How to Get Into Publishing: Designer

Clay Smith on books, bagels, and her proudest moment as Celadon Books’ Junior Designer & Studio Coordinator.By Stephen Lovely

Not everyone featured in our “How to Get into Publishing” series spent their school days focused on a degree in English Literature. Clay Smith studied art and design instead. But, luckily for Celadon Books, Clay found a calling in print design and saw a way to combine a lifelong love of reading with her skill and passion for design. And luckily for us, she was willing to answer a few questions about how she found her way.

Were you a big reader growing up? Did you have any favorite authors or books?

Yes, one hundred percent! I was a big book worm. From an early age I was in love with Victorian-era literature and all things fantasy. Outside of Harry Potter and Jane Austen, most of my favorite reads were the same books my parents loved growing up. Some of my favorites to this day are A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Island of the Blue Dolphins, and The Last Convertible

What was your first job?

I wish I had some charming story that related better to my current position, but, alas, my first job was at a bagel shop. I started when I was 15. If this gives you any insight into my character at the time, I only had a job because I asked my parents if I could apply for one. No one was forcing me to get a job, yet I wanted to work at a bagel place at 15. It turned into a long three years of constantly smelling of cream cheese and sneaking bagels to my friends. In short: character building!

How would you describe your role at Celadon Books?

I primarily design book covers and jackets, but I also handle all the art subsidiary rights for Celadon. Anytime a foreign publisher wants to use one of our covers, I communicate with them and send them the files they need. Getting to see one of Celadon’s covers designed for a different language is truly one of my small joys in life.

What’s a typical workday like for you?

My days are consistently inconsistent. A lot of the things I make take time and creative energy to form. Creating a book cover, in particular, spans many weeks (and sometimes months), so I’m never working on just one at a time. This means I can easily flit between several different projects in a day, making my days always feel different. In contrast with the hyper-creative task of coming up with book cover concepts, making jackets can be extremely detail oriented and technical. Having that contrast in my work keeps the job fresh!

What's been your proudest moment at work? 

A byproduct of designing covers is having to say goodbye to a lot of covers you really love. While in the process of designing the cover for You’re Not Listening, I said goodbye to designs many times over. It was a particularly grueling process that lasted months and included hiring outside designers and illustrators. Eventually, though, we resurrected one of the original covers I had done and loved. It ranks among my proudest moments. The win felt so good because of all the hard work that came before it.

What drew you into publishing — or were you drawn first to design? Did you consider any other industries?

I never had the specific dream of becoming a book cover designer. However, I did know that I wanted to be some kind of artist. It wasn’t until the end of high school and college that I truly focused in on design as a practice. Even then I took a plethora of illustration, animation, and sculpture classes in addition to design to try to figure out what I was most interested in. Adding to my lack of clarity, all my internships prior to working at Celadon were at branding studios. I came out of those positions realizing that I was most passionate about print design. Then it clicked with me that book design should be my next move. And looking back at my personal history, it definitely seems like it was the right answer.

Is your current role different from past positions you’ve held in design or publishing? How so?

This is my first job in publishing, and my first “real” job post-graduation. Working at Celadon is in some ways very different, and in some ways similar, to the internships I had at design studios during college. On the surface level, Macmillan is very different. Its scale and presence in its industry are so much larger than those of any of the startup design studios I’ve worked for. And I’m not just working with other designers anymore: I’m working with a wide range of people doing a variety of jobs.

When it comes to the specifics of my role at Celadon, though, designing and creating a book cover that speaks to the writing is not dissimilar from creating a brand that speaks to the client and their product.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to end up in a position like yours?

The great thing about graphic design is that the fundamental skills that you learn early on apply just as much to website design as they do to book covers. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a focused portfolio filled with book covers when applying for jobs in publishing, but I think it’s also valuable to flex your creative muscles in a variety of different project formats and mediums. 

What advice would you give to someone who wants to get into the publishing industry in general?

Not all of the same rules apply for each type of position in publishing, but — even though it may be obvious — I think having a real passion for books and doing your research can’t hurt!

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