When I saw the cover for my first novel, Wuftoom, I immediately fell in love. I had to find out who was responsible for this piece of art that represents my book so perfectly. Recently, I was fortunate enough to get in touch with Neil Swaab, and he graciously agreed to answer a few questions about his creative process. Thank you, Neil!
1. Tell us a little bit about your background. How did you begin doing book covers?
I graduated from Syracuse University with a BFA in Illustration. Immediately after, I started illustrating for newspapers and magazines as well as working at HarperCollins as a fulltime book designer, where I got the opportunity to create and art direct many jackets for children’s books and young adult books. Since then, I’ve gone freelance where I act as an illustrator and/or art director for a variety of projects in the publishing and media sphere.
2. As a group of new authors, we’re dying to know how the process of creating a cover works. First of all, do you read the book?
Of course! Not all designers do, but I try to read every book I’m assigned. It’s just so much more helpful. Sometimes, though, the book may not even be written yet when we have to make a cover, so we’ll just have to work off of a synopsis. On the few occasions that I’m just too busy to read an entire manuscript, I’ll at least read several chapters to get a feel for the tone.
Cover creation is a long and drawn out process and my work on it depends on what my role is. If I’m just illustrating, it’s far less work than if I’m art directing, which is far less work than if I’m art directing AND illustrating, which I’ll do from time to time. As an art director, I’ll read the book, talk with the editors about initial things we feel are important to convey on the cover, and then go off on my own for a week or two and mock up concepts and ideas and include any relevant artist or photographer samples. We’ll then try to get everyone onboard in-house and then the author as well. Once that’s all set, we’ll commission the illustration or photography and start designing.
In the case of your book, I was just an illustrator. I was contacted by the art director to create the cover image based on the work in my portfolio that she was responding to. After reading the manuscript, I went to work sketching out various concepts and mocking them up in a way that would show what I was getting at. The art director picked one of the concepts and, with some slight tweaking based on her feedback, I went and created the final art.
3. How much instruction does the publisher typically give you? Do you have free reign to create a cover that fits your interpretation of the story?
It really depends. Some publishers have no idea what they want and give you free reign while others may have an extremely narrow focus. The more freedom, usually the more fun the project will be. In general, though, publishers will have a particular audience they’re trying to reach and will want the book to be compared to others in the market and that may influence a lot of choices like whether to use photography or an illustration, for instance.
For your book, I’m sure the art director had a lot of those conversations before I came on board. When I was commissioned, I was told very specifically, that they wanted the silhouette style of art I had in my portfolio and that the book was a Kafka-esque middle grade story about a boy who turns into a worm-like creature. Other than that, I wasn’t given any other direction, which is actually pretty rare. More often than not, they’ll tell you exactly what they want on the cover. So, for this book, I just went off on my own and let my imagination work.
4. What medium or computer program do you work in?
Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign are my main tools. I also combine those programs with a lot of hand-drawing. For your cover, I drew the entire thing by hand in pen and ink and then scanned it, imported it into Photoshop and then arranged it and added flourishes and textures.
5. Do you typically work alone, or in collaboration with an employee or partner?
I work alone. I share a studio, though, with three other illustrators and always have them to turn to if I need another set of eyes. Sometimes, I even work at the publisher’s office when I’m doing a long-term gig.
6. How long does it typically take you to create a cover?
It really depends. Every cover is different and has its own unique set of challenges. Your cover actually went very easily and only took a week and a half from beginning to end. Most covers, though, tend to live with you for months as you’re going through rounds of sketches, approvals, tweaks, final art, and revisions.
7. For Wuftoom, was the final cover the first idea you came up with?
It wasn’t the first idea, but was in the round of initial concepts I sent off to the art director.
8. Can you share some of your other ideas?
Sure! I’ve attached some in the email. These are all rough mockups of concepts that I would take further based off of the art director’s reaction. [At left, see the final cover and a few of Neil's mockups!]
9. Why did you choose this particular idea to run with? Did you consult with the publisher during this process?
That part of the process is all up to the art director, the publisher, and the sales staff. They let me know which one they responded to best.
10. What other book covers have you done recently?
I just finished up illustrating the cover to Paolo Bacigalupi’s novel THE DROWNED CITIES, a few Lois Duncan novels, and art directed and designed a children’s book by Karma Wilson and Jim McMulllan called HORSEPLAY! (none of those are on sale yet). I’m currently doing some illustration cover concepting work on a middle grade James Patterson book.
11. Aside from book covers, what other projects are you known for? Where else can we find your work?
I animated the first season of the show SUPERJAIL! on Adult Swim and the pilot of UGLY AMERICANS on Comedy Central; I do a weekly alternative comic strip called REHABILITATING MR. WIGGLES that runs in a bunch of newspapers and magazines around the world; and I contribute illustrations for various clients when the opportunity arises. You can see my work at neilswaab.com and my weekly comics at mrwiggleslovesyou.com.
Neil Swaab is a freelance illustrator, art director, cartoonist, animator, writer, and educator based in Brooklyn, NY. As an illustrator, Neil’s work has graced the covers and interiors of magazines, CD’s, newspapers, and books for clients throughout the world including The NY Times, The Utne Reader, The Village Voice, and Little, Brown. As an art director, Neil worked for years at HarperCollins Publishers where he oversaw the design of many bestselling children’s books and young adult novels for Laura Geringer Books and Joanna Cotler Books and continues to freelance art direct for them and other book clients on a regular basis. As a cartoonist, his weekly alternative comic strip, Rehabilitating Mr. Wiggles, has been published in newspapers in over six countries and has been collected into books in America, Russia, and Italy. As an animator, Neil served as a character layout artist on the shows Superjail! for Adult Swim and Ugly Americans for Comedy Central where he created and drew many characters and key frame poses for the first season and pilot respectively. Additionally, as a writer, Neil’s first screenplay, Eddie Fantastic!, was a finalist for the prestigious Nicholl Fellowhsip and he’s currently hard at work on its follow-up. Finally, Neil is an adjunct professor at Parsons The New School For Design, where he teaches in the illustration program. Neil’s work has been recognized by The Society of Illustrators, Print Magazine, Communication Arts, American Illustration, and The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
All images © Neil Swaab