Friday, November 18, 2011

So you plan to commission a book cover?

I've been getting more than the usual number of emails lately from self publishing authors looking to hire an artist for their project. Unfortunately, the commissioning process has largely been opaque over the years with many buffers between author and artist and this can lead to some awkward attempts, ruffled feathers, general frustration, and poor results for indie first-timers. I recently gave a lengthy explanation of the commission process to an author in a series of emails and decided that it would probably be a good thing to rewrite this into a big ol’ blog post and share that info publicly.

First things first, the question I heard most often at World Con earlier this year was not “what is the commission process?”, but rather “how do I find an artist?” There are a few very good resources for doing this. The first and most obvious is to just browse the local book store and look for the artist credits listed on the book jackets. Most any working illustrator’s email is a very quick google search away, so once you’ve identified someone who’s work feels like a good match to your own, getting in touch with that person should not be difficult. Another resource is the Spectrum Annual, which is put out every year showcasing some of the best of the field of SF/F artwork and can be found at most any bookstore and easily ordered online. Another avenue is to go to SF/F conventions and do some face to face networking. Finally, there are many online art communities and galleries which provide access to literally tens of thousands of artists around the world. Some to check out would be,, and

Once you’ve found your artist(s), your next step is to make contact. Here is where the process begins. First, the particulars of the contract are agreed on, those being: the budget, the rights being purchased, and the due date for the final art. Contracts can cover other issues as well, but those three are the root of it. For cover commissions, there are standard practices which can at least serve as a starting point (if you're thinking to yourself that you wouldn't know where to begin). There is almost always flexibility for negotiation, these are just industry standards:

-Standard cover rates with a major publisher average at $3000, and this can be higher and lower depending on a number of factors (size of the company, wrap around images, time frame, etc.). Mid level publishers generally pay more in the $1200-$2500 range. Small press is likely under $1000. Keep in mind what clients the artist is regularly working with when planning your budget. Time spent on your project is time away from another, so it would be difficult for an artist to justify cutting their rate dramatically.

-The rights purchased are typically First Reproduction Rights (either North American or Worldwide) which means that the publisher has the first printing rights to the image (as oppose to if the image had been already used on, or was simultaneously being used on, another product). This is a limited usage (the publisher does not own the copyright, they are leasing printing rights) and the artist retains long term rights of the work as well as the original painting. Many times, second usage rights may be available on an existing image and may be easier to secure for a lean budget. If you know of a particular piece which the artist has done that might work well for you, ask if 2nd use cover rights are available. Personally speaking, I feel it’s best to avoid work which has appeared on a book cover previously, but there are many other places to look. Of course, this is easiest with more general subject matter like a spaceship or landscape.

-The due date is probably the most varied of these issues. It generally just depends on the specific needs of the publisher and how well the artist can accommodate those needs. Common turn around tends to be about 2-3 months, though sometimes an artist can take very short deadlines and other artists are consistently booked four months ahead and need at least as much time to add a new project to their schedule.

Once the specifics of the job have been determined, the artist will prepare rough sketches for the client. These are sometimes made from a specific concept which the client has already selected, or from the artist reading the manuscript and presenting their own concepts. In either case (or situations which are something in between), I personally feel that the most successful covers often come from an art director choosing the artist who naturally fits to the subject and tone of the story and then allowing the artist to find their own solutions without micromanaging. I'm not sure how that sounds coming from an artist, but the principle is the same of any professional you might hire: This person is presumably an expert and you get the most value by presenting them your problem and letting them present solutions. Good communication always leads to the best results.

Once a sketch has been agreed on, the artist then creates the final image to be delivered on or before the agreed on due date. Hopefully the image will satisfy both the artist and the client, though occasionally revisions will be needed. Small revisions are things like refining or correcting certain details which might not have been totally clear in the sketch, or making other adjustments which could not have been foreseen and wouldn't require a major repainting. Heavy revisions would be making changes which would require heavy reworking of the image and almost always are issues which should have been discussed at the sketch phase. Small revisions are typically done at no additional expense (except when more and more and more are requested, this is often stipulated in the contract), Heavy revisions usually come with an additional fee which is negotiated at that time. Heavy revisions are pretty rare in publishing, that tends to happen more in advertising and other industries where concepts can change dramatically after the sketch had been approved. There’s really no excuse for it in cover illustration unless somebody failed to do their part correctly.

Once the final artwork is approved, the client pays the artist whatever amount is due (some contracts have half paid up front and half on completion, some have the full balance due on completion) and the artist delivers the image, which these days is typically done in the form of a high resolution digital file by FTP or some other file delivery system (dropbox, yousendit, etc.)

At this stage, the cover will still need design. This is not handled by the artist unless it was specifically agreed to in the contract (which is highly uncommon). Most publishers have inhouse designers, though some work with freelance designers. For self publishing, I'd urge anyone who does not have a design background to seek a professional designer because even the best cover image will fall flat if the design is sub-par. I’ve seen this happen and it’s not pretty. Nothing makes a book look cheap like bad design. Much like illustration, graphic design has its own resources and online communities.

A few final thoughts that I want to end with:

-You get what you pay for. Budgets are probably the most difficult issue for self publishing and it’s not easy, but keep this in mind. And plan to leave budget for a designer.

-Communication is critical. Honesty, politeness, and professionalism should be expected from both sides. Poor communication is at the root of almost all unsatisfactory commissions.

-We’re all on the same side. I’m amazed how much passive aggressive animosity I’ve seen online and overheard at conventions between authors and artists. Just keep in mind that everyone wants the cover to look good, the book to do well, and all parties to walk away happy. I promise you this.

David Palumbo is a second generation professional illustrator and current art director for Night Shade Books.