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Explained: life in book covers

Saket Suman |

It was the year 2008 when Bhavi Mehta, a fresh graduate from National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), stepped out of the campus to explore a whole new world, little knowing that the "six months internship" that she had bagged at Penguin India was soon going to shape her destiny. "During the first few weeks I was unable to perform any of the tasks assigned to me without assistance. I was constantly haranguing the other designers: ‘What’s an A format?’ ‘How do you calculate a spine?’," she recalls. But everyone was very patient   after all the entire process of book designing is a matter of patience and our just-entered intern had a lot to learn.

Initially, she was only making back covers and spines for backlist titles but after almost two weeks, she was assigned a title to design by herself. It was a hardback by Anita Nair titled Goodnight and Godbless. Here was her big opportunity   she had to be at her creative best! "The brief was straight, it had to look gifty. Not quite knowing how to make it look ‘gifty’, I started by reading the manuscript, a practice, which I stick to till date. For me reading the manuscript is the most crucial block in designing a jacket. As I read along, I often make notes and doodles, trying to unlock motifs and images from the text. After a bunch of drafts, watercolour and illustration attempts it was decided to take the photographic route for the jacket," Bhavi shared about her first assignment. She said she is not "very proud" of her earlier works but it was indeed a great learning process.

 When Bhavi stepped into Penguin India’s office for the first time, she had no clue how long she would last in the industry but time passed and she now realises that the "world of book covers" is exactly where she wanted to be.

"I was thrilled to be offered a full-time job at the end of my internship and I happily accepted it." After spending five years, in 2013, she decided to pursue book designing independently and since then worked with Hachette Books, Harper Collins, Bloomsbury India and Amazon. "The journey has been exhilarating so far and I hope to soon start collaborating with publishing houses overseas to widen my scope of knowledge," she said. 

Popular calligrapher and graphic designer, Nikheel Aphale’s tryst with book covers also began on humble notes. After quitting his full time job, Aphale wanted to pursue calligraphy and sent his calligraphy blog link to design studios, agencies, publications houses and others, who could be interested in collaboration. "Penguin offered me to do a cover and they really liked what I did. I enjoyed the process and its outcome too. Since then it’s been an absolute delightful journey, now I am designing covers for almost all leading publications in India," said the proud calligrapher. But even today, he agrees, "I am a graphic designer and calligrapher by profession and designing book covers was never a conscious decision."

The stories are many but, unfortunately, book designers seldom get the recognition that they so well deserve. Even as the publishing industry is booming in recent years, it is actually the authors and publishers, who are recognised for their works; little do we take time to ponder and reflect upon the craft of these creative people.


Learning the craft

Most designers agree that one does not need to take any specific training or course to become successful book designers, it is more about one’s creativity and how well one manages to sharpen it. However, it is a pity that most of the times "degree and certificate" is given preferrence over "creativity and niche" these days and, therefore, designers suggested that having a course in designing is always an added advantage and besides, it adds some amount of exposure to one’s works.

"I studied graphic design at NIFT, Delhi. Having a formal degree only takes you so far. It equips you technically but the rest is up to you. I read. I like to be fully versed with the content I am dealing with before working on the cover. I try and read the brief after I am done reading the manuscript or parts of it so that it doesn’t cloud my thought process. At the same time, I never confuse myself to be an artist. At the end of the day, I am a designer and my job is to serve the author’s body of work in the best possible manner. I like to see what people are doing, what are they reading," says Bhavi Mehta.

Nikheel Aphale, calligrapher and graphic designer, graduated in applied arts and then pursued Masters in graphic design from NID (National School of Design, Ahmedabad). He said, "Designing book covers is like designing a poster or a packaging, basically communicating the essence or message of the book. Content and target audience always decide the look of the cover."

Kunal Kundu, who recently designed Krishna Udayashankar&’s The Aryavarta Chronicles series’ covers published by Hachette India, among several other popular covers, specialised in Animation Film Design from the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad. Since it was a multi-disciplinary design school, he picked up Graphic Design fundamentals too along with his main stream. "I wanted to make animation films when I joined NID, but with time I figured making 24 frames for one second of screen time is something I don’t want to do unless it is for my personal projects. The search for continuing with my penchant for creating art but one artwork at a time, and using my design school education ended in book covers. They are apt for my low attention span," he added. His designs are mostly based on client briefs, discussions with the editors, publishers, authors and finally his own take on it.

"A combined course on Illustration and Graphic Design would certainly help, but the inborn creativity is that one thing, which will let one do magic! Schools are good for honing your skills but being visually creative is a prerequisite of a great book cover designer or for any art for that matter," he added. 

Making it happen

Remember how you spotted that extraordinary book cover and bought the book without a second thought! Book covers is perhaps the most creative area in the publishing industry and many a times their creativity surpasses the actual content of the book too. But designing a book cover is not as easy a process as it is to buy the book after being enchanted by its cover. It’s a tedious process, involving drafts after drafts   rejections after rejections and so on.

Sometimes, the process starts a brief, which is put together by the editor-in- charge and the author. It consists of book dimensions, a synopsis of the book, the editor’s/sales inputs, author suggestions and sometimes references to other covers in the same category. The brief is sent to the art director, who then assigns it to a designer.

