Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Interview with Cover Designer Christian Fuenfhausen

New York City-based cover designer
joins us for an interview about his craft

Christian Fuenfhausen designed the covers to many well-known YA Fiction books.
See a slideshow of his work HERE!
You might be surprised at how many of your favorite book covers he's designed.

. . .

First of all, what YA covers that you have designed are you most proud of or do you think are the most successful?

The original Chronicles of Vladimir Tod series, because I managed to get jackets that have neither the author's name nor the book title on the cover. And becuase they've sort of blown up (before I left Penguin I had been working on the first-ever merchandising line for one of their YA titles, involving the Vlad Tod "vampire smiley" logo I designed. Also proud of the twin jackets of "Paper Towns" by John Green (so-called "Happy Margo" and "Sad Margo"). Proud that our publisher went for the creepy/awesome photo of a cereal bowl filled with glass for "Rules of Survival" -- it's a terrifying story about these two kids whose mother is an unpredictable drug addict so every domestic scene, like just having breakfast, is fraught with danger. Also proud to be part of the success of "Thirteen Reasons Why", which is a great book.

What do you know about the book you are trying to design a cover for? Do you get to read it first?

This is the single-most often-asked question of book designers — "Do you read the book beforehand". And the answer is "most definitely", when possible. Sometimes there have been times when we just didn't have time to read the whole book, or the complete manuscript just wasn't available. In general, covers are designed far in advance of when the final book is done, so it's not uncommon for the finished book to be different (sometimes radically different) from the book I first read. But I try to get to know the book I'm designing for, as much as I can.

What do you try to capture about the book in your covers?

This is a complicated question. First off, the cover/jacket is the single-most important marketing tool that a book publisher has. People really DO judge books by covers. Or, at least, it can cause people to pick up or not pick up a book. We live in a world where there are so many different entertainment options — books have to compete with TV, games, DVDs, internet, among many many other things -- that the battle is just just to get someone to stop long enough to take notice and pick up a book. If you can get someone to stop and pick it up, you might get them to buy it. So the cover needs to try to sell the book.

Here's where it gets tricky: on the one hand, you want to be true to the book and the story, but on the other hand you want something that will maximally attract potential readers. These might not be the same thing. What if it's a "quiet" book, a story about friendship or something where there are no chases or things blowing up. But it's a great read. If you make a "quiet" cover, people might not pick it up. But if you make it a really exciting cover, you might alienate readers who find they've been duped by the cover-- that the book inside doesn't match the cover.

Sometimes you want to play down one aspect of the story and play up another. I worked on a book called the Eternal Ones at Penguin, and at first we were playing the historical angle. Then, for a bit, we were asked to play up the romance, in a big way. Finally, though, in an effort to get the most number of interested readers we went with a more "iconic" or general approach. When you see "mass market" paperbacks in the airport/supermarket, you'll notice that the covers tend to be pretty generic, the art at times cliche or nonspecific . . . the reason is that you get the most number of people by not alienating anyone. And because with those books, it's the author's name that is selling the book.

What is the standard process of designing covers, in your experience?

With a photographic cover, the designer finds and manipulates stock photography and typefaces to create a cover. I've done a ton of those and they can be done quite cheaply (which is why publishers, who never have a lot of money, like them).

What is the most important part of a book cover design?

Finding or creating something compelling and memorable. I know that's vague but that's the fundamental challenge.

Do you talk with the author or the publisher about what they want in their cover?

As a designer, I've found myself thinking of the design process as a kind of multi-way tug o' war at times. There are the interests of the designer and art director to produce something artistically/aesthetically pleasing. The interests of the editor to not only be true to the book but to have something compelling. The interests of the Sales department to have a cover they can sell a ton of books with. The interests of the author to have a cover she feels is right for her book. And the interest of the publisher who has to try to balance all these. The author and her agent are somewhat outside of the whole process, I've found. The process is different at every publisher, but generally I've found that the publisher and editor generally have some overall ideas/feelings about the kind of cover they want to see. Sometimes they don't, though -- they say, "come up with something awesome". Sometimes they know precisely what they want -- "we want a girl on the cover wearing X". At first the discussions are between the art department and editorial/publisher. Once those get hashed out and the designer comes up with something they can agree to show the Sales folks, it's brought to a cover meeting where we get feedback from Sales on what they think. Then it might be back to the drawing board, or it might be "move ahead". Basically, though, unless it's a huge important author, they won't be involved until the design/editorial/sales departments are all satisfied and happy. Then the editor will show the cover (just one) to the author with the idea that "we all here love this". Present a united front.

