Hi everyone, and thank you for tuning in to another episode of the We Make Books Podcast - A podcast about writing, publishing, and everything in between!

This week, the podcast features 50% more Parvus Press rep as we are joined by Colin Coyle, publisher for Parvus Press. Colin is responsible for (almost) all of the Parvus book covers, and has a oodles of useful knowledge about the process of commissioning an artist to create a book cover, from knowing what your cover should look like, to picking an artist, to successfully working with them with a clear and helpful contract. He also approaches the topic of whether you should art direct your own book covers (either as part of the traditional publishing relationship or self-publishing on your own).

We Make Books is hosted by Rekka Jay and Kaelyn Considine; Rekka is a published author and Kaelyn is an editor and together they are going to take you through what goes into getting a book out of your head, on to paper, in to the hands of a publisher, and finally on to book store shelves.

We Make Books is a podcast for writers and publishers, by writers and publishers and we want to hear from our listeners! Hit us up on our social media, linked below, and send us your questions, comments, concerns, and tell us your favorite novel covers!

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Episode 42: Art Directing a Novel Cover with Colin Coyle

transcribed by Sara Rose (@saraeleanorrose)

 

[0:00]

K: Hey everyone, welcome back to We Make Books, a show about writing, publishing and everything between. I’m Kaelyn Considine. I am the acquisitions editor for Parvus Press.

R: And I’m Rekka Jay, I write science fiction and fantasy as R.J. Theodore.

K: And this is a milestone episode because we have a very special guest today. The man of myth and legend,  the whispered entity that haunts the virtual halls of Parvus Press—

R: This is that moment in the book where you finally get to find out what that backstory character everyone keeps mentioning is about.

K: Yes. We were very lucky. Colin Coyle, who is the publisher of Parvus Press, and has been mentioned multiple times in various levels of affection and frustration on this show before, sat down to talk with us about art direction and cover design. Colin handles most of, if not all, of the art direction and cover design for Parvus Press. Colin actually has a lot of experience with this and, you know, apart from all of the stuff we talk about in this episode, Colin’s got a really good eye for this and there is something to—we don’t really go into that, but there is something to be said of, you know, you need an eye for it.

R: Yeah, that’s true. We didn’t talk about the actual ability to say, “That is a good piece of art,” and be correct. Because a lot of the time, that’s not as much of the component of a good cover design as you might think it is.

K: Colin actually has given a few presentations at conferences about cover art and design and some, you know on the more artistic side, some on the more technical. So, Colin is an excellent resource for this, he’s fantastic to talk to, incredibly knowledgeable. I always describe him as frighteningly competent.

[R laughs]

K: But I say that about Rekka, too, so maybe I just—

R: Maybe you’re just frightened of competent people!

K: I was gonna say maybe I just surround myself more with people that I can trust to just get the job done.

R: It’s a good skill to have, is figuring out those people that you can surround yourself with. And that is one of the points of this one, is maybe you’re not the right person to art direct your cover.

K: I’m fairly competent in saying, “You are not the right person to direct your—”

R, worried: Wait, why are you making eye contact with me?

K: Because I love you.

R, weepy: I have four books that I’ve art directed covers of!

K, laughing: I know. No, most—Rekka’s right, in most cases you are not the person who should be designing your cover. It’s, you know, at that point, for any number of reasons. Maybe you’re too close to the project, maybe it’s too personal. Maybe you can’t separate it out as a product. Maybe you just don’t have the eye for it.

R: Mhm.

K: None of those are bad things. And, hey, there’s help out in the world.

R: Yup, yup. You can art direct your own cover or you can hire someone to do it for you. As with most things in life, there is somebody that you can pay to do it so you don’t have to worry about getting it wrong. If that’s something that stresses you out, it might be worth the money to not get involved in the first place. And if you think you’re the only one who can understand the communication of your book’s concepts to the potential readers, then Colin has some words for you, coming up. After the music.

[intro music plays]

C: I had a glass of champagne for my birthday dinner and I ended up having to lay down for three hours, so you know.

R: Wow.

K: Because of a glass of champagne?

C: I am very thoroughly broken, Kaelyn.

K, laughing: Anyway! That new voice, that you’re hearing, is Colin Coyle who, um, this is… I guess we should get started. Let’s start right away.

C: That’s a perfectly good place to start it at, Kaelyn.

R, amused: I’m very thoroughly broken.

K: Um, Colin, the famous Colin Coyle who has been referenced multiple times in this podcast. Turns out, see, he  is real.

R: Yep. Our villain has arrived, everyone.

C, laughing: Villain.

K, laughing: I’m the—  

R: Just in case he hasn't been listening to the episodes and doesn’t know what we’ve been saying about him. Now I’ve got him worried.

C: [laugh maniacally] Yeah, that’s fine. [extra friendly] Hi, everybody! Happy to be here.

K: So Colin is the publisher for Parvus Press, but that’s not why we have him here today. We have him here to talk about art direction and design for novels and their covers. Colin, actually, handles all of the art direction for Parvus Press, so he has—If you’ve ever picked up one of our books, that’s all Colin’s doing. He is responsible for all of that. And that is one thing at Parvus we’re really proud of. We have really, really great covers. And Colin knows a shocking amount about this, so he was kind enough to come sit down and talk with us today about this.

C: I wanna point out, it’s not every book. Because the art director for Flotsam by R.J. Theodore was—

K:That’s a good point, yes.

[R laughs]

C: —was the amazing Rekka Jay.

R: Which passed muster, apparently, when I came onboard with Parvus. At the time, I’d already commissioned a cover which Colin, in all his art director know-how, already approved.

C: It was, it was a beautiful cover.

K: Wait, wait. Colin made one tiny change to it. [laughs]

R: Yeah! Okay, so do we wanna just get right into this?

K: Yeah, sure.

R: So let’s talk about me. [pause] I commissioned—[laughs]

C: One of my favorite things to talk about!

R: Mine, too! I commissioned Julie Dillon, who is a fantastic artist, I picked her because when I was searching Google for fantasy, science fiction-y covers, I kept picking out these thumbnails, you know, because Google image search results come in tiny. Which is a good way to browse for the impact you want in an image, because it gives you a good idea of what you’re gonna see in an Amazon thumbnail or Barnes and Noble thumbnail, et cetera. So I kept picking out this art and it kept turning out to be the same artist, so that’s what made me realize I wanted to go with Julie Dillon. And then I had to art direct her on a whole new image, and she was sitting there, ready, to take my art direction and I’m like, “Shoot. I don’t know, I just want you to be brilliant. Can you do that?”

[C and K laugh]

K: “I just want you to be brilliant.” That’s exactly what we ask of our cover artists, so.

[R laughs]

K: Okay, so then—Let’s kind of rewind, start at the top here. To get into this, Colin: You’ve got a book, you have to design a cover for it. Where on Earth do you start?

C: Uhh, it helps to start by reading the book, or at least a portion of it.

K: Well that’s—All right, fine. 

R: That’s an interesting point, though, because an art director at a large publishing house may not have always read the book.

C: Right.

