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“I like things a little more visceral…” — An interview with designer Stewart Williams.

Posted in: Book Design on January 9, 2015 2 Comments 💬

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We are proud to feature designer Stewart Williams on Reedsy. Stewart’s arresting, beautiful and original designs have spanned a large range of titles from novels to cooking to poetry and a range of non-fiction. We got some great insights into Stewart’s creative process, his approach to different genres and authors, plus the opportunities of a rich online presence.

For the unconditional lovers of the written word, I’ve transcribed most of the interview below. But for those who want to take part in the discussion, you can directly join us on the hangout!

Hi Stewart, thanks for joining me on this hangout. First, can you give me a bit of background on how you became a freelance book designer?

I started out in the publishing world working in magazines and newspapers, and was primarily art directing for various publications in Seattle for quite a long time. I worked for a number of newspapers, however I really wanted to work with books, because I’ve always loved reading and I’ve loved books since I was a little kid. I always thought that the publishing industry was fascinating and that what cover designers did was really the kind of thing I wanted to do as a graphic designer.

Whilst I was working for newspapers I started to get jobs here and there with publishers and I didn’t turn down anything. I knew that every job that I could do was something I could add on to my portfolio, to help me get bigger and bigger clients as I moved along. After a brief period of travel, Sasquatch books hired me as a senior designer and I stayed there for a few years. I finally ended up in New York City where I couldn’t find any work at all, so I just decided to go do business for myself.

I started to build a presence using all the contacts I had acquired, and I knew at that time that it was really important for me to work on my online presence, so I was always doing online portfolios. I can’t remember the last time I showed anybody a physical portfolio, nobody really uses those anymore. I was already making websites back in the early 1990s, and those have really helped because I really don’t know where people find my work, so I try to put it everywhere.

I really like the fact that you put all your work out there, on different platforms. I’ve checked your blog and you’re one of the few cover designers I’ve seen at Reedsy who posts all the projects they’re doing, including information about the creative process and previous cover versions. I think too few designers do that.

I’ve noticed that as well and I don’t know why that is. I think sometimes it has to do with this idea that when people sign up for a portfolio and are asking for a description, if you have 25 covers it can seem a little daunting to write 25 descriptions at once. For me it was always important to do it as I went along so this wouldn’t happen.

Also, I think people run out of things to say, or they are trying to really let the work speak for themselves. But for my clients, people ask me specific questions, like “do you do YA?” or “how many covers do you do?”, and I think that the explanations that I give really demystify what is going on on my end so the people get a better idea of how the process works. The blog really helps me illustrate that for them rather than just do some magic trick and say: “here’s your cover!”

In particular, also, I do it to show to people how many cover designs go into a cover project for somebody like Amazon. Sometimes I do 13 different covers before they decide on the one they like.

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You mentioned you’ve worked in the past for big publishers, but it seems that now you’re shifting a bit towards indie authors and getting more work from them, am I right?

Yes, that’s true, it’s something that I’ve seen more and more over the last 3-4 years: with the rise of the Kindle people have started to write independently and publish via KDP or similar services. It’s been really different for me in the beginning because I usually never dealt with authors, and I realised I enjoyed it quite a bit. Sometimes they have really good ideas, or they just want you to do whatever you feel like, and I like that direct line of communication with people.

And by working directly with authors you get more creative freedom, right?

You know, I’ve often found along the years that the less I get paid, the more creative freedom I have! When people have larger budgets they tend to have an idea of exactly what they want you to do. With smaller budgets, they’re more inclined to relinquish control of things and let you do what you want if the price is kept down. Of course I never use that as a way to do whatever I feel like, because I think it’s really important to hear what the author is telling me the want. I want to make sure that my work is something they’ll be happy with and will help them sell their book.

Do you prefer working purely with stock imagery, or illustrations, or a mixture?

That’s another thing that has to do with budgets in a way. I think there is a lot of inexpensive stock photography out there, so it is hard to convince somebody to spend more money on an illustration.

I’m not really an illustrator, I haven’t done it for a living. I like to illustrate, but it’s one of those things where I have to prove myself to people before I get them to hire me, so I’m doing more smaller jobs that don’t pay as much just to get the experience and have something to show.

I feel like with the surge of independent publishing and the number of books available having an illustration - something that is 100% unique - really adds value.

I agree, and I’d say that the stock photography is not keeping up with the demand, so you start seeing the same photographs on different people’s books and that’s embarrassing for the author.

I think people are starting to realise that you cannot just take an image and put your title and name on it because there is a very good chance that someone else is going to use the same…

You work across all genres, I think, but is there any that you prefer working on? Or any project lately that you have particularly enjoyed?

I like things a little more visceral, where there is more of a graphic edge. I think crime and horror are like that. I try not to emulate what people see out there and stay away from the typical horror book cover.

But I do like to work on all things, even non-fiction. I have a few client publishers who publish more historical books, and those tend to follow certain contemporary trends in the United States politics. I do like working with archival and historical images.

I also love working on poetry books. There tends to be a non-linear way to think about the covers that can work with poetry books, they’re not conceptual the same way a fiction book might be. I find it more interesting and challenging to work with an abstract idea. If you’re building a cover and you know there are certain elements that have to be on it, it becomes more of a production process than a creative one. My method of working is a little weirder and less straightforward than that.

That’s good to hear, because a common piece of advice if you write in a particular genre is that your cover absolutely has to respect certain guidelines that are part of the genre. I always feel like as an author you might stand a better chance if you come with a different style for the cover, even one that doesn’t fully “respect” the genre.

I would agree. Other people who write in your genre all have similar looking covers. So if I’m going to look for a book in that genre online, I’m probably immediately going to pick up the one that has a cover that doesn’t look like all the others.

That said, it’s hard to convince people to do something different. Even publishers will say to me: “this book has sold quite a bit and it looks like this, can you do something similar?”. But the problem is that the public is smarter than that and after a while it is going to get bored.

I think there’s only a small window of time in which you can emulate an idea and still be successful. The rest of the time you’ve got to try something different. It is a risk, and although people have to take risks, they usually don’t want to be the first one.

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Claude Forthomme

Interesting interview - very stimulating. I've always felt that genre-driven covers are utterly boring, like all those kissing/embracing male and female nudes on romantic suspense books. Personally, I tremble when I look at them and usually that's a prime reason for me not to buy the book. But I'm afraid I'm in the absolute minority on this one: there are styles in given genres and you can't not follow them (as I've learned at my own expense with my own books). I'd love to know what is Stewart Williams' take on that, i.e. HOW FAR can you deviate from the… Read more »

Stewart Williams

Hello Claude, I have to say as a reader myself I tend to stay away from design tropes commonly used for genre signifiers. I wouldn't say you're in a minority as far as larger publishers are concerned. Knopf is well-known for pushing the envelope for their titles, and I was recently reading a best seller called "California" published by Little, Brown and Company, which has a rather unique cover for what could be considered dystopian science fiction. I had no idea what the book was about, it was the cover that drew me in. Self-published authors of course don't have… Read more »

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