Always Judge a Book by its Cover: Meet the Artists Dominating Small Press (Part 1)

The content of a book is only half the battle in selling a book. Even that might be saying too much. The truth is, you can sell a truly crappy book if you have the right marketing team. You’re more likely to pick up a shitty book with an awesome cover than a brilliant book with a lackluster cover. Whoever told you not to judge a book by its cover must have been trying to sell you one ugly-ass book. Thankfully, we have artists who are talented and able to design covers that do justice to a book’s innards. Today a few of those artists were nice enough to stop by and answer a couple questions.


George Cotronis — Website: Ravenkult

1. How did you start designing book covers for a living?

Oh man, that was so long ago I probably don’t even remember. I started out doing work for tabletop role playing games. I think my first significant work was my illustrations for a game book called Don’t Lose Your Mind (Evil Hat Games), which was basically about the crazy superpowers that these insomniacs have. If we’re talking fiction books, I’ll claim it was a cover for The Evolutionist by Rena Mason (Nightscape Press) that got me started. I did a lot of book covers after that.

2. Tell us a little bit about your work process, starting from when a client reaches out to you, and ending with turning in the completed cover.

Usually I’ll just ask the client to tell me what they’re looking for, what the book title is and the blurb/synopsis for it. If I can’t tell by just those things, I might ask what the tone of the book is, like, is it YA, is it gritty, is it humorous, what books is it similar to and such. Then I’ll go away for a week and come back with a draft and see if it works for them. Usually it does, I seem to have a good handle on delivering roughly what clients have in mind. If for some reason it’s totally wrong, I’ll ask some more questions, then go back to the drawing board and get another draft ready. If they like the direction, they usually have some details they want altered or added. A couple of days later, it’s done.

That still leaves the title design, back cover and spine, but that’s really more of the same.

I know a lot of people want to hear that I read every book whose cover I design, but I really don’t. There really is no point, because you’re not trying to capture everything that’s in the book, nor do I find that details are important. You’re trying to capture the essence. If the heroine has short black hair in the book and long black hair on the cover, I don’t think that matters. If the cover makes you pick the book up off the shelf and when you read it, you feel that the cover delivered on its promise to you, that’s all that matters.

3. What cover are you most proud of?

Oh, that’s super hard to answer. I really like the covers I made for my fiction journal, Aghast. There’s three variants and I like them all quite a bit. I really like the one I did for Brandon Barrows’s The Altar in the Hills. I don’t usually do old-timey stuff, but it’s something I want to do more of. Old public domain photos are pretty cool to work with.

4. What are some common design mistakes you've noticed newer artists making, and how can they improve?

I’m not a great designer per se. I think I have a good eye for composition when it comes to book covers, but my typography is a bit lacking. So instead I’ll answer a different question: What’s the biggest hurdle for new designers trying to break in?

Most new artists, illustrators, designers, whatever, have little to no experience in project management. There’s a big difference between making something with no deadline and no art brief and having to do specific things, for specific products within a specific time frame.

There’s a lot of stress involved and a client can sometimes be very particular about what they want. These are all things that you have to deal with while juggling a looming deadline and whatever else is going on in your life. The best advice I can give is to set up some challenges for yourself: Come up with an imaginary product, set a deadline and stick to it. Push yourself and deliver on time, be harsh when evaluating your work. Do that a few times and you’ll be better prepared for the workplace.

5. Who's your dream author to design a book cover for? 

I kinda want to say Stephen King, but I’m not a huge fan of most best seller covers so I’m not sure I’d be able to deliver something people would be happy with.  I’ll go with Chuck Palahniuk. His books have some pretty great covers and the themes he deals with in his novels feel like they align with mine. I think I could do them justice.


April Guadiana — Website: Behance Portfolio

1. How did you start designing book covers for a living?

That was so long ago I can hardly remember.  Seems like any opportunity that has come my way can all be traced back to a project I was a part of called Night of the Living Dead: Reanimated. The curator/director had a lot of connections with people and I believe that's how the owner of  Rainstorm Press found me. I drew a few covers for Rainstorm Press for very little, my first being With This Ring, I Bleed Dead! I was just excited to be getting such opportunities in the very beginning.

2. Tell us a little bit about your work process, starting from when a client reaches out to you, and ending with turning in the completed cover.

Usually, when the client reaches out they already have an idea of what they want for the cover. I think about the idea and sketch out whatever visuals come to mind as I first read it. I do a lot of online research for styles, looks, and reference photography. I mock up a very rough digital image of cut and paste photos and draw from it. Illustrations are drawn on Bristol board (or just plain copy paper if I'm running low on Bristol). Penciled, inked and scanned in where I do digital color with Photoshop. Type comes last. When the client supplies me with back text and a page count, I make the complete jacket. I enjoy getting to do the entire jacket, as opposed to just the cover.

3. What cover are you most proud of?

As of right now I'd have to go with Tall Tales with Short Cocks, Volume 4. That was a challenge to draw. Beer Run of the Dead comes in a close second.

4. What are some common design mistakes you've noticed newer artists making, and how can they improve?

I think composition is the biggest. In the past few weeks I've been getting cover art to make into the jacket, including type and size requirements. I don't think artists think about the final product. They draw something that is beautiful, but don't take into consideration areas for a title or any other copy that might need to go on the cover. My thumbnail sketches include the title of the book so I know what areas I want to keep simple to allow for type.

5. Who's your dream author to design a book cover for?

Sad to say, I don't tend to follow authors. There are a few comic book/graphic novel writers I would love to draw for.  I'm so busy drawing and designing that I have absolutely no time to read. Of the covers I've done already, I really admired the work of John McNee. His book, Grudgepunk, comes closest to the genres I admire, like noir and dieselpunk. If he writes a follow up, I'd love to give the characters of his world another go.


