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Aspiring cover artist

Posted: August 11th, 2016, 5:21 am
by alexander_london
Hi guys,
Not sure if this is the right place to post but I couldn't find a more suitable subthreadt. I'm an illustrator of six years looking to make the difficult transition into book cover design.
My style is entirely hand-drawn. With the recent popularity in digital art, I feel that painted covers have a renewed charm. So my aim is to provide thoughtful, thorough and vibrant illustrations that will mirror the quality of the given literature.
Anyway, I was wondering whether anyone had advice on how to get my stuff seen? Or better still, how to break through the seemingly impenetrable barrier of the publishing industry.
All thoughts and comments welcome. Portfolio link is provided just so people can evaluate my style.


Re: Aspiring cover artist

Posted: August 22nd, 2016, 7:24 am
by theuglytree
Hi Alex,

No one's replied to this thread so I thought I'd go ahead.

Firstly, looking at your site, you're clearly an excellent artist. So congrats on that, not everyone who puts their stuff out their can claim the quality you have.

As for your query, I would wonder what you're actually looking to do - whether you want to find book commissions or actually become a book designer. Painted covers do have their place in book design, definitely, but whether you could corner the market in that, I don't know. Most painted covers will come from existing paintings that exist in the PD. We designers are a ingenious bunch when it comes to sourcing images, as the client rarely wants to pay for pictures. You could very well make a good go at fishing for commissions among publishers and designers, and the simplest way to do this is with a good ol' professional approach. An email telling them who you are, what you do, what you're looking to do, and directing them to your work. A lot of people might ignore it, but someone might pick it up. The other way is to keep on here and maybe try Absolute Writers too, and look for commissions that way. How much you can earn that way is probably minimal, and my experience on AW has been mixed. You might even look to partner up with a designer on these forums to work together and corner the market on these self-publishing forums. But you should keep in mind that a lot of self-publishers, whatever their reason, will do covers themselves or buy pre-made covers.

Now, on becoming a book designer: there are a lot of illustrators/artists out there who market themselves as designers. These charge less than real, professional designers, undercut us, and fundamentally give designers a pretty bad name. They can sell cheaper because they're not as good at designing as qualified designers, and it's really a low thing to do. Why is this? Because they don't respect the process. They jump in because they're vaguely familiar with the programs and are, often but not universally, arrogant enough to think design is easy. So, if you want to start doing book covers, put the work in. Learn about design, and in particular typography. It doesn't matter how nice an image is on a book, if the type is dirt the book will look dirt. Part of the self-publishing aesthetic, i.e. that thing that makes books look self-published, is bad type sense. There are tons of guides online and I would encourage you to invest in a couple of books on the subject. You should also invest in the right software (InDesign or Quark) as there is nothing worse than a book cover designed on illustrator (except one made in Word). Of course, I'm coming from a professional POV, in reality the self-publishing community are willing to settle for not-quite-the-best and at times even god-awful. I like to think this is due to budget. But if you're really serious about it, put the time in to learn the techniques, get the software, get the fonts, learn the context of design. Just marching in and hoping for the best with what you already have is a recipe for disaster.

Now onto breaking into the publishing industry. Good luck. It's hard, really hard. Most freelance book designers out there (Chip Kidd, Jo Walker, et al) are as successful as they are because they've worked in studio at Penguin, Random House, etc and have taken clients with them when they left. You might contact non-fiction publishers who often commission freelance work, but you're unlikely to get much commission for art as they usually use existing work, and as a designer they will look for real credentials (degrees etc). As a professional book designer, even I struggle to make contacts in the actual publishing industry. The bottom line is that you have to be VERY lucky to get into the industry from outside the industry.

