Orbit Books staff talk covers, collaboration and keeping ahead of current art trends.
Orbit Books US handles the core of Hachette’s sci-fi and fantasy titles. The team works on around 50 books a year, from established and debut authors, taking in everything from photo-based illustration to epic fantasy landscapes.
“I love the fact we work with lots of female authors,” says creative director Lauren Panepinto. “We’ve got lots of meaty, epic fantasies written by women.” It’s a dream role for Lauren, who worked at comic book stores in high school and studied graphic design at Manhattan's School of Visual Arts.
Keith Hayes, art director at Hachette’s Little Brown Book Group, recommended her for the role in 2008. Already established in the UK, Orbit was just beginning its expansion into the US. Lauren, then an art director at Doubleday, was facing redundancy after Black Tuesday decimated the publishing world. “It’s a real kismet story,” she says. “I didn’t even have my portfolio together. I just threw a bunch of books in a box and went to the interview.”
Art director Kirk Benshoff moved over from Little Brown and together they built the Orbit US art department from the ground up. “We had a great amount of time to get to know each other and figure out how we both work,” says Kirk. “We handle a large workload for a small group of people, so we need to communicate really well.”
Both directors divide their time between Orbit and Yen Press, Hachette’s manga and graphic novel imprint. Newly based in
the Rockefeller Center, Orbit US has just one in-house designer. The company work with a wide range of freelancers from all corners of the globe and share most covers with Orbit UK.
The new office space is open plan, which suits the Orbit dynamic. “We’re super collaborative,” says Lauren. “This is the first publishing house I’ve worked in where everyone sits together – I used to share a cubicle wall with our marketing guy.” It’s the same with Orbit’s cover meetings. “Those meetings are often very formal affairs but ours are a free-for-all. The sense of collaboration and freedom can freak other designers out because I show work much earlier and more in development than people ever usually do.”
Kirk also relishes this dynamic. “I love the absurdity of the discussions we have in cover meetings. It’s like our own fantasy battle,” he says. For him, the most enjoyable challenge is the need to please fandom. “We’re designing for a culture and that’s really challenging. I love getting into the minds of the audience. They’re passionate and they know what they want.”
It’s also important to nail an author’s vision, as Lauren explains. She likes to speak to authors in-depth and discover as much as she possibly can about their ideas and vision. “Covers are often done before a manuscript is completely finished, so details from the cover sometimes make it into the book.” She’s also conscious of the need to stay ahead of cover trends. “We’re always trying to produce something cool and awesome that’s attractive to genre fans, while also attracting a mainstream audience.”
Unsurprisingly, Lauren values good communication from freelancers. It also helps if artists understand the role she plays. “Freelancers often think they’re pleasing the art director and we’re the hurdle, but we’re the coach in the corner who’s fighting for you,” she explains. “I’m not the decision-maker – I just control the choices. I sometimes feel like a harried translator at the UN.”
Always hungry for new talent, Lauren tries to answer every personalised email she receives. “So much of what I do is outreach and development,” she says. “We really like to nurture young talent and use people who haven’t done covers before.”
So, what’s the best way to get noticed by Orbit? “Don’t just email. Upload cool stuff to your Facebook page. Go to conventions and network. I’m always going to conventions and seeing new art.
“Some people say, ‘ There are so many artists ahead of me in the chain. Why would you hire me?’ But I still get books arriving on my desk where I don’t know who would be good for them. There can never be too many artists.”
The sense of collaboration and freedom here can freak other designers out
Daniel Dociu’s art for the cover of James A Corey’s Nemesis Games, from the book
series The Expanse. Lauren Panepinto says it was John Harris’ idea to split his art across Ann Leckie’s sci-fi trilogy.
Location: New York, US
projects: Ancillary Mercy
Other projects: The Spirit
War, Leviathan Wakes
Photoshoots provide the opportunity to explore a variety of character poses and moods for the eventual cover art. Gene Mollica combines photography and digital art to create his book covers. Orbit US only has one in-house designer, so it makes regular use of freelancers worldwide.
“We chose Daniel Dociu [for this cover of James A Core’s Leviathan Wakes]
because he brings that cinematic look we needed,”
says Kirk Benshoff.