Interview with a Cover Artist: April Martinez
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.