August 5, 2014

Trade Secrets: all about book covers with Gabrielle Bordwin

By Cassidy Ritter

Trade Secrets is an ongoing blog where we ask professionals from the traditional publishing world to explain how they approach their jobs, in order to help self-publishers understand the intricacies of the publishing process and glean some tips.

Today, we talk with book cover artist Gabrielle Bordwin. Bordwin worked for Random House for nine years, starting as an entry-level staff designer and working her way up to art director. She is now a freelance designer focusing her talents on book publishing and often designing covers for power houses such as Penguin Random House and Amazon Publishing. Her most popular covers include the Amazon bestseller “Cloud Atlas,” by David Mitchell, and New York Times bestsellers “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” by Katherine Boo and “Zealot,” by Reza Aslan.

Q: What information are you given before designing a cover?

A: Publishers will usually provide something called a “TI Sheet.” This one-sheet gives you the book’s synopsis, anticipated print run, comparable titles and what they have lined up in advance for sales, marketing and publicity. Sometimes that’s all I’m given. They don’t always have material for me to read and don’t always provide much instruction. Some publishers are clear about what they’re looking for, but with others the design process can be a shot in the dark.

Q: Do you read the book before starting the design process?

A: If it’s a novel or memoir, I always request a manuscript. If it’s a history or business title, I often don’t read the book. I might read a sample chapter, if it’s available, otherwise I’ll research the author for a better understanding of the project. Nonfiction books tend to be more straightforward. The title and subtitle describe the content explicitly, and the design should support that. You can still employ humor or wit, when appropriate, but there’s not the same need for obliqueness as with fiction—in fact, it’s quite the opposite.

Q: How many designs do you do for one book?

A: I think the rule of thumb is that the first set of designs should have at least three different concepts with variations on each. Those could be the same graphic treatment, but with different photos, or the same graphic treatment, but maybe the elements are rearranged for different emphasis, or it could be color variations. I tend to design more than that. I can easily send in a first round of designs that has a dozen concepts plus variations. I try to get a lot of ideas out there right away, especially if it’s not clear to me what the publisher wants. I’m trying to get meaningful feedback for the next round of work, if not an approval.

Q: How long does this process usually take?

A: Usually, from the time I get an assignment, it’s about two to three weeks before I deliver sketches. Revisions can take another month to three months, with much of that time being on hold for people on the other end to see the work and respond to it. Books tend to be assigned six to nine months ahead of their press date, and sometimes you work through that time. The range really can be anywhere from two to nine months from when the project is begun.

Q: What are the most important elements that go on the cover of a book, both front and back?

A: There are only a few elements that go on a book jacket or cover: title, author, subtitle, image, but not always, and sometimes a quote. Nothing is unimportant, even the things that are made small. It all has to be there. I really couldn’t say that any part is more important than the other. What’s key is that it all holds together and feels right conceptually.

Q: What generally goes on the back cover?

A: Well, hopefully, always blurbs. That’s a critical selling tool­ –– the endorsements from reviewers and other authors. For paperbacks, information about the book and author usually appear in a shortened form as well.

Q: What about the spine of a book?

A: The spine needs to read well and connect the front and the back properly from a design point of view. On a hardcover, in particular, you have a wider spine so you can do more graphically. Sometimes you can introduce something new and creative with the spine, but you need the copy to be short enough or you need the width to do it. So whenever there is space, it’s canvas… You work with what you’ve got.

Q: Is there a difference in how you approach fiction books vs. nonfiction books when designing the cover?

A: In general, nonfiction books are more specific and literal. Even if the title is poetic, then the subtitle is going to clearly state what is inside. And there’s no secret about how it’s going to end. Consequently, the design process for nonfiction books is more straightforward. I worked on the history “Madison and Jefferson,” about the political relationship between James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. For that project, it was a matter of finding a good scheme for showing the two men. The jacket art matched the title exactly, which you rarely ever do with fiction, poetry or memoirs. In that case, you can’t just show what the title says; there needs to be tension. It’s more about rendering a detail or smaller moment that seems to resonate. You’re looking to convey mood and sensibility. It’s indirect.

Q: How do you ensure that the tone of the cover matches the tone of the overall book?

A: Reading makes all the difference, even if it’s just a sample passage. With the author’s voice in your head, you’re going to do something in line with the book. You are constrained somewhat by the title. The title is a boundary for what direction you take (the cover) one way or another. I think given those factors—the writing itself and the title, plus any specific requests you get from the publisher, it’s almost a process of elimination. My own feeling about design is that the book jacket should ask a question that reading the book will answer.

Q: Are there certain colors you use for certain kinds of books?

A: I do like to use colors that I don’t usually see on the shelves, but that’s not always received well. I just worked on a project and was tired of seeing red on everything. So I used a bold graphic treatment, but with gray, pink and cream for the colors. The reply was that they loved the design, but not the palette… It used to be at Random House that nothing could be green. The common wisdom was that green didn’t sell, even though Midnight of Garden of Good and Evil was on the bestseller list for three years and it was green. Then we couldn’t use brown… Certainly if it’s about politics, you’re going to see a lot of red, white and blue. Business books still use bold colors that are sophisticated… Overall, there’s a steady pull from publishers to go brighter and to stay away from anything muddy and sedate.

