L.A. Jacob (00:00:09): Hi, and welcome to Small Publishing in a Big Universe. I am your host, L.A. Jacob. Today’s interview will be with Kelley York, a book cover designer. Coming from our sponsors this month: in Dragon Gems, Denisovan Harmony by DJ Cockburn and Little Green Men by Curtis Bass. Paper Angel Press presents Margery by Jeffrey Penn May. Stay tuned for our interview with Kelley York.
Margery by Jefferey Penn May. Introverted backpacker, Jeremy, wanders off the trail and discovers an eccentric otherworldly town, nestled in a mountain basin. The people he finds there are friendly but a little bit peculiar. Why he wonders do the otherwise. Outwardly healthy and upbeat townspeople seem to be disappearing. Margery is available this month from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, and other online booksellers. Or support your local independent bookstores by ordering it through bookshop.org or indiebound.org. For more information, visit their website at PaperAngelPress.com.
L.A. Jacob (00:01:51): Hello everybody and welcome to Small Publishing in a Big Universe. This is your host, L.A. Jacob. And with me today I have Kelley York. She’s a book cover designer who is the owner of Sleepy Fox Studio. Welcome to the podcast, Kelley.
Kelley York (00:02:07): Thanks so much for having me.
L.A. Jacob (00:02:09): What is your background? Is it in art design or something else?
Kelley York (00:02:15): Kind of a funny story. I’ve been an artist since I was a little kid and initially when I started going to college, which I didn’t do until I was in my thirties, I was going for art and because I was working full-time, it was really hard to get into the classes that I needed for an art degree because of scheduling. So, I ended up majoring in anthropology instead.
L.A. Jacob (00:02:39): How do you approach designing a book cover? What does your typical design process look like?
Kelley York (00:02:46): I have a form that I have my clients fill out and it takes them step by step through the information that I need, and it includes what their genre is. If they can give me a very brief summary of their book, I don’t want, like, an in-depth five-page synopsis. I just want essentially their back cover copy is what I need, what their characters look like setting. And then one of the really big ones is I ask them for comparison covers. So covers that are in their genre that are comparable to their book that have come out within the last year or so, the covers that they love and covers that they hate so that I can kind of get some sort of sense of where their personal tastes are as well as what I need to be doing for their particular genre.
L.A. Jacob (00:03:38): If it’s a series, do you approach it different than just one book?
Kelley York (00:03:42): Series branding is very important and there’s a lot of different ways that you tie a series in together with the fonts and the font placement, where’s your title going, what effects are you using on that title? If I know that it’s gonna be a series starting out, I need to make sure that if I’m using stock photos, that I have enough for the entirety of the series. I don’t want them to pick out a model and say, Hey, I want to use this one, but there’s only one usable shot. And then we’re completely out of luck for five other books. And if it’s gonna be difficult branding, I try to simplify series a little bit to make sure that whatever art we use will match the text of the first book going forward.
L.A. Jacob (00:04:24): Is that different than a standalone?
Kelley York (00:04:27): Yes. If it’s standalone, I don’t have to worry about quite so much continuity. So it gets tricky when they intend for it to be a standalone and come back to me six months later and say, just kidding, I’m actually writing four more books into the series.
L.A. Jacob (00:04:41): Do you do something different with digital only book?
Kelley York (00:04:46): When I lay out a cover, I always do it as a print wrap. Obviously, I don’t know the sizing right away, but I’d have a generic template that I use that I lay everything out on and then crop it down for the eBook version because it’s a lot easier to crop it down than it is to have to expand it later if they decide they want to add print. So even if they tell me that they’re doing digital only, I still set it up as a print wrap just in case that they come back later and say, “This sold really well and now I want to turn it into a print version”, which happens a lot.
L.A. Jacob (00:05:21): So it’s easier to do it as if it was print than it is to do it as if it was eBook.
Kelley York (00:05:27): Yeah, it is for me anyway. I know some designers are different, but that’s how it is for me.
L.A. Jacob (00:05:33): Do you find that you are trying to see what it looks like digitally as opposed to just print?
Kelley York (00:05:39): When I’m initially working, I’m focused on what it looks like digitally. I zoom out a lot and make it super small on my screen, just a little thumbnail size to get an idea of what it’ll look like. Because when people are viewing it on Amazon, they’re not seeing it full size, they’re seeing it as a little thumbnail. So, I want to make sure that you have some idea of what’s going on in that cover and that the text is readable or at least the title and the author name should be. And then when I go to do the print wrap, then that’s where I might make a little bit of adjustment because what we see on our computer screens tends to be a bit lighter than how it prints. It always prints out darker and when you’re doing the conversion to CMYK, which is what printers use to print rather than RGB, it can kind of tweak the colors a bit.
