The Book Cover: From Brief To Delivery

25th September 2018
5 min read
16th September 2020

Jo Davies and Derek Brazell advise on the process of illustration, from receiving your brief through to delivering your work...

Becoming A Successful Illustrator

For any illustrator there is an undeniable thrill in seeing your artwork on the front of a book. Commissions such as this in publishing continue to be highly sought after, and everybody involved in a book jacket project wants it to go smoothly and successfully so that the final design leads not only to great sales for the book, but also to a memorable image. Here we outline the important points to consider if you hope to be commissioned for work in this competitive area.

It’s essential that as an aspiring illustrator you research the type of covers that each particular publisher producers. You will see from the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook that there is a vast array of publishers that exist. This leads to commission of illustrations across a huge variety of subject matter, in all sorts of stylistic approaches, some with hand drawn typography, some highly realistic, others using abstract pattern. 

Targeting self-promotion

Getting your work seen by the art editors is the first step towards being commissioned. Social media can catch designers’ attention but sending targeted communications that feature your work and show its potential appropriateness, will ensure your work is seen. As well as promotional items such as postcards, zines, prints, flysheets, for a professional illustrator a website with a strong collection of your images is perfect to give an overview of your work.

What's the Brief?

If an art editor makes contact to discuss a possible brief, or offer a cover commission, it’s easy to rush enthusiastically ahead. The brief acts as a guide, broad or narrow, to what feeling is to be represented, or what is to be depicted in the artwork. You’ll need to know if you will be given the actual book to read (rarer) or a written brief from the art director (more likely)? At this stage it’s also vital that you stop and think about what you have been asked to do, ensuring that you have all the details that you need, including technical specifications such as size, where the text will go, any processes that might be applied such as embossing or die cutting.

The artwork licence

Paperwork isn’t something to be considered at a later date. This is the time you need to have a discussion on fees, the rights the publisher is seeking from you, cancellation and rejection fees, contractual dates for rough visuals and final artwork. If you are a member of The Association Of Illustrators you can take advice from them if you are unsure about any of these areas. 


Now you’ve got the brief and can start generating ideas. Often illustrators wonder how detailed these initial visuals need to be? With first visual ideas it’s advised that you come up with a number of thumbnail sketches, and it’s up to you how detailed they are as long as the idea is focused. Throw in a ‘wild card’ image, this may the one that the publisher goes for.

You will work with the art editor to develop one or more of your ideas and these more finished roughs will be viewed by several people at the publishing house, including the marketing team, who will be closely involved in decisions on what visual is selected. Once the image has been decided it’s time to get down to creating the cover artwork.

Keeping to deadlines

Deadlines are much more generous in publishing than other areas of illustration commissioning, such as advertising or editorial, but that doesn’t mean that there is necessarily any flexibility to that actual deadline date! If delays may be likely talk to art director immediately.

Is flexibility required?

The marketing department can also have input in any comments on the ‘final’ artwork and as a result changes may be asked for. Flexibility is a plus in the eyes of many art directors and for this reason most artwork is supplied to the client digitally as this allows for the option of still making changes to ‘final’ image. There should be a limit to this and changes should be reasonable.

Sharing the illustration

However proud you may be of your artwork check for any clause in your contract as its usual that you can only share your illustration on social media or post on your website or blog when the book has been marketed or published. You should be entitled to receive a small number of gratis copies of the book. Use the opportunity of the launch of the book to promote yourself to other potential publishers.

Read more about being commissioned for publishing in Making Great Illustration, Becoming A Successful Illustrator and Understanding Illustration by Derek Brazell and Jo Davies, published by Bloomsbury.

Derek Brazell is Projects Manager at The Association Of Illustrators and publisher of Varoom illustration magazine. Jo Davies is an academic, illustrator and Visiting Professor at Plymouth University. They are authors of three books on illustration, including Becoming A Successful Illustrator (2nd edition).


Writing stage