Cover Corner: Neil Swaab

Today I’m really pleased to welcome Neil Swaab to Cover Corner. The cover for I’ll Be There by Holly Goldberg Sloan made my list of Top Ten Covers in 2011. It’s incredibly striking and it’s not hard to see why so many YA readers have been chatting about it. Neil is also the illustrator behind the cover of Sweetly by Jackson Pearce and kindly agreed to answer some questions about them and the industry itself.

Did you get to read either book before working on the cover illustration?

I read I’ll Be There, but wasn’t able to read Sweetly, unfortunately, because of time constraints. 

How much input did the publishers/design team have? Were you given a basic guideline to work to, or free reign?

A ton. Covers are scrutinized tremendously and these two were no exception. For both covers, I was given a pretty clear concept and direction by the design team of what they were looking to achieve. Based on what they wanted, I was able to build upon that and expand on their idea, bringing some of my own sensibilities and solutions to the cover.

Can you explain a bit about the whole process of creating a book cover (how it’s commissioned, who approves it, who do you work with in the publishing house, do you design the text/layout as well etc)?

Covers start off in-house at the publishers where the art director will concept out various directions (exploring photography, illustration, or typographical treatments, for example). Once they’ve settled on a a few ideas, they’ll try to get everyone else on board from sales and marketing as well as the publisher and VP and, of course, the editor of the book and the publishing house’s creative director. Once a direction is approved, the art or photography is commissioned by the art director, who will then work with the illustrator or photographer to help shape the cover, seeing multiple rounds of sketches and, in some cases different versions of final art until everyone is happy. The art director will also set the typography for the cover (unless they’ve commissioned that as well) and, once it’s all approved, ship it to the printer.

For myself, as a freelancer doing either design or illustration (or in some cases both), I work primarily with the design contact at the publishing house who commissions me. That can be anyone from an art director or designer to the creative director. I’ll also work with the editors on concepting and making sure that we’re both happy and seeing the same vision for the book. If I’m working in-house, I’ll present those covers myself at the cover meetings mentioned above to the sales and marketing folk. When I work from my own studio, the covers are usually presented by whomever my design contact is there and any feedback that comes from those meetings gets filtered and relayed back to me by that person.

I do both jackets and interiors, but not necessarily both for each book. It really depends on my role on that particular book and whether or not it’s something I’m interested in or have time in my schedule for. When I work in-house, I usually do everything.

What was the idea behind or what were trying to convey in the covers I’ll Be There and Sweetly?

I’ll Be There focused on the relationship between Sam and Riddle and, in particular, called out a scene in the book where they were reassuring each other while stranded in the woods (though, it may have been changed a bit since I read an early draft). I wanted to get a sense of isolation and that it felt like these two characters were the only ones alive in a great big world, which mirrored their relationship. Earlier in the process, the publisher had thought about just focussing on the pickup truck alone on the highway and I mocked up some concepts with that, but we all gravitated more towards the two characters once I brought that idea to the table and combined the two.

Sweetly was a play on Hansel and Gretel with the trees forming the face of a witch. We needed to convey a face on the cover because we wanted to  tie in the author’s previous book which had a similar motif. 

What media do you work in?

Ink on paper, scanned in and then colored and messed around a bit in Photoshop. Sometimes I use Illustrator as well (Sweetly was done entirely in Illustrator). 

Can you tell us a bit about your creative process?

Everything starts with ideas. I like to explore a lot of ideas and then narrow down and narrow down until I get a few that I think really work. And then I’ll keep narrowing down until I reach the one that feels like the winner. I like to draw as much from my head as possible because I think it’s more iconic when you strip away needless details, but some things really require the use of reference, which I’ll use to help shape my images and give them authenticity as I build up my sketches. Eventually, once sketches are approved, I deviate from all the reference and draw everything myself (and in some cases shoot my own reference or new reference) so that it feels organic and I’m not tied down to any particular representation. It’s pretty organic and every piece of art works differently depending on what I’m trying to achieve with it.

What inspires you?

Everything. I try to take all the experiences I have and things I see (from gallery shows to just riding the subway) and mentally keep them on file. The best thing you can do for yourself if you want to have ideas and inspiration is to live life and be present in it so that you’re mindful of the experiences you’re having and they resonate with you in meaningful ways.  

How did you get into illustration? 

I majored in it in college. It was something I’d been wanting to pursue since I was young.

What kind of specific challenges come with designing a book cover? Do you give a lot of thought to the age the book is marketed for?

Every detail of the book is thought about so, of course, the age range is important. It’s actually a problem for I’ll Be There because the publisher and sales staff felt the cover was too young-looking so I believe it’s going to be repackaged for paperback (and then probably for a hardcover reprint), although don’t quote me on that. The biggest challenge when designing a book cover is that there are so many people that need to approve it, you can get a case of too-many-cooks-in the-kitchen. It is an incredibly hard task to please that many people over something that is so subjective. Specifically, with book covers, the challenges as a designer are making sure the interplay of type and art works well, the image is captivating, and the enduring problem of trying to sum up an entire book in one defining image. It’s not easy work, but when it’s successful, it is incredibly rewarding.

Are there any illustrated book covers out there you particularly love? 

Of course! Tons and tons and tons. My friends Chris Silas Neal and Sam Weber have been doing amazing work that I’m incredibly jealous of.There are a lot more, of course, but it’s a great task to even think about narrowing them down or picking out specific ones.

All images courtesy of Neil Swaab. Click to view slideshow.

If you’d like to see more work by Neil, make sure to check out his website and blog. He also worked on the design for the cover of You Are My Only by Beth Kephart, among others. A big thank you to Neil for taking the time to give us insight into your own work and all the work that goes into creating a book cover design!


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