Rejected cover for The Spirit of Science Fiction by Roberto Bolaño (and one of cover designer Na Kim’s favorites).

Na Kim is a senior designer at Farrar Straus & Giroux and a freelance book cover designer who first caught our eye with a piece she wrote about designing for Jeffrey Eugenides on the website LitHub. Describing the process of going back to the drawing board when your design has been politely rejected by an author you hugely admire, she writes: “Everything is black. My vision is obstructed by a behemoth Photoshop window. I infinitely scroll through layers, clicking on and off, unable to escape. Fuckkkkkkkk…”

Clearly this is a designer not afraid to be honest about dealing with the rejection of early sketches. With book cover design, you get plenty of practice in such rejections—the discipline is often based around high-pressure assignments and looming deadlines. Cover designers send in rounds and rounds of sketches, then edits, then more edits; only to hear that a design that had been previously approved by a publisher has been rejected at sales conference months later. When we caught up with Kim, she’d just finished a freelance assignment for another author she loves. She talked about the importance of staying unattached to initial designs, and how to maturely and gracefully let go of the ones that lose out early—after you’ve snuck in a slightly tweaked version of your favorite in all subsequent rounds, that is.

Early rejected design of The Spirit of Science Fiction by by Roberto Bolaño.

 

“I was asked by an art director at Penguin Press if I was interested in working on a Roberto Bolaño book. It’s one of his earliest novels, called The Spirit of Science Fiction, and it had never been published. It’s interesting because it’s new, but it’s the old Bolaño, before he became Bolaño and wrote all of his well-known novels and poetry. I’ve never worked on a book of his before, but it’s not really something you turn down.

“They sent me the full manuscript, and you get a tip sheet with a description of the book, an outline, who the target customer is, what other titles they’re comparing it to, and some praise. The book is a mix of different forms of storytelling: parts are epistolary and parts are told through interviews. It’s a combination of realism with some elements of fantasy and dream-like circumstances; there are all these contradicting descriptions throughout that give it a sense of duality. I was trying to focus on certain ideas that exemplify that visually.

Another iteration of the “potato comp” that Kim and her art director kept sneaking into sketches.

“I sent over more sketches than I normally do for a freelance cover, but there was one that I was really attached to. Part of the plot is centered around this potato academy, and there are long excerpts about the caretaker of the potato academy who runs a radio station where he gives lectures on potatoes. How to triple potato crops, potato recipes, that sort of thing. It’s really, really weird and kind of hard to describe, but I thought it was such an interesting element to the book. So I made a cover that had a potato on its side, with a flower growing out of it. The sprouts make a face on the potato. I thought it was a good way to show an ephemeral moment where realism meets fantasy as it’s something ordinary, but more reveals itself to you the more you look at it.

“I would always include a slightly different version of the potato comp in there, just to see if they would give it another shot.”

“The art director really liked the potato. I really liked the potato. He brought it in thinking the reception would be good, but there was a lot of hesitation. There’s marketing to go through, the publisher, the editor, the author’s estate. For the next few rounds, I offered some very different approaches to the book. But I would always include a slightly different version of the potato comp in there, just to see if they would give it another shot.

Early version of The Spirit of Science Fiction, which later led to the final.

“The one we landed on was an iteration of one of the first covers I sent. I did some custom lettering for it, but the first time I sent it there was no image. It looked too retro at first, I think, but with their suggestion of adding a background image it ended up getting approved. I’m pretty happy with it; I’m glad something got approved.

“With a big author you can’t really get too attached to a specific design, because it needs to appeal to a bigger market. At the end of the day, my art director said, ‘Sorry that the potato didn’t work out. There’s always the paperback.’” 

Final cover for The Spirit of Science Fiction by Roberto Bolaño, out in February 2019