Working with an Independent Publisher: Cover Design

20th February 2021
6 min read
5th May 2021

In her latest post for Writers & Artists about the experience of publishing her debut novel, Nicola Garrard looks at what it's like working with an independent publisher and, in particular, the process of cover design. 

Nicola Garrard

Before my novel, 29 LOCKS, was acquired by HopeRoad, I had no idea what working with a publisher would be like beyond Mr Big Nose in Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton’s Storey Treehouse middle-grade series.

‘I want your next book on my desk by five o’clock today!’ the publisher yells at Andy and Terry, who’d much rather play on one of the new storeys of their dream treehouse than write and illustrate a book.
‘But that’s . . . five o’clock! . . . today!’ they gasp.

Fortunately, Andy and Terry have a Once-Upon-A-Time-Machine to make their book, but in the real world a novel on the road to publication becomes a team endeavour over an extended period. It’s adopted by an agent, publisher, editor, illustrator and publicist, and the writer, who may have spent years working on the project alone, must now begin to let go and accept new stakeholders will leave their mark on it finally takes shape as published product. 

My next blog posts will focus each on these relationships, starting with cover design and the job of the illustrator.

Readers always judge a book by its cover. Jacket illustration makes the difference between picking up and passing over a book in a bookshop or library, containing key signals about target audience, genre, plot, tone and style. One of my biggest initial concerns was that the cover design for 29 LOCKS might rehash some of the urban stereotypes I was attempting to dismantle. But when an author signs with a publisher they must trust that their story will be raised to a new level, benefitting from the experienced creatives who have crafted and sold books their whole careers.

A huge benefit to working with my independent publisher, HopeRoad, was being consulted in the nuts and bolts of design. My novel’s cover illustration was assigned to an experienced cover artist, James Nunn, whose beautiful designs are immediately recognisable. He was given a short synopsis with which to draw up initial ideas. It is worth remembering, when writing synopses, how important this short piece of writing is at every stage, from convincing an agent to attracting a publisher. Illustrators use a synopsis to learn about the novel’s plot, tone and audience. 

29 Locks by Nicola Garrard

After a week, I was sent the initial design and my publisher called to ask what I thought, and at the same time, James Nunn introduced himself to discuss the project. Having given the design much thought in the years preceding this moment, daydreaming covers as I wrote and edited the novel, I returned to the team a very amateur mood-board of images about London teenagers, their fashions and hairstyles. James responded by recommending a young artist he was mentoring, Olivia Anthony. He sent me examples of her work and asked if I’d be happy to bring her into the project.

My experience of being consulted contrasts starkly with two novelists I know, both published by large publishing houses. The first told me her cover had been selected from an in-house photo-stock by her editor. The second said she was unable to speak to her publisher without going through various secretaries to arrange a time. Their novels have stunning covers, but it has been a bonus for me to be invited into the process.

The final cover design for 29 LOCKS perfectly captures the spirit of my story, and I am thrilled that something I have written has generated an opportunity for a talented early-career designer to expand her portfolio.

Academic Rudine Sims Bishop* wrote that books act as mirrors and sliding doors for children; mirrors reflect their lived experience and sliding doors offer an opportunity to step into an unfamiliar world and develop empathy with the lives of others. Olivia Anthony’s striking design fulfils both functions. Having taught English for many years in London schools, I am confident that teenagers will be drawn to 29 LOCKS by the enigmatic boy on the cover who looks just like them. Others will admire Donny’s high-top trainers, feel the allure of the London skyline, and step through the sliding doors into his world. I hope both readers will go on to admire Donny’s intelligence, resilience and courage and see themselves in his struggles.

In the end, my novel didn’t need a Once-Upon-A-Time-Machine to make the perfect cover. It needed a team.

Next time, Part 2: Working with an Editor


29 LOCKS can be pre-ordered at

*An extract from Rudine Sims Bishop’s seminal article can be found here

Nicola Garrard’s debut novel, 29 Locks, was shortlisted in both the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize and Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition. She has taught English in secondary schools for twenty-three years, including fifteen years at an inner-city London comprehensive. She was a runner up in the Poetry Book Society poetry competition, judged by one of her heroes, Carol Ann Duffy. Her words have been published in Mslexia Magazine, the IRON Book of Trees and the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook. She lives in Sussex with her family and a Jack Russell terrier called Little Bear. Her favourite things about being a teacher are not found in classrooms but on school trips to wild places: capsizing canoes in icy lakes and getting lost in the mountains. Young people always find the way home.

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