About Those Best Sellers You Worked On

James Monroe, a book designer living out in the Minnesota wilderness, has worked on more than 300 books. Several have been on the New York Times Best Sellers list. In this interview with James, Lana Walker, our new Book Consultant, pokes around to find out the secrets to creating an award-winning book.

Lana: You’ve designed an impressive number of books. How did you get into book design?

James Monroe

James: Well, I went to college for drawing and painting. To make money while in school, I worked for a printer running a laminator in the back room. One day while one of the prepress people was out sick, they had an emergency. They knew I knew how to run a computer, so they put me in front of it — and I never left! Eventually a design firm hired me. Then through them, another agency needed a book done. So I whipped one together and sent it out to them. They liked what I did and hired me. Later I went off on my own.

Lana: We’re happy to have you working with SOOP. How did Wade [Fransson, founder of SOOP] find you?

James: I don’t know! A couple of years ago, he called me out of the blue when he needed some urgent help with one of his books. So I fixed it right up for him and we’ve been friends ever since. My business is 100 percent word-of-mouth. I do no advertising and I don’t even have a website. I’ve been very fortunate.

Lana: You also design book covers?

James: Right. It’s pretty uncommon to do both cover design and interior design, because they’re two different skillsets. I like to do both out of convenience for the publisher. Most cover designers can’t handle the interior work. The largest book I’ve done had 2,500 pages.

Lana: I’d love to hear about books you worked on that became New York Times best sellers.

James: Sure. I designed the cover for Tell My Sons: A Father’s Last Letters by Mark Weber. Unfortunately the author passed away last year. I also designed the cover for By the Seat of Your Pants by Tom Gegax, and a book for the healthcare field, Relationship-Based Care: A Model for Transforming Practice.

James Monroe - New York Times Best Sellers

Lana: What do you like most about designing covers?

James: That’s a tough one. There are multiple answers to that. Number one, I get to express what I read into the book artistically, and sometimes abstractly, and put that on the cover. What’s really fun about the process is when the author sees the cover for the first time. Usually I knock it out of the park, but sometimes they hate it! After they’ve had time to think about it and show the cover to others, though, they often end up loving it. The process is exhilarating.

For some, writing is a form of therapy. I’ve designed books where the author is telling a story of loss or something health-related. I did a book on breast cancer, and when the author saw the book for the first time, she burst into tears. It’s a good feeling to see dreams being realized and how they affect people. That means something.

Lana: What is your creative process? 

James: I tend to do an interview with the author and the publisher to determine the audience of the book. I like to hear their tastes and what they like. What’s interesting is when what they like doesn’t translate well to the book cover. So it’s kind of an odd process, but it works.

Lana: So you’re acting as a consultant and a collaborator.

James: Yeah, exactly. Collaborator is a great word. I think the designers that don’t last are the ones who can’t collaborate.

Lana: What is the one thing you wish authors knew about book covers?

James: The one recurring theme I discuss with authors is being too literal. They want to describe what’s going on in the book on the cover. So if it’s a book about Greece, they’ll want Santorini on the ocean, Greek lettering, and all that kind of stuff.

So the one thing authors should know is that an abstract theme on the cover that pertains to a thread throughout the story is going to make a better cover. From a purchasing standpoint, it allows a prospective buyer to think, What’s this on the cover? What’s this book about? Right there, you’ve got them. It’s about capturing attention and making people curious.

Some authors will fight the idea of abstract, but that’s part of the process.

Lana: Can a bad cover kill book sales?

James: That’s a good question. A lot of people ask me what makes a book sell. If I knew the answer to that I’d be a multimillionaire. I’ve seen books where the packaging is great, but the writing is garbage. I’ve seen great books sell, and terrible books sell. It’s a mystery!


  1. Wade Fransson says:

    Great Interview, it’s good to get to know you better, James. Re: how we met, it was through Karyn Wilender’s brother (I forget his name). I met Katt while trying to launch GoHuman.com – she and I were collaborating on our respective websites. I was so impressed with your work on my book that I wanted to use you on other books for SOOP! Cheers!

  2. Terrance Leon Austin says:

    Awesome interview. Very insightful. Thanks guys.

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