The first time the poet Robert Lax saw his work compiled in a stand-alone format (according to Lax’s biography Pure Act, by Michael McGregor) was shortly after he met the artist and designer Emil Antonucci. Antonucci had just acquired an old-fashioned hand-press, and together they created an elegant, hand-crafted volume of Lax’s poems on trees. Antonucci says: “I realized there was a relationship between the fine arts and books…it was a dream.”
I’ve often wondered why there isn’t more collaboration between writers and artists these days. It could be—speaking for writers—we get so caught up in our own visions and ideas that it doesn’t occur to us to look for hints of them in someone else’s work. We can’t imagine anyone can capture the magic of our priceless prose! Yet when it works, it’s sublime, an enhanced experience for enlightened readers. But in traditional publishing, this is often impossible: Trad publishers don’t want to deal with the additional costs of acquiring worthy art or working with a talented designer, and/or paying rights fees; and there’s been a dispiriting trend toward text-only covers.
Yet, when you self-publish—which, happily, seems to have become a mainstream thing now–covers are always difficult. How do you make them stand out, without looking weird or amateurish? Many independents turn to professional book-cover designers, but their rates are very steep. And you may not get that much bang for your buck. When I studied hundreds of mystery titles on Amazon, all the covers had a distressing sameness to them: Big dramatic type over a dark-ish altered photo. Or, for the cozy mysteries, cute girly typefaces over bland computer-drawn pictures. Somehow my mystery set in the Appalachian mountains didn’t seem suited to either of those treatments. And as a reader, I was not lured into wanting to read any of them, either.
But browsing Facebook one morning, I saw that a very dear friend, Will Harmuth, a professional, regional artist, had posted a particularly wonderful painting that was just perfect. He had painted it after a trip to the Shenandoah mountains (close enough!) The thing that drew me in was the sky, the way he had stretched it over the mountains: Deeply blue, but complex, unsettled with patchy clouds and even a hint of distant storminess. We associate blue skies with ease and happiness, but this sky seemed the perfect metaphor for my mystery, a bit of darkness and uncertainty hidden behind a seemingly pleasant scene.
Though Will has been a close friend for decades, I wasn’t sure how to approach him about using the painting. So I went up to visit him, bringing a tray of brownies, and talked it out. In the end, I ended up buying the painting outright (with an old-friend’s discount), and you will see it when my book appears later this year. I’m just over the moon about it. And since I’m hoping this book will become a series, I’m thinking about approaching other artists for future covers (it’s likely some work by my own artist-husband will turn up eventually: He has designed most of my covers so far, but has yet to do a full-scale painting from scratch).
Collaboration can be a tricky business. And it’s not for everyone. The writer has to have some kind of art sense, and a strong feeling for what will connect with their writing. And in some cases, you may have to convince the artist that your work is worthy of their art. I think a lot of independent writers will think, Are you crazy, I can’t afford to buy art for my covers! Well, probably not on commission, which not all artists like to do anyway. You might be surprised at how reasonable a piece of art can be. But if you’re willing to spend a few grand on an unknown book packager mentioned in some dubious self-publishing website…I’d say you might save yourself a lot of money and grief by simply going with a good piece of art.
It doesn’t hurt to hit the galleries and weekend art shows, or even go online, and see what appeals, and figure out your own art sense. You don’t have to approach the famous or popular guys, just go with your gut. Look for undiscovered gems. And it never hurts to talk. Talk with the artist and see what you can work out. Offer to let them read the book, to see if they agree with your assessment. Certainly let them know that if your book becomes popular, it’s valuable exposure for them as well. But don’t use this to try and get a lower price: They deserve to get what they feel their art is worth. I guess the key is strong mutual respect for each other’s vision, and that’s what made the Lax-Antonucci venture so successful.
Artists, keep on painting and creating! Writers, search and take notice. Eventually you might make a match made in heaven…