Andrew Karre in a visual presentation to the YA galley group in St. Paul. Photo: Elizabeth Hudman.

Most publishers realize that if you want to know what draws teen readers to certain books and not to others, you’d better ask a teenager. Thus, about 20 YA publishers have been seeking feedback from teen readers by participating in the American Library Association’s YALSA YA Galley Project.

The Galley Project was launched by VOYA in 2001 and has been operated under the auspices of ALA’s YALSA division since 2004. Publishers send YA galleys to teen book discussion groups at the 15 participating libraries around the country, and in return, receive honest and throrough feedback from teens themselves.

It’s a win-win situation: the teens get to read the hottest YA titles pre-pub (which is always cool), and their responses to the galleys they’ve read help publishers better place these books in the marketplace.

In what might be a first in publishing for the lucrative but often inscrutable YA market, Lerner Publishing is taking the discussion with teen booklovers a step further. The Minneapolis-based children’s book publisher is consulting with the 40 members of the YALSA galley group at Metropolitan State University Library and Learning Center in St. Paul about cover design for a fall 2010 release, The Absolute Value of -1 by Steve Brezenoff—from conceptualization to final cover.

Andrew Karre, editorial director for Lerner imprint Carolrhoda Books, along with other Lerner staffers, have met with the St. Paul YALSA group three times already, with a fourth and final meeting to be held in January or February, when the final cover will be unveiled.

At the first meeting back in August, Karre and his colleagues passed out manuscript copies of The Absolute Value of -1 and Brezenoff, who lives in the Twin Cities, sat down for a Q & A with the group. After the teens read the manuscript, they sent Karre suggestions regarding cover designs, and subsequently critiqued 14 “rough” preliminary concepts during an October meeting with Lerner staffers. At a third meeting in November, Karre, a Lerner production editor, and two members of the company’s design team presented the final five cover concepts to the teens for their critique.

According to Karre, the group’s feedback was invaluable, especially in deconstructing expectations raised in the reader by a book jacket. Describing a playground scene on a preliminary cover mock-up of The Absolute Value of -1, Karre recalled the group making it clear that such a cover design “could make the book [look] too young” for its targeted age group. “They steered us away from certain compositions,” Karre commented. “And they’re incredibly sensitive to typography.”

Based on the group’s suggestions, Karre disclosed, the final cover of The Absolute Value of -1 will include “some funky cutouts.”

While not able to involve the St. Paul group in conceptualizing cover designs for all of Lerner’s YA titles, Karre intends to tap into the group’s collective knowledge about teens and about books “at intervals in the future to the extent that we can bring stuff to them.

“Lerner sees this as an important part of what we do,” Karre said. “These kids see a lot of books; they live on the edge of cover design.”