Uncovering the cover art at Unbridled Books

Take a look at the cover for Joyce Hinnefeld’s In Hovering Flight:



Beautiful, isn’t it?  The image, from an Audubon print, is balanced by the sparse text on the parchment background.  I remarked in an email to Unbridled Books that I find their covers to be consistently eye-catching, and I wondered about the cover art selection process, thinking that this smaller independent publishing house might put their personal touch on this step in the publishing process.


Fred Ramey is co-founder of Unbridled Books.  He and Greg Michalson are “dedicated to publishing high-quality works that are moving, beautiful, and surprising.”  Fred took the time to discuss the process of selecting cover art for their books; read what he has to say about the true art of choosing the covers, adapting to a changing market, and adhering to their mission.



She is Too Fond of Books:  I was struck by the eye-catching cover art of In Hovering Flight, which made me take a closer look at the covers in the rest of the Unbridled catalog.  Each one is unique (not formula), and looks as if it were created especially for the book, not chosen from stock.  They reflect the “energetic but independent” spirit I’ve seen in Unbridled books.

Fred Ramey:  Thanks for that, Dawn. We’ve named this company as we have for a reason, primarily to indicate that we will publish the books we choose with the kind of dedication to the power of the work itself that we think has become quite rare in publishing. Part of this is the recognition that a work of commercial literature will take its own path and move at its own speed. We have to be sensitive to that and be ready to move as the book moves. Of course a huge part of positioning the title at the beginning is its cover art, and we believe that art needs to rise organically from what the book is and does.


SITFOB:  Does an author have much input into the cover selection process?

FR:  We do want and need to hear what the author has to say about the cover art, particularly on the initial publication of the book. (In reprints, we are moving with a greater understanding of how the book has been responded to, etc., and so the reprint covers are more fully an in-house product involving sales and marketing a bit more heavily.) But, with that said, we usually bring to the author a cover only when we are comfortable with it in house. Sometimes we’ve already gone through dozens of concepts before the author is asked to respond to the direction we’re taking. I once watched an author at a reading wave around some cover art that had been proposed for his book and bad mouth his own publisher for proposing it. I knew then how important it is for the author to be pleased with the way we have packaged his or her novel. That was always important to me personally, but that particular author showed me that the author’s comfort with the package is also an important business consideration. – Which is not to say that all Unbridled covers have arrived without conflict, or that I’ve never put my foot down about a proposed cover.


SITFOB:  What are the steps involved in selecting cover art?  Do you first choose a medium (photo, collage, sketch, etc.) that matches the tone of the book, or do you look for images first?

FR:  Occasionally we select a medium—at least in the sense of determining whether the cover art will be photographic or not. But more likely we will have a concept of the imagery the novel could benefit from, perhaps something pivotal to the story or an image that is particularly defining or as separate one that is emotionally accurate to the novel. Which is to say that the basis of the entire cover-art process at Unbridled is as heavily editorial as it is marketing- or sales-oriented. This, I suppose, may sound odd (or at least idealistic), but the editors are not without a sense of market and of bookselling. The editors are, after all, also the publishers. And we consider the packages to be a further indication of the kind of faith in and admiration of the work that we enter with when we sign a contract. So the editors—Greg Michalson and I—work directly with the designers and then take what we come up with to Marketing and Sales.


SITFOB:  How long does the process typically take?

FR:  Occasionally a week or so. More often several weeks. Again, sometimes we go through dozens of concepts. And sometimes we find reason to change direction after one seemingly good concept fails in all its iterations . . . .


SITFOB:  Has there been a book which you’ve issued in paperback with a different cover than your hardcover edition?

FR:  There have been several. I think the most effective changes between hardcover and paperback have been the changes for Angel & Apostle, by Deborah Noyes and small acts of sex and electricity by Lise Haines. In both cases we probably addressed the market more successfully with the pb cover art. We are now making dramatic changes in the artwork for the paperback editions of Conscience Point and The Wonder Singer—even though the covers for the hardcover editions were, I think, gorgeous. The paperback of each book will be aimed at a slightly different market, and we’re hoping to reach a far wider readership for both of these novels, which I think at once are beautifully turned (like the original covers) and bearing significant commercial potential.




Angel & Apostle

hardcover left, paperback right













small acts of sex and electricity

hardcover left, paperback right








SITFOB:  Do you have an in-house art department, or do you work with outside artists/consultants for each project?

FR:  We do not have an in-house art department. But we tend to work with the same artist-designers repeatedly.


SITFOB:  There’s a link on your website to Tom Chambers photography, is he the exclusive photographer for your cover shoots?  Does he work with you in manipulating his photos to create the effect of the finished work?

FR:  We’ve never used an image of Tom’s on a book cover. I personally admire his work a great deal, and we have used his photographs on the covers of our two latest catalogs. (Fall 2008 and Spring 2009) 


Unbridled Books Fall 2008 catalog

photography by Tom Chambers










SITFOB:  Do you have short list of your favorite Unbridled covers?

FR:  Yes, but I don’t think I’ll tell anyone (at least not in print) which books they are.


SITFOB:  Is there anything else you’d like to add about Unbridled cover art?

FR:  If you publish the sort of work we do (beautiful prose, voice driven, deeply character involved) it’s a bit too easy to become tastefully subdued. But all of these books have fresh stories and many of them will stay with a reader for awhile. Indeed, we believe that Unbridled novels will be read for a long time, not just for a season. We’re interested, therefore, in being sure that the covers are not too quiet. Sometimes the final art might be more subdued than it, perhaps, should be, but we always want to indicate that the novels are truly approachable and engaging. You have only seconds to convey that to a potential reader. We want to succeed in doing that while displaying a genuine respect for what’s inside.


SITFOB:  Thank you, Fred, for sharing your first-hand knowledge of selecting cover art for Unbridled Books.  It sounds like a laborious, but rewarding, process!  Many thanks, also, to Caitlin Hamilton Summie for connecting me with Fred.


If you’d like to read more about the cover for In Hovering Flight, click over to Joyce Hinnefeld’s Author Chat on LibraryThing.  The chat will be open through November 12, and you’re encouraged to join in the conversation!


I know the old saying, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” but, don’t we all do this?  What is it about a cover that might call to you (or send you walking)?


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