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Interview with a Cover Artist: April Martinez

April Martinez Cover Artist

Covers are one of the most important sales tools a book has. Whole websites are devoted to them. More than one professional has acknowledged that covers can make or break an author. I bought Lila Dubois, Forbidden, in part because of the phenomenal cover.

April Martinez is a graphic designer who specializes in cover art for romance books. Her covers are consistently tasteful, eye catching and evocative. Currently, Martinez serves as the art director for Liquid Silver Books but is a freelance cover artist.

***

Jane: What is your background?

April Martinez: Right now it’s a white wall, but I rent, and I’m not allowed to paint the place.

My résumé is slightly more colorful and varied. I was 12 when I got my first job teaching piano; I did that for a dozen years for nearly two dozen students, and then I didn’t play the piano again for the next decade. I’ve always tested much better in math than in language, so naturally I majored in liberal arts and literature/writing. I earned a couple of honors degrees from decent schools, which ultimately qualified me to work as an administrative slave at many Dunder Mifflins all over Southern California. Then somehow, I got the Peter Principle to work for me and landed an art department job at a Fancy publishing company—finally, something that clicked for me. From there and subsequent jobs, I got my decade’s worth of professional web and graphic design experience.

Jane: If you haven’t an art background, what made you get started?

Martinez: I’ve loved art since before I could grasp a crayon or a clue, but my equally artistic mother never encouraged it as other than a hobby, hence the scenic detour. So I actually didn’t get started until my fiancé looked at my scribbles and sketchbooks and demanded to know why I wasn’t making art for a living. He pushed me to get that first art department job; he accompanied me as I bought my first Wacom tablet; he got me domain names for my art sites, Whimsytoons and Graphicfantastic; and he continues to encourage me, insisting I update my online portfolios so he can advertise me. If it wasn’t for him, and for a few great bosses who saw my potential and hired me in an art or design capacity, I wouldn’t be doing what I do today; I’d be answering the phones in some office somewhere, doodling on my notepad, forever the Pam of Dunder Mifflin.

Jane: How is it that you began to do cover art for books?

Martinez: In 2003, I saw an ad on Renderosity looking for book cover artists for a new e-publisher. I responded, was given a contract, and did three book covers for the company before it folded. I earned a total of $9 in royalties. It was a stellar beginning.

Jane: Specifically romance books?

Martinez: The ad mentioned book cover artist, so I’d have responded regardless of the genre. It was purely by chance that it was for erotic romance. After that initial contact, it was easy to get more work in the same genre since the work itself generates the right kind of samples for querying. It wasn’t a conscious decision on my part.

Jane: Are you a reader and if so, who are a few of your favorite authors?

Martinez: Growing up, I devoured at least one book per day, but now I read only occasionally. I re-read Jane Austen at least once a quarter, and I read Sheri S. Tepper, who writes the most amazing speculative fiction. I’ve taken up reading all the classics that I missed, so right now I’m into Graham Greene and Robert Ruark. I’m also trying everything on the banned books list.

Ironically, there’s not much romance in my reading diet nowadays, except for books for which I’ve done covers, but I remember seeking out books by Elizabeth Lowell and Judith McNaught back in the day.

April Martinez Cover Artist

Jane: How do you start a project? Are you contacted by the publisher? or author?

Martinez: That depends on the publisher. At Liquid Silver Books, the author sends the completed cover art request forms directly to me, and I work on one of as many as three cover concepts that the author presents. At Loose Id, the request form gets to me via Allie McKnight, who may sometimes give me her take or her alternative concept to the one that the author presents.

No cover art of mine begins life without at least some kind of direction from either author or publisher. They’re the craftsmen; I’m their tool.

Jane: What kind of information do you receive in order to create the cover?

Martinez: I take what I can get, whatever they feel I need to know. I get everything from character descriptions and motivations to story setting and time period, from the conflicts to the themes, the mood, the style, et cetera. On the form I developed for Liquid Silver Books, I ask for three different cover concepts and their preferences on that and on a variety of other things. I also encourage authors to include blurbs, scene excerpts, and reference photos if they have them.

