Interview Transcripts

Kevin Radthorne, Writer and Book Cover Artist

May, 2011

Mary Rosenblum: Kevin Radthorne is the author of The Tales of Tonogato series, whose characters, both honorable and devious, populate the  Asian-themed fantasy world. In addition to his writing  Kevin creates digital art, having sold numerous works for use as   book covers and role playing games, as well as exhibiting and    selling his work at convention art shows. At his website, www.KevinRadthorne.com , one can peruse the complete first  chapter from one of his books and view his art gallery.

Kevin, welcome!  I've rather neglected the art and design side of writing in my choice of guests, but when everybody published with the big NY houses, you had little if any input on the cover that the marketing and art department chose for your book.  But now, with the small press publishers and of course, the rise in self publishing, that book cover is once again our choice as authors.  

So tell us, where did your path begin?  With art first?  Or did you begin with writing and move into art?  Or did they both grow together?  

Rae: Kevin, I'm so glad you are going to be here this week. I'm really looking forward to your comments. 

Kevin Radthorn: Hi, everybody! Happy to be here, and to answer any questions you have on book covers. To Mary's chicken or egg question, I would say writing definitely started first. In fact, I think of myself as a writer first and artist second, even though I'm spending most of my time these days doing art rather than writing (but that' s mostly because 'real' work, i.e. the one that pays the bills, is consuming a lot of my time). I've been writing in one fashion or another for most of my life, and starting in 2001 had the first of three books published with a small press. That trilogy is now complete, and I have a couple of new writing projects in the wings, but on the back burner until I get some of my time back! 

So that means I definitely understand where all of you are coming from as writers, but that's not why Mary asked me to be here. One advantage of working with a small press is that you, the writer, may have more input on cover design. In my case I was lucky and my publisher was willing to let me actually do the covers, as I had started messing around with computers and graphics about the same time the first book was done and came up with something that was colorful and reasonably interesting. I've since gone on to do all three of my own book covers, as well as a number of covers for other writers. In and amongst that I have my own art that I do for art shows at conventions, most of which you can see in the galleries on my website (that's www.KevinRadthorne.com in case you can't wait and want to go look right now, lol!) By being both writer and artist, it's allowed me to ensure that what's on my covers is true to what's inside, while hopefully also serving the primary goal of marketing the books.

Stan: I doubt this applies to most of us low-life authors, but if authors or agents carry enough clout with the publisher, is a specified artist for the book cover, or even a particular cover, ever part of a book deal? As impressive as the terrific artwork on your website is, I doubt John Grisham would be happy if a piece of your fantasy artwork showed up on his book cover, and I doubt Beverly Lewis would appreciate it adorning one of her Amish romances (though it might boost sales!). Just wondering. 

Cheryl: Great to meet you. This sounds like an exciting topic. My small publisher definitely asked my thoughts on both the cover and the interior illustrations for my picture book. I sent a copy of my ideas off to the illustrator, who blended those ideas with his experience. I'm thrilled at the result.

Kevin Radthorn: Hi, Stan. The cover is virtually never part of the book deal, because the big name authors realize that, at the volumes their books will be selling at, it's best to leave the marketing (which includes the cover) to the pros. John Grisham's publisher is not going to put my art on his books because it's the wrong way to market John's books. What a big name author does get is more dollars available for his or her covers, so if John *were* to write a fantasy novel, his publisher might pay for Todd Lockwood cover art. And since Todd is a very good and very experienced artist, it's unlikely that John would be unhappy with the result.

For folks lower down the food chain at the major publishers, it's generally not even discussed. The cover you get is what you get. As noted, at small presses, it all depends; if the publisher is open to the idea, then you might have some input. But again, that's not likely to be a part of the manuscript acquisition, only something that happens once your manuscript has been acquired and you start having discussions with the publisher. Talking covers before then is really putting the cart before the horse. Hi, Cheryl; glad to meet you too. That's a great experience, and one which is a good incentive to folks with small publishers. It proves that it works! 

Mary Rosenblum LR Web Editor: So, Kevin, when I first started publishing, I was told by numerous editors that a good book cover was critical to sales and I've listened to many authors weep at conferences over their terrible covers and their lousy sales (which they attributed to the poor covers).  What makes a good book cover?  

Kevin Radthorn: The book cover is one component of the overall package, and while I think a lousy cover can certainly hurt sales, a good cover alone won't make a bad or mediocre book sell. Book cover art is as subjective as anything else, and what appeals to one person can completely turn off another. At the big presses, cover design is driven by the marketing department, and they decide what will be on the cover, what styles it will be, and how much money will be spent on the art based on the expected sales. And for a big press, all this is appropriate - we're talking large sums of money here, and large volumes of SKU's (stock keeping units). And at that level, it's what your book is: a commodity. That labor of love with all your words in it is something to be packaged and sold, and the picture on the cover serves the same marketing gods as the ones who come up with the graphics for your Tide detergent box. This is not to say that good art can't come of that process, but it's definitely secondary. 