R: Parvus is in the position of a small stable of novels at any given time and you, the publisher, are enthusiastic enough about the books to read them. You know? So, at that point, you are art directing as someone who has read the books, which may not always be the case. We talked to L.D. Lewis, the art director for FIYAH Magazine, and she doesn’t always know the stories before she’s art directing the cover. But that’s for an anthology, so you’re not trying to match one story specifically.

C: Yeah, and it’s different. So I’ve done an anthology of short fiction, If This Goes On, as well as novels, and it is an entirely different process. But to stick, I guess, a novel is to keep this thing scoped one way for now. I think I’ll talk toward the lens of someone who’s looking to self-publish, right? And they wanna be their own art director?

You have to start by understanding what the comps, or the comparable titles are, right? Against the title that you are performing art direction for. So the process starts, even if you haven’t read the book and all you’re working from is a description, right. You’re working from back-cover copy or whatever the case may be, but I’m gonna use the example that you’re working on your own work. You need to look at the books that are being published right now, contemporary publications, that are a similar fit for tone or feel or genre. So you might think that you’re writing the newest Wheel of Time, but you’re not gonna get as far with a cover if you look back to 1992 epic fantasy. By Darrell K. Sweet.

R: And that’s—that’s actually an exact point that my thumbnail was about. I was searching for Michael Whelan artwork and I was looking for an example of his artwork that would be good as an Amazon thumbnail, and his artwork relied on the fact that you’d be looking at these books on a bookshelf. 

C: Glossy, hardcover.

R: Yeah.

C: Which, listen, Michael Whelan is amazing and super-talented and he makes these giant oil paintings and they deserve a very big canvas, right? But when you’re looking at—So let’s go to a recent release. So, Rekka, you and I both worked on this one in a couple of different aspects. Let’s look at Annihilation Aria by Michael Underwood. Just out, by Parvus Press, you should grab it—

[R and K laugh]

R: Our audience does know this, yeah!

C: Beth Cato released an amazing five-star review today that you can check out on LibraryThing. She called it a “rollicking good time,” as did Publisher’s Weekly. But I digress…

R: Yeah.

[K laughs]

C: So, Annihilation Aria. The challenge, right? So you have to convey a space opera, right. And as you’ve mentioned a couple times, Rekka, it's a thumbnail. What’s the thumbnail gonna look like, because ninety percent of your readers are gonna discover your title as a, you know, “Readers Also Read:” Right? It’s gonna be an associated title on an Amazon page, it’s gonna be an advertisement online or it’s gonna be part of an email from a book blog, right? It’s gonna be a thumbnail. And I had designed along with Tom Edwards, who’s an amazingly talented science fiction artist, out of the U.K. We’d worked together to design this amazing cover and he’d done the titles as well. And the titles were to evoke that neon that’s in vogue right now with space opera, that hearkens back to the eighties period in the United States and a lot of the adventure fiction and adventure cinema that was happening at the time. Which is a big thing in science fiction today and we can dig into that, too. I mean, if I don’t stay on track.

[K and R giggle]

C: But, it made this beautiful neon artwork and it was—there were bars above and below the titling text, and that’s neon. Every letter has to be connected together with tubing in order for this gas to permeate through all of the letters. And it looks beautiful on a printer cover, but when you shrink it down and you put it into a thumbnail, it makes the words unreadable because there’s all these extra little lines connecting things together and ruining the definition and the separation between the text elements and the decorative elements.

So, you know, it’s one of the many challenges that you have to kind of take into account as you’re designing. But I gotta little far ahead on the process, do we wanna step back?

[10:59]

K: Read the book. Then what?

C: Read the book, or just get a good sense of the title itself. So, look at comps, so comparable titles. What you want to do, the worst thing that you can give an artist is, “I love your art! I want your art for my book,” because they’ve not read your book. If you’re lucky, they will. Most of them won’t, they won’t have the time. And the worst thing you can ask them to do is create this beautiful piece of art that they worked hard on, and at the end of it say, “Oh, that’s not right at all.” Right?

So, you look at your comps to give an idea of style and direction and make sure your comps, that you like, have a correlation to the artist’s portfolio, right? If what you like is 3-D rendered space-modeled stuff, and the artist that you’ve chosen is a watercolorist, you’re not gonna have a good time working with her.

R: Right.

K: It’s great that you really enjoy their covers, but it’s not gonna translate well into what you’re trying to communicate. And that’s exactly what you’re doing with a cover, is you’re trying to convince somebody to at least click on this or pick it up and say, “Hmm. Am I interested in this?”

R: So, as an art director, one of your jobs is to be able to say, “This artist would be appropriate for the look I want.” You can’t just get any look from any artist. So you’re not just searching for the price that you’re willing to pay, for example.

C: Absolutely! Little different when you’re working on anthologies or other things, where the art is a contribution to the anthology in and of itself, but in a novel world, you really want to match the artist to the style of cover art that you’re looking for. And look at the comparables first. Don’t pick the artist first. Look at your comps first, and then go pick the artist based upon a good match-up. The other piece, then, is to give the artist options and to give them room to do their job.

Their job is to create art and interpret, your job is to give them loose boundaries and places to work within, but don’t cage them in because otherwise why are you paying an artist instead of an algorithm. So, what I do is I create a pretty comprehensive document. It’s a word doc or a .pdf and it includes images of comparable covers, it talks about the genre of the book, the title of the book, the subtitle as necessary. The author’s name as it should appear on the cover, right? If your name is Alexander Dumas, that’s great, but if you’re gonna publish as Bob Smith, very different artistic requirements in how you fit one onto a page versus the other.

And then I go for the emotions that I want the cover to evoke. So in a science fiction, a military science fiction, I’m usually looking at elements of motion and action. Do I want a battle scene or not? Am I trying to evoke tension and danger or mystery? This all sounds a little bit goofy, but an artist is going to be able to interpret these things and, in their head, those moods that you give them are gonna translate to color palettes and positioning and the dynamic relationship of the elements that go into the art. 

I will also, then, go a little bit further into detail to provide a selection of scenes from a book that I feel might inform a strong cover. So, for Vick’s Vultures, the first book that we published, and the first of the amazing Union Earth Privateers series, the third of which was just released by Parvus Press—Where Vultures Dare—go get it. 

[K giggles]

C: So, with Vick’s Vultures, what I did was I gave a couple of scenes that were key moments from the book that I thought had some really cool dynamic elements, and I made sure that they matched some of the moods of the comps that I’d given the artist. So there’s a battle scene at the end that takes place in front of this beautiful nebula, and I had matched that up against a John Ringo cover. So to better give an artist an idea of the picture I had in my head, as I was looking at each of these scenes.

So I give the artist two or three scenes that are key to the book, and just enough information for them to do their job. And they’ll tell you if they want more detail.

K: Mhm. Yeah, artists are, I mean the good ones, are generally not shy about coming abc and saying, “Hey, just so we’re on the same page here,” or “This is what I’m thinking, is this what you were envisioning?” So, Colin, after you go through all of this, Parvus has this great document that I think really streamlines the process of art direction and cover design. But they’re not, then, gonna immediately send you back a cover. What are you getting back from them, at that point?