Jane: How much input do you get from authors and do you find that helpful or hurtful?

Martinez: That depends on the author and the book. Sometimes I get a one-line blurb that tells me nothing, and sometimes I get charts, family trees, and excerpts out the yin yang. I don’t often get to read the manuscript beforehand, so when they send me the brief, I always hope to receive more information rather than less. The more I’m given, the more I can work with, and the astute author completes the request in a such a way that I feel as though I’d read the book itself.

I assume that whatever’s left out is unimportant. Where things go awry is when authors assume that I already know about what they never tell me, as though I could magically read minds. They see my first draft and suddenly realize they forgot to mention an important detail, like that a character is black, blonde, bearded, bald, or boobless … or some other crucial element. Less is more, but in this case it’s a bad thing—the less information I get, the more drafts I end up doing.

I hate wasting time and doing things over and over again, when it could have been resolved in one round and in a much more cohesive manner, so in my freelance work I charge extra for additional drafts and after the fifth draft tell people it’s in bad taste to nitpick details they never even mentioned before. So, yes, I like having as much input about the book as they can give me up front, where I may pick and choose what details to highlight in the illustration.

But even more important than the quantity of the information is the quality of it. If authors have vision, and if their words and concepts inspire me, then everything they give me helps me. But if their requests are unclear and confusing, if their words and descriptions only contradict each other rather than build a living, breathing visual for me to translate onto a cover, then all the input in the world is no good to me.

As I mentioned before, I’m their tool, their instrument. If an author can make her book sing to me, however much or little she tells me, that makes my job of making a cover that sings in harmony a whole lot easier.

April Martinez Cover Artist

Jane: What are your primary tools? Ink, Oils, Photoshop?

Martinez: Photoshop is my primary tool; I’d be lost without it and my pen and tablet set. I also use a time-saving plug-in to knock out the backgrounds of photos, so I can do what National Enquirer does and couple two people who would never be caught dead together. For my vector art cartoon covers, I use Illustrator. On occasion I use Poser, Bryce, and Painter, and I once used Amapi to create 3D models for a cover. I can work with pencils, ink, and watercolors, but digital artwork is easier to edit if changes are required. A few of my covers use some of my photography, but I shoot (a Nikon D50 camera) mostly for myself and therefore use mainly stock for my work. For print covers, I use InDesign for layout, Suitcase for managing my fonts, and Acrobat for creating high-resolution PDF files. For web sites, I use Dreamweaver, HomeSite, and CuteFTP. I work on both Mac and PC.

Jane: When you work with cover models, do you get to choose the model?

Martinez: I’ve never worked with cover models. Male models have contacted me about working with me, but I’m not at the point yet where I can seriously consider it. Much of my work is done electronically, and considering the modest return I get for an e-book cover, the prep time and the model’s hourly rate can be cost-prohibitive. If I ever get four figures or more for a cover, I may reconsider my options, but for right now, it makes more sense to my schedule and to my bottom line to use stock photography—which in the end means, no, I don’t get to choose the model. If I need a redhead, I just use Photoshop to make it so, and if a model isn’t thin enough, I put her on the Photoshop diet.

Jane: What beyond just looks, makes a model good to work with?

Martinez: A great model has some life and imagination, and in rare cases, he understands how the light and angles work on him. A great photographer working with a great model can make personality show through in a cover model’s embodiment of a character, and if a model can work in a wide range and portray many an archetype or an emotion, that can often be far better than just looking the part. Beautiful people can look downright cold and two-dimensional if they don’t have any life in their eyes. People who can make an attractive personality show through are often much more appealing as models.

Jane: How much time are you usually given to create a cover?

Martinez: I’m given anywhere between one week and three months to work on a cover. Ideal for me is at least one or two months, but occasionally I’ll get a rush job, which forces me to put aside everything else I’ve got going on. Once I actually start on a cover, it doesn’t take me very long, but I like having the time to mull over the author’s ideas and prepare my scrap.

April Martinez Cover Artist

Jane: What is your monthly output?

Martinez: I complete somewhere around a dozen or more e-book covers a month, almost twice that if I’m being super productive. In the same month, I probably average about one or two print book covers, one or two magazine ads, and one or two web design templates.

