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Sunday, July 01, 2012

Portrait of a Book Illustrator: Duncan Long

 As a writer I have all too often groaned when I saw the cover designs for books I've written - and only once in a while have I been lucky enough to get a proper cover artist instead of the usual stock photos taken from photo libraries. 

But as art director for Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine I've also worked with artists and editors and have perhaps a better understanding than most writers of how it works and an appreciation of what goes into it, the miracles that artists come up with despite a tight deadline.

I invited book illustrator Duncan Long - who, you'll find below, started life as a successful writer! - to give us an insight into his work. This is a set of questions I asked him; tomorrow there will be a guest post.
Duncan didn't put in a link to his blog for this interview, but I think you should start checking it out right away, so here it is for you to enjoy till his guest post appears tomorrow:

Here you’ll find all sorts of fascinating stuff about the process of illustrating books, what can go wrong and what works well. You might also like to check out his portfolio if you’re considering hiring him.

SB: You’ve had a fascinating career as a cover artist. How did you decide that this is what you wanted to do with your art, rather than, say, gallery art?

DL: Well, I have always loved books. In fact, my mom sewed together some small blank page books when I was a first grader, and I can remember spending hours and hours writing and illustrating them to fill the pages.

I loved reading and often wrote and drew pictures all though school. Sadly I lost about two decades after a “detour” during college to become a musician (the electric guitar and synthesizer having stronger siren calls than the paintbrush, I guess), but eventually I got into the publishing business as a writer/illustrator, landing jobs where I could create illustrations for the articles I wrote.

From there I wrote a few novels (13 all together with HarperCollins and Avon) and eventually put some 70 non-fiction books into print as well. I love writing fiction but discovered that I had some skill at creating book cover illustrations and thus have gradually migrated to mostly doing that and only occasionally ghost writing a book (about one a year).

The big plus of the illustration work is that it can generally be wrapped up in a week or two, where writing a novel is a long drawn out process that I find I just don’t seem to have the patience for any more.

I guess my success in the publishing industry pretty much did away with any perceived need to create paintings and display them in galleries. I do have one publishing hounding me to create some limited edition prints for sell through galleries, so eventually I may go that route. But right now, any gallery work is on the far back, back burner.

SB:You have told me that you mostly do your art for self-published authors now. Has there been a lot of change in the market since the growth of “indie” publishing?

DL: Yes, it is like the publishing industry has turned itself upside down over the last few years. There’s always been a big self-publishing segment in the US throughout its history. But this segment of publishing is really growing, with, Barnes & Noble, and others giving self publishers access to distribution system that’s enable marketing to buyers without having to use direct marketing or display ads in magazines as was the case with self-publishing in the past.

Some self-publishing authors are selling many more books than they ever would have with large presses (in which a mid-list book is sold for a few months, then vanishes off the shelves). Self-publishers can keep their books “in print” forever; since some titles only start to catch on after being available for months or even years, self-publishers can gradually sell many more books over the long haul than they might with a big press printing their book.

For example, in the recent past a large publisher might print 6,000 to 10,000 copies of mid-list a genre novel. Of those perhaps 40-60 percent would sell (at best). Thus, a mid-list author might see only a few thousand copies of his book actually sold – less than what the writer’s advance on the book might be.

With today’s self-publishers, that number of sales is often reached in a few years’ time. AND the author keeps a much bigger percentage of the sales. Where they might have earned 12-15 percent of selling price of the book (with a large number of those discounted to retailers) through a large press, by self-publishing they can earn a dollar or two for every dime they’d have earned from a large press.

So today self-publishing has a lot to offer an author who’s willing to go to a little extra work and expense up front to get a book edited and laid out, and to have a cover designed for it.

Which of course is where I enter into the picture (ha).

Oddly enough, the playing field has leveled when it comes to buying covers as well. The large presses don’t pay huge sums to book cover illustrators; $1,000 - $2,000 for a cover by a talented artist is pretty much the standard.

