Always Judge a Book by its Cover: Meet the Artists Dominating Small Press (Part 2)

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.

This is the second half of a two-part article. For interviews with George Cotronis, April Guadiana, and Dyer Wilk, click here for the previous installment.


Matthew Revert — Website: MatthewRevert.com

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

From the start, I want to dispel any belief I derive my living from cover design. I work a full-time day job, which allows me to pay rent and ensure food is known to me. In order to sustain myself on design income in a country as expensive as Australia, I would have to charge significantly more than I suspect the vast majority of my clients could afford. The big benefit of this dynamic is I actually get to design enjoyable things rather than getting paid handsomely to design corporate banality.

In terms of how I started getting paid for designs—as a co-owner of LegumeMan Books, one of my responsibilities was cover design. This responsibility was given to me because I knew how to open Photoshop and had some vague understanding regarding its most basic functions. So I fumbled my way through several regrettable covers and slowly built up a rudimentary aptitude. As these designs became less embarrassing, other authors and presses started to notice and eventually I was contacted by Cameron Pierce at Lazy Fascist and asked if I could make a one-off cover. That cover was for Blake Butler and Sean Kilpatrick’s Anatomy Courses. That design was received very well and I was immediately asked if I could help out with a cover for Patrick Wensink’s Broken Piano For President. Due to a very kind legal threat from Jack Daniels, this design became somewhat famous and helped earn Lazy Fascist a good amount of money. From there, I became the Lazy Fascist designer and have designed each book since Anatomy Courses with the exception of Skullcrack City by Jeremy Robert Johnson. The concept that people were actually willing to pay me to design was a startling one to me.

 

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 complete cover.

The process varies from client to client. Some presses have me liaise solely with them without author input and some presses put me in touch immediately with the author and have the two of us discuss design without publisher input. What I typically require is a brief explanation of a book and a general overview of possible design concepts. Where possible, I try to steer clients away from too much specificity. There are a couple of reasons for this. Authors are understandably very close to their books and, as such, often the cover concepts that manifest from these bonds are myopic or visually confusing. I like to use my distance from the content to adhere some sense of universality to its visual representation. I try to strike a balance between a cover that can be appreciated without knowing anything about the book it represents and one that grows into something more once the book has been read. It’s about helping draw a potential reader toward a book and then becoming a part of the ongoing relationship with the book as a whole.

Once this concept has been discussed, I will then go away and try to mock something up that passes my own inner critic before passing it on. A design that works well speaks to me upon its creation. If I can reach that point, I know it’s worth showing the client. Sometimes I’m lucky and the first thing I show ticks all the necessary boxes. Sometimes I’m way off base and have to try again. More often than not, I am nearly there, but tweaks are required. From this point, every iteration is sent to the client until we have arrived at our cover. From there I get all the necessary information the cover requires (such as synopses, colophon, barcodes, blurbs) and generate the print-ready file.    

3. What cover are you most proud of?

This question is nearly impossible to answer. There will never be one single design that speaks to me more than any other. Rather there are different designs that represent various milestones. Anatomy Courses was a big one because it started everything and it makes my eyes happy. Vanessa Rossetto’s Exotic Exit LP was another because I had always wanted to design record sleeves, and Vanessa gave me the opportunity. For The Woman Alone by Ashley Inguata is a design I am proud of due to its enormous complexity. I designed each individual page and the level of detail is something I hadn’t attempted before. It was a lot of work, but the end result is really lovely. I am proud of my design for Graham Lambkin and Jason Lescalleet’s Photographs album because it allowed me to experience preparing files for atypical printing techniques. The point is, I could probably cite over a hundred different designs that have been milestones in their own way, and choosing one to afford the most pride doesn’t sit comfortably with me.

