Guest Interview: Sarah Waites on Illustrated Page Book Design

Posted October 2, 2020 by dove-author in Guest Posts / 0 Comments


Today I’m interviewing Sarah Waites, awesome book blogger, maintainer of a queer SFF Database and kick-ass cover designer, to talk about her work designing diverse covers. You can check out Sarah’s work on her website, The Illustrated Page Book Design, here, but we’ve got some gorgeous samples scattered throughout the post as well! Sarah’s got a special tarot-inspired premade cover event running on her Facebook group on October 11th! If you’re an author looking for some amazing (premade) covers, be sure to mark your calendars and check it out!

S.L.: Before we dive into some of the nitty-gritty of your work as a cover designer, I simply have to ask: what are some of the things you’d recommend authors look out for when looking for a good premade cover design? It can be tricky to know what to look for when you’re not going for a completely custom design.

Sarah: This isn’t the question but I need to say it – a premade cover is called “premade” for a reason. (S.L.: OMG that genuinely needs saying? Excuse me while I go cry in a pit of despair for a few hours.) While some designers might allow you to pay for customization, most professional designers don’t. So when you’re looking at potential covers don’t think of the cover as a starting place but as a final artwork. And some changes are so big that they would be a completely different cover! If you have your heart set on something very specific, you’re going to need to commission a custom cover.

With that out of the way, there are two important things to look for in a good premade cover design. The first is overall quality. You want something that looks professional, since readers tend to associate a professional-quality cover with a higher quality book.

The second is something called “genre matching.” Essentially, covers are a marketing tool designed to sell your book. I already discussed in a previous question how it’s important to let your genre’s readers know that this is the sort of book they’d be interested in, but that goes beyond fonts to all other aspects of the cover. Color, contrast, figure size, clothing, poses – all of it and more is important for signaling the genre of the story.

So when approaching a potential premade cover, try to come from the perspective of a reader, not an author. What sort of genre do you think the cover is? What sort of tone does it convey? If it’s a romance, what’s the heat level? Think about what sort of expectations this cover is creating in its readers. That’s far more important than if the cover matches the exact details of your story!

S.L.: Oh, that is a superhelpful tip. I love the concept of premade covers, but I’m rubbish at picking ones that match myself. Your designs focus specifically on creating a wide variety of diversity, especially for self-published authors, something which I find is sorely lacking in many (premade) cover designers’ portfolios. Intersectionality is an important aspect of all the work you do, but it strikes me as one of the hardest parts of designing your covers. How do you keep going when you’re struggling to find what you want and need?

Sarah: Premade covers are often easier because they’re usually driven by what’s available. For example, my f/f historical premades that combine two photos are usually made with the sole criteria being “which two photos can I fit together?” For custom projects, there’s other considerations, like matching the time period, costumes, and characters. That’s often where things get tricky.

If there’s absolutely nothing available, not even photos I can rework or combine, then I usually suggest the author hire a DAZ render artist to create a custom image (basically a 3D computer rendering) that can be used for their cover. The main issue here is that it often adds anywhere from $30 to $60 to your overall cost, plus you can also be limited by what’s available as DAZ prefabs and some authors don’t like the idea of using computer renderings.

I ended up hiring a render artist, Kelley York of Sleepy Fox Studio, to create some f/f poses with women of color, because I was having trouble finding the photos I needed to create them.

Examples of CGI renders turned into cover images for books.

When you swap out the render’s head with a photograph, it’s often not obvious that the bodies are computer generated. If there’s something I really need or want to do and I run up against a brick wall, renders are usually the way to go!

S.L.: That’s really interesting to hear! I remember there was a time in ebook publications especially where renders were both the way to go and heavily frowned upon, so hearing about mixing them with photos this way is absolutely fascinating! I have to ask, though, since custom covers can be so tricky due to a lack of good stock material… What would your ideal photo shoot look like if someone handed you a million dollars to organise one? (Or multiple ones.)

Sarah: Oh wow! That would be a dream, and you could do a lot with a million dollars.

I’d want to hire a diverse range of models and get a variety of high-quality costumes and props. As for what sort of photos I’d want… there’s so many! I’d love more historical and fantasy photos with models of color and plus size models, and some with same gender couples. I’d particularly love some African fantasy stock photos, since I’ve recently been working on a project that’s required a lot of combining photos to create the main figure.

Other things I would love to have stock photos for:

  • Black and West Asian people in Greco-Roman costumes
  • Asian women in historical Western dresses
  • PoC in traditional cultural clothing (especially African models, for African fantasy covers!)
  • Women of color in armour that isn’t male gazey
  • Just like… any f/f fantasy photos!
  • Trans people in genre-appropriate outfits and poses
  • More women of color in fancy, fluffy princess dresses
  • Latina models and Latinx couples
  • South Asian and Southeast Asian models in genre outfits and poses

And I’m sure there’s more! Basically there’s generally a scarcity of any photos that aren’t centered around white, cis, abled, skinny people either in solo photos or in f/m couples.

S.L.: So true. I know there have been companies trying to focus on creating those shoots, but I think sadly all the ones I’ve heard of closed down. Or they offer more diverse stock, but not a commercial license and they generally don’t fit the list you mentioned here either. 🙁 So, in hopefully something a little less depressing because of society’s penchant to ignore the majority of people in it, let’s talk about another integral part of cover design: fonts. How do you select just the right font for the image? Do you have an idea on what you want to use before you start or do you fiddle around with it until you find one that looks good?

Sarah: One of the most important thing about fonts is making sure that they match your genre. Different genres have different types of fonts that are used, and font choice is important for signalling genre (and thus letting genre readers know they should be interested in your book!)

For fantasy, that tends to mean all caps serif fonts, often with some decorative flourishes. Thankfully Photoshop lets me filter by font type, so I can go and take a look at all my different serif fonts. I have a few I really love and which are great for the genre, but I’ll usually try a few different options before settling on one.

If there’s one font I find myself using over and over again, it’s Desire Pro. And that’s true for many designers! It crops up a lot in fantasy, paranormal, and historical romance, both with indie books and traditional. Sometimes I worry that I’m using it too often but before I started designing, I didn’t even notice how many covers were using it.

Several covers using the font 'Desire' to showcase how often it shows up.

That said, Desire can cost a pretty penny, so if you’re an indie fantasy author looking to make your own cover, you’ll likely want to go with another option. If you have Adobe Photoshop, you’ll likely have access to the Adobe Fonts library, in which case I suggest Yana (which is another serif with alternates) or a combination of Cinzel and Cinzel Decorative, which are both free as Google Fonts.

I’ve mostly talked about fantasy here, but obviously different genres have different font standards! Going back to the original question, I’d say it’s a combination of knowing genre conventions and what fonts work well and experimenting with different choices within that category. The rest of the typography is usually choosing the alternates, arranging the layout, and applying text styling. I probably spend more time fiddling with the text styling (color, texture, gradient, shadows, bevelling, etc) then I do with the font!

S.L.: Oh, that sounds so familiar. You can fiddle endlessly with text styling. Not that I’ve done that or anything… Thank you so much for your insights into cover design. I hope that it gives people some insight into the amount of work that goes into creating them. You can find Illustrated Page Book Design on Facebook (joining gets you 10% off premade covers as well as dibs on new designs), Twitter and, of course, on its own website. You can follow Sarah on Twitter and her own blog The Illustrated Page. Sarah’s running a special premade sale event in her Facebook group on October 11th, 2020 as well!