C: Well they could, and this is part of—Part of hiring a cover artist is being careful about what you ask for. Artists hate to waste their time and other creators, writers, hate to waste their time, so you need to specify, in the contract with the artist—And, by the way, yes, you have to have a contract, right? It doesn’t have to be vetted by a lawyer, but you need to have a written set of expectations of what you expect to do for the artist, what you expect the artist to do for you, and to deliver to you. Don’t leave things up to chance. 

So, generally, what I ask for and what most of the professional artists that I work with will present, is that they will want to first do a set of thumbnail sketches. So thumbnail sketches are really quick, really rough, illustrations of blocking, of, “Here’s the shape of a body, and this is gonna be the protagonist, and here’s the antagonist, and behind this is gonna be a stained glass window, or whatever the case may be.” 

The artist will give you several options in a quick thumbnail sketch and then, from there, you’ll narrow that down to basic blocking that seems to fit your expectations. The next step after that is usually to do a black and white sketch, based out of what you chose from those original thumbnails, and this, again, it’s gonna be rough. It’s gonna be quick. It’s more detail and more refinement, so you can start to specify the actual elements, because if you’re gonna have someone like Tom Edwards, for example, render a ship for you in three dimensions, it’s a heck of a lot easier to figure out what that ship should be shaped like when he’s using a pencil than when he’s playing with wire mesh and having to deal with texture and all that.

You have that initial black and white sketch, usually followed by a color sketch or, if it’s Tom, you’ll get a first digital draft that looks like it could be a ready cover. But those are the minimums that you want to work with. You want thumbnails for approval, you want a black and white sketch, and then you want a color digital draft.

R: And this benefits the artist, as well, because they don’t get too far into their process and find out that that wasn’t what you wanted at all, or that it turns out you were going to put the title right there, don’t put the main character right there.

C: Right.

R: Things like that. Like, these are the easy points at which it is to change something. You don’t want to go, “Oh, well maybe it won’t bother me,” and then get to the final draft and go, “Yeah, no it still bothers me. Can you go back and start over?”

C: Yeah. If it bothers you in the least as you work through this refining process, you need to mention it at that point. Because if you get all the way to the end, and this has happened, right, with some of our covers—You get all the way to the end and you go, “Aw, that thing that I really thought I was gonna like, I just don’t.” And it’s gonna cost you money to get it changed.

R: Mhm.

C: Because you had the opportunity to request that change early in the process. Before detail was put in, before the illustrator worked on shadow and color-grading and all these things. And just removing one element can have a major impact on the entire project.

R: And that can depend, also, on how the artist works. If they’re a digital artist, they may work on many, many layers and it’s not that big a deal. Or if they are more fluid in their work or more impulsive or whatever, maybe they accidentally colored over a layer. Or, perhaps, it’s a 3D render and they never can quite get that angle back on the elements in the render or something like that. Your hope is that everyone is saving the progress as they go, as separate files. Just like Kaelyn and I have talked about saving your manuscript in no less than ten places. Hopefully, your artist is also saving the key stages and different work.

But yeah, sometimes that can happen. Like a little detail seems like it should be easy to pop out because it’s in the foreground, but actually it’s on the same layer of your starfield or whatever’s in the back—or nebula—and then it’s not easy to just remove it because there’s nothing behind it, so you have to color in and then you have to smooth it out, and then you end up just starting over because that’s hard.

K: But, alternatively, you’re assuming that all artists work digital, and that’s not the case. Colin, you have experience with that from If This Goes On

C: The cover art for If This Goes On was a oil painting that went through that same entire process. Went through thumbnail sketches, but even then we did digital proofs, to make sure that we were comfortable with the blocking and everything else. And the artist, Bernard Lee, was amazing to work with. He’s an award winner and he’s been in a lot of galleries. Super talented guy. So Bernard worked digitally to get placement down, and color and tone, but then it was paintbrushes on a canvas, right? It’s a really cool image of the Lincoln Memorial if it were completely submerged underwater. 

If This Goes On was an anthology of political science fiction, we asked authors to look at the current policies of the United States government and what would be the impacts of those, if taken to their worst extreme in a generation or more. Kind of as a warning of, okay, if we let everything go off the rails.

So this was kind of a look at if something catastrophic came to pass and the Lincoln Memorial was submerged into the Atlantic Ocean, or the tidal basin in DC. Anyway, Bernard went in after the fact and added some sharks in, swimming over Lincoln’s shoulder to give a sense of scale, and they were added digitally. So, you know, Bernard is a talented enough artist that he worked equally well in both mediums. But, all the same, he still went back and painted those sharks onto the canvas afterwards, because he wanted them on there.

[K laughs]

R: It did turn out really cool.

K: Yeah.

C: It’s a beautiful color.

R: And you mentioned he was meticulous enough to research the type of shark.

C: Right! What kind of a shark would be near the Chesapeake Bay. I think it’s a sandbar shark and, you know, if the water did come in and the salinity increased, that you very well could have seen that shark. And it is to scale, compared to the monument, so it’s a very cool element in the picture.

 

R: Yeah, you gotta love when an artist is paying that much attention to the details. I mean, you could go to anyone on Fiverr and say, “I want a political statue with sharks around it,” and you’d end up with something that looks like the movie poster for The Meg 2 or something. And I don’t meant to disparage the artists on Fiverr, actually. There’s a lot of good, talented people on there. But there are also some very transactional people on there.

C: You know, we did a Parvus coloring book as a promotional offer. So we had all of our covers turned into coloring book pages, and that art was largely done on Fiverr. It was done by at least two different artists and we got very different experiences with those two artists. But I would not go back to Fiverr again for a project that I very much cared about. Sorry, Fiverr.

[23:11]

R: Yeah. Well, actually, we have a guest coming up that did get their cartography from Fiverr. So it’ll be an interesting juxtaposition for the listeners because we have very nice art that we’re going to discuss, and it was hired through Fiverr.

C: It goes, again, to the contract. Like, even in the world of Fiverr, you have a contract. There’s a description that says the stages you’re gonna get things in. If you’re getting things in stages, you have a much better chance of understanding that you’re gonna get a quality end product because that’s a person who wants to work with you to create something in a collaborative fashion. Right?

R: mhm.

K: Colin, along those lines, let’s say you, you know, you’ve got the contract in place. You’re working in a collaborative fashion, you’re going step-by-step and you’re still just not happy with what you’re getting back. Then, what do you do?

C: Tough break. Cut the line and move on, right?

R: The contract probably has a kill fee.

C: The contract will have an exit provision, there will be a kill fee. Maybe sometimes. Usually, that comes in at the digital draft stage. Where you’re gonna pay a certain amount just to get the artist to reserve time and get going, and then the full contract value is gonna be a separate amount of money. And if you cancel the contract after the sketches, usually, the thumbnail sketches, usually there’s no other money owed. They can be very detailed in how graduated they get, but generally speaking it’s a quarter to a half the contract value you still owe the artist, if you cancel at the digital draft stage, which is generally your last opportunity to exit the contract without owing the full amount.

R: Mhm.

C: Which is, by the way, reasonable. 

R: Absolutely.

