Penguin 75: the stories behind the covers

A new book reveals some of the secrets behind Penguin’s cover designs by including candid interviews with both designers and authors. We have five extracts from the book that shed light on the particular ins and outs of creating the perfect cover

A new book reveals some of the secrets behind Penguin’s cover designs by including candid interviews with both designers and authors. We have five extracts from the book that shed light on the particular ins and outs of creating the perfect cover…

To coincide with Penguin’s 75th anniversary this year Paul Buckley, the publisher’s US art director, chose 75 book covers that represent the best work produced by the company over the last decade. The result is Penguin 75: Designers, Authors, Commentary (the Good, the Bad…).

Offering readers a glimpse into the design of a book’s cover (not to mention the ensuing arguments) one of the best things about the collection is that each cover boasts a fairly candid commentary from authors, agents and editors, as well as the designers, art directors and artists involved in its creation.

Some anecdotes are highly amusing – see author Garrison Keillor’s bemused dismissal of the cover for his book Love Me, below – while others show how ideas are arrived at in a unique, and frequently convivial, collaboration between art director, designer and author.

The first of five exclusive extracts from the book tells the story behind the cover for Moustafa Bayoumi’s How Does It Feel To Be A Problem? (original spread from the Penguin 75 book, shown below).

How Does It Feel to Be A Problem?

Author: Moustafa Bayoumi. Designer: Jon Gray. Art Director: Darren Haggar. Editor: Vanessa Mobley

Darren Haggar, Art Director:

One of the many beige covers that didn’t get approved in paperback. This was originally meant to be a total repackage from the hardcover, but nothing seemed to work. After months of pursuing alternative ideas – even commissioning a photo shoot (which I thought went really well) – I like to think the publisher took pity on me and went back to the hardcover design, tweaking the colors (removing the beige).

Moustafa Bayoumi, Author:

At first, the Arabic was all wrong. Needless to say, it didn’t endear me to the design. The text on the cover read from left to right, but Arabic is written from right to left. Arabic is cursive, as if the letters are holding hands in a chain, but here the letters were all separated, like lonely people afraid even to look at each other. And it took a while to realise this was supposed to be my book’s title in my mother tongue. The translation was entirely literal, the equivalent of the bad English found on signs in distant countries: Please don’t leave your values unattended.

I consulted with my father. We corrected the Arabic, but other reservations persisted. The cover looked to me like a 1960s manifesto, while my book was about real people whose stories of struggle had been drowned out by the noise of ideology. The flag imagery of the cover seemed to pit American against Arab, contrary, I thought, to the complexities of my book. I felt like I was fighting with the cover, and losing.

A few months later, I changed my mind. One afternoon, I was speaking to a group of Christian ministers who had kindly invited me into their conversation about discrimination in America. One minister told me how much she liked my book before telling everyone that she had a confession to make. The Arabic on the cover, she said, had made her nervous when reading in public. She knew it was shameful, but she covered up the Arabic whenever she read the book outside her house. The cover, she admitted, helped her recognise the depths of her own fears and prejudices. That’s the moment I realised that this bold and powerful cover beautifully mirrors the aims of the pages within.

Jon Gray, Designer:

From the outset this seemed like a sensitive and tricky subject. So much so, that even writing about it now feels tricky. How do you grab attention without offending anyone? The title is great and also needed to be fairly prominent. Best solution seemed to be something typographic. So with the help of a free internet translator, I got to work. I thought of the most offensive phrase I could, then plastered it across the cover in Arabic! Genius right? Relax, Penguin, I had it checked.

The Brontë Sisters

Authors: Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë, and Anne Brontë. Designer: Kelly Blair. Cover Artist: Unknown. Art Director: Roseanne Serra. Editor: Elda Rotor.

Roseanne Serra, Art Director:

When dealing with our more special Penguin Classics, we are always thinking of how to create a special package. It has to be gorgeous, gifty, something you just have to have for its sheer beauty. I worked with Kelly Blair on Jane Austen: The Complete Novels. I wanted a gorgeous period piece that was also contemporary. In the end, the black silhouette of the tree gave the cover that darkness it needed without being depressing and took a traditional old painting and gave it new life.

Kelly Blair, Designer:

For me, this was one of those magic jobs where everyone was in agreement right from the beginning. This cover is one of the first ideas I sent in to Roseanne, and it was decided upon very quickly. It was my favourite as well. I love that the full cover speaks to the three authors as well as the mood and place of the novels. I look forward to hearing how the Brontë sisters feel about the cover.

Juliette Wells, Ph.D., Associate Professor of English, Manhattan College:

Three sisters, each prodigiously talented but far from conventionally beautiful, are screened from the public world by pen names. Isolated together, they create works of fierce imagination side by side, in a gloomy house abutting the natural world, where they found solace and inspiration. Their originality is acclaimed and despised in equal measure by their contemporaries, who feared such passion in young women. Knowing how soon the shadow of death would fall on them all, who would not prefer to imagine the sisters as portrayed here: a trio of lovely women whose gaze speaks of genius.

The First Word

Author: Christine Kenneally. Designer: Greg Mollica. Illustrator: Nicholas Blechman. Art Director: Paul Buckley
Editor: Rick Kot

Paul Buckley, Art Director:

It’s subtlety that is often the hardest to come by, and the most difficult to explain. When it comes to summing up a written premise with a quick visual, Nicholas [Blechman] is as smart as they come. This is just the sort of execution that someone unfamiliar with our industry might see and think, what’s the big deal? I could do that. They couldn’t, but the fact that some might see this drawing as being that simple is exactly what makes it so brilliant.