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

The most common design mistake—the one I see examples of daily, are books designed by people who are not designers. I understand there is not much money in the world of small presses or record labels, but producing work for free in house by non-designers is a surefire way to diminish your chance of earning money from the product. So this is a plea… please assess your abilities openly and honestly. Have friends you trust who are willing to be brutally honest with you. If you are not capable of executing a passable design, please invest money in hiring someone who can. Your press deserves it, but more importantly, your authors deserve it. Don’t sell yourself or your authors short by cutting costs on design. There are amazing up-and-coming designers out there who will work for entry level prices as they build their profile. It is also a mistake contacting me (or any other designer) and expecting I will do free work for you for the ‘exposure’. Please do not do this. I am not interested in being exposed by you.

Any other ‘mistakes’ I could list would be a matter of personal aesthetic preference, and voicing them would achieve very little and come across as overly prescriptive. 

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

I would love to work closely with Clarice Lispector to design the cover for her new book because that would mean she was still alive and producing work. Other than that, I don’t particularly covet any authors in particular. I just want to work with people who share my aesthetic values and have a sense of experimentation and adventure.

Luke Spooner — Website: Carrion House

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

When I left University in 2012 I had finished my illustration degree; handed in work, sketchbooks, dissertation, even wall mounted my work for an exhibition to be looked over by a horde of complete strangers all in time for the end of May that year. The deadline was very specific and had all sorts of scary words attached to it by the lecturers. I won’t go into specifics on what the words were but suffice to say they manifested themselves in a pulse of palpable tension that ran throughout the illustration department’s student body like wildfire. For me it meant some very early mornings coupled with some very late nights, but regardless of how individuals reacted and prepared, the deadline in May was our collective focus as students on the cusp of being professional illustrators and designers.

What we didn’t realize was that we didn’t officially graduate until July of that year, the 23rd of July actually, which happened to be one of the last graduation ceremonies for any department in the entire University (first ones in, last ones out, right?). This meant that we effectively had two whole months of not having a clue who we were supposed to be. Were we students? Were we graduates? Could we start working without knowing whether we’d passed? The list of open ended questions goes on, but when you’re talking about a department full of potential freelancers, you knew you weren’t going to get any answers. There was absolutely no hope of turning to your fellow artists and finding out what they had planned because competition was verging on blood thirsty, the very notion of giving a helping hand was the equivalent of handing someone the knife and dutifully turning the other way while they went about carrying out the inevitable.

So seeing the sideways glances and sharpening of paint brushes I decided to jump the gun and get searching. I decided that I didn’t need to know what grade I got—or even whether I’d passed to be a practicing freelancer. I had a portfolio to my name and a desire to work and seek out potential projects. For two months I emailed and searched, rinsed and repeated, sending upwards of forty emails a day until eventually one client, just as fresh and new to ‘the game’ as I was, said they wanted me on board for their new project and were willing to pay me actual money in return for my services. It was amazing and, although it wasn’t technically a cover, I treated every one of the fifteen interior illustrations as if they were they’re own cover. The client in question was Grim Corps and although they’ve since gone on an indefinite hiatus and my work for them is over three years old now, they still sit very high up on my list of clients over at www.carrionhouse.com and should do for many years to come.

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 complete cover.

When a client gets in touch they usually mention how they found me, followed swiftly by what it is they need. After that is where the ‘typical enquiry’ goes out the window because people differ drastically in their initial proposal, which usually means I have to probe them for the information I require to get the job started. We cover things like budgets, deadlines, size specifications, etc. until we get to the reading of any source material they have in mind for the requested piece. I really enjoy this part so I tend to throw myself into it at my earliest convenience, sometimes getting it done while waiting for clients to email me back.

After all the fine details are ironed out I either return any notes I made on the source material or simply acknowledge that I’ve read it and get to work depending entirely on the client’s preference. Then it’s into sketching and designing, followed swiftly by painting which inevitably leads to waiting for the thing to dry, but once dried and flattened I move into the inking and finer detail with pens, pencils, stamps, stencils—anything that makes a mark when covered in ink, really. After that’s done, I scan the piece in and tweak it digitally until I’m happy with it, then send if off to the client.

