Surrealist Cover Design — Interviewing Jeff Huang
“I am fascinated by the idea of the subconscious bleeding into the conscious world”
At Reedsy, we like to take some pride in the people we have been able to attract. Our vision was to create a community of truly great freelance talent and make it available for authors. Every day, as more great editors, proofreaders, designers and artists are added, we are getting a little closer to making this vision a reality.
Today, we have the honor of interviewing one of our very best artists. Whether it’s for Stephen King, Sara Raasch, Nintendo or himself, his work is instantly recognisable by its surrealist inspiration: a provocative play with images that blend and blur reality.
“Covers don’t sell books”? You’re wrong. His covers do.
Would you consider yourself a neo-surrealist? At Reedsy, we’re big fans of painters like Dali, De Chirico or even Magritte, and have immediately been drawn to your art because of that. Do you take your inspiration from them?
I don’t know if I consider myself a neo-surrealist so to speak… I do consider myself a multidisciplinary artist who takes inspiration from many things. I am fascinated by the idea of the subconscious bleeding into the conscious world, so I explored that idea in some of my signature works. Dali is my favorite fine artist of all time, followed by Magritte – I just absolutely love their imagination.
Contrarily to many Reedsy designers, you don’t only work on books. You’ve got an extensive list of big clients like AMC, Nintendo, etc and work on a variety of different projects. What is it about working with books (covers or illustrations) that is particularly attractive to you?
I think having a long career in creating illustrations for advertising led to my realization that I can translate the same aesthetics and ideas onto book covers. I specialize in creating compelling static images that are used to attract the audience and tell a story, so it was only natural that I started doing book cover art.
You also take some of your inspiration from the world of gaming, which is also another form of storytelling. Right now, many book publishing experts see games, books and movies as competing for consumers’ attention and time. Couldn’t we see them as complementary instead?
Certainly. I think game box art, book covers, and movie posters are all slight variations of the same thing. I am sure that I could approach the 3 topics the same way because in the end, it’s all about creating a image that speaks to the viewers.
You have two sections in your portfolio: “work” and “play”. Do you approach a paid project differently to one that you just do in your “playing around” time?
Yes and no. The biggest difference in workflow is just that I have much more flexibility with my personal art since no one can tell me otherwise. I can play around and experiment and it can never be “wrong”, because it’s not for a client. That being said, I still spend an equal amount of time on both my client-based projects and personal projects, because I always aim at preserving the aesthetics and quality in my work.
Would you be open to “playing around” with indie authors whose books have captivated you even if they don’t have the budget of a big 5 publisher?
It would really depend. Unless the topic is absolutely something that I love and the author gives me full control over creative, I would probably say no. At this point in my life, I am trying to be smarter about my business, and so I try not to lower my rates at all. My clients trust in my work, and can justify my rates because I really do deliver quality work that other artists may not be able to deliver. There is always someone willing to do it for less, but does the quality compare? Well, you tell me.
You know of the surge in independent author publishing, that now accounts for 30% of all ebooks selling on Amazon. Where do you see this going? As indies have smaller budgets than traditional publishers, does this endanger the quality of cover art and illustration we’re going to see in the future?
Indeed it does. I’m all for independent artists and authors, but I truly believe a cover speaks volumes to viewers. You will certainly not get a quality book cover if your budget is $500 or even $1,000. Artists would need to cut corners to justify the time spent as well as using stock images. You can have the best story in the world, but if your book cover sucks, it’s really not going to grab the attention of viewers nor would it do justice for your book. Having created the “Snow Like Ashes” trilogy book covers, I can confidently say that the book cover greatly helps sell the book. The fans rave about it, and I’ve heard that it’s one of the biggest reasons why the book is doing so well in sales. In short – a quality book cover matters! I’ve seen countless low-quality book covers, and my goal as I try to root myself deeper into the publishing world is to be the go-to guy who is known to create amazing book covers, but has a high rate. You pay for what you get, folks!
You’ve designed a few covers. Is the exterior enough to make a book beautiful? What’s the importance of a nice interior as well?
I’ve personally not done much work with interiors, but it’s something I would like to explore as well. I believe anything design related with the book (the cover, the entire jacket, interiors) is a full package, so yes, the interior should be on par with the exterior.
You say one of the projects you’re most proud of is the cover you did for Sara Raasch’s debut fantasy novel “Snow like Ashes”. What was the design process for this book like? Did you interact much with Sara, the editorial team, or the marketing team at HarperCollins?
To this date, Snow Like Ashes has been my premiere book cover. Ice Like Fire (the second book in the trilogy) has recently been revealed, and the fans have expressed that it’s even better than the first book. I am so happy to hear this news. I worked with Erin Fitzsimmons from HarperCollins on Snow Like Ashes. Erin had the idea of doing a chakram image and embedding the seasons of the story into it. I took that idea and came up with the realistic, fantastical execution that immediately received a lot of positive feedback from Erin and her colleagues. From there, we just made a few minor changes, but my first iteration nailed it.
As far as interacting with Sara, I didn’t really didn’t interact with her until the cover was finalized. But since, Sara and I have become friends. I actually went to the book signing in NY to meet her and the fans. I am a huge supporter of the series, and she’s also been very grateful of my work for Snow Like Ashes. It’s great (and a rare opportunity) to be able to have that relationship with an author, and I treasure it.
Do you think Jeff overestimates the selling power of exceptional cover design? Does the emergence of independent publishing endanger the quality of graphic art on book covers and illustrations? Leave us your thoughts, or any question for Jeff, in the comments below!