A Life In Publishing

Jaya Miceli

This fall Scribner was thrilled to welcome Jaya Miceli to the team as the imprint’s art director. With well over a decade of book design under her belt, we were curious to learn more about her life in book publishing as a designer. Here, she reveals her process as a designer, her most embarrassing job, and what jackets she has been working on for Scribner. 

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What has it been like coming to Scribner?

Jaya Miceli: It’s been great, I feel like I am just settling in. I worked at Penguin for fourteen years, so I got used to one way of working.

Coming here is like doing the whole dance once more, figuring it all out again—which is exciting. I love the diverse books here at Scribner, and I enjoy working with the team here, too, who are open to creative ideas. To think what we’ve already done in just a few months is incredible.

Do you see yourself more as a creative director or designer? What’s the difference between the two?

Miceli: I see myself as both, as my heart is always in being a creative person. I love making stuff, and I hope that is something that never goes away. I have always been a very hands-on person. As an art director, I sometimes work with designers through the process, serving them as a creative coach, by discussing what they came away with from the book and encouraging creative freedom to discover and explore a range of ideas and design possibilities. It’s intimidating to start a project. I always ask myself, “How do I do this ‘design’ thing again?” It is exciting to work with and see designers getting to the crux of the story and run with ideas and designs. I know I can surprise myself, especially when I hit upon something in the book and the “happy accident” that can occur while designing, and then I ask myself, “How did I do that?”  Designing covers for books requires lots of thought, research, and curiosity of possible solutions and imagery, which can be so very challenging and also so very rewarding at the same time.

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Two covers Miceli designed for Hanif Kureishi’s The Last Word

Tell us more about how you got started in publishing? Where did you learn design?

Miceli: Growing up, I had always drawn. I went to Parsons School of Design for illustration, but I graduated with no computer knowledge. So I just started to put my portfolio together and started dropping it off at The New Yorker. I just kept dropping off my portfolio every week until I suppose they had no choice but to give me work. They gave me three or four assignments, but that was nothing I could live off. I also just wasn’t good at the constant self-promotion. As an illustrator you have to send millions of mailings and stay in touch with people. I wasn’t that type of person.

So I went back to The New School and learned the design applications. I have always loved books and thought I’d love to design book covers, so that’s where I focused. I was doing temp work in publishing houses for a while. I had a friend who worked at Penguin and I asked him if he knew of a job opening. That week a designer left and I got the job.

At that point I had no book cover experience and knew little of graphic design outside of school, but I knew the applications. I basically learned book cover design on the job. And I never stopped looking at stuff—other people’s work, jacket designers and artists, everything. I have so many design books here in the office, more at home, and I look at design blogs and industry websites all the time. I am fortunate that events in my life came together. At one point I was working retail at the Manhattan Mall! I was in a weird place, and not just metaphorically, but it made me really want to get where I wanted to be—now or never. I had to get over my fears and just go.

At Penguin, one of the hardest parts starting out was that I didn’t know type. I didn’t know fonts or how to set type up on the page. I had to learn on the job. But that’s when my illustration background came in handy, because I did a lot of my own hand-lettering and illustrative design. I hired myself in a way, which is the best part.

The valuable thing I learned is that in anything you do, it’s really important to put love and care. For me, it can’t just be a job, especially when so much of the work relies on exposing your raw creative thoughts. The process of getting to a final cover for a book that everyone is happy with can be painstaking, when you go through many rounds. The package for every book is important to me—no matter what the book—and what the jacket communicates to the reader, that being the mood/essence of a novel or a sophisticated or straightforward message for a nonfiction book. My goal is to always try to find and inspire new ways to visually tell the story and keep the packages looking fresh and exciting. With love and care.

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A selection of covers designed by Miceli for What Comes Next and How to Like It

Take us through the design process. Do you first get to read the books you’ll make cover’s for?

Miceli: We normally get manuscripts pretty early on in the editing stage. As a book designer, reading and getting a good sense of the story are important to creating a jacket that will move someone to pick it up. I feel a cover does not need to be a literal interpretation of the book—the text is already there for that. The cover should somehow strike at the core of the book, whether it’s a few brushstrokes, or just a part of a face, all type, something abstract, or something extremely clear. The beauty of book covers is that every book has a unique story or message. Even a repackaging of classic literature allows the opportunity to inspire a new interpretation of what a book cover looks like.

As far as how we proceed—it’s different for every book. For Abigail Thomas’s What Comes Next and How to Like It, I didn’t come in at the beginning of this design process. There were already photoshoots, designed to replicate the prior book by Abigail, which included pictures of her and her three dogs. But a decision was made to change the whole look. Nan Graham asked me to read the book and see what I got from it. Throughout, Abigail writes about this friendship she has, a lifelong friendship that is deeply personal, nonsexual, yet still so deep. And she writes about challenges and changes in her life and with growing older. Through the whole story she often returns to painting. I imagined, what would it look like if there were two brushstrokes against this empty white canvas, in front of this provocative title? How do these two brushstrokes, like these two friends, grow side by side? What new context do they create? At the same time I made several other covers—I tried to do a more Zen-like circle, or rendering the two parts of the title differently; but the simplicity of the two painted brushstrokes really spoke for the book and brought all the elements of the story together.