Reading & Writing

A Conversation With… Coralie Bickford-Smith

May 24, 2016

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Last week I had the Pleasure of interviewing Coralie Bickford-Smith, a Senior designer at Penguin Random House and published illustrator and author; her book The Fox and the Star won Waterstones 2015 book of the year.

As someone keen to break into books and hoping to one day be a published author, I was incredibly excited to be interviewing someone so experienced and so well respected in the publishing industry (I was also incredibly nervous, Snapchat viewers may remember be rambling into my phone about just how nervous I was). But despite the excitement and the nerves, Coralie and I had ourselves quite the interesting chat discussing all things books, from their beautiful jackets, to their unique smells, and how proper Books – y’know real life paper ones – are making a comeback!

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Tink: I’m really fascinated by books, by the book industry and by the publishing world as a whole, so my first question is: how did you know you wanted to be a Book Designer? Was it a life-long dream and if so how did you go about making that dream a reality?

Coralie: Yeah I read your blog actually, and you mentioned going to book shops with your Mum when you were little, and that’s a really great memory for me. My mum used to take me to a second hand bookshop and I used to love it, especially the smell. I remember it being a real treat to go in and be able to choose any book I wanted. And I also loved drawing, and anything to do with art; I was always making up my own children’s books. I wouldn’t go out in the sunshine, I stayed indoors making pictures and making up stories. So yeah books have always been a huge part of my life and I had real connections with them.
And then when I got older I realised I really wanted to pursue art as a career. I’m dyslexic, and art was how I communicated to people, in my own little world. I eventually got to do a degree from Reading University in Typography, which is quite specialised, and from that I was lucky enough to get some great skills and get the confidence to go out into the world and get a job designing books.

T: You mentioned that, like me, you loved going to the book shop as a child. And you’ve obviously witnessed the transition from sales in book shops to mainly online sales; people aren’t necessarily going to a book shop anymore and scanning the shelves, it kind of seems the norm these days to order books online or read ebooks – has that affected the way you design books? And if so, how?

C: No it hasn’t. I’ve kind of seen the whole shift and it seems people are actually going back to book shops again. Did you see Mary Queen of Shops: What Britain Buys? She was saying that Waterstones have actually gotten rid of all their eBooks because people just love to buy books now, it’s like being that kid again, people are enjoying going in and choosing a book from the shelf. Readers want physical books again.

T: Yeah, I personally like to have a book. To hold a book in your hands, there is something really nice about it.

C: And you have memories from your own books, maybe they smell a certain or way or their creased in a certain way, and just seeing that crease can take you back to the time you were first reading it.

T: Absolutely! I think as well, it’s nice just recognising a book by its cover, which you probably don’t do when you have a tablet full of eBooks and barely ever see the actual design of it. You aren’t carrying that book around all day with you, its hidden away in a tablet or app, and so you won’t register the cover.

C: Yeah exactly. Although I can’t really comment on anything eBook related, I’ve just followed my passion for print and stuck to it. I don’t know how it is on the other side and I can’t talk for everyone, but I have a passion and appreciation for really really beautiful objects which is why I love designing book covers.

T: They say ‘Never Judge a Book by its cover’. As a designer, how do you feel about that statement?

C: I, erm, (laughs) this comes up so many times! But I’ve sort of become alienated from it. I don’t really think about it anymore because books are my world, cover design is my world, so yes I do judge books by their cover – but from a design point of view.

T: Let’s talk about the Penguin Design Awards – how important are they for young talent in the Industry?

C: Really Important. It’s such a great award and such a great scheme. It really brings attention to Book Cover Design and brings students into the publishing world and even into the offices and they get to see how it all works. They get a real brief, all the art directors at Penguin look at their work, outside judges come in as well, and it’s just such a great way to get their work seen. I think it’s a great scheme that Penguin Random House have come up with.

T: And this year the brief was to design a jacket for A Clockwork Orange, which is obviously a well-known story and a controversial one. What design qualities do you think the winning cover needs to have?

