This Is What It's Actually Like Being A Book Cover Designer For A Living

by Kerri Jarema
Photo courtesy of Jaya Miceli

It's no surprise that many readers consider a job in book publishing to be one of the most covetable careers. Within publishing, there are widely recognized positions — like that of a book editor or literary agent — and there are more unconventional paths — like book scouting and book packaging. At the end of the day, there are so many people who work behind-the-scenes to get that final product on shelves. One of those people is Jaya Miceli, the Art Director at Simon & Schuster imprint Scribner, and a freelance cover designer.

"I love the challenge of taking on a project that makes me really think and then trying to do something unexpected" Miceli tells Bustle. "I may think of a design in my head one way, but end up creating something by hand that is completely different."

Miceli has worked on some of the biggest books — and most iconic covers — of the past several years including Celeste Ng's Little Fires Everywhere, Jesymn Ward's Sing, Unburied Sing, and both Girl on the Train and Into the Water by Paula Hawkins—so she knows a thing or two about what it takes to create an iconic cover; and it's not quite as simple as you might think.

Photo courtesy of Jaya Miceli

"For fiction, each story provokes a different feeling, so I aim to design something that aligns with that. It could [mean] finding a piece of art or photography or creating artwork from scratch," Miceli says. "For non-fiction, it depends on whether it's historical, which requires specific art research, or a big concept book, which [really] requires brain power for a smart visual solution. But I also don't have any set rules. I'm happy to mix up my design approach to keep the work exciting, and the covers visually striking."

In all the time you've been judging books by their covers, have you ever really thought about what it takes to create one? Below, Miceli shares more about the day-to-day life of a designer, what goes into producing the powerful cover images that captivate us, and shares advice on breaking into the intense and rewarding world of literary design.

Literary Jobs Are Exciting — But They're Also A Lot Of Work

Photo courtesy of Jaya Miceli

"Describing a typical day will sound a bit routine, because it consists of mostly managing and troubleshooting," Miceli says.

Her main role as the art director for Scribner involves managing three seasonal lists of 30-45 books each year. That means a lot of multitasking, delegating, and communicating with various departments from editorial to production to create that final product. And yes, she has to sit through meetings, too.

"One day out of the week I have an art meeting, which is when I meet with my publisher and editorial team to show [them] cover comps and discuss cover options for books. I generally spend the gaps in between [my other work] preparing for the art meeting. [And] I'm also designing covers, sometimes minutes before the meeting," she says.

The Designing Process Is Different For Every Project

Photo courtesy of Jaya Miceli

Miceli does tons of administrative work, but there's also plenty of time for creativity. Miceli doesn't work by a formula, and instead thrives on finding the perfect solutions for each new project. Some of the most innovative designs come directly from her love of the books themselves.

"On a recent project for Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon, I was emotionally compelled by the story of the female protagonist, an ambitious artist/photographer." Though Miceli admits to some trepidation at the start of every new cover design process, using her emotional connection to a book has never steered her wrong. " [In the end] I combined the protagonist's two artistic projects from the story—jumping self-portraits and a quilt of discarded photographs."

For Lyon's book, Miceli found an image of a woman jumping, then cut and re-sewed the image together for a solution both simple and visually stunning. "Meeting Rachel, the author, nearly brought me to tears as I described why I loved her book so much and why I was compelled to do what I did for the front cover," Miceli says. "It was so gratifying."

Photo courtesy of Jaya Miceli

Internships Can Be Even More Valuable Than School When Deciding On A Career Trajectory

Photo courtesy of Jaya Miceli

When it comes to breaking into a high-speed industry like book publishing, many people worry about what role their college education will play in securing the job of their dreams. Miceli says not to worry too much, and instead focus on experience.

"I went to Parson's School of Design and majored in Illustration. At that time, the focus was mostly on developing basic hand drawn illustrative skills and honing in on conceptualizing for commercial and editorial work," she says. "I unfortunately failed to take any computer courses and learn the [necessary] design applications, so I graduated feeling as lost as when I started."

But it's never to late to refine your passion. Miceli did eventually take design classes, but she thinks that experience in publishing specifically is the most surefire way to break into the industry.

"My advice to aspiring book designers is to take on publishing internships to get a taste of book design and publishing process is like," Miceli says.

You Might Not Find You Dream Job Right Out Of College... And That's OK

Photo courtesy of Jaya Miceli

"I knew I wanted to work in a creative field when I grew up, but I just wasn't sure what that would be and how to go about it. I liked to draw and paint, which is why I went to art school," Miceli says. "It took me a while to realize that designing book covers was what I really wanted to do as a living."

During that time, she worked retail, temped at several publishers, and branched into different areas of design.

"I did try working as a freelance illustrator and [I] got a couple of illustrations in The New Yorker and other small publications, which was really exciting, but it wasn't enough to live on," she says. "I wasn't very good at the self-promoting which most illustrators will have to do to get work."

It was, in the end, a little luck and a lot of talent got Miceli her first gig as a designer. "While I was temping as an editorial assistant, a position opened in the Penguin art department," she says. "I put together a portfolio of faux book covers to show my layout and illustrative skills. I was fortunate to get hired without any graphic design or typography background."

Your Passion Is The Only Prerequisite You Need To Succeed

Jacket Designs by Will Staehle and Jonathan Bush; Photo courtesy of Jaya Miceli

So what's her advice for breaking into the book design industry?

"I think you have to really love books and have a strong desire to work really hard — and also have the thick skin to accept that a ton of your fabulous design work will be rejected on a regular basis" Miceli says. "I work for one of the most renowned publishing imprints, so the honor of designing Don Delillo's Zero K, Annie Proulx's Barkskins, and being the art director behind Stephen King's books is a true gift. It's beyond words. Work really hard and stay focused on your goals. You can accomplish anything."