Combining a little bit of Craft Discussion and a little bit of Interview today with one of the hottest cover designers in the business. Shawn T King, founder of STK Kreations (http://www.stkkreations.com), has worked with Brian McClellan, Rob Hayes, Andrew Rowe, Ben Galley, Michael R Fletcher, and Anthony Ryan. He’s done work for Talos Press, Night Shade Books, PS Publishing, and Grim Oak Press. And of course, he’s the one I selected to do my Cartographer covers. He’s also responsible for the design of all of the banners you see at the top and that stellar Cartographer logo over on the Art Page.
I wanted to bring Shawn on to the blog today because I think it’s fascinating how authors and designers work together to come up with a book cover. I also think it’s important for aspiring authors to really consider saving those pennies for high-quality cover design. I recommend investing in a decent cover over all other expenses. We say, “don’t judge a book by its cover” because everyone does.
I asked Shawn his opinion and he agrees. People think they CAN design a cover, which is true, but can they design a professional level cover? Per me, that’s what you need to compete these days. Don’t put that MS Paint garbage up on Amazon and expect sales! Shawn brought up an issue he sees more often, and that’s authors spending a fortune on great artwork, then ruining it by doing the rest of the design themselves. Nothing wrecks a book’s chances faster than spectacular illustration covered in comic sans ;)
Alright, enough of my soapbox! Let’s get onto the interview!
Pre-Post-Script: I started following Shawn’s RAD :: Random Art of the Day on Facebook immediately after formatting this interview. Recommended for Fantasy Art Nerds.
AC: Hi Shawn, thanks for joining me today. My fans may know you from your book cover design work, but you’re involved in a lot of graphic design projects. Can you tell us about them?
STK: Hey AC! Thanks for having me! I should start off by saying I’m kinda terrible at talking about myself, so I’ll likely be meandering a bit heh.
Yeah, sure! So book covers (design or art+design) are my primary focus, but I also do interior layouts for print books, some of which are for specialty presses like Vault Books and PS Publishing. Interior layout can either enhance a reader’s experience or hinder it in a short amount of time, so I think it deserves a lot more love and attention than people seem to give it.
Let’s see, some other design projects that aren’t book design would be the normal type of thing you’d think of when you think of graphic design: posters, bookmarks, brochures, calendars, postcards, advertisements, magazine layout, etc.
I’ve done graduation postcards, author bookmarks, concert posters, newspaper ads, a store map for my old department store boss…if it’s in my means and I’m getting paid, I’ll do it haha.
I also occasionally do social media graphics for authors. One of which I did as a personal project for an author and it helped get me my first gig in the book industry (the other project was a poster that won a contest held by author Mark Lawrence).
And I have to mention the project I just wrapped up, a deck of poker cards for author Ashley Capes. It was a first for me, and I’m pretty happy with how they came out. If you’re a fan of his Book of Never series, you might be interested to know there’s a deck of poker cards featuring the characters from that series. You can find it here: https://www.makeplayingcards.com/sell/book-of-never-playing-cards.
AC: How did you get into the business of designing book covers?
STK: I knew I wanted to work in the book industry for quite a while -- once I realized I had a knack for design it was my goal. I got my first opportunity in 2013 designing the cover and interior for sort of a men’s self-help book I guess you could call it (not my preferred genre, but I was just happy to be working on a book).
The following year I was reaching out to publishers when I stumbled across Jeff Salyards’ book series, Bloodsounders Arc, and his author photo was cool so I decided to just make up a social media banner for him as a personal project. I sent it to him, he ended up using it, and the creative director for a small press, Ragnarok Publications, saw it (along with a poster that went live around the same time) and pretty much signed me on the spot as their designer. And everything else just kinda grew from there.
AC: Spill the beans, what is your favorite cover you’ve done, and what’s one you admire that you didn’t do?
STK: Oh boy…hmm… Right now I think I’d have to say my favorite cover that I’ve done would have to be The God King’s Legacy, for Richard Nell. It had been two years since I did a character-focused cover when I got that gig, and it felt like I didn’t know what I was doing the entire time but everything kept snapping together and turned out really cool I think. And it’s probably my most well-received cover so far.
I’m also still proud of my cover for City of Kings, by Rob J. Hayes. I second-guessed myself a lot on that one, and was ready to pull my hair out when all a sudden everything just started working and formed something pretty cool I think.
One of my favorites that I collaborated on is A Star-Reckoner’s Lot, by Darrell Drake. John Anthony Di Giovanni did the illustration for that one. I had some oldschool cover inspirations when going into that one and I think I gave it a nice mixture of a little bit of old, a little bit of new.