I tend to be busier in the months leading up to the big conventions because of all the promotions involved, but overall, it’s a nice easy pace for me. I could actually do triple the work in the time that I have if I absolutely had to or if I suddenly had a wealth of requests, but I don’t like rushing things, and I like leaving some time for projects of the heart, like story illustrations or personal pieces.

Jane: How many different publishers do you work for and in what genres?

Martinez: I’ve worked for about a handful of publishers, but the two who make up the bulk of my income are Liquid Silver Books and Loose Id, LLC, both of which publish primarily erotic romance and its various sub-genres. I’ve done several mystery covers and one non-fiction cover, but what I’d really love to get into is science fiction, fantasy, and children’s fiction. I wouldn’t mind doing chick lit, as cartooning is a particular love of mine. I’d also love more mainstream work in my portfolio.

Jane: Are there different “messages” or tones that you want to convey depending on the genre?

Martinez: That depends on what I’m told about the book. Otherwise, I use my instincts—starry space for science fiction, fairy dust for fantasy, scary looking instruments for horror or BDSM. I’m not a conventional artist, so I don’t always follow the art and design conventions of each genre. I know what I like and what works for me, but I don’t worry much about what my work communicates to the genre reader. People’s reactions to art are always so varied and subjective, so heavily influenced by their past experience and current trends; I’d go crazy trying to chase that.

Sometimes my publisher will tell me, “It’s not sexy enough. Make it sexier.” They pay me, and I’m mercenary, so I comply. But as an eclectic reader, I know little about genre stereotypes outside of the most obvious things, like clinch and naked male chests for romance and world wide wrestling. I just want a cover to catch the eye and illustrate the story inside the book, as the author envisions. Genre conventions are just not my bag.

Besides, what if that story straddled the fence of three genres? Do I then try to marry all the varied and often contradicting conventions of the relevant genres? Or do I create three covers to capture three different kinds of readers? I would do that for a big publisher who might have the marketing budget to go chasing those three markets separately, but for the less lucrative business of e-publishing, that way lies madness; it’s best to simply tailor the cover to match the author’s vision of the book.

April Martinez Cover Artist

Jane: What is your personal opinion of “clinch” covers? Naked male torso covers?

Martinez: I find them boring and not at all compelling. I’ve never in my entire life bought a book with such a cover, unless it was a cover that I did myself. I know they are genre staples and that people buy them, and I hear they sell pretty well, but all they really communicate to me is a lack of inspiration or imagination. Convention. It tells me, “This book is like every other book on this shelf.”

I don’t find them all that fun to do, either. Unless the author gives me more information about the book, it’s difficult to individualize the standard concept and make a cover that stands out among all the others like it. I understand the marketing philosophy behind it, the intent to draw certain types of readers who like formulaic books, but I’m not the formulaic type; I like a little more variety both in my books and on my covers.

Jane: What cover design trends do you think we readers can expect to see coming up?

Martinez: I don’t know much about trends, current or upcoming. I see a lot of legs and shoes and closely cropped body parts. I see bare backs and elegant profiles looking over shoulders, trim abdomens and arms all akimbo in cocky attitude. Draping fabric. Wistful hair. But to be honest, I really don’t care. Everyone looks for the next black swan—i.e., the next big thing that changes everyone’s entire worldview of the status quo, sort of like the first naked male torso cover in romance.

I think most cover artists look to other covers for inspiration, so whatever worked once and really wowed somebody will perhaps just pop up again elsewhere. I take a lot of my own inspiration from movie posters, so maybe that’s the next trend—covers that look like movie posters. Your guess is as good as mine, if not infinitely better. After all, you all buy and read more books than I do.

Jane: Do you have a favorite art period or artist?

Martinez: Without any formal art training, I know little about art history and other artists. But I love M.C. Escher’s work immensely; it appeals to the mathematician in me. I also like the work of Michael Whelan, Linda Bergkvist, and Stephanie Pui-Mun Law.

Jane: Who is the romance cover artist whose work you like best? (In other words, is there a Chip Kidd of romance novel cover art?)

Martinez: I don’t know if there is a Chip Kidd of romance cover art. Kidd is mostly a designer, not an illustrator—he works with existing art and photos. The old school romance cover artists, however, are mostly painters. Granted, a lot of the current romance covers are designed rather than illustrated, but there isn’t a whole lot of innovation in the design of a romance cover. Kidd gets to work in different genres, so he gets to try different things with his designs, but the romance genre has its conventions, so it’s hard for designers to innovate covers without going beyond the genre a little; you make a cover too different, and people think it’s mainstream or women’s fiction, not romance—marketing departments don’t like that.

The only cover artists who get to try something new and different in the genre are those who illustrate for a mixed genre—something like paranormal romance, urban fantasy romance, science fiction romance, etc.—where they get to add something otherworldly and artistic to the illustration. For that kind of cover, I guess I like the work of Matt Mahurin and James Griffin for P.C. Cast’s covers, but I don’t know if they or others like them get rock star level fame like Chip Kidd does.

Jane: Are there covers you wish you had created?

Martinez: Oh, yes. There are bloggers who do nothing but post their favorite covers from all countries and genres, and I typically find myself wishing that I had thought to do a cover like this or that one. It’s rare that the artist or designer gets credited, though, so I often don’t know if I admire the work of one person or many.

Jane: What do you wish you had known when you started the cover art business that you know now?

Martinez: I wish I had known about the resources and techniques that I use now. I wish I had known the typical sales volume of an e-book and therefore how much time, money, and effort to spend on any particular cover. I wish I had known which publishers would fail and which would flourish. I wish I had known about this entire business a whole lot earlier than I did.

Jane: If you could change just one thing about the publishing industry, what would it be?

Martinez: I’d love for the other genres to sell as well as romance does, if only for the fact that I’d love to do a non-romance cover every now and then. Or I’d love for romance cover art to be treated like science fiction cover art, where everything is so painstakingly and beautifully rendered, so wonderfully unique and full of an inspired vision, and the final image is so highly revered and rewarded in the community. Or I’d love for the business model of publishing to make better sense and to be more consistently profitable for everyone; it all seems like so much hit-and-miss guessing, which often leaves the best little gems in the dust, unfound and unshone … which isn’t really a word but which ought to be.

Jane: What is the best thing about being a cover artist?

Martinez: That’s a toss up between getting a heartfelt “SQUEE!” from the author and getting to hold an actual print book with a cover I created. :)

Jane: What is the worst thing about being a cover artist?

Martinez: Having to reconcile all the various concepts and differences of opinion when there are too many chefs in the kitchen, and then afterwards having to take full responsibility and credit for the cover if it consequently sucks and gets a reaming from the critics.

Jane: What are the last three covers you designed?

Martinez: At the time of this writing: Alpha, Wounded Heart, and Border Roads. That will likely have changed by the time you publish this. I usually post my latest work on my blog.

April Martinez Cover Artist

Jane: Among all the covers you have worked on, which is your personal favorite?

Martinez: I have at least a dozen personal favorites, but I’ll say Angela Knight’s Passionate Ink … because not only am I happy with the design, but it’s non-fiction (i.e., not romance) and in print—all that, and the author’s a bestseller, too. So it stands out among my favorites.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

28 Comments

  1. Devon
    Jun 18, 2007 @ 06:06:16

    Great interview! A lot of interesting insight into the cover process (for e-books, anyway). I agree that a lot of the romance cover conventions are pretty tired. I was browsing through some Harlequins the other night and I kept cringing. My favorite cover of yours is for Bone Deep.

    But you reminded me that I have to wait months to find out what happens to Jim and Pam. Waaah!

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  2. Teddy Pig
    Jun 18, 2007 @ 06:49:09

    Hey April you rock!

    Loved The Tin Star and The Broken H both excellent covers.

