as a set of constraints or parameters. In book design, these consist of things like the conceptual literary content of the book, what makes the book unique in the context of other similar books or all books, how the author is (or is not) known, the expectations of the book from the point of view of the author/editor/sales force/readers, the context of book jacket in the contemporary moment, the context of book jackets in the last 10 (or even 20) years, visual pop culture. Or something that is obvious and not obvious is working with type is very difficult.  And it perhaps the most specialized thing that graphic designers bring to that general problem solving into form.  

When you first start working on a book, what does that mean – what are your first steps?

There’s a combination of reading the manuscript, and listening to the editor talk about the book. As an art director, I have to dip into almost all the of the books to see what they are like before deciding to whom to give each title. As a designer (if I’m working on that title’s jacket) it’s always different with every book. But as a general process I will read the book, and think and sketch, and sketch, and reread, work though a number of ideas, throw most of them out, stay with others, reread, take a walk (much harder when you are also the art director), try to come up with something new. Those are the first steps. 

Please explain why you like the cover of But What if We’re Wrong? What did you most want it to convey? 

As soon as I saw this design, I knew it was the best solution for the jacket. Fantastic. 

The cover is simple and direct, but at the same time so “wrong.” It disrupts the expectation we have that things should be right-side up. And that’s exactly what the book questions; what do we assume to be right or decided about the world (take gravity for instance) and asks the simple question, “But…”  The package brings you immediately to that kind of query and lets you know that Chuck is going to have some serious fun with the idea. It’s quirky but bold; not a gimmicky trick as much as a statement. Perfect for the book. 

After everyone else saw it and also thought it was great, we talked about things like color and so on. But it would complicate the intent, bringing perhaps something else to muddy up the main thing. Keeping it black and white, keeping the type all the same typeface and size, moving the subtitle to the back, allows the one big move to be the clear and immediate thing that is experienced. 

You read the manuscript to figure out your approach, and on this book you collaborated with a freelancer. What is that working relationship like? Do you brainstorm together? Do you suggest concepts? 

When I work with a freelancer (as well as with my in-house designers), I like to see what they come up with without any input from me. Not only are you more likely to get something special and surprising, something you couldn’t have thought of yourself (which is why art directors work with a variety of freelancers in addition to their in-house staff), but you are sending a signal of trust. If a designer knows what “kind” of design they are expected to deliver, they might not push very far or hard. But if they take ownership of being the first arbiters of what the package of the book might be, there is more of a chance for something brilliant. I’m just trying to maximize the talent I have working with me. 

With my in house staff, it is similar but there might also be a concept that is floating that we will work with. Or occasionally I’ll work with one designer or my whole team to come up with  ideas together. That’s an exception though, and cover design is generally a sole enterprise in the initial stages. Then it becomes a collaboration when I see comps, and goes from there. 

Who approves the cover design? Who has a say in the final cover? 

It always depends. What we are really trying to make is a unique and powerful package that connects to the soul of the book. By the time we work through that process in-house, it’s hopefully the jacket that feels just right to the author and anyone else surrounding the book. 

What makes certain piece of jacket art successful in your mind?

A jacket the feels unique, that stands alone and marks the book as an individual thing that is exciting and worth experiencing always wins the day. In the sea of book covers, a clever concept is not as strong as formal innovation. The great trick is to have something that is both visually stunning or startling that has a conceptual grounding or underlying connection to the book. Something that suggests something tangible but not literal about what’s inside. The jacket But What if We’re Wrong jacket is visually dynamic and unique because it’s upside down, which is also the conceptual move that leads you right into the book.  

Check back next time for an interview with Paul Saher, the designer behind Klosterman’s cover art.

Read first post in this series here, and find out more about But What If We’re Wrong here: