PUBLISHING BLOG

HOW TO DESIGN A BOOK COVER AND OTHER STORIES

Stories from my career in publishing and beyond

In my publishing career I have been very lucky to work on some amazing projects and with some amazing people. This blog tells just some of my stories.

It has been and continues to be a privilege to work as a designer for over 40 years.

I hope you enjoy the stories too.

Ned

William Nash, Out-Take & Stu

In early 2001 I got a call. I was running late for a meeting, and I debated whether to pick up the phone. I did and a voice at the other end said, “Do you want to design the best rock ’n’ roll book this century?”

I did. This is not the sort of offer a book designer gets everyday.

80s Gaming: paper heroes, tight kerning and silver foil

Back in the late 80s the Falcon Game Book Series was highly innovative; the reader was the hero, taking a story path of their own choosing. Today, this is laughably tame and laborious, compared with our easily accessible digital escapism, role playing on our smart phones across time zones and continents. But, remember, this was all before Alan Sugar introduced the Amstrad home computer, complete with its 3.5” floppy discs. Internet for all was in its infancy and Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) was THE ‘gaming’ experience.

Endings, beginnings and an unexpected offer

At the beginning of 1988, and still at Slatter-Anderson, I was getting busier with self-employed work. I was being commissioned by Transworld books, plus regular cartoon and design jobs for Video Arts. Meanwhile, at Slatter-Anderson I was working on an extensive test packaging project for Elida Gibbs for All Clear hair products and “re-imagined” toothpaste tubes. I was doing all the lettering artwork and technical drawings – oh, the glamour!

The Right to Know

Clive Ponting was the civil servant who, along with Tam Dalyell MP, was instrumental in revealing Whitehall secrets behind the notorious Belgrano Affair and I was given the job of designing the cover of his exposé. 
The General Belgrano was an Argentinian cruiser, sunk on 2nd May 1982, during the Falklands War. Clive’s book would reveal that, when struck by two torpedos from HMS Conqueror, a British hunter-killer Churchill class nuclear-powered submarine, the General Belgrano was, not only outside the combat zone, but also sailing away from it when hit. She sank with all hands, 323 lives were lost.

Budgie-smugglers, Big Sellers and Big Stars, Poolside LA

During the late 80s and early 90s Century’s fiction list was attracting plenty of attention following the global success of Colleen McCullough’s The Thorn Birds and novella The Ladies of Missalonghi.

Razzamatazz, restraint and Bruce Oldfield

Around this time Slatter-Anderson was also working on promotional work for Bruce Oldfield and I was tasked with designing a 12-page advert for Vogue for his range of tights, which he had designed for Charnos. Variety was ever the spice of life and on another day warm day I headed down to Bruce’s workshop in Fulham to meet him, select the photos and plan the 12 page spread.

Design, Running ‘the Board’, the Gauntlet and the power of Healing Ash

My 20 months at Slatter-Anderson were a blur… Learning a lot in a short space of time, I worked on a truly diverse range of design jobs

The Book that Haunts Me and the Job That Got Away

When we write down our stories it is very tempting to only portray the best version of a career or a life, but, it is never all plain sailing. When you start working for yourself the stones in the road can appear more like boulders and hurt just as much!

Starting out in business with little or no experience, the only way of building the long-term mental resources you need is often by solving what’s in front of you. Taking advice, yes, but also trusting your instincts, learning from mistakes and moving on.

Introduction | Four decades in…

How did that happen?
The other day I worked out that I have been working in publishing for over 40 years. My career to date has been over a period of rapid and seismic shifts in print and graphic design, of digital processes and, oh yes, the battleground of today’s content, the Internet.

The Reindeer of Death

The announcement that Penguin Books were to take over Sphere, my first professional home, arrived hard on the heels of the euphoria of my first Frankfurt Book Fair. The chaff from the rumour mill finally drifted down to the ground floor design department revealing that our death knell had been, of all things, Christmas.

John Gielgud at 90

Work with Nick Hern Books grew rapidly. The play scripts coming through regularly, usually requiring a very quick turn around, had an added complication of needing to balance the time it took to print the scripts, against how the scripts may change during the rehearsal process. As many of the scripts also included cast details, they also served as show programmes.
In early summer I had a call from Nick, he said, “I’ve got something a bit different for you and you have some time on this one” I was intrigued, “I want you to come and meet the editor.”

Photoshoots and the birth of 2H

Six months after joining Slatter-Anderson, I was offered work on a freelance, rather than a permanent basis. Looking back on that often intense and chaotic time, I’m sure it had a lot to do with their tax position and off loading full-time employees.

To their credit, my then current bosses Robin and Derek did me the massive favour of letting me use the Slatter-Anderson darkroom to make up artwork out of office hours. The deal was that I could do freelance work outside office hours and deduct any materials I used from my monthly invoice. They knew that in order to be seen as bona fide freelance by the tax office I would need to have income from sources other than their company.

New World, Old Friends

Towards the end of 1988 the announcement was made that Chatto, Jonathan Cape, Chatto Poetry and The Hogarth Press were to become part of Random House Group. This would also mean a move from Chatto’s lovely Georgian offices in Bedford Square to Random House HQ that occupied a modern building in Chandos Place, Covent Garden. The ground was shifting under my feet and as publishing world began to change it was a worrying time.

Lettering design and 15 words of genius…

Some authors are so popular, that they get their own series style. Alan Scholefield was one. With writing skills to master a range of genres, at Sphere Books we focussed on Alan’s ‘epic adventures’.
The lettering style for Alan’s epics was the first ‘author style’ I designed and drew up myself at Sphere, rather than commissioning one of the lettering artworkers we used. I was inspired by the Albertus font, however, because the name Scholefield is so long, I had to adjust the proportions and embolden the serifs, so it would work at a size that could be seen across a book store and attract his many readers. 

Three Breaks, None of Them Bones

In design every career there comes those break-through moments; for me there were three in as many months – 1984 was an amazing year!  

In July of that year I received my degree in Graphic Design and Typography from Exeter College of Art and Design. Secondly, my external examination assessor, Brian Sanders, liked my final degree show.

The Horror Obsessed Polymath and Me…

The first really high profile author series style I designed at Sphere Books was Clive Barker’s Books of Blood. Already published in paperback, Clive didn’t like the original designs and convinced his editor that only he could do the cover paintings, as they were his stories and he was best placed to make all the characters come to life. Fair point.

Awop bob alula awop bam boom!

There was something very cool about the Abacus imprint at Sphere; a unique, rare joy infused their tiny office space where Mike Petty, the editorial director, often penned his unnerving but highly diverting design feedback as song lyrics.

Me? Illustrate a cover?…

During my time at Sphere Books I designed a series by Peter Tinniswood, which afforded me the opportunity, not only to design, but also draw all the cover images. An unlooked for, but hugely rewarding moment!

Briefing my heroes – don’t ask, don’t get

This was one of those jobs; as soon as I read the brief I had a crystal clear idea of the image I wanted for the book cover. In Designers that have influenced and inspired me. 1. I mentioned being a huge fan of iconic cartoonist Ed McLachlan’s work. So, when I was given Dig Up Your Family Tree and allowed to commission the illustration, I got the chance to brief and art direct one of my heroes. At 24, this was in equal parts exciting and utterly terrifying.

Danielle Steel | 1985-6

For relatively small publishers, like Sphere Books, there are always a few authors about whose axis the company’s survival often revolves. Prolific, high-profile, bestselling…  Danielle Steel was just such an author for Sphere where she had full cover approval and maintained a very tight control on all design decisions. 

Anarchy and Invention: cartoons, exhibitions and a fine dinner out

From a tender age I have loved cartoons. From Top Cat to The Flintstones, Roobarb and Custard to Asterix, I loved the anarchy and the invention. I have already written about my work with Ed McClachlan and, during my time at Sphere Books I went on to draw a number of cartoons for covers and company Christmas cards for Sphere and some of our suppliers. One morning I got a message to see Barbara Boote, Sphere’s Head of Editorial; with no idea what was in the wind, off I trod…

Bottleneck and the Summer ’77

I began working as a designer when I was still at school. I used to love sauntering into WH Smiths with my friends and see my covers on the shelves and I still get that same thrill seeing my work in shops 43 years on. How I came to be designing puzzle book covers is as odd as it is satisfying…
My father was obsessed with The Telegraph cryptic crossword and one compiler in particular, Colin Parsons, was his nemesis. After finally completing one of Colin’s crosswords, in his great excitement, or relief, my father dashed off a letter of victory. Weirdly and despite, I’m sure, receiving other fan mail, Colin wrote back and so started a long correspondence. 

