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Process: The Rookie Handbook

The Rookie Handbook is releasing at retail on Sept. 6 (available for pre-order now). I had the pleasure of handling all the design and illustration and wanted to share a bit of the two year road to getting this book made. It was a new kind of project for me, and maybe some of you are interested in something similar, so what follows is my experience, including some behind the scenes looks.

ORIGINS / The Rookie Handbook actually started as an internal document. Three current and former Carolina Panthers offensive linemen, Ryan Kalil (current), Jordan Gross and Geoff Hangartner (former) got tired of repeating advice to clueless rookies. So they compiled all their knowledge in book in valuable information. Making the jump to the pros is a huge adjustment and these guys wanted to share their experiences (and were tired of repeating themselves endlessly). Ryan and I had worked on a few graphic / illustration projects together for a few of his side ventures and he pitched me the idea of the book and invited me to be involved as designer and illustrator. I'm a huge fan of the NFL from as long as I can remember, so the opportunity to work on something like this was welcomed.  

 The Three Amigos and a never before seen look at the original Rookie Handbook. Check out Kalil's photoshop skills. 

The Three Amigos and a never before seen look at the original Rookie Handbook. Check out Kalil's photoshop skills. 

THE SET UP / The project would be set up with Ryan, Jordan and Geoff as creators of the content. When we started, they had about 25% of the final book's content written. Ryan was my primary point of contact, connecting me to the content side of the project to keep things streamlined. Sometimes the team would present me with copy with very specific visual ideas and sometimes it was wide open. They would also provide me with any visual reference that they had on hand that was specific to their stories and ideas. This could be sketches, photos or style grabs to communicate their ideas. Our first task was to get a section of the book done so that we could shop the book to publishers. Ryan's agents were presenting the book to multiple publishers that we all felt would be a good fit for the book. This section of the book we would create needed to represent the final look and feel, so we carefully selected sections from what had been written so far, that provided some good visual opportunities and represented a good range of the types of content that the book would contain. Most importantly, this section need to nail the tone and look and feel that we envisioned for the final. We got to work on a 20 page section that took about a month to complete. There was a lot of back and forth, roughing in ideas and creating preliminary layouts. This provided enough time to explore a few visual approaches, decide on one, and complete the section in a very tight, final style, for presentation.

 Ryan's taped hands for reference, then illustrated for the book.

Ryan's taped hands for reference, then illustrated for the book.

EARLY RECEPTION / We began to get feedback from publishers over the next several weeks, but in its current form, no one decided to buy it. We did have several publishers that were very interested, but all had comments along the same lines; the book should be funnier. It needed to entertain just as much as inform. About half of the presented section was humorous and about half was strictly informative. They pointed to the humorous sections as working the best and asked us to push more in that direction. Taking a step back and looking at their comments, ultimately we agreed with their assessment and went back to the drawing board, refining some sections, dropping others and creating some new ones. We presented a second round to this more refined list of interested publishers. This presentation took several more weeks to create and happened about 6 months after the original pitch was sent out. We were constantly testing what we were making against the criteria of funny + informative. 

 Intro page and dummy table of contents from the refined presentation. We made the TOC more visual just for quick read in this presentation 

Intro page and dummy table of contents from the refined presentation. We made the TOC more visual just for quick read in this presentation 

PUBLISHER FOUND / After this next round, we had a few takers with Regan Arts being the best fit for the project. After we had an agreement in place, it was time to dive in and make the rest of the book happen. With what we had created for the refined pitch, the book was about 20% done. We worked some back and forth over the next several months, in between projects for me and in between commitments and football schedule for the writing team. 

 Three cover roughs. Rookies in camp have a piece of tape across their helmet with their name scrawled on it, so that concept was the winner.

Three cover roughs. Rookies in camp have a piece of tape across their helmet with their name scrawled on it, so that concept was the winner.

HOME STRETCH / Although we had been working on the book for a long time now, the way my project schedule and Ryan's football schedule lined up, we had roughly 2 months to write and illustrate the remainder of the book. In addition to that, when it was decided we wanted to have the book out before the start of the season and with the actual printing timeframe, about two weeks were shaved off of an already tight timeline. Up to now, it had been pretty easy to fit the book in between ongoing projects in the studio, but with the need to make this final push, I had to clear my plate of client work and focus on the book solely for about a month. This was an intense but really fun stretch of the project.

 Sketches the three amigos had done of each other (during their playing days together) that we considered for the author page

Sketches the three amigos had done of each other (during their playing days together) that we considered for the author page

It was long days, but we were making great progress and you could really see the book starting to take shape. Organization and planning layouts were some of the biggest challenges. Ryan would post final written content to a program called Ulysses and I would get updates in a really clear format that I could flow right into the book and it was clear what was new that day. One of the best parts of the project was seeing the content as it came in. As a fan, I found all of the new copy and behind the scenes stuff really interesting and funny. It was very inspiring material to use to create the illustrations from (that's half the battle). It was a great collaboration and I'd get enjoyable feedback like "make the man-boobs floppier" and "make the drug tester creepier."

Once the final book was submitted to the publisher we began to receive edits. This process also gave us a chance to catch and change things now that the book was out and we could catch our breath a little bit. The whole back and forth of the editing process took 2-3 weeks. The cover was the first thing that had to be a solid "final" so that it could be submitted to various outlets and shown around in the sales process.

GETTING THE WORD OUT / The advantage with a project like this is that involves a huge fan base hungry for something that gives them a glimpse behind the scenes of their favorite sport. And my partners on the book are already in place as respected ambassadors for the sport. Having the opportunities created by having former and current players on the team has been invaluable. Ryan is not above interrupting a presser or two and they made an appearance on the Rich Eisen show (who not so coincidentally wrote the foreword for the book). We have more to come as the book comes out, including local signings and some animated segments in partnership with television networks. 

Special thanks to my generous and creative collaborators. If you're a fan of the NFL I really think you'll like the book. It was a very fulfilling experience to get to work on it and I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed being involved. Be sure to grab a copy at your local bookstore or online.

 This was the page where I was told to "make the man boobs floppier"...it was clearly the right call.

This was the page where I was told to "make the man boobs floppier"...it was clearly the right call.

 The Rookie Handbook does not condone fighting (our lawyers wanted us to say that)

The Rookie Handbook does not condone fighting (our lawyers wanted us to say that)

 Pinwheels are the new "dab"...just you wait.

Pinwheels are the new "dab"...just you wait.

Matt StevensComment