Spotlight on Cover Art with Aty S. Behsam and Gary Compton

With the growing popularity of the self-publishing platform, one question I see asked repeatedly on Internet forums and Facebook groups is: “What do I do about cover art?” A professional book cover is undisputedly one way of getting your story to stand out, and when you’ve spent as much time as I’m sure you have over writing, editing, proofing, and formatting, it seems silly not to pay just as much attention to a sleek and polished presentation. I’ve invited two talented artists to give us an idea of what it takes to produce a great book cover.

Gary Compton from Tickety Boo Press is back on the blog, but this time he’s wearing his art director and graphic designer’s hat. Gary, himself a speculative fiction writer, is deeply involved with his authors’ covers. He has found he enjoys cover design so much that he has opened a sideline business, Tickety Boo Covers, catering to the small press and self-publishing market. Some of his cover art includes Uncommon Purpose and Sunset Over Abendau (both upcoming books by Tickety Boo Press) and Prince of Demons (Tickety Boo Press, 2015).

Iranian writer and artist Aty S. Behsam has been doing cover art, character design, and storyboard for years, working in digital and traditional media with publishers and self-published authors in Iran and other countries. Some of her book cover work includes The Color of Your Lie (Naame Publishing, 2012), Adam Roberts (self-published, 2013), Ancient Technologies (Kraxon, 2013), Malevolence, Tales from beyond the veil (Tickety Boo Press, 2014), Magic, Metal and Steam (Tickety Boo Press, 2014), Space (Tickety Boo Press, 2014), and Sara of Somewhere (self-published, 2015).

Juliana: Welcome Aty and Gary. Could you start by describing your process for creating a book cover? What steps do you follow from beginning to end?

Aty: Thank you!

I look at a cover art from three perspectives: first a writer’s, then an artist’s, and in the end, a reader’s. The idea I get from the book becomes a color theme and a primary sketch which I share with the client and get some feedback. I finish the work and send it back, and apply the final changes if necessary. While making changes, if I’m sure about something, I fight for it. It applies to the artistic view on the work—colors, media, style, etc.—rather than the design. I refuse to tell a writer how their character looks like, but if, for example, the client wants a drastic change in color theme while I’m sure the colors already do a good job attracting readers, I try my best to convince the author/publisher to reconsider making changes, or that we ask a few people for their opinion.

Gary: I usually ask the author to pick a scene from the book and start from there.

Juliana: When working on a book cover, how much involvement do you find you need with the story itself? Do you read the novel (or short stories, for anthologies) first, or is an overview of the subject matter enough? 

Aty: Before I start working on a cover art, I prefer to know a bit about the book, or at least the mood and theme of the content. For nonfiction it’s usually easier, but fiction requires more creativity so I need to feel something about the book to get that primary idea.

Usually a summary or definition of the book or characters works fine.

Gary: I think it is important the cover reflect the story, you can tweak it a little to add drama.

Juliana: What is your preferred artistic medium? (Paper and ink, paint, digital art, photography-based art…) 

Gary: I do digital so I will take parts from pictures we buy rights to and knit them together. After talking to the author, if its Space Opera I will start with the stars, add planets, ships, battle scenes, etc and I do like messing about with colours, hues and opacity. Some of my favorites have been done by just playing with these elements!

Aty: The media and the style I prefer for a cover art depends on each book itself. Mostly I love digital painting, and when doing traditional art for books I love ink, markers, watercolor, and acrylic.

Juliana: What, for you, is the most challenging aspect of creating book cover art?

Gary: Making the author like the work and stop them criticizing so I can have a lie down. 🙂

Aty: The first sketch. It’s hard trying to show others a simple sketch of a finished work you have in mind. So it’s artistically challenging.

Juliana: Leading on from the last question, what’s your favorite part of the process? 

Aty: Coloring and shading in any media always make me happy, because that’s when the artwork slowly comes to life. It’s fascinating and unbelievably fun.

