Today, I am honoured to bring you a very special interview. My guest is Heather Brewer, an Art Director for Discovery House, a publishing house specializing in non-fiction and children’s literature. She's been in publishing for nearly 20 years. Some of the bestselling authors she’s worked with include Mark Batterson, Crystal Bowman, Jen Bricker, David Kinnaman, Gabe Lyons, and Mo Isom. This insightful interview is a must read if you are at all interested in the goings on behind the closed doors of a publishing house. And, I trust most writers are!
Heather also writes middle grade fiction and is represented by Rebecca Angus at Golden Wheat Literary. Heather and her husband, Chad, live in Michigan with their two children. Together they spend as much time as possible camping, hiking, jumping in lakes, getting lost, and eating s’mores.
So, let's get going! Heather, what does a typical day at work involve? What did you do today, for example?
Today was a big day because I presented cover designs for our Fall ’17 list to the Marketing and Editorial team. These are intense, high-stakes meetings because cover art is crucial to the success of a book. Design, like publishing, is subjective. To keep the team on track, I review the strategy for each title before presenting the designs, and then feedback is framed within that strategy. In other words, the team is commenting on specific design elements that either work or don’t work for that title rather than giving personal opinions. This is an important approach because if we want a book to be successful we have to look at cover packaging from the viewpoint of its intended audience, and not from our personal aesthetics.
Back to my day, I spent the morning catching up on emails. My inbox is full of inquiries from designers and editors, question from the printer about pub dates and materials, marketing questions, etc. I also helped the design team with any questions they had on projects and reviewed their work, I approved a couple of press proofs, and researched illustrators for a manuscript that will be considered at Pub Board later this week. Over lunch I prepared the cover review presentation. It took us two hours to review six books. We decided on a final design for four of them, the other two need minor revisions and another review. The next step will be to present the selected cover art to the author.
I’m responsible for cover art, book interiors, all printed marketing materials, manage a design team, and serve on the Pub Board. My days are jam-packed and diverse. I’m constantly switching hats from manager, strategist, designer, critic, copywriter, marketer, curator, and more.
I check out of work at 4 PM, usually a few minutes late and running out of a meeting. My husband works most evenings, so I have to get home to shuttle the kids from one activity to the next, make dinner, help with homework, etc. Once they’re in bed I typically spend another hour or two responding to emails, reading manuscripts, or doing research.
How do you pair up a writer and illustrator?
A lot of it has to do with voice. As a writing community, many of us are familiar with voice in manuscripts. Illustrations have a voice too. The weight of the lines, the color palette, the composition, all work together to create a tone and a voice. I’m looking for illustrators whose voice will compliment the author’s. I’m also looking for illustrators that will connect with the message of the book. If the illustrator doesn’t connect with the message, it’s going to be very difficult, no matter how talented the artist is, to get good illustrations. A pre-requisite for me to consider an illustrator is diversity represented in their portfolio. Because our parent company is global (we have offices in 37 countries), every children’s book we produce is created with a global mindset. When a child in Singapore picks up one of our books, I want them to see themselves in it as much as a child in Brazil, or the UK.
Do you have a favourite style of illustration or genre?
I really don’t. There are many talented illustrators, and when the right illustrator connects with the right project, their work sings no matter the style or genre. For me, that’s where the magic happens.
Can you give us an insight into the part of the process you have in making a book?
I’m involved in the process from beginning to end. Right now I’m helping develop products for our children’s line and review manuscripts before we accept them into the publishing house. Once we accept a manuscript, my main responsibilities are to create the packaging (cover art and interior). This process starts anywhere from a few weeks to a few months after a manuscript is acquired, but almost always a year or more before pub date and hopefully after there’s a final title.
Twelve to fourteen months before pub date I have a Cover Direction Meeting with editorial and marketing where we identify hook, target audience, selling points, and trends in cover design. Based on our discussions in that meeting, I write a Creative Brief and make a mood board for each book. I send those to a freelance designer who I’ll work with for 6-8 weeks, going through several rounds of designs, before I present them to the team. Depending on the project I could also be hiring photographers, illustrators, or hand-lettering artists to contribute to the cover design.
