Judging books by their cover

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Saturday, December 26th, 2020

Chances are, whether you’re looking for your next read by wandering the shelves of a bookstore or library, or scrolling through your phone, book covers have the potential to lure you to even more options than the book you started out searching for.

PCA&D students in Maria Cummings-Miller’s Junior Publication Design class took on the challenge this fall of designing covers for four upcoming releases from Sunbury Press. Results of that collaboration, which involved lots of back and forth between students, instructor, publisher, and authors, will be available at large online retailers like Amazon, in brick-and-mortar stores, and at Sunbury’s own website.

The project evolved from Sunbury’s outreach in search of book cover design interns, says Marianne Babcock of Sunbury Press. Once the company learned about Cummings-Miller’s class, she says, they thought “this might be a great way for students to get some hands-on experience.

“We’re always looking to add new talent to our team, especially when it comes to book cover designers, so this seemed like a perfect opportunity.”

Collage of book covers designed for Sunbury Press by students in Mariah Cummings-Miller's Junior Publication Design class. Clockwise from top left, covers created by Jose Rosado, Darleen Sedjro, Christina Clemente, and Madeleine Norris.

Book covers designed for Sunbury Press by students in Mariah Cummings-Miller’s Junior Publication Design class. Clockwise from top left, covers created by Jose Rosado, Darleen Sedjro, Christina Clemente, and Madeleine Norris.


The process, start to finish

The typical timeline for cover design is three to four weeks “or sooner,” Babcock says. “The faster a cover is designed the faster the book gets published.” This PCA&D/Sunbury collaboration lasted a little longer, she says, so that enough time was set aside for pulling together the assignment and making any necessary changes.

First, the books had to be chosen by Sunbury Press from titles toward the top of the production queue. “A satirical mystery novel, two historical nonfiction titles, and a nonfiction title centered on business strategy,” Babcock says, “gave the students a great range of topics.”

From that list, Cummings-Miller says, “the students chose a book, and I randomly assigned them a second book.”

For the PCA&D students, this assignment was anything but a quick dash-off of ideas:

Assignment: Students will be assigned 2 covers and will complete 20 comps for each title a quarter of the final cover size. Comps may be hand or digital. Upload comps to Google prior to next week’s class. We will meet face-to-face to critique next week.

Assignment: Complete 2+ covers, full scale and full color, for face-to-face review next week.

Assignment: In-class critique of full-scale cover. Changes to be presented next week. Online call with Sunbury Press staff to present covers.

“Sunbury Press chose (the final) four covers,” Cummings-Miller says, “but also provided written feedback on each cover that was presented.” Students whose covers were published — Christina Clemente ‘22, Jose Rosado ‘23, Darleen Sedjro ‘23, and Madeleine Norris ‘22, all Graphic Design majors — were then paid for their work.

“My biggest challenge would have had to be creating a design that is a little different,” Rosado says. Author Wade Fowler’s “Death By Beer” bears a cover design by Rosado. “I tried thinking of all the possibilities that could be created for this story and tried steering away from any common ideas so the book can have its own personality.

“Aside from that, I wanted to give the cover a comical/abstract vibe based on that fact that it is a mystery story.”

The cover project was the first time Sedjro has needed to bring a design through a submission process from concept to final approval, she says. “I learned to start my artwork via sketch form — black and white — before applying color,” Sedjro explains. “Moving forward, I got into the habit of sketching all of my ideas and modifying them into one robust art.” Feedback critiques from classmates and instructor Cummings-Miller, Darleen says, kept her on track through Sunbury Press’s requests that she refine elements such as the border she initially designed around the title, and through the process of researching historical political art for Cordelia Frances Biddle’s book, tentatively titled “Biddle, Jackson, and the Infamous Bank War of 1837.” 

The culmination of that process and feedback, Cummings-Miller says, “was a wonderful learning experience for the students. They learned how to professionally work with a publisher and author; how to receive and execute feedback in a timely manner; about contracts; copyright laws; meeting deadlines; professional meetings and interactions; (and) proofing and preparing files for print.”

“We’re excited to showcase these designers and loved being able to give them a glimpse into the world of book publishing,” says Babcock, of Sunbury Press. “Although we wish it weren’t true, readers do indeed judge books by their covers, making it one of the most vital pieces in the publishing process.”