So You Need a Cover—Now What?
By: Stacy J. Garrett, July 9, 2014
You have written the next great American/British/Canadian/Whatever novel. It has been edited to the best of the Grammar Police’s specifications, you have either a publisher or are going to self-publish, and now you have the next most important thing to do other than finishing the book: obtain a cover. Let’s not kid ourselves here, folks. There’s a reason people say ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’ And while we’re also told ‘not to judge a book by its cover’, if we were all to be honest, we would admit that we very much do. A cover is your first line of defense as an author. It will be the thing that gets people to stop as they walk past a bookshelf or table, and it will be the thing plastered all over the internet as you start promoting your Book of Awesome.
Courtesy Stacy J. Garrett
I’m not here to talk about the elements of the cover designs themselves and what works for each genre. Many others have covered that already. I’m here to talk about working with an artist who will help you obtain said design. Those of you who can make your own art, you may now move on to other articles. Those of you who cannot, get out your notepad as I start knocking out some key points to keep in mind when you hunt for your artistic partner in crime.
1. KNOW WHAT YOU WANT
Before you go hunting for an artist, think very critically about what you want in your cover. Have at least some sort of idea. “I want Character A to be standing in front of a cruise ship that has been damaged by cannon blasts.” You could even have it be as vague as “I want a cruise ship.” You could also be as specific as “I want Character A to be wearing a red sundress with a military jacket. She is standing in front of a large cruise ship that has holes in the side from cannonballs and smoke coming from the top. The sun is setting in the distance.” The more specific you can get, the more likely you will be happy with the final product from your artist. There’s nothing wrong with turning loose an artist with the freedom of their interpretation of your vague idea, but just remember that people can’t read minds, and they may not see the same vision you do.
2. DO YOUR RESEARCH. All artists are different. Different styles, different fields, different medias.
Seems a bit of an obvious statement, but it needs to be said anyway. You have to look critically at your needs and then start searching the internet. deviantArt is a hive of artists ranging from amazing to awful, and it should be one of your first stops. Looking for an artist to draw your cruise ship? Search for ships on DA and see if anyone jumps out as having done something similar. No ships? Look for other similar vehicles. You don’t want to ask an artist who specializes in characterizations to work on a cruise ship, and vice-versa.
3. CHECK THE ARTIST’S WEBSITE OR DA JOURNAL FOR COMMISSION INFO.
Not all artists take commissions, and not all artists who do take commissions are available. If you’re on DA, check through the artist’s journal posts for anything flagged about commission information. You’ll usually find pricing, scope, and their specific requirements for the types of work they will accept. If you’re on someone’s website, look for something about their contact information or, if you’re lucky, something specifically flagged as ‘hire me.’ If you don’t see ANY information about whether they do or do not take commissions, then message them via email or DA’s internal system to ask. You will not offend someone by expressing interest in their art and asking if you can hire them (unless they said they don’t take commissions). If they say no, or you see that they list commissions as closed—and this is important—DO NOT ASK AGAIN. Either cool your heels until commissions open, or move on to another artist. You are an artist of words yourself. You know that you cannot just spew out words on demand if you’re not in the mood or don’t have the time for it. You cannot expect artists of other medias to be any different.
4. ESTABLISH THE GROUND RULES AND AIM FOR TRANSPARENCY
You found an artist who draws beautiful cruise ships, she’s tickled at the idea of helping design your cover, and her price range is well within your budget. Great! The next thing to do is having a serious chat.
a. What are her average timelines? Are you on a deadline? (Please, be reasonable with deadlines. You can’t expect greatness within a three-day turnaround unless you want to seriously pay for it.)
b How does she communicate her progress? Does she show her client various stages of the work, or does she offer a finished product that will then be tweaked? This last will vary between the different genres of art. A drawn/painted artist (be it hand or digital media) may be more likely to share various stages of progress because it is easier to make changes early. Photographers (be it straight shoots or constructed reality) may be more likely to give you a final product to then be tweaked.
c. How does she accept payment? Before, during, after completion, or all of the above? Does she accept Paypal or Square? Depending on the level of commitment in the art, and the type of art, you could encounter many different scenarios. The important thing to remember is to establish the rules first and then abide by them. If you don’t pay your artist, your art may well be held hostage until you do—and you may find it hard to ever hire anyone else.
d. What will you be allowed to do with the art? THIS IS IMPORTANT. If the artist is ONLY signing away her rights for the use of a cover, then you CANNOT make posters from the art and sell them. You will probably pay more for a piece of art you will retain all rights to, but if you want to use it beyond cover promotions, then that may be the best route to go. Remember, whatever route you and the artist take, get it in writing. You are not being offensive if you ask to have in writing the exact specifications of what you can and cannot do. It will protect you both.
