Saturday, August 15, 2015

How To Work With a Cover Artist: Tips for New Indie Writers

I recently had a new indie author ask me for advice about getting her book published. I actually get asked these sort of things fairly often, more and more as time goes by. Although I only have one book out, and I'm young, I've spent thousands of combined hours writing, studying writing, publishing, studying publishing, designing, and studying designing. There are people who have spent less time earning degrees than I have working on this mad obsession. (Not saying I'm an expert. But I'm not a noob, either.)

I want to share with you what I told her about getting artwork for her book - and it wasn't about how to get the best artwork, or where to go for the best price, or my top three wish list graphic designers. She can figure that out on her own. 

It was about how to treat her artist.

Artists are people who get treated like CRAP, and I hate it. So in this post I'm saying what's real about the way to be an ethical professional with your artist, and how to make them love working with you. Because you would not believe what these people have to go through.

With that said, let us begin.

Why is Art So Expensive?

A good cover is VITAL. It makes or breaks books. Just check out for the sobering reality of horrific book covers. (Okay, it's not that sobering. It's actually hilarious. Until you realize that could be you on that site. And then you sober right back down again.)

You will not sell books with a crappy cover.

That said, art is EXPENSIVE. At least, good art is. Yeah, yeah, the internet has de-valued art to the point that nobody realizes any more. But guys, original art is pricey stuff.

I know an artist who will work for indie writers who charges $1000 an ebook cover. It's even more if it's for a print book (back cover, spine, etc.). She charges that because she's REALLY REALLY GOOD at what she does, and she illustrates it herself, by hand. You can imagine what her rates would be for a picture book, involving much more artwork and much more time.

There are people who will design you a cover who'll do it for anything between $5 to $300 (with the value varying) but typically, for that price, they will use stock photos and fonts. SOMETIMES they will design hand-made lettering, although you're far out of the $5 range by then (and if you really think you're going to get away with a $5 cover, I have the title for some beach property in Tuscon, AZ I want to try to sell you.)

Reiteration: art costs real money. Art is expensive, and rightly so. Graphic designers and illustrators didn't go to school for 4-8 years so that they could get paid less (for the total time spent, which is a LOT) than your average McDonald's employee. The reason great artists starve is because no one wants to pay a fair price for the work, and the reason crappy artists starve is because they suck. 

That said, what is the proper way to treat your artist? Follow the Golden Rule.

The Golden Rule As Applied To Freelance Artists

It's pretty simple stuff, really.

1. Never offer artists 'exposure' in return for free or non-living-wage work. 

The internet offers them that already, at about 10,000% what you or I could offer them - an artist can blog and post their daily sketches on Instagram and get way more exposure than you or I or another beginning author could likely do for them in a hundred years. 

Heck, they could go and graffiti train cars and get more exposure. 

Offer artists money. 

And I don't care if they're your grandson, your aunt, your best friend from Wisconsin State, your Sunday School teacher, or your next door neighbor. 

Offer artists money. And pay them well.

2. When you finally hire or are in the process of hiring an artist, BE VERY SPECIFIC UP FRONT ABOUT WHAT YOU WANT. Artists cannot read minds, and unless you will truly be happy with whatever they come up with (and I promise you, you are likely not that person), write a DETAILED project description. The project description for the last cover I ordered work for...

...was five pages long, including reference photos, descriptions, instructions, and image parameters

That work I did ahead of time got me exactly what I wanted, first try. I was happy. She was happy. Everybody was happy. I paid her more than we agreed upon, because if you take care of your honest artist, he or she will take care of you.

No artist wants to hear 'Oh, just do whatever!' The nightmare client for an artist is someone who does not define what they want. Inevitably, the artist will create something (HOURS of work) and the client will see it and want something completely different (and oddly enough, suddenly very specific). Hours wasted. This is unfair to the artist, unless you are paying them hourly, and even so it will be frustrating. Imagine how much more frustrating for the artist you agreed to pay a flat fee - and they lose two weeks of time to your project because you realize you wanted something else.

If a woman did this with wedding dresses, she'd be on the road to what they call a bridezilla. 

An inexperienced artist would just be frustrated and never want to work for someone like you again. An experienced professional artist would just increase the charge for the work involved - because they would have established before the project started that they would do so for major surprise revisions. More time, more work = more money. It's only fair.

Don't be an authorzilla.

How Not To Be An Authorzilla - Be A Professional

First, pick an artist who's preferred style matches what you want. HINT: fine art artists may balk if you ask them to do comic book style lineart, and fashion designers might dislike drawing post-apocalyptic cityscapes filled with zombies. Just sayin'. They might do it for the paycheck, but you'll get better results if you're working with someone who could get excited about the project. 

It's like this: if your passion is to write gritty, old-fashioned Louis L'Amour style Westerns, and somebody comes to you asking you to write some middle grade Mean Girls style chapter books about junior high cheerleader drama, you're going to be pretty excited to take on that project, aren't you?

Yeah, sure, that'd be great. 

Said no gritty, old-fashioned Western writer ever.

Second, find examples of things that are similar to what you want. Spend a week looking at books covers and art styles on Amazon. Figure out your genre, and find book covers that sell well in that genre. Go onto deviantart (probably 75% of professional and serious amateur artists have an account there) and find inspiration. You might even find an artist you love there who'd be willing to do a commission for you.

Third, look up reference photos and explain what about them you want. I spent well over ten hours curating reference photos and writing what I wanted in my project description for the art on the cover in the link above. Overkill? Maybe. But clarity in communication is a big personal value to me. This is how professionals treat professionals. Professionals are clear about what they want.

Fourth, trust your artist to know more about art than you do. Yeah, that seems kind of duh. And ultimately, you're the one paying, so you sort of have the final say. But you know what? Your artist may make suggestions on the idea. Especially the really good artists, the ones who can take the straw you give them and spin it into gold. And if/when they do, you had better consider what your artist is saying really, really carefully before you override them. They're probably smarter than you in this aspect. That's why you hired them, isn't it? 

Have The Freaking Funds On Hand, And Cough It Up Instantly When Payment Is Due

In many cases, it is considered fair to make a deposit, or a down payment for art. This can be anywhere from 25% of the end cost, to 50% of the end cost, and it is paid when the artist agrees to take on your project. Some artists ask to be paid in full to start, but for many, 50% is an accepted norm. 

This is to protect you both: if the artist fails to complete and deliver, they don't get the other half, and the artist doesn't have to give you the finished project until you pay the other half. On the other hand, if I, the one hiring the artist, fail to keep my end of the bargain, the artist will still have compensation for time and work spent in a project that will now never get fully paid for or used.

Also, don't EVER make the artist wait for payment.

That's not cool, and we all know it.

To avoid such messiness: have the full amount set aside before you hire the artist. If you don't have it, don't hire.

In Conclusion

Whew! Art is expensive! So make sure you find a great artist - not just someone who creates beautiful things, but someone who can create beautiful things and be pleasant to work with.

I define pleasant as honest, straightforward, accommodating within reason, and passionate about their work. And this is how we must be too, if we want to be professionals. It becomes a pleasure to pay the right price for good art when you realize how awesome great artists really are.

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