How to work with an artist to create a kick-butt book cover, by Duncan Long

Thinking Machine, by Duncan Long

Read me! Buy me! – I think the main thing for writers to understand is that the illustration’s job is basically just to get someone interested in the book so they pick it up (or read a catalog entry) and get interested in buying that title. The cover has to be simple so it can convey its “read me” message with just a glance. That means maybe a character or two can be there with the proper color, lighting, and lettering to set the stage of mood and genre the book falls into.

That means the cover needs to stay pretty simple.

Just a flicker – Remember that a book is like a movie; it can have a cast of thousands; it can span centuries. The book cover is like one frame of that movie. It is just a tiny part, a brief flicker. It can’t tell the whole story of the book.

That seems obvious, yet too often writers want all the story elements in the book on the cover, and it quickly becomes a hodgepodge. And nothing causes folks to pass on a book instead of picking it up more than a confusing cover that can’t be understood with a glance. The cover can hint at what’s in the book; it can’t tell the viewer what the character is going to do for the first 100 pages.

I know that sounds simple. But sadly writers often miss this obvious thing (and part of my job is to try to educate them about this — often I don’t do this as well as I should).

Illustrators do not have time to read your manuscript– When an art director, publisher, or writer approaches the illustrator about doing a cover, it’s generally best to have a scene in mind. Don’t say, “Well, you’re the artist. Read my book and just do your thing.” Unfortunately illustrators are on tight deadlines and don’t have time to read an entire book. But worse, invariably the artist’s key scene will be at odds with the publisher’s. So almost always (at least in my experience) this seems to waste a lot of time and get us all back at the starting line when the dust clears.

Book cover for Paul M. Strickler’s “The Spiritar,” by Duncan Long

What mood do you want to convey? – It’s best to have an idea of what sort of mood you need to establish, what the main “scenery” of the story might be, and what your character looks like. Usually (especially with smaller ebook covers these days) you just will want one or two characters at the most on a cover, and ideally a “close shot” that shows their faces and upper torso rather than their whole bodies. Otherwise you lose a lot of details and don’t really get a good feel for the characters.

Physical description – So you might tell your illustrator, “The main character needs to look like he lives in the European Middle Ages, he should be wearing rusty armor, and his hair is long and stringy. He’s tired and sitting down looking depressed. And maybe there’s a dragon flying off in the distance.” That would give your illustrator something to go on and from there he’ll ask questions to learn what he needs to know to get started on the first sketches he’ll present to you.

Age, ethnicity, hair, eyes, and era – Also be sure you tell the artist how old the character is, ethnic type, hair color and length, and any other key details. Your artist is not going to be happy if he’s spent hours on a sketch of a blond Nordic warrior only to discover your hero is from Morocco with short black hair and an eye patch. The sooner your artist can zero in on things, the happier he’ll be and the more quickly you’ll have your cover.

He looks like Errol Flynn – Sometimes writers have a “picture” of who the character is in their mind. If you’ve been writing and picturing a well-know actor as playing the part (in your mind’s eye), tell your artist that it would be nice if the character looked a little like that person. He can’t give you a perfect portrait of the actor (due to copyright considerations), but it will get the artwork into the right neighborhood.

Remember that when the artist creates their version of the picture, it isn’t going to jive perfectly with how you’ve pictured it in your mind. But unless it really goes against the storyline, try not to dictate unnecessary changes. If you don’t write in the book that the guy’s eyes are blue, don’t be upset if they’re green. Or if he has more or fewer muscles than in your mind. Or his armor is bluish steel instead of silver. Or the distant dragon has horns when you didn’t picture it that way.

If it doesn’t make a difference, then go with the flow and everyone will be a lot happier in the end.

Work with, not against – In the digital age it’s possible to change all sorts of things: Colors, layout, you name it. But that doesn’t mean changing things will always be for the better. Remember that your illustrator has given a lot of thought to the layout before you even see they first sketch. He’s working to make the picture the best he can and also working to make it show off his best skills and minimize the things he’s not so good at painting.

That means don’t ask for changes unless you’re really sure they might improve things. Sometimes client’s make great suggestions for changes, so if you feel strongly, speak up. But also be prepared to listen to your artist if he says, “I don’t think that would work, because…” You’re paying him big bucks to do the work; you need to do your best to let him do his best.

Let your artist do his thing– Just as (hopefully) you don’t tell your plumber how best to tighten a pipe or fix a leak, you also need to stand back and let your artist do his thing in the most efficient way he knows how. He’s spent a lot of years honing his skills; let him give you his best.

Treehouse Clan, by Duncan Long

A writer’s vision, an artist’s vision – I suppose the worst problems I’ve had (and also some of the best, so it’s not an “always the case thing”), have been with writers who are also artists. They tend to have a vision of what they want, and often can almost do the work themselves but either don’t quite have the skills or lack the time. But the results can be somewhat like what would happen if I started telling them what to change in their book to make it better — pretty soon toes are being stepped on and it gets a tad tense rather than being the fun it normally is.

