Maggie Blackbird

Romancing Canada's Indigenous People



Cover art.  Whether a book, album (for us who can remember vinyl), movie poster, or ad, it’s meant to catch our attention.

Some covers that produced more than a glance I can think of off-hand?  Peace Sells…But Who’s Buying? by Megadeth, featuring the band’s mascot standing in front of the ruins after the third world war.  Hearts Aflame by Johanna Lindsey and the hunky Royce of Wyndhurst.

Why did these two work?  For starters, Vic Rattlehead (the mascot) is a skeleton, and although the album is called Peace Sells, it’s clear nobody purchased any peace.  Plus, I thought Vic looked pretty darn cool.  As for Royce, well, he’s hot!  So I picked the album from the bin and plucked the book off the shelf.  In other words, the cover artists did their job.  Their work compelled me to take a closer look.

Today, Romance, She Wrote is proud to have cover artist MarthaAvril Duncan in the interview chair.  She is looking forward to answering any questions you have about cover art for your book.

1.  First, what made you decide to become a cover artist?

I’ve always been a very artistic person. Ever since I was a young child I would always be drawing and coloring. As I grew, I wrote short stories, poetry, songs, continued drawing and kept learning and conquering new mediums. I took classes in drawing, and graphic design, created websites and logos for friends and soon my mother found the need for a cover artist. Where better to look than in your own backyard?

2.  Do you mainly work with indie authors?  I know you designed covers for Kat Duncan.  Do you also contract with publishers?

Right now I work completely freelance. I have no career or day job. My mother, Kat, is my number one customer, but I am looking to become better-known in the writing world to gain more experience.

3.  What do you think makes a good book cover?

Much can be said for theme and style. For instance if you’re writing a historical romance, you aren’t going to want to put modernistic fonts or stock art on the cover. You also don’t want to make the design so complicated that it confuses the eye. In my belief there should be a good amount of clean space along with the art and title.

4.  What are some of your favourite book covers and why?

I’m picky about my tastes. To be honest, we’re basically in a new age of cover art. Think of your average dictionary, encyclopedia, or the Harvard Classics. Book covers used to be just a protective material with the title and author printed on the front and spine. It’s only within the past few decades that we’ve seen bright colors and strange new typographic styles become mainstream. (Sometimes it gives me a headache.) Loud covers with large word titles are really just lazy attempts to grab a passer-by’s attention. I like covers with a little bit of mystery, something that will make you want to actually open the book and see what it’s about.

5.  How about your own covers.  Which is your favourite and why?

My favorite cover would have to be “Sunda Cloud” because I had a very clear idea of what I was going for when I made it. There was a fair amount of fun in creating the old man’s skin texture, but still you will notice that it remained simple, with plenty of empty space to balance out the detailed photos.

Cover art by MarthAvril Duncan

6.  I know nothing of what goes into designing a book cover, although there are many that I admire.  One that comes to mind is The Heroin Diaries by Nikki Sixx.  Can you explain the process from start to finish?  I mean the very beginning, such as first contact with an author or publisher all the way to what I see sitting on the shelf.

A typical job for me consists of an author coming to me with a short description of their new book: the title, genre, basic plot, time period, and characters. This is usually enough to give me a good idea of the general theme. Nikki Sixx for example is a musician with a dark past, so it’s quite obvious he went for a grungy bloody look for his cover and nobody would disagree with him about it.

I then do a rough sketch or placement of the title, byline, and any stock photos I have in my collection. If the author agrees that I’m going in the right direction and it fits their initial ideas, I will continue to refine the style of the text, color scheme, the layout of photos, and the final finishes. It takes a fair amount of experimentation to get the right feel to be the face of the story but the author I’m working with doesn’t have to be part of the design phase when it comes to the smaller details – that’s what they’ve hired me for!

7.  How do you know when you are finished designing the cover?

I know I’m finished designing a cover when the required items on the checklist have been checked off (title, byline, dimensions, certain photo or color), but also when the author is excited by what I’ve created. I’m empathic enough to gauge if I’m way off base from their desires, or if there is a certain final tweak I can do to make the cover go from “finished” to “phenomenal.”

8.  Is there a method you use for design?  Such as interviewing the author, reading an excerpt, etc.?  Is it 50/50, such as you both have to agree on the finished product or something else?

I feel at the very least I should have a good understanding of what the book is about, the time period, types of characters, the geographic location, the style of the writer themselves, and what genre of story it is. Reading an excerpt of the story doesn’t help a cover artist as much as you would think, but everyone is different and sometimes it’s helpful if the cover revolves around a certain scene for instance.

My design process is definitely a 50/50 situation. I’m always in good contact with my client because if I can understand who they are as a person and a writer, I will have a much better idea of what to do to make their cover “fit” them and their story.

9.  Fees and contracts.  What do you charge?  Is there a contract between you and the author or publisher?  Define the process.

As I said, I work on a freelance basis. I charge $50 for a book cover but that doesn’t include any stock photos that may need to be purchased. For that price you are not just paying for the cover itself but for my time spent on it as well. From the first request for a cover, to the finished product, I’ve been told I’m cheaper than the average cover artist or publisher. There is no formal contract or paperwork to sign. I normally take half of the payment upon commission and the other half upon completion.

10.  What do you like most about designing covers?

I like the artistic expression in general; it’s as much me trying to figure out who the author is and how to make their cover fit them as it is also my own personal element going into all my work. That is true for every artist. No two covers or projects are alike but they all have my special touches.

11.  What do you like least about designing covers?

Technical difficulties! And the occasional apathy. For example, certain genres or themes that I don’t know enough about, I sometimes feel it isn’t my area of expertise to be creating cover for that author but I always do my best.

12.  Do you have any advice for indie authors who are seeking a cover artist?

Don’t be shy to shop around! Many indie writers will find a local graphics designer who may not even specialize in cover art, or will search the web blindly for a cover artist they won’t have the chance to speak to over the course of their cover’s creation. Or worse, they will get stuck with a publisher who “takes care of it for you” when you have NO SAY in your cover design. If you find an artist and you don’t like their current portfolio, keep going, there are plenty of fish in the sea.

13.  Why should a potential client choose you to design their cover?

I hope first and foremost, authors will choose me because they like my work. It’s important, as I said, to at least like the style of the artist you are thinking of commissioning. Secondly, I spend an equal amount of time in contact with my client as I spend working on the actual cover. Feedback is essential to getting the final product to be perfect.

14.  I always close with random questions LOL.  Here we go:

  • What’s your favourite movie? “Full Metal Jacket” is one of my all-time favorites. I’m a sucker for comedy but I also like some indie movies, ones that make you think. “Memento” took me more than four watches to even begin to understand the truth behind the story.
  • What book is currently in your e-reader?  I don’t have a fancy e-reader, but I’m always reading non-fiction books. Almost any subject, too; current events, history, philosophy, medicine. I’m a very DIY person, so my favorite books are usually how-to’s and crafting/sewing/home decorating but lately I’ve been reading about astrology and the military.
  • Who’s your favourite musical group?  The Beatles. I was raised to love them, they were true musicians. I could really care less about bands or groups, as long as there is some actual music behind it and not just synthetic instruments and auto-tuned voices. The only genre of music I truly dislike is rap and hip hop, it really is just noise…
  • What song puts a smile on your face?  I actually have a whole playlist dedicated to ridiculous songs such as “Rock Lobster” the Benny Hill theme and the “Time Warp.” I put it on whenever I need a laugh.

Martha and her fiance Nick

Bio:   Born and raised in Massachusetts to two amazingly relaxed parents, MarthaAvril has spent her life so far in relative freedom, giving her the golden opportunity to explore her talents as she grew up in a quiet town. Always the artistic type, MarthaAvril has never strayed away from the calling to create. Whether it’s a pencil, paint, words, fabric, a computer, or anything else, she can use nearly any tool to express herself.

Now, at age 22 and about to become an Army Wife, MarthaAvril has begun to think of her talents more seriously. She’s broadened her skills and horizons and continues to look for new ways to make her impression on the world – starting with commissioned sewing and cake decorating from home.



5 thoughts on “Interview with MarthaAvril Duncan

  1. Left-Brained Business for Write-Brained People says:

    Great post. Loved reading about the process!



  2. Thank you for guest blogging here today. It was lots of fun interviewing you. I wish you all the best with your upcoming wedding and your new career. Both, I know, will be successful. 🙂

    Ooh, I wanted to comment on my fave cover. I’d go with $ix Days to Midnight. Why? I love the $ in place of the “s” which lets me know upfront money plays a big roll. And of course the money at the bottom of the picture. Plus, the hero gazing at me, he kind of goes either way–good or bad, which is a GOOD thing. As I read Kat’s novel, you truly captured all the elements of this book in your art.


  3. Kat says:

    I’m as proud of your accomplishments as I am amazed at your talents! ❤ Mom!


    1. You raised a lovely and talented lady, Kat. 🙂


      1. Kat says:

        Thanks for hosting her, Maggie! I’m so very proud of her! 🙂


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