Sep 14th, 2021
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Mentioned in this episode:
Glitter + Ashes edited by dave ring
Silk & Steel edited by Janine A. Southard
Episode Transcript (by TK @_torkz)
[Upbeat Ukulele Intro Music]
Rekka: This is We Make Books, a podcast about writing publishing and everything in between. Rekka is a published Science Fiction and Fantasy author, and Kaelyn is a professional genre fiction editor. Together, they'll tackle the things you never knew you never knew about getting a book from concept to finished product, with explanations, examples, and a lot of laughter. Get your moleskin notebook ready. It's time for We Make Books.
R: Today we are talking to Grace Fong about book art. Now we’ve had someone on in the past to talk about cover art and art-directing a commissioned cover. However, I think Colin would forgive me for saying that you do not want Colin to do the artwork.
Kaelyn: He would, yes.
R: Yes. [laughing] Would you like to introduce yourself?
Grace: Hi, I’m Grace! My pronouns are she/her, I work on the narrative design team over at Wizards of the Coast for Magic: The Gathering. I am also a sometimes-writer, and for the past five years I’ve been doing illustration work for various speculative fiction magazines, such as Strange Horizons, and some anthologies like Silk & Steel and Glitter + Ashes.
K: Rekka this is our first like, real artist.
R: It is difficult to get an artist on a podcast. I have tried -
K [overlapping]: [laughing]
R: - for this podcast and the previous one and it is a tricky business. So Grace, you live up to your name in showing up.
G [laughing]: We don’t like talking to people, we just like sitting at our computers.
R: I completely understand, but doesn’t mean I’m gonna give up trying, so. We’ve finally done it.
K: Awesome. So I have been involved in some cover art not as the primary person but as the editor, where I have to look at it and go ‘yeah okay that kinda tracks with what’s happening here.’ We have talked a lot on this podcast before about what to expect out of your cover art, and how involved the writers are going to be in it, and the answer is typically not very, at all. So, when you’re doing this, who is it that you’re primarily working with?
G: When I do work for magazines and books I’m usually working with the editor of the publication, so for the anthology it’s usually an anthology editor, or for a short fiction magazine it is usually the art director of the magazine or the editor of the magazine.
K: Can you walk us through the process of how you get started on this? They’re obviously not coming to you with a blank slate, they’re coming to you with a series of stories that may or may not have a theme. How do you get started working with this editor?
G: It really varies, depending on the type of publication. So for anthologies, because they cover a lot of different narrative ground, usually we try to come up with an image that encapsulates the theme of the anthology. Like for Silk & Steel, I was doing one of the promotional postcards for them. We knew we were doing femme-femme, high fantasy, sword-and-scorcery kind of stuff. So I knew that those characters would have to be reflective of the book’s content. Sometimes editors will give me a particular story that they aim to showcase for the publication, in which case I’ll usually read the story if it’s under 6,000 words, and try and come up with a composition that fits it the best that I possibly can. This is how I work with Strange Horizons.
K: At what point do you usually come into the process? Are you typically involved right from the get go, or do they kind of wait until they have most of the story material?
G: Usually when editors are doing their selections, they will wait until they have the written content first, because the written content is gonna dictate which artist they’re gonna go to, to look for. Whose style best captures the feeling of their product? It’s actually similar to traditional publication as well. The art directors at major publishing houses usually have a manuscript or summary for new debut authors whose manuscripts are already completed, and then they find an artist based off the existing manuscript. Some covers are completed beforehand, if the publishing house knows the author, knows the brand of that author and knows the kind of proposal or piece they are in the middle of working.
K: You’re gonna be sitting down with the editor, they’re gonna give you a story that they particularly wanna feature, they’re gonna give you an overall feeling or theme or - how much creative license do you get?
R: I wanna interrupt because you just skipped like a really huge part: the creative brief.
R: So what you just said, they’re gonna give you a mood, they’re gonna give you a theme or whatever, this is a whole step. Don’t smooth it over like that. And this is something that actually Grace’s got a little bit of a reputation for her knowledge on. So Grace I know you in, I believe it’s November, are doing the Clarion workshop about creating a brief for a cover artist, right?
R: So let’s give this the spotlight it deserves! [laughing]
G [overlapping]: Okay.
K: Yeah, I’ve written a couple, I shouldn’t have skipped over that, so apologies.
