The Art of Cover Design

Seagull Books is one among the few publishers that gives as much importance to the aesthetics and appearance of a book as its content. Throughout the history of Seagull Books, Calcutta, Naveen Kishore envisioned digital cover design for the books, and his idea was inherited, incorporated and improvised by Sunandini Banerjee, who has illustrated over 300 covers for the books published by Seagull.

Inspired by the creative expertise of Sunandini, we requested for a class on Cover Design at the Seagull School of Publishing. We had chosen some of the books and wanted to know about the creative process she went through while designing them.

To begin with, my knowledge of handling technology, especially as far as the treatment of representing a translation of a text pictorially is concerned, was elementary. QuarkXpress and InDesign are fairly user-friendly, simplifying and allowing the execution of a picture the designer has in mind. To become a digital or graphic designer, one has to have sufficient knowledge of technology and its use, paired with an aesthetic sense. While designing the cover of a book, one needs to know what the book needs. Translating words into an illustration is crucial in cover design. Be it an individual book or a series consisting more than one, a book is identified by or remembered through its cover, colour, font, style, texture, etc.collage

From a publishing perspective, Sunandini says, identifiable covers of different books in a series have twofold use. It helps the reader to identify which books go together in a series, that is, it can have a visual representation on a bookshelf in the bookstore; and, from a commercial aspect, the series design becomes a subtle advertisement for the entire collection in a way.

Generally, on a series, to put the picture of the person is something that has already been done. However, in the Conversation Series published by Seagull Books, the look of the covers needed something that could translate ‘conversations’, ‘gesticulations’, ‘excitement’ and a ‘free-flowing statement’; and a simple ‘!’ represented all and more. The exclamation mark is treated as a picture in the conversation series. Within the series, certain aspects of the typeface are negotiable and certain things must remain static, like the font of the exclamation mark can change, while there has to be a standard typeface. The colour of the font can change but the background, which is different hues of beige, can differ only between ten and twenty per cent. The run-on texts cannot change. It is a similar kind of an idea that has been followed in the Communism Series, where there are photographs, scanned pictures, collages, a greenish tint on the photographs and an old paper look; however, the basic colour scheme (highlighting red, of course) remains the same. The important thing about a series cover is that, the books have to look similar together as a series at the same time each book has to be convincing enough to stand alone as a separate one. Sunandini aptly explains, ‘It’s a look but not a formula.’

Blurb writing becomes very important for cover design because, most of the time, the designer works under time constraints. The blurb, in this case, should be capable of being translated into a cover. A designer simply does not have time to read an entire book before designing its cover because he/she is working on many covers at any given time.


While designing the cover of a book, one should be willing to experiment with colours and pictures, understand the philosophy of the book and experience the evolving nature of thoughts and words into illustrations. Such beautiful covers have indeed been done at Seagull. To mention a few, there is a set of cover designs which are minimal, some have collages, some have specific motifs and many other styles. The designer’s responsibility is not to give away too much of the story on the cover, but to suggest an entry point into the book. For instance, the novel Privy Portrait by Jean-Luc Benoziglio is a hilarious story of a man who refers to his encyclopedia for everything he encounters in his daily life. He secretly reads them in the bathroom, so as not to annoy his family members. The cover has the frame of a mirror reflecting a page of an encyclopedia and two taps representing the bathroom. Toby Litt’s Life-Like has mannequins and a vibrant background because mannequins are a close representation of humans and the bright colours show life and animation. Seedtime by Philippe Jaccottet has an elegant cover with a beautiful passage from the book, a water pot, dusty shades of green in the background, the grass running through the words and clocks giving an organic form to the title as well as the cover.

Sometimes a book would need extensive design to match the story, and sometimes a simple, soothing cover would help in retaining the essence of the book. The designer’s responsibility is to create the rapport between the story and the cover, and maintain balance. It is necessary to know where to stop and leave the rest for interpretation.

