Interview with Kelly Booth, Creative Director, Ten Speed Press
By Jennifer Durrant
Our world has shifted in significant ways since the pandemic emerged in March. Then the needle moved even further away from “before” to a whole new normal in June with Black Lives Matter protests erupting across the nation. As a freelance book designer and someone who’s creative, I was curious about how creative leaders in publishing have been responding to the shifts and wanted to find out how these issues might be affecting their creative process.
This series presents interviews with three creative leaders throughout August 2020.
Jennifer: Thank you so much for talking with us. Tell us how you got started in publishing and how you found yourself working at Ten Speed.
Kelly: As a kid, I was a book fanatic, and if I’m honest, I liked making books more than reading them. On stormy days, my friends and I would hide out inside elaborate blanket forts writing collective stories and staple-binding tiny books for our Barbies. (We even tried to get one of our stories published and received a very nice rejection letter.)
It wasn’t all-consuming, but I can think of moments throughout my life where that same creative impulse popped up again and again. Like, in art school at RISD [Rhode Island School of Design], I made an artist’s book for just about every one of my final projects. I even worked in the library doing book conservation. I always found books to be a natural form of expression.
After college, I went into educational publishing in Chicago, where I devoted myself to using new forms of technology to spark kids’ curiosity to learn. Eventually my own curiosity kicked off journeys through many different countries and into a variety of industries: industrial design, advertising, tech, and fine art. Everywhere I went I collected nuggets of wisdom, and all sorts of wondrous, shimmering experiences. But eventually I was drawn home again—to books. I worked my way up through the design department at Weldon Owen and stayed there for nearly 14 years before I moved over to Ten Speed about a year and a half ago. The longer I work in publishing, the more I love it. Like most worthwhile things, it can be exhausting and gut-wrenching sometimes. But it never stops being interesting or ultimately satisfying. And besides, book people rock.
Jennifer: How did the pandemic and this question of what’s essential affect your thinking? What was your initial reaction to current events in the way you design books and direct or think about creative strategy? Did ideas flow? Or did you feel blocked?
Kelly: I don’t think anyone at Ten Speed had time to be blocked! We were right in the middle of one of our busiest production cycles, so most of the early thinking was logistical.
Before the pandemic, we didn’t have any kind of work-from-home culture. At all. But the minute things started looking sketchy, all of Penguin Random House had to pivot really fast so we could pull things off.
Our team jumped into triage mode, thinking the situation would last only a few weeks. We’ve always been a very in-person and on-paper crew, so we had to find remote work-arounds for every aspect of our process. Thanks to the foresight of our senior leadership, we also found smart ways to cut costs to keep all staff employed.
For instance, we started ordering fewer duplicate sets of cover proofs. At certain times, instead of six people looking at something together, it’s just me. So I share photos with each of the book designers and then we talk over the phone about how to mark up the corrections. I also had all the sample books: Pantone swatches, foils, laminations, head and tail bands … so I was spending hours on top of my normal job acting as a kind of color consultant/dispatcher.
The whole Ten Speed team has been so amazingly flexible and engaged in finding new ways to work that just in the first three months of working from home our small team sent 30 books to the printer!
Jennifer: How did the shelter-in-place immediately affect your booklist? Did you find book titles that suddenly seemed irrelevant? What topics have surfaced and seem relevant? What books do you think people will want to see in nine months?
Kelly: One of the things that happened right in the beginning was that a couple of our book launches just felt inappropriate, or even impossible, because they were tied to authors’ speaking tours that got canceled. So we moved those books out a few months.
Also, a lot of our authors had—and still have—incredible struggles that go way beyond just the making of their book. Especially the folks in the food and drink industries, many of whom are fighting to keep their business afloat. We’ve found, and are continuing to find, compassionate ways to deal with those situations case by case.
But on the other hand, some authors were able to use that “down time” to focus their creative energy into writing their book, and certain manuscripts came together faster than anyone expected.
We were lucky in that some of our frontlist books, and a lot of our backlist, cover topics that people craved once they were spending so much time at home. All at once the whole world wanted to tidy up, bake bread, cook beans, and garden—and we happen to have some really good books for all those!
Now people want to escape. Our editors predicted that and quickly acquired some seriously funny humor titles. We also have some fantasy role-playing tie-ins underway right now, and I have a feeling the timing for those might be perfect.
Jennifer: What are some specific ways that you had to creatively pivot to adjust to the new normal?
Kelly: Like everyone, we went digital wherever possible—in-person meetings switched over to WebEx or Zoom. Some of the designers are loving it, because they get more face time with authors than they did when we gathered in the conference room for a phone call.
But there are places where technology can’t fill the gaps, and certain aspects of our work simply take longer. Without access to our fancy office printers, we can’t run out a quick proof to gauge minute differences in font weights or to check how our photoshopping looks when printed. We have to be very strategic, so we take the extra time and energy to set up extensive tint tests.
And most of the proofs we get now come from China, on giant sheets, which we cut by hand on floors and dining-room tables instead of using the nice paper cutters at the office. Then we still have to mark them up for color correction. Since nobody has the special color-neutral lights we’re used to, we’ve all found our brightest window, and sometimes we have to chase the good light around our houses as it changes throughout the day.
