I could do a whole post listing nice things about Amanda, as she is one of my favourite people in the Aussie spec fic scene. But for her sake, and yours, I will refrain and keep it short! Amanda is one of the smartest people I know, and one of the kindest and most genuine. It is fair to say that many of the good things that have happened to me since I came on the scene owe a lot to the fact that she took the time to make me so welcome when I went to my first con.
But, more relevantly to this series of guest posts, Amanda is also one of our foremost cover designers. Her work is instantly recognisable, and you’ve probably seen a great many of her covers, whether you realise it or not. Her work on the Twelve Planets is a classic example of her ability to create totally unique covers perfectly suited to the book inside, while maintaining a consistent style across the range that makes it obvious that they are part of a collection.Outside of the Twelve Planets she has produced some beautiful stand alone work, and I was thrilled to appear in an anthology that featured one of her designs,
If producing a cover that seizes your eye, and makes you want to pick up the book in front of you even before you know what it is about, is a measure of success in cover design then Amanda is right at the top of the game. So, I am delighted to have her here today as I can’t think of anyone more qualified to talk about the subject.
As a cover designer for small publishers, I have the privilege of working directly with editors and authors in designing the covers of their books, rather than through a series of middlemen. The process is always different with each author, and some experiences are more productive than others – not dissimilar to the editor/author relationship, I imagine.
I try to emphasise early to the writers I work with is that they know their book better than me – print deadlines being what they are, in many cases I don’t necessarily get time to even read the book thoroughly before starting work on the design. The main thing I want from my clients is a sense of the feel and atmosphere of a book – I think that’s often as important as talking about what’s actually in the book. For a lot of readers, the cover is the first (and perhaps only) bit of marketing material they will see for it – I try to make covers that do something to tell a reader why they should pick up a book for a closer look.
The cover isn’t an illustration of the story that people will read alongside it. Leave room for the possibility that an illustration that makes sense after you’ve read it may give an entirely different impression to a potential reader. You have only seconds to tell the reader what kind of book it is. Sometimes accuracy is over-rated – more important is giving a potential reader some sense of why they might like the book.
Big publishers have access to the best information about the market, and this can help them design covers that will appeal to all the right demographics and sell lots of books. It’s not a perfect science, but it gives your book a pretty good chance. Most small presses don’t have a market research budget so we have to rely on other information to base our decisions.
Small press at its best isn’t just a cheaper copy of what the mainstream publishers are doing, and the small press publishers I work with try pretty hard to play up their differences. I think it’s worth writers publishing in small press (or those self-publishers commissioning design work for something they’re releasing) be aware of that, and try to play to it too.
In many cases basing a style on what the bigger presses are doing can be a smart strategy – but you need to be skilled at interpreting how and why the style works, in order to figure out which bits speak to the reader, and to what extent they’re helping define reader expectations within genre. But if you can’t do that, then chances are you’ll end up with something so generic, you might as well buy one of those $20 ready-made covers from the net.
You may want to start by showing your designer some recent covers that you think will appeal to a similar target audience. Explain what you like about each one and why, but accept that at the end of the process your ideas won’t look the same. They may be the wrong fit for your book, perhaps they’re more clichéd that you realise, perhaps they appeal to the wrong people, or have the wrong tone. If they’re any good, your designer has probably spent more time analysing design trends than you have, because that’s their job and their passion. Leave room for the possibility that the cover you envisioned isn’t the best option for your book.
At the other extreme from those who want to copy something successful are the authors that want a cover that will blow people’s minds, because it’s soooo original! It’s true, the benefit of small and self-published press is that we can experiment a little more – there’s no point trying to look like the big sellers, because we will always lose. With faster turnaround and a smaller niche audience, small press can take risks that the bigger publishers can’t or won’t. But the best cultural works interact with and build on what went before and what’s happening now. Small press may be pushing the boundaries, but you want to make sure you’re still part of the conversation.
Lastly, and most importantly: a cover isn’t a work of art, it’s a guide to what’s inside. Your cover isn’t necessarily there to impress people, it’s there to spark their curiosity about what’s inside enough to get the chance to impress them with your book.
The trick to getting the most out of a designer is to understand the purpose of a cover, and focus on that. If you feel like the cover is wrong, you’re probably right, so say so. Don’t be scared to voice your opinions. The best results come from a great conversation about why something is or isn’t working. At the same time, accept that your proposed solution to the problem may be wrong, so be willing to let go of your ideas. Trust me, the designer has already rejected hundreds of her own ideas too.
Amanda is a graphic designer and PhD student. She designs for Twelfth Planet Press and FableCroft, and then gets to read the books for free. You can watch her avoid doing all of those things at twitter.com/vodkandlime