Rini Maria

A Masterclass with Sandip Roy

Finding information in today’s world is hardly a challenge. One word—Google. Now, no longer just a noun, not thrillingly (as one might have hoped) a wordplay on ‘go’ and ‘ogle’, but a verb—to google—that, over the years, has been employed time and again in the quest for answers. More answers, always many more answers.

And for those who would like to add fuel to the fire of this need, there is also the Seagull School of Publishing.

Thanks to the flexibility and style of instruction, an environment that is perpetually charged with editorial debate, and because the instructors and speakers are actually practitioners in the world of publishing and not just theorists, you realize just how much there is to the author-editor-translator-publisher-reader relationship. You finally comprehend that the answers are, and should be, far more layered than the result of simply pitting the idea of ‘the practical’ against ‘the ideal’.

About two weeks into the course, lulled into a state of gentle acceptance of the vagaries of the English language on the one hand and conditioned into acknowledging, perhaps even embracing, the quirks of the writing we encountered on the other, came a surprise, of the sweeter kind. It slid into our inboxes noiselessly, waiting for us to discover just around the corner, at the Seagull Books, a Masterclass with journalist, editor, radio commentator, and now, novelist, Sandip Roy whose debut work of fiction Don’t Let Him Know has already been garnering great reviews.

Orchestrated as a Q&A session, led by Sunandini Banerjee, senior editor and graphic designer at Seagull Books, the session traced the journey that a manuscript makes to get to its book form, as well as Sandip’s own journey as the writer alongside it.

Having braved his way back to Kolkata from Mumbai (as always, on the brink of shutting down, thanks to an annual event they’re never equipped for—monsoon), Sandip, in person, is charming and engaging, much like the multiple vignettes that make up his novel—a rich and poignant tale that moves between India and America, between past and present, between duty and dreams.

Opening with descriptions of his own life in America, working as a software engineer in San Francisco, the quintessential ‘good Bengali boy’ who merely wrote ‘as a hobby’, he deliberates on, and answers with care, questions about his characters, the structure of the novel and its inception, the challenge to get published in the first place, and how sometimes just settling on a book cover that is reflective of your book is just as much hard work!

 On Getting Published:

‘Oh, it all just came together,’ he says simply, while his audience of wannabe-writers and almost-editors gape, a little green around their gills.

‘I got asked by Diya who was at Bloomsbury . . . and she had read some other pieces that I’d written. And she asked me rather nervously—because we knew each other socially—whether there was something else that I was working on. And I said, “Well, I have this thing that I have done . . .” and at that point I hadn’t really presented it to any publisher—it was just something I had been pottering around with. I said to her, “I can send you the first three chapters.” So she read it and said she really liked it, and wanted to read the rest. So in a way it was a little unusual, in that I didn’t go to the publisher, I didn’t have an agent. In fact, I was not at all prepared to do anything, but it was happening. I panicked actually. I thought, “How can I do this?” But in the end, you know, it sort of all just came together.’

On Tiny Tales Told Well

Those who have read the book or even just compared covers—the India, US and UK editions—on Amazon, already know that this book is also ‘a novel in stories’. Meaning that while the book is a whole piece of literary work that stands on its own, it is also made up of individual chapters that can be read separately as short stories and within the novel, even more interestingly, can be read in whatever order you please.

Each chapter, it seems, had originally been written as a short story, each a stand-alone piece of fiction. Until someone pointed out that really, while it seemed like he was writing about different people because they had different names, they were all just the same people with intersecting lives! Voila . . . a manuscript!

‘There was talk about standardizing the novel though,’ Sandip confesses with a laugh, ‘whether we should break this down and make it more straightforward, more conventional. I actually didn’t want that. I didn’t want it to become a standard novel. I like the fact that I don’t tell everything, that there are gaps. As a reader, you fill in the gaps.’