G: I mean it’s a specialized skill not everyone has to do them, so yeah.
R: Well I definitely want to highlight it a bit, ‘cause you helped me with one -
G [laughing]: That’s true!
R: What goes into the creative brief? Kaelyn named a couple of things, and this sort of forms the silhouette around which Kaelyn’s question pivots, which is how much creative control do you get as an artist? So what’s in the brief that you consider sacred, and what’s in the gaps that you get to play with?
G: So, that -
K: Well first, and I’m sorry to cut you off - I’m sorry - can we say what - [laughing]
R [overlapping]: I’m gonna interrupt you back!
K: That’s fair, that’s fair. Can we kind of say what a creative brief is?
G: Oh yeah, sure. So essentially when you are starting to work with an artist, an artist does not have the time to read an entire manuscript of 400+ pages. Their pricing is usually based off of the time that they’re gonna spend creating your artwork. So you need to provide them with what is known as a creative brief, or art brief. And these are small documents that are very instructional, no more than like a page or two long, that explains the kind of image and feel that you are going for, for this assignment. The assumption is that you would have done your research and sent this brief to an artist that you think would do a good job for the publication that you’re sourcing art for. So you’re not gonna go to someone who does only black and white work if you want to sell your book with a big, bright, neon, 80s kind of cover.
G: ‘Brief’ is kind of the keyword here. You’re essentially writing instructions for an artist. Don’t try to lead them in using prose writing, tell them what they’re gonna be drawing. It’s a bit like a recipe list. So if it’s a story about vampires and you want your vampire main character on the cover, you would specify that that’s what you’re looking for. Or, let’s say you’re trying to sell more literary up-market fiction, which doesn’t use as many figurative images. Then you would maybe make an explanation about like ‘oh this book is about a woman’s time when she was living as a child in Philadelphia.’ In which case you would sometimes kind of refine that into a visual or item metaphor that you would ask the artist to render in a specific way that captures the mood and feel of the book, and leverages the imagery that’s common to that market, so that it can reach the correct audience.
K: Gotcha. Okay. So then you’re gonna get this brief, and presumably dig into it. Do you ever receive a section of text, if there’s a scene in particular that they’d like illustrated?
G: Specific scene commissions tend not to be used for covers, because they’re not very good at selling a publication. Scene work tends to be done for interior illustration. So these the the images that go along in the story; you look at these images as you are reading these scenes. But for the front cover you’re trying to provide one image that sells the entire mood of the story to a particular audience. So in general you want to avoid using specific scenes, unless that scene comes in very early, because you don’t wanna spoil the ending of the book. You only have one picture to play with for a cover, meanwhile with interiors you tend to have a series. You can do like a chapter header, like in the original Harry Potter American versions.
K: It’s funny you say that, because I was thinking about how I remember when the Harry Potter books were coming out, and there were always the American and the British cover versions, and everyone would be over-analyzing and try to pick apart ‘okay what’s in the background here, what’s happening in this scene.’ But yeah because those covers were all more or less specific scenes from the book. They were a little abstract.
G: Exactly, but it’s - the keyword as you just said it is that they were scenes but they were abstracted. Actually tapping into that same visual metaphor that I mentioned earlier, for literary up-market, it’s just because they’re cramming so many things - what they’re actually doing is creating one image that forces you to look harder at it to find all of those metaphorical connections with the story inside. If it has the hippogriff on it and the Chamber of Secrets journal and the Goblet of Fire, these are all singular items that you don’t actually see in those covers how they relate to the story, but you know that this is an important item in the story. Ergo, which Harry Potter volume this cover revolves around.
K: Do you get scenarios where somebody says ‘I want you to draw exactly this and I want it to look like this,’ or do you generally give them a few different ideas or rough sketches and then go from there?
G: Generally the things that I like to have control over are color palette, camera angle, the stuff that would be considered very technical for an illustration. Perspective. Whether things are shot from above, shot from below, because these are all illustrator tools that help dictate the mood of a painting. And the mood is actually the thing that I usually ask my clientele for. Mood translates to ‘how are we supposed to feel when looking at this?’ Because feeling is very closely tied to genre.
