Having reluctantly been forced to dismiss my original illustrator, I went to Reedsy and bid out the job to five illustrator/designers whose portfolios appealed to me. They varied in style, but that didn’t worry me as long as it was clear their work had the elements I needed or they clearly were versatile enough to step outside a single style.
I promised my readers specifics. Well, actually I did so in my guide to self-publishing, but I’ll offer them here anyway. My original publication date for Pace was to be late February based on the advice of a marketing consultant. I’ve moved it to back to May due to the delays, but that should be fine too. Apparently, fall and especially the holiday season, are bad because that’s when the big publishers inundate the market and you’ll be competing with them.
The original illustrator had been contracted to provide a preliminary cover — something rough, but which would serve as an attractive placeholder on lists, ads and other places — until the cover was finalized. There was a strong reason I needed this. For example, I’ve now got a fantastic review on Kirkus, but no cover image in their listings. It may even have cost me a shot at a starred review. This is bad, because it burns my initial momentum. Anyway, I’d set up a sensible timeline for a pre-release campaign based around a mid-October delivery date for the rough cover, a mid-December delivery date for the final cover, and a mid-January target for any last-minute tweaks which turned out to be necessary prior to printing. Well, late November rolled around and we didn’t seem to be making much progress. More important, the illustrator was proving unresponsive. So I was forced to go to plan b. Unfortunately, this meant starting from square one and pushing the publication date back to May. This may seem odd, so let me explain.
Like most people, I always imagined that the cover was the last thing done for a book, not exactly an afterthought, but the final touch on it. That is far from true. For most pre-release purposes, a cover is absolutely essential. In fact, many places won’t list or review the book without one. All those generic-cover ARCs I used to see at the Strand? Apparently, not the industry norm, or at least not in the last 20 years. So a cover has to be done early. With a May release date, a Jan delivery date would give me the necessary 4 month lead time. If you ever wonder why it takes so long for a book to get published — there’s a lot of pre-release stuff that takes time. And a lot of steps depend on other steps in non-obvious ways. For example, the cover design requires exact knowledge of the page count (for spine width) — which can be tweaked quite late in the game.
The gist is that I need the cover complete by early Jan at the latest — and that’s pretty tight. Fortunately, my new illustrator has a deadline of Dec 31. Hopefully, we’ll be able to keep to that. My experience is that the professionals on Reedsy are pretty good about keeping to deadlines. If I have everything in hand by Dec 31, I’ll be well-equipped for a campaign which sees a publication date in early May.
Now to the specifics of cost —- and the thing which confuses the heck out of me.
My agreement with the original illustrator was for a PB cover, a HB cover, and various specific cover images for other purposes. I would have all rights. For this, they would receive $1000, with the caveat that if it went way beyond their time-expectation (since they were unsure), I’d pay a bit more up to a total of $1500. This only would be in the extreme case. So $1K is a fair price to put on it.
When bidding out the contract on Reedsy, I picked five individuals. All clearly were experienced, some with pretty famous titles in their portfolio. Two did not bid. Two of the three which did bid were in the $1000 range (accounting for currency conversions). The last bid was something close to $8K —- with minimal rights (just what he gave me for, precisely as it was). If I wanted more rights but not all (ex. some editing rights), it would be around $22K. If I wanted all editing rights — well, as he put it, only big companies would pay that much.
The guy had illustrated some famous books, and clearly was an industry star. He also was really nice when I explained it was out of my budget range. There was no tone of snobbery, and I suspect dealing with low-budget projects probably is par for the course when someone like him lists on Reedsy. So I’m not trying to cast doubt on whether it was a reasonable bid. Clearly, it was what he was used to getting paid. It’s always possible Reedsy recruited a famous name for legitimacy and perhaps to make all the other bids look good, of course — but I seriously doubt that. He seemed on the level. I’ve had similar experiences in the past when calling around for parts for some scientific project. A component which can be had for very little in the consumer market is thousands (or more) when industrial-grade (or more precisely, when the big buyers are corporations, labs, and the government, none of whom are very cost-conscious when it comes to this stuff). I’ve definitely had much less polite brush-offs from some sales people.
Now, the interesting thing is that for gallery art or prints or even some digital art — as art — I can understand the premium a big name commands. After all, small differences in quality, technique, or just the creative vision can make a big difference. And the name is extraordinarily relevant to cachet and resale value. What I don’t understand from a business standpoint — is how this can carry over to the market for book covers.
Yes, a good book cover vs a poor book cover can make a big difference for browsers — whether brick-and-mortar or online. I can fully understand the immense value of a good cover, and I think book-design in general is something which most self-publishers don’t grasp the significance of (or maybe they just don’t care because of their business model). But it’s difficult for me to believe that the difference between any enticing good cover and a cover by a superstar will be that great. First of all, very few books — traditional as well as self-published —- bring in the kind of profit which would offset a $10-20K cover. And it’s almost unfathomable to me that the difference in cover would account for anything near the necessary number of sales. Putting aside the question of whether the star-designed cover truly is more attractive, it seems like one easily could get 99% of the way there with a $1K cover. So I must be missing something.
There are several possible explanations which come to mind:
1. The star-designed covers ARE that much better — whether artistically or in terms of psychological appeal. I doubt this, but don’t know enough to say for certain.
2. Companies have in-house designers and the cost is fixed for them. This is the comparable out-of-house cost. It still would be a cost to the companies though, so it doesn’t solve the issue.
3. It’s a matter of bragging rights and cachet. To me, it doesn’t seem like the sort of thing which people would know about, though.
4. There somehow is marketing value via the designer himself.
The last is the most intriguing possibility. By this theory, the fact of using the star designer brings in sales — either through recognition of his name and the credibility/prestige it confers, or by appearing on lists and portfolios of his which are seen by influential buyers. I.e., you’d be paying to have a place in some sort of insider list. Or maybe they have some sort of following, and your book has received their imprimatur.
The latter certainly is possible, though I’ve never heard of such a thing. As for the name itself, I don’t think most potential customers pay attention to the cover illustrator/designer (or the editor, for that matter). I can’t think of a single time I’ve glanced at the editor or illustrator of a book before buying it — or after.
Anyway, my point isn’t to rant that it’s too much. It clearly is a rate which can be commanded by a certain cotery of elite illustrator/designers. I just fail to understand the market dynamics of it. In the fashion and art worlds, the name is everything. But with books, it’s the author’s name which matters.
It’s a mystery. I’ll look into it and ask around and see if I can gain some insight. Stay tuned for the answer to this epic mystery… as well as updates on Pace.