Welcome Mark! Can you tell us how you become a book cover designer?
Honestly, it wasn’t actually something I’d ever considered. I’ve been in graphic design since I started designing album covers and posters for rock bands back in 1990, and I always enjoyed seeing that end product. Books were never in my radar, though. It wasn’t until my other half showed me myriad posts on various FB groups where authors were complaining that their cover designer ghosted them, ignored their brief, or were just downright rude to them that the thought of cover design started to creep in.
I created one cover for a friend of a friend, and he ended up being interviewed on a load of TV shows, so it was nice to have my cover on display to so many people. I still wasn’t convinced that cover design was something I wanted to actually do, though, as I was so immersed in the corporate design that I’d been doing since around 1995/6, even though I was getting progressively disheartened by everything.
But I kept being shown posts by authors who were literally quite distraught by the way things were panning out. Slowly, I began to come around to the idea, and when my other half’s own cover designers let her down (five different designers, some who ignored the brief and gave her thriller or horror covers for YA fantasy, and some who took deposits and never got back in touch) I felt compelled to help out. When her latest designer sent over their drafts, she couldn’t believe what she was looking at. One was basically a poster for Stargate, even though there was no mention of any such thing in any of her books, and another looked like something from Enemy of the State… a gritty thriller cover. She showed me them, and I felt terrible. She never bothered me with her cover design, partly because I wasn’t a cover designer, but also because I was already working 90+ hours a week and she didn’t to burden me with it.
She went to bed early that night. Very early. Upset, annoyed, and knowing she’d lost yet another deposit.
After I finished my work for the evening, which would have been around midnight, I read her brief and set about sourcing images to create a cover for her book. It wasn’t easy, and having to find all these stock image sites was tough – I’d never had to use them before as I always worked with photographers or supplied product images – but I got there in the end. I finished my cover draft at around 7am, printed it out, left a note asking her to let me sleep and not wake me. She loved the cover, but it still took another year or so of showing me more posts by disgruntled authors before I took the leap.
Not being happy with the way my existing clients had become (all corporate, mostly marketing work, as well as website design and software development) and how entitled they were, thinking it was okay to call at 3am to ask why they can’t pick up emails or “can you just” change the colour of text (because it’s really important to do that at 3am), I decided the time had come.
I worked on a website for cover design over the Christmas break, I created a bunch of test covers (I suppose you’d call them premades, although I never put them on sale – they were just examples of what I could do), and I launched the site. I wanted to give authors a place where they would feel welcomed, someone who would listen to them but also advise them, and an experience where everything went as smoothly as possible.
And that’s what we have today. I think it’s around 400 covers, and something like 120 clients. It took a long time to convince me to take that leap of faith, but I’m glad I did. I no longer work 90+ hours a week, and every single day is a new adventure. I just wish I’d listened around ten years ago when it was first suggested!
Do you have a favorite project in particular? What about that experience made it unique?
This is really going to turn some people off! My favourite cover is Tentacles of Destruction. It’s NOT my best work, in terms of how many assets were used and the number of hours spent in the manipulation process, but it’s probably my favourite because of how it looks. I adore the Fallout video game series, and the propaganda posters dotted throughout the universe. The retro-futuristic style has always appealed to me, and when the client asked for a bombastic “Tom Cruise-style” cover, I knew it was the wrong thing for their book. A universe where Germany won WWII and Hitler created hybrid creatures that were half-octopus and half-alien, capable of eating an entire planet… that needed something crazy. Less Hollywood and more wacky. So I gave him exactly what he asked for, but I also gave him the cover that you see today. It’s still right up there in my favourites, even though it’s quite simple, in terms of creativity.
What part of book cover design do you find most compelling?
