Our guest blogger today is April Martinez, cover artist. You all have probably seen an April Martinez cover. She works for and has worked for many of the e-book romance publishers and a few indie print publishers. The cover to the left is one of mine and just an example of her excellent work and distinctive style. I’ve sprinkled a few other of her covers throughout her blog post.
The ladies of Love, Lust & Laptops are thrilled to have April here today as she let’s us know how she happened into the world of creating e-book covers. — Monette Michaels
How I Got Here
I’m a cover artist — I make book covers for a living, and yes, it is my day job; I do it full time.
People often ask me how I got into doing this work, as though it were some glamorous thing, doing something you love. How did I manage not to have to work at some desk job, crunching numbers from nine to five? How did I get to do something every kid wants to do, create artwork for books?
But it’s no secret. I just fell into it, and then from there, like with most anything, it was a lot of hard work.
I was like everyone else — I did time in a university, then did time at a meaningless day job, concentrating mostly on paying my rent and living the life of a working class drudge. I had hobbies, though. Some people have video games or rock climbing; others go to concerts or to renaissance fairs. People glom onto something and do it passionately in their free time.
For me, it was art. I would post my artwork online or frequent forums on the subject. Eventually someone contacted me about paying me to do some artwork for them, or I would find an ad looking for someone to make art for money.
Bit by bit, I simply fell into doing art for a living — first by doing cartoons of people who wanted cute self-portraits, then by doing book covers for a start-up e-publisher.
Since my fledgling career started out small, I kept my day job for at least my first eight years of doing cover art. It was necessary, because, at that point, I was doing it almost completely out of love. There was no way I was making any money doing what I did.
For example, my first client was a woman who wanted to create an electronic publishing house much like Ellora’s Cave or Liquid Silver Books. As far as I knew, she was the sole proprietor and operator of her endeavor and had no capital for her start-up expenses—I was to be paid for my work in royalties only.
I was a neophyte then, an amateur, so none of that bothered me. I was excited simply for the experience alone. Every budding artist dreams of doing a book cover or two, and here was my first real chance at it.
At the very least, I would get a “real” sample for my portfolio. Without any marketable skills or experience, all I had going for me was a latent talent, abundant enthusiasm, an obsessive compulsion to do well, and a willingness to please.
I tackled that first commission and spent WAY more time and effort on it than it was worth. I actually read the entire printed manuscript first, all the while highlighting descriptive passages. Then I did countless drafts and iterations, modeling props and rooms, posing 3D models of people, and then sketching, painting, and painting some more.
Looking back on it now, I marvel at how impractical and naive I was about the whole thing. Honestly, I must have spent at least a total of 40 hours on that first cover alone, and by my standards today, it wasn’t even very good.
My third cover with the client took almost every bit as much time and effort as the first two. So that made a total of over 100 work hours on three covers where I was to be paid in royalties only.
Unfortunately for me, the publisher didn’t stay in business long. She was an author, too, and probably realized that she was in way over her head and later decided to simply focus on writing.
I did manage to get paid for my three covers, though. I received a total of nine whole dollars — that comes to $3 per cover, somewhere less than a dime for each hour I spent working on them.
Even my first covers with my second client, Liquid Silver Books, were work intensive. For this cover, I modeled everything on that table myself — the glasses, the plates, the silverware, the note inside the box, and the candles — in a program called Amapi, and then I laid it all out, lit the scene, and rendered the entire thing in a program called Bryce. Rendering by itself can hold the computer up for an entire weekend if the scene being rendered is really complicated. Remember, that time counts as work as well, because you can’t use the computer for anything else during that time.
This is why I continued to work at a desk job while I did covers in the evenings, on weekends, and on holidays. I was too stupid and too much in love with doing cover art to do it with any practicality.
I “fell into it” those first years when I did it out of love and would have paid someone to let me do it, but the real work started when I had to make doing cover art my day job and needed to make sure people paid me well enough to KEEP doing it.
The transition took years and years. I had to build up a body of work, streamline my process, and raise my rates. I had to find ways to cut costs, save time, and do things better. In fact, the hard truth about my work now is that it is all about compromise and an intricate balance between three ultimate goals. I want to be good. I want to be quick. I want to be affordable. But what everyone knows is — you can’t be all three.
I’ve gotten to be pretty good, though. I’ve learned a lot over the years, and I’ve developed a sense of what works and what doesn’t. My covers are no longer anything at all like my first commissions. As for quick, I no longer spend 40 hours on a cover if I can help it, not without getting paid for each of those hours anyway. Affordable? I try to charge just enough to come out ahead, with maybe just a little extra to invest in new tools for the trade.
I have to be wary of my expenses — it’s not just my rent and groceries; it’s the hardware and software I use, the stock images and the fonts I purchase, the space I use online and off for back-ups, archives, and filing. It’s also the time I spend searching for the right elements to create a great design and then making changes and sending new drafts. And, it’s the money I spend to learn new techniques and keep up with marketing trends.
Every now and then I come across a client who doesn’t understand that this is my livelihood and that what I do actually takes some time and skill and that it is not just a hobby that I love, posing as a job. That sort of client will essentially ask for 40 hours of work from me and then expect to pay $150, which is 50 times better than the $3 I made all those years ago, I grant you, but still not all that great.
Anyway, the unaware client won’t KNOW they are asking for 40 hours of work; all they know is they want something on a cover that may not actually exist and therefore must be created out of elements that require a lot of search and then manipulation to make one great image. Or, it might require me drawing it from scratch. They might not like the first draft, or the second draft, or the third, or even the fourth, wanting some impossible ideal and never realizing that perhaps each draft is 10 hours in the making. That’s fine. I like that I make it all seem so easy. But if you do the math, $150 for 40 hours of work is essentially $3.75 an hour. Let’s not forget the expenses — if there are five stock images in the cover artwork, and if each one cost $10, then it’s really $100 for 40 hours of work, which comes out to $2.50 an hour.
It seems crass and unromantic to discuss money, but managing money is an essential part of how I got here, too, how I became a cover artist and even how my cover art style has changed.
I fell into this career out of the love for the art, but over time, as I dealt with different kinds of clients and covers and moved into doing this full time, I learned to treat it more like a business. That’s why I went from modeling or painting everything myself, to using stock images — I am much quicker and more adept at manipulating existing photos than I am at modeling objects, texturing them, setting them, lighting them, and rendering them. I am not averse to doing things the way I used to if it’s required or requested, but now I let people know it will take more time and therefore will cost more money.
And this is how I can continue being a cover artist and continue living the dream. That, in essence, is how I got here — a little bit of love, luck, and practicality. But most of all, it takes a lot of hard work.