Working with a Cover artist

Gentle reader, today I want to talk about the cover of a book. If you look closely, the cover of a book has several features- title, author, a picture indicating genre or themes of the book, sometimes a blurb, and sometimes additional information such as “part of a series.”

As a self-published author, I have the opportunity to make all the decisions regarding each of these pieces of the cover. Ideally, you want the whole picture- genre, main character, title and author- conveyed in a glance as the consumer scrolls through a webpage, bookstore, or e-reader.

How to find a good cover artist? It is work, gentle reader, it is work. I found mine by emailing authors whose covers I admired and hoped that a few would share their artist information with me. I quickly narrowed the field after talking with my “finalists” about my book- the ones who wanted it to look like a romance cover I passed on immediately. The ones who wanted to make it look like a horror show, again pass. I finally decided to hire Adrijus Guscia of Rocking Book Covers to create my custom cover art.

AG is not a newbie to this game, and he has a specific process. I filled out a questionnaire for him that delineated what I wanted, the genre and feel for my book, title, and other considerations. He directed me to areas where I could purchase stock photos without copyright concerns as a starting point for my cover. I poured over possible pics on  websites where you can legally use photos for your work.

Once we had 6 pics that I thought might work, I sent them to AG, told him what I wanted, and waited. About a week later, he sent me three different versions for a cover, and we tweaked from there. I thought I may want my first novel to be part of a series, so I considered this when making my final decision to leave flexibility for future branding. My cover artist was amazing in helping me pick fonts that blended and communicated the book as well, and then sent me the files for me to submit with my novel to the formatters. AG is professional, on time, and the quoted price covered all expenses. It was a joy to work with him on this aspect of my book.

Here are a few things to ask when hiring a cover artist-

  1. Is there a flat fee that covers the project, or is the pricing structure ala carte? Some artists will rework the covers several times before the cost increases, others, you only get 1-2 revisions. Find out beforehand so there are no unintended costs to blow yoru budget.
  2. What formats will they provide for you? Do you need a banner for a Facebook page, or a thumbnail to use for a twitter handle? These additional items may cost a bit more.
  3. What other works have they done in your genre? Can they provide references?
  4. What is their turnaround time? How many covers do they do a week? Any assistants that may take over part of the project?
  5. Do you need original art? If so, how to pay the artist or copyright if the artist wants to retain rights.
  6. Are there pre-made covers that match your vision for your book? Several cover artists routinely release pre-made covers for a flat fee that is less expensive than a custom cover.
  7. How to credit your cover artist? Some want a line in the front of your book, some just want you to acknowledge them if anyone asks. Find out what your artist wants ahead of time.

Cover art is just as important as the writing and editing and layout to the success of a novel, and getting this part correct is crucial to the success of your book. Don’t skimp or take shortcuts in this part of the publication process!

Until next time-


Cover art with Stuart Jaffe

Today, gentle reader, I have asked a good friend of the blog, author Stuart Jaffe, to write a bit about cover art. He has two series with fantastic cover art – the Max Porter series and the Nathan K. series- please follow the link to check them out. Here’s Stuart!

Ah, cover art. A topic that could fill (and probably does) numerous books. Let’s try to narrow things down a little and take a look at some specific aspects of cover art. Today, let’s take a look at cover art for a series. Those last three words are the most important towards addressing this topic — for a series. Because what this really means is branding. You have an artist and you have an idea for the correct image to express the genre and mood of your book, but what about the series as a whole? If branded properly, a reader will be able to see at a glance that several books laid out next to each other are part of the same series. Heck, even if other books are interspersed, a reader should be able to pick out the series books.

In order to achieve this, there are a few things to consider, and in the grand tradition of the internet, I’ll bullet-point them for you:

Color: there are a ton of ways to approach this, and working with an artist helps. The thing to remember is that color is one simple way to connect all your books. My Max Porter books have numerous indicators that they are a series, one of which is color. Every three books follow the same color scheme.  Books 1-3 are all shades of blue. Books 4-6 are red. And the green set of three will finish out later this year. But color can be more than a monotone. You can choose to make all the colors pastels, or bright neons, or nothing but dark colors except one bright color. As long as you follow the pattern throughout the series, color will help connect the books. Color also helps define genre — for example, dark, moody colors are obviously not the choice for a romantic-comedy about summer camp. Most genres have set colors which you should be familiar with. Feel free to break from those limits, but know the rules first, then break them.