It’s the pitch. Always. I read the brief, then I ask every question I can possibly think of that would shape how the concept for their cover would come about. Once they get back to me with the answers, the cogs start turning and I get back to them with a pitch. I don’t really go into much detail but, using a recent cover as an example, I’d just say “Shot of the house on its own, taken from street level so it’s leaning back a little from our point of view… broken windows, cracks on the stonework, creeping ivy taking over one side of it, and only a single streetlight to illuminate the entire scene. Protagonist standing on the street, looking up at the building, not knowing what terrors lurk within, but the reader gets a glimpse using subtle imagery in various windows.”
I love stuff like that. I love when they love the idea as much as I do, and that’s when I go ahead and start sourcing assets to build their draft. And every client gets a series of 3D rendered scenes so they can see their artwork in a physical sense and in a real-world environment. The excitement of writing that “here’s your draft” email, hitting that send button and waiting for their response is amazing. I love the anticipation and their replies, which are invariably littered with exclamation marks and “oh my god”. Such a rush!
Tell us about the process behind one of your favorite book cover designs.
Rather than my favourite, I’ll pick the one I’ve just finished. It’s a horror cover, and I read the brief where the author had explained that it’s a book about a young man who moves into a property and takes on the role of handyman when the original goes missing. The one thing that I took from the author’s brief was that there wasn’t just one main character… there were two… the young man… and the building. I explained that I wanted to treat the building as its own standalone character. I didn’t want to show just the doorway with the young man about to knock on the door, or have him wandering through a corridor with terror in his eyes. I wanted him to be present on the cover, but have him so the reader is standing behind him as he takes in the view of the building for the first time. I wanted the main character on the cover to be the building… not the young man… but it also had to work where anyone looking at the cover would see both, not just one. So some would see the young man as the main character while others would see the building as the main character.
The client loved the idea, so I started to source assets. By the time the draft was finished, I’d used 24 assets. Client adored the draft, asked to change the title colour, and said I could go ahead with the rebuild. But, during the rebuild process, I allowed the cover to speak to me and guide me in how it should progress. By the time I’d finished the rebuild, it was using 38 assets, had entirely different lighting, a different perspective, and so many subtle nuances that wouldn’t immediately be seen by the reader and would be found along the way. I also took it from being 100% photorealistic to being a painted style. You can view a layer breakdown here:
What do you enjoy most about being a book cover designer?
Every single day is a new adventure. It’s crazy. I could be working on a self-help book one day, a romantic comedy the next, heavy erotica the next, and post-apoc the next. It’s amazing. And the clients are also amazing… I’ve got clients who live in the mountains, hunting deer to stay alive, and I’ve got millionaires who will likely never want for anything. I also have those who work a full-time job and use their writing as a creative outlet, hoping that they’ll earn enough through book sales to quit the rat race and become a full-time author.
I also love the excitement when clients start to see their hard work pay off. I remember a client telling me that they’re now making enough money from their book sales that they’d just quit their job. They’d been publishing for years, but not doing that great. They came to me and had me design brand new covers for all their books, one every month, and their sales started to really take off. Knowing that I was instrumental in turning their career around is an amazing feeling.
And I also love the connections I’ve made along the way. Finding out your client is going to be having a baby is amazing. Hearing that one of them lost their brother, but felt close enough to me to not only let me know straight away but also virtually invite me to the funeral… it’s a bittersweet moment. But it shows the depth of the relationship I have with so many clients. There are so many other stories like this. And this isn’t about graphic design… I’ve been doing graphic design for thirty years and never had such close relationships with anyone I’d ever worked with. This is specifically from being a book cover designer.
What does your creative/workspace look like? What tech/computer do you use?
I work solely on PC – never liked Macs, and when I was forced to use one in 1996 I couldn’t understand why it only had one mouse button and no context menus. I mostly work with the Wacom Intuos 3 tablet that I bought in 2004, but sometimes I’ll just use the mouse.
What do you do when you find yourself creatively blocked?
