So you want to be a “book cover artist”

A cover which I painted, or actually symbolic of exploring
the mysterious depths of freelance illustration? You decide...

David Palumbo

When I give portfolio reviews to emerging artists, I always ask “what type of work would you like to be doing?” and I almost always get the answer “book covers.”  A popular second is “Magic cards.” Generally speaking, young fantasy illustrators seem to have their eyes set to very specific and narrow goals which are, understandably, the sources of inspiration which may have pushed them towards the field in the first place.

I don’t know that many people might describe me as a “book cover artist.”  I will use the term to help explain my job to non-artists because sometimes I do book covers and people understand what that is, but I‘m definitely not one of those rare individuals (for example Dan Dos Santos and Chris McGrath) whose work does seem fairly dedicated to this very specific branch of the illustration tree.  

The problem with being a book cover artist, even mostly a book cover artist, is that there just aren’t enough book covers, even in the fairly lush publishing landscape of today, for very many people to make that work.  Those who do it tend to lead and define their genre.  The good news is that there is a hell of a lot of other work out there to do which is just as fun and exciting, people just don’t seem to know what it is or that they want to do it.  So when I ask that question and am told “book covers” or “magic cards,” I’ve started thinking it might be helpful to point out the world beyond the obvious.

I started by looking up every commission which I’ve completed in the past three years and breaking up categories.  Here are the avenues which I’ve personally kept myself busy in to varying degrees:

Book (covers)
Book (interiors)
Comic Covers
Concept Art
Editorial (covers)
Editorial (interiors)
Editorial (online)
Film Posters
Gaming Illustration (non-mtg)
Gaming Illustration (mtg)
Private Commissions
Trading Cards (non-gaming)

By year, treating each commission with equal weight regardless of pay, book covers made up 15% for 2012, 13% for 2013, and 12% for 2014 (to date).  The number of jobs varied significantly between years, but the ratio was steady.  Magic cards, the other popular goal among aspiring fantasy illustrators, accounted for 37% in 2012, 19% in 2013, and 19% in 2014.  2012 surprised me there but the following two years leveled off again.  Excuse my numbers and stats here, but it brings me to my point:

When people ask what work I do, I generally say “oh, genre illustration really, mostly book covers and Magic cards” because it is easy to say and it feels mostly accurate, but really these things only account for approximately one third of my actually paid commissioned work in a typical year and that is without factoring in personal and gallery work.  What the hell else am I working on?  I think I’m part of the problem. 

In reality, I don’t really know what I do.  All I know is that I’ve made an effort to cast a broad net while keeping my work recognizably my own.  Certainly working with an artists representative ( I have been for just under two years now) has expanded my reach to clients I never would have considered previously.  My work rarely ever touched editorial or advertising prior because I didn’t know it was something that I could be doing.  I ignorantly dismissed those areas as the type of jobs that wouldn’t be interested in a realist painter.  The truth is that I just thought “well, I guess I’m doing fantasy and science fiction so I’ll limit my ambitions to the same twelve or fifteen clients that I already know.”

I’ve heard it said before that you only need about 3-5 regular clients to make a living as a freelancer.  This is true but I’ve also learned that, even then, hot and cold spells can still make a steady pace difficult to maintain.  Clients come and clients go.  I think it is a reasonable goal to forge long term relationships with clients who treat you well, but to avoid putting so many eggs into one basket that you would be out of work if they went under, cancelled the product line, changed art directors, or simply no longer found your work a good fit. 

One of the great things about being a freelancer is that we don’t really get downsized if we keep our client base diverse.  Job security is a strong portfolio and an open mind.  If you have an eye out for new opportunities and are always actively promoting, creating, and expanding, you will have no problem pivoting when a regular client dries up.  Personally, I also find it much more conductive to growth as an artist if I am frequently taking on new challenges and working with new people.

Ultimately what I’m saying is: pursue the goals which you are passionate about.  Go get those cover jobs and do your very best with them.  But also look further.  The world is full of art and somebody needs to pay somebody to make it.  Look beyond the expected and you might find some great opportunities waiting for you.