Since many self-publishing authors can afford that amount for their own book covers, we’re now seeing many self-published books with covers that rival or even better those of the big presses. This also really levels the playing field because many buyers really do pick up and buy a book simply because it has a quality cover.

With all these factors in play, it’s not surprising that self-publishing is exploding – and that the majority of my customers are self-publishers these days. 

SB:How different is it working for the author directly from working for a publishing company?

DL: With the large publishers, the artist generally works with an art director who understands what does and does not work on a book cover.

While many authors have a good feel for what is needed on a cover and pretty much give their cover illustrator a free hand to produce a quality cover, a few authors micromanage the project into the ground, and that is always both a frustrating as well as a disappointing process.

Don’t get me wrong. Authors should have a say in what’s on their cover and should be able to ask for changes and so forth. But a self-publisher should realize that the cover must be very attractive and reflect the genre of the book. If it fails in either, the cover is going to be detrimental to book sales no matter how much money you spend in creating the artwork and layout.

I guess the best advice for an indie author is to study the covers of the best sellers in the genre their book is in, find an illustrator / layout person capable of matching that style, and then explain what the book is about and stand back to let the cover artist do their thing.

In the real world it isn’t quite that simple, but ideally, almost.

SB You have probably had some strange experiences over the years with what is asked of you. Is there one you can share with us without revealing names?

DL: Actually, after a while there are patterns of behavior from clients that seem to be consistent. I’ve got to the place where imaginary warning bells sound when I hear certain phrases coming from a customer’s lips (ha).

Perhaps the most troubling are clients with no clear vision of what they want – but who also decide to micromanage the project. They’ll start out well with something like, “Well, I’m not sure what I need for the cover so I’ll just let you be creative and do what you think is best.”

And that’s fine and often the process (the trouble comes later). So I’ll ask them questions about the book, then work on some concepts and submit the artwork to the client. At that point things can go smoothly and the writer picks a concept, suggest changes, and I progress on to a rough painting of the cover to resubmit and after that the finished cover illustration.

But once in a while the author can take the project on a tragic turn by rejecting all the concept ideas we had discussed previously, and heading off in another tangent. Even then, things can work out if the next round of concept art has something that works.

But once in a while a client gets into a “what if” endless loop where I find myself putting in new figures, changing night to day, transforming stances, clothing, hair, lighting, and/or color, and so forth. On and on it goes with the author never knowing exactly what they want. Such projects often end poorly after lots of hair pulling on both sides.

The moral to this story is it’s hard to know whether you’ve reached your destination if you don’t know where you want to be. For writers wanting to hire someone to create a book cover for them, it’s wise to enter the project with a good concept of what is needed for a good cover for their book.

Another problem occurs when an author wants to tell the entire story of the book on the cover. A cover with everything but the kitchen sink on it won’t sell books.

With a book cover, less is more.

All the cover needs to do is entice the reader to pick up the book, not tell him the whole story.

The third pitfall I occasionally see is when an author becomes unsure of their own judgment about the cover. Now if they turn to someone with a good eye who firmly has in hand what a quality cover is, then well and good. But if the author starts asking friends, family, fellow workers, or employees what they think of a cover, then I can be pretty sure we’re going into a downward spiral to the lowest common denominator.

It’s as if Lawrence of Arabia is being transformed into some version of the latest sit-com. Soon all sorts of detrimental changes are being made and little by little what was a good cover becomes a disaster. (I have come to refer to this as “death by committee.)

(I always find this process odd as I’m sure these writers don’t go around asking their friends, children, and co-workers to make suggestions about changing the author’s manuscript, plot, characters, and so forth. Yet for some reason they think these same people will offer expert advice on their book cover design.)

Fortunately these happenstances are not the norm. But it’s always heartbreaking and frustrating for all involved to see an author pay good money for a cover and then run the project into the ground.

For the most part, creating the book cover illustration and cover layout goes smoothly and everyone is very pleased with the results. Which is why I love my work as a book illustrator. 

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