So sometimes I have to go in and adjust for that too. After doing my initial intake form, generally I’ll have some back and forth with the author clarifying some things and asking questions, maybe tossing some ideas at them or if we’re using stock photos then we browse around and stuff and then I come up with a just very quick, rough mockup, just a concept. It’s usually not very pretty ‘cause it’s just kind of all slapped together. It looks like a second grader did it and it’s basically just to show them these are the images that I want to use, maybe I’ll do a little bit of adjustment work, but it’s just to give them an idea of what I’m picturing in my head and that’s the stage that I ask them to do any big changes. If you want a different model, if you want a different background, if you hate the text, I want to do any big changes now because it’s easier. And once they sign off on that, then we do a high-res version, which is all pretty and polished and painted. And then from there we can do little minor adjustments here and there as needed.
L.A. Jacob (00:07:33): I’m trying to picture doing it using stock photos. Are you able to manipulate the stock photos so that like a woman comes off as just having a big red dress, can you make her this witch with fire coming out of her hand? Is that hard?
Kelley York (00:07:49): Absolutely. That’s a lot of what I, I do. I don’t know that I’d say it’s hard just because that’s just what I do. It definitely takes time. I work in a couple different mediums. I use stock photos, I do some digital painting and I use DAZ, which is a 3-D program. So, a lot of times, especially with fantasy or sci-fi or other spec fic genres, I’ll make certain aspects of it in 3-D because it’s hard to find stock photos that look good of things like that, of big fancy gowns and princess dresses and sci-fi military uniforms. You can’t find stock photos of that very easily so I can combine the two and then do blending and stuff. So, at the end of it all, it looks like all one cohesive image. Ideally it shouldn’t look like it’s pasted together when I’m done with it.
L.A. Jacob (00:08:42): I’ve seen covers that used 3-D that they look 3-D.
Kelley York (00:08:48): Yes, that is a very big issue and it’s part of why 3-D images really don’t work too well on contemporary covers because it’s just people are expecting contemporary realism and therefore anything that doesn’t look real just kind of doesn’t sit right in their heads. There’s a little more leeway with that for spec thick, especially if you’re doing painting over it to make it look more like an illustration versus like a photo, which a lot of spec fit covers do. So, there’s a lot that goes into the 3-D process and some people are really, really good at it and some people are still needing work at getting it to look not plastic and not 3-D.
L.A. Jacob (00:09:34): What do you think about AI for book covers?
Kelley York (00:09:37): This is a hard one. I personally am not using AI in my work because of moral and legal reasons. I think we’re gonna start seeing a lot more lawsuits coming out about the use of AI. I have a MidJourney account. I’d love playing with it just to play with it because it’s cool and it’s great for coming up with concepts and kind of getting my brain working without using the actual images that it produces, but I’m just not comfortable with the idea of actually using them on things right now with how the machines are learning. And I think we’re gonna start seeing more companies trying to do it in different ways that aren’t impeding the rights of artists and I’m excited for that. I’m excited to see what those companies do because they’re, I mean, if I could use AI images, it would make things a lot easier in a lot of regards.
L.A. Jacob (00:10:32): What are some of the trends that you see now in book covers?
Kelley York (00:10:36): In spec-fic, we’re definitely starting to see a lean into more illustrated covers. Less stock photo looking more illustrated… Painted, I guess I should say. They look more digitally painted. In contemporary, I’m starting to see more illustrated cartoon kind of covers, but spec-fic. Yeah. I’m seeing more digital illustrations rather than 10 years ago when we had that big influx of all paranormal romance books. Had the pretty girl in the really long dress and the dramatic ballgown that never made an appearance in the book, but that was just what the covers were. That was the big fad of that era.
L.A. Jacob (00:11:18): With the shadow of the wolf or the shadow of the vampire behind her and …
Kelley York (00:11:24): Yeah, we’re starting to see more object-based covers in fantasy, which is kind of cool. Starting to see some more text-based covers too, which is also kind of cool. Generally, a lot of times the way I see it is traditional publishing will start getting trends and then indie kind of starts following their lead a little bit because indie can keep up with those a lot faster than trad can keep up with us. They take years to put out their books. Indie publishers, indie authors could take a month.
L.A. Jacob (00:11:57): What are some of the designs or trends that you actually like and what are some that you are like, no, please.
