Business profile:  Matthew Johnson, Simon & Schuster's head of creative

Business profile: Matthew Johnson, Simon & Schuster's head of creative

As the publishing industry becomes more competitive, publishers need to react more and more rapidly.

With this in mind, Simon & Schuster has recently rearranged its art department, with its new head of creative, Matthew Johnson, leading a team of three through the ever-changing world of jacket design. Now part of the editorial team, reporting to publishing director Suzanne Baboneau, Johnson explains that the shift has helped speed up an often time-consuming process.

“It is much better being closer to editorial; it is easier to get that relationship working. Traditionally I have found that you can get a clash between editorial and design, but my job is to work with all the different departments, and understand the pressures that both editorial and sales and marketing are under. The idea is that we now have a bit more time to do great work and think about rebranding and brand authorship. We now have the freedom to come up with new ideas.”

He adds: “Time is an issue we’ve had in the past. We get a lot of crash titles and we have to be quick to adapt; so hopefully now we’re very adaptable. We now have more of a flatter structure-—we are all designers, we are all illustrators and we are all photographers, which means there can be real ownership of projects and we don’t have to worry so much about commissioning, which is great—publishing traditionally had long lead times to work with, but that’s a thing of the past now.”

Johnson has worked at numerous publishers—including stints at Transworld and Macmillan Children’s Books—and he admits it can be a constant fight to keep things fresh, because when it comes to creating the jacket for the next big thing, one of the biggest parts of a designer’s job is contradictory. “It can be tricky, but you have to go on your gut instinct and not listen to too many opinions. You can’t be afraid of taking a risk, because as soon as you start working with a sense of fear and trying to double-guess what consumers will want, that’s where it starts to go wrong.

“Invariably a jacket that someone from Sainsbury’s or Tesco will like is something that sold very well, but it is not necessarily a good jacket. But you can’t just copy that, you have to do something that has a nod to it but feels a bit different, and then you have to repeat that for the next book and the next book, and that’s the tricky part.

“We do a lot of midlist to front-list female fiction which has a certain look and a certain feel —but at the same time they need to be new and fresh. I can’t tell you the number of jackets I’ve designed with a man or woman looking away, staring out into the distance, but the trick is to make it feel different but the same. It’s a massive contradiction, but it is what we have to do.”

So, do copycat jackets drive him crazy? “Of course they do, but we do it to ourselves. We’ve had to take a different tack for the new Philippa Gregory hardback (The White Princess, August) because the backlist titles that HarperCollins has published recently all look like our Philippa Gregory books of old, so we have had to move it on from where we were, otherwise the new one could look like one of the HarperCollins backlist. We all do it; all publishers are guilty of it.”

Brand authors

Johnson takes care of S&S’ biggest brand authors, and for him one of the key parts of his job is playing the diplomat—not just between S&S’ different departments but also between a bestselling author, their agent, and the demands of retailers. “A book is a product not a piece of art, but the jacket needs to be a product that hasn’t been sent through too many filters.

“Looking after a big-brand author comes with more pressure because there is a lot more riding on the book, and so there are more opinions. It’s a different kind of design process. That’s just diplomacy: there is always going to be a conflict between a business, a product, money and creativity—it’s my job to solve those problems.”

Having worked with print books for 15 years Johnson is excited about the digital future for jacket design and when it comes to creating with Amazon and its Kindle store in mind, he says it is something that he’s “been thinking about subconsciously for a while. Visually it is much smaller, so information has to be clearer and the colours and contrasts have to be strong.”

He adds: “We are still very much about the print book and there is an element of us having to play catch up and consider the way things work digitally. We have not exploited that in the many ways that we can yet—be it animated images for jackets, banners, or interactive books that become 3D with a smartphone. It’s incredible, stuff like that can be quite intimidating, but I also think it’s quite exciting.”