A Cover Story: Chapter 4 — The Pressures on a Commercial Artist

I originally set out to draft this post back in January. It wasn’t originally about book covers specifically or technically, but more about a general philosophy of commercial art that would support a certain set of notions about book cover design. I never could get to finishing it, so abandoned it. (A lot more work gets abandoned for lack of motivation or a sense of how to proceed than you might think. Call it a false start.) Since then, a lot has changed, and events have developed beyond it. And I’ve come back around to the concept of writing about cover design and want to include this in that wider project. However, rather than attempt to bring it into continuity with the rest of the saga, I leave it here as an intercalerary piece (thus the weekend post), and hope that the quirkiness of it is found charming rather than distracting.

AT LEAST, WHEN I SAT DOWN TO compose this post, that was the title that popped into my mind.

Sarah’s been after me… Well, no. Not really. She mentioned it once.

But, to have it even popped into mind among the other things she has going on in there (including a perfectly pellucid dream fable of totalitarianism and the subversive nature of art), it must be important. That is to say, there is a certain need for this, not that it matters to Sarah. The thing has to be important.

I’ve struggled for months with the ideas and strictures of lending my experience at the top levels of graphic design in service to the selling of creative product (that’s as specific as I can get without giving away my employer, who really doesn’t need to be associated with my far-out right wing extremist views). How do I do a workshop — or even a post — on the subject of book cover design. Yes, I’ve designed book covers. Just not New York City (said in the tobacco-juice-spitting accents of those Texas cowboys who love them some Pace picante salsa) published mass market stuff.

I’ve decided to focus on one aspect of the subject. I have to figure either you already know the rules of composition, perspective and proportion, line and mass, color and contrast, hue, and tint, and the language of symbols, and how to make attractive headline-type layouts or you don’t and I can’t teach you in 500 words, or even 5,000, so why try. Instead I’ll focus on one aspect of the subject — source imagery.

What is source imagery? Well, if you look at a book cover and strip away all the type — the author’s name, the title of the book, the publisher’s name, the price of the book, the marketing tag line, AND all the other graphics (including plain borders and large areas of solid color — what’s left is usually a picture, photograph, painting, illustration. That’s your source image. It’s what conveys the sense, mood, concept, and a little about the characters and even the plot. It is also what is going to attract the reader to your book. Your entire career is resting on this image. So you can understand why authors obsess so about covers. And they’re right to do so, even if they’re sometimes wrong in how they go about expressing their obsessions.

Abby Sciuto, the hyper-smart Goth forensic tech on NCIS puts it, “There’s no substitute for high-quality source imagery.” And it’s so true. I wince when people tell me they use free clip art and photos and do their layouts in Power Point. There is far more to getting good output than just throwing pretty pictures on a computer screen. A lot more.

In doing commercial package design — and that is what you’re doing — everything has to be perfect. Otherwise, your product label will look bush league and, even if the potential customer can’t articulate why she thinks so, she will be turned off your book. She may still buy it, but your chances of closing any individual sale just went down — by more than half. Trust me.

So, what do I mean by perfect? Oh, let me count the ways.

First, it has to look good. Then it has to suit your purpose, third the execution has to be clean, fourth it has to be tough… have heft… make you horny. And last, it has to work mechanically with the reproduction process.

That’s five. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

1. Look Good. Way too many book covers have art that looks terrible. It’s weak, lame, amateurish, unprofessional. These are all attributes that signal to the buyer, “This is a book which may disappoint you.” It may not, but, if the cover is poorly done — which is built on your source image — that’s a signal. A negative signal. That is, it can’t look like five-year-old painted it in those cheap-assed finger paint watercolors they let you use in grammar school. More than that, it has to look like a competent artist made the image — whether it’s a photograph or a painting or a drawing, or a comic, or whatever.

That’s not to say the technique can’t be rough — far from it. But there does have to be technique, even if it is rough. For example:

Back in the days of Punk, when such things were in fashion, I used to get photocopied imagery. The senders wanted us to emulate the cut paper, high-contrast photo, Xeroxed style of the punk rock promoters’ flyers — the things you used to see stapled up on telephone poles all over the place near colleges and hip business districts, advertising concerts and parties. And might still, for all this old fogy knows.

But the point was, the photocopied image was never the starting point, and what had to be done to the image to get it to look rough and cheap and tough and all that was long, protracted, and — need I say — expensive if you wanted to hire a pro to do it. As an amateur labor of love, it could be cheap, but amateurs can flake out on you at the worst possible moment. But trust me, those Clash and Sex Pistols album covers were done by pros working in pro studios and may have been cheaply produced compared to — oh, say — a Beatles cover (back cover, Abbey Road), but they were out of reach for your average garage band. Trust me. You can’t interface with a pro production establishment by submitting crap. It has to meet certain minimum standards or fixing it will cost more than it’s worth.

And, yes, crap has been published. But do you want to bet your career on it? No. Of course not. So: perfect, make it look good.

That’s not to say that all source imagery has to meet or surpass the standards of classical art or the renaissance mashups of it. This is not “Grandma Moses need not apply.” I’m not here to argue whether folk art is art.

