Thursday, June 27, 2013

Top 10 Questions Artists Ask Art Directors

-By Lauren Panepinto

Hey Everybody! Thanks for the hellos & warm welcomes! I have been following Muddy Colors for a long time, and I've always been really thankful that such a great site exists for our community. Since coming to Orbit, and working in the "geek" publishing world full-time, I've been so blown away by how nurturing the SFF art community is, and I've loved becoming more and more involved. The greater art world just does not have the level of available mentors, the enthusiastic teachers, the intimate cons, and the "helping others is not hurting myself" attitude most fantasy artists hold. Consider yourselves so very lucky.

After that amazing intro from Dan, you all have a little background on who I am, and I thought a good first post would be a little roundup of the questions I most often get asked by artists. There's been some great blog posts lately on this topic, but artists keep asking, so here we go:

(in no particular order)

1—Where do you find artists?

It's pretty random...outside of the icons of the industry, people you just know, here's my top sources for new artists: Spectrum Annuals, ImagineFX magazine, Facebook, Pinterest, Tumblr, Cons, the hotel lobby at Illuxcon, agent emails or mailings, artist postcards, recommendations from other artists, recommendations from other art directors. Once I was giving an informational interview to a student from SVA at a sushi bar, and the guy on the other side of me eavesdropped the whole time, and then at the end said, hey, I'm an illustrator, can I give you my card?

The best way is a recommendation from another AD. We talk. A lot. That works for you or against you. Consider yourselves warned.

2—Do you read all the books? Do I have to if I'm doing an illustration?

Ideally, if it's the first book in a series, or especially if it's a new author, then I absolutely read everything I can. The problem is, I'm often designing a cover way before the manuscript is finished. In some cases I get a few chapters. Sometimes a summary. More is always better, because the more of the universe and tone you pick up, the more accurate the art will be. I'm a geek at heart, and it kills me when a cover isn't accurate to what's in the book. Often I talk to authors directly for details (see next question).

When commissioning an illustration, I always pass along as much of the manuscript as I have, but I also will always have worked out roughly what scene we want illustrated, and I will put as much detail in from the book or straight from the author as I can. I don't depend on the artist to have to read the manuscript.

3—How involved are your authors?

They are very involved. And I think this is something that I think is very unique to Orbit. Most publishing houses keep all author communication funneled thru the editor. And there's a lot of good reasons for doing so. Authors can be a bit crazy. That's their baby you're illustrating! But at Orbit we have a bit more of a small team guerrilla mentality. Art sits in the middle of Editorial and Marketing and Publicity, so we're all working on things simultaneously, and overhearing everything develop. The author is contacted by many different people on the team, including art. Some authors have a lot of ideas, some aren't visual thinkers at all and just trust you to figure it out. Either way, there's so much world building and pure imagination in SFF that I feel it's really nice to get the author's point of view in right at the beginning. Even if you don't end up using their specific ideas, they feel like they're part of the process.

4—Where do you get all your crazy leggings?

Black Milk Clothing. 

5—How much time do I get from initial pitch to final art needed?

This varies greatly. Orbit is on a 2-season-a-year schedule, so I get about 50-60 covers twice a year, but things are popping in and out constantly. So ideally I love to give an artist 8 weeks. It's generally closer to 6. 4 weeks I consider pushing it, and there's always crazy insane projects that need to be turned around in 2 weeks. However, if you are a newer artist, there's no way I'm risking a project that needs to be turned around in under a month. And if an artist does get asked to work on a crash, and they can't schedule it in, no hard feelings at all.

6—What's the best part of your job?

Paying amazing artists I love to make amazing covers that I hope end up as show pieces in their portfolio. The collaboration process, whether it's an illustrated cover, a photo shoot, etc. is what keeps me energized. Those amazing projects when you have an author you love write a book you're really into, and get the perfect art for it, and the editors are floored, and the author cries with joy when they see it (it happens), and it totally makes the bestseller lists.

7—What's the worst part of your job?

When you're caught in the middle of warring factions. Art Directors are like the mediators at the UN. When everyone gets along, it's fabulous. When the author, the editor, and the publisher all want different things, it's the worst. That's when covers get killed, or muddied up into oblivion.

8—Why do illustrations get killed?

Luckily it happens very rarely at Orbit. If I am trying to convince editorial to be risky and do something they're not on board for I generally commission just the thumbnails/concepts from an artist. Then we either continue or not. And I am very careful to show all the progress on a piece of art to the editors, publisher, author, and keep everyone in the loop, so we can adjust during the process. But things can go off the rails. I've never had to kill an illustration because the illustrator didn't do their job. Reasons have included: The manuscript coming in after the art is done and it being radically different than was expected, and that affects the target audience, which can mean you need a different style of art. Or the author (this was Iain Banks, so he could do this) can decide that they no longer want to show the awesome equatorial girdle planetary city you've spent weeks figuring out with an artist, and decide they want a "metaphoric" cover instead so fans can imagine the city in their head.

9—What's your pet peeve with artists?

It's generally tied to bad communication. Sometimes it's vanishing—not answering emails in the middle of a job, or emailing the day something is due that you'll need more time. (If you give us a little warning, ADs can almost always massage the schedule a little, but we get cranky if we don't know till the last second, because then it makes us look like we aren't doing our jobs.) The other frequent communication problem is only reading half the email. It sounds silly, but I can't tell you how many times I get half the revisions I've asked for in an email. Do people just get tired? Glaze over halfway thru? I go out of my way to bullet point things, or number lists, but still, happens all the time.