G: So, what kind of book am I trying to sell? Is it a horror book? That dictates what kind of colors, what kind of camera angles that I’m going to use. But if somebody tells me ‘I want a top-down shot of something-something,’ then that feels a bit invasive to me because I feel like if I am an artist then I can select the camera angle to best convey the drama that you’re asking for. But the things that are really good for me are the object or character or focus, and if there is a character the kind of action that is being performed. A lot of times we get character description but no action, and the action is actually what tells us what the character is like, and separates it from the design.
K: Yeah so you don’t just have two characters just standing there looking straight forward at the camera -
G [overlapping]: Yeah.
K: - dressed the way they told you to dress them.
G: Yes. [laughing] Because basically that would be really difficult to create an interesting illustration for.
K: Absolutely yeah. [laughing]
G: It’s kind of like going to the mall and you see the clothes being sold on mannequins. Like it helps sell you the clothes but it doesn’t tell you what the story is behind the people wearing the clothes. It helps to have stuff like props, backgrounds, and actions to help convey like, ‘oh yeah if this character is wearing a t-shirt and jeans, is this t-shirt and jeans part of an urban fantasy? Or is it a part of a YA contemporary romance?’
K: How much back-and-forth do you generally have with the editors you’re working with? Like what is the first thing you give back to them?
G: This generally varies per artist, including the artists I work with. So usually what I do is between one to three thumbnails or sketches that I hand in to the editor and ask them ‘what do you think of these directions,’ ‘which one of these thumbnails’ - which I then proceed to refine - ‘do you think hits the target best?’ Then if it’s a very large piece of work I might work on a more refined sketch and pass it in, or like base colors and pass it in, and minimally it’s usually the thumbnails plus the finished drawing. So that’s two to five back-and-forths, depending on the size of the piece.
R: How much do you let the art director or editor you’re working with go back to the start? I know you probably don’t let them past a certain point, like ok you approved the thumbnail so we’re moving forward, we’re not going back to thumbnails after that, but what if they don’t like any of the initial thumbnails?
G: Yeah so basically most artists I know have what are called revision fees, and these are generally written into the contracts that you sign upon working with them. Basically saying ‘you get this many thumbnails, you get to give comments this many times, and if you go over those times there’ll be an additional fee.’ Because artists are basically charging - it’s a service-based industry, and your haircutter charges you per hour, and so does your artist. And generally if they aren’t happy with the thumbnails, then I would then incur the revision fee, but also I ask for further information.
G: So, if you as a writer or editor aren’t happy with what your artist is turning back, you need to be able to explain what you’re not happy with. So you can explain like ‘oh I don’t think this color palette is appropriate for this target market. Here are some images of other books that have come out in the same area that we think would be good inspiration for you.’ The only time that revision becomes really frustrating, outside of a timing frame, is when your client says ‘I don’t know what I want but I’ll know it when I see it.’
R: I knew you were gonna say that. [giggling] As a graphic designer I also hate those words.
G [laughing]: Yeah.
K: It’s like okay I guess I’ll just keep throwing paint at the wall and see what happens.
G: Like revisions aren’t bad as long as the client is able to convey what needs to actually be changed.
R: Not a series of no-thank-yous.
K: Have you ever come across a scenario where you’ve kind of had to take a step back from the project and say ‘listen, I think maybe I’m not the right person to do this.’
G: Usually I’m good enough at heading that off before a project even begins.
K [laughing]: Okay!
G: That is something you come to with experience, you understand your style, your way of working as an illustrator, and knowing like ‘hey this type of thing is going to be too out of my ballpark,’ ‘this type of thing is not gonna pay enough,’ ‘this type of thing is just too much work for what I’m capable of doing right now.’ That is kind of like you’re responsible, as most freelance artists are independent business owners essentially. They’ll usually say so up front minus extenuating circumstances. Like at work we’ve had people drop out because they acquired COVID in the middle of an assignment, so -
K [overlapping]: Oh god.
G: - there’s really nothing you can do about that. [laughing]
K [laughing]: Yeah. Have you ever been presented with a commission, talked to the person, and thought to yourself ‘I don’t think they have a good enough handle on what it is they’re looking for here, and this may just end up being a headache’?
G: Yes. That has definitely happened before, ‘cause I don’t have much time. So if I feel like the client either lacks the direction and communication to give me what I need, or if they’re simply asking for too much, then I will usually politely decline them, within the first couple of emails.
