Talking book design and publishing

with Damien Seaman

Here’s an interview I did with Damien in 2019, but it slipped through the cracks and never got published. The content remains 95% valid and true, so I think it’s still worth posting. We discuss both book design and my experience as a book publisher and editor.

You’ve been working among other things as a freelance book cover designer in recent years. How did you get into book cover design?

I always loved books and visual arts, and a book cover is a perfect blend of both. The origin story is sometime in the late 90’s I heard that books by a favorite science fiction writer, Barrington Bayley, were going to be reprinted by Wildside Press. Their covers were pretty awful or generic and sometimes both. I said to myself “I can do better than that.” I wrote Wildside offering to do those covers for free. One thing led to another, and here we are, two decades later with a continuous flow of new work.

What were the pros and cons of working in publishing and why did you stop?

Pros were sort of limited, even though I still love what we accomplished with both Wit’s End Publishing and Point Blank Press, which was being able to publish and promote work you’d love to see published and promoted. The cons… well, let’s just say I wore too many hats. It was rather stressful and paralyzing as I couldn’t afford to hire the help needed. All work and no pay does not a good combination make.

What kinds of books did you publish? What made a manuscript or story really stand out to you?

Mainly hard-boiled crime fiction. My wife, Kathleen, and I started by compiling a volume of Charles Willeford’s short stories and poetry, THE SECOND HALF OF A DOUBLE FEATURE, which is still in print as of this writing [2021 addendum: paperback only]. It would have benefited from more experience and a proper introduction among other things, but it collected work that was either prohibitively expensive or otherwise difficult to get hold of. I added to those pieces some unpublished work, making it a book I would want to own. What followed was a series of books that were always entertaining and usually imbued with meaning, be it social relevance or understanding of the human condition from a personal perspective. Combine that with a crackerjack story, and you’re three quarters done.

In your experience, what do most submissions lack that stops them from being publishable? What are the most common mistakes wannabe authors make with their submissions?

They lack a voice, originality, a good spin on an old yarn. Frequent mistakes are writing what you don’t know, writing to please others, writing to make money. It sounds trite, but it’s true: You first have to believe in and love what you write. Only then can you aim for popular appeal if that’s your goal. Just don’t expect to get rich or even make a living. It can happen but is extremely rare. You might be able to pay a few bills.

What makes for a great query letter and synopsis?

Personality. If I enjoy your query, I’m more inclined to enjoy the work. Synopsis… personally I don’t want to know how the book ends. Give me a hook and a line. Reading the book should be the sinker.

Who are you book cover design clients these days? Mostly publishers? Mostly independent or self-published authors?

I mainly get work through repeat customers and referrals. I had a brief period doing some self-promotion last year after I lost my day job as a designer, where I actively sought new clients for about six months. That effort is still paying dividends. I work mostly with independent authors or small to mid-size publishers.

Urban Decay in Ohio Valley

Which genres do you specialise in? Can you work on any genre or style of book – or do you prefer to stay specialised?

I love working in a variety of genres. Crime fiction has sort of become my niche, and that’s fine. We live in the Ohio River valley on the border of Kentucky and Indiana, so there’s plenty of rural and urban decay around. It allows me to practice photography and use that work for my covers. [2021: We moved to Finland last year, after 20 years in the US — I still carry my camera around and locate rural and urban decay that works for my covers]

Yet it always pleases me when I get to work on an unusual project, be it illustration jobs, self-help books, science fiction, westerns or literary fiction. It keeps things interesting. Sometimes I worry I’m not challenging myself enough with all this focus on crime fiction.

What notable successes or successful clients have you had recently? Which of your cover designs are you proudest of?

My personal successes tend to be work that comes together with ease, and yet use “muscles” I don’t often flex. On that I might mention some straight-up illustration work I’ve done recently for a major crowdfunded project to promote reading by a Finnish publisher. I created a couple of quirky, hand-drawn portraits and was well-paid for them. I was pleased to be a part of the project as well as with the illustrations themselves.

