Book Cover Designer Emma Ewbank on her favourite projects, working with illustrators and standing out from the crowd

By   Hannah Bickerton 7 min read

whitefox: helping brands, thought leaders and writers create beautiful bespoke books

Emma Ewbank is a freelance book cover designer and has worked in the publishing industry for over eighteen years. She has worked in-house for publishers including HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Penguin and Bloomsbury. Emma has created a multitude of iconic book cover designs, including Maggie O’Farrell’s The Marriage Portrait, Saba Sams’s Send Nudes, Baek Sehee’s I Want to Die but I Want to Eat Tteokbokki, whitefox author Colette Dartford’s The Mortification of Grace Wheeler, and so many more.

Hi Emma! Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your journey to becoming a book cover designer?

Hi Claudia, of course. My journey into book cover design started just as I was finishing art college in London. At the time of completing my degree and trying to make a decision about which area of graphic design I wanted to get into as a job, there was an exhibition on at the V&A celebrating 70 years of Penguin books. To mark this milestone, the art directors there at the time, John Hamilton and Jim Stoddart, had created a series called the Pocket Penguins 70s. Seventy Penguin book covers for the seventy unique books. Each was exquisite, unique pieces of artwork in their own right. And it was the most creative expression of graphic design I had seen possible as a job beyond the walls of art college. Part of the exhibition also showed a computer which had a time lapse of how a book cover was designed. I thought it was fascinating, and from there I was sold: I wanted to become a book cover designer. 

While a few friends warned of the competitiveness of getting into the publishing industry, it didn’t put me off. After seeing a job advertised in the Guardian for a junior designer, to design covers and internals for gardening and cookery books at Collins, I went for it, and miraculously, I got it. Having very few software skills in the programmes needed for the job, due to my degree course keeping us off computers (so as to not limit our creativity), I had to learn these quickly on the job, as well as many other lessons and skills required to become a book cover designer. Those first two years at Collins were a huge foundation for me, which set me up for my journey into the book cover design world that followed.

How do you source images and work with illustrators on certain projects? Or does it vary significantly depending on the design brief?

Generally by the time the brief gets to me, the editorial and sales teams will have already thrashed out whether the cover is most likely to be a photographic cover, an illustrative cover or a typographic cover. If it is a photographic cover, more often than not the images will be sourced from online image libraries. Some image libraries are more specific, some are more general and all vary in cost, so it’s also knowing your budget before you start sourcing too. The bigger publishers also will have their own picture researchers, which is a real bonus, as their knowledge of photography is even wider and they might also source directly from photographers themselves. Very occasionally you might also do a photoshoot – this will require a big budget, though, as you might be looking at costs for a studio or location, a model, a stylist, a make-up artist, a photographer and maybe an assistant too.

With an illustrative cover, it’s finding which style of illustration is suited to the book, and then sourcing an illustrator who can draw in that style. Instagram is such a great tool for finding new talent. I find it helpful if I find an illustrator I like while doing my daily scrolling through Instagram; I can save their work very easily on my phone, so I have a bank I can refer back to when a project comes along that might require an illustration. Generally with an illustrative cover, the designer will have in mind what the cover will look like. You might design up the type and maybe do a rough sketch for the illustrator to go from, and then they will do their own sketches. These sketches might go back and forth between you, the illustrator and the publisher until everyone is happy, and then the illustrator can go to final colour artwork.

Why is it important, especially for self-published authors, to have a professionally designed book cover?

I think people really do judge a book by its cover when they are browsing the bookshop physically or online. At least it is the gateway into either picking up the book and reading the blurb and deciding if they want to purchase it or not. Publishing is such a crowded market: having a cover that works as hard as other covers that are published by the big publishers will give you a greater chance of competing within that vast market. A consumer only has something like three seconds for a cover to catch their eye. And from that cover, they need to know: which demographic the cover is for, if it is fiction or nonfiction, if it is literary or commercial or somewhere in-between, and a bit of a taste of the story. I think using the work of editorial and sales, who carry out the preliminary research of where the book will sit in the market and create a brief to reflect that, a professional designer will then know how to take all those ingredients and hopefully create something that hits all those marks, but also stands out too.

Do you believe that book covers have gained even greater importance in the publishing industry in recent years?

I think now with so much of our consumption happening online, the cover does have a really important part to play. A lot of publishers have started doing ‘cover reveals’ which is showing the cover on social media platforms up to six months before publication to get a buzz going about the book. Whether the cover is liked or not really determines how many comments and likes are on that post, and how the algorithm then throws it out to more people. So there probably is even more pressure on designers to produce eye-catching covers. Social media also means that trends in design move very fast, so there is a constant need to make sure your covers feel fresh and new. Also, I think while the eBook of course is here to stay, so many people tell me they love a physical book. And I think if the consumer is going to pay a bit more money for a physical book, particularly a hardback, it is something that they like to own as a beautiful physical object as well as wanting to read what is inside the pages.

What are some of your favourite book cover designs that you have personally worked on, and also from other cover designers, to date?

I think most recently having the opportunity to work on Maggie O’Farrell’s book The Marriage Portrait was such a huge honour, not only because Maggie is an incredible writer, but also it was one of the early projects I took on as a freelancer, so I was very grateful to the art director Yeti Lambregts for entrusting me with it, particularly having to follow on from the incredibly iconic cover for Hamnet. I also had the opportunity when I was at Penguin to design an A-format cover for The Great Gatsby that was just to be sold in Canada. The brief was very open, so I had a lot of fun designing that! And also more recently, Losing the Plot by Derek Owusu was also such a creative project to get my teeth into. 

As for other designers, there is so much talent out there, and I feel covers are getting better and better. I think my favourite cover still remains a Penguin Essential cover for The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico, designed by Jon Gray. It was a typographic cover all made out of real feathers – it is just beautiful. The cover sadly actually never made the final cut, but I was lucky that I was working at Penguin at the time and was able to see this version. You might find it on a design blog or Pinterest if you do a deep search for it!

book cover
Hannah Bickerton
Hannah Bickerton
Hannah has worked in marketing for nine years, specialising in strategy development for start-ups and EdTech companies. Having recently jumped across industries to join the Whitefox team, Hannah isn’t a complete stranger to the publishing world with previous employment at Macmillan and TES Global. She is now dedicated to ensuring that anyone who has something interesting to say knows all about whitefox.