The Road to Fulham and the Soap Stars of Slatter-Anderson

After clearing my desk at Sphere Books on Friday afternoon, Monday morning found me sitting down at a corner desk of the Riverside Studios in Fulham. Perched on the north bank of the Thames with a view of Brompton reservoir and the most spectacular sunsets in West London, I was now a Senior Designer at Slatter-Anderson.

Deals and Devils… Donald Trump to Kirk Douglas

Working with Ann Suster and Tony Whittome, my name soon got passed round to other editors in the Hutchinson and Century fiction departments. Eventually, I started working with one of Century Books’ co-founders Rosie De Courcy, who also handled some of the big name non-fiction titles. Quietly spoken, immaculately well dressed and precise in her choice of words, Rosie was very influential in 1980s and 90s publishing. More importantly, she was a lovely person to work with and made you feel like you were part of the most important meeting of her day.

Inspiration

My design degree, from Exeter College of Art and Design, was focussed on typography and lettering design, and, during my studies, I was lucky enough to be taught by some extraordinary and influential lettering designers and calligraphers. 

An Assassin’s Story, Style and Humility

Not long after my adventure in the Hollywood hills, I was commissioned to design the cover for Martin Booth’s A Very Private Gentleman. The book is about one Signor Farfalla, believed to be a painter by his rural village, in reality, Farfalla is the maker of custom-made assassin’s weaponery.

“I’ll have a B please Bob…”

During the 1980s Blockbusters was a hugely popular TV quiz in the UK. An American import, the show’s enthusiastic contestants answered trivia questions based on an initial letter that they picked from a board. The idea being to complete a run of letters and create a word before the opposition.  Say, “I’ll have a B please Bob” to anyone of a certain age and they’ll know instantly what you’re talking about. 

Homme Fatale, The Firm and Finding Norman Wisdom

A couple of months after Kirk Douglas’s book had gone off to print Caroline Upcher sent me a fax from Irving Lazaar . Irving “Swifty” Lazaar was an American talent agent and deal maker. Dubbed “Swifty” by Humphrey Bogart for his speed at putting together deals, he was renowned in the 80s and 90s, such was his notoriety The Muppet Show claimed he was Fozzie Bear’s agent!

“Can I draw your house?”

In the cheerless Autumn term of 1979 the Head of Art at my school, David Willacy, called me into his office to inform me, in his bluff Cumbrian tones, that Robert Runcie, the then Bishop of St Albans, wanted to talk to me about a drawing and I was to go to the Bishop’s Palace straightaway.

Nick Hern – the play’s the thing

Towards the end of 1991 I bumped into Nick Hern on the third floor of The Random House building in Vauxhall Bridge Road. Nick’s ‘list’ had just become one of Random House imprints, having been part of the Walker Books group since 1988.

Nick was (and happily still is) publishing plays and books on all things theatre. By setting up a specialist list of play scripts and play script programmes sold in theatres, Nick had quickly built on his reputation at Methuen and Walker, as the ‘go to’ man for every new and established playwright both in the UK and around the world.

Another scandal, another book, same Prime Minister.

Although the impact of this particular story has faded over time, it was, on publication, a highly controversial and political title. Illuminating the “Westland affair” of 1985-86 the book exposed cabinet in-fighting and Thatcher’s autocratic style to public scrutiny. Following hot on the heels of the Miners’ strike and coming just before the “Poll Tax” controversy, this was, arguably, the first of the internal disagreements to reveal the widening fissures in the Conservative party over the UK’s position in Europe. Written by Magnus Linklater the Managing Editor, and David Leigh the Chief Investigative Reporter, at The Observer, the research behind the book came with the highest of investigative credentials. 

First day, first cover

My first day at Sphere Books. I was living in Kennington in south-east London at the time and had already practised my commute via Chancery Lane Tube up to Gray’s Inn Road several times before arriving way too early on my first day. After an anxious wander around the traditional street market in Leather Lane, nine a.m. finally came and I walked in. 

Espionage, Architecture and Ann Victoria Roberts

Seven months in to my fledgling freelance career a wide variety of covers and publicity campaigns kept flowing in from Chatto & Windus. The Royal Horticultural Society’s book on companion planting; anthologies of poetry by Norman MacCaig and Carol Ann Duffy; Farmwork a photographic book capturing agricultural life, The Pitman Painters by William Feaver and the cover design for her first book that set the seal on an enduring professional relationship with much loved novelist, Ann Victoria Roberts.

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