What I learned from working in editorial at Penguin Books. Agents & Cover Design #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

Those of you who have visited my blog before may already know that I was offered two weeks work experience with Penguin Random House in London. The introductory post for that can be found here: I’m going on an adventure: Work Experience @ Penguin in Editorial!

I worked with Penguin’s Vintage branch for two weeks from the 13th-24th March. As part of the Author Toolbox Blog Hop, hosted by Raimey Gallant here:

Click to browse other posts that are part of the hop 🙂

I decided to summarise what I learned about the editorial process.

I hope that my experiences will provide a useful insight into how one of the big five publishers works. Last time, I covered submissions and the use of proofs. This time, I will cover literary agents and cover design, with a special multi-tasking tip at the end!

Editorial Work Experience Agents Cover Design

Part two: Agents and Cover design

Agents: Not to be confused with these guys: They won’t help you publish your book!

Agents of Shield not to be confused with literary agents

I only had a vague idea of what an agent does before my work experience. I don’t have one, and I hadn’t considered it. When I donned my reporters hat and asked questions, I learned a lot!

If you want to be published by any of the big five publishing houses, an agent is essential. Penguin do not accept unsolicited submissions (unless you know someone on the inside!) This is because, even with agented submissions, they are inundated with manuscripts.

Publishing truly is a competitive industry.

In smaller publishing houses, an agent may not be essential. Usually it will state on a publishers website whether or not they accept unsolicited submissions. An agent will, however, help you get noticed more easily. Publishing houses deal with agents all the time. They come to trust their judgement, a lot more than they would an unsolicited submission from an unknown author.

An agent will help to make your manuscript industry ready and get it to the right people in a publishers business. A business as large as Penguin has a lot of branches, and it is essential that your manuscript is submitted to the right person. An agent will have the contacts to do this.

Agents also help to negotiate contracts. Publishing contracts are long and complex. If this isn’t something you’re confident with, that’s okay: Agents deal with contracts all the time!

Like all good things, an agent comes at a cost.

Penguin said that You should never, ever pay an agent upfront.

If an agent likes your manuscript, they will represent you and pitch it to publishers. When a publisher buys a manuscript, the agent is paid. According to Penguin, an agents gets 15-20% of any upfront fee the author is paid, plus commission on royalties. (More on money next time!)

Even with an agent, the industry is tough. It is recommended to enter short story competitions, so that your agent can mention any wins that you have when they pitch your manuscript to a publisher. This will help you stand out to the editor who receives your submission. 

The traditional publishing industry, especially in the case of Penguin books, is set to get even more competitive in the future. They are likely to accept even less authors, so that they can focus on making those authors really successful.

Will I get an agent? If I go for traditional publishing, it is something that I will look into. I will have to choose carefully though: some agents have different contacts in different types of publishing, and it would be no good getting an agent who specialises in crime fiction when I write fantasy!

Cover Design:

I love to design things. I love to draw. I love… well I tolerate Photoshop: Let’s not go too far! I probably want to design my own covers. Below is something that I mocked up for Camp NaNoWriMo, for my current project, ‘Tales from Dragonspire.’:

Tales from Dragonspire cover

This, like my book, is still a work in progress! A few excerpts/outtakes can be found here: Dragonspire excerpts, and a website page is coming soon!

Anyway, in traditional publishing the author does not get much, if any, input on cover design. The process of cover design at Penguin is as follows:

  • The editor develops a design brief to give to a designer.

  • The designer develops a number of different cover designs.

  • The editor picks the best two or three designs to present at a jacket meeting.

  • At the jacket meeting, staff from across the business discuss which cover design is best. If none stand out, they agree to go back to the designer to find something else.

  • Once a cover design is agreed upon, the author is asked to approve the final design. 

  • If the author doesn’t like the cover, they are either persuaded to accept it by the editor, or the publisher has to try something else based on suggestions from the author.

The main points that are focused on during cover design are text styles, visibility, layout, colour, images, and positioning of endorsements about the book from key individuals or the media.

The title must stand out. The cover must be eye catching. The images used must appeal to potential readers and reflect the content of the book.

Sometimes, if the author has ideas about the cover, the editor will work with the author to draw up a brief, but it is more common that the author only sees the cover at the end of the process.