5. ABOVE ALL ELSE, BE POLITE AND FRIENDLY.
Really, do I have to say this? I’ve heard the horror stories, and I’ve experienced them as an artist. Screaming and ranting and crying will get you nowhere except on an artistic blacklist. Are there terrible artists out there who will be demanding and frustrating and probably make a decent attempt at giving others a bad name? Ab-so-lutely. That’s why when you’re doing your research, you check out their other completed commissions and see what the general feedback is from their clients. Try to establish a great working relationship with your chosen artist so that you both walk away happy. Particularly if you’re already working on a sequel, and you know you’ll want the covers to be by the same artist!
As a bonus, here are some slightly more photographer specific ideas to keep in mind if you want to work with someone like me who works in film rather than ink.
6. TELL ME EVERYTHING ABOUT YOUR CHARACTERS.
If you have me trying to cast models/actors to portray your characters, I need to know everything. Hair, eye, and skin color are rather obvious, as are body shape and height, but I also need to know their personalities. I need to know if someone is shy or bold, sexy or prudish, dominating or submissive, a warrior or a healer, and so on. If I have more than one character at a time, I need to know the relationship. Friends, lovers, siblings? Struggling against each other, or would splitting them apart be more dangerous than splitting an atom? I will be working with real people who need to know who they are becoming. Keep in mind, especially, that humans are not always as expressive as their drawn counterparts. You can have an artist draw a spectacularly epic rage on someone’s face, but I’m going to have to give my actor a reason to be so damn mad. Let us inside your characters’ heads so we can help them come to life.
7. BACKGROUNDS. PLEASE BE REASONABLE
I have no access to the moon. I cannot photograph someone standing on its surface. I can take a photo of a model and build a constructed image where he or she looks like they are on the moon, but then you’re going to be paying for my stock photography costs as well as my regular shoot. I am a blessed photographer in that my Central California location means I have access to nearly any landscape with only a few hours’ drive, but others may not be so lucky. Think very critically about what your setting/background needs to be. Artists who work in photomanipulation or photographers who do constructed reality (there IS a difference) may be able to get you your fantastical scenes, but there might be additional costs incurred.
8. YOU CAN DISLIKE A PHOTO I TAKE FOR YOU.
Really! I’m trying to read your mind, and my view of your reality may be quite different. You are welcome to tell me you don’t like a photo I took, as long as you differentiate between disliking the photo and calling me a bad photographer. You hired me because you’ve seen my work and know I’m good. To then turn around and call me a terrible photographer because I didn’t capture your vision will only offend me and make you look bad. You can say “I don’t like this particular image” without being offensive at all. It’s especially helpful if you follow up with why, because I can then try again and perhaps get it right. You may not even realize what you do or do not want until you start seeing interpretations, and that’s just fine. That’s why communication is so important.
9. CREDIT ME WHEREVER YOU CAN.
Someone loves your art/cover and gushes over its awesomeness? Tell them who made it and offer to link them to my site(s). This applies to all artists, really, but for those of us who depend on word of mouth for advertisement, it’s a big deal. You are sending us potential clients. And, you know what? You feed me another client, and I know you did it, you can bet I’ll be passing along some kickbacks to you either via discounts or just going a bit above and beyond the call of artistic duty.
Just remember, more than anything else, that you are an artist yourself and you know what it feels like. You know the nerves and the self-doubt and the worry about putting something you’ve created into the hands of others. Treat your cover artist the way you want to be treated, and you may create for yourself a great working relationship that will extend far beyond just one book.
Stacy J. Garrett is a freelance fine arts photographer whose focus on people photography has led her to an appreciation and admiration for all people of all shapes, sizes, colors, and more. She holds an Associate of Arts Degree in Fine Arts Photography from Sacramento City College, and is currently pursuing her Bachelors from the Academy of Art University of San Francisco. She has more than ten years of experience in her field and also serves as Creative Director for the B.R.A.V.E. Society, a statewide non-profit that is dedicated to the erasure of peer abuse and bully-driven suicides among youths.