On occasion you do get a rare client who simply supplies an illustration brief, so something along the lines of: ‘we want this like this, with one of those coming into frame from the right and that has to be the same colour as one of those’ until there’s very little room for individual interpretation and they’re pretty much paying you for your work’s aesthetic and your overall work ethic. This isn’t always a bad thing, though, as guidelines make a job far easier to tackle but it can sometimes mean that the client has already made up their mind exactly how the end result will look and any creative flourish you put on it that isn’t in keeping with their vision, despite the sense of artistic fulfillment you might get from it, simply will not do.

The other end of the spectrum are those clients that get in touch with a friendly; ‘love your work, I need a cover for a *insert genre here* collection, just go with it man, can’t wait to see what you do.’ This is a double edged sword because as an artist the idea of freedom is awesome, but the potential for being very self indulgent is massive, so you have to really hope that the client loves your work as much as they say because they’ll inevitably get a very concentrated burst of it as their cover. 

3. What cover are you most proud of?

There are three covers that share the top spot at the moment:

  • ‘Amefurikozō’ for Solarwyrm’s Latchkey Tales
  • 'Cadavers' for Knightwatch Press’s anthology of the same name
  • ‘Elder Regions: New York’ for Myth Ink’s book of the same name

The first two are included in this list because they were projects were I was just told to follow what I felt was the best course of action so I consider them both some very pure, undiluted examples of my style of illustration. The last one was for the cover of a collection of stories that I had also created interior illustrations for. The vision for the front cover piece was to bring back significant characters from the interior illustrations and amalgamate them into some sort of collage. I initially laughed at the idea as the very thought of it was corner-cowering daunting, but the more I pondered it the more I saw it as a challenge, something that really would prove myself to me. I habitually doubt everything I do creatively but this one proved to be one of the few instances where on completion that little second guessing voice at the back of my head had nothing to say. 

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

Being a freelancer you’re automatically made into quite a solitary creature by default, luckily the internet and social media in particular allow you to remedy that by following other artist blogs, reading studio diaries, ‘liking’ artist pages etc. Unlike a standard nine-to-five job, we aren’t expected to move in lots of different social circles and interact with different departments, and in all honesty I think this sort of job attracts that sort of person. We have the ability to create our own little worlds, so why would we want to come out of them, right?

That being said, I do occasionally pull my head out of the sand to have a look around and there are a few mistakes that crop up more frequently than I’d like to admit. You do see a lot of artists, fresh out of University or just setting up the online presence they intend to use as they’re jump-off point, that seem to think it’s okay to act unprofessionally because they’re pursuing something creative as an occupation. Some shallower view points I’ve stumbled across seem to regard fields like illustration as a childish, unserious pursuit. When questioned, their reasoning for such a conclusion is that it can involve drawing, painting, doodling and cutting and pasting—all things indulged in during your formative years at pre-school. Needless to say, this is a very shrewd and basic conclusion to draw but thankfully, by its very nature, it can be cast aside by anyone with a reasonable intellect. The mistake here is when people hoping to be an illustrator decide to embrace that narrow minded stereotype and, rather than adopting it ironically, fall back on it as an excuse to miss deadlines, give very poor business correspondence, to create sub-par pieces of work. This is a very specific, very bespoke profession and to undermine it as anything less through sloppy business acumen is to tarnish an entire occupation. 

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

During my education it was a very simple answer of: ‘Stephen King.’ He wrote good horror, I liked horror and wanted to illustrate horror—ergo, he’s the King (HA!). However, the more I read under my own direction, exploring genres, styles, formats and series, the more I realized that King is a big fish, a massive one actually, but there is still an ocean out there. So now I have sort of a list but it grows and grows more every day. King is still up there but now he sits alongside the likes of Bret Easton Ellis, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Michel Faber, Ernest Cline and Edogawa Rampo. I am quite lucky in that my profession introduces me to some of my new favourite authors. I’ve been handed collections and asked to do the front covers or interior illustrations for people that now have pride of place on my book shelf. It’s a pretty good gig. 

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