This probably all sounds like a real downer, but it's just the stark reality. In trying to becoming a designer you are coming from far behind and it will require A LOT of work for you to become a decent designer. But if you're willing to put the work and a bit of money in there's no reason you can't do it. Do the research, look at covers, see what's working and what isn't and emulate until you're confident enough to go it alone. If I were to offer you realistic advice on how to go about it all, I would focus on the art and gaining commissions for paintings and, as you grow more confident, begin offering book cover designs as well. If you have existing clients, ask them to get the word out. Perhaps, while you're learning, commission someone to do some publicity materials for you to send out. And, above all, start putting stuff together for yourself too. If you were to look at my company's website there are very few client-driven book covers (a, because publication dates make it difficult to get permission, and b, because we love designing for us). Practice makes perfect, as they say. But in this case, you need that contextual knowledge behind it.

I hope this rather lengthy reply has helped, feel free to get in touch if you have further questions. Good luck.


Re: Aspiring cover artist

Posted: August 30th, 2016, 10:26 am
by alexander_london
Hi Theuglytree,

Sorry for the late reply! I've been having a really good little search on this industry and have, via your response and other sources, come to the conclusion that the mountain may well be too high to climb.
Although I have some ability with painting and I'm certainly devoted, dedicated and not looking to undercut professionals, I unfortunately don't have the requisite digital knowledge to really match up with designers such as yourself. It's also a bit disappointing to see that the industry has turned its back on physical illustration and that so many successful authors are settling for poor imagery but, as you pointed out, resident designers seem to get the lion's share of work (not to say there aren't also fantastic designers far above my capabilities).

But I digress, thank you for the response. I've taken everything you've said to heart, it was a really useful and considerate reply.

Re: Aspiring cover artist

Posted: September 2nd, 2016, 4:55 am
by theuglytree
I would say, do not give up on it; just temper your expectations. If you work at it, in a few years you may be in a position to start offering low-budget work as a designer-cum-illustrator. As it is, your skills as a painter are enough that you should focus on that, i.e. not undersell those skills in order to quickly acquire others. There are countless guides to learning the programs - though with the advent of CC, Adobe programs have become very expensive - out there and there's no harm in developing new skills over time.

I wouldn't say that that the industry has turned its back on physical or analogue or commissioned illustration, it's just a rare thing. With so much available via stock sites and the ease with which companies can acquire them, it is rarer that illustrators are commissioned for book designs. Just look in the front matter of most books, you'll see things like "photograph such and such Interphoto/Shutterstock/Alamy". If your illustrative skills are decent, you might consider looking at textbook designers, as they are always commissioning illustrations for their schoolbooks, and don't always limit themselves to the same illustrators/artists. It's not glamorous work - I used to work as a designer in a textbook studio and it was pretty soul destroying - but it's a way to sell your work, and, though it's unlikely, you might find yourself illustrating for a company like Harper Collins or Pearson which might give you an in.

As for possibly advertising on here, it's worth a try. But the problem with commissioning artists across the industry, whether it be professional or self-published, is budget. Good art costs a lot because, well, it's good. And while some companies can afford that, they might not want to, and self-publishers certainly can't afford to pay for good cover art - just look at the business that has arisen in pre-made covers - or design. While it would be wonderful if those thinking of self-publishing had the forethought to set aside some budget and time in finding good designers and artists who might take on low-budget or charity work, most do not and are understandably more concerned with the selling of their work. While I might take on low-budget projects alongside bigger projects, others might not, which is likely to put someone off finding a designer/artist if they've had that kind of experience, or someone might offer a similar price I am willing to work at but with a quarter of the skill but pick up work because they're more visible - i.e. aren't busy canvassing for professional clients - or worse, the author will do it themselves. Just look at Absolute Writers and the amount of "advice" threads in their design section. It is a tough business to crack, and the reason, really, is budget.

I'm don't want to offer advice outside of design, but if you want to try and gain some commissions, do as I suggested and get some publicity made up. Postcards that you can leave around town or send off to people who might be interested. You might also look at places like Elance, Upwork, etc. They're horrible, because bidding sites are the worst, but as an artist you might be able to gain commissions better than say I, as a designer, could.

All the best,