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How I Stumbled Into Art Directing

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by Robert Broder, Editor & Founder, Ripple Grove Press —

Robert Broder

Founder of Ripple Grove Press shows you how to collaborate with illustrators to design a great book.

We started Ripple Grove Press because we wanted to publish books that children and parents could read over and over. We loved the timeless feel of a good picture book. We wanted to find stories that capture a moment, so a child and their parents can create their own.

It was a very exciting feeling receiving those first rounds of submissions when we opened the doors to our press. We read each one, discussed it, edited it, and analyzed if it was a fit for Ripple Grove Press. Was it the story we had been visualizing?

While marinating over the stories, we began to realize there is so much more to a great book than finding a great story. And, suddenly, I went from acquisitions to art directing.

We rejoiced at finding an amazing illustrator, but who decides what the book should look like? Is the illustrator the art director? Why shouldn’t I give the direction to where things should go, how things should look? After all, it is our press and, in the end, we are the ones paying the money and taking the risk on bringing this book to market.

We created a system that works for us, allowing for greater control for the illustrator and more collaboration for us. We have found illustrators in many places, from word of mouth, postcards sent to us, and from perusing the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) website. We always talk about the style and art medium and search from there. I usually ask the illustrator to sketch out a few ideas of character or setting to see if our ideas are anywhere close together. Sometimes we ask for adjustments; sometimes it’s perfect.

Then it’s time to let the illustrator do what they do. We try to go with what each individual needs to get the work done to the best of their ability. Some illustrators want to talk every week, sending sketches and discussing every step of the way. Some illustrators do their work and ask for feedback only at the end of rough sketches and (almost) final art. It is all a give-and-take, and we encourage discussions about the flow and feel of the story.

Authors are usually not part of the art process. We realize the author has a strong visual for the story; after all, they wrote it. But they need to let go and trust the publisher and illustrator. They both like the story, too, and will put their love and passion into making the book as much as the author did writing it. We usually have creative discussions with our writers at the beginning of the project and then send only minimal peeks. Someone needs to be the art director. It hinders the creative process if the author is looking at every spread. Too many cooks in the kitchen.

I was an outsider in the publishing world with no previous background. And when you start from the ground up, you create your own processes. We had a lot of trial and error, but we pride ourselves on our processes now. When someone works with Ripple Grove Press, we let them know we are all in this together. Nothing goes to print unless we are all in agreement that this is the best picture book we could possibly make.

When the illustrator is done, the book is still not done. We need to check for consistencies. Does the window on page four have the same number of panes on page 16? The house has a chimney, but now it doesn’t. There’s a unicorn stuffed animal on the night stand, but then at the end of the book, it’s missing. Everything needs to be triple checked. And, even then, you may not notice something is not consistent. We’re a small team; we don’t have a dozen people working on one book, which is why we hire an outside editor to look over everything when the book is almost done.

The illustrator brings your wonderful story to life, but the art director fine-tunes it. Don’t be afraid to speak out and tell the illustrator what you’re seeing or what you’d like to see. Pay close attention to the rough sketches, too. After the years it takes to make a book—editing it, designing it, meticulously thinking about every corner of every page—we want a child to say, “please read this book again.”

Robert Broder is the president and founder of Ripple Grove Press. He can be reached at rob@ripplegrovepress.com.

To learn about book designs, check out this IBPA Independent article, “How to Work with a Book Designer.”

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