A cover that I admire but didn’t work on would definitely be the Blades of the Moonsea trilogy from Richard Baker (Swordmage, Corsair, Avenger). It’s an older series (2008 I think) set in the Forgotten Realms, and they’ve been favorite covers of mine since I first laid eyes on them (made sure to get the hardcovers when they released and will never part with them). It’s a perfect harmony between art and design. The art is by Raymond Swanland, and design by Matt Adelsperger (he did a lot of the Forgotten Realms cover designs in those days). Just perfection.
AC: You work with a lot of artists when collaborating on covers. Do you have any favorites?
STK: That’s one of the most exciting parts of my job, getting to work with so many amazing artists.
I’d have to say my favorites to work with would be Felix Ortiz and John Anthony Di Giovanni. I don’t know if it’s just because I work with them the most (I have a lot of cover credits between the two of them), or because I love their art so much. John always delivers something stellar to work with. And me and Felix have a good back-and-forth relationship when it comes to getting feedback from one another throughout the art and design process, and I’ve been able to watch him grow as an artist in a very short time and it’s just great fun and inspirational.
My all-time favorite artist is Raymond Swanland. I’ve been following his work since his days doing concept art for the Oddworld video game series. He has this distinct sense of fluidity to his work that is immediately recognizable and pulls me into each piece where I easily get lost trying to follow every line and shape around until I’ve explored every inch.
Needless to say I’d love to work with him on a project one day.
And while we’re talking about artists, I started a page on Facebook called RAD :: Random Art of the Day, where I show off some of my favorite art from around the world. It’s sort of my way of giving back to the art community by promoting artists. So if you like fantasy and sci-fi art feel free to follow along.
AC: Can you tell us a little bit about how the creative process works between you and the book’s author?
STK: It’s quite simple, really…well, unless I get a very stubborn author haha. More often than not the author will have some sort of vision of how they’d like their cover to look. I’ll give my feedback on any ideas and offer up some of my own if I think of something that will look better, going back and forth until something is agreed upon from both parties (I find it’s important for the designer and/or artist to be happy with the concept or else they won’t put their all into it).
At that point I’ll start gathering any resources I may need and sorta just start throwing things and seeing what sticks. I often have a really cool image in my head but it’s a real challenge trying to get that image on the screen hah, so once I start working it’s a lot of trial and error until things start to snap in place.
Once I’m happy enough with how things are going I’ll send off a progress shot to get a “Yeah, that’s awesome!” or a “Eh, let’s try again”. Hopefully it’s the former, and I’ll keep going until I have something more fleshed out to reveal.
It’s been said I deliver more finished looking proofs than normal. That may slow me down in the long run, but I think it has to do with me not wanting to show something I’m not happy with, so I tend to go too far sometimes for no reason, but I’m not gonna send off something I don’t like.
<Part of the brief I sent Shawn. What the fresh hell is that?!? There’s no title on that thing!>
AC: What are the most important elements in a good book cover?
STK: To me an effective cover has to have harmony between art and design (and when I say “design” I mean the graphic design, the typography or type-treatment – a lot of people get that confused and just say “cover design” for the entire cover…sorry, it’s a bit of a pet-peeve for me because often times only the artist or designer gets notice for the cover…okay, I’ll stop ranting now).
Harmony is key, and without it you’ll have a disjointed cover that will leave some people scrutinizing it instead of snatching your book up. If you’re a “big name” or already have an established fanbase your fans are gonna pick it up regardless, but it’ll still look awkward and will have some difficulty gaining new fans…at least, in my opinion.
Equal attention needs to be made to both the art and the design. You can’t (or shouldn’t) have great art and bad design, and if you have bad art it’s impossible to have great design.
As far as content goes, your cover should convey at least a little bit of what readers can expect from the story. The goal is to get people to pick up the book, but there should be at least one element featured that is integral to the story.
Oh, and no Cinzel font!!!! I despise Cinzel, and it should be wiped off the face of the Earth, nay, the entire universe.
AC: The old yarn is to not judge a book by its cover, but of course we all do. Have you read many of the books you’ve done covers for? If so, any you thought, “nailed it!” or any you thought, “what the hell is this?”
STK: hahaha Oh that old saying. First off, you should be able to judge a book by its cover, I know I do. It’s the first thing people see, and can immediately turn a potential reader away if there’s no effort put into it.
I do try to read the books I work on. I currently still have a day-job, so it’s hard to read them in a timely manner, but I do read them at some point. It’s common to get snippets or some other form of description before starting on any cover work, so usually everything feels good and relatable to the story. That being said I have worked on a few collaborations (where I design the typography/design with an illustrator doing the artwork) where I thought a different scene would have made a more powerful cover, and one where I was pinching the bridge of my nose every time I looked at it because the author’s indecisiveness led to a very disjointed package.
