I know I said I was going to talk about editing next time, but after thinking about it for a few days, I thought there might still be some questions regarding hiring someone to do a cover for you. In the last post, I gave some tips on how to make the DIY method cheaper, but I felt like I needed to go into a little more detail about the process of working with someone else for the cover, especially for those just starting out.
Working with an author to design a book cover is something I know quite a bit about. I’ve got clients ranging from the micro-managing to the 100% hands-off, so I never know what I’m going to get when someone new contacts me. For the most part, I can say my experiences have been good, but I do run into those times when a potential client/existing client has unrealistic expectations of what I do or other difficulties working with them. That said, here are some tips for working with a cover artist.
First of all, it’s absolutely crucial that you do your homework on anyone you’re considering hiring for the job. Some opening questions to ask for yourself before you contact anyone:
- Do I want a graphic artist or an illustrator?
- Are their rates reasonable? Am I getting good value for my money?
- Is the artist a good fit for my project?
- What’s my timeline for publication?
- What are my rights for the image, and what rights does the artist hold?
First point, there is a difference between a graphic artist and an illustrator. An illustrator creates artwork by drawing, painting, etc. A graphic artist typically takes existing elements and combines them into a design. What I do definitely falls in the graphic artist camp. When I say you don’t want me painting or drawing your cover by hand, I’m not kidding. Those aren’t skills I possess at a high enough level to create artwork suitable for a book cover. I have done those things in the past, yes, but definitely not at a professional level. And yet, I still occasionally get requests for hand-drawn or painted images. This is because a client hasn’t done their homework. I can filter images to mimic paintings or drawings, but you won’t get the effect you’re looking for. So, make sure you research the person you’re thinking of hiring so you don’t waste your time. Especially in self-publishing, time = money.
Second point: budget appropriately. Shop around for the best quality cover for your dollar. If there’s an artist you really want to hire, save up for it. Do not approach an artist with a mind to haggle. They price the way they do for a reason. Offering a lower amount of money than the fees they’ve outlined for you doesn’t tell them you’re broke; it tells them you don’t think they’re worth what they charge. Compare their work with other artists, and compare fees. Some people may charge above and beyond what they’re worth, but instead of telling them that, vote with your wallet and go elsewhere. No one needs drama, and expressing your opinions is only going to foster bad blood.
Third point to consider before hiring an artist: are they a good fit for the project? Some artists specialize in one genre or another. I’ve had clients from nearly every fiction genre imaginable, but other artists may have a focus on romance covers, or epic sci-fi space operas, or non-fiction memoirs, etc. Take a look at an artist’s portfolio to see where their strengths are. You wouldn’t hire a plumber to fix your electricity, but a handyman might be able to solve multiple problems. Again, do your homework before you make a decision. This is a business, after all.
Fourth, know your timeline. If it’s a short-fuse project, the artist you have in mind might not be able to accommodate you. Build in plenty of lead time for your project, and have a target date in mind before contacting the person you want to hire.
Five, know your rights. When I do a cover, the only right I retain to an image is the ability to display it in a portfolio, as a means of advertising my services. Any artist you hire will likely do the same. Make sure you read their terms of agreement if they have one (I do, and written by a lawyer at that), and if they don’t have it readily available, ask. I also never reuse designs. If you’re paying for a custom cover, the whole point is that you want your book to be one-of-a-kind. Some artists sell premade designs, but don’t take them down after they’ve sold. Just FYI, stock images, once purchased, can only be used for one design. If you want to reuse it, you have to purchase it again, but some artists may not know those legalities. Make sure if you buy a premade that you ask about those rights. I have a handful of premades available, but once they’re purchased, that’s it. No one else will ever get that design from me. That’s how it should be, so arm yourself with knowledge before entering into any agreements.
With that foundation going in, and an artist selected, let’s talk about what happens when the work begins.
Most designers will have a starter list of questions they’ll ask about your book. I ask mine on my initial questionnaire, and then build from there after making contact with the client. The questionnaire will include things about genre, title, author name, book description, and synopsis, amongst other particulars, so have all of that information handy. A good artist will look over all of that and go one of two ways: ask for more particulars, or head straight to research. Particulars may include some or all of the following:
- Books similar to yours (for design research)
- Descriptions of characters, settings, or important objects
- Themes or feelings within the story
- Color preferences
Particulars aren’t limited to that, but they’re likely to be starting points. There may be follow-up questions depending on your answer. You should probably not offer to send the actual manuscript, as the artist will likely not have time to read it, or it may not be a genre that interests them as a reader, or any other multiple explanations. Whatever their reasons, the artist won’t want to hurt your feelings by turning down the offer, so it’s best not to put them in that position unless they outright ask you for it (though I would never do that myself). Also, don’t send your MS automatically. That’s presumptive and assumes the artist has all the time in the world to devote to only you. They likely have other clients. Basically, when you hire someone whose responsibility is to create the face of your book, don’t irritate them. Stay on their good side, and you’ll get their best work.
The process varies a lot after that. The artist may offer up ideas on the design, or examples of the direction they’re going, or they may dive right in to work (I’ve done all of these things, depends on the project). When selecting stock, an artist may ask you to choose between several options, or they may find one that’s perfect right off the bat. If there’s a specific image you have in mind, you might need to purchase the stock yourself, as some artists don’t include that cost in their fees. Ask if you’re unsure or if it isn’t clear in their terms. If you’re doing a cover that includes a custom photo shoot, the artist will likely ask for your selection from multiple photographs.
The artist should also send versions at various stages for proofing purposes. I do this when I’m having difficulties and need further guidance, or I run into a problem with the direction the cover is going, or if I need to provide a status update on the progress, or when I’m ready to finalize things. If you dislike something, speak up. Remember, this person is working for you, so don’t be afraid to talk about issues you have with the design, or suggestions you have, or things you’d like to see. As it’s likely something you’re paying for, make sure you get your money’s worth, but be constructive in this.
There’s one more point I want to discuss in this topic. What happens if you get to a point where you’re unhappy with the artist or product? This is a tricky situation, and backing out of a deal is like walking through a field of landmines. Artists who know the business side understand an element called a “kill fee.” If there’s been work done but not completed, and an agreement on the product cannot be reached, a certain portion of money is given to the artist and everyone walks away. For me, this is the $50 deposit I require before starting a job. That $50 covers my time and/or any purchases I might have made on the work in progress. That fee is non-refundable, and a guarantee to both parties that should something happen, it isn’t a total waste of effort on anyone’s part. Some artists do require full payment in advance, and their refund policies vary from “no refunds” to “half the payment” to whatever other arbitrary number is decided on. Every artist will have their own method of this, so, again, make sure you know what you’re getting into before you hire anyone.
The number one tip I have for authors in this process is to do your homework. It might seem overwhelming, but a good artist will walk you through the process if it’s your first time working with them. They’ll ask the right questions to get to know your book, they’ll research cover trends in your genre, and they’ll deliver a product in a timely manner. Don’t ignore the proverbial red flags you encounter. Contact clients they’ve worked with and hear their experiences. I know too many author friends that have horror stories about working with cover artists, so I really can’t stress enough how important it is to know your rights while respecting the artist.
As always, feel free to post any questions or tips in the comments. I’ll for sure talk about the editing topic next time, so there’s definitely more to come.
Alison Pensy says
Thanks, Starla. You brought up some interesting points that I hadn’t thought of to ask. Appreciate the post :-)