Dyer Wilk — Website: A Season of Dusk

1. How did you start designing book covers for a living?

Art and design is something I’ve been doing for as long as I can remember. Drawing and painting, sculpting. Around the mid ‘90s, I started exploring design software, seeing what I could do with it. Mostly, it was just a hobby and I didn’t seriously consider the idea of trying to make money doing it. Designing covers for other people started as a kind of accident. J. David Osborne, the editor over at Broken River Books, was venting his frustrations on Facebook over the trouble he was having getting a novel called XXX Shamus published on Amazon.

There had been some questions raised about whether or not the novel was pornographic and Amazon was dragging their heels. After following the situation for a few days, I suddenly had an idea to reimagine what the cover would look like if the book had been censored. So I attempted to reproduce Matthew Revert’s original cover art, but make it blatantly PC. I posted it for laughs, got a pretty good response from people, and a few months later, J, having liked my parody version, asked me to help out here and there with some promotional work for his press. Eventually that turned into doing full wraparounds for a couple advanced reader copies and the occasional cover.

2. Tell us a little bit about your work process, starting from when a client reaches out to you, and ending with turning in the completed cover.

Typically, a client will send me a message on Facebook to ask about my rates, and we’ll discuss what it is they’re looking for. Sometimes they want something very specific and just need someone who can realize it. Sometimes the concept is very loose and they want to bounce some ideas around before settling on one. Sometimes they even have specific passages from the book that they want me to look at to get a better idea of what they want. I give them a quote based on the amount of time I think it will take to get the job done, we agree, and I get to work. Depending on what the cover concept is, the whole process could take me just a few hours, or several days. I generally try to adopt whatever style fits the concept best, so I may start by scouring the Internet for images that I can manipulate, adapt and combine into a cover. If it’s something I’ll be painting digitally, I start by doing sketches. I update the client as needed, but unless the image I have is presentable enough for them to mentally fill in any gaps, I don’t show them the cover until it’s a bit further along. Once I show them the initial image, we go over any changes that need to be made, I go back, refine as necessary, take it back to the client and get the final seal of approval.

3. What cover are you most proud of?

I’d say it’s a tie between two of them. The first would be The Forty-Two by Ed Kurtz, which was one of the bigger jobs I’ve done. The other hasn’t been seen by the public until now, the upcoming paperback version of David James Keaton’s The Last Projector, which is due out from Broken River Books around Easter. I don’t often get asked to make a book look like an ‘80’s mixtape, but then again Keaton is a bit of a mad scientist.

4. What are some common design mistakes you've noticed newer artists making, and how can they improve?

I’m hardly a veteran at this, but I do see a lot of bad tendencies among amateurs and even some professional cover designers. Cover design goes through trends like anything else. You can look on Amazon and find dozens of blatant knock-offs of Twilight, Fifty Shades, and The Hunger Games. The designers aren’t wholly to blame, because the author or publisher clearly wants to cash in on what’s popular, but that sort of stuff automatically runs into the problem of alienating all the potential readers who hate Twilight, Fifty Shades, and The Hunger Games but might otherwise like this book. You have to be careful about how you brand something. It has the potential to turn away a lot of readers who are assuming, based on badly chosen cover art, that they know for certain this isn’t the kind of book they’d enjoy reading.

And that’s just one problem. You also have covers that look like they were cobbled together in five minutes from a couple of bad stock photos. You have covers that are ruined because the font is bright red Comic sans. And then you have covers that might look okay up close but as a thumbnail appear to be a formless, uninteresting smudge. You have to find a way to balance color, composition, and text, to give potential readers a teaser that promises the story inside doesn’t suck. You have to do all this and also make it look good shrunken down to the size of a postage stamp. You only have a split second to make a good impression. Nowadays, especially with social media and Amazon, people are inundated with hundreds of images on a daily basis, and they’re scrolling through very quickly, stopping just long enough for recognition to kick in. Whatever you create had better really stand out, because the person looking at it is already moving on to the next thing.

5. Who's your dream author to design a book cover for?

Jack Ketchum. Not just because I love his fiction, but because I know he has a long history of publishers sticking his novels with poorly designed covers––the non-offensive, early edition blood drop cover of Off Season; the cheap, exploitive cover for Cover; the R.L. Stine-style skeleton cheerleader on The Girl Next Door cover; and the cheap stock photo covers that Dorchester slapped on the Leisure Books editions of many of his novels. If there’s ever been a writer whose work has been horribly misrepresented by bad cover art, it’s him. He deserves better and I’d work my ass off to see that he gets the cover he actually wants.

Image of The Altar In The Hills and Other Weird Tales
Author: Brandon Barrows
Price: $6.99
Publisher: Raven Warren Studios (2014)
Binding: Paperback, 152 pages
Image of Tall Tales with Short Cocks Vol. 4
Author: Arthur Graham, Danger Slater, Casper Kelly, Ross E Lockhart, Bradley Sands, Douglas Hackle, David S Atkinson, Chanteclaire Coquine, John McNee, Jeff O'Brien, Eirik Gumeny, Jessica McHugh, Grady Hendrix
Price: $10.95
Publisher: Rooster Republic Press (2013)
Binding: Paperback, 156 pages
Image of The Last Projector
Author: David James Keaton
Price: $29.99
Publisher: Broken River Books (2014)
Binding: Hardcover, 530 pages

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jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like February 20, 2015 - 10:14am

Nice. Good new feature.