Ever wonder about book covers? Who designs them? How do they go about it? I have long been a fan of Jem Butcher, who has done the artwork on my Viennese Mysteries for Severn House. His most recent, for A Matter of Breeding, out in England next spring and in the U.S. in the summer, is just plain smashing.
I am very pleased to present an email discussion I had with Jem regarding his work:
How did you get involved in cover design, how long have you been at it?
I did a degree in Graphic Design at Bath, graduating back in 1990, and fell more or less into book cover design. I’ve been doing it ever since, for various publishers in-house and now as a freelancer.
When I was Art Director at Simon and Schuster, I could sometimes choose which covers to work on, but most of the time I spent fire fighting. These days I take what comes along, within reason. I think it is important to be versatile within what is a very narrow design field.
When you get a title, what is the process in determining the cover? Do you always have to read the book to get the concept or are some books just obvious from the title? Can you walk us through the process briefly from MS in hand to finished book cover?
More often than not the cover design process is a sales / marketing driven one. The publisher will often have a clear idea of their target audience and market. My job as a cover designer is to design something appropriate for that audience. It sounds obvious but a ‘chick lit’ women’s romantic comedy should have the correct visual language that describes that genre. Like-wise a male action ‘Special Forces Adventure’ story shouldn’t look like a Jackie Collins romp! The trick however is not just to design to a formula, but to be creative and inventive within the given genre.
I will start with reading the brief and hopefully a synopsis of the book; sometimes I will be sent the manuscript and I will dip into that. From there I will do some market research in the given genre, to see what’s out there. Then I’ll do some some design ‘style’ research to give me some inspiration. I’ll put a ‘mood board’ together of relevant material, which can be useful to fall back on if I loose sight of the goal. From there I’ll do some picture research into relevant subject material. Hopefully this will inspire some ideas, and that’s when the hard work starts of making an idea work visually.
With my Vienna books it seems you must do a close read to put real clues in the artwork–for example with The Keeper of Hands you featured a woman that readers could take to be Berthe, wife of the protagonist Werthen. This is a book in which women figure heavily and you also pair that portrait with the Maria Theresa statue of the only female leader in Habsburg history. Was that deliberate or a matter of serendipity? In A Matter of Breeding, dealing with horse (and human) breeding, you feature a fiaker with horse and place it just near the Spanish Riding School, another scene in the book and resonant with the theme. Again, deliberate or happy coincidence? And if the latter, do you give that level of insight to all your covers?
I think experience and good briefing can help with finding relevant material for a cover, for example where, when, what, how, and a good description of characters helps enormously. However the major pitfall can be being too literal about what happens in the book, a healthy amount of artistic licence is needed.
What have been some of your favorite covers? Why?
Some of my favourite covers have been because of who the author is, e.g. I’ve done a few of Stephen Fry’s books, he is a fantastic character. Others are more about the design, something I did recently is ‘Sketcher’ by Alma Books. I like the interaction of the photographic element and the graphic stripes. Or the big ‘voting X’ on ‘The Life and Death of Democracy’ Others are up there for me because they have been commercially successful with a good design, e.g. The Shopaholic series (first three) or Child 44.
Books that attempt to cross genres are difficult, because you are trying to speak two different visual languages at once. And often the publisher is confused about where the book should sit. Other ‘difficult’ books are often a product of publisher’s various problems with the book. The cover being a very tangible sign of a difficult, or even an unwanted birth.
Any differences between fiction and nonfiction covers?
Fiction covers are generally often more difficult, because they are more subjective. With non fiction, we know where we stand regarding the subject matter at least.
Authors always seem to be carping about the covers for their books. Any primo complaints to share? Any compliments?
No real complaints from authors, or at least none that have reached me. Quite a few compliments though, which is nice. Trying to shoe-horn a bad author idea or several ideas onto a cover often spells disaster.
Anything further you would care to add about the design business in general?
A common problem I find is that a publisher will often offer a solution to a problem they have with a cover, rather than explain what the problem is. For instance they will often say, ‘Make the type bigger’, what they really mean is we need it to look more commercial / mass market, or more masculine perhaps.
Are you available also for freelancing for authors going their own in ebooks?
Yup definitely available for self published work, however self published authors need to be aware of the design process.
Thanks much Jem for taking the time to talk with us at Scene of the Crime.
You might also check out Jem’s Movie-Book site for trailers and animated book covers.