I first met Ethan Kincaid through mutual friends while setting up our Books & Barbecue event of May 31st, 2015. We’d also been booked for another event a few weeks before the B&B event, and we struck up some interesting conversations about retail technology, promotional materials, and about our covers. I was pleasantly surprised at how willing Ethan was in sharing his personal experience hunting down, contracting, and publishing commissioned artwork. I later asked him if he’d be interested in writing a guest post and sharing those experiences with a wider audience. Here’s what he had to say.
Books are judged by their covers. In the sea of literature found in every bookstore, a writer needs something to attract the buyer’s eye. You need artwork that will jump out at them, even from a distant shelf or a tiny thumbnail, and shout: “buy me!” But good art is expensive, so how is an independent author to accomplish this? It’s not as difficult as you may think but there are a few tricks you should know.
First, ignore professional “cover artists.” You’re not just launching a book; you’re launching a brand. Even if you are not terribly business-savvy, you can recognize hundreds of company logos by their style, shape, colour combinations, and font choices from far away, even if they are partly obscured. The face of your book needs to be just as distinct. People who market themselves as “cover artists” tend to churn out generic work that you’ve seen a thousand times and it’s entirely forgettable. Don’t do this to yourself.
You need an artist and a graphic designer to help you achieve this goal. These are two very different jobs. An artist makes a large, eye-catching picture for you but this is not a finished cover. A graphic designer resizes, positions, and crops that picture to ensure it fits on the size of book you’re selling. They design your title font, place it on the cover with your name, put the blurb and barcode on the back, and style the spine of the book so that it tempts customers no matter which side they see first.
How do you find the right artist for you? Chances are, you have favourite pictures on sites like Imgur, Tumblr, DeviantArt, and Pinterest,. Those images have artists behind them and many of those artists take commissions. It’s time to go hunting! Find an artist whose work speaks to you and fits the genre of your book. Check out their website. Most of them will say whether or not they take commissions and many will even list prices. If they don’t, contact them and ask. Imagine having your favourite artist working for you. It can happen!
Contact at least three different artists, though I recommend more. Artists might decline the commission for a number of reasons: too busy with other work, not confident enough to execute the project you’ve proposed, not able to complete the work for your deadline, not keen on the subject of your book, or perhaps they simply don’t take commissions at all. Whatever the case, expect a lot of ‘no’s and don’t take it personally.
You may get more than one ‘yes’ and have to choose between artists. Pick the one you want based on their attitude, availability, and skill. Don’t make them compete against each other for the contract like some kind of Artist Battle Royale. That isn’t fair. Artists are real people with real feelings and they need to make a living too.
So, let’s say you have an artist who wants to work with you. They can get the art completed in the time frame you have set out, you can afford their services, they have a good attitude, and you can communicate well with each other. You still don’t have a deal until it’s in writing. Make a contract and make sure you understand all the details. It might seem rather corporate and maybe a little intimidating but this business agreement is essential especially if you are hiring someone you have never met before and are engaging with over the internet. Similarly, the artist is secure in the knowledge that you will deal with them fairly as well.
Make sure the contract states that you have bought the rights to display the artist’s work for at least ten years. If you can, get the rights permanently so you don’t have to do this over again years later. Expect to pay half up front and half after the work is completed. “Completed” means: “I am satisfied with the quality of the artwork.” Revisions should be free unless you are asking for something that wasn’t in your original description. This keeps the artist from demanding more money for fixing their mistakes.
How much does this all cost? I recommend budgeting $500.00 to $2000.00, depending on your financial means, for an artist. $250.00 to $500.00 for a graphic designer. If you have to pay in installments, work this out with your artist and designer. If this seems like a lot of money, think about it this way: you’ve seen what a fifty-dollar tattoo looks like. If you want quality work, pay quality wages.
Your artist may give you some preliminary sketches to show you what they are thinking before they begin realizing your cover art. Many artists will not give sketches before they have been paid. This is not out of laziness, but rather because artists are sometimes taken advantage of by clients who take their design to someone else who will finish it for a lower price while the original artist gets nothing for their work. Although it may look like scribbles to you, taking a concept from an author’s vague description and making it come alive on paper is actually the hardest part of the entire job. It’s normal for the artist to want to protect their intellectual property.
Once you are completely happy with the art, pay your artist and hunt for a graphic designer. The designer will need a high quality scan of the artwork. Your artist might do this for you, or you may have to take it to be scanned yourself. If you do it yourself, look for a digital imaging studio that has a vacuum board scanner as this will produce the best results. Expect to pay about $20.00 for this.
Again, you will need a contract with your graphic designer. Expect to pay half of the price up front. When looking at their design, ask them to shrink the image down so you can see how the book cover will look as a thumbnail. Is it still readable? Is it still eye-catching? If the title or the author’s name is not legible at the size you would expect to find on an Amazon.com listing, the design is no good. The spine of the book needs to be more than just a blank space with your name and the title on it. It is the designer’s job to tinker with the cover until you are satisfied so, while still being polite, don’t accept anything short of excellent work.
Part of the contract with the designer should stipulate that if the cover should need some adjustments after you receive the proof copy from the printer, these tweaks will be free of charge. Again, this clause keeps you from having to pay more for someone else’s accidents.
The rest is up to you and your printer. Personally, I recommend Createspace as their software is easy to use and flexible. The choice is yours.
You might be all writer and no businessman, but with this advice, a unique cover designed just for you is within your grasp. Now get out there and find the face of your new novel!
Ethan Kincaid was born in Brockville, a sleepy little town on the St. Lawrence River. He graduated from Carleton University in Ottawa with a degree in Linguistics and a minor in Japanese Language. After finishing his education, he settled down there with his wife Kaitlyn and became a full-time writer. In 2011, he moved to Montreal and discovered its vibrant writing culture.
Ethan currently lives in Montreal; he works as an author and head of the Bonavista Writers’ Circle. His book, Blood of Midnight: The Broken Prophecy is the first of a new fantasy trilogy. The greatest joy in his life lies in helping budding writers find their voices. In his words: “I like to shake people until cool stuff comes out!”
Want to know more about Ethan and his fantasy series, Blood of Midnight?