Mark Coker, owner and creator of Smashwords, which publishes hundreds of e-books daily, claims that this year will see an unprecedented three million or more books published. This is astronomical and hard to believe, but one only has to search Amazon to see how many books there are to choose from. Unfortunately, a great many of these books will be self-published, with a bad cover design and bad formatting, along with no editing. Amazon and Smashwords have made self-publishing very easy, and other companies, including some of the Big Six New York publishers, have followed suit. Amazon has even set up their own imprints, and although they offer low advances, they treat their authors quite well. But for those who publish themselves, getting them on the “professional” train is not as easy as it might sound. It appears that many overestimate their abilities or simply feel they cannot afford to pay for professional services. Others cite the success of self-published authors without realizing those authors either have a following already, or have paid for cover design, editing, and formatting. Those are the authors who realize the importance of the total package (cover, formatting, and editing). And they know there are many excellent cover designers. This is an interview with Renée Barratt, owner of The Cover Counts, a graphic design business that focuses almost entirely on book cover designs, and generally designs for e-books. While Barratt does covers for some small presses, she mostly works with individual or “indie” authors, who have come onto the scene by the thousands. In this interview we will learn how one award-winning designer conducts her business.
Interview with Renée Barratt
It is possible that Renée Barratt’s destiny was imprinted the first day she walked into Apple Computers, where her mother worked during the time the Mac came out, and Barratt was introduced to the future of computers and design.
“So I started high school as the only kid who could possibly know what computer graphic design was. I ended up doing all the programs for drama, and choir, and posters etc. I was doing computer graphic design before there was even a Photoshop. Though I started with the beta version of Photoshop.”
She continued to upgrade and work on a Mac and in Photoshop, while doing other jobs, and then the self-publishing revolution hit the book world. An author friend of Barratt’s knew she had the skills, and so she asked her to help with a book cover.
“She decided to self-publish,” Barratt said. “Then she had a friend, and they had a friend, and so on, and so on…. But at the beginning, I practically gave them away just to get people to trust me to work with them and to get my name out there.”
One of the core reasons Barratt’s clients come back to her is not only is she good at what she does, but she treats all clients respectfully and she works her hardest to understand what their concept is for their cover, so she can create it artistically.
“I ended up getting my name on a few ‘recommended designer’ lists. But other than that, it’s all been word of mouth,” she says about her marketing and advertising. “I do have many repeat customers. In fact, I have one client for whom I’ve designed 23 covers, and I’ve got her on my schedule for two more before the end of the year.”
Barratt also has a Website, a Facebook page, and she belongs to networking groups where she interacts with other designers. Oftentimes, these designers will be too busy to do a job, and will pass it on to a recommended person that they trust.
And there must be trust, because it is one thing to master the technical parts of using Adobe programs, and completely another to come up with a workable, beautiful cover. I asked Barratt about her process, and how she creates.
“I listen to the author. Try to understand what is most important to them about their story. I study trends within design and within genres. The rest of it is by ‘feel.’ I get an idea for what I think might work with a particular book and then I let the images I find guide me towards a specific design. Though, I honestly need to say that typography is the most important part of a book cover design. The right title treatment, including font choice, and how the letters and words are actually designed can make the simplest background image look like a work of art.”
Barratt says that she does not have one “favorite designer,” but follows many and pays special attention to the market and market trends. She also has not worked in other artistic mediums, except privately, focusing solely on cover design.
“Inspiration can definitely come from some of those designers,” she says, “but it can also come at the park, or the grocery store, or even from my kid’s homework. Design inspiration sometimes hits me in the oddest of places.”
So it should be no surprise that the favorite part of her job is “being creative.”
“Every job I’ve ever had that brought me joy had something to do with creativity, even (especially) teaching. I love being able to work with authors who are pouring their own blood, sweat, and tears into publishing the story they’ve worked so hard to write.
“I also love the flexibility. I can work whenever it fits best in my schedule. It’s 1:15 a.m., and my kids have been in bed for a few hours. I just finished up the final files of a full cover for a repeat customer and then sat down to answer more of the questions here. Oddly, I find that I really am most creative/productive after dark.”
This isn’t as odd as Barratt thinks, as studies have shown that most creativity occurs after dark. One Daily Mail article even gave an exact time: 10:04 p.m., although I’m not sure I’d take that as proof positive designers do best at night.
The hardest part of the job, for Barratt, is working with authors who have too many ideas for their books. Designers have a common saying for this type of author: They want everything and the kitchen sink. In reality, cover designs should be as simple as possible and focus on symbolism, paying the most attention to typography. This is something I have learned from Barratt, as she has kindly mentored me in my cover design aspirations.
When asked what her favorite type of client is, she said, “One who gives me the information about the plot, the characters and the symbolism and then trusts that my goal is to create the absolute best book cover possible for it.”
Trust is a common thing for many book designers, as I found out when researching this paper. “They need to know that when they hire me, they’re in good hands, and that they should trust me,” said Laura Duffy, who has worked with big publishing houses as well as indie authors. “The most successful experiences are when an author lets me do my ‘thing’: meaning an author might have an idea of what they want on the cover, but if I tell you that that won’t lend itself to a selling cover, you have to trust that I’m right.”
As for what advice she would give to aspiring book cover designers, Barratt says, “Just because someone can use Photoshop, or has a background in graphic design doesn’t mean they understand book covers. Do the research, practice, and explore the field before attempting to join the ‘fray.”
A few of Barratt’s covers.