What: A designer and writer, he has worked on hundreds, perhaps thousands, of book covers since 1997. He ran Point Blank Press from 2004 to 2011 and published the first novels of Allan Guthrie, Dave Zeltserman, Duane Swierczynski and Donna Moore among many others. He was a music writer for AllMusic Guide and currently reviews European comics for Bookgasm.
Interview conducted by email. Some questions and answers have been edited.
Let’s start with the question that every writer wants to know—do you read the books before you design the covers?
No. I don’t have the time. I design anywhere from 2 to 10 covers a week. I sometimes read the book after I’ve done the cover. My turnaround for first draft — which might mean a finished cover — usually ranges from half an hour to a couple of days. I do much of my freelance work on lunch break at my day job.
Have you ever turned down a design job because you didn’t like the book?
No. On occasion I’ve turned covers down because of the writer or the publisher.
I don’t necessarily agree, though with the emergence of ebooks a cover needs to look good as a thumbnail. So, from a marketing point of view, simplicity often makes sense, but the results vary. I’ve found some of the covers I like the least sell the best, and the opposite is equally true. A good cover can help a book, but a bad cover doesn’t always kill the sales.
Having said that, it’s quite an intuitive process. I ask the author and/or the publisher for a synopsis of the book and for suggestions, often for links to book covers they specifically like. An idea forms in my head, and I quickly try to make that idea work.
Was designing book covers something that you set out to do?
It was. I was a government bureaucrat in Finland, bored out of my skull. I found out a publisher in the US was reprinting books by a writer I admired and covers for other writers they were publishing were terrible. I knew I could make a better cover, so I offered to do one for free. One thing led to another. Some of those early covers are bad, but they were still better than what otherwise would have (dis)graced the books.
Do you prefer to design covers for one genre over any others? If so, why?
Yes and no. Crime fiction is generally easy, and there’s something pleasing about a cover that comes together quickly and naturally. But a more difficult genre, say science fiction or a western, has its own appeal. I enjoy a challenging cover more when I’m not in a hurry and working with a client who is open to new approaches. Working with indie publishers on the cheap usually gives me offbeat opportunities, though at the same time the velocity of work limits the same. Occasionally the stars align, and the elder gods are happy.
I’m going to be a bit difficult here. It’s not any I “feel like these are all my children and I love ’em equally” bullshit. I’ve done quite a few awful covers and also a lot of what I consider merely serviceable work. I do “art” by the pound. I have to please the author and the publisher before myself, and sometimes one or more of us is wrong or lazy (I’m lazy, and the author and publisher are wrong). It’s no big deal since I have no ego in this business—pride, yes—and it’s anybody’s guess which cover will sell. I’m a craftsman first, artist second, businessperson dead last.
One of my very favorite covers was never completed. It’s the cover drawing for the second BIG ADIOS book edited by Ron Earl Phillips, which fell by the wayside due to low sales of the first volume. (Go buy it. It also has a cover I really like.) I took inspiration from my memory of Sergio Corbucci’s THE GREAT SILENCE, except for the eyes, which I drew to match Renee Maria Falconetti’s from Dreyer’s THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC. It took me about 20 minutes, and it was just right. That was in September 2014, and I still think of the piece.
My second pick involves the reprint edition of a book I’d read and loved years earlier, so it was a passion project on a subject dear to my heart: Roger Corman. I got to use my illustration, layout, photoshop and vector art skills on the cover, and working with the author, Beverly Gray, was a pleasure.
My third pick is more of a conceptual choice: Ray Banks’ SATURDAY’S CHILD for Blasted Heath. I truly like the cover, but even more so because it was an appealing idea rejected by others. I wanted to use typography as a design element and ignore the need for readability. For ebooks it seems almost unnecessary to have either the title or the author name on the cover. The same information is repeated, very legibly, right next to it at any place you can purchase the book. As long as the cover stands out visually, why repeat those details? Ray and his publishers (Al Guthrie and Kyle MacRae) were immediately on board, and a year or two later I did a cover for Ray that completely eliminated both.
The short answer is I grew up reading Three Investigators mysteries before quickly graduating to Warren Murphy’s Remo books, which then eventually led me to Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford.
The longer one is that after both my wife and I lost our jobs in 2001, I took on as much freelance work doing covers and layouts as I could. Kathleen is an ace copy editor and proofreader and had freelanced as both in the past. I knew people doing science fiction and fantasy publishing, but the crime ‘scene’ appeared uncrowded. It seemed a logical choice.
I wrote Betsy Willeford asking if she’d let us do a collection of Charles’ stories and poems. She did, and thus was the birth of Wit’s End Publishing. It continued for about 2-1/2 books at which point we realized neither of us were inclined to deal with the money aspect of the business.
Al Guthrie’s first novel, TWO-WAY SPLIT, was to be our third or fourth release but, during the editing of that book, Al and I realized we worked well together and came up with the concept of Point Blank. I’d done lots of work for Wildside Press and figured they’d be interested in adding a crime fiction imprint. They were.
After great press on some fantastic books mainly acquired and edited by Al, we expanded quickly with big plans. I couldn’t maintain the pace we started with, however, especially after taking on a 9 to 5 job in 2005—freelance work doesn’t include health insurance after all—so our output stalled. Minimal compensation plus the stress of no assistance beyond Al and Kathleen as well as other obligations slowed the business down to a crawl.
I decided I was much happier donning only one hat: that of designer. I’d been the publisher, sometime editor, art director, talent scout, press liaison, marketing director and layout grunt, as well as slush pile reader, for Point Blank. Now I’m reading fiction again after several years of hating it. I feel really pleased with what was accomplished by our little publishing companies. Kathleen and I still send semiannual royalty checks to Betsy.
This week I’m working on a half-dozen covers for a Finnish publisher, a cover for the final Hector Lassiter novel, something for Stark House, Down & Out Books and 280 Steps, and I have a few other cover projects percolating in the background.
My wife, Kathleen, has reinvented herself as a singer-songwriter of quirky originals who also performs unique arrangements of anything from early blues to Bob Mould to 14th century choral music. So I’m actively working on imagery for her releases as ‘kat330’ at Bandcamp and SoundCloud or the Free Music Archive, and compile videos for her tunes from mainly public domain sources. I love film equally to books and music, and am moving laterally to that direction. Whenever I have some spare time, I’m currently also editing a short documentary of sorts from interviews I filmed with Bob Truluck.
I’m also thinking about a novel of my own that I’m simultaneously adapting into a graphic novel. I don’t want to make this a laundry list of every activity, which would be a lot longer, but it gives an idea why I don’t read every book I design a cover for.
S.W. Lauden’s debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION, is available now from Rare Bird Books. The second Greg Salem novel, GRIZZLY SEASON, will be published in September 2016. His standalone novella, CROSSWISE, is available now for pre-order from Down & Out Books.