When I was asked by Jordan to contribute a guest post about the art director/editor relationship, I said yes immediately. I felt confident that I could write 600 words without hesitation on the subject. And why not? I’ve worked in the design department for two of the “Big 6” publishers since 1999. Working with the editor has been part and parcel of the job description throughout my fourteen-year career.
There was one problem though: 600 words is nowhere near enough to fully speak to the sometimes complicated, sometimes frustrating, all of the time rewarding experience of working with an editor on a children’s book. But I’ll try, and I’ll start by asking the question I ask when I begin a project with an editor:
“What feeling are we trying to convey?”
By the time I ask this question, a manuscript could be weeks, months, or even years old. The author, having written it, and the editor, having guided the author through it, already have some cover ideas and wish-list illustrators and illustration styles. Their ideas come to me through myriad ways. It could be in simple conversation, “You know what I was thinking, Giuseppe…”. Or by way of Bic doodle on a post-it, “The tepee goes here. Make sure there’s a fire in the village, Giuseppe…”. (From Jordan: This is a true story. I have my hand drawn sketch to prove it!) So, my role as art director is simply to help visualize for others what the editor and author have already visualized for themselves.
This is where the illustrator comes in. The editor and I will toss illustrator names back and forth. We’ll find illustrators through blogs, websites, conventions, mailers, industry societies or groups, magazines, agents, and social media. We look for illustrators who can best help us convey the feeling of the story. They won’t all have the same style or same experience. We could contact first-timers and industry pros. The only thing that matters is whether or not the art fits with the story. The search for an illustrator boils down to ability + need. It’s as simple as that. There’s no “right agent”, or “right directory”, or “right school”. Although those things help, they don’t supersede ability. And forget the myth of publishers being “exclusive”, “untouchable”, or “velvet-roped”. If the ability is there, then there is a place for you in children’s publishing.
Contact sheets are made of our top choices and they then go to the publisher and editor-in-chief for a sit-down. After a couple quick meetings, a round of tests, and a review by the above-mentioned folks (plus sales, plus the author), we find our illustrator. Some may find the process as arduous, or unnecessary. I simply call it what it is: good management—which I define as maximizing sales; maximizing quality in art & design; and maximizing relationships with authors, all at a minimized risk.
It doesn’t always go so smoothly. Before we begin the book, the art director and editor conduct a pitch of sorts. We have to clearly and convincingly explain why we want a certain art style or artist. The publisher could see things differently. Or sales. Or the editor-in-chief. They all have diverse interests. And they all have valid and respected opinions on the matter. So the onus is on the art director and editor to understand the genre, the competition, and the feeling–and go about finding the right artist we all agree would bring the author’s book visually to life.
The best working relationship between an art director and editor is one in which both respect the other’s expertise, and yet welcome suggestions and ideas openly and freely. There’s a symbiotic relationship that, when working at the perfect equilibrium, ushers the manuscript from its humble beginnings as notes on an author’s desk to an object of art. It’s not at all how you see it on television, or how it’s been described by people on the outside. There are no meltdowns in offices, or crying, or cursing (for the most part). We don’t sit around smoking cigars in ivory towers guffawing at the plight of the undiscovered. The art director and editor work with our colleagues, our peers, and you to ensure everyone we work with gets our complete attention and respect.
So what feeling have I conveyed? I’m sure you’re asking whether or not we test for every book. We don’t. I’m sure you’re wondering if the Sales group has a much larger role in the decision process than anyone normally mentions. They do. I’m sure you saying, “Maybe I’ll self-publish.” You can do that. The feeling I hoped to convey was that of discovery. That perhaps knowing a bit more of what occurs “behind the scenes” invites you to focus more on plying your trade. Or elicits questions which I am happy to answer.
Giuseppe Castellano is an award-winning designer, illustrator, and Art Director at Penguin Group USA with over 14 years of experience in book publishing. He oversees the imprints of Grosset & Dunlap, PSS!, Warne, PYR, and Poptropica. Read more from Giuseppe, including his popular #artips series for illustrators, on Twitter: @pinocastellano.