Commissioning Powder Mage Cover Art

This is the latest of my essays about being an author, brought to you by my Patreon page.


Today we're going to talk a little about self-publishing. I've gone on about self-publishing at length, both regarding the debate over self-pub v. traditional pub and just generally about the process itself, but I'm going to get a little more specific this time by walking you through the process I've taken in commissioning art for my Powder Mage short fiction. To give you some comparison for the rest of the piece, here's the covers for my traditionally-published novels:

My traditionally-published covers, design by Lauren Panepinto and photo illustration by Gene Mollica and Michael Frost

My traditionally-published covers, design by Lauren Panepinto and photo illustration by Gene Mollica and Michael Frost

You're going to find a variety of opinions on cover art, from the "whip up something in Microsoft Paint and slap it on the cover" to "if you've spent less than $5000 on your cover you're obviously an amateur." Two extremes, to be sure, and most of us fall somewhere in the middle. At the end of the day, though, your cover art is the public face of your book. Most people will see it before reading a single word, perhaps even before noticing your name, so it's a hugely important bit of your novel.

girl of hrusch avenue cover.jpg

My first foray into tackling cover art myself was for my short story, "The Girl of Hrusch Avenue." This was totally experimental, as I didn't know at the time whether anyone would actually buy any Powder Mage expanded universe material. Therefore, I had absolutely no budget and tried to go the "whip up something in Paint route." After I spent way too much time flailing around, my friend Isaac Stewart (who did the maps in the Powder Mage Trilogy) eventually took pity on me and threw something together.

As you can see, he matched the font with my novels, slapped on a bit of musketman clip art, and added a dash of color. It's not awesome, but if you consider it cost me all of a "treat me to lunch sometime" from a friend it's really quite nice. I wound up using the same template for two more short stories because frankly, even after they were a reasonable success, $.35 per sale is not making enough money for an art budget.

My next plan was a little more ambitious. Because of Amazon's payout structure, I knew that if I wrote something three times the length and charged $2.99, it would make six times as much money per sale. I also suspected I would sell more in general and so I gave myself a real budget for self-publishing what would become my first novella, Forsworn.

Once you have a budget, you have to find an artist. You can try to do so off a recommendation, or you might have a friend you can use. I spent a couple of weeks looking through DeviantArt accounts and emailing artists whose work I enjoyed. I gave them a summary of what I wanted and asked for cost and turn-around times. I must have emailed forty different people. Only about a third ever actually returned my messages and of those, only a small handful could work with my budget of around $400.

As an aside, I want to be very clear on something: don't rip off artists. Don't try to bully them into working "for exposure" and don't stiff them on the bill at the last minute. It's just fine to have a budget and just fine to negotiate ahead of time. Every artist is going to have different amounts of leeway and different prices. If someone is adamant on a price you can't afford just thank them for their time and move on. Being a prick about it may save you a few bucks—but word gets around. Don't be that guy.

I was hugely lucky to find Rene Aigner. He's affordable, talented, he answers all my emails in a timely manner (I've heard horror stories of pro artists who just sort of disappear for six months at a time), and he works dang quick. Because we'd had a previous email chain regarding character art he was willing to come down a little bit to meet my budget. All in all, he was (and still is) a delight to work with.

The first thing you should know about commissioning an artist is that they are not the art director. You are. You have to make the decisions about who and what goes on the cover—the colors, the characters, the text (which the artist doesn't necessarily include in their services). The artist is doing exactly what you tell them to do which means that if you're unhappy with the final product it's just as likely (or more so) to be your fault as it is theirs. For each of my covers, I've given Rene a very specific set of instructions regarding the foreground and characters, and then been a bit more vague on the background.

Some people have the talent to be their own art director. Some people don't. I'm not saying I do, but I've got particular tastes and generally know what I want ahead of time. I also have a couple of graphic designer friends (Isaac and Jen) who I can consult when I'm in a quandary.

For Forsworn I wanted something that threatened violence, with the immediate dueling theme of the novella. The background is fairly vague because of budget constraints (and because the duel referenced takes place in a blizzard) but the characters and foreground present a deadly, powerful picture.

Servant of the Crown is an immediate follow-up to Forsworn, so I wanted it to have a similar aesthetic. We see Erika on the front, but instead of facing her challenge she is back-to-back with her new ally, a young Tamas. We still have the threat of violence, but off-screen rather than on, and we have a cityscape instead of the snowy mountains. The detail meant it was more expensive than the Forsworn cover, but I knew it was going to sell so I didn't mind paying it.

Murder at the Kinnen Hotel was a murder mystery more than an adventure novella, so I went in a different direction. The violence this time (this is a Powder Mage story after all) comes from the guillotine. It's far more passive than the other two, with Adamat looking on thoughtfully. Here are some of the "in progress" shots that Rene sent me.

My latest finished project was the short story collection, In the Field Marshal's Shadow. I wanted to remove the clipart covers of my old short stories from sale and bind them all in a single book with a better cover. Because it's five different stories under the Powder Mage umbrella, I just went with a still-life that hearkened back to the opening credits of Sharpe's Rifles. This was probably the easiest to "direct" because it's so straight-forward.

I just got the art for the next (unfinished) project, a new novella following Taniel's adventures in Fatrasta, from Rene this week. You can see how he sent me a number of templates to choose from based on my initial requests, and the direction we ended up taking it.

Something I've tried to do for each of my novellas is give them a different color scheme so that they're easy to differentiate on the shelf. I want them to look like they're in the same series (hence the same artist and style for each one) but I don't want them to all look exactly alike.

Once you have the final cover art, you still aren't done. You have to get the text in place, have the sizing redone to fit Audible's parameters if you're doing an audiobook, and design a back cover if you're doing a physical book. All of this I go to my graphic designer friends for which makes it easier, but it's still more time and money the project 

Commissioning art can be a bit of a crap shoot. You can run into any number of problems, from your own wobbly budget or inexperienced artistic eye, to a flaky or inconsistent artist. Prices fluctuate hugely, and you have to dig to find a good match of affordability and skill. Like I said, I was dang lucky to find someone who met my budget and was still in the top-range of skill. Now that I know exactly what to expect, I don't mind paying Rene more for a greater amount of detail and the fact that his time is in far greater demand than when we first started together two years ago.

All-in-all, it's been a fantastically rewarding experience. I've learned a lot about the business and techniques, and I've also gotten way more respect for the job my art director does at Orbit. It was certainly one of the scarier parts of self-publishing and learning how to get through the process has been very fun.