The latest in our Rejected Designs series is a dispatch from Rodrigo Corral, whose work you may recognize from the jackets of books like Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, and any number of renowned titles from Farrar, Straus & Giroux, where he is creative director. Anywhere there is literature you can find a Corral design—in the pages of the New York Times Book Review or face up on the New & Notable table at bookstores, big and small. The vibrant blue waves adorning Lauren Groff’s bestselling novel Fates and Furies is one of the most recognizable of his immediately recognizable cover designs, a success story by any book industry standards. But even a cover like that won’t guarantee you your next job in the publishing world, where the pressure for a second work to sell is even higher after the success of a first. Corral’s design for Florida, Groff’s recent book of short stories, didn’t quite hit the mark.
Here’s Corral in his own words, first published in issue #01 of Eye on Design magazine.
“Since we’d worked on Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, the art director came back to us to work on Groff’s new collection of stories, Florida. We had a quick conversation on the phone. It was very open-ended: ‘Riff off of what we successfully did on Fates. But also, if you have an epiphany and want to try something new, go for it.’ I jumped into the text, and went back to Florida quite a bit. I love so much how she tackles the personalities of the people there, and how she describes her neighbors and the people she writes about.
“When I read a book for an assignment, I highlight the things that I think are interesting, then come back to it a day later and reread them to make sure I still feel strongly about it. Then I’ll be strategic about ideas: this idea covers a historical element of Florida, this covers the quirky characters of Florida. This other one covers the more impactful aesthetic and ambient qualities that could be Florida, and that will just make a striking cover. I went the animal route; I used a turtle. She has a crush on an explorer in one of her stories, and wants to go back in time to meet him. He was also a writer and an artist who did some beautiful watercolors, so I borrowed one of his images of a turtle. We did quite a range.
You’re not just decorating, it has to be born of something.
“As you can imagine, once you get into round three, you sort of run out of reasons why things might not be working. I couldn’t help but be pulled back to what I thought marketing would want, which is playing off of what we successfully did with her last book. So I went for tone and mood and got wrapped up in this idea of storm clouds and how they could just be a reflection of all the different quirky Florida personalities that she writes about.
I was too vague, too wrapped up in tone.
“I’ve spent years thinking that, from a publisher and marketer position, the approach to choosing a cover is ‘What’s the idea?’ That’s still how I approach it. You have to be inspired. You’re not just decorating, it has to be born of something. But I think from a publisher’s perspective the approach is really more ‘Is it striking? Does it feel impactful? Does it feel like we’re linking to the previous books enough?’
“After the third round you just don’t hear back for a little while. That usually requires my follow-up. I have a two-step process of going onto Amazon, seeing if it’s up yet, and then writing a note. But now seeing where they landed, I completely understand why this was rejected. I was going almost too vague, too wrapped up in tone. I went with a much more ethereal feeling. I didn’t nail Florida. I rested on the fact that the title saying ‘Florida’ would be enough.”