You fairly recently interviewed the great James Oswald, and I was happy to work with him before he made it to the big leagues. When I do work at “starving author” rates, I might jokingly ask them to send a bonus when they have a bestseller. James was quite pleased to surprise me with one. Moments like that are one reason I keep my rates accessible. I don’t work for money. I love what I do, but still well aware I have bills to pay.

As for a cover I’m most proud of… I’m quick and affordable, and a lot of my work is functional and solid. So proudest for me isn’t necessarily work I personally like the best, but rather work that fits all I’ve noted above.

What do you enjoy most and least about the work?

Most: The creativity involved, finishing what I start and working with other creative people. Least: The business end of it. 

What are the biggest challenges of cover design? How do you overcome those?

Reflecting the complexity and nuance of a given book in a simple image that still works as a thumbnail. You can overcome it with creativity, or you can sidestep it with savvy. I realize that’s a fairly abstract answer, but there are so many variables involved. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

Ed Gorman Blood Moon

When you design a book cover, are you designing more for the client – the publisher or author – or more for the reader?

None of the above. I tend to design first for myself. It’s not the most important part of the process, but I need to feel good about the work before I present it to the publisher and the author who then present it to the reader. There’s wiggle room in there, but if I do work that I personally don’t like, then what’s the point? It’s like writing. Love what you do first, then the rest follows.

What makes a good cover? What makes a bad cover? Is there anything more than subjective opinion that goes into this?

No. I know what I like, and often enough that aligns with the tastes of the publisher and the author. Bottom line for me is that a good cover stands out of the crowd while managing to evoke something of the subject matter and style of the book. A bad cover does not.

To what extent is a good cover different from genre to genre? What rules go across genres?

It’s all perception management. It may matter more if you’re working with a major publisher, and in those cases I rarely am involved. But there are some easy stylistic cues that rarely cross over. For example, you don’t use “Western” style fonts for a science fiction novel, or cute and curly fonts for noir. Unless and until you do. I always do look for such opportunities, and sometimes they work out when the author and the publisher are feeling adventurous. In a stream of same ol’ same ol’, something different will stand out. And if it still manages to convey a core message true to the genre and the work, magic can happen.   

Is it better for a book cover to fit into what others are doing in a given genre – what appears to be successful or on-trend – or is it better to be different and stand out? Why?

That’s up to the authors and publishers. Pick a side and push forward. Personally, I think standing out is preferable, but I’ve seen plenty of success in joining the crowd. I enjoy mimicking current trends long as it’s not the only work I do. Flexing a different muscle and all that.

What’s the process of working with you? What information do you need from prospective clients before you agree to work together, or from clients once you are working together? How long does the process take?

I’m easy. I’ll first ask for rough ideas in case the author has a vision for the cover. That usually tells me whether I’m even the right person for the project. I also ask for a synopsis, maybe a small representative text sample, and some links to covers of similar books that appeal to her or him. When I know all this, I can modify my approach toward that.

My work tends to happen quickly. Usually it takes more than 30 minutes but less than a week. There are some exceptions in both directions.

Who or what are your biggest design influences? Other books – if so what kinds? Movie posters? Famous artists? Or do you just tend to look at current trends?

All the above, plus accidental research. Throughout the day there are textures and details all around you. I’ve riffed off vintage vinyl, comics panels and old paperback designs. I’ve found useful textures on cracked sidewalks, sliced beets and railroad crossings. I keep my eyes open and carry a camera. I don’t follow current trends closely.

What are the pros and cons for an author of going to an independent cover designer like you rather than a design agency?

For one thing you can get as involved in the process as you like. I’ll tell you what I think, but you’re the one who has done the hard work. You’re the one who has created this book, and I’m here to make you happy. For some authors that’s meaningful and interesting. I usually work fast, and I’m certainly more affordable than a big agency.

How much should an author be prepared to spend on an ebook cover? What’s a fair price range, and what should that author expect in return? What other options do you offer beyond just ebook covers?

In the case of self-published novels by authors without any track record or base outside a few friends and family, they have to figure they’re unlikely to make their money back when spending $500 on a cover. I usually range from $200 to $600, with blips above and below that line. I never go over a settled amount.