Gary: Finishing them knowing I have created an individual piece of art that is unique. 

Juliana: What are some of the book or graphic novel covers that made a lingering impression on you as you were growing up? 

Gary: I can’t say any I am afraid, as this is a new thing for me that I just started 15 months ago and if I am honest I have no influences. 

Aty: My absolute favorite is S. Neil Fujita’s iconic cover art for Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange and George Orwell’s 1984 are my favorites too. A few others are Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Road, Looking for Alaska, The Hunger Games trilogy, The Catcher in the Rye, and Harry Potter with its character design. 

Juliana: Could you share some of the artists that inspire you in your own work? 

Aty: I have a long list, but my current faves are Mahmoud Farshchian (traditonal), Iman Maleki (traditional), Sui Ishida (traditional and digital), Alice X. Zhang (digital), and Nicolien Beerens (traditional).

Gary: Jim Burns who did Tickety Boo Press’ Biblia Longcrofta. It is amazing!

Juliana: Thank you very much for joining us here and sharing some insights on what it takes to create an amazing cover. Looking forward to seeing a lot more original artwork from both of you.

Check out Aty S. Behsam’s website, www.asbehsam.com, and Twitter, @asbehsam, as well as her gallery on Deviant Art, http://aty-s-behsam.deviantart.com.

You can find more information on Gary Compton’s cover designs at Ticketyboopress.co.uk, as well as on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/ticketyboocovers).

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Spotlight is a monthly blog feature. Check out September’s Spotlight on Imagining the Future with Ralph Kern and Stephen Palmer. Next up in November: Spotlight on Editing.

Spotlight on Small Press Publishing with Gary Compton

Tickety Boo Press is on fire! Well, not literally, since that would be tragic and not something to celebrate here on the blog. Launched on 30th January 2014, the UK-based publishing house is quickly becoming a busy, busy hive of all things speculative. Do you like science fiction? Try Ralph Kern’s Endeavor. Maybe a little space opera? Have a peek at Jo Zebedee’s Abendau’s Heir. Prefer fantasy? No problem. Teresa Edgerton can tickle your taste buds with Goblin Moon and its sequel, Hobgoblin Night. How about a dash of romance, or even gaslight? Give Indigo Heartfire by Jo Marryat or Oracle by Susan Boulton a try. And if you’re looking for darkly delightful, then the Biblia Longcrofta by Simon Marshall-Jones may be your cup of tea. TBP isn’t afraid to tackle any sub-genre.

The brave and motivated guy behind Tickety Boo Press is Northumberland native and proud basset owner Gary Compton, who juggles the roles of acquiring editor and graphic designer far more skill and aplomb than I could ever dream of. And Gary, himself a speculative fiction writer, is getting ready to add author to that list of achievements. Tickety Boo is very much a family business, with Gary’s daughter Emma taking charge of author royalties and the selection of US and UK-based editors, among other tasks.

I’ve followed Tickety Boo’s journey from the very start, and have always thoroughly admired Gary’s openness in discussing his ideas and plans, his sensitivity toward his authors, and his willingness to consider suggestions and constructive criticism. So when I decided to tackle small press publishing in my Spotlight series, my thoughts naturally turned his way. With 12 published novels and anthologies in 18 months, Tickety Boo is fast becoming a force to be reckoned with.

Juliana: You’re probably tired of answering this by now, but why start your own press? What were your personal motivations?

Gary: I have always run my own businesses since 1983 and feel I am virtually unemployable in the real world. I could not just be satisfied being a kitchen fitter. I had to have my own kitchen company. Once I had that, I wasn’t satisfied just buying the cabinets, I had to make them – hence a fully operational, innovative cabinetworks where we machined the rawest of materials into beautiful bespoke cabinets. I am very much hands on, so that’s the reason I do as much as I do.

Juliana: In this world of big corporate publishing, where do you feel that small presses like Tickety Boo fit in? What is the role of the independent publisher among all the big fish?

