On the Care and Feeding of Cover Designers

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I’ve written quite a lot of words on how authors can find a reputable cover designer that will fit their needs, so I thought I’d mention a couple of things on what to do when you’ve found “the one”. Here’s how to conduct yourself like a professional, maintain a healthy relationship with your designer, and get the absolute best from them.

Read the design agreement.

Whether the agreement is an informal one, or a formal contract, there should absolutely be one–and you should absolutely read it. Very few things will sour a relationship more quickly than a misunderstanding of what is expected of either party. An agreement should include a confirmation of what you are contracting the designer to do, what format it will be delivered in, the expected time-frame for delivery, the agreed-on price, the rights that will be licensed or transferred to you, and any refund policies or limitation on revisions. You will also want to have an understanding that all resources (stock images, fonts, etc) will be licensed properly by the artist, and whether or not these will incur any additional cost on your part.

Exposure is a cause of death.

For clients who are new to the art industry, they may be unaware that artists have struggled to receive adequate compensation for their work since the dawn of time–just like writers. Often, a justification used by clients for less-than-fair pay is that it will provide the artist with the benefit of “exposure”–in other words, if the project is successful, people will see their art, it will increase traffic for their business, and provide them with more clients who will want to underpay them in exchange for “exposure”, thus perpetuating the vicious cycle of instant-ramen dinners, late rent checks, and artistic despair.

Please, do not use the promise of exposure–with or without the use of that word–in your negotiation with your designer. Implying that you are in some way doing the artist a favor by gracing them with the honor of your project is condescending and offensive. The artist does the job, and then they get paid. Unless you’re Apple or Nike, you’re not doing them a favor.

Similarly, the promise of nebulous “future work” as a way to sweeten the deal is also rather tacky. By the time an artist reaches a professional level, they’ve been promised three lifetimes worth of future work that never materialized. The only time the promise of future work has a favorable impact on your negotiation is when it is accompanied by a booking date and a deposit for said future work.

Expect a good artist’s career to grow.

I’ve heard countless stories of authors who paid for a single cover from a designer and return a year later for a cover to the sequel, only to discover that the artist’s prices had doubled. In some cases, these authors get pretty angry and abusive toward the designer in question, when what has occurred is no less than what the author probably hopes will occur in their own career… you know… success.

A truly talented artist will not be a bargain for long. If this is a particular point of concern for you, discuss your future plans with your designer. Let them know you have a number of subsequent books planned that you would like them to cover, but want to have some assurance of the price. Some designers may allow you to pay a deposit to lock in their current rate. If a designer really enjoys working with you, they may agree to grandfather the rate for a certain period of time (the next 18 months, for example), or pencil you in on their schedule without requiring a deposit–but don’t expect this. Saving you a place on their schedule without a deposit constitutes a risk for the artist that they may be financially unable to take.

Anonymity is great for superheroes…

On a related note, I know some authors attempt to prevent their designers from becoming too successful by keeping them a secret. If you are one of these authors, please be sure that your designer’s agreement/contract does not require verbal and/or print attribution. If it does, you are required to credit them when asked (this includes in social media settings) and likewise credit them for the cover work in your book’s front matter.

Even if this is not required in the contract, it is a professional courtesy that is in most cases expected, and omitting it can seem ungenerous at best, and insulting at worst.

While exposure is not a substitute for adequate pay, artists do their best work in the hopes that our satisfied clients will then recommend us and help us continue to work as artists. If you received your cover work for a really good price, this becomes even more important, because the designer is likely in the growth phase of their career–the stage at which they eat all that instant ramen in the hopes that they can eventually pay the bills with their art. Your support may in fact determine whether or not they continue to be available to do cover work, or if they’ve found it necessary to abandon their art and head back to the 9-to-5.

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As a designer, clients that pay me well and bring me lots of work are wonderful. The ones that are supportive, easy to work with, and have put an extra effort into establishing and maintaining a good relationship with me are worth ten high-rollers. Those are the clients I go the extra mile for. I’ll do an extra draft beyond what the contract calls for, because I want them to have my absolute best. I’ll throw in a discount when I know their last release didn’t go as well as they’d hoped. I might offer some free art for that novella they can’t afford to have illustrated, but would fit perfectly with that random speedpaint I whipped out as practice last month. There are even a few that I have promised to fit into my schedule forever after, no matter how busy I get.

If you’ve found that perfect designer whose work you want on all your books, treat them with kindness, respect, and consideration. Allow them creative input, respect their expertise, thank them for their work, and then shill the hell outta them.

That kind of client is priceless. Be that client. If you’ve chosen your designer well, you won’t regret it.