The Daily Heller: Layoffs in the Publishing Industry Sting

Posted inThe Daily Heller

When the latest round of publishing industry buyouts and layoffs were announced in mid-July, I was surprised to see a few friends and acquaintances on the hit list. Buyouts are the humane way to let go of employees, and some can be generous. But while many buyouts come at the end of careers, layoffs can particularly sting while in mid-stride.

At Penguin Random House, the biggest book publisher in the United States, veteran editors who have worked with many of the biggest authors in fiction and nonfiction are leaving the company. It is a changing of the guard. The New York Times reported that Penguin Random House lost both its global and U.S. chief executives in the past seven months alone.

Until this latest upheaval, 58 year old Paul Buckley was the longest serving (34 years) design director of Penguin Books. His layoff was a shock to those, like me, who greatly admired his work. If he of all people is this vulnerable, what about others who are not yet ready to take retirement?

Buckley leaves behind an incredible legacy of iconic, smart, clever and damn beautiful work. So upon hearing the sad news, I asked him to select 10 projects out of the thousands he’s created for Penguin that give him the most pride. It’s better to see and read about them now than in a later postmortem/historical reprise.

“I simply do not want to cap off my Penguin career, an imprint I still love and full of lovely people who were powerless in this situation, to tinge what I think was a really good run,” he told me.

The following projects are among the best of his directorship—and in retrospect I could have offered him greater space to spotlight even more. Here, he explains them in his own words.


This project was very early in my career, but remains a favorite. I was a complete unknown, and this project landed on my plate. King was our biggest author at the time … and Bachman was a pseudonym he sometimes published under. So this was two books by King coming out on the same publication date; no pressure. This being the case, the publisher decided to pit both of her two imprint’s art directors against each other. George Cornell (who first hired me 34 years ago) worked with an artist (I do not remember who) that he had done many truly great Stephen King covers with through the years, but you know … going down the same road. I knew I wanted one painting, and to have the stories visually merge into each other, and I wanted a 1950s pulpy look. At the time, Mark Ryden was just coming into being the force we know him to be today, and he was happy to work on this with me. The time came and George and I both put our wares on the conference room table. Our CEO, Peter Mayer, was there and simply stood up from the table and said “I know which one I like”; while saying no more he simply ran his hand across my mock-up and then walked out of the room, ending any further discussion on the matter. 

This next bit embarrasses me a bit, as I was too unpolished to fight an insistent publisher: She voiced some weird concern that “Cowboys are scary.” It’s freakin’ Stephen King and has lifeless dolls and wolves and spiders and vultures and snakes … but the publisher just kept going on and on and on about the damn cowboy. She wanted him gone entirely. I did manage to fight to keep him, but she was insistent he be lightened; hard to tell here, but he was more voluminous before. Ryden was utterly pissed. I felt terrible about it and still do. This is a solid example of how the subjective whims of others can be so infuriatingly random and forced upon artists who know perfectly well how to do their craft.

For the final, I hired the always brilliant Shasti O’leary to make the type sing. 

We bought the painting from Ryden and presented it to King. I hope he knows what he has.

PENGUIN VITAE Collection (ongoing series)

The Penguin Vitae series is a recent series of hardcover titles, conceived of by Elda Rotor to, in a grand and gorgeous way, bring into the Classics canon a diverse array of authors, many of whom history has unfairly ignored. 

I chose to work with uncoated papers over board, and two stamped foils each—some glossy, some matte, some metallic, some not. Pictures often fail, as they are very lush and vibrant. I so often collaborate and was wanting for a project that was purely my efforts. I went at these in a very paired down, non-literal manner, utilizing simple ornamentation and color to project a feeling of the book, a tone, a mood. As much as I hate to say it, a vibe.

These were born out of the similar work I did on designing the spines for the Penguin Drop Caps series, just much simpler and, I think, more visually successful.

To have them be fun and bold, and decidedly unlike anything out there, I decided to turn them sideways. No one was getting away with that a few years back, and it wasn’t for a lack of many of us trying. I held my breath as I put them on the table, awaiting an obvious “nice try, Paul … they really are lovely but …” It never came, and all that came at me was a roomful of “lets do this”; the scariest and most rewarding aspect of the cover designer’s place in the grand scheme of things.


This is my second book for Penguin, a compendium of the covers that me and my group, and our collaborators, have done for Penguin Classics, commissioned by Elda Rotor, the genius publisher behind Penguin Classics. Similar to PENGUIN 75, another book I did for the Penguin imprint, I conceived of it to appeal to an art and design crowd, but also to the vast many who simply appreciate literature and books. We have authors, designers and artists of every stripe discuss the process of creating covers, which is not always diplomatic. Outtakes and failures are joyously included, as are many an exploratory sketch process.

Matt Vee was hugely key in helping this vast project come together. 


Rife among designers who find themselves working on the classics is an attitude that these books have been packaged a 100 times—let’s just get it done and move on to that front list title we’re really excited about. A designer slaps an old dusty painting of a woman in a long gown, one gloved hand holding a hanky (your husband was just trampled by elephants during the war effort in whatever far-off place he shouldn’t have been sent), the other hand, palm out against her forehead, fainting. Panel some horrible type and let’s just get on with it. 

For the longest time, designers (and editors) did not see how fun it is to repackage something that’s been repacked 100 times—just do it in a way that’s never been done, have fun with it. The author is dead and is probably not gonna find a way to complain. These are hands-down my favorite books to work on.

