Monday, May 6, 2013

Interview with a Book Designer: Masha Shubin

Today I am happy to interview Masha Shubin, a good friend and book designer extraordinaire. Masha has been an invaluable help for me, doing freelance work for my own books and my publishing company, Madison Street Publishing. She provides valuable insight for authors (from the other side of the book design conversation), and has very funny stories to boot.

1. How long have you been in the publishing industry and what all does your job entail?

I have been in graphic design for about 20 years. The last 10 of those years I've worked for a small publishing company. My title is Creative Director. It is my job to oversee any and all design projects from books – print and electronic – that we publish, to book trailers, to advertising pieces, to websites, to packaging, to trade show booth layout/design. I also need to keep up with the latest industry news, standards, and innovations both for our company and the customers we assist.

All the book covers shown on this post
were designed by Masha Shubin.

2. What are some of the elements that make a good book cover?

Clear hierarchy of focal points: When designing a book cover, you want to purposefully guide the reader's eye along a path of the most to least important information that will create instant interest in the mind of the potential reader. Is the author famous? Then that should be most prominent. Did a celebrity praise the book or write a foreword? Then their name might be larger than the author's. Is the graphic dramatic, intriguing, or beautiful on it's own? Is your title too juicy to resist? You have basically half a second to catch someone's attention. Giving equal design weight to multiple elements will cause them to pass your cover by.

High-quality graphics: "Well, it looks good to me," or "My niece Jenny drew this for me," are not valid qualifications for graphics that should go on a cover, sorry...unless the book is for your family. If you want your book to appeal to a professional audience (reviewers, book buyers, contests), you need to make sure the images you choose are high-quality and done by professionals. Those who are part of the industry know quality from non-quality. And the good news is that high-quality does not necessarily mean expensive. There are stock photo sites out there that can give you a good cover photo for under $10. And if you want some custom work, try going to a local art college. Students may do something for you for low or no cost just to have their own portfolio built up.

Targeted audience: The main job of the cover is to create desire or curiosity in a stranger. Not to serve as a vehicle for the ego of the author, not to dryly convey an accurate description of the contents, and (please, oh, please) not to show off a piece of artwork unrelated to the subject of the book. You must figure out who your target audience is and somehow show-off, flirt with, impress that audience. "But my book will appeal to everybody," I hear you say. Congratulations! I hope you also have a budget that will enable you to market to everybody.  Financial success in the book world comes easiest (note, I did not say easy) to books and authors that have intentionally targeted one type of audience. If your book is so good that it will appeal to everyone, then by word of mouth eventually they'll all hear about it. But if you're just starting out, zeroing in on a specific audience will be your best launching point.

 3. What genre of books do you like designing covers for best? Why?

How does one write a sheepish grin? Just like the many actors that claim playing the bad guy is the most fun, I get the greatest kicks (and giggles along the way) in designing dark, sinister, and bloody covers.

Here's my album on Facebook of some of my favorite book covers I've designed.

4. What are three things you wish authors knew about book/cover design? (Or to put it another way, what are your three pet peeves about authors you have worked with?)

Good question. The biggest thing I'd love for authors to understand is that there are actual rules to designing the interior and cover of books. I would need a book to cover all of them, and most people would need months if not years to master them.

As they say: you have to know the rules to break them. This is a big pet peeve of mine in both writing and design: many people think because professionals can break rules, then the average Joe can break – or more commonly completely ignore – any and all rules. So, unless you know the rules to both design and the publishing industry, I would highly recommend you trust the advice of someone who specializes in the publishing field. Not all artists or designers know the rules to good book design. This goes for both the cover and interior designs of your book.

Another question authors ask advice about is author photos on the cover. Here's my advice: your cover is meant to be a marketing piece for your book. 1) If you think your photo will make your book more enticing to strangers, then it is a good thing. Otherwise, either put it on the interior or don't have one at all. 2) If you do want to have an author photo, take the time to have it professionally taken. You can get studio shots fairly cheap. As I mentioned earlier, if you want your book to make a good impression on the professionals in the industry, then you need to have professional quality elements. There are lighting and focal aspects that a professional photo have that your average snapshot (or self-held camera phone) do not have.

