Three Things You Didn’t Know About Book Cover Design

If you’re going to work with a professional book cover designer, you’re going to have to navigate the process and pitfalls of art direction, revision, and negotiation. Professional conduct and etiquette, required.

Character Design

Eowain_concept2-RITZAIf your cover design is going to feature any character art, you may see character design sketches from your artists before they move on to the setting.

This gives the artist a sense of how you visually see the character as an author, and an opportunity to show you that they can be sensitive to your needs.

It’s important, as a writer commissioning artwork from a creative professional in a different medium, to always remain cordial. There will be days when the artist’s work just doesn’t quite seem to capture the essence of your vision, though it’s found certain elements that will be valuable.

Eowain_concept4-RITZAAnd then there will be days when the artist can do no wrong. But you have to get through the chunky to reach the smooth. Never let your difficulty in communicating your vision to an artist break-down into frustration and bad feelings. If you’ve done your homework, and had

  • a little luck,
  • patience,
  • an attention to detail and clear concise communication,

then you can be sure you’re working with the right person, and together, you’ll find the best vision the artist can produce in a reasonable amount of time.

It’s important to be reasonable. How many years did it take you to write your book? And you expect an artist whose never heard of it to sum up the action, adventure, romance, and high thematic purpose of this mighty literary work after hearing nothing more than your elevator pitch? So you might want to consider the following three things when working with a cover design professional to develop your book cover.

1. Setting

Provide as much detail as you can in your feedback. A particularly good trick is to copy down a draft of the artist’s most recent effort and mark it up in a simple graphic design tool (MS Paint, GIMP, etc) before returning it to the artist with your feedback.

Book Cover_sketch01-RITZA

2. Revision

Remember, graphic designers are visual artists. The technical problems they face as story-tellers are different from those of a writer. The shade of light, the position of the sun, the way a shadow hangs, the position of a wrist, all these can contribute to the overall effect of a good piece of cover art. You have to find a way to show them your vision in a way that they can replicate through their medium of light and shadow.

Book Cover_sketch03-RITZA

As you can see in the third draft of the full-cover, the nature of Eithne’s costume, hair, and relative size underwent significant revision. The character of the scene has been interrupted by a directive over Eowain’s left shoulder from the writer: “Give it a sense of lurking evil.” This is what I mean about: “be specific.” The more detail you can provide to the artist, the fewer revisions you’ll have to go through.

Book Cover_sketch04-RGB-RITZA

By this stage of the design process, we were getting down to fine details, such as the emblems that can be scene on the banners and the brightness and position of the lighting.

Something of the “lurking evil” that I wanted can be see here, but to my own vision, it was still too bright. It might be spring and there might be flowers in the meadow, but there’s also war abroad, and even darker matters a-foot.

I also wasn’t quite happy with the female character. I didn’t want her to seem so demure. As early commenters on the design noted, it wasn’t “feminist friendly,” with the way she was positioned, genuflecting in front of him. I envisioned her as a fierce character, stubborn, proud, and loyal, but never “demure.”

So at that point, we started working on details of the female character. Preproduction Character Studies: Lady Eithne, The Romance of Eowain, by Michael E. Dellert

I sent him a few additional photo-images that I scavenged from the internet. “Here. Can we tilt her head up and give her a look like that?”

And then we came down to the question of gloves or bracers?

Though she’s not demure, she is a maiden of virtue in her own culture. So the gloves weren’t necessarily a bad choice.

But one meaning of “maiden of virtue” where she comes from is: “a young woman of purpose and dignity who can kick you in the head if you get out of line.” So we opted to go without the gloves and with the bracers.

I know, the relative positioning still suggests the anti-feminine argument, I won’t deny it. But look at the spirit in her eyes. They give her a look of clear and competent threat all her own.