As Mary has said in my intro thread, you as new writer will have next to nothing to say about a cover with a big press. But small press and self pub are different animals. So you've finished your tome, edited it to death, and have either placed it with a small press or are preparing to self pub it. What about a cover?

The first job of your cover is to help sell your book. It's not supposed to be a glorious piece of art (although it certainly can't hurt if it is!). It's job is to help get the potential purchaser to become an actual purchaser of your book. It's one step in the buying decision. If the book is on a store shelf, the cover is usually the second thing the buyer sees (the spine, and book title, are most often going to be first, since face-out space is generally a paid-for privilege...). If the title looks good, then the buyer may pull it off the shelf and put it in his or her hand, and then the cover needs to do its work: make the story look interesting, plus explain a bit about what the reader can expect, such as whether this is a fantasy story, or sci fi, or something else. Then the other cover components take over, such as the blurb on the back and any author endorsements. Then hopefully the prospective buyer cracks open the book and samples some of your deft prose, which of course seals the deal and your book is carried up to the check out stand.

Considered clinically like that, it leads you down a certain path for what your cover needs to look like. It needs to convey genre. It needs to explain, in a quick glance, what this book's likely to be about (giant spaceship with laser blasts conveys something completely different than beefcake guy wielding mighty axe with buxom lass wrapped around his leg). It needs to look "different" than everything else on the shelf (okay, sure, just like the editors want your prose to be "new and different," but you get the idea). It needs to not offend, unless that's the purpose of your book. It needs to look as high quality as possible (a lot, and I mean A LOT, of self published and small press covers look like they are do-it-yourself jobs or were paid for with coupons for a fast food restaurant), because a cheap-looking cover is not going to help your cause. 

Once it's done all that, which is really the bare minimum, then it needs to do more: you want it to make book browsers become book readers, and of your book! So that cover image needs to grab their attention and draw them in, much like that all-important first page of your book needs to draw them in. What are the things that do that? In part it depends on what your book is about. It's easy to say, big action! Slashing swords! Exciting stuff! Great, except if your book is a romance. For a romance, most often you're going to want people, and those people need to be conveying emotion-emotion-emotion, as that's what the romance genre is all about. 

So the answer to "what makes a good book cover" is that it depends on the story. A great cover will "sell" that particular story and convert someone into a reader of your words.

Rae: I also have a question, if I may. My novel is about a kidnapped woman who shows up at the hospital without her memory and badly beaten. The cover I chose is a woman with a black eye and a hand over her mouth. Do you think that leads into the contents of the book?

Kevin Radthorn: Hi, Rae. The scene you've chosen sounds like it illustrates the beginning of the book. No problem with that, but is that opening a defining moment for your character? Is there something about the journey she presumably takes after this point that might make a more powerful statement as your cover choice? Remember that your potential readers, seeing just the cover and not yet reading any of the blurbs yet on what the story is about, are going to first judge it by that cover image. What does a woman with a black eye and hand over her mouth suggest? To me, it might suggest a book about abuse. Maybe that is the purpose of your story, but if there's more going on there, say an emotional journey, redemption, that sort of thing, I'd consider searching for something that conveys that message. Your character may start with a black eye, but where does she go along the way? And should *that* then be the story you want prospective readers to zero in on?

Thank you very much. I need to start looking for photographs that will tell the total story, not just the first chapter. 

Rae: I think you might have saved me.  Or at least my cover. 

Lizbeth: I've heard from authors (big name authors) that they don't pick their covers either. To me, that would be the last thing to worry about...

Kevin Radthorne: lizbeth, you're absolutely right. My experience with the big name folks is that they're generally less concerned with the covers; but then again, if they're with a big press, the art department is also more likely to spring for something of quality. So other than the odd blooper here and there ("Um, there's actually nobody in the book with long white hair..."), the big names usually get something pretty decent. It's hard to get a bad picture out of a Michael Whelan or a Todd Lockwood. We mere mortals may not get that sort of budget, however.

You're also right about when is the proper time to think about covers. It's maybe not quite the last thing, but it certainly shouldn't be until the book is completely done and edited and ready to go (if you're going the self pub route). If you've been accepted by a small press, if you have some good ideas, you can share them with the publisher and see if they're receptive. One thing you don't want to do is try to submit your manuscript, to either a small or a large press, with samples of suggested cover art; that's bad form and not considered professional.  

What about some of the practical stuff, Kevin?  I've seen a lot of covers where I couldn't real the author's name or the title because it blended into the background. Some of these covers cost the author a good chunk of capital. What does a new writer need to think about when looking at potential cover art?  

Mary Rosenblum LR Web Editor: What about some of the practical stuff, Kevin?  I've seen a lot of covers where I couldn't real the author's name or the title because it blended into the background. Some of these covers cost the author a good chunk of capital. What does a new writer need to think about when looking at potential cover art?  

Kevin Radthorne: Ah yes. There's also the covers where the art department got too artsy for their own good, and in effort to be trendy or hip make things confusing or just plain too hard to read. 