5. How can an author make a book designer's job easy?

Probably one of the best things authors can do for both designers and editors is learn to use the word processor in a correct manner. There was a book published ages ago called Your Computer Is Not a Typewriter. When you type, you are not only telling the computer what letters to put down, but there's a whole host of invisible commands: spaces, tabs, paragraph breaks, page breaks, alignment, etc. that you also key into the document. Once you've gotten your manuscript written (or if you want a break along the way), find out how to turn on these characters so you can see them. (For Microsoft Word users, hit CTRL + SHIFT + 8 or look for the menu character ¶ on the top bar.)

Make sure there are no tabs in the middle of paragraphs, or paragraph break marks in the middle of paragraphs, or double spacing between sentences (double spacing is only appropriate for monotype fonts), or centering titles by hitting the space bar a hundred times, or creating faux blockquotes by paragraph breaks and tabs, or manually putting in page numbers on every page, or double spacing the manuscript by hitting return twice at the end of every line, or hitting the Enter key a bunch of times to start a new page. Or...worst offender of all...saving each page as a separate file. (Ok, I've only come across that once.) Learn how to use your word processor properly. They have built in functions to format your manuscript cleanly.

Also, cookies and flowers never go unappreciated.

6. Besides book design, you are involved in some other literary and creative projects. Can you tell us about them?

I love to write as well. I have published a few children's chapter books, and I am working on a few longer pieces. In the past I've worked on plays (written, directed, and produced), I've written and produced an audio drama, and I've also worked on a film. My non-literary passions can be summed up by saying I like to make things pretty. This extends into jewelry design, interior design, photography, and a miscellany of handcrafts. I even had the honor of teaching Elisabeth Elliot how to do paper embossing.

Jewelry by Masha
7. Elisabeth Elliot--that's a big name! Are there any other famous people that you have worked with?

Name dropping or establishing professionalism? I've worked with a few prominent folk. Roscoe Orman, who played Gordon on Sesame Street. Mike Reiss, who is an writer and executive producer of The Simpsons. Steffan Postaer, who is a superstar in the advertising world and best know for the Altoids ad campaign of Curiously Strong Mints, and his father, Larry Postaer, founders of RPG (he's the P), a major advertising firm. Robert Smith, an ESPN commentator and former Minnesota Viking. Alexandre and Sonia Poussin, who are well known in their native France and stars of the special series Africa Trek seen on US public television.

8. I remember a funny story you told recently about a fantasy author who wanted a phoenix and yarn (yes, that's right, balls of yarn for knitting or crocheting) on their cover. Do you have any other funny stories to share? 

- An author once asked me to take a trip to Sears and look in their dryer section. He wanted his cover to be the almond color of their washer/dryer combo.

- Our company had an author from Roswell, NM send us a manuscript detailing her kidnapping by aliens. The purpose of her kidnapping was for them to have her write an alien/English dictionary. After the woman sent us the dictionary and promised to be in touch soon, we never heard from her again in spite of our repeat calls and emails. I still have the manuscript she sent us in my desk.

- We deal with a few authors who are mentally unbalanced. One author called up a few months after her book was published claiming we (meaning I) sabotaged her book--that I had gone into her manuscript and turned all the question marks upside down and turned her book into a sex novel.

- We published one book by an author who do I say...logically different? He had a chart in his book that had the hierarchy of the US Mafia Network. Included were snakes, doctors, Queen Elizabeth and her lookalikes, as well as the "1,000 ugly lesbians of English descent living in or near Wyoming"...and their lookalikes. Elvis was never mentioned. I guess he is safe.

- We've had an author submit a children's book. Her artwork not only was sub sub-par, some of the text was handwritten over the art. She "fixed" other errors by scotch taping and stapling new pieces of paper over the original page.

Masha: For this book cover the author requested
"Two Sumo Wrestlers falling/fighting
in the air during a sandstorm in Arizona."

Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview, Masha! 

I hope all my readers have enjoyed learning more about Masha and the book design process. If you have any questions for Masha, feel free to comment.

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