 On Cooking Up a Storm, and the Occasional Story

It starts with a sheepish admission of being newly arrived in America, truly independent for the first time, and the sudden realization that to even successfully ‘boil an egg’ might be a challenge. Before moving on quickly:

‘But for me actually—personally—cooking was immensely liberating. Partly it also has to do with my computer science background because I’m a terribly logical person. So I would never be able to write a book on magic reality! Because the logic, just the logic of “no logic” would stupefy me. Like, “How is this possible!” and “How did this just happen!” I’m okay with ghosts and things like that, but the ghost must be logical, rational. It must do logical things. So cooking for me was almost like computer science programming because you had these ingredients and you followed these steps and once you followed these steps, hopefully, the desired result was achieved. Writing, of course, is the opposite where you can follow every rule in the book, and at the end, you still produce inedible junk!’

On Headless Torsos That Make It to a Cover

‘I had three different covers. But I didn’t have any control over the cover at all except the power to veto,’ admits Sandip with a laugh, when asked about the dusky beauty who made it to the dust jacket of the Indian hardcover edition of his book. ‘I don’t know how many vetos I had. I mean, if I could endlessly veto covers! And this one was the Indian cover. And my main concern was that the woman had a tangail sari on! I was somewhat okay with this cover because I thought it was striking, that it would stand out on a bookshelf. Some people didn’t like it. They were like “Oh, another woman on the cover of a book”, but I was okay with it as long as the cover didn’t advertise exotica. That is actually the only thing that I knew I wanted—which is what I didn’t want! And I didn’t want a generic cover you see so much.’


The afternoon ends on a rainy, windswept note, reminiscent of the South Calcutta of Sandip’s novel. And with it the satisfaction of knowing that the rest of the day could be spent in a corner, curled up on a couch, with a cup of tea maybe, reading his book (from back to front, if you so wished), just because this one time, the end could also be the beginning.

Nisha Ravindranathan

How to Get It Right: Masterclass with Jennie Dorny on Foreign Rights and Contracts



Jennie Dorny,

Foreign Rights Department, Éditions du Seuil,

hereafter called the Proprietor and acting as a leaser (concessionaire) for the exclusive right to conduct Masterclasses which is the objective of the present contract, and of which it presents itself as guarantor,


The Students,

The Seagull School of Publishing,

hereafter called “(future) Editors/Publishers”,


  1. The Proprietor—to the degree permitted by her by present or future laws regarding literary property, both French and foreign and international agreements—grants to the Editor/Publisher, who accepts, the exclusive right to attend all the Proprietor’s Masterclasses to learn about foreign rights with respect to translation and that each prospective editor/publisher makes a short presentation on a book in the fictional scenario of attempting to sell the rights of the book at the Frankfurt Book Fair.