So. . . to answer your question, it's rare that I, as a designer, talk to the author. I have, to be sure, on some projects. Sometimes it's been really helpful, sometimes it's been a nightmare. Kind of depends on the author. The best authors are those folks, in my opinion, who are secure enough about themselves and have enough trust in their publisher that they're OK letting other people handle their "baby". Remember, authors (especially first-time authors) have been living with their story for a long time and can be quite emotionally attached to them. And they probably have a mental picture what they imagined the cover to be. So it's a tricky.

How long does it take to get a final design for a cover?

Depends. Could be a week, could be six months. Totally depends on how important the big is (more importance = more opinions about the cover, more anxious hand-wringing, more expectations, more stress), how easily the subject matter lends itself to a great cover, whether the designer/illustrator nails it right away, whether they suddenly change the title at the last minute and so the cover design no longer makes any sense. I've had "final" covers yanked from the printers just as they were about to be shipped to stores. They'd already been printed and everything. So for me, personally, I don't consider any cover "final" until I see it on a shelf at a bookstore.

How does the audience (say, young adults) affect how you do the cover design?

Well, in a more perfect world they would have more influence than they currently do. There have been times when an editor has shown some cover ideas to a group of students and gotten interesting feedback. Sort of an informal focus group. I think that's smart as far as it goes -- but you don't want focus groups to determine every cover; it's important to try out things that might seem risky. But it's sort of amazing, in my opinion, that YA publishers don't more actively solicit info about what teens want. Advertisers spend a crazy amount of money trying to figure out what they next hot thing will be, what teens really want. Not today, but what they'll want tomorrow. Publishers operate behind this curve, I think, or at least a lot of those I've worked with. Granted, publishing operates on slim margins, and the kind of info-collection that advertisers use is anathema to a lot of editors. But. . . we're selling a product that was first developed in the 15th century to kids who are super savvy about 21st century technology. If I were running things, I would hire some young adults just to do trend research. A better answer: young adults affect covers by making comments on blogs (editors/sales really do read them) and by buying books.

What is your favorite part of designing covers?

The initial phase, where I get to work on a bunch of different directions and see what's going to work best. Exploring a variety of different things, experimenting, trying out ideas, that's the most fun. And it's where you sometimes encounter happy accidents you hadn't planned on that can make great covers.

What are some of your favorite YA covers not designed by you?

Star Girl is brilliant. Is that YA? I don't think so, actually, but it's just perfect. Before I saw them everywhere and grew sick of them from saturation, I loved the cover for the Twilight books. It was sort of brilliant. Honestly, I try to avoid having my books look like other YA titles as I find a lot of them -- while well done -- not particularly interesting, design-wise. Too many closeup photos of girl's faces. Which, those sell. And lord knows I've done a few close-up-photo-of-a-pretty-
girl covers myself, but that doesn't make them interesting to me. Most of my favorite book covers are adult literature titles by art directors/designers like John Gall, Henry Sene Yee, Rodrigo Corral, and Peter Mendelsrund.

Are there any books you wish you could have designed the covers for? What books, and how would you do the covers?

I've never particularly been thrilled by the art of the US version of the Harry Potter series. And the UK editions are sad.

But it's hard to imagine them differently, right? This redesign is awesome. . .

Click the link for the rest of the designs! (it's worth it)

But not how I'd do it. I think I would do them as an evolving series that got darker and grittier as they went along. Like Ray Gun magazine (which continues to be my favorite design inspiration of all time and is still the magazine that best conveys the spirit of a rock band, in my opinion, and I see about a dozen bands a month here in NYC):


CHRISTIAN FUENFHAUSEN was interviewed by READING ROCKS on MAY 17, 2010.


  1. This was a really cool interview. I love book covers & this job sounds all kinds of awesome. ;)

  2. Terrific, terrific interview. I SO enjoyed reading it. Such a fascinating subject to me.

  3. That was the most interesting blog post I've read in a long time. People sometimes forget that an author is only one in million needed to create a book.


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