Delegate and let it go – So if you hire someone to do the work, there’s a point where you need to delegate the work and then let your illustrator do it with as little intervention as possible. I know that’s easier said than done, and you do need to give some direction and be sure the picture is turning out the way you want. But try not to micromanage.

Book cover for Philip A. Genovese, Jr.’s “The Grandfather Clause,” by Duncan Long

Fine tuning – Sometimes near the end of a project there will be choices to make: Is this typeface or that lettering better? Would the picture be better if it was flipped horizontally? Should the character be a little closer or a little more distant?

When you get to this point — there’s really no bad answer. That is, you’ve refined so much along the way that often you reach a point where all the possibilities are going to work. You can’t make a wrong choice. So my advice at this point is just to go with what looks best or let your artist decide. Just don’t get caught in that endless loop of infinite adjustments and changes that do little to improve things but can waste a lot of time all the way around.

Sign a contract – I’d say that it’s always a good idea to have an illustrator do the work for you with a contract that has spelled out the amount of pay, whether there will be royalties (generally illustrators get a flat fee and no royalties, by the way), and what rights you’re getting. If there’s no contract, US courts generally assume that the rights the buyer gets are minimal.

So if an artist offers you a contract, take it because it will likely be protecting you more than it does him. And have a lawyer look the contract over if you have even a tiny doubt about things; contracts aren’t written in stone and almost always the details can be hashed out to leave everyone happy with things.

Careful on the residuals – Finally, remember with a contract that the artist owns the artwork. You only buy certain rights to use that artwork from him. You don’t own the picture. You likely will only own the right to use the picture on one book cover. If you want mouse pad rights, t-shirts, or even the right to use the picture on a series of books rather than just one, then be sure that’s all spelled out in your contract. Otherwise there can be some expensive confusion and hurt feelings all the way around due to misunderstandings.

Book cover for Douglas E. Richards’ “The Devil’s Sword,” by Duncan Long

The artist as a shepherd – I’ve probably made this process of creating a cover sound a lot harder than it is or maybe even terrifying. Fortunately most illustrators have had lots of experience in these things and will be happy to answer your questions and shepherd you through the process. And once you get started, you’ll find it’s a whole lot of fun seeing your cover come alive, and later a real joy to see the book sitting there on a bookshelf or in a catalog. That’s when it all seems more than worth the little trouble you went through in getting it just the way it needed to be to help sell your book.

About Duncan –

Duncan Long has created over a thousand cover and interior illustrations for HarperCollins, PS Publishing, Pocket Books, ILEX, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, and many other presses and self-publishing authors. Talk-show host Victor Thorn named Long one of the three “best graphic artists in the entire world.”

Long has also authored 13 novels (Avon Books, HarperCollins) and over 80 technical and how-to manuals, many of which he’s also illustrated.

You can view Long’s artwork at Duncan Long.


Filed under Book Cover Design, Guest Writers & Bloggers, Illustrators & Illustrations, Publishing

29 responses to “How to work with an artist to create a kick-butt book cover, by Duncan Long

  1. What a great and informative post. Wonderful artwork. Wish I could afford you, Duncan!

  2. Wise words, Duncan. It is a nice reminder that producing books are not the solitary endeavors we imagine them to be.

  3. Wow! This is the most in-depth post I’ve ever come across anywhere, that explains the soup-to-nuts aspects of the all important book cover so beautifully. An absolutely excellent reference to keep filed away for future endeavors. Thank you, thank you, Duncan & Karen!

  4. Jessica

    Thanks for explaining the process Duncan! I have great respect for cover artists and the work they do. It’s a daunting task, and I am often awed at the depth and beauty of their art. My one question is: how would you explain cover art that clearly doesn’t represent the book? I’ve had several thoughts about this – perhaps the depicted scene was deleted in the final draft, or perhaps the explanation of the book to the artist was unclear. Do you have any thoughts?

  5. Jessica: Sometimes the cover isn’t anything in the book. This can sometimes be justified if the cover illustration captures the “feel” of the book. However too often it is simply because the publisher has an extra quality illustration they’ve bought and want to use it somewhere — and thus it gets stuck on the front of something close. Ideally when this happens, the author will have a chance to add a scene to the book that explains the cover — which works better than one might suppose. But it is a problem better avoided if possible. Fortunately most publishers hire artists to create a scene for the specific book, and this situation is more rare than it once was. But sadly you still see if on occasion.

    • Jessica

      Thanks for the insight! And from the pics of the covers you’ve done, I think there are some ecstatic authors out there, who are over-the-moon-delighted about your covers for their books.

    • Yes, yes! This happened with my last novel, According to Luke. I didn’t need to add a scene, either – just one sentence. It has worked really well, and I am glad I came to you for advice at the time, Duncan – my publishers were right, and so were you. It all worked well.

