Penguin's Paul Buckley on how to create compelling covers

Penguin's Paul Buckley on how to create compelling covers

By Anne Wollenberg 03/01/13

Paul Buckley is the VP Executive Creative Director of Penguin Books. He tells Anne Wollenberg about finding new talent, staying enthusiastic and assigning yourself...

Books are a tangible, well-designed object you can hold, and they make a difference in people’s lives. Getting to create beautiful things is the most satisfying part of my job. The worst part is when opinions I may disagree with keep us from creating beautiful things...

I was lucky to find books early in my career. I freelanced for studios and magazines while going to SVA [the School of Visual Arts in New York] on an illustration scholarship – I lived in an apartment so roach-infested that, if you touched the wall, it would be sticky. Then I got a junior designer spot at a company called New American Library, which merged with Penguin.

Bridget Jones Diary

You need to have smart problem-solving skills to work in book design and you need to stay current with what artists are doing what kind of work. You must be constantly paying attention to what new and old talents are out there and know how to tap into them. This is not a career for the lazy.

I oversee a department that’s responsible for roughly 800 covers and jackets a year. Aside from often doing the design ourselves, it is our job to hire the right freelance artists to help create a distinct, artful cover for an author’s latest work – as well as keeping their ‘backlist’ titles looking sharp as well.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest

Starting over is the name of the game. It is not uncommon for a designer to do 30 covers or more for one title. Much of this is due to subjective outside opinions that keep killing cover proposals – be they from an author’s spouse, their kids or their agent – or in-house forces like Sales or an editor that can’t make up their mind. 

You need to keep the enthusiasm going, cover after rejected cover, or until the 50th tweak. Maybe you finally nail what they wantjust to find out that the author thinks the polar opposite and might have liked your very first comp, if only he or she could ever see it.

Kafka Golding Steinbeck

When I see art I like, I make sure I get the name of the artist. I find cover illustrators on the internet, people email me samples and I see stuff on Facebook, in exhibitions, in magazines, in bookstores, on CDs I buy, on posters – absolutely everywhere.

Interning gets the staff to like you and give you a chance. Also, a lot of great book designers and art directors teach. Take their classes, wow them, ask to be their intern.


Assign yourself book covers to solve. As you are reading a book, ask yourself, “If I was just hired by the art director to illustrate the cover for this manuscript, what would I do?” Then go and do it. Pretty soon, you’ll have a nice body of work to show around. Who cares if they were self-assignments? 

I’m going to be curious if you send me an email saying, “Here’s a link to my website where I just illustrated a few books you originally worked on.” I’m going to click on that link and go take a look. And if you nailed them, I’m going to want to work with you. 


Cover artists: Money by Bert Krak, Great Expectations by Richard Sala, The New York Trilogy by Art Spiegelman, Bridget Jones’s Diary by Tara McPherson, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Joe Sacco, The Metamorphosis, Lord of the Flies and The Grapes of Wrath by Andrew Davidson, Frankenstein by Daniel Clowes. 

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