If you look at good cover art, you'll see that the artist has left space at the top and bottom for the title and author name in a way that doesn't conflict with the main image, and gives the type person enough flexibility to do something interesting with the font. When you're making a picture, or looking at a picture created for you for a cover, it's easy to forget this rather important step, since just looking at the art alone seems like there's all this 'dead' space that wouldn't normally be in a picture. But if you have busy-busy graphics across the whole surface, you won't be able to easily read the type. And after the picture's done it's work of grabbing attention, you want the name of the book (and your name as the author) to jump right out there and be easily visible.

And speaking of type... There are thousands of fonts out there, and many of them are goofy or intended for ads or other purposes. There are times when a fancy font works well, but most often a clean, readable font is your best bet. Serif is good, although less important on the cover than in the body of your text. If you use a Sans Serif font. then make sure the letters are not too 'thin', as that makes it hard to read as well.

If you're working with a cover designer, they should be able to work out the best combination of type color to work with your image; but if you're doing it yourself you'll want to keep in mind what color combinations work and which ones don't. Contrast is the order of the day - if your image is all dark gothic stuff, make sure the type is white or a light shade so that it stands out from the image, and vice versa. Also, don't try to clutter up the cover. Title, your name, and if you have an author quote that makes sense (not your cousin George), that should be it. Save any other material for the back cover.

Mary Rosenblum LR Web Editor: Kevin, you'd better define Serif and Sans Serif for readers. 

Kevin Radthorne: Oops, sorry. Sometimes I get carried away... 

A Serif typeface has small horizontal "tails" on many of the letters; an example would be the "Post A Note!" banner at the upper left of this page, in particular the capital letters. A Sans Serif typeface does not have this feature. An example of that would be the line of words underneath the Post A Note!: "Ask questions. Get Answers. Share. Network." 

In large blocks of text, a Serif typeface tends to be easier to read, since the "tails" make a natural line for the eye to follow across the page. The interiors of most books will use a Serif typeface for the main text. A Sans Serif typeface, on the other hand, can often look "cleaner" or "more modern" (these are somewhat subjective terms, of course). For a cover, which of these you use depends in large part on the kind of book, the image, and the impression you want to convey. A Serif typeface may convey a more formal impression, whereas a Sans Serif typeface might convey the opposite.

Hope that helps. Do call me out if I use any other terms without explaining 'em! 

Mary Rosenblum LR Web Editor: This is a great lead in, Kevin.  Who thinks about interior design?  It's all about the cover, right?  But interior page design is important, too, isn't it?   You just said that the font is important -- serif versus sans serif.  What else matters on the page?

Kevin Radthorne: Another important factor is the margins, to make sure there's enough white space on the page; the eye actually needs some 'rest' and a page full of text from edge to edge makes it hard to read. Also, you don't want the typeface to be too small. Sometimes, with a large book, the publisher may try to reduce the size of the typeface to cram more words on a page, and thus reduce the overall size of the book (more pages = more production costs and more shipping weight). But this can sometimes be to the detriment of readability. 

There are a number of other factors that book designers take into account, such as how chapters start (for example, a blank half page with a big number centered above the first paragraph) and how scene breaks are handled (sometimes just blank lines, sometimes with a small graphic element). There there are widows and orphans! No, these aren't lost kin, these are single sentences left hanging on the bottom of a page, or a single word left by itself at the top of a page. Reading is a process of "word flow," and things like widows and orphans tend to interrupt our flow. So the interior designer will manipulate the type to try and avoid widows and orphans (by little tricks like squeezing letters together in small amounts to get that last word to fit on the previous page, for example). Clearly that attention to detail is only going to happen at a large house where they have staff to do that sort of thing; or, if you're self publishing and can do it yourself.

Cheryl: Fabulous discussion everyone. I am considering self-publishing, but since the book would be a picture book, I'm really concerned about adding the text in: a) how to do it and b) how much text to artwork per page. You've answered some of this in a way when it comes to the cover, but are there any tips for picture books that would make the cover and interior more attractive and not too busy?

Kevin Radthorne: Hello again Cheryl. Is this a children's picture book, where you're telling a story? If so, then the grade level will influence the amount of text that might be on each page. And just as with the cover, you really need to consider the text in a picture book when creating the artwork. There needs to be space somewhere for the text to go that won't detract from the image, and will also allow the text to be easily read. For example, if you have a white flower on a black background, and try to put some text on top of that, what color do you make the text so that it can be easily read? You can't use either white or black since half of the text is likely to then disappear. So, much better to consider the likely placement of text at the time the artwork is being created, if it's being created specifically for the picture book. 

As for how to do it, the best option is to do it in a graphics program that allows the artwork to be brought in, and then the type to be added on top of it, preferably in layers. A very popular program for this is Photoshop. There is a relatively inexpensive version of this called Photoshop Elements. With layers, you can create things like type on top of a picture without affecting the picture itself, and manipulate the text to fit a given space within the "canvas." Then the result can be saved as a new image, which can be inserted into your self publishing software. This approach gives you more control than trying to marry up artwork and text directly in a self pub package (unless it's a really high end piece of software).

Mary Rosenblum LR Web Editor: Kevin, thanks so much for your expertise!  You've been a great guest and I appreciate it!   Have a very fun Memorial Day weekend! 







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