For a solo designer (or at least this designer) the absolute worst part of being a freelancer involves anything to do with billing. It would seem logical that sending people letters requesting they send you owed money would be satisfying. But, inexplicably, it is not a fun task. For the last ten years I have used a quasi-professional accounting application (MYOB) to fulfill my billing obligations. It has the bells and whistles that would light any number-cruncher's fire: ledgers, graphs, and journals galore. But, for this numbers-adverse right-brainer, my only need and interest is to send invoices to clients and to mark 'paid' upon receipt of funds. And yet, MYOB offers so much more. Too much more. And, I think it has been the overly-complicated nature of the software that has prevented me from invoicing more consistently. Billing has been an activity of neglected dread.
Magazine publisher Kenneth Whyte writes an insightful account of his obsessiveness with the cover of his first book, "The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearst". Whyte's tale confirms what I have always surmised about the relationship between an author and his cover:
Yet I couldn’t help thinking that I’d spent five years writing The Uncrowned King and that I might never feel up to the chore of writing another book. If this was my one shot, I should do my best to get the cover right, on the assumption that covers are every bit as crucial to books as to magazines. I told myself that my input was important: if I know magazine buyers, I know book buyers—readers are readers.
I also knew, better than anyone else, the story that the cover was supposed to reflect—how in 1895 a wealthy young Californian, William Randolph Hearst, bought a feeble New York daily and engaged Joseph Pulitzer, the undisputed king of American journalism, in the most spectacular newspaper war of all time. By 1898, Hearst had supplanted Pulitzer as the dominant force in New York publishing, and was on his way to becoming one of the most powerful and fascinating private citizens in 20th-century America. It’s a big sprawling story with drama, romance, murder, prizefights, jailbreaks, literary scandals, enormous fortunes, brilliant new technologies, genocidal wars, the most exciting election in American history (with fascinating echoes of the Obama campaign)—and it all raises crucial questions about the role of journalism in our lives. Who, if not me, was going to capture all that in a single cover?
At one point Whyte becomes disgusted with Random House's refusal to listen to his "suggestions", that he stops taking call from the publisher, much to the chagrin of his agent. In the end Random House procedes with their choice for the cover and Whyte concedes. He confesses:
Foiled, chastened, I returned to my endnotes and resolved from that point forward to do with professionalism and good cheer everything asked of me by my editor, and I’m proud to say that some days I did.
No offense to the self-publishers out there. But in my experience the benefits of designing covers for self-publishing authors (SPAs) are far outweighed by the negatives. Here's why:
1. You will spend your time baby-sitting.
If you take on a project from a SPA be prepared to spend a lot of time walking them through each and every process of getting a finished cover to press. I can spend more hours talking on the phone with a SPA in a day than I do my regular publishing clients in a month. That can suck your time and energy dry. On the other hand, art directors and their freelance cover designers have a special rapport, almost an unspoken language. There is no need to explain what "comps" and "mechanicals" are. Both already know about spine sizes, back copy, check-digits on bar codes, and matte-lam finishes. SPAs do not.
2. Self-publishing authors can't (won't) pay you enough.
One mistake I have made too many times is to feel some pity for SPAs. "They are working on their life project, after all," I say to myelf. "So, I should be willing to cut them a break so they can see their dream materialize." Uh-uh. Don't do it. While charity is nice and all, it has no place here. SPA covers tend to take many more hours to complete than any other cover you might have. Why? See number one above. Not only will you end up designing a cover that you really won't be proud of in the end, but you have to account for the untold hours consulting with the author about printers, prices, paper stocks, spine thicknesses, interior typesetters, etc. Again, things that rarely get mentioned when working with traditional publishers.
A nice write-up on the Aussie blog Lifehacker about the what can be learned from good book design. To me, the highlight is something that I have always believed to be very true:
A design concept has to work within practical parameters: textbooks need to be clearly segmented into sub-sections, recipe books have to make the recipes themselves stand out from other material. The same applies in the world of tech: there's no point trying to render a highly detailed photograph on a tiny screen. But rather than kicking against those restrictions, you should actively embrace them. "Limitations can make you a good designer sometimes," Lavecchia said.
Must be for my health. Because, everybody knows that graphic design is a walk in the park. Especially when you are self-employed.
Being creative under pressure isn't easy, but earning a graphic design degree could help you join the ranks of the designers who are self-employed. Working for yourself can give you a tremendous amount of flexibility, and allow you to balance your personal and professional lives as you see fit.
Now excuse me, it's time for my 3:00 massage.
(Thanks to Paula Gibson for the heads-up.)
I should start a list of words that editors and art directors should not be allowed to use when giving direction for a new project.
Number one on the list: "edgy."
Sure enough. He was right. I does look like a modern advertising icon. I forget what it was like to just draw with complete freedom. Or at least approach projects with complete freedom. But, I was reminded today.
Sam wants to be a designer when he grows up.
(Don't worry. This isn't going to become a regular venue to post refrigerator art. If you want to see that, go to my Flickr page.)
My morning advice: meet deadlines. Or beat them if you can. There are bucket-loads of designers who are as good as you—face it. Many may be even better than you are. But too many of them don't get their jobs in on time. I know. I talk to art directors who are frustrated. If you can make the art director look good to their team (by exceeding expectations), you will look good, and it will go a long way in ensuring repeat business down the line.
Of course situations arise when you can't meet a deadline—like my horrendous chest cold that I have today. Then call your contacts and explain. They are human; they understand. And, it is only considerate. And consideration is sorely lacking in many of our peers, I'm afraid. Talent is only half the game.