  6. ALSO: Thanks everyone for the kind comments about my illustrations.

  7. I know many self published authors – and it amazes me that they ofteen don’t seem to have much idea of what makes an eye-catching cover. I fully realise that most SP authors do not have much money to spend (so artists are often out and stock images are in) but I have seen too many dull, uninspiring covers – and some fabulous ones. (My own designer Cathy Helms, is great to work with)
    Loved your article – authors must take on board that the cover is as important as the text inside!

  8. It is a soup-to-nuts. Everything you always wanted to know, but were afraid to ask!

  9. Duncan – Is it true that sometimes the AUTHOR has no decision-making in the cover art process when working with a big house?

    • Sadly, some big presses do not allow authors to have much input. I think this is in large part because the press knows what sort of cover will sell books while the author likely won’t have too clear an idea of what will sell and what will not. Consequently the publishers have tended to take the author out of the loop. Possibly letting the art director be responsible for the cover without other input also streamlines the process and gets the book into the marketplace faster as well.

  10. Great post, so helpful to hear things from the artist’s perspective.

  11. The Cover is the first glimpse a reader has to my book. And that cover will draw a reader to pick up my book, and read the blurb, then maybe the first few pages.

    It is essential for Authors to hire a competent cover designer. You can still have talent to design a cover. And I’ve seen alot of great covers designed by talented cover artists then read the story, and the cover is misleading. What I mean by that is you can end up targeting the wrong audience. And that will be a killer for reviews and sales.

    The right cover can and will make the difference in your sales. Although as an Author it would easier to hand over my book to the cover designer and say “please read it” that’s not feasible. So it is important for the author to provide as much detailed information, so the cover designer can create the right cover. Duncan thank you for providing your detailed perspective, it is a great reminder as an author of the information we need to provide.

    Lorhainne Eckhart

    • Yes, the cover must not only reflect the story, but also give the potential reader a quick feel for what the genre is, whether it is tongue-in-cheek or a no nonsense story, and so forth. Lettering, illustration, even colors will all help in this and it can be tricky. Probably the first thing your cover artist should know is the genre.

  12. Right on!

    I come to an artist with a picture in my mind and describe it as best I can. The best covers we get at AKW Books happen when the artist decides to change our composition concept and do it his/her way. Some even blow me away because of the difference in dramatic appeal.

    Lesson: artists have an “eye” for composition that I will never master.

    • Good point. Generally the less “micro managing” the better the results will be. Giving an artist a little free reign will often give you a surprising cover that is even better than you might have imagined/dictated on your own.

  13. Very cool! Great insightful information…as always from my favorite Word Shark EVER!! I used a tactic of taking votes on 6 different covers that we had developed. The one I’m using for Maycly won hands down. The votes were not from family and friends, but rather outsiders at local author showcases, a voting poll on my website, and other such stuff. The one my future readers chose was nowhere near what we had liked ourselves. Just goes to show you, your readers know what they want for sure! 😉

  14. I’ve read that at the big publishing houses, the author has next to no say in the cover, and what little say they have can be ignored.

    But in this age of self-publishing, this is insightful. I never thought about the artist having not read the book, so that is good to know (and makes sense).

    It was also good to think about how the cover should look in those thumbnail pictures used online. And the contract info is especially helpful.

    Thank you for sharing this and your art.

  15. I never really thought about the artists NOT reading the books either, until I read Duncan’s article. And it does make sense. If he’s reading all the time, then he’s not working on his craft. So the writer describes what they want, what they feel about their book, then let the artist do his thing!

    • And, of course, you’re all assuming artists know how to read :o)

      • Ah, well, I’m an artist too, so I assume all artist are smart like me. Ha! And to refer back to what you mentioned in the article, I would never try to design my own cover. One probably really needs to do their homework and hire the best artist for their style and what that person is like to work with. On one website I came across an artist whose comments were so obnoxious that I knew I’d never work with him even if he was the best artist in the universe.

  16. Marta, I know what you mean…you can learn a lot from reading a few posts on a blog! Enough to know you could never expect any chemistry.

  17. Excellent illustrations and tips. Great series Karen.

  18. Thanks, Stacy. These special weeks are so much fun! Considering a Children’s Back to School Week in August!

  19. Duncan,

    Thank you for writing this article. It never occurred to me that cover artists interpret the book for me. I think it’s amazing and enchanting, having published two books, that someone else could see something in my book that I don’t. The first one had a photographed cover, and the second had a regrettable stock image cover. Number two is still an issue, and yes, it was based on my finances.

    That regret is the fuel that makes me appreciate cover artists of your caliber. So next time, I will find a way to afford an unbelievable cover. I’ll just plan in advance like I would for a car or house. After all, my work represents me.

  20. This blog post just keeps giving and giving! Thank you – everyone – for all your comments and for visiting the blog. Duncan sure is a winner!

  21. Pingback: Mind Sieve 1/23/12 « Gloria Oliver

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