Also now, the work I’m doing has to read well at 25% size because of online purchasing. So you can’t just design for the size of the book, you’re designing for the reduction as well. The subtitle and the reading line under the author’s name have to be bigger proportionally. It’s an extra thought in the process now, but really just a new norm.

Q: Are there certain typefaces you use for certain books?

A: Yes, but I’m not sure how I would quantify it. It’s not always appropriate to use a decorative typeface, so there is a range of serif and sans serif fonts. Sometimes the typography connects to the time period of the book and other times it works better to appropriate something from another era. It’s a conscious choice, but one I make on impulse.

Q: Is there a rule in terms of size with the author name and title?

A: There’s an informal rule that the title should be larger. For a bestselling author, however, the name should take prominence because people will look to buy what that author writes next… I’d say now the question for me is, when can I size down the title? Often it seems there is a such a push for big-title, big-author on everything. Reducing an element smaller invites the reader to come closer and scrutinize, using negative space asks them to contemplate what’s there and what’s not there, and those things can have their own reward. I think publishers struggle with this—large is selling, small says smart, and they often want to convey both. But a strong concept and a beautiful design, can communicate on its own terms.

Q: How do you know when you’ve hit the right design?

A: I don’t always, which is part of why I do multiple designs. If I’m asked for something specific, I’ll certainly do it, but I’ll also try my own ideas. I can’t always predict what they want. I might think that I’ve come up with something appropriate, but the decision process can be incredibly protracted. Sketches go to the art director, who presents his or her favorites at a jacket meeting with the publisher, editor, and sales and marketing team, all of whom can offer comment. After one or many rounds of revision, a selected set is then sent to the agent and to the author, who may ask friends and family to weigh in as well. If a design survives that far, it goes on to sales conference and may be previewed to key buyers at places like Barnes & Noble and Walmart. You never really know what’s going to make it.

Q: Can you talk to us about a few covers you designed that worked really well? Why did they work so well?

A: One of my most recent, favorite projects was a book called For a Song and a Hundred Songs. It’s a prison memoir by the Chinese dissident Liao Yiwu. One thing I knew going in was that they wanted a picture of Yiwu on the cover. During his imprisonment, he wrote notes on scraps of toilet paper… I was thinking about these notes and also about Chinese paper making, and these two ideas morphed into the translucent paper squares that became the visual motif for the cover. I think they gave the jacket a graphic drive and emotional content that the photo and type on their own wouldn’t have done. I was very pleased with that design.

Q: When creating a book cover, what are the three most important things to consider?

A: First, know who the reader is. Second, think about how the book compares to others in the same genre or market. And third, consider what it is you want the reader to understand upon looking at the book, whether it’s a piece of information in the copy or an overall sensibility in the art. These are all things that pretty much need to be communicated in five seconds or less.

Q: Can you offer self-publishing authors tips on how to choose a cover designer that will be a good fit for their project?

A: The first thing would be to keep in mind that, when hiring a designer, the author is actually taking on the publisher’s job. I think many authors tend toward a design that feels true to the book first and foremost, while publishers keep a sharp eye on the jacket’s function as advertisment. Even a slim, intimate volume should announce itself in some way. The publisher needs the design to work both aesthetically and as a merchandising tool, and selling is what will make or break the book. It’s the difference of a third-person perspective. I think for the author it’s essential to appreciate this shift in roles.

I would also say to be open-minded to someone else’s ideas. It’s fine to hire a designer that hasn’t done something exactly like your project before. If you respond to their style and can trust your gut, that goes a long way. However, if you’re new to publishing, it can be helpful to work with someone that has experience in book publishing. They can offer real guidance along the way.

My other suggestion is for the author to communicate with the same efficiency and care that they themselves would want from an editor or reader. It could be by phone or in writing, but an effort to be succinct always helps; after too many rounds of revision, it’s hard for anyone to stay fresh to a project. If the author wants a specific change, it’s best to say it flat out. We’re (designers) accustomed to criticism and rejection, and are more than happy to find a way to please the client. If it’s more of a general reticence about the sketches, just try to explain what’s not working. It’s the designer’s job to come up with a solution.

Q: Do you have any other advice for self-publishers?

A: I know for self-publishers it can be hard to get advance blurbs for their books. Certainly, they should feel comfortable using quotes from previous work. Just one or two (quotes) that are of good quality, but not necessarily too long, are fine. Otherwise, a selected passage, for fiction, or selling copy, for nonfiction, will do. Either way, if there isn’t much copy it only gives the designer more room to play.

Gaby was also mentioned in a New York Times series showing the before and after of her cover work. Her work can be seen on pages nine and ten. Other examples of Gaby Bordwin’s work can be seen at:

BlueInk Review offers credible and unbiased reviews of self-published books exclusively. Visit us at

Cassidy Ritter is a junior at the University of Kansas, where she studies journalism, business and global studies and is a correspondent for the “University Daily Kansan.” She is BlueInk’s summer 2014 Intern.

2 thoughts on “Trade Secrets: all about book covers with Gabrielle Bordwin

  1. Duncan Edwards says:

    Her cover for “We” is a real gem.

  2. Anne says:


    I really enjoyed reading this article. I really love Ms. Bordwin’s designs. I realize this interview occurred in 2014, but I am wondering if Ms. Bordwin designs for indie authors.

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