Commissioning cover art is probably one of the most intimidating parts of publishing a book, because most writers aren’t artists. They don’t know the process, the industry, or the potential pitfalls in hiring and working with an artist… at least until they’ve fallen into a few. Dealing with an illustrator can, in some ways, be even trickier. Here’s my advice:
Not all illustrators are cover designers.
Good art, in and of itself, will not sell your book. Covers are a unique art form, with unique requirements. An illustrator who is experienced with book covers understands the necessity of communicating genre effectively. They’ll understand the role of contrast in making a cover both legible and impactful from a thumbnail view, and the need to paint with a lot of lead space for the eventual inclusion of cover text and print margins.
Not all illustrators are cover designers (part 2).
There’s nothing sadder to me than seeing a beautiful painting on a cover and knowing it must have cost the author a pretty penny… but they’ve gone and ruined it with bad typography. I can’t stress enough the importance of typography in cover design. Good typography can make a mediocre image into a great cover, and bad typography can make a fantastic image into a terrible cover. Not all illustrators have the skills to do both well–if this is the case with your illustrator, make sure you find someone else to do the typography.
You are (probably) not a cover designer.
I’ve painted and designed some covers I’m really proud of, and will show to anyone willing to look… and then, there are a few I don’t put in my portfolio. The ones I’m less eager to brag about are, without fail, the ones in which the author had a very specific, concrete idea of exactly how the cover needed to look–and my role became more ‘photoshop monkey’ than ‘creative professional’.
The problem with you, the author, making those creative decisions is that you’re (probably) not a cover designer. Not only are you less qualified to make those design decisions (at least you SHOULD be–otherwise you may have hired the wrong person), you are unable to take advantage of the very skills and experience you’re paying so dearly for.
This doesn’t mean you can’t have input into how the cover looks, or that you shouldn’t have some idea of what you’re looking for when going into the project. It’s almost as difficult to provide a client with a satisfactory cover when they don’t know what they want as it is when they’re absolutely married to a specific concept. Just remember that there’s a reason you’re outsourcing this task, and even if you are an artistic professional, we all have a little tunnel-vision when it comes to our own stories.
Educate yourself on genre and market, keep an open mind, and be willing to defer to the expertise of the professional you’ve hired. If you’re not confident enough in your illustrator to do this, you’ve hired the wrong artist.
Communication is key.
You need an illustrator with good communication skills. This means someone who asks a lot of questions, listens to your ideas, is able and willing to tell you when your ideas might hurt the quality of the cover, and is both patient and responsive to your emails. You can’t gauge all of this prior to hiring an illustrator, but you can tell a lot from your initial emails. A quick phone call can also bring a lot of clarity to the project, and make sure you’re both on the same page.
With an illustrator that conducts themselves professionally, personality conflicts shouldn’t be an issue (assuming you’re not a jerk, of course).
Also, you should not have to wait for weeks to hear from your illustrator, nor should they be reluctant to give you regular updates on how the painting is progressing–visual updates of the actual painting, not just verbal reports. I am aware that some illustrators don’t actually provide regular updates through the process, and I cannot fathom how this could possibly result in a satisfactory cover.
I prefer to provide clients with several initial sketches to choose from, a rough paint of the chosen sketch, a look at the painting around the midpoint, and one last look just before the finishing touches are done. I’m also willing to provide impromptu updates at any point in between. This way, the client is able to make suggestions and requests for small changes, and generally guide me in the right direction.
Before hiring an illustrator, ask what their process is, when and how often you can expect updates, and how long they expect the project to take. Which leads me to…
Illustration takes time.
Don’t wait for the last second to find an artist, and expect them to be able to pop out a painting super quick before your preorder deadline. The painting process alone can take weeks, or even months–and that doesn’t include the fact that for a really ace illustrator, you’ll probably have to wait in line. Plan ahead.
Series put you in for the long haul.
If you’re writing a series, realize you’re beginning a long relationship with your illustrator. There’s nothing that will ruin your series continuity like changing illustrators mid-series. You need an illustrator you communicate well with, and who isn’t going to suddenly go incommunicado between books 3 and 4.
Don’t assume anything until money has exchanged hands.
Most professional illustrators will not begin work, or even save you a spot in their schedule until you have at least paid a deposit. Until this happens, operate under the premise that you have no illustrator for your cover. Don’t risk your release date on the assumption that the illustrator will ‘get back to you’ in time, or ‘squeeze you in’.
Look for a professional.
My best advice for finding a reliable illustrator is to look for one who treats their work like a business, not a hobby. Someone who illustrates on the side, or around a more demanding agency job, will need to fit your project in around the rest of their life rather than vice versa. Someone who has sunk a lot of time and money into the branding of their business has more to lose from an unsatisfied client, and therefore is less likely to abruptly ghost their clientele, or back out of projects for personal reasons.
Take a look at their web presence. Do they have a polished and professional website, or are they operating solely off Fiverr or DeviantArt? I’m not knocking DeviantArt (I have a DA account myself), but a dedicated website can help indicate that you’re working with a professional.
Speaking of Fiverr…
Be careful when hiring an artist off Fiverr.
It is possible to get good work from artists on Fiverr (though this is far more likely with design than illustration) but they are primarily serving the Budget First crowd–a market that is looking for low price first, and quality second. With the 20% Fiverr takes from the artist per job, artists on Fiverr have a very low profit margin. This means it’s in their best interests to get your project out the door as quickly as humanly possible, and their volume of work is more important than quality or client retention. This brings me to the Iron Rule of Art:
High Quality. Low Price. Quick Turnaround.
Good illustration is expensive.
Don’t expect good illustration from a professional to be cheap. Remember that when hiring a professional, you aren’t simply paying for their time, you’re paying for their talent, their skill, their experience, their professionalism, and all the years they spent acquiring those things.
If this means you need to look for a photomanipulated cover or a premade rather than an illustration, go for it–but no bargain can make up for the frustration of dealing with an illustrator who conducts themselves unprofessionally, is unreliable, or doesn’t have the knowledge and skill to provide you with a cover that is both good art and a good cover.