AC: I know you’re a fantasy fan, tell us some of your favorite titles?
STK: Not at all…fantasy is the dumbest genre out there.
Sike! Of course I’m a fantasy fan. It’s my favorite genre in fact.
Oh boy, well I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention where it all started: R.A. Salvatore’s Icewind Dale Trilogy (along with the rest of the Drizzt series) was the first book that really got me hooked on fantasy (and reading in general if I’m being honest). I was always fairly shy and standoffish as a teen, so with very few friends and lots of alone time, joining Drizzt and the Companions as they journeyed through the world of Faerûn was a blessing. And another series that helped get me hooked was William King’s Gotrek & Felix series for Black Library (Warhammer). It was much darker and bloodier than Salvatore’s work but I loved it. And between its titular character, Gotrek, and Salvatore’s dwarven characters (all hail King Bruenor!), I developed a love for the dwarven race that some might find unsettling…
Some other favorites of mine are: anything by Rob J. Hayes; Ben Galley’s The Heart of Stone is one of the best standalone novels out there; Luke Chmilenko’s Ascend Online series; Paul S. Kemp’s Erevis Cale series (The Forgotten Realms); Michael J. Sullivan’s Riyria series; Smoke Eaters from Sean Grigsby; A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe from Alex White; Clay Sanger’s Endsville is freakin’ superb and I can’t wait for a sequel…please!; Andrew Rowe; Kenny Soward; Kirk Dougal; hell I could keep going, there’s so many great authors out there, but those are a few that popped to the top of my ol’ noggin right away.
AC: If you weren’t designing book covers, what would Shawn King be doing?
STK: Watching wrestling in Cheeto-stained pajamas with my feline son sitting shotgun.
Actually, I’d probably still be at the day-job I’m currently at (queue Robert Downey Jr. eye-roll gif). I work at a newspaper (going on 13 years – I’m no quitter) where I’m miserable every day, but it helps to pay the bills. So if I never would have took a chance on graphic design I’m sure I’d just sit there inhaling toxic press fumes and having headaches induced by eleven fluorescent lightbulbs (seriously, there’s eleven freakin’ bulbs in this 20x20’ office) for the rest of my life.
I can’t really think of an alternate reality to that as I’ve been there for so long.
AC: One of the best forms of fantasy digital media (uh, aside from your covers), is gaming. Are you much of a gamer?
STK: Oh, I love video games! My first system was the original Nintendo, I still remember bashing the shit out of the controller when playing Battletoads…that was a really durable system, even though you had to slap it and blow on it to get it going sometimes (wow, that sounded kinky…what kind of interview are you running here?!).
I don’t get a lot of gaming time these days (working a full-time job and freelance doesn’t leave a lot of free time) so I’m more of a casual gamer, but I really enjoy it. I’m really into RPGs and Action-RPGs, as I love being able to customize characters, (even if it’s just weapons and equipment) and the story and worldbuilding offer a more expansive experience. My favorite series of the last few years is Darksiders, from the mind of comic artist Joe Madureira (Joe Mad!).
I also love the artform of games in general. When I was a senior in high school we were given forms from the local college to help plan our curriculum, and low and behold game design was nowhere to be found, so I chose the next closest thing with the word “design” in it…seemed to be a pretty good move I guess hah.
On the tabletop gaming front, I actually don’t have a lot of experience there. I never had anyone around me growing up that played D&D, and all my current friends were formed through social media so they don’t live nearby haha. But those tabletop RPG fans reading this, be sure to check out Aetaltis! It’s created by a company I work for, Mechanical Muse, and there’s lots of cool stuff planned. J
AC: I’m sure there are some nerds out there in the audience wanting to know, so can you tell us what equipment and software you use?
STK: LOL Sure, it’s not anything overly interesting though, just Photoshop and InDesign. And occasionally I’ll sketch things out if I’m working on a logo. Photoshop is my go-to for all graphics, cover art, and majority of design. InDesign is mainly only used when laying out book interiors or back cover and small text for covers when the publisher demands it – I still do my main titling in Photoshop though because InDesign is pretty limiting when it comes to customizing letters.
That’s about it really, other than a mechanical pencil and a lot of unfinished sketchbooks heh (if I ever get to fulltime freelancer status drawing is one thing I’m gonna make more time for).
AC: And that’s all for today! You can find out more about Shawn or hire him (after he’s done with Spirit: The Cartographer Book 3) at http://www.stkkreations.com or you can just see some pretty artwork on Facebook at RAD :: Random Art of the Day.