I drum. I fire up my electronic kit (because I’m too lazy to go out to the barn to the acoustic kit… it’s all the way over there), plug my phone into it, turn everything up full, and I’ll do some intense drumming until I feel as though the mental cobwebs have been swept away. Sometimes I’ll just leave my office and go for a walk around the house, see what the cats or the kids are up to, and maybe stare into the garden for five minutes. But it’s mostly loud music and drumming.
I have to admit, though, that it doesn’t often happen. The form on the website asks the client a load of questions, and then I follow up with a load more questions of my own based on what they’ve told me up until that point. So it’s rare that I’ll not be inspired by what they’ve told me about their book.
Where do you see the future of book cover design and indie publishing headed?
Honestly, if you’d asked me this ten years ago, I’d have said that far too many people believe indie publishing is for people who aren’t good enough for traditional publishing. Considering Beatrix Potter was a self-published author and is one of the most popular authors of our time, it’s a ridiculous thing for people to think. The stigma surrounding the self-published author was shocking, and I saw so many people dragged through the mud by traditionally published authors because they believe the indies to be beneath them.
Then, things changed. It started to become far more acceptable to self publish a book, and many traditionally published authors also turned to indie publishing for other books where they could experiment without being tied to their publishing deal. Respect for the indie author grew, the corporations took notice and suddenly the various print-on-demand firms started to expand their distribution networks and the services that they offered. It was a great time for the independent author, and it also meant that consumers weren’t shying away from buying a self-published book. It wasn’t an overnight thing, but it was certainly quick enough that it got a load of people to sit up and take notice who were previously unaware that they could publish a book without an agent and publisher.
But it also had a negative effect on the industry, and so many charlatans started to seep through the cracks. People who would steal manuscripts and change names, as well as some sentences here and there. People who would sit down and write a book within a week, ignore any recommendations to have it edited or go with professional cover design and formatting. So we’re now seeing a huge influx of “books” where the author reached “The End”, saved it, uploaded it to KDP unedited, created a terrible cover in a matter of minutes, and classed themselves as an author.
Being a member of various writer groups on Facebook has really opened my eyes. The sheer volume of new releases on a daily basis, all with terrible covers, and when you click through to the “Look Inside” on Amazon you see things like “Copywrite 2021” as the first words within the book. It’s enough to make you want to close it immediately, but there’s that rubbernecking thing where you can’t help but look further, and, sure enough, the manuscript is littered with spelling/grammar mistakes and no semblance of any interior formatting.
So it’s a double-edged sword at the moment. The larger organisations have seen the demand and are expanding their services to accommodate as many new authors as possible, which is absolutely incredible as it means the indie author community is, quite rightly, being taken seriously. But it’s also made it very easy for people to pollute the waters with books that are a long way away from being ready for public consumption.
My hope is that we’ll eventually bridge the gap, and the people who haven’t yet put any effort into making their work professional will realise how important it is to polish everything before publishing.
We need to embrace the fact that self publishing is now being taken seriously. All of us, whether we’re a cover designer, formatter, editor, author, or that person who has always been too self-conscious to put pen to paper but who might be sitting on the next great novel.
What’s your proudest career achievement so far?
Hmm… I love that I turned someone’s career around who had been trying to be a full-time writer for a very long time. That felt great. I also love that a new client, someone who just started writing at the start of lockdown, got to the point by around September last year that they were making thousands from book sales. She’d written and released five books with my covers and has such a great fan base that she could maybe give up her job if she wanted to. I know she loves her job, though, so she probably won’t for quite some time. But to know that she’s doing so well, especially as a new author, and absolutely loves the work I do for her… that’s amazing.
My favourite thing, though… that would have to be Misty’s dagger. When Misty came to me in September 2017 and wanted a cover for her first book in her Blood Dagger series, I read the brief, liked what she had to say, and then asked her to describe the dagger in detail. She did, and so I went away and pulled together a load of assets from various spears, knives, swords, and other artifacts. I created what I thought the Blood Dagger would look like, and she loved it. She loved it so much that she eventually tracked down a weaponsmith and had them forge my depiction of the dagger… and it’s practically identical in every way. It’s unbelievable to see something that I created from a bunch of assets turned into a real-world, physical dagger.