K: Obviously you’re not reading all of these books and you’re working off the creative brief. Is there anything in particular that you get these, you’re trying to make sure you’re communicating in the feel of the book rather than an exact representation of what’s going on there?
G: Yeah. So I’m not trying to recreate a 1-to-1 specific moment from the book. I’m trying to generate a piece that, as you said, evokes a major theme. A lot of times I’m asked to do character work, mostly because that is something that I enjoy doing and specialize in; I love character and costume design. Like you’ve never seen a spaceship in my portfolio because I’m really bad at it.
K: I looked through it, I didn’t see one. [laughing]
G: Yeah, don’t put stuff in your portfolio that you are not good at painting and don’t wanna paint. Like people come to me because they’re like ‘oh this person does kind of anime-inspired fantasy characters,’ and so that’s kind of like a niche that you can reach other people who like anime-inspired fantasy characters. So things for me that I consider important is, I like to know a character’s build and ethnicity.
G: Stuff like ‘oh the character’s mouth is a Cupid’s bow’ or like ‘they have eyebrows that are waxed to a certain angle,’ that’s a bit too specific. Or like ‘they wear ten rings.’ Because if you mentioned that the character wears ten rings, it automatically makes those ten rings really important. And you have to wonder, are those ten rings really important to actually selling who this character is? Do those ten rings have a narrative function in the story? If so, do you wanna include the rest of the character, or do you wanna focus on that character’s hands and the rings, as a way to say ‘hey this is what this story is about’? Because it’s very hard to include such a small item and such a big item together on the same image. There’s a lot of physical limitations to representational art; similar as it is, it’s really challenging to get a photo with both your shortest friend and your tallest friend at the same time and not have a giant gap between them. [laughing]
K [laughing]: Lot of negative space and awkward positions.
R: Well this is where your control over the perspective comes in, right? So that would be a shot from below.
K: Or above! Really above. [laughing]
G: Yeah. So one of the things that I like to ask for is no more than two or three key items, I would call them, that differentiate who this character is from all the other characters. Like you can say ‘yes, she is a Black woman’ or ‘yes, he is a muscular man of European descent.’ But Aragorn is defined by Andúril, his sword. Once you stick that sword on Aragorn, you know ‘hey this is a high-fantasy Tolkienesque property.’ So I’m looking for a handful of items like that, to help show who this character is and how they differentiate and help sell the genre, setting, and time period.
K: Covers are telling people things without explicitly telling them that. Like you mentioned you give Aragorn his sword or a similar character, you’re stating ‘hey this is a high-fantasy book.’ If there’s a background in it and it’s castles built into rolling mountains, that’s also indicating things to somebody who might be potentially interested in reading it. Do you spend a lot of time or give a lot of attention to trying to signal to potential readers that this might be something they’re interested in, or do you kind of let the cover do what it’s gonna do? Like how much do you try to work elements into it that are telling you things about the book without telling you things about the book?
G: I usually try to focus on having as I said up to three of those key items -
K [overlapping] Okay. [laughing]
G: - because, as you said, castles are really common in a lot of European-based high fantasy. So you can leverage that castle, change it up, be like oh is it a floating castle that implies that there’s a certain kind of magic? Is it a castle that’s built into a hillside that implies another sort of magic? And so when I’m doing that I’m not necessarily looking at other pieces that are within the same genre, because the same genre-ness comes from the castle itself. I’m trying not to make a cover that looks exactly like every other cover out there, because this writing is probably not like every other fantasy story out there.
G: I’m actually specifically looking for those key items that differentiate it within its own genre.
K: Any good stories, or interesting things that’ve happened here, your favorite piece that you’ve worked on or something that was particularly challenging? Maybe not just cover art but any commissions in general?
G: All of my really funny stories are actually just from when I was doing random stuff for anime cons. I’ve had to draw a woman making out with Loki, but the woman is not herself, the woman is Kate Beckinsale. Fandom’s strange.
R: So you drew Kate Beckinsale making out -
K [overlapping]: Making out with Loki - [laughing]
R: And let the woman believe it was her?
G: There are certain things you simply cannot draw. You cannot draw the flow of time. If you have a single image, it is very difficult to have anything that goes from step one and step two. [chuckling] And convey two images in a single image.
K: Those Animorphs covers used to do that.
G: That’s true. And they had the little flipbooks in the back.
K [laughing]: Remember that?