The goal is to have a final cover design for our sales team to pitch to their accounts as soon as possible. There’s a lapse of three to six months from when cover art is approved to when the mechanical files are created for printing. This is also when the spine and back cover is designed. I have plenty to do during that three months lapse; I’ve already begun writing creative briefs and assigning covers for the next list, overseeing the typesetting of interiors, and art directing all of the marketing materials to promote the forthcoming titles (direct mail pieces, shareables, printed ads, postcards, . . . ), not to mention my duties on pub board, helping develop marketing plans, and feeding my design team bagels and coffee so they don’t burn out.
What's the best part of your job?
When I walk into work and there’s a newly printed book waiting on my desk. As author’s we talk about our book babies, it’s very much the same for the publishing team. There is something special about bringing a book into the world.
And the worst?
When an author is disappointed with their cover. I use our team’s experience and expertise to inform how the design will perform in the market; the author tends to have a personal approach/connection. When the two don’t align, it can be crushing.
Have you worked in any other areas of publishing?
My arena has always been design centered. My career started at age 19 as a typesetter (or book interior designer) for Baker Publishing Group. From there I moved into marketing design. I did that for ten years before being promoted to Art Director where my responsibilities focused solely on cover art. Earlier this year I accepted a position as Art Director with Discovery House and my responsibilities expanded to include all areas of my past experience and personal interests: cover art, interior page design, marketing design, strategy, and product development.
Can you tell us about any of the current projects you're working on?
One of the most important projects I’m working on is deciding how to grow our children’s line of books. This is a new area for Discovery House, so there is a lot of work to do. We’re asking ourselves questions like: What kind of content do we want to be known for? What audience are we serving? Where do we want to be in five years, ten? There are a lot of questions we need to answer before we can make informed decisions.
As part of this initiative, I’m working on a line of children’s resource books with illustrator Luke Flowers. I get excited every time my email pings with a new illustration. It’s really fun to see pencil sketches evolve into colorful, whimsical art.
You also write, could you tell us about what your writing?
I have a book currently on submission titled Brave Mountain. It is a Middle Grade survival story about Dean, a thirteen year old girl, who leaves her family in the wilderness of Montana in order to save them, trekking across the mountains alone with nothing but her bike and a backpack. The mountain holds many dangers, but the greatest hurdle is her own anxiety and fear. This is a book that was born out of my love of nature and wild places, mountain biking, and the question of what does it mean to truly be brave?
My second book will be going on submission soon. Owasippe Legacy (oh-WAH-sipee) is a middle grade fantasy about four cousins that stumble into a timeless adventure to uncover the mystery behind Chief Owasippe’s Legend and the disappearance of his two sons. The story is told from three POV’s: the responsible older sister, the younger fighting-for-independence brother, and the Ojibwe boy who must prove to his father that he’s ready to be a Brave.
I love the unique relationships cousins have, this wonderful combination akin to best friends and siblings. It was something I wanted to explore alongside the more serious, complicated relationship of brothers and sisters. There’s a lot of banter, judgment, and love in this cast.
The idea for the book is from a story told at our local summer camps. Our family spends a lot of time hiking and mountain biking the trails where this story takes place and it’s captured our imaginations. However, there’s a great responsibility when writing about cultures other than our own. Before I started I reached out to my friend Brian who is a Pottawatomi dancer and highly involved in the local tribe. Brian was incredibly generous in sharing his wealth of knowledge in local Native American history, culture, and spirituality. He’s been an unfailing support throughout the entire process. I was nervous about writing this story, but Brian has turned it into a wonderful, collaborative, learning experience.
My current WIP is a departure from kid lit and is loosely autobiographical. It’s a women’s contemporary fiction about a 30 year-old who’s stalled in her career and personal life. It will take a cynical inside look at Christian publishing (there’s an endless supply of fodder between my personal experiences and this unique industry). The setting is Stars Hollow meets the Midwest. There’ll be plenty of quirky characters, including a Neil Diamond Tribute Band, a mom’s weekly running group, and since it’s a small town, she’s constantly running into old high school classmates at the most inconvenient times.
And there we have it. Thank you so much for your time, Heather.
To find out more about Heather, check out her sites.
Author Site: https://hbrewerwrites.com
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