Penguin was looking to rejacket all seven books in the Vikram Seth’s poetry series and Bhavi Mehta was handling the project and she started out by taking some time off and immersing herself in the books. "As I read along, I knew exactly what I wanted, something sublime that rang true to his writing. My initial idea was to get a new illustrator on board for every book and commissioning an illustration for each of the seven books. But due to shortage of time and budget I decided to go with sourcing the right illustration for each book. There was one catch (there almost always is)   to find seven illustrations by seven artists that were different and yet came together as one cohesive series. After browsing through hundreds of illustrations from artists all over the world and a couple of weeks’ hard work, the final seven were selected and approved by everyone. Next was the Herculean task of clearing permissions for all, which took another two weeks. This was one of the most gratifying projects I have been lucky to be a part of," she told The Statesman.

Sometimes when all drafts for a particular jacket are killed at the meeting, the designer goes back to the drawing board and starts afresh. If a draft is approved, it is then fine tuned and sent to the author for his approval. "The author’s suggestions, if any, are best accommodated and the jacket is art worked, which means it is laid out with proper dimensions/margins/bleeds and the text is flown in. Once the cover is fully laid out, it goes through rounds of copy checking by the editor-in-charge till the text is all in place. After it is copy checked a jacket is ready to be sent for production. At this stage the designer and the production team try and decide on post-production of the book in terms of paper to be used, any effects such as emboss/UV and the final finish of the cover. All of this is subject to the budget of a book. After this the cover finally goes to print," she added.

From Nikheel Aphale’s personal journey as a designer, one found that the editor sends the brief in a defined format, which includes editor’s and author’s thoughts on the book as well as a few ideas for covers (not necessary to follow them) along with some parallel references, which fall in the same category as their book. A few technical details like size, print run and world rights are mentioned in the brief and also the idea of budget to use any special paper, effects/treatment or any stock image. After sending a few concept options, the editor generally selects one of the routes or sometimes they work on all the options and leave it to author to choose. Before sending it to the author or agent, the publication team (sales, senior editors, publisher) internally discusses and then send it to author. "The author either comes back with smooth go-ahead or asks for some edits. Meanwhile, we get in touch with illustrators, photographer or stock image agencies if we want to commission for the cover. After approval, the cover is fine-tuned, the blurb, quotes and so on are placed, the cover is proofed and then goes to the production with suggestions for any print-related specifications," Nikheel told The Statesman.

For Kunal Kundu, "The first step is to go through the project brief, which gives the designer a fair idea of what is needed for the project. Email/ phone or face-to-face interaction usually resolve in case there is any ambiguity in the brief. Once that is done, I, as a designer create a very rough sketch to share with the people involved in the project. This is very sketchy and sometimes needs written words to support the visual. But this is very important to see if all the people involved with the book are in the same page."

 The resulting feedbacks and suggestions are then taken into account when he takes on the second draft, which is considerably more polished and puts the composition more or less the way the final cover would look. This is still a black and white pencil artwork with colour palette suggestions. By this time the non-designers in the group get a good visual representation of the cover. "Whatever little feedback/ suggestion comes at this point is straightaway taken to the final artwork’s execution. This is where the designer takes the final call. Reworks beyond this point happen and educated suggestions are readily incorporated by the designer before it goes for print; but the suggestions resulting from a confused state of mind are something which become a pain to negotiate," he shared.

"At the end of the day, I am a designer and my job is to serve the author’s body of work in the best possible manner. I like to see what people are doing, what  they are reading. The number of drafts vary from project to project. There are some, where I have made anything up to 30-40 drafts and the final cover ends up being the very first draft that you did. Rounds and rounds of designs get killed by editors/author/sales, but the idea is to keep working at it. You never know which draft might be the final one and you try and make each draft your best one. It can get frustrating when you feel that you’ve done the right work and then it gets rejected, not because it’s a bad design but on a mere whim. Such covers that may never see the light of day, usually end up in a folder on my computer called Morgue," Bhavi Mehta told The Statesman.


Manuscript & editors

A book cover is the work of a designer, right? So what is the role of the editors and the actual manuscript of the book in designing a book cover? "In an ideal world designers are supposed to read the entire book, ponder over it and then visualize a cover to execute. But frankly the time frame and remuneration, both make sure that the editor’s brief is the only reading material that a designer gets to read before commencing work! How I wish it would change," said Kundu. In his work, the editors, authors and publishers’ instructions act as a starting point, but he has to take a leading role since he is responsible for the visualisation and final execution of the job at hand. "If it’s not done this way, it usually results in a bad cover. Whoever is specialised in a particular field, be it editing, publishing, writing or designing…Not respecting that is a wrong turn," he added.

The synopsis usually gives Nikheel Aphale enough idea to start the work and it is only sometimes that he asks for manuscripts or important chapters to get some clues and references.

Bhavi Mehta was once given a book jacket brief that came along with full fledged cover drafts from a very enthusiastic copy editor! Another time, an author specifically requested that she use his doodles, which he felt properly represented the text. "I think it’s critical for editors and authors to give their inputs. However, it’s equally important for a designer to not just blindly do as they are told and find the right balance between what works for the book and what looks good," recommended Bhavi.