K: What advice would you have for somebody who, like let’s say they’re going to self-publish, or maybe somebody who hasn’t really done this before but is looking to commission a piece of art - what advice would you have for them?
G: For prospective clients, I generally ask that they do their research beforehand, essentially. Like working with artists, we have our own system, our own language, essentially, for technical stuff, for our materials, our use of camera angles, our use of colors. And to kind of understand what is within and without our control. So don’t expect an art piece to be able to capture your entire story, because your story has some form of linear time in it, which art inherently will not if it’s a single image. And that usually requires a lot of trust on the part of new authors, because this is their baby, right, they spent a lot of time on it and they wanna give it nice clothes.
K: I love that by the way -
G [overlapping]: [laughing]
K: - they wanna give it nice clothes, that’s perfect. [laughing]
G: And like, a lot of us really understand this, but it’s really helpful for us if you are to distinguish things that are and are not concrete. If you have a story that’s based on music and you want your cover to celebrate the fact that it revolves around song, artists cannot draw a song. Unless you have synesthesia, you’re probably not gonna look at a piece of artwork and hear music. So you’re gonna have to come up with concrete visuals to convey this.
G: So that main character, how do they produce this music? Are they a violinist? In which case yes, a violin can be drawn, that’s very clear, very easy. And so just coming up with those small as I say key items, that would probably be one of them. Coming prepared with those and trusting the artist to interpret that - you can always say ‘hey, my book is about song, that is why I’d like to include these items,’ but don’t throw them into the wind with ‘my book is about songs’ and -
K: ‘Draw me a song.’
K: You had mentioned revision fees, now again a constant theme in this podcast is contracts and read your contract and check your contract. Typically if you’re going to engage an artist they’re going to sign a contract with you. By the way, if the artist is not interested in signing a contract with you, and this is a custom piece, maybe that’s not the artist to work with. But you’re going to have a fee schedule, you’re going to say ‘okay up front this is how much I’m estimating this to be but there are additional fees and costs for revisions, for changes, for going back.’
K: We’ve definitely had to, with artists we commissioned for covers, go back and say ‘hey listen, something came up and we need another version of this, can you tweak these things?’ And that’s fine, it’s just an additional charge. Is there anything in particular you would say to the people who are looking to commission an artist to just be aware of and expect, so they’re not 1) shocked or 2) completely overlook something, in terms of costs associated with this kind of thing.
G: Art is skilled labor.
G: It’s gonna vary per artist. Some people work faster, some people work slower. The type of publication is also going to affect the cost. But do not be surprised if an artist asks for a living wage, in terms of hourly money, because this is what they do; it’s generally not a side job.
K: Art is a skilled work that needs to be paid accordingly. There’s a reason you’re having to go out and find somebody you need to do this, because it’s not an easy thing to do.
G: Yeah, you’re gonna be looking at prices significantly over part-time retail, because this is full-time work. Artists pay taxes on top of their stuff, and they are in charge of maintaining their own tax books. The high prices also cover their cost of living, the materials, 30% of it automatically goes to taxes, so those rates are going to be relatively high. A lot higher than I think what people expect. I feel like sometimes when people are new to commissioning, they’ll expect it to be something in the price range of like ‘hey, I’m asking someone to in their off-time help me out at home with this, etcetera, or babysit my cat.’
R: They wanna pay you 20 bucks and an extra pizza.
K: Well they’re looking at it in like hourly rates, not realizing that it’s not just hourly. Like you said there’s taxes, there’s material, there’s - you don’t get something then immediately sit down and start drawing it, you have to read some things, you have to think about it, you have to process, there’s a lot of invisible hours that go into this as well.
R: You might spend - random number - 12 hours working on a cover, but that skill that you developed to create that cover is not 12 hours worth of skill-development, that is the lifetime that you have put into being an artist. So if anybody is thinking that ‘well the cover for my book is just a box I need to check off on my way to publication’ -
G: Yeah and that high hourly rate encompasses the work of emailing back and forth and sending the revisions and all the administrative stuff that the artist has to do. Artists generally do not have assistant teams, and they are not big publishing houses.
K: The phone call was two minutes, it took me five minutes to read this thing, and ten minutes to write a response, but all of the stuff in between is additional time. All of your back-and-forth with your artist, all of the discussion that you’re gonna have, all of the time that you the artist have to sit and think about this and do some sketches and stop and walk away and collect your thoughts, all of that is your valuable time.
