Effective Cover Art: Q and A with artist Thomas Lamkin, Jr.

TLJ samples
Now a days, it is the rare writer who finds success exclusively by writing. Most of us are DYI wizards on a budget who have gotten pretty good at things like social media, graphic design, and writing copy for the better selling of our books.
Yet, killer cover design is a skill most of us have not mastered, and experts say we shouldn’t try.
This is a writing tip that cannot be overstated.
Like all disobedient children, we book-lovers tend to ignore our grammar school teachers’ advice and – horror of horrors – judge books by their covers. So unless the covers are eye-catching and evocative, most of us aren’t that tempted to peek beneath the covers regardless of how good the book itself might be.
I have long been fascinated by good cover design, but usually, I won’t know what it is I love about a cover that gives me love-at-first-sight feelings about it. I just know that I love the design or I don’t.
Then, for reasons that would take time to explain, I went to the hospital this past week and had the unusual honor of killing time in a waiting room next to Thomas Lamkin Jr, a dear friend and a kick-ass cover designer (see above for as smattering of his work or check out https://www.tljonline.com/fineart for more samples curated by the artist himself).
TLJ in person.jpg
Naturally, I struck up a conversation and picked Lamkin’s brain in attempt to unravel some long-standing mysteries of how the professional artist achieves effective cover design.
The resulting Q and A went (approximately) as follows:
Q: Do you read each book for which you design the cover?
A: No. Often, this is a result of time constraints. Sometimes, the book isn’t finished, and the author asks for cover art in advance so she or he can use it for inspiration while writing the rest of the book.
Q: Did you go to school to be an artist?
A: I started out in school to be an artist and ended up changing majors. Most of what I know about cover art I learned from studying other artists and what they’re doing right or wrong.
Q: Is there a difference between what you do [as a graphic designer] and fine art?
A: As a rule, if you make money with your art in your life time, it isn’t fine art. There are exceptions (like Michael Whelan, a perpetual favorite of Lamkin’s, who is both a phenomenal artist and a commercial success).
Michael Whelan.png
Q: Would you consider any of your covers standalone art, if they were not attached to a book title?
A: Not usually. Book covers tend to have specific story cues that make their pictures look weird outside the context of the book.
Q: Is there ever a circumstance in which it’s okay to use Comic Sans font on your cover?
A: Never. More specifically, I try to steer away from any immediately recognizable fonts in my work. If readers can look at the cover and go, ‘that’s Old Bookman style font’ or ‘Times New Roman? Seriously?’ We can go ahead and call their disbelief indefinitely unsuspended, and that will likely factor into their appraisal of the rest of the book.
Q: Do you prefer to collaborate with the author on cover designs or do your own thing?
A: That depends on the author. Covers for authors with no idea what they want tend to end up being solo projects for me. For authors with a nebulous concept and a “whatever you’re trying to do is wrong” mentality, I’ve sometimes had a sympathetic publisher to whom I could appeal for a clearer idea of what to do (me interjecting *helps to be married to one. I’m sure that’s just a coincidence 😉 *). Authors worth having a conversation with are the ones who have their own ideas and a willingness to talk things out back and forth to figure out what works well for everybody’s vision.
Q: Are there any genres for which you don’t feel like you could design the covers?
A: Erotica. I’ve got nothing against the genre. I just don’t feel confident that I could produce an erotica cover that did not look either like an obscenity or a parody.
Q: What are some things you consistently try to incorporate in your cover design?
A: In no particular order…
-readable font
-sharp contrast
-variety without getting too busy (although I have seen some covers that were both busy and well done)
-hints of what happens in the book without getting spoiler-y
Q: What are some things to religiously avoid?
A: Again, in no particular order…
-theft, either from a fellow artist or via images we sometimes assume are free because they’re online.
-orange. Not sure what the science is, but it’s hard to get the thumbnail photo to look good if the graphic has a lot of orange in it.
-poor image integration (think picture people who look like a paper doll stuck on a random background, objects that throw shadows the wrong way, or clipart-style tattoos that don’t follow the curves of the body part they occupy).
Q: Not long ago, I heard an author with a louder platform than mine recommend choosing cover art for one’s books that does not stand out from our genre. He believes to sell more books, we should make them look a lot like other well-loved books, and if they do, more readers will be more inclined to pick them up. What are your thoughts on this?
A: I disagree strongly. If a reader is describing your novel to a bewildered clerk at the bookstore, and the only hint they can give is, “It’s the red one,” the cover artist has done something wrong.
So those are some thoughts on cover design from a gracious pro who took some time to answer a bunch of my nosy questions (in a hospital waiting room, no less).
Many thanks to Thomas Lamkin Jr. for inspiring this week’s article, and until next time, keep writing that kinky stuff that’ll make your readers glad they peeked beneath your covers 😉

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