Gary: Good question. I think publishing is changing and I think Tickety Boo has some ideas that if successful will shake it up a little. But to answer your question – quality of the words/books and sales are the only things that matter. There is no point in creating activity just to massage mine and the author’s ego. So every book is taken on with the goal of selling a lot and making the press and the author some hard-earned cash

Juliana: TBP has chosen so far to stake out a spot in a particular market niche, that of speculative fiction. Do you feel it’s important for the smaller independent publisher to specialize, or do you have plans to eventually branch out into other genres?

Gary: We will be branching out. We have an imprint planned for crime and thrillers. You heard it here first. It will be called Homicidium. That’s Latin for murder. So watch for an announcement on that. Also Romance is being discussed between the team.

Juliana: Are there rivalries among smaller independent publishers?

Gary: I haven’t come across any rivalries. Ian Whates helped me immeasurably in the early days, and Simon Marshall-Jones at Spectral and Graeme Reynolds at Horrific Tales have also helped a lot.

Juliana: And following on from the last question, how important are partnerships and networking?

Gary: Massively important! You are building a brand and you need friends and acquaintances to buy the books and hopefully share your news as well.

Juliana: Starting out from scratch must have meant a pretty steep learning curve. What do you feel have been your biggest hurdles so far?

Gary: Yes for sure. I could write a book on my mistakes. I think getting the systems in place so authors have access to their sales data and to make sure royalties are paid on time. My daughter takes care of that but I watch over it on behalf of the authors who can message me at any time with queries or requests for updates. You have to remember, I am doing a lot – covers – formatting, editing – marketing etc. It’s a lot of work so if I have forgotten to do something I prefer it if the authors give me a nudge rather than festering on my incompetence. So lots of mistakes, but Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Juliana: What are the best things about running a publishing company? The stuff that makes it all worthwhile?

Gary: My most favorite job is doing the covers. I love that. It satisfies my natural desire to be creative. I also like finding new talent.

Juliana: Would you like to tell us about some of Tickety Boo’s upcoming projects?

Gary: Well, in October we have Erebus, which is the second of the Sleeping Gods novels. Endeavour, the first, has been our most successful title in terms of revenue. Ralph is great to work with. He’s tough but honest. We also have the second book from Ian Sales: his first book, A Prospect of War, has done very well too so I am looking forward to that. Also a previously unannounced Space Opera: coming out in October/December is Uncommon Purpose by P.J. Strebor. There are ten books in this series and so far the editorial team have waxed lyrical about it. There was a virtual fight between the editors to get the job. Thankfully, it has just been edited by J. Scott-Marryat so it’s in great condition, and Teresa starts on it 1st September, so hopefully she will add value.

Juliana: Who are some of your own personal favorite authors? Not Tickety Boo authors; I’m not that cruel to make you choose among your ‘children’!!

Dan Brown is my favorite and Martina Cole not far behind.

Juliana: Thank you, Gary, for giving us a tiny peek behind the curtain. I look forward to all the new releases, and to continuing to see Tickety Boo Press grow and expand.

You can find more information on Tickety Boo Press books on their website, Ticketyboopress.co.uk, as well as submission guidelines for both novels and anthologies. Follow Tickety Boo Press on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/GSCompton) and Twitter (@GarySCompton) for launch and submission updates and sales promotions.

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Spotlight is a monthly blog feature. Check out July’s Spotlight on Writing Local Flavor with Jo Zebedee and Anna Dickinson. Next up in September: Spotlight on Imagining the Future.

Spotlight on Short Story Writing with Nathan Hystad

Canadian speculative fiction writer Nathan Hystad isn’t afraid to dip his toe in any waters, however deep they may be. His preferred genres are horror, paranormal and science fiction, but he’s been known to write fantasy on occasion, along with a whole line-up of strange and mysterious sub-genres.

