Working With a Cover Artist–Lessons Learned from Working in the Web Design Industry

I thought I’d share my limited experience of working with a cover artist by talking about how I communicated what I wanted, which I pulled from my experience of being on the designer end for over a decade, albeit in web design.

So, Monday evening I shared my new cover for my first release ever, BEER AND GROPING IN LAS VEGAS. As I stated in that post, I love the cover. Here’s how I increased the odds I’d love it.

Communicate what you mean

So many times back when I worked in web design, we’d get frustrated with clients who couldn’t communicate what they wanted and would basically say “I don’t have time. I’m not an artist, just make me something edgy.”  Or “I’ll know what I want when I see it.” Oh boy. Lots of times our definition of “edgy” did NOT match theirs. Quickly we began honing our interrogation techniques questions we’d ask so that we could get a good idea of what the client actually meant. We also made sure to ask things about what they hated (even specific colors) and to ask if there were any strong dislikes up the chain (nothing sucked worse than creating three mockups, going back and forth with the client until one of the three matched what they wanted, going into production and creating the graphics for the website and then when the decision-maker up the chain who couldn’t be bothered to be a part of the original negotiations finally looked at the fully-functioning-ready-to-make-live website and the predominate color is green, AND THEY HATE GREEN. Argh.)

Things I took away from that experience that could apply to communicating with cover artists:

  1. Try to come up with words that convey the mood and style you want.
  2. Realize that your definition of those words might not be the same as the artist’s
  3. If there’s anyone whose opinion matters to you, get their input in the beginning
  4. Communicate any strong dislikes. What if you hate the color green and the whole background of your cover is green? Is that the artist’s fault if you failed to mention it? No. And now you’re in a position where you’re going to have to decide whether to suck it up, or negotiate with the artist and potentially ruining your working relationship

There’s trust in this relationship. You’re trusting an artist to create a visual representation of your work. But there’s trust happening on the other end too: the artist is trusting that you’re communicating fully with him/her and that all the hard work they’re about to do won’t be wasted and have to be thrown out because you couldn’t communicate effectively.

Anyway, with all this in my background I was acutely aware of being on the other end for a change. The publisher gives the authors a good detailed questionnaire to help with this process, but that’s only as good as what the author chooses to put in there as answers. Some must not be very communicative, because when I complimented the cover artist for nailing it, she said “You were very concise with your descriptions on your CA, so I have you to thank for that.”

So what did I put in there?

You might think from what she said that I was specific as to what the cover should look like precisely, i.e. “I’d like a guy and girl playfully touching foreheads, a beer bottle in the foreground and a Welcome to Vegas sign in the background.” Nope.

Instead I listed elements that were part of the story and let the artist figure out how best to represent it. I also included excerpts of description and setting in case it was relevant.

So what did she mean by concise?

Part of the questionnaire asked what we’d like to see on our cover and part of my answer had this:

Font: Nice, clean font.

Imagery: Not too busy

Mood: Light, sexy, funny

But remember the client who wanted “edgy”? Everyone has different definitions for these terms, so with that in mind, I expanded on what I meant by these in the rest of the questionnaire. So in the next question, which asked what we didn’t like, I used that area to expand on two of these to help illustrate my definitions of these. I stated that I didn’t want the scripty type fonts and inserted covers to show what I meant. I then also inserted covers to illustrate what I meant by “too busy”

And then in the optional section where it asked for a cover that I liked, I knew I couldn’t find a cover that had my mood or had specifics to fit, so instead I used it to show designs I liked that helped illustrate what I liked as far as style. And I used covers from the same publisher so I could stay realistic as far as what could be done. (In other words, I knew there wasn’t a budget for setting up a photo shoot with models). Here was what I put:

Here are some covers where I think the cover looks classy, clean (clean as in not too busy) etc. NOTE: These are meant to convey what I mean by classy and clean—obviously the mood and content of these wouldn’t necessarily work for mine. And again, not saying others aren’t classy and clean, only that this is what I consider it to mean–everyone has different definitions, so just letting you know mine 😉

And on the first go, she came back with exactly what I wanted! Yay! And because I’m still just so dang excited, and it seems fitting to do so, I’ll close with the end result:

To sum it up, even in this aspect of the book business, it’s best to show not tell 😉

One cover does not an expert make, so please, use the comments to help expand my limited experience with yours! Have you worked with cover artists before? What are some tips you have for helping this process go smooth and end with a wonderful cover? Do you have any horror stories to share as cautionary tales?

13 Replies to “Working With a Cover Artist–Lessons Learned from Working in the Web Design Industry”

  1. How different our preceptions are. I would have said that all of these were “too busy” with the posible exception of “Dead Man Floating.” However, you have some excellent points about describing cover art that I hope I have occasion to use one day.
    The artist did an excellent job of creating a cover along the lines of those you like. I am probably one of the few who actually liked the old Signet Regency covers. I have never chosen a book because of its cover except once when I wanted the cover and didn’t much care about the book. If I chose books by the cover, I would have very little to read..
    I do like that your cover shows it is a contemporary story. Title is great.

    1. Yep, excellent example of why it’s so important to show visually what one means with the words we choose. If you thought most of these were too busy, you should have seen the ones I gave as an example 🙂

  2. just a random comment. i love your website and the list of your current work and contests on the right. as far as covers go, i like really clean modern images, or sometimes no images at all. i love the title of your book. i’m a big Hunter Thompson fan. i wish you continued success.

  3. I think you pretty much nailed it. Dawne is an excellent cover artist who always *gets it* right. I’ve never had to ask her to redo a cover. Even with a few ords, she just seems to know what I want. Great article and good luck with your book…

  4. I love this post–I always hear authors biting their tongues (yes, there’s a sound for that) over their covers, being nervous that they’ll hate them. So it’s great to see that there are things I can do to help get the cover I want! (When I get to that point, that is 😉

    What’s your release date again? I want to read this one! So hard to find geek romances. 🙂

  5. Angela, this is a great post. I’m in the middle of this process too, and I tried to be as specific as possible, but I didn’t think of showing the kind of covers I had in mind. Doh! But the artist is great, so *Fingers Crossed* it comes out as good as yours!

  6. This is great advice!

    If you are choosing your own cover artist the number one best thing you can do is check their website! I know this sounds like a no brainer, but as a cover designer I get SO many emails where the authors haven’t looked at my site, have not seen my portfolio, and have not read the very detailed FAQ page that explains everything you;d ever need to know. The worst are the ones who, when sent the FAQ link, will respond with “I don’t have time. Just tell me the important stuff.” To me that says their cover doesn’t matter to them, so why should I waste my time if they can’t spend theirs?

    Another great thing you can do if you have a certain kind of font you like is go to a fonts site (daFont is a good one) and collect names or links to the types of fonts you want. Sometimes we spend days niggling over fonts with descriptions like “clean” where MY idea of a clean font and their’s are very different things. Also, if the artist asks for specifics, again don’t tell them that you “don’t have time to mess with it”.

  7. As a writer with a strong interest in visual art and design, I love the “show don’t tell” aspects of this post, especially the curated collection of covers you love, followed by the cover that resulted. I can really see your (splendid) taste in typography shine through, as well as your elegantly understated color-sense. Most of the covers you selected have very limited palettes, though one would not call them monochrome.

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