C: Again, you have so many opportunities to change the direction the artist is taking until you get to that point. And, as an outside observer, a lot of times when you see these things bubble into the public, with people in conflict with an artist, it really just comes down to, they weren’t flexible enough. They’re fighting over these details and the cover art on a book is not supposed to be a photorealistic representation of any aspect of that book.

R: Or even acting out a scene or anything like that. Yeah. It’s trying to encapsulate an entire book which you can’t do by just picking one scene. You know, a Star Wars movie poster is never a scene, it is a montage of mood and light and tension and all that kind of stuff. Not that I’m saying, “Make your cover look like a Star Wars movie poster,” but you get that it’s a quick comparison.

C: No, but to take that a touch further. Think of when you’re going to a con or any sort of a nerdly meetup, right? I’m assuming you’re in a fantasy and science fiction world because I think all of us are, but cover art is not cosplay. A cover art is your fandom t-shirt. It is not  a true-to-life duplicate, it is a reference. So that when you’re walking around the con, like-minded people will notice what you’re wearing and the way you’re representing yourself and they’ll know, “Okay, this person’s in the same fandom as I am!” That’s what a cover is trying to establish with genre and tone, right? It’s trying to establish that, “Oh, this is a military science fiction like a John Ringo novel, lots of explosions and adventure and whatever” or “This is a more carefully paced and a little bit more nuanced with some social aspects to it, John Scalzi military science fiction.” Those are two very different cover styles.

R: Mhm.

C: Yeah.

K: Speaking of artistic liberty, what are you trying to do with this cover? You’re trying to get somebody to pick up this book, look at it, and say, “I am interested in possibly reading it, enough so that I’m either gonna flip it over or I’m gonna click the extended version of the description, the back cover copy.”

C: In a bookstore model comparison, I think I’ve said this, I might’ve even said this on this podcast before, but I’ve certainly said this in a number of public venues, the front cover earns you the back cover. So, in a digital world, that thumbnail is gonna earn you the larger view of the cover, the cover is gonna earn you the description text in the book. That’s gonna earn you a look at the review or a look at the first page, and that’s where you’re gonna close your sale. You’re rarely going to sell a book just based on its cover. But the cover is what separates it out from other things. And readers make a purchasing decision on a progression. It is a funnel, right? There are things that channel them down and, again, there’s exit points for them to say, “Oh yeah, this cover really seems like the right kind of book. OK, here we go…”  

There’s exit points inside the book, too. And this is where the cover can kill you, where an amazing cover can kill you. Is if it doesn’t match the book, if it’s not the right cover. So, I’ve done this. It was an early mistake that I made. An amazing little novel, Court of Twilight by Mareth Griffith, was a slowly-developing mystery with some fantasy elements to it and I couldn’t find a way to properly represent that in the cover art and I made a really poor decision to say, “I’m just gonna make a beautiful cover that makes this look like a fae fantasy and there’s a castle scene and all this gorgeous color and all these things. And that’s gonna get people to look at it and say, ‘I wanna read this book.’” They were gonna start reading it and go, “Okay, this isn’t what I was expecting, but I like it, because Mareth is really talented.” 

You know what happens when you do that? The readers go, “Wait a minute, this isn’t the book I thought I was gonna read,” and they put it down.

R: Interesting side note to that, Mareth did just announce that she will be re-releasing that book with a new cover, and she’s working on that process now. And she’s also retitling the book, I believe it was the original title, The Year King.

C: The Year King, yeah.Yep.

R: Yeah, so that will be coming out. If you’re interested in hearing more about this book, go look for that. Find Mareth Griffith and follow her on social media and stuff and get the announcements. And I think she’s looking for early readers and stuff right now.

C: Yeah, Mareth is an amazing woman. She’s a wilderness guide in Alaska, she’s a boat captain in Central America during the wintertime. She wrote, not just once, she wrote multiple novels in the hold of these ships, running in the bays and rivers of Alaska.

R: Disconnected from the world for months at a time.

C: Months at a time! Working with her editorially it would be like, “Okay, well we’re gonna get you these notes by this day,” and she’s like, “Well that’s great because if you don’t, I won’t get them for 6-8 weeks!”

[K laughs]

C: Yeah, she’s wonderful and very talented and I feel bad that that’s a lesson that I had to learn on her book. But the real shame of it, too, is that the cover for Court of Twilight is still one of my favorite covers. I mean, it’s beautiful artwork by Lovely Creatures Studios, I think?

R: Yep, Yep.

C: And I found them because I like the work they had done on a cover—They did a cover for Lightspeed which I loved. So, anyways. That’s important. The cover makes a promise to the reader. It represents the type of book they’re about to read. It says: If you like this type of book, this is a safe place for you to go and read. This is that kind of a book. And if you then get in there and it’s not that kind of a book, you’re going to feel cheated. You’re going to go, “Maybe I would’ve liked this book, if I came to it a different way, but I came to it the wrong way and I’m not gonna read it anymore.”

R: And as Colin was saying before, just to wrap up that point, this is the job of the art director to make that decision, not the job of the artist to know what is the most appropriate cover.

C: Absolutely.

K: Yeah I will, quickly, jump in. If you’re going, “Well, why does that matter? They’ve already bought the book at this point, I have their money.” People leave review of books.

C: Yea, and having an amazing cover is gonna sell a couple copies of your book, but books are still sold by recommendation.

K: Mhm.

C: They just are. You still, you know, if you listen to this podcast you’re probably a reader. And if you’re a reader, you have a best friend who reads the same kind of books you do and you love nothing more than, when you discover a new title or a new author or a new series, to call that best friend and go, “Oh, you’ve gotta read this!”

R: Yep. Or how many times have I walked out of my local indie bookstore with three books I’d never heard of before that they just sold me on the hardcover edition because they talked it up so much? 

C: Yeah! And even in the digital world, that still exists. Like, Amazon still works that way. In a slightly weird, technical bend. Their algorithm will present books to people if people buy them. If people aren’t buying them, the algorithm won’t represent them. So that relies on whether there’s reviews and whether there’s good reactions to the title, so.

K: Now let’s circle back to something you guys kind of both touched on, real quick. You’re not in a self-publishing sphere, you’re having your book published through a traditional publishing process. How much say do you get in what your cover looks like? Colin? 

C: Uh, none! 

[K laughs delightedly]

C: Officially, none. But it all depends on the publishing house that you’re working with and the team that you’re working with. Obviously, the art director wants you happy with your book because it is not good for sales to have someone out there blasting the cover art for their title. And I’m not gonna mention a specific well-known author—who’s on the New York Times Bestseller List nad had a TV show on his series—that we know did that, right?

R: Yep.

C: It’s just not good. It’s not gonna help sales. But the other piece of it, too, it goes back to what I said waaay at the beginning of this: you may not want to art direct your book. Most people in most aspects of their life have a really hard time separating from something they’ve worked really hard on, and giving up any control over any piece of it, right?

K: Yeah.

C: But if you don’t have the right mindset for art direction, you’re going to direct a bad cover. You’re only gonna get a good one by accident. 