These DELUXE EDITIONS are a series of books where we do french flaps and often uncoated paper, a few bells and whistles touches, and hire all the artists we always dreamed of working with. My art direction is always simply “go for it.” I wanna laugh, or be shocked or surprised, something. The editors on this series, Elda’s brilliant team, get this, and if you bring it, we promise very little back and forth—just a great time doing commercial art as we all wish it always was and, because we leave them alone, one great package after another. 

PENGUIN HORROR (six titles picked by Guillermo del Toro)

That all said, from time to time I get the itch to illustrate a project, and decided to go about trying to design and illustrate this series of books. To be very clear I do realize that I’m no Jaya Miceli or Jim Tierney, and am deeply out of practice when it comes to illustrating covers, but I can muddle through it and hopefully not completely embarrass myself. This was another instance where I laid my wares down in front of a table of publishers and editors and waited for someone to say “umm, I don’t know …” but all were happy and Guillermo del Toro, who edited the series with Elda, was apparently also happy with them.

Fast forward a few years and MOMA contacts me, letting me know these six covers are part of their collection, and they would like my consent to display them as part of their Guillermo del Toro: Crafting Pinocchio exhibit. Hey, even a blind squirrel finds nuts once in awhile.


Elda wanted to publish some titles to celebrate the oft-heralded TriBands from Penguin’s rich heritage, which led me to thinking how we could do this but make them our own, and also fun and modern as well as historical. I envisioned the panels not as flat, but rather as areas of dimension that art could weave itself in and out of, and commissioned the master of line art, Eric Nyquist, to collaborate with. We took many liberties with putting the beloved penguin into many a harrowing predicament, and updated the typography. One fun bit that only Penguin nerds will see is that I took the penguin out of the lozenge that it usually resides inside of, and floated it up above, replacing the old wonky shape that used to hold the words “Penguin Books.”

PENGUIN DROP CAPS (26 titles | A through Z)

I was at Penguin a long time, so I became (somewhat) comfortable with pitching an idea for a series of books on occasion. This is far from the norm in publishing, but why not, who’s getting hurt? I’m a big Jessica Hische fan and brought some of her Daily Drop Cap work up to Elda and said, “maybe we could do a few books like this?” And she said, “very cool, 26 books?” And I said, “why 26?” I’m often not very bright. Jessica would provide me a black-and-white letterform, and I’d figure out the color scheme and the rest of the package design. I came up with the rainbow theme, and the powers that be approved me a three-sided top stain. Brianna Harden and Kristen Haff and Dolores Reilly were all huge in getting this color scheme to happen and the foils to stamp well and remain true to color, which was a nightmare—but we got there.

PENGUIN INK (12-title series)

These were born of a one-and-done personal tattoo I wanted. As I was researching who would leave a permanent mark on me, I was astounded by the diverse plethora of untapped talent not being utilized on any commercial platforms (at that time). I pitched the concept to my Penguin publisher, Kathryn Court, and she teamed me up with a fantastic, heavily tattooed editor, Tom Roberge, who gave me titles to work on, with authors that were game. Half the artists were lovely to work with, the other half were impossible, thus we had to cut our losses and end the series.

PENGUIN THREADS (six-title series)

Cruising Etsy, I came across a wonderful little piece of embroidery. I brought this little thing upstairs to Elda and said, “embroidery? Book series?” She was in. We had just come off the PENGUIN INK series and I wanted something artistic but 180 degrees from that experience … how about old-fashioned sewing? I bet those folks are full of all kinds of kindness.

OK, sold to the publishing team, but now I had to fulfill the sell and find an artist who not only was talented enough to concept and sew an entire scene flap to flap (french flaps again) as well as all the typography, but could also produce three works of super-complicated craft/art in one season (three months). Careful what you ask for. I was always trying to solve multiple projects at any given time, and was looking at the work of the “who is more talented than” Jillian Tamaki (absolutely nobody) for a Jack Kerouac series I was working on. She had a personal work section of her website; these can often be more fruitful than the commissioned portion. Waaaaaay at the bottom was a ridiculously complicated and gorgeous blanket she did for herself; the caption was something along the lines of Don’t Ask Me to do This for Any Commissioned Work. I’d been website surfing all night and it was so late and I badly needed to get my tired ass home, so I shot Jillian an email saying “just think about it, I’ll give you whichever one of these three titles you want.” The next morning there was a reply from Jillian, “Can I do all 3?” We sculpt embossed the hell out of these, and at one point I noticed the gorgeous craziness on the back of her embroideries because the backing was peeling off on one corner. Back upstairs I went and said “c’mon, this has to be on the reverse covers.” Sold. 

Jillian took an SOI gold medal that year for Black Beauty.

They were so loved that we did three more with the stellar Rachel Sumpter.


Ben Loory writes the most fantastic fantastical short stories, and by short, I mean reaaaally short … like it all fits on one page short. And by fantastical, like who thinks up scenarios like this, fantastical … as if your dream self decided to take a wee bit of drugs and maybe let’s just ride the razor’s edge a bit before he wakes up. I have met Ben, he’s a lovely human, and I’m pretty sure he’s not on drugs, but his thoughts definitely are. I cannot recommend his work more, and anything he writes is a book designer’s dream to interpret. I did the art and design on these; the background photos being snaps I took out of random plane flights, with a smattering of stock imagery here and there. Somewhat off-topic, but I do not understand hose who watch movies on flights—the best movie is sticking your nose to that window and looking at the wonder and beauty of this rock we call Earth.