Covering Books: An Interview with Book Designer Michael Fusco
Michael Fusco is a graphic designer and part-time Art Director of Pegasus Books. His work has been celebrated in Print Magazine's Regional Design Annual, and he has won awards from the AIGA and the National Calendar Awards. He was good enough to sit down and answer some questions about the art and business of book jacket design.
How long have you been designing book jackets? Do you tend to work in a specific genre?
I’ve been designing book jackets for about a decade (I can’t believe it’s true, but I just did the math, and it’s almost been a decade! Whoa.) I do not work in a specific genre, but I have been doing a lot of mystery books lately, which likely has to do with being the part-time Art Director for Pegasus Books. They publish a lot of mystery books and non-fiction history. I enjoy working on mystery books, but I also love being able to do jackets that are really off the wall and don’t fall into a specific genre.
What do you think about first when you design a book jacket? How much guidance do you get from the publishing company?
The audience. I’d love to think about the author and what they’d want, but in the end, the audience is who needs to connect with the cover in order to get the book sold, so the audience is my number one thought. When I’m first given an assignment, I’m generally given very little guidance. I’m usually sent the manuscript and maybe some abstract thoughts the editor might have had in regards to the direction he/she would like the cover to head. This guidance usually gets more specific as the design process continues. Generally, I try to give the publisher three unique comps for the book. Sometimes, they just pick one and we’re done. Most of the time, one concept is picked and we refine that concept, tweaking the type or changing the imagery. If all goes well in this process, we have a finished design after a couple of rounds.
Of the books you design, how many do you typically read?
I try to read as many as I possibly can. It is physically impossible to read all the books that I am assigned. I just finished a run of doing about 20 covers in the last three months, and so I prioritized. I can generally get away with not completely reading most of the non-fiction I do as long as I have a pretty in depth summary of the contents. I read every fiction book I design, mostly.
Do you ever work with the author on the cover design or is there minimal involvement? Have you ever heard from authors after the book is out?
Unfortunately, there’s minimal involvement pre-publication. This always makes me sad because my girlfriend and her father are writers and I’m always discussing covers with them. Post-publication, though, I often hear from authors, which always makes me feel like I’ve done my job well. This kind of contradicts my answer to the second question, but in the end, it means so much to me to have an author contact me and tell me how much they love their cover.
Are there any other book designers whose work you particularly admire?
Rodrigo Corral and John Gall. Both of them produce work that is simultaneously unexpected and subtle.
What are you reading at the moment?
Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer. I wish I had read this before I took a 28-day cross-country road trip last summer. We would have spent a lot more time in Utah. Judging by the people depicted in the book, I might not be here right now answering your questions if we had. I’m also reading the manuscript for a book I’m designing called Greasy Rider, which is about two friends who convert an old Mercedes to run on fry oil and drive across the country. I haven’t gotten to their chapter about Utah yet.
What’s the last book you read based solely on the cover?
The Ruins, by Scott Smith, managed to make the Big Book Look seem both literary and awesome. Also, Oh the Glory of it All, by Sean Wilsey. The cover for that is so simple and strong. Both of these covers seem to be vine/flower focused, which is purely coincidental.
The only book I remember buying specifically for the spine is the hardcover edition of Johnny Mad Dog by Emmanuel Dogala. I was visiting LA and saw it on the shelf, spine out. I had to buy it. The cover is actually great too, but the spine is what sold the book.
I had a similar reaction to the Wilsey cover. It's a nice jacket, and it has the kind of title I like, too. Any insights on why publishers change the jackets of books? Is it simply to stir up new sales? For instance, I really enjoyed the Penguin Classics cover of Gravity’s Rainbow, with the diagram of the V2 rocket on it. But now they’ve got one that’s all retro looking. Not as good, in my opinion (I really hope you didn’t design this cover).
I didn’t design it, but I kind of wish I had (the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition is actually my favorite of the three editions). I think switching up a cover for different editions makes the book seem new again. Giving a classic book like Gravity’s Rainbow a new cover makes it seem more significant to contemporary audiences.
Most publishers like to have completely different covers when releasing a paperback edition of a hardcover original. When designing a paperback, I feel I generally have a lot more leeway in terms of how crazy I can go with the design.
I recently updated two covers by 60’s crime writer Chester Himes. I decided not to give the covers a modern, more contemporary look, but rather to capture the environment of 1960’s era Harlem and design the cover with a more pulpy feel. That way, the covers feel more like throwbacks to the original editions and less like unrelated, design-heavy art projects.
Why is it that so many books re-use the same or nearly the same cover? The Mother Garden, by Robin Romm has pretty much the exact same cover as the paperback of Amy Fusselman's The Pharmacist's Mate. I don't think The Pharmacist's Mate was a big bestseller, so I can't imagine why they would want people to recall that book when looking at this new, completely unrelated book. It seems to happen a lot. A few years ago, there were suddenly dozens of covers with shoes on them: shoes with no feet in them, shoes tied together, etc. Some of these books even used the same photograph of shoes tied together (like Dan Chaon's You Remind Me of Me). And of course, every book by a woman had a pair of women's legs on it. Does one book end up influencing other jacket designs and start a trend or how does that work?
There are definitely trends in cover design, like the "shoes" trend you mentioned. For a while it really seemed like every big literary book (I love Dan's book even though the cover is an example of this) had shoes on it. I'm glad that has seemed to pass. I squarely blame the marketing/publicity department for these sort of things. One of the drawbacks to designing book jackets is that the chosen jacket often needs to be approved by publicity and marketing people after the editor and author have seen it. In my view, someone in marketing should be able to sell anything, therefore if the cover is designed appropriately (author name spelled right, that sort of thing), they shouldn't have anything to say. Unfortunately, this is not how things operate, and that's when trends in design start to happen. I've had plenty of marketing people come to me with a previously published cover, and ask me to make a new cover look exactly like it. This also happens a lot with genre fiction. The thought process seems to be that every mystery book needs to have a figure in shadow in order to have the readers identify them as such. It's completely preposterous. I don't tell the marketing department how to sell the book, and so they shouldn't be telling me how to design them.
Thanks, Michael. You can see more of Michael Fusco's graphic design work at michaelfuscodesign.com.