Designer Interview: Sarah Waites of The Illustrated Page

Hello Sarah! Tell us about your creative journey. What was your path to becoming a book cover designer? 
That’s sort of a long story! When I was sixteen and trying to figure out how to count reading fantasy books as an extracurricular for college applications, I created a book review blog called “The Illustrated Page.” That was my first major step into book communities and the origins of my business name. At the same time, I was taking after school, summer, and weekend classes at a junior art school run by a local museum (in addition to in-school classes). I loved both books and art. My dream job was illustration, but I didn’t think it was a “practical” career choice.

Then came my first year of college and a presentation on the publishing industry. Suddenly, I realized that it was possible to work with books professionally. From then on, I had a goal: I was going to work in publishing. I spent the next four years of college doing everything I could to get there. I interned at small presses, writers’ festivals, and literary agencies. I worked as a writing tutor. I kept reviewing and started communicating directly with authors and publicists. I majored in business and did my senior project on Barnes and Noble and the bookselling market. In 2019 at the end of my senior year, I got my first break into the New York publishing scene and accepted an internship with Bloomsbury’s marketing department. The day I graduated, I flew to NYC and moved into a co-living space where I slept on a bunkbed in a room with two other people.

Fast forward to March 2020, when I had attended a publishing certificate course, worked as a seasonal temp at Barnes and Noble, and was now an intern in the sales department at ABRAMS. I was finally getting interviews with the Big Five and some other presses and felt like I was close to that elusive, entry level traditional publishing job.

And then COVID hit. The jobs I was interviewing for disappeared. The whole internship program ended. I went to go stay with my parents. I came up with the idea of trying to sell book marketing graphics, since those were something I had made for my internships. Then, an indie author asked if I could make their book cover! I accepted, found the Facebook book cover design communities, and threw myself into book cover design. At first I was thinking that this could be a part time job that I used to support myself while working in NYC traditional publishing.

Then I realized that everything I had wanted from the traditional publishing industry — contact with authors, helping books succeed, work I loved and was good at — I was getting from working with indie authors as a cover designer. And I was happier than I’d ever been in traditional publishing and I even got to make art! So I made the decision to pursue cover design as a full time career.

My path to cover design feels both roundabout and inevitable. I came full circle back to what I dreamed of doing as a teenager!

What part of book cover design do you find most compelling?
I love how book cover design is a collaboration between the author and the designer. With custom covers, I’m trying to make something that both speaks to the author’s story and also helps it find readers and sales. Custom covers lead me down new avenues, like making armor for a bear or researching historical African architecture. The authors and their stories are my inspiration!

With my premade book covers, I try to provide that same feeling of inspiration to authors. I’m probably particularly known for my historical and fantasy premades of f/f couples. I love making those, and I think there’s a need for art that inspires a more diverse range of stories.

Do you have any “fur babies” who assist in your design process?
“Assist”? No. “Distract”? Yes.

What with the pandemic and everything, I’ve spent a lot of time at my parents house which is practically run by the dogs. Especially Bailey, the pandemic puppy who quickly became best friends with my sister’s dog Layla. Together, Bailey, Layla, and Candy (the elderly golden whose life is being ruined by rambunctious young Aussies) conspire to distract me.

What do authors need to know to have the best outcome when working with a professional cover designer?
There’s a difference between art that works as a marketing tool and art that you hang on your wall. The purpose of book covers is to sell the book, and sometimes that doesn’t always mesh with what you have in mind! As a book cover designer, I’m thinking about what each element of the cover says to potential readers and how we communicate genre. So it’s very useful for the author to know the genre of their book!

Tell us about the process behind one of your favorite book cover designs.
Winter Warrior is a premade book cover I’ll be releasing in September. It’s one of my favorite designs! I intentionally wanted to work with light, especially the way that light and shadows can sort of slice across a person’s face. I put together a mood board of different art pieces that used light in this way and decided that mine would be a warrior in the snow.

Originally, I was going to have a Neo-Stock model with a dragon, where the dragon’s wing was casting the shadow across her face. I ended up being unhappy with both the model and the dragon, so scrapped both and went to DAZ instead. I created two renders with different lighting of the same model, combined them in Photoshop, brought in a stock photo face, and did a ton of overpainting. Only, without the dragon, what was casting the shadows on her face? The piece was still missing something, so I hit upon the idea of adding ravens for movement and an explanation to the shadows.

Do you have a favorite genre or theme to design for and why is your favorite? Or if you’ve niched into a specific genre, why did you pick that genre?
I’m probably most known for f/f book covers as a niche, but I also really like working with fantasy romance. Something about the aesthetics of the genre just really appeal to me! I love all the flowing cloth and hair, the beautiful colors, and the romantic poses. It’s also a genre that meshes well with the more illustrated, painterly style I’ve been leaning towards.

What are you reading right now?
I’m reading two books at the moment! One is The Unbroken by CL Clark, which is my current audio book. I tend to listen to a lot of audiobooks while I’m working in Photoshop. They help keep me entertained while I’m doing detail intensive work, and it lets me read a lot more books than I would otherwise. So far The Unbroken has gotten me through a vampire premade and part of a custom project.

In print, I’m reading The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris, which is a literary thriller following a black editorial assistant in the very white NYC publishing industry.

What’s your proudest career achievement so far?
Something I can’t really talk about yet! I think the author has a cover reveal planned for sometime in August, so you’ll probably see me talking about it then. But one of the things I guess I can say is that for an author who my mother has read! It was really amazing to be able to call her up and say, “Hey, mom you know that book you liked? Well I just got an email from the author…”

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