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  3. Grace Draven
    Jun 18, 2007 @ 07:07:21

    Very interesting interview. I loved April’s philosophy about art and how it’s more revered in the sci-fi/fantasy genres. I collect fantasy prints of cover art created by Michael Whelan, Brom, Robert Gould and Thomas Canty. They are beautiful pieces, painstakingly rendered and add a magic to the book they cover that romance covers can’t even begin to capture. I will cheer with happiness and relief the day romance covers finally break out of their tired and homogenized tropes and give us covers like these. Juno Books is doing a fine job it now. I’d love to see more like those.

    April, of those covers posted in this interview, the one for Angela Knight is my favorite too.

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  4. Angie
    Jun 18, 2007 @ 07:08:54

    I think April is a tremendous cover artist. I just had a conversation with some people this past weekend about who some of the best epub cover artists are and hers was one of the first names mentioned. She’s extraordinarily talented, the pubs that have her are very fortunate (and no, she doesn’t do cover art for Samhain, so I don’t have to say that, lol)

    More than one professional has acknowledged that covers can make or break an author.

    Maggie Crawford, the editorial director of Pocket Books spoke at the Long Island RWA luncheon last Friday and this is one of the things she highlighted in her speech geared towards new authors. Cover art, especially for new authors, is very, very important and can determine whether a book lives or dies on the shelves.

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  5. Teddy Pig
    Jun 18, 2007 @ 07:55:47

    Oh dang, Angie why have you not bribed her over to Samhain yet?

    You do have Anne Cain who is great and I have been lovin me some Vanessa Hawthorne covers

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  6. Ann Aguirre
    Jun 18, 2007 @ 08:02:43

    I think April is the best. I would probably be scared if someone else did my covers, not that there aren’t other talented artists, but I know and trust April’s genius.

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  7. Angie
    Jun 18, 2007 @ 08:04:49

    Oh dang, Angie why have you not bribed her over to Samhain yet?

    Teddy, I’m happy to be able to say I’m not in charge of those decisions (happy because there are so many others I am in charge of ;) )

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  8. raine
    Jun 18, 2007 @ 09:14:13

    This is a great interview–and as one who has benefited from April’s talent, yes, I can say she rocks! :-)

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  9. Delia Carnell
    Jun 18, 2007 @ 09:34:35

    Oh, thank you for this fascinating article. Ms. Martinez did two of my covers, and they are absolutley gorgeous. What fun to read about her and how she performs her craft.

    ReplyReply

  10. Michelle Hoppe
    Jun 18, 2007 @ 09:39:07

    Very nice interview, thank you. April Martinez is a wonderfully talented artist.

    ReplyReply

  11. bam
    Jun 18, 2007 @ 09:43:32

    April is bloody brilliant. I can’t ever make fun of her covers. Unless I have… have I?

    ReplyReply

  12. Dakota Cassidy
    Jun 18, 2007 @ 11:03:13

    April Martinez ROCKS! That sketch up there is mine from my website and all I did was ask her, “Ya know that e-insurance commercial…”

    Voila–twenty minutes later I had that sketch. She just knows and understands and works tirelessly to get what you want and get it right.

    She’s the best!

    Dakota :)

    ReplyReply

  13. Charlene Teglia
    Jun 18, 2007 @ 11:42:04

    Dakota, I recognized the sketch from your website. Very distinctive! Gorgeous covers, April, wonderful work.

    ReplyReply

  14. April
    Jun 18, 2007 @ 12:02:39

    I indulged a bit this morning and slept in, or I would have commented earlier, but a very heartfelt thanks to everyone for the compliments!!! :)

    ReplyReply

  15. Ann Bruce
    Jun 18, 2007 @ 12:18:00

    Wow! Those are gorgeous covers that I wouldn’t have to hide in public.

    April, which pubs do you work for other than Liquid Silver?

    Annie Dean, you are one lucky girl. Any of your books in print, yet?

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  16. April
    Jun 18, 2007 @ 13:01:20

    Hi, Ann! Besides Liquid Silver Books and Loose Id, I’ve done covers for Yoni Books (now defunct), Atlantic Bridge Publishing, Mojocastle Press, and Zumaya Publications. Authors themselves have also directly commissioned cover art from me for books published at Venus Press (now defunct), Heat Wave Romance (now defunct), and elsewhere. And I’ve done illustrations for Tales of the Talisman, The Writers Post Journal, and Razar Magazine.