C: I think it’s about having a good idea, and it’s about clarity. When you design things you come up with so many ideas for a book and it’s about sort of working all those cool and crazy ideas into one brilliant concept, and I think that’s what the skill is. And for me, I’m not speaking for the judges, but that is what I would look for – a really neat idea that is very well executed.

T: What advice would you give to someone thinking of entering next year?

C: Enter! (laughs)

T: (Does best Shia LaBeouf impression) Just do it!

C: Yeah exactly, just enter, it’s such a lovely award and such a unique experience, it’s different and it’s a great way to get your work seen.

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T: I wanted to talk to you about the Fox & the Star, because you not only designed it, but you wrote it, was that something that you had always wanted to do, or did Penguin approach you about the project – how did it come about?

C: It was a kind of simultaneous thing. I’d had a book idea for quite a few years and I’d sat on it and was waiting for my skills to get better, I was sort of playing with it in my head. And then somebody came round my house and saw my book covers and said ‘Have you thought about writing Children’s books?’ and I said ‘Oh I’ve sort of got one’ and so I started to pick it up again.
As I did one of the editors that I’ve worked with for many years took me out for coffee and said ‘Do you have any book ideas?’ and I was like ‘That’s really weird, I’ve got one!’ and so it was just sort of like a moment in time when it just happened

T: It was fate!

C: Yeah, it was Brilliant. I was very lucky.

T: And with you being so used to designing, how did you find the writing side of things? Did it come naturally? How did you find that whole creative process?

C: Hard! It was hard. It was learning all over again. And when you have an idea, it was getting that idea down in the simplest and neatest form. So I had all these emotions and all these words, and to get it down into a meaningful story for children and adults, yeah that was tough. And I learnt a lot because I also got to see a different side of publishing, like working alongside your editor and building up that relationship. It was an amazing insight into Penguin Random House, I got to see a side I hadn’t seen before because I’d always just been in the arts department, so I got to understand all the different areas within the publishing house and what they do.

T: And what advice would you give to someone starting out in the Publishing industry?

C: Get in there! Try and get some work experience, send in work, try different departments, see where your passions lie. Get in touch with a publishing house and just see if there is an opportunity to get experience.

T: And are you going to do more writing?

C: Yeah, I’m working on my next book at the moment actually. And we’re also working on the Fox paperback coming out. So it’s all happening.

T: I’ve just got some quick fire questions for you
*clears throat*
What is your Favourite book cover EVER?

C: It changes a lot, sorry, but at the moment it’s the Folio Edition of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

T: I’m obsessed with all things Oz so I’ll be Googling that in a minute!
Favourite Fictional Novel/Story to read?

C: Jane Eyre

T: What are you Currently Reading?

C: I’m reading seven books at the moment.

T: *Jaw Drops* Wow!

C: Hmmm, there is The Shadow of the winds; someone came in asking for design advice and tips on how to get into publishing and then she sent me her favourite book afterwards and it is just absolutely beautiful. I’m also reading a book about dragons, in fact I’ve read loads of books about dragons recently. I can’t think of them all at the moment, but yeah I never read just one book at a time.

T: Yeah I totally get that!

And with that I Thanked Coralie for her time and wished her well with her next book. She was such a pleasant person to talk to and someone I can really relate to; as a child I always had my head stuck in a book or had a pen and paper in my hand ready to get crackin’ on another story. But I have to admit as an adult I often worry that I’m not ‘intelligent’ enough to become a published Author, or just not a good enough writer. But just listening to Coralie talk with such passion about her career, and taking on board all her wise words for the young talent (“get in there!”) I’ve been hugely inspired by her and after our little chat I sat and wrote 4,000 more words of my novel – so Thanks Coralie!

Coralie Bickford-Smith is a Senior Designer at Penguin Random House. For more info about book designs, check out the Penguin Random House Design Award 2016: penguinrandomhouse.co.uk/designaward

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