Authors should expect a cover they like, but they should also have a rough idea of the kinds of covers I do, so there’s no expectation of an air-brush painted scene featuring your characters in a specific pose. That’s not what I do. You get a cover that reflects the content but rarely explains it or illustrates a specific scene.

I’m happy to help authors with ads, promos, posters, banners, or whatever else they need long as I have the time and can do it.

How long should an author expect a book cover to take from beginning to end? What are the variables involved?

From one hour to one week. Sometimes things click, and sometimes they drag. Often the best covers are the first ones to emerge, but it takes a few other designs for us to circle back to the original.

Why should an author not simply use free software like Canva to design their own covers? What do you see as the pros and cons of this approach?

I think it’s more of a peer thing than a sales thing. A bad cover doesn’t kill your chances for a bestseller. A good cover might improve them.

In other words, what can a professional and specialist book cover designer bring to the table that the author cannot do themselves using software?

Appearances matter. I could give all kinds of bullshit answers here to make designers look good, but it really depends on your priorities. If you have some flair and a touch of talent, you might be able to pull it off. I had no specific training in this work to start, but at this point I do have a great deal of experience.

Here’s the thing: If you’ve spent a long time writing a book you’ve poured your heart and soul into, you might as well put a small effort into how you present it, right? And that’s not limited just to cover design, but also how you print your book. Do you use an automated service like Amazon, or do you want the book to be a unique object? How much effort are you going to put into it after you’ve finished writing it? Does the finished book reflect all that work you’ve put into it?

How can an author choose the right cover designer for them? What criteria should they look at besides price?

They should look at track record and style. I’m not the right cover designer for everybody. I have experience and ability, some connections, but there are better designers than I am out there. Look around, pay attention, ask questions. A new designer might be able to look at a project with fresh eyes and come up with a stunning design that remains affordable. Always give it some serious thought.

Are there any scams or pitfalls an author should look out for when choosing a cover designer that you’re aware of?

None that I know of. Which isn’t to say there aren’t any, but I’m fairly isolated in my practice. I don’t consider other designers competition—more like inspiration—and I’m not scoping them out.

Is it better for authors to have a clear idea of what kind of cover they like before they work with you, or the opposite? Why is that?

It doesn’t matter. Ability to make a decision does matter. I can come up with a cover you’ll love from just a sparse synopsis, or I can follow your suggestions while adding my experience into those suggestions, winding up with a design that’s a unique synthesis of our joint vision. I don’t mind either approach. Micromanaging every detail can get annoying.

Should authors choose a cover designer that’s already done the kind of covers they’re looking for? If so, why and, if not, why not?

Depends. Left field choices can make miracles happen, but there’s also ample opportunity to bungle things up for something you’ve spent years on. I’m always cognizant of how meaningful every book is for the author. But I do usually work on a budget, so the amount of time and effort I can put on those books is also limited by the same. You have to make a judgment call and stick with it. Go with your gut.

What’s the etiquette when it comes to attribution and copyright for cover designs? Do you get credited for your work? For those who’ve never had a cover designed before, how does this work?

I only speak of my work. Once I’ve done your cover, it’s your cover. If a decade from now you want to reuse it for a new edition of the book, it’s still yours. I would appreciate your telling me and, if it’s through a reputable publisher, I won’t say no to a bonus and credit for the art, but none of that is required. The covers are not copyrighted to me or the author (99.9% of the time).

What’s the single most important piece of advice you have for authors or publishers when it comes to their book covers?

You must be happy with the finished cover. If the publisher and the author love the cover, selling it becomes immensely easier and more pleasurable. That joy can affect a perceived difference in your posts and discussions about the book.

Are you still working in book cover design? Where can people best check out your past work? What’s the best way for them to get in touch with you if they’d like to work with you?

Yes. I have a website, but I don’t find the time to update it often enough: Google me. Send me an email. I don’t bite. I’m accessible on social media, so if you don’t appear to be a psycho, I’ll happily connect with you.

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