Although it is interesting that when people want to parse things, they start with arbitrary taxonomies that make no objective sense. Why is Rembrandt not folk art? Was Rembrandt from another world? An alien from Arcturus Centauri A? Of course not. He was a people. Doesn’t that make him folk? What people who seek to divide “fine” art from “folk” art are expressing is a snobbishness about training versus talent. Me, I don’t give a shit about either. I’m concerned with discipline and production. I know a superbly trained and talented artist who, the last time I saw him, was selling fresh fish in a chain grocery. All the talent in the world (and he had it, trust me) availed him nothing. And, yes, the world is poorer for it. But… YOU have to put product on the metaphorical shelves, and it has to be done to certain standards.

But-tennyway… It can be the crudest, most primitive, objectively immature work in the world. If it’s well-executed, THAT is what counts.

2. Suit Purpose. As a book publisher, you have several requirements for your package label. It must

• Attract attention, either of a reader already familiar with your work who may be actually look for this particular title or of a reader browsing book listings (or an actual, physical shelf).
• Turn the reader on. There’s an attractant that may reside in the same place as sex — thus the notion “sex sells — whatever, but it certainly appeals to the same brain-side nervendings, whether it’s an image, a sound, a taste, a scent, or the mental stirrings that come when you read words or hear a radio drama.
• Finally, make the reader buy the book — turn him/her from a generic reader into your reader, at least in potential.

3. Clean Execution. Part of technique, of course, is execution. Any pro will have definite opinions on this, but… The execution of any project should be evident in the output. It should be clean, of course. It should flow smoothly from one element to another. It should fit properly into its frame. It should HAVE a frame — a frame of reference, which might not be apparent to the casual view, but to which all parts of the artistic unity refer.

And you’re going, “What the farg is he on about?”

Artistic unity is that all parts of the whole refer to one another, or to some external frame of reference, in a systematic, visual or philosophical way. If you plunk something down in a design, it has to relate to the whole, in scale, position, attitude, color — somehow — or it will look out of place. In The Door Into Summer, Heinlein wrote that you don’t put a propeller on a bathtub just because you have one handy. On the other hand, you might put one in a bathtub if you’re making a Jacuzzi. It’s all a matter of context and your frame of reference. The illustration you use as the source art for your book cover has to relate, not only visually to the rest of the design, but also conceptually to the content of your book.

That’s not to say that the busty redhead on the cover has to be a literal portrait of your female protagonist. But the visual cues — the symbolism included — have to make sense in the frame of reference of your book or you’ll get dinged for artistic fraud. At least.

Now, I’m sure you’ve heard or read the same horror stories I have about how books were killed by covers that were commissioned by art directors who had not even read the executive summary of the book, let alone the whole manuscript. Those covers would be, therefore, the veriest definition of a lack of design unity, and were, also by definition, poorly executed. But I’d go further and guess that the vast majority of them were also badly-done. I know, I have seen examples of such and have thought them all to be shoddy work.

That relates to the cleanliness of execution in that the total work, as seen by an objective viewer, should appear to be well-made.

Ever seen a bad Photoshop job? What did you notice most about it? The edges. The seams. The stray pixels, the mis-matches in color, resolution, sharpness, perspective, lighting. Those are all earmarks of poor execution. The artist was in a hurry. Not attentive to detail. Too cheap to spend the time and effort to make a clean mask, to find photos that match up in the other matters. These things jump off the cover and smack the reader in the eyes, making him/her move on to the next book on the shelf. And the bad part? These things are emphasized, not hidden, by down-sampling or scaling an image. So tiny little details in your large-scale working image will, when the cover is shrunk down to a thumbnail, be exaggerated. You need to make sure, by properly executing your work flow (and testing your image at different sizes and resolutions) as well as making sure the image is well-formed.

So: technique, clean execution, suit purpose. What else? Well…

4. It has to have heft. Sorry, I don’t know how else to explain it. And, also sorry, this is something a lot of designers get wrong. The ones who get it right?

Aubrey Powell. Po. Does album covers. Based in London. Was, with Storm Thorgerson, half of Hipgnosis.

Hugh Syme. Does album covers. Based in Toronto. I’ve had the honor to work with Hugh and he is as brilliant as his work might let you think.

Michael Whelan. SFF fans will of course recognize Whelan for his work covering works by C.J. Cherryh, Heinlein, and myriad others.

A West. West’s hand-drawn mini-masterpieces enhanced album covers, posters, newspaper and magazine ads for such artists as Tom Petty, Billy Idol, and Fleetwood Mac. His Brass Ring Circus Studios was a fixture in southern California in the ’80s and ’90s. I’ve lost track of him since and miss his presence on the scene.

OK, you say, I’m not an artist of that caliber. Well, here’s news — neither am I. You don’t have to be to do a good design.. But you have to see what these guys (and others at their level) do in terms of shape, volume, composition — the language of form — in order to do your fakes and cheats to make the primary images on your book covers. You have to come up to that level in terms of the toughness and the sexiness of your images. Why? Because others will, and you’ll be competing with them for eyeballs and, eventually (as Heinlein put it ) their beer money. And, if you come up short, you’ll lose.

OK. Tough. Heft. What else.

5. Meet mechanical requirements. The image has to be, in addition to beautiful, clean, and well-made, properly built for its mechanical purpose. It has to display and print properly, or it won’t serve its purpose. It must be of the correct resolution, with the requisite bleeds included, of the right size and aspect ratio, and in the correct file format.

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