Talking cover design

It might be a cliché, but buyers do judge books by their covers. For self-publishing authors, cover design is an important part of the process and something you need to seriously consider.

You might like to read this blog post, part of the self-publishing skills series.

Alex Storer is a cover artist and graphic designer. I spoke to him about his work and how he supports self-publishing authors.

Tell us a little about what you do.

I’m a cover artist and graphic designer – I specialise in science and speculative fiction, but have also done covers for fantasy, thriller, horror and even comedy! I also make instrumental music, which is often science fiction influenced.

I’ve been a professional graphic designer for almost 25 years, but I rediscovered my love of science fiction and space art back in 2010, when I first started creating my own pieces. I’ve always been an avid reader and fan of cover art ­– my long-time ambition of illustrating book covers became a reality in 2014 and has progressed from there. I’m able to provide a full service of illustration and design, so the author gets the cover they want, right down to the kind of typeface.

Can you describe the creative process? How do you create artwork for authors?

The first thing is always to have a chat with the author about their book, and what kind of cover they have in mind. I like to know what sort of things they like and it’s also an opportunity to go over any specific details that have to be included.

I work digitally. After those initial conversations I’ll work up a couple of B&W concept sketches – rough ideas for overall composition – and once we’re agreed on a direction, I’ll start working up the actual illustration. Once the illustration is on the way to being finalised, I then look at typography and layout options (whether just an ebook cover or front, back and spine for a printed paperback).

It’s easy to forget that the first thing anybody sees of your book is usually the cover – before they’ve even read a word. It’s my job to take an author’s words and ideas and transform that into a cover that works across the board. I always give my clients options and ask for feedback along the way – it has to be a two-way creative process.

What do self-publishers need to be aware of when they work with an illustrator and cover designer?

Expectations. As an artist, my work has a certain style; whether it’s a personal portfolio piece or a cover project – it’s always identifiably my work. It’s important that the author is confident the artistic style is right for their book. Most artists will have a distinctive approach to their work like this, so if you are expecting different results, then you’ve chosen the wrong artist.

“For any artist to do their best work, a degree of artistic license needs to be allowed.”

Artistic license. For any artist to do their best work, a degree of artistic license needs to be allowed. While there does need to be certain constraints in place to find the right direction, I know I would feel a little stifled if I was unable to bring my own interpretation to things. It still has to look like my work at the end of the day, so it’s about finding that balance between getting the right amount of specific detail and having enough space to create what should work as a piece of art in its own right. The words on the pages of a book create images in our minds and set us thinking, and the cover needs to do the same.

What are the challenges you face as a designer and illustrator, particularly when you work with self-publishing authors?

There’s always the fear of not living up to expectations – or my interpretation of the author’s vision being nothing like theirs! Although this has never happened, it’s a worry that comes with the start of every project. At the same time, an author will probably have a similar anxiety, which is why I feel it is important to involve them in as much of the process as possible, so they have that reassurance from an early stage that it’s all going in the right direction.

It’s often the case that the author wants too many things on the cover, and it’s part of my job to help distil that down to the elements that will work the best. My covers tend to either be pieces that give an overall flavour or represent the concept of the book – as you might do on a film poster or album cover – or pieces which illustrate a specific scene or moment from the book to draw the reader in.

What I love about working with self-published authors and independent publishers is you’re in direct contact, and you can have those conversations about how they want their cover to look. It isn’t going to go through any kind of marketing machine.

When you walk into a book shop, you see so many books that look the same; similar typography and formatting; even samey titles – all conforming to whatever the current trend is. So many of those covers feel lifeless and do little to invite you to pick them up. I want a cover to be as unique as the words inside it.

The other challenge is being undercut. It is always demoralising to see off-the-shelf design services or ‘artists’ on fiverr offering to do the full cover for next to nothing. At the same time, you do get what you pay for – the self-publishing marketplace is now saturated with samey, premade photomontage covers. I can see the appeal in these financially, but you will never have a bespoke cover that is genuinely unique to your book. It’s the same with stock images – even if you’ve bought a fantastic royalty-free image, there’s nothing to stop that same image turning up on the cover of somebody else’s book.

Self-publishing authors are often forced, because of budget, to design their own covers.

Do you have any tips or hints for authors who have to do it themselves?

Firstly, don’t always assume you can’t afford a bespoke cover. If you’ve seen a cover artist whose work you like, talk to them – you never know what agreements you might be able to come to. I like to at least have a discussion about the project before giving a quote.

Although I’m not usually a fan of matching artwork to covers (unless we’re talking an anthology for example), I do have a lot of existing artwork that can be licensed for cover use. This can be a more budget-friendly option and you still get the artist’s work on your cover.

In the past, I have happily given advice to both prospective clients whose project – for whatever reason – ended up being homemade, or previous clients who have decided to have a go at their own cover of a side project. This might be an honest opinion on an image or a discussion about layout or font choices. Good advice costs nothing.

“Does it stand out? Is the text clear? Can I tell what the image is?”

My main piece of advice would probably be to always consider how your cover looks at thumbnail size, as that’s the size most people will probably see it for the first time. Ask yourself questions such as, Does it stand out? Is the text clear? Can I tell what the image is?

There’s a lot of technical stuff about cover art too such as image resolution and file size/dimensions, though luckily, most platforms reject anything that doesn’t match these requirements.

Sometimes you can have the most amazing book which gets overlooked because of a DIY cover that simply doesn’t work. If you’re fortunate enough to have an established fanbase, your readers may not care what the cover looks like, but with any form of self-publishing, getting seen/discovered and growing that crucial fanbase is where the really hard work begins!

Of course, I understand that not everybody can afford professional, bespoke cover art – particularly once the other costs start adding up. But at the same time, if you’re investing in editing services for example, but not cover art, then you’re only doing half the job to make your book as good as it can be. I also understand the appeal in making your own cover – it’s your book after all, and the cover is the icing on the cake! It must feel daunting to give that task to somebody else. That said, it’s no different to having somebody else edit your book – and like an editor, an artist doesn’t have that same closeness to the book and will bring a fresh perspective as well as other advice and expertise.

What’s the work you’re most proud of?

Probably my covers for Alice Sabo’s Transmutation series. Alice was actually my first book cover client back in 2014, and since then we’ve worked produced over 15 covers together across three different series.

Last year, I compiled all our work to date into a free digital publication, The Art of a Changed World, which details the creative process behind each cover. You can download it here: https://thelightdreams.wordpress.com/the-art-of-a-changed-world-2/

How can authors find out more about working with you?

A look around my website at www.thelightdream.net would be the best starting point, of by following me on Twitter or Facebook. I’m always on the other end of an email or direct message!


Thanks to Alex for talking about his work. If you work with self-publishing authors and would like to be interviewed, please get in touch.

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