  1. On the first day of July 2015, Jennie Dorny will not only transport the students back in time to when she started working for Éditions du Seuil in the year 2000 but she will also elaborate on translation rights and contracts with emphasis on Author-Publisher contract, primary rights and secondary rights split between the author and the publisher, translation rights of the author, territorial rights of the publisher, calculation of royalties and net receipts, etc. The morning session is expected to be so enlightening that the students will take down notes copiously. The theoretical input coupled with Jennie’s enthusiasm and interesting anecdotes from her life as a foreign rights operator will no doubt make the class both educating and entertaining. No abridgement of the class in video or audio recording shall be issued without the consent of the Proprietor.
  1. The Proprietor warrants that the afternoon session will be filled with students feeling nervous and excited at the same time as they present their books in fun and friendly conversation with Jennie, attempting to coax her into buying the right to translate their respective books into French. Each of the conversations will prove to be useful as Jennie will patiently listen to the candidates defending their books and proceed to make exceedingly helpful suggestions on how their arguments can be improved upon in various aspects of promoting the books. Furthermore, each student will have to undertake the full and legal responsibility for any symptoms of anxiety attacks, panic attacks, loss of consciousness, cold hands, shivering and increased rate of heartbeat during the course of their presentations. The definite highlight and applause-worthy moments of the presentations will be when Jitendra hands Jennie, who shall be very impressed, a business card at the beginning of the conversation. Not surprisingly, he will manage to wittily convince Jennie to read the book and successfully sell the translation rights of his book at the said hypothetical Frankfurt Book Fair.
  1. Based on the prior written approval, the second day of Jennie’s Masterclass shall expound the characteristics and relationships of people working in the foreign rights department. Jennie’s narrations of her experiences will exemplify the kind of relationships a foreign rights operator is expected to maintain with the editor, publisher, author, press and marketing, as well as accounting and legal departments. She will accentuate the importance of cultivating and improving relationships as the principal responsibility of the foreign rights department is to convince foreign publishers to publish a translated version of books. Any student found to be in violation of the listening-intently clause shall be liable to pay royalties to the Proprietor.
  1. The student presentations that follow shall consist of more comically charming argumentative plots to convince Jennie to consider the books for French translation. The Seagull Books catalogue shall become the fictitious Bloomsbury catalogue for the sake of Nisha’s argument, subject to certain limitations. Shyama’s presentation of a graphic novel will vow to steal the spotlight with its innovativeness in style and technique. If at any time during the presentations, the student audience ceases to have a sufficiently remunerative psychological presence, he/she shall be at liberty to dispense himself/herself from the classroom or liable to pay with a cheque the same amount he/she spent absorbed in absent-mindedness, fantasizing or engaged in involuntary sleeping.
  1. Jennie agrees to elucidate the different kinds of offers-ordinary, blind and pre-emptive, and the difference between open contracts and closed contracts on the third day of July 2015. She shall also demonstrate a mock auction to illustrate how publishers acquire rights by competing and offering more monetary benefits than other publishers. Students with no former experience in complex mathematical calculations will be advised to carry calculators to the class or be subject to temporary brain malfunction at their own risk.
  1. The Masterclass will come to an end with student presentations and a class photo taken by Jennie who will bravely stand on a chair, to make sure everyone is captured in the photo, with a happy smile. There will be a huge round of applause as she exits the classroom. Any student found to be in violation of the clap-clause will be presented with the slap-clause.

Signed in Kolkata on 30 June 2015.

Proprietor: ____________                         Editor/Publisher: _____________

Sai Prasanna P.

Not Just Spelling and Grammar Check

After completing my graduation, the most common question that I have been asked by my relatives is ‘What are you planning to do now?’ To which, when I say that I am preparing to be a book editor, the responses are sometimes hilarious, but most of the times borderline offensive. Here are a few examples:

  1. So, basically, you want to end up as an author, right?
  2. What does a book editor have to do? The author will write and the printer will print. What is left for the editor to do?
  3. Why do you want to be an editor at all? Nowadays, with auto-correct and spelling/grammar check, the job of an editor is nearly obsolete. Why enter a field that will cease to exist in a few years?
  4. Why do you want to waste your time with a course? Have you not read and written in English since the time that you actually learnt to read and write at all? What is there to learn now?

To all those people, I can only say that the answer to all your questions lie in the very first week of the Seagull editing course. All the myths surrounding the job of an editor and the confusion in people’s minds regarding the idea if book editing can even be referred to as a ‘real profession’, can easily be cleared if they listened to what Sunandini ma’am had to say about the various responsibilities of an editor. It is certainly no cakewalk! From the moment a manuscript is selected to the time the book is published, it is the responsibility of the editor to see it through. It is almost like an editor’s baby. To care for it, nurture it, see it mature, and groom it to be the best version of itself that it can possibly become, at the same time, to keep in mind that it is someone else’s work and learn to let go when the time comes.

From the different parts of a book (and there is an entire book just to tell us about the various parts of a book including the ‘widow’ and the ‘orphan’ and more such curious terms!) to the ideal arrangement of the pages that go within, there are things in a book that, as readers, we hardly pay attention to and seldom realize the amount of thought that went into it. All of these were discussed in great detail and I realize that it is not just an art but a science.

After a week here, it has become obvious to me that nothing else could have given me the kind of knowledge that I am going to take away with me from this course. It really is an all-you-need-to-know-about-book-editing package, wrapped neatly and bow-tied for our convenience.

I feel equipped now to answer the very many questions that my relatives will continue to throw at me. I don’t think that a better platform exists to start off one’s career in the field of book editing!

Nekita Chowdhury