Q&A with Sandy Cull

ABDA founding member Sandy Cull recently shared her journey in book design, process and the origins of the association with outgoing ABDA President Mark Campbell.

Mark: How did you get into book design? It’s such an oddball, insular industry, so what was your journey/entry point and what were you doing before?

Sandy: After working in the corporate graphic design sector, I moved to London for four years, and freelanced for a variety of magazines: New Woman, Vogue, Bella. That experience led to Kerry Packer’s magazine empire in Sydney, where I continued to freelance – Mode, Woman’s Weekly, Elle – and then to art-direct a craft magazine Handmade. (Days at my desk doing papier mache and decoupage). When I returned to Melbourne four years later, I spent several years at the Penguin offices in Ringwood, sandwiched between Car City and Australia’s ‘worst restaurant ever’.

You worked at Penguin for a number of years, right? What was it like going from that to a freelance working life back in 2005?

With books, I found my raison d’etre and at Penguin I found my home. The right place at the right time during what was a golden era in Australian publishing, working with the most talented fellow designers, editors and publishers in the industry. Under visionary publisher, Julie Gibbs, the manuscript for Stephanie Alexander’s The Cook’s Companion landed on my desk as a 10-inch stack of A4 pages (originally titled Stephanie’s ABC), and it remains the biggest opportunity of my professional life. Leaving after 12 years felt absolutely perilous!

Has book design changed since you began? What shifts do you see in the both the working conditions of book designers and the attitudes/conversations with publishers then/now?

The immediate response is to answer in bold, italic, caps only, YES! But after more introspection, honestly my working days and my processes are fundamentally unchanged. Though I am nostalgic for the indulgent days spent poring over pages with an editor, massaging widows and rivers in the pursuit of the beautiful page, book design for me in 2019, is same-same, but different.

Technology, the cloud, social media and the new digital publishing platform has greatly impacted the way we publish, design and market books. These factors have allowed a plethora of new voices and boutique self-publishers into the hitherto inaccessible publishing world, now able to produce high-quality books unit-by-unit. ‘Print-on-demand’ and ‘quality’ are no longer mutually exclusive.

It’s a brutal market in 2019 Australia. It’s commonplace to receive a brief for the literary/ commercial crossover, where a cover needs to straddle both genres (even though it’s arguably one or the other), in order to capture the widest audience from our relatively small population. I do get it, and that crossover is a decisive challenge for any cover designer. The possibility of a gift like Trent Dalton’s Boys Swallows Universe can’t be ignored. Such a success might carry a publisher through hard times and provide a buffer for their other, less commercial titles.

As the designer of a stirring new manuscript, I consistently find myself in the ‘dance of a thousand cuts’, as it became known at Penguin – from excited to a tad disheartened with the final result. Though this is invariably part and parcel of my personal creative process, it could also be influenced by a growing, fairly pervasive ‘aversion to risk’ on the part of the publishers. This deficit on many Australian bookshelves is plain to see when compared with the courageous offerings adorning those in the UK by our fellow designers there.

In 2019, in some cases, the cover design fee has increased about 15% in that 13 years, but in some cases, the design fee has stayed the same or even dropped in that time, particularly for the internal design of illustrated books. And it remains, that only some publishers acknowledge a designers’ right to be paid for the copyright of their designs, and to reinterpret that design over ‘e’, audio or backlist editions. Only some publishers pass on the design fee if they sell a cover to another territory. For Markus Zusak’s Bridge of Clay I was able to sell my cover to Bulgaria, France, Italy and Turkey, albeit in each case, for a nominal fee. After 25 years designing books, I’m finally trying to understand and grapple with this extremely contentious and equivocal area of design copyright.

At the 2019 ABA conference, it was reported that there had been a 2.6% decline in Oz book sales, countering the October 2018 optimism that had reported 4 continuous years of marginal growth.

Nonetheless, there’s some heartening indications that we may be tiring of the ubiquitous bombardment of digital media and connection, with the gallant and aspiring magazine Delayed Gratification, and the existence of such groups like the STFU Reading Society who read as a ‘silent reading party’ in public places. I also take heart from the ‘mutterings’ of AffirmPress CEO, Martin Hughes, ’Books are made, read and savoured slowly, and perhaps that’s the key to their future growth.’

Your back catalogue is rich with a wealth of both literary fiction and non-fiction covers and also quite a lot of cookbook designs too – any differences you’ve identified between the process of designing illustrated books vs covers? Do you have a preference?

An illustrated book is immersive and all-consuming with several more stake-holders besides the author, interested in its design: photographers, stylists, illustrators. It can be a protracted journey, in play over several months and requires stamina and structure. Ideally, the project is led by a seriously organised editor who’s shadowed by an equally rigorous production person, whipping the team into a schedule of milestones.

I love designing the internal pages of any book, but it’s vastly more nuanced and complex for an illustrated book, with several disparate pieces being worked into a harmonious whole. I always refer to a bunch of time-honoured, typographic conventions about the various elements: grid, kerning, hyphenation, navigation. It’s essential to understand the job each element is meant to perform, and only then should one be allowed to break some of these rules!

Covers are a whole other kind of journey and the process for me can be a form of blissful torture! I’m drawn more to designing literary fiction and non-fiction, because I love to read it. I have a sweet tooth and I love to bake. I am acutely invested in the story and in doing it justice, like a detective trying to crack a case. I’m often in a fog for weeks. I can become obsessed, riddled with self-doubt, often desperate, or simply buzzing with the task. When I think I’ve nailed it, punching the air, gleeful . . . that’s invariably when sales and marketing give me the thumbs down and I have to start over. The process is a cryptic and complete mystery.