Layout: the layout of the entire cover should be consistent throughout a series. The author name, the book title, the blurb quotes, any information you put on the cover should always be in the same place on every cover (or as close as the cover image will allow). This consistency will contribute majorly to branding the series. Plus, if you have a layout in mind to begin with, it will help your artist understand what parts of the canvas they have to work with. The layout doesn’t need to be fancy — most layouts follow one of handful of patterns — but it does need to be consistent. There are times when shifting this information on the page is necessary or even desired, but those are the exceptions, not the rule.

Lettering: this refers to everything about the words. Font choice, font size, font color, you name it. And guess what? Just like all the above, you are looking for consistency. I recommend using no more than two fonts and use them the same way every time on every cover. In my Max Porter novels, the title and my name are in one font, the other (smaller) writing is in a second font. Those fonts, the general size and placement of the lettering, and the color choice (which is consistent with the entire color scheme, all are the same throughout the series. In my post-apocalyptic fantasy series, The Malja Chronicles, you can see that the stylized titles are also consistent. In those books, the words THE WAY OF are turned on the side and the various titles are made extra-large. Every time. Every book.

Image: this one is optional but very effective. If there is a single image or image type than can be repeated in every cover, you have another great way to tie a series together.  A single image can be a character or location or anything.  The Max Porter books have a variety of images on the covers, but every cover always has an image of a ghost detective from the 1940s with glowing eyes. Another example: An image type might be a different family crest or rune for an epic fantasy series. Though each individual image is different, being of the same type (rune, family crest, etc) the connection is made.

To be clear, you do not have to do ALL of this for the covers of a series. Only one, or a combination, or a slight alteration will work. The key is consistency. If every cover is completely different, nobody will know you have a series going. But if all the covers have at least one (and preferably more than one) aspect that is the same from book to book, your fans will be grateful.

So, if you understand how these things work in concert, then you will have a better way to communicate with your artist. You can let them know the exact layout beforehand which will, in turn, provide them with the boundaries that they get to work in. Boundaries are great things for all artists. It forces creativity and, if you let them play within those boundaries, the stuff they come up with will exceed your expectations.

Thank you Stuart! Next time, tune in for a discussion of how to contract and work with a cover artist.

Until next time-


Editing your manuscript

“If I’d had more time, this would have been shorter”*

As Janet Walden-West once observed, when The Lovely Lillian invites you to pen a guest blog post, well…here we are…


One of my favorite scenes in the old movie Amadeus is when Constanze has taken some of Mozart’s work to Salieri to consider him for a royal appointment. Salieri is overcome when he realizes that every page of music is an untouched original, perfect from the first “draft”. This, gentle reader, is not real life. (It wasn’t real life for Mozart and Salieri either, but it’s still a terrific screen scene!)

All good writers know that every first draft will become better and better with editing. In fact, one of the challenges for many writers can be to turn off “editor brain” and actually get the first draft of a manuscript completed. I have a friend who has written and re-written the first chapter of her novel many times. She simply can’t get it “perfect”, and so she can’t seem to continue. While one may debate the relative merits of “NaNaWriMo” (National Novel Writing Month), I believe one of their strengths is in their message of “just write—don’t edit” so that you can complete the first draft of your story (however short or long it may be), and then begin the work of revising and editing your manuscript.

But what is “editing”? Editing is, at its essence, the crafting of language, content, and style of your manuscript that allow the reader to forget they are reading words on a page and help them dive into the story itself.

I’m a natural-born editor. I spent six years learning the nuances of English grammar and diagramming sentences in jr high and high school. As an IT support person, I regularly point out split infinitives and dangling participles or mismatched nouns and verbs on the screen when I’m showing someone how to set tabs or create a table of contents. As a writer, I think this gives me a great advantage in crafting my stories with strong vocabulary and clear grammatical structure. But, as a writer, I know what I mean to say, or how I intend things to sound. Eventually, every writer needs someone else to read and edit their story—a fresh pair of eyes and perspective can be invaluable to the well-crafted success of the final version.

What, as an aspiring or professional writer, should you expect from an editor? It’s more than correct spelling and grammar, and as you venture into the world of editing, it’s helpful to know how people define their roles and their service toward the success of your story. There is a certain amount of flow among the different types of editing, and a good editor will often provide a mix of services. For instance, if you hire a proofreader, they should not neglect to point out a narrative structure problem that they notice, but it is not actually their job to do so.

Let’s take a look at some common editing services:

This is the most basic, and yet the most detailed service, in which a proofreader is checking your work for spelling, grammar, punctuation, and consistency throughout your work. This work is generally to make corrections, rather than stylistic changes. Proofing is typically done after other forms of editing and layout.

Copy editing
Copy editing, like proofreading, provides the word-for-word focus on language and grammar; but a copy editor is also looking for overall language, vocabulary, and language structure and style.

