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Behind the Scenes with a Penguin Random House Book Cover Designer

We’ve all heard the saying, “don’t judge a book by its cover.” But when it comes to books, the cover is actually extremely important, and is, quite often, the first thing that is judged by a potential reader. When browsing through hundreds of books in a store, it’s the covers that stand out, not the stories (at first, anyway). So, book cover designers have a pretty important job.

Designing an eye-catching book cover is difficult. As Penguin Random House designer Lynn Buckley explains, “coming up with something that’s not going to be the same as everything that’s out there is really tough. But when it works, it’s the most rewarding thing ever.” There’s a lot of work that goes into each cover design – a lot of trial and error that eventually leads to the creation of a masterpiece.

Watch the video below to learn more about the process of creating a book cover from Lynn Buckley, and get an inside look at her latest project: Back Talk by Danielle Lazarin.

Transcription of  Lynn Buckley on designing a book cover.

Lynn Buckley: The thing that I love about designing book covers is it’s always different – and that’s also the thing that’s really hard about it. Coming up with something that’s not going to be the same as everything that’s out there is really tough. But when it works, it’s the most rewarding thing ever.

My name’s Lynn Buckley. I am a book cover designer at Penguin Random House. I was always looking through design manuals when I was in school (this was before Pinterest and design blogs). And I just was always drawn to the book covers. So, I went to this exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum. I saw the covers there, along with all these other forms of design, and I just thought that this is really what I wanted to do.

Sometimes – this is going to sound really weird – I will ask the characters what they would like for the cover. I’ll get a little answer, which sounds really ridiculous and kooky, but it works.

I have always combined illustration and digital design in my work. When I was in school, I was a painting major. So I like to make things, and then scan them, and/or photograph them, and somehow use them in the designs. There’s a lot of playing around with things, images, photographs, and types until something works.

How many versions of a cover do I do? You don’t want to know. Sometimes, I’ve done three covers. Other times, I’ve done hundreds for one book. So when I started working on Back Talk, I tried to get myself in the mood of the characters. And this one was definitely not hard to do.

It’s a book of short stories, mostly about young women. Many of the women in the stories are not saying everything that they want to say. I was hoping to, with the design, somehow capture the character’s exasperation without expressing their desires and their needs.

One of the things that’s great about this book is the title Back Talk… or Talk Back. You can play with the design on the words. I also wanted to get a face to be there, but not be there somehow.

I wanted her to be covered over, especially over the mouth. The author of Back Talk is Danielle Lazarin. And I get to meet her today, which is very exciting. She was kind enough to send me a thank you note after she got the design. Knowing that I have made the author happy is definitely a high point of my job.

Danielle Lazarin: Remember that?

Lynn Buckley: Oh, I forgot about that. Well, it looks better.

Danielle Lazarin: I had an ego my where I was like, could my name just stand out just a little bit more? There was, I think, like, gray or something. I was like, can we just make that pop a little bit.

I forgot about that, but yeah.

Danielle Lazarin: I wasn’t surprised to see a woman on the cover, but I was surprised at how much I liked the woman on the cover. And I loved how painterly she was, and how thoughtful that interpretation of a woman was, and then, how direct she was. Though I do wonder – did you always know that there would be a woman’s face on it?

Lynn Buckley: No, I mean, I really wanted to do like – I guess I didn’t do that many, I thought I did a whole bunch– but like, something where she was talking back.

Danielle Lazarin: Yeah, let’s look at it, again. The more I look at it, the more I love it.