The verdict? If control over the cover of your book is important, self-publishing, or a smaller publisher, is probably the way to go.

Useful tip: Alt-Tab

I felt pretty useful during my work experience because I taught the employees something too. My supervisor commented on how quickly I switched between a word document and google chrome without touching the mouse. I showed him Alt-Tab on the keyboard: 

If you hold down ‘Alt’ and then press the tab key, you can cycle between open applications on your computer without reaching for your mouse. This is super awesome for multi-tasking!

I hope that my insights into publishing proved useful. If any one is interested in doing work experience, Penguin are now offering paid work experience, at least in the UK. When I took part it was subsidised, but I did end up out of pocket, so this is great news for future applicants!

Do you have an agent? If you have been published traditionally, did you have much input in the design of the cover? Do you use Alt-Tab? It would be great to hear from you in the comments.


  1. Thank you so much for sharing! It’s so helpful to learn as much as possible about the industry from people who’ve worked in it before submitting. I’m about to send my first novel out to beta readers and hopefully later in the year it’ll be ready for querying, so your monthly posts are a God send! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sounds like an incredible two weeks! And the rough cover for Tales from Dragonspire is quite a good start 🙂 I have it on good authority (the Fantasy & Science Fiction marketing podcast) that dragons on covers sell books.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thankfully agents have blogs these days so you can check out what they like and what they usually represent (good to know when personalising query letters!). Great information, thanks for sharing 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      • On Twitter they have #MSWL (manuscript wish list) that you can check out – it tells you exactly who’s looking for what at a specific time. And with a bit of luck… Just remember to query five or so agents at a time – it makes the eight week response time go a little faster 😉 There’s also #Pitmad and other competitions running at certain times on Twitter where you can pitch your book (genre and all) and possibly get an agent’s (or a couple’s!) attention. I’m still looking into that, but there are coaches and everything to help you present your best pitches. Sounds exciting 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

        • Thanks for the tips 🙂 I think I need a sticky note to write down all these # for future use! I would go stir crazy waiting 8 weeks for an agent to respond. I’ll make a note to have another project lined up if it comes to querying to distract me 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

          • New projects help, though the suspense is awful. Sometimes they reply quickly (2 weeks – I’ve even had someone reply the next day) and other times the deadline comes and goes and around 11 weeks later they finally tell you “no” – or ask for a partial. It all depends on how busy they are. I’ve even had a publisher tell me an hour after I’ve queried them to send them the full MS – that was awesome and terrifying!
            For great tips on how to format your submission, check out SubItClub (they’re on Twitter and they have a WordPress blog).


  4. I’ve had a few author friends that have a lot of input on their covers with big 5 publishers, and it shocks me to hear every time! Of course, the majority still have no say, but it’s crazy how much things vary from publisher to publisher. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome, it was a really interesting experience 🙂 I was surprised too, but pretty much every query letter I saw mentioned author achievements. According to a couple of the editors, they can make you stand out.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I love learning inside tips like these, especially the importance/usefulness of publishing shorts! And thanks for Alt+tab tip, too!
    I’ve heard a lot of buzz about issues with covers recently, and this falls right in line with what agents are saying. If there’s a problem, talk to your agent! (If you have one :))

    Liked by 1 person

    • The inside perspective from the experience was mind blowing 🙂 Alt-Tab is probably the most useful keyboard shortcut I know, I’m glad that I could help! Agents are really useful to act as a go between between author and publisher 🙂


  6. It’s so neat that you got that experience! Thank you for sharing it with us. And thanks for the Alt-Tab thingy. I had no idea and now I’m going to do this all the time!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. It’s great that you’re here to give us the inside scoop. Thanks for sharing with us. I have books published with Imajin Books in Canada, and they have a very straight forward contract that you can see online at http://www.imajinbooks.com/regular-submisssions/. Just scroll down to contract. I didn’t use an agent. What I like is that the contract if for English Ebook and Print rights only. I’ve sold the audio book rights and Germany translation rights to difference publishing companies. The limited contract means I can sell my books in other ways. Hope this helps.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Great info, especially on cover design. The criteria that publishing houses use for cover design should be considerations for authors who design or commission their own covers, too!