R: We’ve been talking about hourly rates. But every time, in my personal experience, that I’ve commissioned a cover, I have been given a flat number and then the contract as we’ve discussed talks about how many revisions or whatever are included in that number. I assume this is the practice of this person doing covers so frequently that they have a general ballpark of what they need to earn to justify what a cover is. But that’s still based on a living wage that they’re creating for themselves.
G: Correct. That’s usually it.
R: When somebody gives you a flat rate it’s not that this is a flat rate and someone else is going to just give you like ‘$85 an hour please.’
K: Well are you calculating your flat rate based on how many hours you, in your experience, know this takes?
G: Yes, that’s exactly what most artists do. Because clients tend to not want to bill per hour, because it’s a single gig, most artists will give a flat rate based off their previous experience of how long something is going to take, which is why when back-and-forth gets too much, we incur revision fees. Because usually the flat rate is based off of our average experience of a client who spends this much time talking with us, and this much is gonna have to go to taxes, etc. And because flat rate is generally easier for clients and billing as well.
R: Yeah rather than an open-ended number where they have no idea, and there’s probably some paranoia that if you don’t know the person well you might just keep billing them for stuff.
G: You’re gonna find contracts that specify hourly rates for longer term stuff, like visual developments or several character designs, or if you have a world that you’re trying to build out for a TTRPG or concept art for a new video game or something like that. But for single one-off jobs, it’s usually the artist will give you a flat rate number based off of their estimation on how long the gig will take, which is why sometimes these flat rate numbers look gigantic. But remember, again, that’s based off of an hourly rate.
R: Now do you ever get an email from a potential client and you go ‘oh yeah I better double the number, based on the way this email is written’?
G: Yes that has happened before; the asshole tax is a pretty common practice -
K [overlapping]: [laughing]
G: - among artists. We are factoring in how long something is going to take as well.
K: And by the way along the flat rates and the contracts and Grace I don’t know if this is how you typically handle this, but when we would do book covers it was usually half up front, of the flat rate, and half when the work is finished plus any additional revision fees, which for us was always just a like ‘hey here’s the down payment if you will to show we’re serious and to get started.’ Artists put a lot of time into this, and if you say ‘well I’m gonna pay you when this is done’ and then they go ‘I don’t like it. Forget it. I don’t want it anymore,’ that’s a lot of time and energy that the artist has now wasted for no return.
G: Yup. Most artists will not start without half to full payment upfront. I’d say like 95% of them won’t. ‘Cause everybody has been burned very early on in their career by somebody who asked for work and never paid for it. So you only let that happen once. [laughing] Yeah. Always be prepared to have the money ready, like half the money ready, before the artist will start working. If you have a relaxed deadline, a lot of artists are really chill about just letting things kind of be like ‘oh I have this email of somebody who’s interested’ but it doesn’t become real and doesn’t actually get scheduled until there’s money down.
K: Artists have schedules. And they have open time slots and things that they might not be able to fit you into. How much of a lead time would you say they need to leave, in order to have a fully completed piece of art ready to go?
G: I’d say at the minimum one to two months. I know people that can turn stuff around in two weeks, but if you’re looking to get something done in the one month range, you’re probably looking at a rush fee. Artists usually keep one to two jobs forward, like they have something but they’re working on something lined up, and they usually have maybe another one lined up. And so if you demand something immediately, then that means they have to rush the next two.
G: So usually they will include a rush fee for that.
K: I mean essentially it’s overtime -
K: - at that point, like I’m having to work extra hours outside of my regular schedule so that I can get to your thing faster.
G: Yeah. And the lead time will very specifically vary per artist, because if you’re trying to get someone who’s like super super popular, who has a large number of clients already, you may be waiting like a year or two. Like. [laughing]
K: There’re science fiction cover artists out there that, like two years, if you want anything from them. Some of those people have incredibly long lead times on these, and their schedules are just full like over a year.
G: Yeah. Like for me, I tend to be booked out about four to five months in advance, personally. But I generally, I will do rush fees and I’ll also do smaller client pieces here and there that I know I can fit into a weekend. But again it really is up to that individual artist. I know how fast it takes me to complete a piece, but when I have 50 things going on, yeah it might take 20 hours to do, but if I have ten things that all take 20 hours, then I have a lot of time management that I need to figure out.