You’ve also published books as an author. Which came first? And do you think the fact that you are an author yourself helps you to communicate with the authors you work with?
HA! Well, this is interesting. Do I even want my books promoted? I guess it wouldn’t hurt. I was a designer first, and didn’t actually write my first book until around twenty-seven years ago. But I lost it. My hard drive died and I hadn’t backed it up, so my fiction novel that told the “true story” behind vampirism was lost forever. I have published books since, but only because I felt like it. I just wanted to write something stupid and funny, so I did.
And, no, I don’t think having written books helps me whatsoever when it comes to dealing with authors. They take themselves very seriously and want their books to be taken seriously. I don’t take my books seriously in the slightest.
Console Wars Episode IV – A New Chip (a pop-culture parody)
Is your ultimate goal as a cover designer to land that huge name? To be the person who designs covers for JK Rowling, or Stephen King, or John Grisham, whose work will be seen by millions across the globe?
Probably the opposite, actually. I’d much rather create covers for my own clients that were good enough to propel them to that level of interest. I don’t want my clients to be the next JK Rowling, I want them to be themselves, and for people to love their work. I want them to be happy, knowing that millions are reading the words that they scribbled on the backs of utility bills. I want my clients to email me from their getaway in the French Riveria, attaching a photo of them holding a glass of wine with a huge smile on their face, saying “Wow, remember when I just started writing and was scared to even contact you to have a cover designed, because I wasn’t sure if anyone would want to read my stuff?”. And I’d write back, laughing, and ask them to wire me a million to buy a Porsche 918 Spyder.
What do you do when you’re not designing? Any hobbies?
I’ve been an avid gamer since 1983. I could quite easily spend 24 hours in-game and not even realise how long it’s been. It’s all about the escapism for me, though, so if I’m playing something like GTA V, I’ll only play the story mode for so long and then get bored… and spend the rest of my time in GTA Online doing stupid things, like trying to land a helicopter on top of a jet plane, then swap places with the jet pilot before we both crash. Or my friend and I will play a little minigame we created called “NOW!” where one of us will be driving an armoured car and the other will have control of the gun turret. When the person on the turret shouts “NOW!”, the driver is no longer allowed to steer and must allow the car to go wherever, while the person in the turret shoots as many things as possible. The next hour or so will be spent with both players doing nothing but shooting police helicopters before they get close enough to kill us. Yeah. I know. And I’m almost fifty.
My other passion is music. I’ve been a musician since 1989, starting off with guitar and keyboards. I was the principle songwriter in a metal band from 1991 until I quit in 1999, playing live in front of thousands of people on some nights. It was a lot of fun, but after I quit the band in 1999 (got fed up with nobody else ever helping with the writing or booking us gigs), I drifted away and stopped writing and playing entirely in 2003. I started up again December 2020 and have since released two albums, and completed a third album… but I can’t release it yet because I need to write an accompanying novel. The first song of the album is a 24-minute concept piece spanning an entire lifetime, and I want the full story to be available by the time I release the album, hence the delay. I play all instruments (guitars, bass, drums, keyboards, vocals) and wrote all songs myself between April and June. The concept song is, by far, my greatest musical achievement and I can’t wait to let others hear it. I’ve always kept my music very private, but I want people to hear this one… and I want people to see the album artwork, as I love it. It’s the most effort I’ve ever gone to for my own album artwork, called Mind Over Madness.
I also love driving. Just driving. Not driving around a race track, or driving cross-country… just driving. I was 44 when I finally learned to drive, and hate myself for missing out on it for so many years. I had no idea it was this much fun! I go for a drive every single night, and will look for excuses to go to the supermarket just so I can take the car out. I drove for around five hours this past weekend, with the roof down, and my face is currently scarlet. No, I’m not showing you photos of my beetroot face.
See more of Mark’s work: