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Interview with Jenny Kimura, Associate Art Director

Today, we are featuring Jenny Kimura, an Associate Art Director at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. More about her work can be found her on Instagram and on her website.


We started this book publishing professionals blog series to spotlight Pacific Islander book publishing professionals for Asian and Pacific Islander month. Our hope is that this series will inspire other Pacific Islanders interested in pursuing a career in traditional publishing. There are only a handful of Pacific Islanders in the publishing industry and we hope to see that number increase.


Could you introduce yourself for our audience?


Hi there! My name is Jenny Kimura, and I’m an associate art director at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (an imprint of Hachette Book Group). I currently live in Brooklyn, NY, but I’m originally from Kailua, Hawai‘i, born and raised! I have a cat named Basil and I love to read young adult literature, sci-fi and fantasy, and more recently, some light horror. 


What was your journey like to become an Associate Art Director?


Growing up, I was an avid reader— I’ve known since I was a teen that I wanted to do something with books. I was also interested in pursuing an art career. So, when I was applying for colleges, I specifically looked for colleges that had both a graphic design program and a publishing program. While earning my BFA in Graphic Design from Pacific Lutheran University with a minor in Printing and Publishing Arts, I also did an internship with a Hawaii-based book design company, who designed and edited beautiful Hawaiiana art books.


After I graduated, I wanted to keep learning about publishing, so I applied and got into the Master’s in Book Publishing program at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. I helped in the cover design process of five books through the program’s student-run publishing house over the course of two years. When I graduated, I knew for sure that I wanted to continue working in book design, but more specifically, I wanted to work on young adult books, and create the kinds of books that had inspired me to love reading in the first place. I also wanted to experience book-making at the largest scale—at a Big Five house. I was also finally ready, mentally and financially, to live farther from home than I’d ever had. 


So, with two friends from grad school, I planned to move across the country to New York in September 2019. The summer before we were leaving, I saw a job opening at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers and applied for it, not really expecting to hear back (at the time, I’d been told you had to be in NYC to get interviews). Three virtual interviews later, I was going to be a Junior Designer, working on middle grade and young adult novels! And I’ve been there ever since, moving from Junior Designer to Designer to Senior Designer, and now associate art director. This September will be my fifth year there. 


What advice do you have for Pacific Islanders who want to become book designers?


Practice, practice, practice! I think it’s really helpful to have made a book cover and really considered how type and illustration all work together, using Adobe programs like Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign. See what happens if you design a book cover for a well-known classic, like Pride and Prejudice, or an obscure, copyright-free book (look on Project Gutenberg, there’s lots to choose from!). If you want to hand letter type, challenge yourself to hand letter something every day for a week, or do a letter a day until you have an entire alphabet. 


Be familiar with the kinds of book covers being published in the genre or age category that you want to work in. If you want to work in young adult, for instance, take a look at the back cover or back flap of your favorite covers. Look up the illustrator, or the designer if that information is available. Be knowledgeable about their work, take note of what you like to see in a cover design and why. 


Finally, I’d also add that while I was in undergrad and grad school, I was freelancing graphic design work every chance I got, both as a side hustle and a way to beef up my portfolio. I did postcards and logos, flyers and posters and social media graphics, even an album cover for a collaboration of Hawaii artists! None of those things were book-related but all of them strengthened my knowledge of the Adobe Suite and my skill with typography and composition. 


What is the process like to choose an illustrator for a book? Where do you (or the art director) find illustrators? What do you look for?


When I get a cover summary in, as well as a rough manuscript, those two things help me get a sense of what the book is about, where the book “sits” in relation to other already published books, and what genre/age category is appropriate for this book. I usually start by sketching out some very rough concepts of what the book cover could look like, and as I’m drawing, I think about who on my list of illustrators could bring this concept to life, and in a way that works for the age category, the genre, and what’s already working for those two things with other books. From there, I present my concepts and maybe 3-5 artist choices to the art director, the editor, and eventually, the publisher and sales team. They choose their preferred concept and artist, and I reach out to that artist with an offer. 


I find illustrators everywhere! Primarily, I look on agency websites and social media (I follow and save artists’ work mostly on Instagram), but I also consider artist portfolios that have been emailed to me, artists I see at festivals or other local fairs, artists credited on other books (authors: always credit your cover artist!), and pretty much anywhere I see a name and website link, if I can imagine the style working for a future book.


It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what I’m looking for when I look through portfolios, because the answer is usually, “it depends”. If I’m working on a young adult horror novel, for example, the artists that come to mind are far different than the ones that do for a middle grade fantasy novel. Suffice it to say, I try to cast as wide a net as possible, and you never know when a person’s particular art style is just the right fit. That said, for children’s/young adult specifically, it’s a major plus if an artist’s work is child or teen friendly, has portraits or can do scenes with figures and/or animals.  


How much do you rely on an illustrator’s portfolio?


It’s very, very important! I often grab anywhere between 5-10 samples from a prospective illustrator’s portfolio to share with my team, to help them get a sense of the artist’s style and help them visualize how they might approach the project and my book cover concept for that project. The more examples I can pull from that feel consistent or of a piece with each other, the better. And, if we’re looking to have, for instance, dragons on a book cover, it’s great to be able to see dragons or other mythological creatures in the illustrator’s portfolio. 


What is needed in an illustrator portfolio? 


I think the biggest thing I’m looking for is to see if the illustrator can show a consistent art style through multiple pieces, that there is a common thread through their work that is immediately identifiable and unique. It also depends on what kind of illustrator work you’re looking for—if you can do a narrative scene for something like a picture book, that is very different than creating a piece for a book cover. 


My other advice is similar for an aspiring book designer—look at other artist portfolios whose work you admire, and make note of how they curate and present their work. 


What advice do you have for Pacific Islanders who want to illustrate books?


Practice and create as much as you can, and develop portfolio pieces that speak directly to the kind of books you want to illustrate. Develop your style, figure out what unique perspective you bring to your work, and research other artists whose work could be in conversation with yours—what are they illustrating?. Make the art you want to see, even if it’s just for you.  


How does an illustrator, book designer, and art director work together? What are the roles of each position?


Sometimes these lines are blurred, but generally: the illustrator creates the actual art according to the materials given to them by the designer and art director. The book designer takes that art and positions it in the size of the cover, often developing type for the title, author name, and any other information that appears on the cover. They may make or ask for modifications from the artist depending on feedback from the art director, author, editor, publishing team. They will be in charge of eventually creating a full jacket layout and the final files that go to the printer. An art director oversees the design process, and often helps with not only design feedback, but might also set the budget and schedule for the project and negotiate the illustrator’s contract. Sometimes the art director and the designer are the same person. 


What book design advice do you have for those who are self publishing their book?


If it’s within your budget to hire a book designer for your cover, I highly recommend it. There’s a lot that goes not only into the design, but also the printing and production aspect of things. It’s always better to have an expert well-versed in printing/publishing speak if it’s not something you’re familiar with. And whether you’re doing the design yourself or you’re hiring a professional, I would say be knowledgeable about the other books in your genre that have been published within the last five years—what are the current cover trends? What already-published books are similar to yours? How does your cover stand out, but also fit with the kind of book your ideal reader is looking for? 


Anything else you want to share? 


Sometimes it can be discouraging to see diversity statistics that show there’s only .2% of Pacific Islanders in publishing, and while that absolutely needs to change, it’s not zero. For example, I took part in an NYU publishing presentation at Hachette just last year where one of the students was from Hawai’i and we were both so excited to see another Hawaii person in publishing. So, always say hi, make those connections, and ask for help if you need it from those already in the industry. We need you here!

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