A few weeks ago, I was fortunate to cross paths with a talented artist, Kate Cowan. She was kind enough to answer some of the more pressing questions I had about the work that is involved in the cover design of a book. I am hoping to commission a cover artist in the future and wanted to know how the process unfolds and evolves.
R: Who is it that normally commissions a cover designer? I know authors will sometimes hire designers, particularly if they are self-publishing, but do publishers also have cover designers on retainer or is cover design something primarily the domain of the author?
K: It really depends on the situation. I have one publisher who I work through, and in that case, the owner of the publishing house words as the middleman – I don’t actually speak directly to those authors. I think when a publisher is involved, they usually work with one specific cover designer.
K: I work with a lot of self published authors, too. They usually contact me through my Facebook page, but some contact me through friends of friends and so on. All it takes is a simple message on my Facebook to get in contact with me.
R: How do authors and publishers approach you for cover designs? What kind of information do you like to have up front before you can make a decision on taking a particular design project?
K: Well, I found the publisher I work with through a friend, who was friends with a woman who was opening up a publishing house. She suggested me as a cover designer when I was just starting up. The self-published authors normally post on or message my Facebook page, or message my personal page. Sometimes they find advertisement posts I’ve put up on other Facebook pages or groups… so, pretty much, all they need to do is talk to me! I don’t bite, so it really isn’t hard.
K: A lot of times, authors know exactly what they want, and I put it together. Other times, the authors don’t have any ideas. They give me a synopsis, pitch me their ideas and we work together to find a cover idea that will work for their book. And then there are times where what they author wants just isn’t right. As beautiful as some ideas sound in our heads, they don’t always look beautiful on paper, which is where I come in! But I always work with the author, or with the publisher, to find just what the author wants. And if what I’ve done isn’t just right, I’ll keep working on it until it’s perfect and the authors are happy!
R: After you accept a commission, what is your process from initial acceptance to a completed cover design or printed book?
K: The process starts with the author, of course! First we decide what s/he wants, and then I move onto DeviantArt to find stock images. I find pictures for the background, usually 2-4 images that I end up piecing together to make one background. I also need to find the right picture of the model.
K: Then I go into Photoshop, piece everything together, colourize everything (basically, making it look pretty) and I do a lot of things like changing hair, changing clothing colours, and adding a new sky or rain, or anything that’s going to set the right atmosphere. Then it starts going back and forth between me and the author, until they know it’s perfect for their book.
R: What sort of tools do you use for your work? Do you hand draw or sketch anything on paper or tablet? Do you have preferred software or hardware and how do these kinds of choices influence your work?
K: I use Photoshop CS6, Photoshop Elements, and a Wacom Intous4 Tablet. I am also an animation student, which means I know my way around 3D software (the programs they make movies like Cars and Tangled in). If I need to, I’ll model something in 3D and then use what I modeled as part of a cover, but only if I really need to, because it’s very time consuming. I do a lot of painting in Photoshop, to change things when they need to be changed, and occasionally will go with my sketchbook for ideas and concept sketches. But mostly, I work JUST in Photoshop.
R: I understand that aspects like colour and space can be psychologically meaningful in pictures. Are these psychological contexts something that influence you when designing or are designs based on other aspects like aesthetics or perhaps a combination of elements?
K: That’s a hard question for me… When I’m working, I’m still an artist. When I do covers, I’m kind of drawn into the art and the technical aspect of it doesn’t really resonate in my brain anymore. I never think of colour and space directly. I think of the cover/design as a whole, and I think to myself, ‘does this look right’? Or I think, ‘this would look better over here’, or ‘this colour needs to be darker to make the model’s hair stand out’. The ideas of colour and space definitely play a role when I design, but it’s not really in the front of my mind. The only thing in the front of my mind is how the image as a whole will look in the end.
R: It sounds like a lot of these aspects have become instinctual for you. What about font type and size? Are there psychological or aesthetics to consider in this design element? Who decides on these features and how do you choose the way these textual additions appear on the image?
K: The main rule of font is that it needs to be SEEN!!! Which means it needs to be big (but not take up the whole cover) and bright (but not, you know, hot pink, just brighter than the cover is). If it’s too small, no one is going to see it, but if it’s too big, it’s annoying to look at, for me anyways! If it’s black font on a black cover, no one will see it! Also, I know a lot of cover designers put plain font on a cover – I mean, they just plop some font on and they’re finished.
I don’t do that. I hate seeing font that’s just font. I like to add effects that really make the font pop. And as for the font itself, well, it depends. I just have one rule. Never, ever use Times New Roman.
R: What sorts of things make a design job particularly interesting or fun for you?
K: I really love the creative designs! Call me nerdy but I love the ones that are really paranormal or really fantasy looking. They’re so fun for me!
R: How did you get in to cover design for authors and publishers? Are books all you do or do you design for other things like websites, posters, etc.?
K: I only found this whole world of publishers and authors and editors and everything after my own novel, Garden of Eden, was picked up by Crushing Hearts and Black Butterfly publishing. I have a friend who is an editor, and she introduced me to a lot of my first customers. I’m so grateful to her! And right now I’ve only done book covers, but I would be more than willing to do posters, websites, or anything else if someone asked me to!
R: If you could have any dream project or could be paid to design something you’ve visualized but not had reason to create what would you want to make and why?
K: I would LOVE to do a project involving animals. Odd as it is, I love books told from the point of view of an animal, like The Sight by Davies, or Promise of the Wolves. Also, doing a cover for a book that takes place in the past, like Medieval times would be great! Or a book about Fae would be fun… A lot of things sound like fun to me.
R: Thank you again, Kate, for taking the time to share your work and process with me.
If you’d like to get in touch with Kate, remember, she doesn’t bite, you can reach her though any of her details below.
I’d love to get in touch with other cover designers or writers/publishers who have worked with cover designers. It would be great to gain insight into the other valuable people who make the creation of fiction such a fulfilling and glorious process. The writer is obviously a key component but without our agents, editors, publishers, artists, printers, booksellers, and everyone in between we wouldn’t have the incredible industry that exists today.