In a previous study on book cover design, I mentioned the importance of clarity and mystery. I think the revisions to Eithne’s character highlight this duality, setting her in that demure position as “maiden of virtue,” yet with that look of independent spirit and warning of defiant violence suggested in her face. This contrast between her look and her position now suggest other interpretations of her character like strength, and add the complexities of clarity and mystery to her character. (I might be wrong, but I do think about these things.)

Book Cover_sketch05-RITZA

Here the designer punched up the “lurking evil” to the nth degree, and then dialed the volume on “Tolkien’s Ents” to 11. I loved the design and the creativity, but it went off in yet a different direction, as the lurking shadow had, from where I saw the vision.

By this point, I was starting to feel bad for the artist. I’m not sure he expected me to be so demanding, and he’d just gotten back from a weekend trip to Germany, enjoying German beer, but proclaiming Serbian sausage to be finer. And then his daughter became sick.

As you work with your artists, you develop a friendship with them, an ease of moving together through a conversation.

Book Cover_sketch06-RITZA

But I think he was starting to feel frustrated too. Again, the sense of fantasy as a gateway into the land of faerie is palpable, but the presentation and composition just wasn’t quite what I was looking for. I kept saying: “I want subtle. I want so subtle that the plan set in motion by the lurking evil has been quietly motoring along, doing its evil in the world for 10,000 years, and it’s still not quite ready to reveal it’s hand in matters yet. Dial it down from Tolkien.”

Book Cover_sketch07-RITZA

And this is where were had our breakthrough. The characters were very nearly right, the setting was very nearly right, the banners were almost perfect.

3. Decorum

No artistic process is ever complete. There must come a point when you agree that done is good enough. Don’t overstay your welcome on the artist’s time and expect endless revisions. Agree on a certain number of revisions in advance, and agree in advance to contract kill terms. E.g., you have 6 drafts, but by draft 2, it’s clear the artist is dogging it; if your agreed kill terms give you an opt-out to the artist for a refund or the cost of only 10% of the final fee and everyone can part as friends over “artistic differences,” so much the better.

Throughout this process, I’ll be honest, there were moments where I’d look at the latest revision and want to tear my hair out and scream. And I have friends for that.

But one thing I would never do is rant and rave at the artist. Writers and artists and both commercial and non-profit publishers are all professional people. There is no reason why creative direction can’t be provided that does dignity to the artist’s efforts, while guiding the artist all the same toward a more perfect result. Speak humanely, share your differences constructively and collaboratively, be reasonable, and for God’s sake, pay them on time.

At Last: The Romance of Eowain — COVER REVEAL!

And that’s how we got here:

The Romance of Eowain, by Michael E. Dellert. Artwork by Saša Ristović-Ritza.

The Romance of Eowain, by Michael E. Dellert. Artwork by Saša Ristović-Ritza.

#PlatformTip: As you are revising the drafts of your cover art, consider the alternative use to which you can put those discarded drafts that you now own as part of the transfer of title. Up-cycling your discarded content can prove to be an effective method of sharing your journey as a writer with your fans and followers.

Huge thanks to Saša Ristović-Ritza for the help with bringing my vision of The Romance of Eowain to the world of light and shadow. Saša was an absolute delight to work with, and as patient and cooperative a collaborator as I could have asked for on this project. Big thanks, Saša, and a big hello to your daughter and your wife, who always saw my side of the vision. If ever I can get to Serbia, sausages and beers are on me.

Saša Ristović – Ritza is an illustrator and graphic designer living and working in Serbia. His demonstrated skill in epic fantasy and science fiction illustration can be seen at


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Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. He is currently working as an independent freelancer. He lives in the Greater New York City area.

Posted in Announcements, Cover design, Publishing, Self-Publishing, The Business of Writing, The Romance of Eowain, Writing Life

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The Author
Michael Dellert is an award-winning writer, editor, publishing consultant, and writing coach with a publishing career spanning 18 years. He is currently working as an independent freelancer. He lives in the Greater New York City area.
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