Publishing Behind the Scenes: Interview with Cover Artist Jacqueline Li

A few months ago, I did a series of posts on what it’s like to work through the editing process with a traditional publisher. As I’ve been proceeding through some of the other steps, I realized there’s another piece of the process that readers are very curious about: covers!

So today I’ve invited the cover artist for my My Second Impression of You, Jacqueline Li, to answer some questions about how she develops covers. Then, on June 20, to mark three months until release, I’ll have another post more specifically about the cover of my book. I’ll note that not every cover artist or publishing house works the same way, but Jacqueline gives some great insight into her process.

Please welcome Jacqueline!

What made you interested in illustrating book covers?

I was very much a library kid growing up (still am!) and spent a lot of time happily reading. Picture books and chapter books were some of the first places I saw illustration, and favorite book covers are some of the images that have stayed in my mind the longest! Having a lifelong love for reading and drawing made book cover illustration a very natural fit.

What’s the first thing you do when you have a new book cover assignment?

The first thing I always do is read whatever I’m provided with. Depending on what stage the book is at, sometimes I’ll receive an entire manuscript; other times just a few chapters or a short description.

A good cover should provide a sense of what the book will be about, be faithful to the material, and match its tone—so it’s important to have a full understanding of the story. The more I can absorb from the text, the better equipped I’ll be to design an image that fits the narrative.

Who is usually your main contact at the publisher when working on a cover?

Usually, a designer or art director from the publishing house is my main contact during the making of a cover. They’ll typically be the one to reach out with a new project, and communicate between myself and the rest of the team. (This may surprise people, but I don’t often get to interact directly with authors until after the cover is completed!)

Note: The designer at Bloomsbury for My Second Impression of You is Jeanette Levy.

How much information does the publisher usually give you when you’re contracted for a cover?

At the start of a new cover assignment, usually there will be a manuscript (or a few sample chapters of the book) to read, along with a moodboard. Sometimes there are visual examples of my work that the designers would like to incorporate elements of, or pictures the author had in mind for the tone and look. If the team has any ideas they’d like to see me draw, those will be included as well!

What is the process typically like from start to finish for a cover?

There are a few ‘standard’ stages that an illustrated cover will go through. After the project begins, I’ll submit 3-4 rough sketches so the team can choose between a few different concepts.

Once a sketch direction has been chosen, I’ll further develop and tighten that drawing—this might mean adding more detail and information, or revising areas that the team would like to change. After this, I’ll provide a few color options based on the revised sketch to choose between.

After a final direction has been approved, the rest is just polishing up the artwork! Generally, this final stage is pretty straightforward because of all the planning and approval in earlier stages, so there are no big surprises for anyone.

What are some of the covers you’ve created?

What are some of your favorite covers by other illustrators?

I adored the Sweet Valley High book covers (art by James Mathewuse) and The Baby-Sitters Club covers (art by Hodges Soileau) while growing up. I’m almost certain that my love for YA books comes from 80’s and 90’s paperbacks!

Some favorites from recent memory:
Once Upon a K-Prom – artwork by Xiao Tong Kong
K-Pop Confidential – artwork by Erick Davila
The Twelve – artwork by Sher Rill Ng
The Front Desk series covers – artwork by Maike Plenzke

How long have you been drawing?

I think all of us begin drawing as kids—I just never really stopped doing it! From an early age, there was never really anything I enjoyed quite as much as making pictures, and wound up studying art through programs in high school and university.

What is your favorite thing to draw?

Drawing anything can be fun, but I definitely gravitate towards people and characters.

Observing everyday fashion is a huge source of inspiration, and I love dressing characters in a way that tells their story.

As I see from your bio that you’re a reader too, what are some of your favorite books?

It’s hard to choose favorites, but some books that have stuck with me from my formative years are series like The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and The Baby-Sitters Club books. Stories about friendship—particularly between young women—have always resonated with me, perhaps because they depict a wide variety of personalities with each one bringing something unique to the group.

As an adult, I try to read a little more diversely—any fiction that sounds interesting, non-fiction to learn about new subjects, sometimes memoirs—but always come back to YA as my favorite genre!

Do you mainly draw by hand or digitally?

All of my commercial work is created digitally. I still like to use a traditional sketchbook for rough sketches; but digital software makes it a lot faster and more convenient to edit artwork, which is really key for projects like book covers that go through a lot of changes. I mostly use Photoshop CC and a Wacom tablet for drawing.

What do you feel is your greatest strength as an artist?

I think my greatest artist asset might be curiosity! Oftentimes, people say that design is about problem-solving, which involves finding the answers to an open question. I’m naturally very inquisitive, and my thought process while working will often include questions like these:

  • What visual elements or hints could be added here to help tell the story?
  • If this is drawn bigger versus smaller, how will that change the message communicated?
  • Could another color better express the mood this image is meant to convey?

Rather than expressing a thought or feeling, I really enjoy discovering solutions to questions, and that’s typically my approach to illustration.

What advice do you have for other aspiring artists, cover or otherwise?

My favorite piece of advice is to do the work that you want to be hired for—or simply want to do! Specific to book covers, this could mean creating “fake” personal covers for your favorite stories or films. Before working on any commercial covers, I made a number of these for my portfolio—both for enjoyment, and to show potential clients that I could design for books.

Having samples that show you’re capable of doing the projects you’d like to be hired for is the best way to actually get hired for them. The same applies for any type of illustration work.

Besides that, it’s important to recognize your likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses. If you don’t enjoy working on certain things, try working on something else that you DO get excited about! Certain styles also fit some markets better than others, so pay attention to what’s out there (where do you see work that looks like yours?) and play to your unique strengths.

Do you work exclusively with publishing houses, or are you also available for inquiries directly from authors?

I typically work with publishers, but I am open to inquiries and commissions from authors as well. For business inquiries, please feel free to contact me at

Thank you so much, Jacqueline! I love this advice because it also applies for writers. So often we get caught up in writing what we think we should instead of what we enjoy.

I hope you learned something new from my interview with Jacqueline Li, and come back on June 20 for more specifically about the My Second Impression of You cover.

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