Between the extra work and having to juggle family needs—plus the fact that work and home happen in the same physical place—it can be really hard to turn off your work brain. We’re always encouraging each other to take days off to recharge.
At the same time, it’s been amazing not having to commute! I live 16 miles away from the office, but it took me over an hour of driving each way because of traffic. A lot of the designers feel more productive at home because they can rearrange their schedules as needed and really dig in and focus.
With everyone quarantined, illustration went ahead as usual, but photography was trickier. We generally shoot early in our book development, so until recently, most of the books we were working on already had photos.
For some shoots, photographers found ways to work safely, and our art directors were able to participate digitally, but then we had a couple of complex shoots come up, which required one of us to be physically on set.
My first COVID-era photo shoot happened in late June. Everyone wore a mask at all times, which was great, but wow, wearing a mask has an effect on the process you wouldn’t predict! No one can hear you, so talking loudly and enunciating all day through your mask is exhausting. Also, certain things, like looking through the camera’s viewfinder, are virtually impossible with a mask because the viewfinder steams up just like glasses do. Still, we had a great shoot and ended up with beautiful images—and that felt like a victory.
Jennifer: Just as we were adjusting to the shelter-in-place, the world shifted again drastically with the death of George Floyd and the BLM movement. How again has this altered your design, strategy, and ideas and the book titles you’re currently working on?
Kelly: The fact that we’re currently living through what the New York Times has described as “the largest civil rights movement in our nation’s history” has turbocharged the diversity and inclusion initiatives that were already underway in the company. At Ten Speed, we hit pause so we could take a really long, hard look at everything we’re doing, and it’s clear we’re not doing nearly enough.
Our books are highly author driven, so in a lot of ways, everything starts by making sure that we’re publishing more than what one of our authors, Blair Imani, has described as “books for white people and their hobbies.”
One of the things that drew me to Ten Speed in the first place was the abundance of titles dealing with social justice and cuisines of diverse cultures. And we’re fortunate that some of our authors have offered advice on what we can do to make the publishing industry more welcoming to people who have historically been left out of the conversation. Because what initially struck me as abundance can still be improved upon.
But diversity in our authors isn’t enough. We need to make sure that all of our collaborators throughout the entire book-making process better represent the population of our country, and that everyone feels safe and fully supported.
In recent weeks, all these wonderful lists of Black designers, illustrators, and photographers have surfaced (Blacks Who Design, Bay Area Black Designers), and we’ve been paying attention. We’re also working on some exciting new ideas to foster our collective cultural fluency, and we’ve set up goals and metrics to hold ourselves accountable.
Jennifer: In what ways have you found yourself creatively pivoting to adjust to the Black Lives Matter movement?
Kelly: First and foremost, I’ve been trying to listen, really listen, to people who have a lot of lived experience dealing with this struggle. I’ve been learning as much as I can—watching, reading, and being inspired by people who have been on the frontline.
This doesn’t feel like a moment where I need to express my own ideas. Instead, my creative energy is at work expanding my influences and trying to figure out what I can do to make sure that more of the BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] voices that are already here are coming through loud and clear. How can I be a better ally? What can I do to empower people who have been systematically denied a seat at the table or erased from the historical conversation? That’s where my creative energy is going.
Jennifer: Overall, where have you been finding inspiration? What are you reading?
Kelly: Working at home, I find it helps to create small rituals to transition to non–work time and to give yourself outlets. My husband and I love Single Song Dance Parties. We pick out one song and go nuts. Sometimes we make up a new move, sometimes we get all interpretive, and sometimes we’re just chill, but we almost always end up laughing. Music has saved our sanity, thanks in large part to D-Nice and Club Quarantine.
To learn, I’ve been tuning into a lot of online seminars and talks, and I’ve been listening to the audio book How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi.
To escape, I like to watch fantastical TV shows, like Warrior Nun. I also look through loads of different kinds of magazines: National Geographic, Uppercase, Dwell … the list goes on and on.
Nature helps, too. Strolling through the neighborhood was better than nothing, but thank goodness we can go hiking again. Nothing beats wind in the grass, footsteps on the earth, and critters scampering about.
The extra work hours have meant that my personal art practice has been in limbo. Usually, that’s the outlet for my own lines of inquiry—all the concepts and ideas that can’t be channeled directly into bringing someone else’s idea to life. At some point I’ll have to get back to it, but in the meantime, I’ve been reading Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, which chronicles 30 years of conversations between artist Robert Irwin and writer Lawrence Weschler.
INTERVIEWS BY JENNIFER DURRANT, Jennifer Durrant Design
Jennifer has been designing books and covers since 2008 for Ten Speed Press, Weldon Owen, Cameron+Company, New World Library, McGraw-Hill, and Callisto Media. She is the owner of Jennifer Durrant Design, a full-service design firm. She joined the PPN board in 2020 to help promote PPN’s mission to educate and offer networking opportunities for those who love books. You can contact Jennifer at jenniferdurrantdesign.com.