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  17. Ciar Cullen
    Jun 18, 2007 @ 13:30:25

    Very beautiful, and Angela Knight’s cover is my favorite too. They’re intelligent covers, and the more muted ones are exceptional.

    ReplyReply

  18. Isabelle
    Jun 18, 2007 @ 13:32:22

    This was a wonderful post. She has some incredible covers. I particularly love the one from Angela Knight, about writing erotic romance. It’s just so appealing to look at.

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  19. Lila
    Jun 18, 2007 @ 16:01:39

    April is not only a gifted and amazing artist, but she is kind and professional. The gorgeous cover of Forbidden is my first ever cover, and April kindly put up with my ten page cover art request and endless pestering.

    I, for one, know exactly how blessed I was to get her.

    And now I’m keeping her… bwa ha ha!

    ReplyReply

  20. Mechele Armstrong
    Jun 18, 2007 @ 16:20:06

    What a great interview. April’s covers are works of art and I’ve been fortunate enough to have her do a few of mine. I’m always blown away by her vision.

    Love the Angela Knight cover, too. *G* but my favorites are some others that I’m very very partial to.

    ReplyReply

  21. Suisan
    Jun 18, 2007 @ 16:35:32

    Thank you for this interview.

    My daughter’s a talented artist at the age of twelve and wants to know what you can DO with art as a career other than work for Disney. This interview comes as just the perfect time. Yay!

    And I love your work, April. ;)

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  22. Kristie(J)
    Jun 18, 2007 @ 17:06:56

    I bought Bone Deep based partly on the cover (and because of the good buzz) I loved it so much I also bought in print form and was keeping my fingers crossed that it was the same cover. Much to my delight it WAS! Now I want to display it out somewhere ’cause of the beautiful cover.
    Very interesting interview with an amazingly talented artist!

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  23. Ann Aguirre
    Jun 18, 2007 @ 20:49:28

    Annie Dean, you are one lucky girl. Any of your books in print, yet?

    Yes, ma’am, I am the luckiest. April has done all my covers to date, and I’ll have a proper downhome hissy fit if that should change. ;)

    Your Alibi and Guide are both currently available as ebooks, but who knows what the future holds?

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  24. pccast
    Jun 18, 2007 @ 23:08:50

    Excellent interview! Cover artists intrigue me, and I love getting a peek inside their heads.

    April, thank you for mentioning two of my AWESOME cover artists! I have lucky cover chi and amazing artists!

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  25. Michelle
    Jun 19, 2007 @ 11:25:09

    I’m a (print) graphic designer by day and I dabbled VERY briefly in doing covers for an epublisher and I found it too difficult. There was no money for models or even decent stock photography so that was too limiting for me. I am envious of your ability to take the proverbial sow’s ear and turn it into a silk purse. Your covers are gorgeous! Kudos!!

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  26. April
    Jun 19, 2007 @ 12:07:17

    Again, a very warm thank you to everyone! My head is almost big enough to explode now. :)

    Michelle, you’ve uncovered the biggest obstacle e-publishing and e-book cover artists have today. There is usually not a lot of investment up front, and oftentimes not a lot of return either, for artists to make both a decent living in this market and decent covers.

    But I’ve been very fortunate to have found LSB and LI. They both pay me very well compared to any other e-publisher I’ve worked with — that gives me an incentive to be productive and accommodating. Plus, having lived through some rough times, I’m used to working on a shoestring budget. I got my chops working on old free software and hand-me-downs. What can I say?

    When life hands you melons, you serve lemonade at Hooters. ;)

    ReplyReply

  27. Jules Jones
    Jun 19, 2007 @ 15:14:22

    And another very happy author here. April did the cover art on several of my books — and amongst other things, demonstrated that you can do a Poser cover that actually looks right for the book.

    ReplyReply

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    Aug 09, 2010 @ 11:10:38

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Robin Bradford, Jennifer Yandle. Jennifer Yandle said: @Tuphlos This was pretty interesting! An interview with a cover artist: http://bit.ly/bQiql2 [...]

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