Line/Stylistic editing
A good editor does their best to leave the author’s unique narrative voice, or style, intact. Stylistic editing polishes that voice, providing the reader with the best possible experience from sentence to sentence so that as they read the manuscript, they get lost in the story. Specifically, stylistic editing is checking the language to clarify meaning, eliminate anachronisms or clichés, adjust the reading level and tone for your target audience, and smooth dialogue. Stylistic editing occurs at the sentence and paragraph level, adjusting syntax for better flow, smoothness, and how the sentence “sounds” in the reader’s mind.

Developmental/Substantive editing
A substantive or developmental editor works at the page or scene level, looking at your work as a whole, examining plot structure, character development, and story arc through the narrative structure, logical consistency, and organization. This editor may suggest changes/additional/deletions to entire paragraphs or sections of your story to improve the narrative flow.

Editorial/Manuscript review
An editor may provide a summary evaluation of your manuscript to highlight areas where changes may be needed. The editor will note weaknesses in your narrative structure and flow such as repetitive or ambiguous language, as well as faulty story structure, gaps in the narrative flow, or anything else that pulls the reader out of the story and into an awareness of reading words on a page.

Should I pay for an editor?
You-as-author should definitely take advantage of offers from knowledgeable friends, beta readers, and fellow writers to review your work. You could pay for editing services, and there are some excellent reasons to do so, such as if English is not your first language, or you have been unsuccessful in previously submitting your manuscript to an agent or publisher.

If you choose to work with a traditional or small-press publisher, they will provide an editor and most likely a separate proofreader for your manuscript.

We often hear the phrase “money flows to the author” as a warning against services that require fees toward publication. And you should indeed be wary of these kinds of services—Google is your friend for researching their legitimacy. However, if you choose to self-publish, then you need to recognize that you-as-author are publishing through you-as-publisher. And you-as-publisher will have many expenses that any traditional or small-press publisher would pay toward the successful publication of a manuscript. You-as-publisher will need to pay (with time or money) for many services, such as editing, proofreading, print and epub book layout, book cover, promotion, etc. I say “pay with time or money” because you may choose to do some of these yourself. And if you have the time to learn the available tools, and the skill to make your work look professional, then you can do many of these things yourself.

However, as a self-publisher, it is truly in your best interest to pay for at least one professional service of proofreading and/or editing. Again, you-as-author know what you mean to say in your manuscript, and no matter how carefully you read and edit, you may miss mistakes because your brain knows what it expects to see. You may also miss certain logical structural problems, such as four people getting on a boat at the end of one chapter and two getting off the boat at the beginning of the next chapter (true story).

One of my most recent editing projects has been the Lawless Lands: Tales from the Weird Frontier anthology of 20 short stories, coming out this summer from Falstaff Books. I’ll share an example of how important it is for many different people to review a manuscript. Every story was submitted by each author, who presumably provide a manuscript they believed to be their very best. Each story was edited by one of the anthology’s three editors, then returned to the author for a final draft. These final drafts were submitted to the publisher, who provided them to a proofreader, whose proofs were returned to the authors for “final-final” approval. All 20 author-approved “final-final” manuscripts were provided to the publisher to be prepared for print and epub galley proofs. When we received those proofs, I noticed on one of the stories that the subtitle had a mis-spelling. This was after the author, editor, proofreader, and publisher had all reviewed this manuscript and signed off on it. But when I turned the page of the galley proofs, the error “jumped” out and caught my attention. I am sure my co-editors and some of the authors may have found similar last-minute corrections on one or two pages. There is a legend that one of the large publishing houses has long promised a million-dollar reward for the first book published without a single error—they have never paid out.

So the purpose of editing is not necessarily to make your manuscript error-free, although of course we all strive for that goal. The underlying purpose is to provide that smooth ride for the reader to be drawn in to your story, and not to consciously notice the words on the page while they are engaged in reading it. An editor will help you-as-author craft and polish your story to be the best that it can be.

Margaret S. McGraw is co-editor, with Misty Massey and Emily Leverett, of two anthologies of short stories about the wildest West that never was: Weird Wild West (eSpec Books, 2015) and the upcoming Lawless Lands: Tales from the Weird Frontier (Falstaff Books, 2017). Margaret writes fantasy and science fiction; blogs about prompt-writing, con reviews, and book reviews at; blogs about the journey of writing and publishing at; and edits fiction, academic, and technical writing. Find Margaret on Facebook or Goodreads as “Margaret S. McGraw” or follow her on Twitter @MargaretSMcGraw.