In conversation with Kelli McAdams



Kelli McAdams is a book designer at Atria & Gallery Books. In her free time, she podcasts and blogs at BookSquadGoals, fosters kittens, tries her best to bake, and consumes a lot of media. She lives in Brooklyn, NY with her perfect cat, Penelope. 

Photo by Justine Requa

How did you get into the publishing industry?

From a young age, I knew that I wanted to pursue something in the visual field for my career. At the same time, I’ve always been a big reader; if for some reason I didn’t end up in design, I might have studied literature instead. I think it was in high school when I first started taking design classes that I realized there were people whose entire job it was to design book covers. I was like… okay, well that’s going to be me. It seemed like the perfect combination of my interests. 

I got my BA in Graphic Design from the University of Florida, and then I worked in Florida for about a year after graduating to save money and figure out my next steps. Throughout college, I’d only become more certain that book design was what I wanted to do, and I knew that to get into the industry I’d probably have to move to New York (which, let’s be real, I wanted to do anyway). I tried applying to publishing jobs from afar, but at that time it was really hard to get hired remotely, so eventually I realized I’d have to just move up and hope for the best. After a year of working in Florida I had enough money saved to survive for a couple of months without a job, and luckily one of my best friends from high school was already living in Brooklyn and had a room open up in her apartment, so I took the chance and moved here in the Fall of 2015. Believe it or not, I am still living in that apartment.

I spent about a month scouring the internet for every single publishing job I could find. I applied to dozens of jobs in publishing and did not hear back from any of them. Applying to jobs—especially when you’re first starting out and have no connections within an industry—can feel like sending your resume and portfolio into a black hole. Finally, after about a month, I managed to get ONE interview with St. Martin’s Press (Macmillan). Miraculously, I got the job. The role was in the Creative Services Department, designing ad promo for books. Despite my initial goal of working in cover design, I ended up staying in CS for four years! I loved my team there so much, I felt very comfortable and supported, and I learned so much about design and the industry from that experience. 

Then, about two years ago, I heard about an opportunity to work for Atria & Gallery Books (Simon & Schuster) as a cover designer, and I knew it was time for me to finally take that next step in my career.  

When you sit down to design a cover, what’s the first thing that goes through your mind?

When I’m reading a book, or going through the materials for a book if for some reason the manuscript isn’t available to me yet, I am always on the hunt for imagery. I usually have the notes app open on my computer while I’m reading, and any time I come across a particularly vivid passage I’ll copy and paste it to save for later. So when I sit down to design, I often go to those notes first, read through them again, and then think about images. Then I’ll make a list of things I want to search for. Sometimes the items on the list are literal—maybe the book is in a frigid setting, so I’m looking through pictures of snow and ice—and sometimes I’ll find a lovely visual metaphor to work with. What I want is something that will speak not just to the content of the book, but also the mood, the way it feels to read the book. 

For every title, we usually already have a list of other book covers that the Editorial team (as well as the author and agent) are hoping to somewhat emulate, and sometimes they’ll provide ideas or images they like for additional inspiration. But yeah, for me, it always starts with that image.  

You designed the cover for Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead, one of my favourite reads of the year by Emily Austin. What was the design process like?

I’m so glad to hear that you loved this book as much as I did! It’s one of my very favorite books that I’ve had the pleasure of working on. The design process for this one was so much fun, because the book is brimming with imagery that is literal on the page but also sneakily metaphorical (chalk it up to Emily Austin’s wonderful writing). I was very excited and had so many ideas that I ended up designing way more comps than I usually do—I did covers with cats, crucifixes, computer screens, hands, rosaries, and, of course, bunnies. I had to think about how exactly to balance the book’s themes, how to convey the way it moves through light and dark and humor and sadness so gracefully. Ultimately, Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead is a very hopeful book, and I wanted to make sure that came through as well. Especially with a title like that!

The final cover with the rabbits is actually very close to one of my original designs for the book, which is so often not the case. I felt a really deep personal connection to this book, because I also struggle with anxiety, specifically anxiety related to death and dying, and I felt like Gilda and I were on the same wavelength. To me, the rabbits are not just a reference to Gilda’s childhood pet Flop, but also represent the way anxiety often functions: the nature of repetitive racing thoughts, being trapped in an endless loop inside your own head. I don’t know if my closeness to the material is part of what made the entire process run so smoothly or if I just got lucky this time, but either way I’m really happy with this cover. 

I actually wrote a lengthier article about designing this cover for Spine Magazine where I get a little bit more specific, if you’re interested in reading more about it!

Your portfolio is bursting with gorgeous covers. Do you have a favourite one, and why is it your favourite? 

Thank you so much! Honestly, my favorite is probably Everyone in this Room Will Someday Be Dead, which was for Atria, but for the sake of keeping things interesting I’ll talk about my favorite cover I’ve worked on for Gallery Books, which is Frankenstein.

This was a unique project in that it’s an edition of Frankenstein specifically meant to showcase the gorgeous illustrations of artist Bernie Wrightson. It contains the entire original text of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel, but also a number of Wrightson’s drawings inspired by the material. I was given one of his drawings to use—the one you see on the cover—and I played with a number of different designs utilizing the illustration, including full-bleed versions, because what you don’t see is that this illustration is actually a very wide panel of Dr. Frankenstein’s lab. 

It’s one of my favorite covers for a number of reasons, one of the obvious being: who doesn’t want to redesign a classic? I am a big fan of horror, and Shelley was truly a master of her craft, an inventor within the genre who was also pushing up against all kinds of societal expectations for women. She was a trailblazer, and it’s a true privilege to be a small part of the republication of her work. Additionally, Wrightson was a master in his own right, and getting to work with his beautiful drawing and honor his legacy was really special. 

The cover we ended up with was one of my favorites from the original batch of designs, and has an almost kitschy gothic horror look that I thought for certain wouldn’t be selected. I did a lot of work photoshopping scans of old books, digitally patchworking different parts of spines and foils and leather together to create a whole. In some ways, it’s a Frankenstein’s Monster of a design, and I’m immensely proud of it.

Who inspires you most in the industry?

Oh my god, so many people. I’m inspired every day by the people in my own department, my peers as well as my art directors James Iacobelli and Lisa Litwack, who are not only great managers but brilliant designers with a truly incredible amount of work under their belts. I am lucky to work surrounded by so much talent—I am inspired by my coworkers all of the time. 

I of course have to shout out the work of FSG under Rodrigo Corral’s art direction, as they’re constantly breaking boundaries and setting trends within the field. And to just list some designers who are doing exciting work that I love to follow: Holly Ovenden, Na Kim, Olga Grlic, Kerri Resnick, Dominique Jones, Helen Crawford-White, Adalis Martinez, Tyler Comrie, Isabel Urbina Peña, Joan Wong, Rachel Willey, Akangksha Sarmah… I could go on and on and on. 

Are you reading anything at the moment? What's on your must-read list for the coming months?

Yes! I am always reading something, and I always have a massive TBR list. I’m often a little behind the curve, but I try not to be too hard on myself about it. I just started Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro, which I’m really excited to be finally getting to, as Never Let Me Go is one of my favorite books. 

I actually have a podcast with three of my friends, Book Squad Goals, which we like to call the “book club for your ears” (lol), so a lot of what I read is dictated by what we’re going to be discussing. In the coming months we’ll be reading Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon and Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters, which are both books I’m really looking forward to digging into. 

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