Jigsaw Jones: What’s In a Book Cover?

One of the central themes of this blog is that whatever touches my life as a writer is valid content. Or as my pal Matthew Cordell might say, “blog fodder.” So, thus: I recently got this note from my editor at Scholastic, Matt Ringler:

TITLE: Jigsaw Jones Electronic Mystery: The Case of the Secret Skeleton
AUTHOR: James Preller

COVER CONCEPT:
Jigsaw Jones is sneaking into the janitor’s storage closet. We see him standing in the doorway. It’s dark but Jigsaw has a flashlight. In a back corner, lit up by the beam of light is a plaster human skeleton, hanging from a stand by its head. The skeleton should be the size of a normal person, like the ones used in science class to study anatomy. Jigsaw looks frightened. We can also see the normal paraphernalia that would be in the storage closet (i.e. mops, brooms, buckets, etc.). Visibly crumpled in the skeleton’s hand is a piece of paper (a clue).

And that’s it, one of the early steps toward designing a book cover. The manuscript, you should know, is not yet finished. In paperback publishing, it often isn’t. The book won’t be out for a year — but covers need to be placed in catalogs and brochures; the marketing guys need ’em in well advance. And you don’t want to mess with the marketing guys.

Matt and I discussed the “cover concept” over the phone. Then he had to present it at a meeting to get approval before taking the next step. Which is, I’m pretty sure, speaking with the art director who will contact the cover artist, R.W. Alley.

NOTE: At this point, I decided to do a quick Q & A with Matt Ringler.

Hey, Matt, thanks for helping me out. So what’s involved with getting this particular cover concept approved? Is it anything like, for example, meeting with the Spanish Inquisition?

I’d say it’s more like the “History of the World” version of the Spanish Inquisition, you know, with Mel Brooks singing and fully choreographed synchronized swimmers.

See, that’s where we part ways, my friend. I prefer the Monty Python version, with soft cushions and comfy chairs. [See clip below.]

The trickiest part is making sure everybody is happy. In this case everybody means: the author, the editor (me), the editorial director, the art designer, the manager of the Book Club this title is going on, and a creative director. After all those people sign off on it, the illustrator gets to add another important opinion. I don’t know how many times you’ve ever been around seven people who fully agree on anything. Personally, I have never seen it happen.

The Seven Dwarfs seemed pretty high on Snow White. [That’s the Disney spelling, btw.]

Well, you know what Randy Newman would say about that.

The Dwarfs would have hated the song “Short People” — with unanimous agreement, I’d bet. Too bad they didn’t design book covers.

It’s rare to get full agreement on anything, and that’s a positive thing. Different perspectives often work to improve a book cover. From most conversations I’ve had, many people are under the impression that an editor only corrects spelling and grammar mistakes. While that helps with the job description, I think the most important quality needed in an editor at this stage in the process is diplomacy. I’m happy when all of those people are satisfied and the cover concept arrives on my desk with all of the necessary signatures.

Once the concept is approved, what next?

The next step is to discuss it with the art designer. The designer will then discuss the cover ideas with the artist. A time line will be set. A rough sketch will then come in to the designer, who will place that art into the template of the book cover. At that stage, everybody will look at it again to make sure it works.

I have to say, I love this process stuff — how crayons are made, or Hershey’s Kisses, or whatever — I find it so interesting how many small steps are taken to make a book happen. When do you think the rough sketch will come in?

Most people aren’t aware of the hundreds of minor decisions that are made before each book is published. The time it takes to get a sketch depends on several factors: how fast the artist works, how busy they may be at that time, the book’s schedule, when the final art is due, etc. The standard time is about three weeks to a month. It is important to leave enough time for the illustrator to make any changes that may be needed.

Thanks, Matt. I intend to keep my loyal blog readers — who, clearly, and I don’t think this is saying too much, are willing to lay down their lives for me — posted on this whole process. We’ll be talking soon (and not just about the New York Mets, and our shared pain, but about actual work, too!).

Thank you, Jimmy. I always look forward to our conversations, and I know we will one day have one about a championship Mets team — even if we are old and retired by then!

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NOTE: Here’s some links to the follow-up posts in this seven-part series: One, Two, Three, FourFive, and Six, and Seven. Read them all and experience the awe and wonder of the creative, collaborative process!

One comment

  1. Doesn't Matt R says:

    Great article and insightful interview. This Matt Ringler sounds like a real ace. And I love that Mel Brooks Inquisition bit.

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