[33:28]

K: Rekka and I talk a lot about, you know, we’ve obviously done multiple episodes of this show on submissions and submitting your work, but every now and then we say, “And remember: don’t do this!” And one of my big things I always go to is: if you’re submitting your novel to something, I don’t want to see the sketches you did of what you think the cover should look like. I don’t want to see the drawings you did of the characters because to me this is signaling something which is you’re not gonna be able to take criticism pretty well here.

R: Yeah.

K: Because you are too invested, this is too personal, too important to you to give up any control. That’s a hard thing to do, but at the end of the day, the art direction is the responsibility of the art director, who works for the publisher, who is deciding how best to sell and market this book. It’s totally understandable and very good that this is important to you, however, you have to cede some degree of control over this, and that’s hard!

Now, Rekka, of course, is an exception here because Rekka—

R: Yes, let’s talk about me again.

K: Rekka came to us with artwork in hand and—

R: Well, that’s interesting because I was just thinking about how the first book I did, pretty much, art direct most of it. As we mentioned earlier, I never got around to the fact of, is after I sub-licensed my rights or whatever to Parvus, for this artwork that I’d commissioned, I had feedback from Colin which was: push this, pull this, adjust this, and so we did that the cover did end up looking better, punchier, and more vibrant. Also, Colin art directed me to do the titling of the cover, at that point because I came in with this cover, someone had told me it was a space opera, and so I tried to come up with a space opera title treatment—Colin art directed me through creating the title treatment for that, which was very different from anything I imagined, but I love it.

So in the second book, Salvage, Colin was in charge of the art direction from the get-go, commissioned the same artist, but I’m sitting here on my hands waiting to get some kind of preview for the cover art because I did not know what his cover brief to Julie Dillon looked like. I did not know what comp titles he was looking at. All I kinda knew was what the titling was gonna look like because we were gonna keep a system.

So, then I got an em—Well, I think you texted me, a preview of the cover one day, and it was completely an unknown. And, you know, I had some feedback and such, but for the most part it is that preview, just tightened up, that you sent me.

C: I was having a conversation with somebody earlier today, and this was related to hiring, and how you choose who you let interview a candidate that you're about to hire. And I said, “I feel very strongly, you should never, ever ask someone for their opinion if there’s a chance that you’re not gonna take it.”

[R giggles]

C: So, Rekka had enough experience as an artist herself, and having worked on the cover for Flotsam, that if I brought her into the process early, I owed Rekka the respect to say, “If you and I have a disagreement, we’re gonna talk it out, but there’s only a certain amount of times you can disagree with someone before there’s too much tension.” And for the working relationship, the decision I made was I’m gonna go all the way to digital draft and then I’m gonna bring Rekka in and let her see what we’ve pulled together. Because at that point, in the early process, there’s still too much.

R: It’s too open.

C: Yeah, art direction is a creative process of its own. You’re still filtering through things. You’re still—working with Bernard Lee on If This Goes On, I went back and forth several times. We had long telephone conversations about which thumbnails worked and which didn’t.

R: And that only increases with the number of opinions you bring into the conversation.

C: Exactly! Adding another person into the conversation increases the complexity. It’s not helpful, it’s not going to get you to a good result.

K: Well, as you mentioned, if you ask somebody’s opinion, you’re obligated to take it into consideration at that point, especially when it’s something as personal as what the cover of their novel’s gonna look like. This represents years and years of their work. We joke, this picture is worth all of my words. This is everything.

R: Here’s the thing, though. The work you put into it is personal. When you finish your book, you have to treat it like a product.

C: Yep!

K: Yes! Absolutely.

R: And if you don’t treat it like a product, you are actually doing it a disservice.

C: Yes.

K: And you are absolutely correct.

R: And that’s why Colin lets me give him any opinion on my cover art. [laughs]

C: Yeah, it’s so hard to take something you’ve put so much work into and then separate out and treat it as, “Okay, now my role is to market a product and put a product in a marketplace.” It’s still your book baby that you love and you work so hard on. But, I tell you what, if you can’t step out and look at it as a product, you should probably not self-publish. You should stay into the traditional publishing model, where you never have to put that hat on.

 

R: Because you’re not going to get that control because it’s no good for you.

C: Right.

R: It’s not that you are better for traditional publishing because you can talk to an art director about your covers. No, you need to stay away from the process of making the cover of your book.

C: So there are freelance art directors that are available that can help take this task off of your hands. They’re not cheap. Good cover artists aren’t cheap, right?

R: And it doesn’t include the cover art. This is the service of a person art directing.

C: Correct.

K: If you have the self-awareness to take a step back and say, “I am too invested in this, I cannot see the trees through the forest or the forest through the trees, or I don’t see trees at all,” that’s maybe a good indication to take a step back and say, “I can’t trust myself to be impartial about this and treat this like a product now.” Because here’s the thing, your art director? That’s what they’re doing right now. They’re looking at: how am I marketing this product to people I want to buy this, and who I think will enjoy the book? How do I signal to that reader, “Hey, do you like these kinds of things? Cool, you might like this, too. You should buy it, and then leave us a nice review talking about how much you liked it.”

C: Nope! And one way you can find talented art directors, obviously just ask in your social circles. But you can also, I love the Muddy Colors blog, it’s a community of fantasy artists. They have running contests to find new artists, to promote talented artists that are just starting to work in the industry. And I find that the folks who are active on that blog are very open to helping people looking to do the right thing, the right way in the field. So, I would take a look over at Muddy Colors.

And a lot of the times, the artists that they highlight are also art directors. So you can certainly find people through that route.

K: So, we’ve gone through this whole process now. You have a cover design that you’re happy with, you’ve got lettering. The author’s name is spelled correctly and it’s in the right spot on the cover. What are you getting, then?

C: So this goes back to the contract and it’s super important. So, realize, just the same as everyone who buys your book doesn’t have the rights to every single draft you’ve ever written, when you buy cover art, you don’t have the right to every single layer and image aspect. Generally, what you’re buying is a license to use the art for a specific purpose. So make sure you tell the artist in advance, I’m gonna use this for an eBook, I’m gonna use it for a print book, I’m gonna use it for an audiobook. It may be term-limited, it may be perpetual. Do yourself a favor and request for forever.

R: Yeah. And it may just be a price difference between which one you want.

C: The other thing to do is to be clear in the contract of what, exactly, you need. We’ve talked a lot about artists who do the titling like Tom Edwards does. But Julie Dillon doesn’t do titling. She doesn’t do cover design, she does illustration which is the artwork itself. It is not a default that the artist is gonna do titles. You have to ask if that’s something that they do and it is often a separate price. You have to specify, are you looking for a digital only, which is essentially a front cover, or a full wrap-around?

So when I started with Bernard Lee, he knew that we were not yet a distributive publisher, we were a digital publisher, and he just assumed, since I didn’t tell him otherwise, that we were looking for the cover for a digital book. When, no, we were doing a print edition, we needed a full wrap-around.

If you’re doing a full wrap-around, are you doing a hardcover? So is it a full jacket with interior flaps? And who’s doing the layout of the text and the author image and all that stuff? All of this has to be specified, so in your initial contract with the artist: here are the formats that I want, here are the sizes that I want. You can certainly ask them for their expertise, but specify the resolution and quality and the types of files that you want delivered.

