This forms part of in my ‘behind the scenes‘ look at some of the often unsung heroes who help to bring us readers great crime fiction. This time my Q and A is looking at the role of the cover designer and Neil Lang from Macmillan was kind enough to give up his time to answer my questions.
Possibly Neil’s most recognisable work is on the covers of Peter James’ Roy Grace series, all of which he redesigned in 2015.
Was being a book cover designer something you imagined you would do when you were at school?
I’m not sure that I even knew that job existed. I think like most kids I had a different career choice every week. Although I still remember being given a class project when I must have been about 7 which was a cover design with the title ‘They rounded the corner and there it was’. I seem to remember I drew some sort of flying saucer and a group of kids peering around a wall. If only I’d kept it!
After finishing my degree at Ravensbourne, I worked in a repro house for a while and then got a job at Macmillan in the text design department as a lot of the course work I had was typographic, posters, logos, even some calligraphy.
It was very different then, I remember we had a mac with a portrait screen (so you could only see a single page) which now seems crazy. Most images would be sized and sent off for scans, and you’d mark up your layouts for position. On four colour books we’d often work on the covers, and then later I’d work on TV tie in books for Channel 4, with a few for BBC and Channel 5.
That was sort of my path into cover design, as once a cover design position became available I went for it and with more confidence and experience I’ve been lucky enough to work on pretty much anything.
Can you outline the process of designing a cover?
It varies but usually I get a brief from the editor, with a synopsis or details about the key themes in the book, and who the target audience is. It could be it’s a classic in which case you might know the story, such as American Psycho, they also tend to be books where you can be a little more creative as the target audience tend to know what they are getting.
If it’s possible it’s always better to read the manuscript, it’s the best way to get ideas. I tend to have a notepad at the side of me and just scribble ideas as I go. Might be colours, settings, characters, objects or even the weather, most of it won’t be useful and no one else will be able to read anything I’ve written! For the recent Zero K cover design I had pages of barely legible scribbles but luckily I understood enough.
Do you see the process as a collaboration with the author of the work?
Not all but most cover designs I’ve done before speaking to the author, it would then usually go through a cover meeting which might have up to 20 people expressing opinions, then a revised version would be shown to the author. Most of the time everyone is on the same page so to speak, in that it needs to be a visual with a clear message, which defines the genre, and hopefully stands out amongst all the competition.
What are the factors that you take into account when putting the design together?
Where the book is likely to be sold, the books you’ll find face out in Asda will be very different to those sat on a table in Waterstones. If the sales are mainly online, then you would try and keep the image simple so that it works as a thumbnail. The target audience, is it male or female, also the age of the person buying the book. It could be the book is more of a gift purchase, which usually throws up more problems with finishes and production values. Often the brief will ask for a combination of all the above!
If the author has a successful backlist you don’t want to stray too far from that. The redesign of the DCI Grace Peter James covers evolved from what is already a successful brand but I wanted them to have more impact in bookshops but especially with a view to online sales.
One of the key things in the redesign was to make more of the titles, making them much bigger so they can be read easily even as thumbnails online. By desaturating the image it becomes more of a background on which the titles in a bright pantones and fluros have much more impact. Used in combination with a matt finish and spot varnish over the embossed lettering it makes the physical books stand out more. The bright colours also act as a series identifier, which I’ve carried over onto the spines, using Peter James author branding much larger so there can be no doubt when seen on a bookshelf who the author is.
Recently I’ve been looking at the David Baldacci brand, images used on the front but also the design of the spines which now have his name much stronger but also identify which series the book belongs to and where it sits in that series.
How much does the growth of ebooks and online sales influence the design of covers?
There was a trend towards simple graphic, bright covers which I think came from people wanting an image to stand out as a thumbnail. So I think there has been a change, but it’s hard to say it’s down to ebooks and online sales as publishers just want their titles to stand out wherever it’s being sold.
I think it goes back to the earlier comment of the cover giving a clear message, that could be with the lettering or the image, but probably needs to be more obvious at a smaller scale.
On average, how many different designs might you put together before the final one is agreed?
This is an impossible question, sometimes you get one that works, but I’ve also had some with 100 visuals! Or you might work on something for a week, then some crazy idea comes to you 10 minutes before the cover meeting starts and that’s the one everyone picks. Although sometimes you need to work through the ideas that don’t work before you hit on one that does.
Do you have a particular style that means we might recognise a ‘Neil Lang’ book in a bookshop?
I think if you worked as a freelancer you’d possibly want to have a style as people would come to you for that, in a sense they would know what they were getting. In the same way I would commission an illustrator, I’d look through their portfolio and get a sense of how they would tackle a brief. You might art direct the illustrator, throw in ideas or things you would like included but ultimately you’ve gone to that illustrator because you like what they do.
I’m lucky enough to work on all genres, so I think that means I can bring different ideas to different covers. Certainly a poetry cover will look different to a crime cover, and that will look different to a misery memoir although that’s not to say there won’t be crossover.
What do you think makes a really good cover?
A clever idea executed well. Which is easier said than done, and not always the brief!
You’ve designed covers for a range of different genres, which do you most enjoy and which provide the biggest challenges?
I enjoy working on all the genres, but I’d probably say the mass market covers provide the biggest challenge as they have to stand out in a crowded market. Often a publisher has invested a lot of money behind those titles so they are expecting good sales. These are the books that might also have the most outside influence, maybe from the retailers.
What book or series would you love to be asked to design for?
I guess I’ve already had the chance to do some such as the Picador 40ths a few years ago, various Picador Classics I’ve worked on, recently I’ve been working on a series of 24 classics (which is why this has taken me so long to write) which have been great fun. Sometimes what you think would be a great series are the ones with the most restraints, but the challenge of tackling the big names such as a Grisham or Lee Child, or maybe a fantasy author like Michael Moorcock would be fun.
What are you reading at the moment?
Usually I’m reading a manuscript, two I’ve recently worked on I can recommend would be The One Man by Andrew Gross which is out now, and What you Don’t Know by Joann Chaney (out next year) as it’s a crime story told from different characters perspectives which I found was really interesting.
I’m way behind everyone here as I’ve just finished the Wool trilogy which was fantastic and not what I expected at all, and by the time you read this I’ve probably moved onto something else.
I’d like to thank Neil for taking the time to give such considered answers to my questions, and I’m looking forward to finding out what the series of 24 books is that he’s been working on!