K [laughing]: Yeah absolutely. When you finish a commission, when you finish a piece, how are you getting it to the person who is actually going to use it then and turn it in for the publication? Because a lot of these pieces are, they’re very high resolution, they’re very large files, and what does this look like - First of all what kind of a file is it, what does it look like? And then 2) how are you getting it, and how do you set it up so that they can manipulate it the way they need?
G: So usually for clients I send a flat image, unless a layered image is requested -
R: And let the artist know that at the beginning.
G: Yes, layered images will usually incur a higher charge, because it implies that you will be editing the image afterwards. And so basically you need to buy some rights, the editing rights, from your artist. So that’ll be a higher charge up front, when you write your original contract. Usually because I do a lot of web work, I just deliver a high resolution JPEG, high resolution PNG, and that’s fine for my clients. For other major work especially if you need a layered file, PSDs, Photoshop files, are generally the common way to do it. In which case you upload a massive, massive file to a file transfer service such as Dropbox, or a lot of companies often have an internal file transfer upload - you log onto their system and upload directly to their system.
K: If you’re getting, especially one of those huge high-res layered images, you need to have a program that can manipulate it. You might need something additional on your end to even work with the image then. But also like, these files are huge. Typically they can’t just email it to you. There’s actually file transfer services as Grace mentioned, where you drop these and it’s just in there for like two days. And you’ve gotta go get the file within that two-day period.
G: Yeah. I think for major transfers I generally lean on Dropbox and actually just sometimes Google Drive. They’re not exactly super secure, but like -
G: - few very people are going around sneaking your self-pub cover, like. [laughing] They’ll just delete it after you’ve got it.
K [laughing]: Well, you never know, Grace. Maybe someday somebody will steal something that you’ve done and leak it to the public, and -
G: That actually would be really bad. [laughing] I work for Wiz of the Coast, if it happens then it’s bad.
R: Secure FTPs from here on out. [laughing]
K: Multi-factor authentication in order to get these files.
R: So Grace, I happen to know, because I am on the inside, that you are - at the time of this episode coming out - you are the guest art director on the next issue of The Deadlands.
G: Yes! Yes I am. [laughing]
R: So from the other side of the table, how do you go about picking artwork on behalf of who are essentially clients here for their magazine issue?
G: Cool. So, for The Deadlands I worked with Cory, who is the main art director, and I looked through the existing repertoire of work that had already been selected for Deadlands publications. Cory was very helpful too in kind of summarizing up the visual style of the magazine, as stuff that’s more dark, more photo-real, lots of use of textured work, and I could see it in all the previous selections that’d already gone through. So based off of that, I was using my knowledge of my time in the art community to find pieces that I thought would resonate with that style.
G: I was also provided a showcase short story essentially, for that issue, that they thought like ‘hey it would be good if the cover resonated emotionally with this written piece.’ So I was looking for stuff that leveraged the visuals within that story, visuals of growth and forestry in particular, goes with a nice visceral story. They gave me the rest of the stories to read too, but as just more background information. And so I went to the portfolios of some of the artists that I knew worked in that kind of emotional field, like artists that did a lot of dark work, artists that do a lot of work in monochrome spaces, and so I looked in their portfolios for work to license that fit the forest-y theme of the showcase story.
G: And so I took a couple of pieces that I thought were good, showed them to Cory, Cory showed them to the editor, and we moved forward with one of them. I contacted that artist; they spoke English as a second language so that’s another thing you have to watch out with artists, so you have to be very clear and direct in your emails to make sure that you can be understood when your email gets thrown into Google Translate. And then I put Cory in touch with the artist for final contracts and payment.
R: This is coming out on September 14th; the new issue of The Deadlands should be out on the 19th, so make sure you check that out, because you will see the cover that Grace picked, and the art that fit into the style, and I happen to know from behind the scenes that everyone was really enthusiastic about your choices. So you made a small mention, but we should probably highlight just a little bit - this is licensed artwork, the artwork already exists, you didn’t commission something new, this is a piece that the artist already created either on commission or just as part of their creative process on their own. And so the artwork is available for license, which means that in a limited capacity it can be used again. Can you explain a little bit more about licensing?