[42:26]

R: Yeah. So, for example, for Julie Dillon’s cover of Flotsam, I specifically knew that I might want to, say, animate a little bit of motion into the cover for some kind of promo video. And I told her this, and I asked her if I could please have certain elements on their own layers. So the ship and the character in the foreground are on one layer, the background is one layer, and the glowing green nexus sphere that’s in the middle ground is on yet another layer. 

And I was very specific to her, I didn’t ask her for all the layers of her working file. That’s not what I want, because those are probably color tints and other aspects that you don’t even know what to do with. But I knew that if I had those three pieces, I could do some interesting stuff with things moving around and she was agreeable to it. That might change your price, it didn’t in this case. But if I told her early enough, that’s why I think she didn’t charge me extra. If I had asked her later, she would have had to go back and do more work. That would have definitely charged me later. And, frankly, because they’re layers and they have such value, you should expect to pay more for them.

C: You may also find that the artist isn’t willing to give you that level of control. Because, again, that is their art and you have a license to use it for another purpose, right?

K: Yup.

C: Just like you wouldn’t give your novel to a publisher who wasn’t going to agree to let you approve the final text. An artist shouldn’t be able to give you all the raw materials of the image because you could take that image that they’ve worked hard on, it’s a beautiful piece of artwork, that their name is going to be associated with, moving forward, and you could make drastic changes, moving around elements, changing colors, changing hue and all of these things, and present something to the world that looks like garbage.

R: Yeah.

K: Or is not an accurate representation of their work.

C: Yeah.

R: Yeah and you can still do that to them with a final flat image, so Colin, talk about that. Because I know there was a process on a couple of covers where adjustments had to be made post-titling.

C: So, generally, you’re gonna get a layered image from a Photoshop file back. You can also get a very high quality .jpeg, .pdf, you name it. But usually what you’re getting is an image that includes a lot more background area than you actually need, so that you can then reposition the art as you need when you figure out the size of your paperback, et cetera.

R: Which is a good thing! This is a very good thing. Don’t ever get exactly the size of your trimmed cover.

C: Yeah! Do not approve art where like a key element of it is right near any edge of the image because chances are you’re gonna have to cut that out at some point. So, anyway, you can get down to the end of it. There’s one title that we worked on where we had wonderful art from a very talented artist, but the process of working with that artist wasn’t as great as the others. There were some refinements that needed to be made and I didn’t trust the artist to continue to make those refinements, so I made sure I had the rights to alter the image in whatever way I chose. I paid the contract and I hired a different artist, named Rekka Jay, to do some adjustments and make some changes.

R: If you’re wondering how I get all my insider knowledge about Parvus operations.

[all laugh]

C: All roads lead to Rekka. There’s other ways, too, where the cover for Annihilation Aria was perfect, Tom did wonderful work. But when we got the book printed, there was a motion effect that he put onto this asteroid field that, the crew in the Kettle’s flying through on this cover,t onward this amazing golden and neon space temple. Everything looked perfect in digital, and then we got the print proofs in our hands. And do yourself a favor, my friends, if you are printing this book in any, way, shape, or form, you’ve gotta get a print copy in your hands like a month before you need the print copies done. So that you can double check everything.

Aria, the issue was that there’s this motion blur effect on this boulder field and in digital it looked beautiful and in print, it hurt my eyes. Like, looking at this thing and being like, “Why is this… is this print blurry?” And what we did there was, and made those adjustments myself. I wouldn’t always recommend that you do, but I really just added some shadow to this one particular boulder that was causing that issue for me and the whole thing ended up looking beautiful at the end.

So the adjustments will never end. You’re gonna be refining it. Don’t tinker. Don’t make changes that you don’t need to. I mean, when we made that change, we said, “Okay, now we’re making changes. Alright. Are there other changes that we should be making, while we’re kind of opening the process again.” And working with Rekka, who does a lot of our titling, MIke and Kim-Mei, Mike’s agent, had been communicating. They weren’t a hundred percent happy with the way the titling looked. And there was aspect of it, I think, that nobody was really quite able to put into words and I was working with Rekka and we flipped one of the A’s on the title and the whole thing looked much better.

[R laughs]

C: But you get to a point where you get to a point, just like your novel, you have to stop making changes and go on. But, then if you later hit a spot in the road where it is important to make a change, that’s your opportunity to revisit things and take a look. But let the art do what it needs to do. Don’t finesse it into oblivion.

R: Yeah. Yeah, if you’ve ever worked too long on a piece of clay, like on a sculpture, you know what we’re talking about. It looked great, ten changes ago—

C: Yuup.

R: And that sort of like progression of tiny changes that eventually kill the thing. Those are definitely things to be warned away from. And that’s the kind of thing that happens when you are fiddling because you want to get it perfect for the novel, versus appropriate for marketing. There’s expectations on a product package. If you’re buying a microwave, you expect there to be a photo of a microwave on the front of the package.

C: YUP.

R: If you’re buying a book in space opera, you expect certain things on the front of the package. And that’s why you have to be able to say, “This is a product.” The process of being emotionally engaged in this work is over. I need to move into how can I sell this and how we package it to attract, not just a lot of people, but the right people?

C: And there’s gonna be people listening who are gonna say, “Well, my book is unique and it’s different and it needs to be its own.” And you know what? That’s fine. There’s also people who are gonna say, “I’m gonna do the art direction myself, I don’t need to give up that layer of control.” Those are the same people who, they don’t trust anyone else in the process and I tell you, there’s always a success story you can point to.

K: Yes.

C: There’s always one person who lit the world on fire, who did everything themselves.

R: Mhm.

K: Chances are you are not that person.

C: Chances are you are not that person.

K: I will— 

C: I hope you are! I—Yeah.

K: I will, I’ll take it a step further and say, my book’s special, my book’s different, it’s unique. Here’s the thing, it’s probably not. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad book. It’s just that it’s a space opera, it’s a military science fiction, it’s an epic fantasy.

R: And that’s a good thing! Like, knowing that your book is like other books is what helps you sell the book. If your book is completely standalone, as no comparison, you’re going to have a hell of a time selling it. Because you don’t know how to get it in front of people.

C: But it goes to just like composing your book. If you told me that somebody was gonna try and publish a fantasy novel that used first, second, and third person, I would tell you that there’s no chance that’s gonna be successful.

R: Sometimes those books win three Hugos for Best New Novel in a row.

C: Sometimes they crush every award ever and they are amazing, groundbreaking novels which are just a thrill to read.

R: Fast aside, we are talking about N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy.

C: Yes. But chances are, you are not N.K. Jemisin! So, if you want to art direct your own book, do yourself a favor and hire an artist that you trust. It’s easier to do this with people that you can trust. Talk to the artist first, interview them first. If you have to pay a little bit of money to get an hour of their time on a Skype call—

K: It’s worth it.