10—How can I work for Orbit?

1) Be the best there is at what you do. Which means either being reallllllly skilled, or having a really unique vision or style.

2) Make sure I know who you are. (see question #1)

3) Be a good communicator. This has been said before across the internet, (thanks, Neil), but I stress it. You have to be good, and/or on time, and/or pleasant to work with. 2 out of 3 will get you work. 3 out of 3 will get you more work than you can handle. Generally I'll work with a less perfect artist if I know they are easy to work with way before I'll work with a perfect artist who's a pain in the ass.


I think each of the above could probably be their own blog posts, and I'm also missing a ton of important topics. I look forward to tackling such issues as social media and marketing for artists, the no spec work controversy, gender issues, getting artists paid and what goes wrong...tons of ideas. But if you have anything specific you want me to write about, or questions you have, definitely leave comments & I'll add them to the list!

Nice to meet you all! I'm super-excited to be here!


  1. Nice start! I'm looking for your future posts.

  2. Thanks for the informative post Lauren! It's always great to hear from the perspective of an AD.

  3. Thank you for sharing your perspective on this process!

  4. Regarding #3:
    Orbit is not alone. From what I've seen, Daw books keeps the Authors very involved as well. (I expect this is because the ADs are the Editors as well) There are of course pros and cons their involvement. But I must say, it's pretty nice to be able to call an Author at 2am just to ask them about eye/hair colors!

    1. Oh thats awesome, I'm not as familiar with Daw's process...having an editor art direct seems like it could get tricky, i've had to do a lot of education, teaching editors to speak in proper visual terms... but yes, I generally feel that even if it's a little more trouble, the most communication brings about the best covers.

  5. Thank you for this post, I look forward to reading more! I'm especially interested in technical info about working as an illustrator, like the question of how many weeks you get for a job that you answered above.

    One question that I didn't have time to ask you at the 15 minute portfolio review at Spectrum Live 2:
    Looking at covers of published Orbit books, I notice that most of the figure based covers are very photographic in style, either a photo-illustration, or a very realistically rendered painting. When looking for new artists, are you mainly looking for work that fits this style, or can a more painterly or stylised artist also hope to catch your eye?

    1. This is also a great topic for a post, because i get asked this a lot. (adding to list). Meanwhile here's the short answer: The choice of whether to go photographic or illustrative is first a question about target audience. Is your target audience hard core geeks? then a fabulous fantasy painting is going to be the way to go. Is the audience more of a younger video-game generation kind of thing? then you're probably going to use a concept art style digital illustration. If it's urban fantasy, you have to keep in mind the huge romance audience component and make sure you're making art they will respond to. And if you are trying to capture people who don't know they're geeks, but watched Game of Thrones, and read the books, and are looking for the next thing to read, then you're going big, badass, photographic, like a movie poster or tv show ad. That's what we did with the Joe Abercrombie covers Dan mentioned in my intro post.

    2. Fantabulous question and reply! (I love it when a question is something you never suspected you needed to know and then the answer is something you WISH you'd known ages ago! If that made a lick of sense ...)

  6. Thanks for posting. I'm so glad you're here. I enjoyed hearing you speak at Spectrum Live, too.

  7. Ha! I was wondering how long it would be until a legging reference! Glad your now one of the Muddies crew. Really looking forward to your posts!

    1. haha how would anyone recognize me without the leggings?! Actually, funny story, at Spectrum Live this year, everyone kept assuming Lauren Cannon was me. We had to say: Lauren + Leggings + Dyed Hair + Tattoos = me, but Lauren + Leggings + Dyed Hair + Piercings = her.

  8. How do you keep Jemisin disasters from happening?

  9. "More is always better, because the more of the universe and tone you pick up, the more accurate the art will be. I'm a geek at heart, and it kills me when a cover isn't accurate to what's in the book."
    I cannot possibly agree with you more. I absolutely hate when book covers are entirely different than the story... not minor things, but just WAY off the mark. Glad to see it's important to ADs too! Thanks for the post; it was super helpful and informational. ^.^

  10. Awesome to see you've joined the ranks of contributors, and many thanks for posting the Q&A (can't get enough of art directors divulging their secrets!)

    I too would love to see a post on the style issue - I know I've refrained from submitting my own (considerably non-photo) work to Orbit because of the photo/photorealistic style that I associate with the brand. It would be great to read how diverse (or limited) the style needs are for a sci-fi/fantasy publisher like Orbit.

    1. I agree. When I've visited Orbit's website, my impression is that the book covers are mostly photographic or photorealistic paintings. It would be great to hear about what opportunities a more stylized style might have in SF/Fantasy.

      Thanks Lauren for this FAQ!

    2. I know Orbit has the reputation for being mostly photo-style, but it's not true that we don't use illustrations...or that we use more photos than illustrations. we DO use the photo style a lot, but we also use a ton of illustration. Some of my recent have illustrated series have been (feel free to google) Seven Princes by John R. Fultz (Richard Anderson illos), Leviathan Wakes by James SA Corey (Daniel Dociu illos), Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie (John Harris illos).

  11. Welcome to the site Lauren, looking forward to your input! The Q&A was really interesting, thanks.

  12. Welcome, Lauren! You're a great addition to the Muddy team.

  13. Hey, it's great to have your perspective and advice. We love hearing from the artists on muddy colors. But, it always helps to get a little wisdom from the other side of things!
    James Gardner Art

  14. This is totally awesome information. Great to hear this perspective since I'm looking into doing SFF book cover illustration.

    No questions, just a big thank you for sharing!

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