Christine Kenneally, Author:

I didn’t know what a good cover for The First Word would look like, but I knew what it wouldn’t look like. “Please,” I asked my editor, Rick Kot, “could we not have a chimpanzee or a mouth.” Typically, books about human evolution have a chimpanzee or two gazing meaningfully at the camera, and many books to do with language have mouths. Not lipsticked, lush, irresistible lips but normal human mouths, open wide, lips drawn, speaking. These covers are particularly resistible. Instead, he sent me this cover. “Wow,” I thought, “I want to buy this book.” So did the hundred or so people who came to me after the book was published and said, “The First Word? Oh yeah, I saw it in the store. That’s the book with the fantastic cover.”

Nicholas Blechman, Illustrator:

The original title of this book was From Screech to Sonnet. I tried to make an association between something primeval (a SCREECH) and something sophisticated (a SONNET). Because the book was about the history of language, all my sketches involved lettering: a crudely rendered A transforming into an elegant A. Then I started playing with the cliché diagram of evolution (a fish turning into a mammal, turning into an ape, turning into a neanderthal, etc.) and hit upon this idea of a monkey morphing into an A. The idea was just a black and white sketch, drawn on a long flight to Japan, but Greg Mollica turned it into a beautiful cover.

Love Me

Author: Garrison Keillor. Designer | Illustrator: Jamie Keenan. Art Director: Roseanne Serra. Editor: Molly Stern

Jamie Keenan, Designer/Illustrator:

I spent ages trying to put this idea together using different photographs of New York skyscrapers. They all had slightly different perspectives, and trying to get them to work together was a nightmare – it looked terrible. Then I noticed my original scribble. The original scribble
is always best.

Garrison Keillor, Author:

This cover gives me a bad case of the yips. Love Me is a comic novel in which the protagonist, Larry, comes to New York and realises his great dream of working at The New Yorker and, in a moment of great courage, he shoots the publisher in the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel and returns to his beloved wife, Iris, in St. Paul. The cover doesn’t suggest any of that. At first glance, it looks like oak beams drying at the lumberyard, or a bad dream about coffins, or a child’s rendering of an aerial view of Dupont Circle, or an explosion at Legoland. It doesn’t suggest anything that is in the book.

Maybe it was designed for the Penguin edition of The Trial by Franz Kafka, and Kafka didn’t like it so they stuck me with it. Anyway, it could’ve been worse, as we say. It could’ve been fruit bats hanging from bare knobby limbs or a colour photo of suppurating bedsores. So I bear no ill will, even though Love Me only reached 234,851 on Amazon’s fiction list and the book was quickly remaindered and sold almost a thousand copies at 59 cents and the rest were baled up and hauled to a recycling plant. I still have a copy and I enjoy reading it very much. It’s a funny book, though you’d never know it from this.

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter

Author: Kim Edwards. Designer: Greg Mollica. Photographer: Liz Magic Laser. Art Director: Paul Buckley. Editor: Pamela Dorman

Kim Edwards, Author:

The cover for The Memory Keeper’s Daughter arrived by e-mail attachment, the delicate white dress floating against the dark background, snowflakes drifting faintly, evoking a sense of loss and mystery. I loved it immediately – the visual allusion to the metaphor of photography, the haunting image of an empty dress. Readers loved it, too, around the country and around the world. A bookstore in Houston replicated the cover to fill their storefront window; in a train station in Italy, I stood next to a poster reproduction nearly as tall as I am. Everywhere I went on tour, readers spoke about this cover’s subtle power, its beauty.

Greg Mollica, Designer:

On my way to Penguin one morning, during the height of The Memory Keeper’s phenomenal popularity, I counted five people reading the book in my subway car alone. As a cover designer, it’s always nice to see your covers out there in the world, but five?! Hallucination due to sleep deprivation was the only explanation. Never did I think the white floating dress would become such an icon. Thanks to Kim Edwards’s beautiful, arresting story, it did – and it’s still front and centre at every bookstore.

Paul Buckley, Art Director:

There is a big difference working on the cover for a book with massive expectations. While we knew this was going to do very well, we did not know it was going to do this well. It became absolutely huge. I have one editor who likes to say to me about certain titles, “Paul, I’m telling you right now – THIS ONE is going to be very very very difficult to nail.” Translation: I’ll need to see a hundred cover comps, and I’m not picking one till UPS is banging on the door. One might as well add, “And don’t go being brilliant right out of the gate cause I’m not gonna bite for a few months yet.”

Luckily, we did not hear any statements like this during the creation of this jacket, which is why I think we entertained Greg’s saying, “Let’s do a photoshoot for this one,” and Greg and Liz saying, “Yeah, an empty dress just floating over a snowy scene.” What a memorable jacket.

Thanks for Andrew Lau at Penguin for organising the extracts for us. Penguin 75: Designers, Authors, Commentary (the Good, the Bad…) is “a unique exploration into the suble art of the book cover”, edited by Paul Buckley and featuring a foreword by Chris Ware. Designed by Chris Brand, cover by Paul Buckley. More details at the Penguin Covers microsite at

The book features contributions by Paul Auster · Tara McPherson · Daniel Clowes · David Byrne · Elizabeth Gilbert · Joe Sacco · Tana French · T.C. Boyle · Seth · Tom Gauld · William T. Vollmann · Art Spiegelman · Kim Edwards · Melissa Bank · Ruben Toledo · Tomer Hanuka · Jamie Keenan · Roz Chast · Garrison Keillor · Yoshihiro Tatsumi · Sam Weber · Paul Sahre · Tony Millionaire · Nicholas Blechman · Jon Gray and many more.

What's the story?

The Storytelling issue, Oct/Nov 2017, is out now.
We invited writers to respond to our cover image
this month: read their stories inside.
PLUS: Tom Gauld, Oliver Jeffers, Giphy & S-Town

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