  9. My first book was traditionally published. When I saw the cover, I almost cried. It was a cartoon. Although it gave the reader instant genre specification (romantic comedy), I did not want a cartoon, which cheapened the story. When the rights reverted back to me, one of the first things I did was order a different, non cartoon cover.


    • Sorry to hear that you had such a poor experience with your cover 😦 I would fear the exact same situation if I pursued traditional publishing. At least when the rights reverted back you could fix it: I’ve heard that publishers hold onto rights for a really long time, but I’m not sure how much truth there is in that.


  10. AWESOME post! Like I said last time, that work experience is truly priceless. Your insights are extremely helpful, and knowing the role of an agent is especially useful as I consider traditional publishing versus self publishing.

    Thank you for sharing!

    P.S. Alt+Tab is life! I use it all the time 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Omigosh, I’m so thankful for that tidbit on authors and cover design control! I’ve always gushed over good covers, and I’ve always wanted to know where the author stood on those decisions. Kind of low on the totem pole, it would seem, but still on it all the same! Regardless, I’m sure the Big Five know what they’re talking about and I would defer to them anyway. Good to know the cover isn’t part of the contract.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love a good cover too 🙂 I got to sit in on a couple of jacket meetings, which was super cool. The editor in charge of the project would present a few printed covers, and then everyone would comment on what they liked and disliked. Some of the final covers they chose were amazing, and the decisions really made sense based on the content of the books! I’d be interested to see what they would do for mine, and how it would compare to my ideal 🙂


  12. Thanks for the Alt-Tab tip. That is awesome!

    Also, thank you for sharing your insight into the using an agent or not. I hadn’t really considered getting one because I don’t know if my manuscript would ever been loved by one of the big publishing houses.


    • You’re welcome 🙂 I was really grateful to the IT guy who taught me that tip a few years back 🙂
      The big publishing houses are competitive, but manuscripts are read by a bunch of editorial assistants and editors: They then have a meeting about it, and offers are usually made on a manuscript if those with buying power can be convinced to make an offer. Whilst I was there, one work was bought that half the editors liked and half didn’t 🙂 It also depends on what you write. As a fantasy writer, I’m pretty convinced that I have no chance with the big 5 publishing houses: one of the editors I spoke to even recommended searching for niche publisher more dedicated to fantasy!


  13. Please keep giving us industry insights, Louise. I love them so much. 🙂 I’m worried now though too, because I haven’t been submitting to short story contests. Any idea how important this is for new authors?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Glad to hear it 🙂 I have a couple more posts planned with more insights.
      With regards to short stories: It’s not the only thing that can help you stand out. Some agents mentioned courses the author had completed or writing experience that they had in query letters.
      Whilst having something noteworthy to mention can help you stand out, I wouldn’t worry about it too much: Jane Friedman mentions in her blog post on query letters (https://janefriedman.com/query-letters/) that, whilst it’s nice to add an author bio to a query letter, it won’t make you less credible, especially if you are a new author 🙂


  14. As other people have said, thank you for the insider information! I’ve always suspected that an agent was the way to go, since I’m fairly stuck on traditional publishing … it’s nice to know I’m thinking in the right directions. I’m eagerly awaiting any other advice you’ve got for us!


  15. great insight. 🙂 do you have any advice on breaking into the publishing industry? I had a small amount of work experience whilst I was studying at uni, but currently struggling to find a job or internship that will help me start my career!!


    • Thanks for stopping by 🙂
      From what I heard during work experience, and from a friend who struggled to get a job in publishing, it’s super competitive.
      As much work experience as possible is good, and it can give you contacts too. Penguin now pay work experience at minimum wage, and they take people throughout the year. They get a lot of applications but they have a random selection process. I applied twice before I got offered the chance 🙂
      They also offer summer internships, where they give you a project for the ten weeks you’re there, but I think this years deadline was early May.

      Admin experience may be beneficial too, since editorial has a lot of crossover. Keep an eye out for temporary opportunities: Some of the staff were on temp contracts, and that can sometimes lead to full time opportunities.
      Apply widely, focus on your experience, and don’t lose faith 🙂 My friend had quite a few interviews before she was offered her job at Bloomsbury 🙂
      Hope that helps!

      Liked by 1 person

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