C: It is worth it! It is so much more worth it than hiring the wrong artist, and it gives you an opportunity to learn how they expect you to work with them. Because at the end of the day, they want to get paid. They want to create art that they’re gonna be proud of, but they wanna get paid. And there might come a point where, if you’re difficult to work with because you didn’t take the time to do some prep work and some research, and you didn’ t take the time to understand how they want to work and communicate, they’re just gonna push to deliver something to you so they can move on.

[51:07]

R: Yeah, you don’t want your artist to emotionally check out on you.

C: Yeah.

R: This is a thing they love to do and, if you make them hate to do it, then you are not going to get the product you want. And I will add to what Colin was saying before about picking the artist, looking through the portfolio. The more consistently you love the pieces and could see that as a cover for your book, the better shape you’re in to begin with. Because if you’re like, “Okay, well, this artist’s one piece is kinda good for what I want…” Don’t hire that artist if 95% of what they do, you don’t like. Because you are going to be far more likely to end up with something you don’t like than something you do and you’re going to create that resistant relationship with them that’s going to make both of you disappointed.

C: That’s a real problem that I have with new artists. Because I want nothing more than to give changes and opportunities, right? To people who are coming up in the world. So if I can give a couple hundred dollars to someone who’s new, versus someone who’s established, I’d love to give it to someone who’s new. Especially because, hey, a brand-new cover by an undiscovered artist, and that can bring a little bit of shine on your book. But when you look at the portfolios,, you have to be careful. If one piece of art is amazing and that would be a great book cover, but the majority of them show that there’s problems with the body proportions or with the body positioning, that the 3D renders are usually a little bit flat or the textures aren’t quite there.

Trust the body of their work, not the single example. They may be at a point where they’re starting to get consistently very good, but they’re probably not there yet. And I’ve given that advice to artists before, where I’ve said back to them, “Listen, your most recent work is fantastic but your portfolio’s still full of a lot of earlier stuff where you were still working on some of your skills. You need to pull that out of your portfolio.”

R: To that point, it is not the art director’s job to correct anatomy or perspective or how to treat textures on surfaces.

C: Nope.

R: The art director is guiding the decisions made, not the talent or the application of skill.

C: Right, they’re translating the needs of the market and the needs of the novel into direction, hence the title, for the artist to work from. So they’re translating important things about the market. Kaelyn had mentioned earlier about where the title has to go. It’s super important. People care about this. If nobody knows who you are yet and you put your name at the top of the book, you may have trouble. So our distributor has told us time and again, if the author is not well-established, the name cannot go at the top of the book. Because the sales teams will have a hard time with it.

And the reason for it is they’re gonna go out there into the world with this book and they’re gonna say, “Oh! This is Colin Coyle’s fantasy epic.” “Oh, I don’t know Colin Coyle. He must not sell very well.” 

R: Mhm. So even if you’re debut, it gives the wrong impression.

C: Exactly! I don’t know Colin Coyle… am I missing something? This is probably not the kind of book that the stores I work with are gonna stock. So, putting the name at the top of the cover says that you’re an established name. You are certainly welcome to keep putting your name at the top of your cover, it’s just one of the many signals that you need to be aware of.

R: Yeah and the size of the name versus the size of the title is another one. 

C: And honestly, your name… Your name is important to you. It is. And it’s great that you be associated with your work, but no one is going to—they’ve never heard of you. No one’s going to be looking through stuff on Amazon and see, “Colin Coyle?! I like alliteration, sure I’m buying that book.” 

R, laughing: An alliterative author is definitely the kind of storyteller I wanna listen to!

C: They’re gonna go, “'Fantasy Epic'? I like fantasies and things that are epic! I’m gonna buy Fantasy Epic by Colin Coyle.” By the way, I have not written a novel called Fantasy Epic. I’m just…

R: Right, yeah. I mean, we’re talking about the thumbnails again in this case, where you can find books where the only thing you see in the thumbnail on Amazon are the words Stephen King.

C: Yes! And that is one billion percent by design because people will—and by people, I mean me—People will buy whatever Stephen KIng writes. The title is not as important for sales. The book is a product, it is a work of art, it is a labor of effort and love. But it is a product. Your job is to let the artist know. Here’s where the title placement should be, it should be in the upper third. And here’s where the author’s name should be. And all of those other things. But it is not your job to hire an artist and say, “Hey, I love your work. You’re really bad at noses. Can you get better at noses before you do my cover?” Or, you know, “I dunno, that right arm is longer than the left arm! Can you change that?” 

If you’re at that point, you’ve hired the wrong artist. You should just cut and go hire a new one.

R: And that’s the thing, as an art director, if you can’t tell that line of distinction, then you also need to hire an art director.

C: Absolutely! If you wanna do this. It’s so hard to solicit feedback from your friends, you have to do it the right way. You cannot lede the question. So pick a couple of artists that you think are great and send their portfolio links to friends that you trust and say, “Here are a couple of artists that I’m thinking of looking at for my cover. What do you think?” And do not give them any more information than that.

R: Don’t tell them which way you’re leaning.

C: Exactly! And if you give your friends a totally neutral task, they’ll probably come back to you and say, “This one piece of art here is good, but most of the portfolio is bad. I like this one.” The other big piece of advice, when you’re searching for artists, that I’ll give you, is—and this is super important—if you have a budget, tell the artist your budget. Two things, you don’t wanna waste a lot of time and fall in love with the work of a particular artist, only to find out that they’re gonna charge you $2,000—which, by the way, is not expensive for a good cover.   

R: Nope. I was just gonna say, $2,000? Don’t make that sound like sticker shock! I got bigger numbers I can get you from my searches.

C: No, certainly. The other thing is that you don’t want to ask an artist, “Hey, what do you charge for a digital book cover?” And have them say, “$2,000.” When, in fact, if they knew you only had $500 to work with, they might take that money.

R: Mhm.

C: A lot of times, a very talented artist will work below their normal rate if A) they’re trying to establish themselves in a new marketplace, so they’re going from a game concept designer and they want to supplement their income with some book cover work. Or, if you agree to limit the number of changes. So if you’re very happy to just give a contract that says, “I’ll do some thumbnail sketches and then a final product.” You may well get a considerably lower quote because they can do it faster, maybe they can reuse some elements they’ve done previously. Et cetera, et cetera.

So if your budget’s $500, tell ‘em it’s $500. If it’s eight, it’s eight. I’ll tell you, unless you really, really want a really amazing artist and it’s a very specialized artwork, you really can get really good stuff between $500 and $1,000.

K: They’re definitely out there.

R: So, to the point of asking for pricing. If you aren’t going in with a budget of, say, you know you can only spend $500 or you know you can only spend $750, if you’re going in and you just want to price out the artist, remember what Colin was saying about the things you need to have in the contract. You need to make it clear that those are the things that you are going to include in the contract when you’re asking them for pricing because it may change the pricing. Wrap-around covers are almost always a different price than a single, front cover.

C: Yep, they are a little less than double.

R: Exactly, so it’s always a deal to upgrade to the wrap-around cover or something like that. Or not quite.

C:The back cover is usually quote unquote “filler”. But it’s still art! It still has to be created.

