Henry Hyde: Designer, Writer, Editor

Epic Fantasy Cover Illustration

Epic Fantasy Cover Illustration

Epic Fantasy Cover Illustration

I recently had an enquiry from an author who has written a fantasy novel, and was looking for fantasy cover illustration ideas. Epic fantasy is one of those genres where the audience has rather specific expectations of the kind of cover the book will have, so you either need to follow those expectations or be very bold in making alternative creative decisions. Epic fantasy cover illustration is an art form in itself, with rather specific tropes and styles – interestingly, it still makes use of ‘traditional’ illustration skills more than most other genres, which often rely on stock art. This is due, at least in part, to the fact that the writer has created an entirely imaginary world which is difficult to portray photographically.

As the author, you’ve concentrated on writing the story, and it may not have occurred to you that how your story is going to be presented visually will be just as important as the words (and in a fantasy novel, it’s usually an awful lot of words). There are plenty of writers out there who will be facing a similar moment in their writing career, about to publish their first fantasy novel, so I thought it would be a good idea to provide a starting point for aspiring authors in the genre. Naturally, other genres have their own specific visual tropes too – crime, thrillers, romance and so on – and no doubt we’ll cover those in due course. Getting to grips with this aspect of publication design is certainly a learning curve for you, but a fascinating one.

The Wise Man's Fear book cover

What kind of cover should I have?

Only you can know precisely what kind of style you want for your book, so you need to go hunting for an illustrator whose work matches the general idea of what you have in mind. So, you have a fair amount of web surfing ahead of you – and you really mustn’t rush this stage. Just as with a graphic designer, you’re hopefully going to be embarking on a partnership that will last for years, particularly if you’re planning a series.
It’s more important to convey a sense of theme, and/or your protagonist’s personality, than have them try to depict a specific scene in your book. Look at the covers of the fantasy bestsellers – if you actually want to stand a chance of being successful, don’t ignore the style adopted by the authors who are at the top of their game.
I’ve encountered authors who say they “don’t want the cover to be too commercial”. So, you don’t want to optimise your chances of actually earning a living from your work? That’s just daft. “Commercial” here means “successful” – never forget that! You may have written the most beautiful and poetic story ever written, but if nobody chooses your book from the millions available, then you won’t stand a chance. And remember that nowadays, the vast majority of sales are made via Amazon, on the basis of a fleeting glimpse of a postage-stamp sized cover as the customer scrolls through hundreds of competing titles. “Commercial”=eye-catching=successful; amateur=lost in the flood=failure.
Enchantress book cover

What will it cost me?

One of the first questions I get asked is, “How much will a cover illustration cost?” The only answer I can give you is, “How long is a piece of string?” It really does depend on the illustrator. Obviously, some are in high demand and expensive, others may be at an earlier stage in their career and be willing to work for less to get the experience. I certainly think you’ll be looking at, say, £200-£400 as a ballpark figure, and more than that for some of the better artists, or if you require more complex or detailed illustration.
Incidentally, never try to get someone to work for “exposure” because, unless you’re Stephen King, George RR Martin or J K Rowling, they will quite rightly reply “what exposure?”. And put the boot on the other foot – would you do your job for “exposure”? No, I thought not – “exposure” doesn’t pay the mortgage!
Apprecntice book cover

Where can I find fantasy cover illustration?

Here, I’ve made a start for you, sourcing some sites that feature fantasy art. What you need to do is look at what’s on show and then contact any artists whose work you like and tell them precisely what you need (paperback and/or hardback and/or ebook jacket illustration). A good illustrator will also ask you how much space needs to be left for text – a jacket illustration is no good if there’s no space to put the title, or the title and author name end up obscuring important details! Ask to see examples of their work, especially if they have worked on books before.
Then, once you’ve found a couple of illustrators you like, it’s a matter of negotiating with them. You will be paying them direct, so that when it’s done – which will realistically take a few weeks – you can have them send your designer the completed image at high resolution, so they can work on the type/layout aspects to match the illustration.
See the links below for suggestions. The list is by no mean exhaustive, but is a useful starting point.
Pro-level illustration
Enthusiasts – there’s a fair amount of rubbish, but also some amazing stuff.
99Designs have a somewhat controversial ‘competitive’ method, but some people swear by them.
A source of freelance workers, including illustrators. Their rates are shown upfront – get in touch with whoever you like.
Some top quality stuff here.
A wide mixture of abilities. You pays your money…
The Queen's Poisoner book cover

How does the illustration process work?

Epic fantasy cover illustration is a good example of where the creation of a book jacket is a collaborative process. In effect, we put together a small team – author, designer and illustrator – to produce the end result of a top-quality book jacket.
It’s important that you have already nailed down what the size of the book will be, including the spine width, because obviously the illustrator – and your graphic designer – will need to take that into account. They must also leave sufficient “bleed” around the edges, usually around 3mm.
Usually, a good illustrator will send you a rough sketch first for approval before moving to the painting/colouring stage, after which it is difficult if not impossible to make major changes if they are using traditional media. If their art is entirely digital, then there may be more flexibility to make minor alterations, but please avoid the temptation to keep fiddling, with endless “Can you just…?” requests. Most designers or artists will happily make one or two adjustments for you, but beyond that, expect to be charged an hourly rate with a minimum. You can save money by making your brief as precise as possible.
The illustrator will probably provide you with a high-resolution (300dpi or higher) TIFF or PSD file that can be passed on to your cover designer. usually, this will be in R(ed) G(reen) B(lue) format – the document will not be converted to the C(yan) M(agenta) Y(ellow) K(eyline i.e. black) format needed for most (but not all) print purposes until the very last stage.
This has only been a brief introduction to the subject, but I hope aspiring fantasy authors will find it useful. It’s aimed particularly at self-published, indie authors, but even if you’re being traditionally published, it helps to understand the process.
Darien book cover
NOTE: I did not (sadly) design any of the covers shown on this page, which have been chosen simply to illustrate some of the styles currently being used on the best-selling epic fantasy books (as at September 2017). I have great admiration for those responsible for these designs and illustrations, as well as the authors now enjoying well-deserved success!

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