Friday, April 19, 2013

An interview with VENOM's interior book designer

After Venom hit the shelves, a lot of people emailed and tweeted to say that it was one of the most visually appealing books they had ever seen. From the gorgeous mask on the cover (courtesy of cover artist Kristin Smith), to the deckled edges, to the swirls and whorls on the pages, there's no doubt--Venom is stunning. In fact, the inside is so ornate in places that many bloggers, like this one and this one, included pix of the design in their reviews. And even the readers who weren't huge fans of the story quite still commented on how beautiful the book is. So who do I have to thank for that? My editor? Book faeries? Would you believe an interior book designer? Yeah, apparently that's a real job, and what a cool job it must be :) I reached out to Venom's designer, Amy Wu, to find out more about just how  the book ended up so gorgeous and perfect. 

1. So you're an interior book designer. What exactly does that entail?

A: Yes, I am an interior book designer for YA novels here at Philomel Books! I also work on our picture books. The art department is made up of the art director, Semadar Megged and myself.

Everything within the pages are planned and specifically placed on the page. The best way for me to explain what we do is we decide how a book is read, from the size and style of the typeface, to how many pages it will be, and how a chapter opens, usually with artwork or ornament elements.

2. When you're assigned a title, what's the process like? Are you given basic instructions by the editor or cover designer? Do you have to pitch your ideas to a committee? Or are you just given free rein to make books beautiful however you see fit?

A: Semadar and I meet with the editor to discuss each title. We ask questions like what is the age group, how long should the book be, is there anything we should incorporate into the design, such as a symbol or emblem from the story. For example, here are the notes I jotted down during the Venom meeting with Jill:

  • 14 and up
  • Venice
  • 16th century
  • Renaissance
  • If possible, page count should be around 400 pages (Venom was 448-pages)
  • Big margins, spacious design
  • Type size and space feel
  • Need room for epigraphs introducing each chapter
  • Rose petal design element
  • Deckled edges

The interior designers aren’t always shown the jacket design. Sometimes I do not see the front cover until after I have designed 1st pass. This is a double edge sword. Firstly, it is good if I don’t see the jacket because I do not feel bound to the jacket’s aesthetic. However, I do like to tie the jacket and interior design together. Usually I accomplish this by using the same typefaces and title treatment on the jacket.

I come up with several design variations, which I show the art director, and we tweak what I have. Once I’ve finalized at least 3 options, I show the editor who has the final say. I’m not sure if I would want free rein with the interior design, Semadar and Jill will always catch something that I might not see. It’s nice that I can collaborate and go back forth before settling on a final design.

3. Do all Penguin Teen books have interior designers?

A: Yes!

4. Do you have any specific training that helped you land your position?

A: I went to the School of Visual Arts for my undergraduate and I specifically studied book design. My portfolio out of school centered on books. I took a class with Steven Brower in my junior year called Book Jacket Design and Beyond and he was later my senior portfolio teacher. My very first design job out of school was at Eric Baker Design. I worked on many books there, but no experience in children’s books and YA Novels until coming to Penguin Group.

5. Can you tell us some of the other books you've designed?

A: Since I’ve started at Penguin Group, I’ve designed three picture books, The World’s Greatest Lion by Ralph Helfer, Bully by Patricia Polacco, and Max and the Tag Along Moon by Floyd Cooper. YA Novels I’ve designed include John Flanagan’s latest series called Brotherband Chronicles, Lisa Graff’s two novels with us, Double Dog Dare and A Tangle of Knots, as well Jane Yolen’s spin on fairy tales, Snow in Summer and Curse of the Thirteenth Fey, as well as the Charlie Collier series by John V. Madormo. My latest interior book design was Kari Luna’s The Theory of Everything.

6. What about one book you wish you could have designed, but didn't?

A: One book I wish I designed amongst the Philomel titles is Between Shades of Gray. When I first started back in May 2010 that was the first novel I read of ours. Semadar designed the interior of this one, along with Ruta’s newest title Out of the Easy. This was before Amy’s (B.A.) time. Another YA novel I wish I designed outside of Penguin is Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs (Quirk Books). I’m a big fan of Diane Arbus and the interior design of this book reminded me of her.

7. Have you read any of the blog reviews that gush about your work with Venom? I've read more than one where the reviewer was so blown away by the interior that she posted pictures of it on her blog. (Pretty sure you're earning Venom an extra half star per review...and I'll take it! :D)

A: That is very sweet. I have read blog reviews of Venom, where they mention the interior design and the deckled edge, but not the one you speak of with photo evidence! Please send it my way!

8. What's your favorite part of the interior of Venom, the design you most enjoyed doing?

A: My favorite part of Venom’s interior design are the epigraph pages, dark background, the triangular florid ornament framing each quote from The Book of the Eternal Rose. The quotes are all dark and mysterious and hint towards the chapter ahead and the stark black background is aligning with the tone. I also really like the sliver of the flourish in the gutter of the book. It ties in well with the Venetian backdrop of the story and it reminiscent of the gilded architecture during that period.

I enjoyed designing Venom. I really got to take my time and reiterate my layouts until what the readers now see. Here are some designs that did not make the cut; perhaps your readers would be interested in seeing those too. 

[Amy sent these amazingly awesome other sketch ideas, but alas I am not skilled enough to embed pdf stuff into my blog or make pdf stuff into jpg stuff. I am not even skilled enough to make Blogger stop doing this weird highlight-y stuff and changing my arial to TNR when I'm not looking. #AuthorFail]

9. Do you do any freelance design of books or other stuff? 

A: There are only two books I’ve designed as a freelancer and they were both with W.W. Norton. Those two titles were Carl G. Jung’s The Red Book and the photographs of Benjamin Mendlowitz in the third volume of the Wooden Boats. My most recent freelance gig was a European healthcare and tech magazine called Insights. I helped design their premiere issue. My personal website is

10. And, you know, because it's the question that is most pertinent to everything in the world...Falco or Luca? [Actually Amy volunteered to answer this herself, but, you know, it is super-important :D]

A: I’m torn. I keep going back and forth between the two lads. My head picks Luca and my heart picks Falco.

Like Amy, I also need both boys :) Luca is so sweet but Falco is, well, Falco. Do you have questions for Venom's amazing designer? What other books have you really noticed the interior design of while reading?