How important is reading the manuscript for you as a designer,  and do you read the whole thing?

I’ve answered this question so many times that I wish I had a more provocative answer. Yes, I read fiction manuscripts from beginning to end and yes, I usually read at least intro/ summary/several chapters of a non-fiction manuscript. I thoroughly revel in reading a manuscript. It’s an incredible privilege.

In principle, reading a manuscript should give me a direct line to the cover. Oh, if only the creative process was so predictable and dependable! I may know, the details, the characters, and the setting well – but that doesn’t ensure at all that I can design a good jacket for them. There have been times when knowing the minutiae and being so invested in a book has actually disrupted the creative flow. I have found myself too bogged down to take risks or to think outside the detail.

I’ve tried a handful of times when time-poor, to design a cover for a manuscript I haven’t read. Though a couple were successful, the process was dominated by self-doubt, underconfidence and guesswork. I was just faking it, and doing the author and myself a disservice. Thus, I choose to work with more information than less to help intuit what the cover needs to be.

Can you talk a little bit about your process from that point? How do you conduct your research/concepts/put things together?

Editors usually include a lot of key info and visual cues in the brief, but I derive so much pleasure from reading a full manuscript, that reading is wholly part of the process.

During or immediately after reading, I often sketch thumbnails, jot ideas, into a Moleskin or on my phone in a drawing app. I might note an artists’ work that instinctively feels appropriate. I then start the search through image libraries, preferring specific image sites and online galleries over stock libraries, in the hope of finding something unique. I might shoot my own photo, get out the ink and brushes, the coloured paper, make some hand type. Recently, I have been buying loads of new fonts, and have returned to life-drawing to hone some rather rusty but needed skills. Designing can be very solitary so it’s a creative tonic to take myself on an outing; hunt for props and inspiration in vintage markets and street bazaars; head to a book shop, the state library, the galleries.

When it’s going according to plan, the first round of concepts is usually when I’m most excited. It’s my first response, the most instinctual, and hopefully reflects the authors work most uniquely and powerfully. Oftentimes though, tapping into this instinct can be elusive. I can begin to doubt myself, and in desperation, twirl-by-twirl, my offerings can morph into lesser beings. Worst of all, I may succumb to the scattergun tactic – just hit a target, any target. That’s often when the designs with which I’m less enamoured might disappointingly make it through. It can be a bittersweet win. Yes, please, sound the violins!

Ideas ping in and out of the inbox – to-and-fro. Collaborating with editors and publishers is totally symbiotic – mutually dependent and respectful. They often hand me the best cover ideas straight up. For Olive Cotton (above), where the image was almost certainly decided, my first concepts were conservative and classical. The publisher pushed me towards a much more interesting font and palette. For Islands (below) I submitted this concept (left) in the first round, after which I took a day trip with my camera to reshoot (right), with oodles of torn versions which I then re-photographed.

For The Weekend, I submitted this concept (left), at round 5, but it took another 4 rounds back and forth, including with the author, before we found the final palette. The process for every book is different and unpredictable.

You were one of the founding members of ABDA – the very reason we’re even asking and posting these questions now! How did ABDA come about and how important was it for all of you to do something at that time?

I’m sure my brief account won’t include everything that converged over several years to bring ABDA into existence, so please forgive any omissions and absences. I was just one of nine founding committee members and just as it is now, it was a collaborative effort.

Today it’s hard to imagine a time when there was only occasional communication between designers from other publishing houses. The annual awards night was really the only opportunity to meet one another. In my first year as a freelancer, 2006, it was a new phenomenon to find myself on my own after the awards’ formalities were done. So in 2007, I co-opted two designers, Mel Fedderson and Liz Seymour, to help organise something for afterwards, for the itinerants in our midst. Around the same time, there was a small group of designers in Melbourne, (aka ‘The Guild’) getting together very occasionally over a beer.

In August 2010, inspired by a discussion backstage before a designers’ talk at the Sydney Writers Festival with Miri Rosenbloom (who’d just returned from the UK) and others, I started the about book design blog, ‘to share thoughts and observations . . . debate and reflect.’ You can read that first post here.

Whispers of the APAs intention to cease support for the awards grew louder after the 2013 awards, and the APA’s Dee Read asked me to meet up in Melbourne to discuss the transition. A few folks gathered to join that discussion and the manifest opportunity in front of us was clear. But we had no time to lose. We formed a committee of freelance/in-house, Sydney/Melbourne, education/trade designers, and someone with finance acumen – but mostly those already on the existing APA judging panel. We nutted out a plan by conference call every few weeks. We fumbled along, learning about our legal and financial responsibilities, garnering support from industry, who thankfully didn’t miss a beat. We wrote the charter to help focus the dream. Against the odds, on August 22, 2014, braced with volumes of sponsorship gin, we held the inaugural 62nd ABDA Awards.

Six years down the track what is your view on ABDA now – how important is it for Australian book design/designers and what are your hopes for the future of it?

ABDA has become everything we’d dreamed it would be, and so much more. Collaborating with industry, the state libraries and the universities; holding workshops and get-togethers; connecting designers to each other formally; lifting emerging designers into the fold; offering support for common grievances and issues; raising the public profile of book design more generally – these were just ideas on paper in 2014, an ‘if-only’ list of dreams.

As it flourishes every year with the contribution of a dedicated committee and manager, with vital input from its members, ABDA has become a crucial resource and voice for our community. I hope it will continue to gallantly represent and connect us in this more connected and ironically, disconnected world.

Select imagery used in draft cover concepts is shown here for the purpose of education and review only.