Paul Ellis: Book Cover Artist
An Interview by Erin Aislinn
Jane’s Note: I am not one to reinvent the wheel and when Erin Aislinn graciously offered this interview with Paul Ellis, a cover artist, I thought I would be foolish not to share it.
It has come to Dear Author’s attention that the cover art that was originally posted here for the book, Sorcha’s Heart, written by Debbie Mumford, published by Freya’s Bower, and designed by Paul Ellis, improperly used an image that was copyrighted. We have removed the picture for that reason. The remainder of the interview is left in tact.
When I first approached Paul with the idea of an interview, he humbly declined, preferring instead to yield attention to the author, Debbie Mumford, without whose story, he wrote, “there wouldn’t be a cover in the first place”.
I knew immediately that I had to convince this man to share more about his process and experience because, after all, bringing book cover artists into the spotlight has been one of the main objectives of the weekly book cover program.
As an author, I’m naturally curious about book cover artists because they offer that defining touch that connects a book with a reader. In the e-book industry especially, book covers are crucial in creating a positive first impression. I’m glad that Paul Ellis eventually agreed to answer a few of my questions because it is thanks to him and artists like him that we authors get to see our work presented to the world in all its glory.
“What I try to achieve while constructing a cover,” Paul said, “is how I would feel if it was my cherished story that I had slaved over for weeks/months on end. From my point of view, there are a lot of e-covers being generated that lack quality and thought. I try to make every cover I construct as true to the original story as possible. I want to know key elements about the story, not just plunk a nice looking couple with a fancy background and try to wing it that way. Too many covers I have witnessed over the last 12 months look like the artist has literally thrown all possible elements onto the palette, hoping they’d stick.
Erin: You hold an HND in Graphic Design, and a BA (with honors) degree, also in Graphic Design. What makes a good book cover artist?
Paul: It is very easy to play it safe with covers—title at the top, author name at the bottom, but sometimes it’s good to tear up the rule book and cut loose. The ability to experiment is always a plus. A keen eye for detail is essential. A sound understanding of basic imaging & graphics software such as Photoshop, Illustrator, PaintShop, and Freehand are a certainty.
I am a great believer in training. I was fortunate enough to study for six years between North Devon College and Somerset College of Arts and Technology where not only did I learn classical graphic design—no computers involved—I also learned to experiment with other mediums such as pen and ink, fine art, photography, textiles and ceramics. This training, along with what I have learned via the design industry, has been invaluable.
A good cover artist is flexible, can work under pressure, accept criticism (providing it’s constructive) and be willing to accept that, god forbid, once in a while, they may be wrong!
Erin: Sounds like you are perfectionist and proud of it.
Paul: Without question, yes. You can always tell a cover that an artist loved as opposed to one they liked. And as for the ones they fall out of love with along the way, well…
Erin: Does perfectionism ever get in the way?
Paul: Only when I have numerous covers to do for a similar release date.
Erin: Describe your process. What do you do when you first receive a book cover assignment?
Paul: Usually I walk away after having read it, scratch my head, have a cigarette and a think, go to bed, and start it the next day. I’m a firm believer that you can get your best inspiration when relaxing. I am lucky enough to have good publishers in Freyas Bower, Wild Child Publishing, and Cobblestone Press, who provide me with enough of a brief to almost construct the cover in my sleep.
Erin: When and how did you decide to create book cover art?
Paul: I remember about two years ago my wife wrote and participated in an on-line writers’ workshop called ‘East of the Web’. In the group was a very talented author, Steven J. Dines. Steven had written a story entitled ‘Lost Lying on your Back’. My wife asked me if I would consider making a cover for the story for Steven’s website. Steven wanted something tangible to go with his work. Up until this point, the whole book cover design medium had never even entered my head. I remember after producing that cover I provided Steven with another three plates for his other stories. So, I guess I owe it all to Steven!
Erin: What is your greatest weakness?
Paul: My wife, closely followed by Marlboro cigarettes and Guinness LOL. I’m also never happy with the final cover. I drive my wife mad with my constant reworking and font changes etc.
Erin: And strength?
Paul: The patience of a saint, and my understanding wife (author M.E Ellis) who keeps my sanity in order. Without her support, I would have fallen flat on my face a long time ago. She is my rock, my harshest critic, and my filo-fax.
Erin: How many publishers do you work for? In how many different genres?
Paul: I work for Freyas Bower, Wild Child Publishing, and I recently joined Cobblestone Press in romance and thriller/crime genres. Freya’s Bower and Cobblestone Press are romance, but I like designing thriller/crime covers for Wild Child Publishing as they give me more artistic license. I would love to try something darker one day.
Erin: Do you have any other vocations? How about hobbies?
Paul: As a graphic designer by trade, I guess that’s my vocation. Be it interactive, animated, or printed. I try to learn new languages, but Spanish is proving harder than I thought. I am relatively fluent in French, and can cope with German and Italian.
Erin: What about fine art?
Paul: I am utterly in love with ‘Still Life With Goldfish’ by Matisse. Now, fine art, that’s real talent.
Erin: What was your first ‘paid’ book cover assignment? What do you wish you had known then?
Paul: Wild Child Publishing accepted my wife’s first novel ‘Pervalism’ for publication, and the rapport my wife struck with her editor, Faith Bicknell-Brown, somehow managed to get my tail dragged into the prospect of cover art for the then soon-to-be-launched sister company, Freya’s Bower, as well as for the Wild Child Publishing e-book ventures.
My first real book cover design was for Freya’s Bower. It was called ‘Flowers’ by John Enex.
In commercial design you can manipulate your client, but when it’s someone’s baby that’s involved, you have to be so much more sympathetic to their requirements. I wish I had known that back then! I would never have designed ‘Flowers’ the way it ended up, but I am kind of proud of it. Whenever I get asked to nominate a selection of covers for either an ad, or a competition on behalf of Freya’s Bower, I always fight myself not to select ‘Flowers’. It isn’t by any means the best cover I have ever made, it’s just the first!
Erin: How much do you interface directly with the authors?
Paul: I don’t. I have only ever dealt with the editor until recently. At Cobblestone Press I am being encouraged to deal with the author direct, am I comfortable with this? I don’t know.
Erin: As an author, I know we sometimes just don’t get the cover we’re hoping for. Have you ever had a disgruntled author on your hands and how did you deal with it?
Paul: Only ever once, but a Freya’s Bower editor acted as middleman. I reworked the cover until I had nothing left to offer it. I truly hated the cover by the time I finished. The author was happy (in the end!) and I guess that is all that matters.
Erin: Sometimes the author just can’t distill the book into a book cover concept. Do you ever read portions of the books to get a feel for the ‘cover’?
Paul: Personally, I’m not a big reader. I get my wife to do that part LOL. For the most part we work together as a team.
Erin: How many book covers do you design per month?
Paul: Around four. This can escalate depending on demand.
Erin: Some writers, in hope of improving their work over-edit it to the point of losing the soul of the story. Your job is to find the soul of the story and convey it in an image. Is there such a thing as trying to perfect a book cover to the point of missing its objective?
Paul: Oh yes—sometimes you can become so engrossed with experimenting and trying new techniques and colors that before you realize it you have lost the whole ethos of what the story was originally about.
Erin: What was the most difficult cover you’ve ever done?
Paul: I tend to give any cover a good bash until I can’t take it any farther, then I will totally scrap it and start again. ‘Iron Horse Rider’ by Adelle Laudan, and ‘A Taste of Italy’ by Lucie Simone (both Freya’s Bower) are good examples of this, but ‘Odd Pursuits’ by Robert Castle (Wild Child Publishing) was truly the biggest pain!
Erin: Where do you look to for inspiration?
Paul: My wife, and the heavens.
Erin: Do you look up to any book cover artists?
Paul: To be honest, I tend to avoid looking so I can’t be accused of copying.
Erin: Some would argue that looking around at what other are doing is a good way of learning the current market expectation. Do you see specific trends in romance book cover art? Or, to put it bluntly, are you ever asked to produce a certain type of book cover because it appeals more to readers?
Paul: The trend I see occurring more and more within romance art is the insane use of poser art. It really is horrific! To be able to take a nice photo of someone and utilize that instead is a much more worthwhile avenue to explore, and, with today’s technology, it isn’t the expensive route it once was.
A famous designer once said ‘Less is more’. I guess they never designed romance book covers. I feel fortunate that Freya’s Bower, Wild Child Publishing, and Cobblestone Press are all very amenable to my judgment.
Erin: Let’s talk about Sorcha’s Heart, the 2006 Book Cover of the Year. What makes it a good book cover? If you had it to do over again, would you change anything?
Paul: Without meaning to sound pretentious, and with the exception of Sable Grey’s entry, which I was convinced would win, I think Sorcha won because the voters could see it had been crafted with the story in mind.
Sorcha’s Heart certainly wasn’t one of the quickest or easiest covers I have ever produced, but I think it’s one of the best. It took many hours, many cigarettes, many teas and many sulks. LOL Would I change anything? Nope!
Erin: What are the book covers you wish you had created?
Paul: During the nineties, Faber and Faber launched a series of books about film directors, which were simply exquisite, especially Burton on Burton. Another was Robert Rodrigues’ “Rebel Without a Film Crew” from the same series.
Also, Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher.
Erin: How would you like to see the book cover design business improve for the sake of the artist as well as the author and publisher?
Paul: We artists are all divas (chuckle), but I think a good relationship is definitely important between artist and publisher. A book cover, at the end of the day, in some quarters, is more important than the content because it is the first selling point of any book. From what I’ve seen, a lot of publishers seem content with the average rather than the exceptional—this isn’t good.
Erin: What would you do if you didn’t have to work for a living? Why?
Paul: Oh my, I imagine my time would be occupied by my family. I would still be doing cover art, and, I guess, art in other mediums such as ceramics, painting etc. I guess my blood runs Indian Ink LOL
On a final note, I would like to thank you, Erin, for this interview, but I would also like to thank Marci Baun, and Faith Bicknell-Brown over at Freya’s Bower and Wild Child Publishing, Debbie Mumford, for writing ‘Sorchas Heart’, and Sable Grey, my new art director at Cobblestone Press, for their unrivalled support.
And lastly, my wife. Without her I wouldn’t have ventured down this road in the first place. I dedicate this award for ‘cover of the year’ to her.
Erin Aislinn is a romance author with Echelon Press and Ellora’s Cave. Her paperback ‘It Happened in Florence’ is available in stores nationwide. In 2005, Erin launched her ‘Book Cover of the Week’ program, and she has featured a new book cover on her website (www.erinaislinn.com) every week since. All visitors who vote for their favorite book cover are entered into a drawing for a copy of the winning title.