In conversation with Emma Dolan



Emma Dolan is a Toronto-based book designer at Penguin Random House Canada, where she has designed an array of stunning covers across many imprints, from Genki Ferguson's critically acclaimed Satellite Love to Reema Patel's mesmerizing debut, Such Big Dreams

Dolan is also the Co-Founder of Desert Pets Press, an imprint that publishes limited edition poetry and prose chapbooks, and strives to combine exciting contemporary writing with innovative design. Her partner is Catriona Wright, a writer, editor, and teacher.

As a champion for many book designers and females in publishing, it's an honour to have Emma joining me on AD's In Conversation With this morning. We're discussing mornings at Penguin Random House, Fawn Parker's What We Both Know, and what category she enjoys working on most. 

Emma Dolan

As a book designer at Penguin Random House, what's the first thing you do when you arrive at the office? 

Like a lot of people these days, I’m still working from home because of the pandemic. But back when I was in the office every day, the first thing I would always do was grab a mug and whoever else was around and go get a cup of the “good coffee” on the 14th floor (far superior to the coffee on the 12th floor where I sit). It’s a nice little walk from my desk to the staff room upstairs. I get to see more of my colleagues along the way and check if there are any new books on the display shelves.

You designed the cover for Fawn Parker's recent release, What We Both Know. It's stunning. Talk me through the process from concept to finished design. 

Thank you! It was a really fun one to work on. Like any cover, it starts with a document called a cover brief that’s compiled by the book’s editor, in this case Kelly Joseph. I love working on books with Kelly, and this was our first time collaborating on a novel. The brief contains all the essential info, including book summary, target readership, comparative titles already in print, as well as thoughts from the author, the editor, and the sales team. When it comes to brainstorming ideas though, I always start with the manuscript. I tend to go back to it again and again and really get steeped in the tone and atmosphere of the writing. It’s something you have to experience firsthand to capture properly.

The story is told from the perspective of Hillary, the daughter of a famous writer. Her father is suffering from dementia and, in addition to caring for him, she is in the process of secretly ghostwriting his memoir.

The original concept actually featured a man’s face, his image made up of passages pulled from the manuscript that began fragmenting into untethered words. I wanted to visual depict the dismantling of a “great man”’s persona, as well as capture the chaos of a deteriorating mind.

After meeting with Kelly and sharing my concept with the book team, we all felt there was something missing. I was playing with this idea of words and stories making up a life, particularly the life of a writer, but what was missing was the storyteller herself: Hillary. I wanted to represent the connection between daughter and father, and how uncovering his true history inevitably unravels her own.

Usually, I’ll have upwards of 10 variations (alternative colour palettes, framing, type treatments, etc) per concept. I really trust the opinions of my colleagues and our Art Director when narrowing down my final selections to present to editorial. From there it’s up to the book team, publishing executives, and most importantly, the author herself to decide if we’ve got our cover.

With so many imprints under the Penguin Random House umbrella, is there a category that you most enjoy working on? 

It’s very hard to choose, each category comes with its own unique set of creative challenges. For example, with poetry you have a lot of freedom, your ideas can be abstract and there is a lot of space to be creative. Compared with a cookbook, which is more like a complex puzzle, fitting together different pieces to build a cohesive design. 

If I had to pick a favourite, I think my personal interests as a reader are a big factor, and I’d have to say fiction. I love getting the manuscript of a new novel and digging in, dreaming up designs as I’m reading. And kids’ books, of course! It’s where I started out in publishing (and as a reader!). The visuals are such an enormous part of children’s publishing, so it’s a really collaborative process between editorial and design.

Design by Emma Dolan

What inspired you and Catriona to open Desert Pets Press?

I’ve known Catriona since junior high. She lived across the street and when not physically together, we would talk on cheap plastic walkie-talkies (because cell phones weren’t something you had if you were 14 in 1999).

In 2015, we were both living in Toronto. I’d just moved back to the city from BC and was hustling to build my freelance career in publishing. Cat, having just finished her MFA, was immersed in the emerging writing scene and working on her first collection of short stories. 

For years, we’d talked about collaborating on something (we always joked it would be the cover of her first book, but that came later…), and I was looking for a place to experiment and have more creative control. Cat had written a poem inspired by a YouTube video of a Mukbang (in which a host consumes an enormous meal while the audience comments), and unexpectedly stumbled upon an emerging trend. As it turned out, many of her fellow poets had been similarly inspired by videos on the platform. Catriona and I decided these poems must be collected in an anthology. It was called 300 Hours a Minute, the number of hours of content uploaded to YouTube per minute (in 2015). 

And so, Desert Pets became a chapbook press—named after an abandoned pet store Cat saw on the side of the highway in Joshua Tree.

Micro-presses are such a wonderful grassroots form of publishing. There aren’t really any rules. A book can be whatever you dream up or have the time and means to create, from a stack of xeroxed pages stapled together to a beautiful hand sewn work of art. For me, Desert Pets was a gateway into a new community. The physical books were only a part of the experience, the best parts were the launches, the readings, the celebrations of the work – the party! Through Desert Pets I met many writers at the beginning of their careers who have since gone on to be published by bigger publishers like Penguin Random House. I get a little thrill every time I see a name I recognize from those days on one of our new season lists.

Design by Emma, Art by Winnie Truong

What one book would you recommend to my readers and why?

Go out and get a copy of What We Both Know by Fawn Parker!

For more on Emma Dolan, visit her website or Desert Pets Press