G: Yeah. So licensing is essentially buying rights to print an image, whether it be like a t-shirt or whether it be like your book cover, and it kinda goes through a separate route than commissioning. So commissioning essentially you are paying for a service, you’re paying for an artist’s time to make custom work for you. For licensing, it’s closer to buying rights, and you’re saying ‘I want to pay you x amount for the right to use this image in my piece. And generally artists are pretty lenient about licensing, especially if you are doing a non-exclusive license. It’s basically free money for us, like you’re paying us for something that we’ve already created, there’s no additional hourly time that we’re gonna have to handle other than administrative fees, which are usually more than covered in the licensing. For that you just generally email them and ask them if they have a licensing fee already, or you can generally look for standard licensing fees for products of the same type as yours.
G: Most magazines and such will print how much they pay for licensed covers, in part of their artistic submissions and generally you can offer this rate for similar products within the field. When you are commissioning, though, these rights and usages will actually be factored into the contract. For example, if you want to be the only person who can use this work, you want the artist never to sell this work to another licensee, then this will factor into the cost of your original contract. The flat rate that the artist gives you might be higher, because basically you’re saying they can’t make future money off of it by licensing it to somebody else. ‘Cause copyright-wise, the image I believe is retained with the artist, unless the rights are completely bought out in the contract. Like I believe most contracts are they pay for the work and they pay to license the work, so an exclusive license would be the license fee but higher.
R: Kind of like the layered file, like you know that this person wants to own this image and do whatever they want with it, so you kind of charge extra.
G: Yeah. I’ll charge even higher if somebody is like ‘you can never show this in your portfolio,’ like you can’t even use this to get more work later.
K: I don’t understand why anyone would want that.
G: It really has to do with intellectual property NDA-type stuff, so if they’re like ‘this is a super-secret project, this is too early on,’ ‘cause usually it’s like artists get to post in a portfolio once the thing has been released, but if they’re worried a project is gonna be canceled and they wanna hold onto the image in case they wanna use it for another project, then that would bar them from putting it in a portfolio. This is more common practice among artists who work in video games and animation, where their projects are constantly like revolving, canceled, there’s a lot more asset reuse, yeah.
R: Alright so. There [laughing] is a lot of information on licensing, on contracts, on payment structures. Be nice to the artist, ‘cause look at everything they’re already balancing.
K [overlapping]: [laughing]
R: So any final thoughts, Grace? Anything we haven’t touched on that is a bugaboo for you, that you wanna make sure we warn people or -
G: I feel like we’ve covered a lot.
R: - invite people, it can be inviting too.
G: I dunno, come to my class November 13th. It’s a free business class on how to write effective art briefs. [laughs]
R: Yes, that’s through Clarion West.
G: It’ll be through the Clarion West, yes.
R: Yeah, so we will put the link to that in the show notes. Hopefully the - is it unlimited spaces, or is it limited?
G: There are one hundred spaces, I think like 40 of them are already taken.
R: Okay! So by the time this comes out there’ll be less than 60 available, so make sure that you go find that link in the show notes for that free workshop, because I think a brief is going to make you as compatible as possible with the person that you commission. Because you wanna make their job easy, so that they don’t wanna charge you extra.
K [overlapping]: [laughing]
R: And also so that they still love your project by the time they get to the final artwork.
K: Yeah, so they don’t have some sort of visceral shudder reaction every time the name of that book or project comes up. [laughing]
G: Things also go around. Artists talk to each other, so if you give one a terrible time, then a lot of them will not wanna work with you anymore.
K: Yeah this is something not just in art and publishing, but I think most industries - people who work in the same field talk to each other. Artists do not exist in a bubble, they are not all hiding in some dark studio bent over an oil painting that they’ve been devoting their life to -
G: I mean we are.
G: But we all just have Discord open on the side.
K [laughing]: The room has internet access, yes. Grace thanks so much, this was great. I think this was a lot of really good information that people kinda dipping their toe in the water here may not be aware of, or know how to find easily. But speaking of finding, where can people find you?
G: Ah, you can find me on ArtStation, at artstation.com/fictograph. It’s like pictograph but with an f instead of a p. That is the same on Twitter, where it’s mostly cat photos.
R: Alright we will put those links in the show notes too, so you won’t even have to spell anything. Just go find a link, and go find Grace because Grace has a lot of amazing artwork to look at, and also might be the perfect artist for a future project of yours!