Kelley York (00:12:03): I really love digital illustration type ones. I love getting to paint. I love getting to, even if I am using photos, I love getting to make them look illustrated in the final version. It’s just a lot of fun and it gets that desire to make art, better than just using straight stock photos. I’m really tired of just bare man chests on covers
L.A. Jacob (00:12:55): Now we’re gonna switch to working with authors. What do you wish that authors would know about designing book covers?
Kelley York (00:13:04): I do wish that more clients trusted their designer, and I know that kind of only goes so far as, well, do they have a good designer that’s able to be trusted to make a good design? But if I’m being hired to do something, it’s easiest and honestly gets the best result if it’s by somebody who says, here’s my information, I trust you to do what you do, and they don’t nitpick. So when I get the clients that kind of micromanage and this is exactly what I want, it’s a direct scene from the book and it needs to have all of these specific little things and all of these little hints at things that happen in the book and I’m trying to explain to them like, readers aren’t gonna care. A reader doesn’t understand what this means until after they’ve read the book and then it doesn’t matter. I try to, right off the bat, let them know that this cover is not for you, it is for your readers and that’s a hard pill for them to swallow ‘cause they’re the ones that are dishing out the money for it, which is totally understandable, but it’s very tricky. I want them to be happy, but I also don’t want to deliver to them a product knowing that it’s going to not do the job it’s supposed to do because they’ve pushed it in a direction I didn’t want it to go.
L.A. Jacob (00:14:22): What terms should an author expect when you sign them up?
Kelley York (00:14:26): I give them a contract to sign. I encourage all authors and all designers to always make sure they have a contract with whoever they’re working with, whether it’s a designer or an editor or whoever, because a lot of problems can be avoided that way and it’s for everyone’s protection. My contracts go over scheduling: what happens if they back out last minute? I take a $50 deposit on all advanced bookings just to secure their spot. Obviously, it goes towards their total balance, but if they ghost me or they drop out at the last minute, that deposit is non-refundable. It just kind of helps ensure that authors aren’t just making appointments that they don’t intend to keep, which happened a surprising amount before I implemented that policy. I recently added a clause about my designs not being allowed to be used for NFTs, which has never been a problem for me personally, but just kind of a cover my butt sort of thing.
I think a lot of authors are also under the misconception that when they get a cover, they own full complete unfettered rights to do whatever they want with that cover, and they really don’t. The copyright unless the author purchases it days with the designer, at least in the us that’s how it would work. It’s a little different if you’re working as an employee for the publisher, the rules are a little different, but when I’m working with a client, with an author, what they are getting is the license to use that cover as it is for their book marketing purposes. That means they can’t go cutting it up and reusing it on a bunch of other projects. They can’t send it to someone else and have them make edits and changes because that artwork is still mine. They’re just getting exclusive rights to use it for this particular project. That’s something a lot of, especially newer authors don’t realize that that’s the case and they think that they order a cover, they get everything. They get complete access to the whole thing.
L.A. Jacob (00:16:37): Where can people contact you?
Kelley York (00:16:39): They can hit me up at my website, which is SleepyFoxStudio.net. I’m on TikTok under @SleepyFoxStudio, but my website has all my contact info and pricing and portfolio and all that good stuff.
L.A. Jacob (00:16:54): Well, thank you very much for your time and I hope to be talking with you again soon and seeing more of your work out there.
Kelley York (00:17:01): Thanks so much.
L.A. Jacob (00:17:28): The Insane God by Jay Hartlove. A meteorite fragment cures a teenaged trans girl schizophrenia but leaves her with visions of ancient warring gods annihilating each other in space. As the Earth hurdles towards the cloud that is the shattered bodies of these eternal enemies. Their eons old conflict is rekindled on earth to divide and destroy humanity. Can she and her brother stop the spread of global disaster? The insane God from J Heart Love is available in hard cover, trade, paperback, and digital editions. For more information, visit waterdragonpublishing.com/insane-god.
L.A. Jacob (00:18:38): Thanks again to our guest. We plan on publishing new episodes every second Wednesday of the month. Watch for new episodes around that time.
Theme music is provided by Melody Loops. Other music is from assorted free music websites found on the internet. If you want to know more about Small Publishing in a Big Universe, visit our website at SPBU-Podcast.com. Tweet us at SPBU-podcast and like us on Facebook at SPBU-podcast.
This podcast was recorded and edited by yours truly, L.A. Jacob. Executive producer is Steven Radecki. Transcription services provided by Remy of Sleepy Fox Studio.
This month’s episode was sponsored by Paper Angel Press and its imprints, Water Dragon Publishing and Unruly Voices. You can hear our podcast on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Amazon Music, and most of your favorite podcast services. Visit our marketplace for more information about books that are mentioned on this podcast. Thanks very much for listening and talk to you soon.