R: And it takes work to create an image for the back cover of a book that you can put text against and still read it. Like, that’s actually extra levels of thinking. You don’t have the surety, as an artist, that there’s going to be a large area where you can put a main character and not have to worry about the title going across their shoulders or something like that. On the back cover, it’s probably going to have text over it, unless you’re very careful about where you put things. Julie Dillon was, for the back of Salvage, there’s this great little raven on the back cover. And it fits perfectly, but we also worked to make sure it fit perfectly.

Make sure that the artist knows what you expect and, if you’re working within a budget, it might be something like you can get—

C: Can I get an art director high-five on the raven, by the way? Come on, it was a nice touch.

R: I gave you a high-five at the time! I was very happy with that raven. But, okay, here’s another thing of not being too precious. Here’s a quick aside. The raven, in the book, as magenta eyes in its chest, in a diamond format. The raven on the back of the book does not have this. Did this writer argue the raven on the back cover of the book?

C: Not at all.

R, proud: Alright. I just have to take credit for that. Let’s talk about me some more. No, but telling the artist what you need will get you a more accurate price and avoid surprises.

K: Right, yes.

R: Just like including those things in the contract will avoid very unpleasant surprises. They take the time to prepare a quote for you, to respond to your request, all this kind of stuff, if you already know what you can spend, let them know ahead of time. You know, I can give you the price that they quoted me in 2016 when I was looking into a Michael Whelan cover and that was $12,000 a pop.

C: Michael will license you some of his existing artwork at a very big discount.

R: Yes.

C: The challenge there is that a lot of the best stuff has already been used by other people.

R: Exactly!

C: And that’s, you know, I don’t know how much time we wanna take today, but that is also an option that small presses use. That self-pubbers use. Sometimes to great effect. Is to find a piece of artwork that you really like and ask to license it, right? So I spend a lot of time on Reddit when I’m looking to do some cover art, in ImaginaryMindscapes and some of the other art subreddits. Looking for talented artists. And I spend time on ArtStation to find artists as well. I look for game concept artists and I’ve certainly made offers out on art that I found in people’s portfolios, just looking for people who could do a custom piece, and saying, “Oh, I really love this!” The cover art for the last Nebula showcase that we put together for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, was a piece of art by an amazing artist by the name of Tiffany Dae that we licensed, that was already existing art that was just perfect for the mission at hand. And that was a relatively inexpensive license. I think it was about $300 for the license for that artwork. But it was for digital and softcover book only, there was no audiobook, et cetera. But it was a quick process.

R: The artwork, I will say, was not designed for a book cover so it did have to be inset in the cover and stuff. So you’re not going to get a custom made piece that’s exactly the size specifications you want. It’s not going to be geared toward your book in any way, if it already exists, but you may stumble across something that’s perfect. And it is that artist’s right to say, “No, you may not license it.” And guess what you should not do? Is then grab it off their website, use it anyway—

C: No, don’t do that! So you talk about inset, right, for the Nebula Showcase, that’s why a lot of times you’ll see this in lit RPG. And you’ll see it in some of the more successful self-pub stuff that’s really successful on Kindle Unlimited and things like this. They license existing art in the title bc, existing art, when you’re making it, you wanna fill your whole frame with the most interesting part of the artwork. 

For a book cover, you don’t want to do that. You need to leave head room for the title, so it’s not covering the most interesting part of the artwork.

R: The entire left side of the image has to be pretty much nondescript.

C: Yeah, you gotta be able to stick blurbs over that, and things like that. So, a lot of the times what they’ll do is take an existing image and then license it and the upper third of the cover will be like a textured, stone background and the text will sit on that. And it works well. Especially in the independent world. If that’s the market you’re going for. You’re not trying to grab people who read exclusively Big Five novels, you want to go into the independent world. You can certainly frame out licensed artwork into almost a branded cover design that’s gonna go through your whole series.

R: And, again, this comes down to looking at the comparative titles in your genre and making sure that that’s what everyone else is doing, or at least that there’s a significant number of successful titles doing that already.

C: You’re still gonna need to pay a designer at that point. So you license the illustration, and you’re gonna pay a designer to make those elements, right.

R: Yep.

C: So you’re still gonna work with someone to do some customs ork, you’re still gonna give them cover comps. You’re still gonna talk about emotion. You’re gonna talk about all the things that you talk about with an illustrator, but, over all, a couple hours of design work is just gonna cost you less than design plus original illustration. 

R: Right.

K: Colin, so, as we’re wrapping up here. I think we’ve covered just about everything we have to talk about, in terms of high-level stuff in cover design. As we’re wrapping up here, any last thoughts? Advice? Maybe if you’re a burgeoning artist looking to get into the cover art scene. What do you—?

C: Yeah! So, let me see… I normally say this at the beginning, but I’ll throw this caveat at the end, everything I’ve said is my own personal experience. It is not the law. There is no Book of Words that you must follow, all this stuff. It’s just what I’ve found doing what I do. And, certainly, if you think I’ve done, said something entirely wrong, and I’m sure you will, but Tweet at me @cwcoyle! You know, let me know. I’m always learning and looking forward.

So, if you are an illustrator and you want to get into book covers, here’s what’s important: you need to create a portfolio for book cover design. You can’t just share your normal fan art portfolio, your regular Deviantart page. Because here’s the thing: that artwork is not going to show that you understand that Rekka and I just spoke about three minutes ago. Leaving headroom for titles, positioning names, leaving room for blurbs, et cetera. If you don’t know how to frame out book cover art, you’re not gonna get hired as a cover artist. 

So maybe you have to make mock covers. It’s what a lot of the folks, Tom Edwards has mock covers all over his website. But it’s a good way to establish an earlier portfolio. You’re gonna have to burn a little bit of your own art, but you can also try to always sell those as a premade cover.

R: Yep. 

C: License them out after the fact. And premade covers are a great way that we didn’t even touch on, on how to find good stuff. So make sure that your portfolio reflects book illustration. Book cover illustration work. Absolutely. And then a great way to promote your art is on Reddit, on Imgur. On ArtStation. Get into the social spaces where other artists are working. A lot of times, I will reach out to an artist who I think is perfect for a job, their schedule will be full, and they will recommend younger artists for me to reach out to, who work in their same style. So, networking is just as important in art as anywhere else. 

R: All excellent advice.

K: Alright, well, Colin thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us, especially in the middle of the day. We appreciate you blocking out so much time. You know, you’d mentioned people can find you on Twitter to yell about things you’ve said here. That’s @cwcoyle. Anywhere else they can find you online? Or you want people to find you online? You can also check out Parvus Press which is @parvuspress [spells Parvus Press], or visit parvuspress.com. So, my social experience these days is pretty limited just to Twitter. And you can always reach me via email at colin@parvuspress.com, I’m happy to answer any questions that folks have as a follow-on to this discussion. Thank you so much for having me on today.

R: Thank you!

K: Thanks, Colin.

[outro music] 

R: Thanks, everyone, for joining us for another episode of We Make Books. If you have any questions that you want answered in future episodes, or just have questions in general, remember you can find us on Twitter @wmbcast, same for Instagram, or wmbcast.com. If you find value in the content we provide, we would really appreciate your support at Patreon.com/wmbcast

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