Nathan has published stories in four anthologies so far, with another four submissions already accepted into anthologies this year alone. His work has also appeared in a growing list of online magazines. And I haven’t even mentioned his flash fiction yet!

Although Nathan is currently working on a novel, he has focused mainly on writing short stories, which is a whole art form in itself. To squeeze worldbuilding, character background and an entire story arc into anything between 300 and 10,000 words takes a lot of skill, as those struggling to edit their 250,000-word epic fantasies will agree. So I was pleased as anything when Nathan agreed to answer a few questions on short story writing.

Juliana: I’ve tried my hand at a few short stories and they’re surprisingly hard to write. What is it about short stories that appeals to you?

Nathan: When I started writing, I jumped into a novel. I quickly realized I had no idea how to write well, so I started to write shorter pieces to work on the basics. Then I found I had a lot of ideas creeping out of my head and the only way to get them all out was to write. I really like shorts because you can start a world, and have a cool story in a few days, and move on to the next thing. I also like the ability to write so many types of stories and genres. There is something nice about being able to do a complete story in a short time, as opposed to writing a book. I find my writing time is sporadic, so shorts have worked well for me.

Juliana: What do you find is the hardest part in the process?

Nathan: I think the wow factor is the hardest part. It’s also hard to pack a full story into so few words, with no ‘telling’ so you have to show and hint at things properly. Short stories aren’t for everyone, and a lot of readers never buy or think of anthologies. I think they are a great way to see a variety of ideas on any particular subject. So you have to have something special in them, whether it’s a theme, character, or zinger of an ending.

Juliana: Would you mind sharing a few tips for short story writing?

Nathan: Sure. In my stories, I like to start with an intro that sets the mood. Mine are usually a little strange or dark, so I sometimes have a scene introducing the ‘monster’ with some tension. To sell a story, you need to have a good start. Some publishers get so many submissions that regardless of the payoff, the start has to grab them instantly. It’s the old ‘Hit the ground’ running idea we hear about as writers. It is very important. The next scene tends to slow down and builds until the climax. There is nothing better than reading something and knowing something will happen, but not knowing how or when. I also love to do a doozy of a last scene. One thing I am working at doing is focusing on one character for the most part. The stories where I’ve had too many POV’s (Point of views) tend to not be received as well. So keep it simple, and don’t jump around too much. The more stories I write, and the more beta feedback and publisher feedback I get, the better I’m getting at knowing what is being looked for. I adapt quickly and I think it’s because of this that I’ve been able to place a decent amount of stories in a short time.

Juliana: Do you write a story to fit a certain theme, say for an anthology? Or do you write the stories as they come to you and then try to find them a home?

Nathan: I have done both. I started by writing for a few calls and then just kept writing an assortment of stories. There are a lot of places to place a Ghost story, or horror in general. It’s the more specific that are harder to place if they aren’t accepted to the specific submission call. So it varies, and I like that. I guess the more specific ones would be much harder to place if they are rejected, and rejection is a big part of the game. So at this time I haven’t written a lot of stories for the very specific ie. Lovecraftian Robot Romance set in Canada.

Juliana: Leading on from the last question, what are your top sources of inspiration?

Nathan: I loved the serial TV shows growing up. Are You Afraid of the Dark, Goosebumps, when I was a kid…then Outer Limits, and Twilight Zone. Also X-Files, Star Trek, Star Wars…all of those influence the way my brain thinks of ideas. I also read a lot. There is never a time when I don’t have a book on the go, so my imagination is always being spurred on by something new and exciting.

Juliana: You’ve been having a lot of success with publishing your stories. What are your publishing tips? Is it simply a case of perseverance or is there more to it?

Nathan: I think that some of it was luck. Kraxon Magazine gave me my first ‘Yes’ with Central Park in the Dark, and I will forever be thankful for that. He has given a lot of great people’s stories a home on his site. Then Tickety Boo Press took ‘A Haunting Past’. I think getting over the initial hump of getting published was all I needed. With that I got some confidence, and I also have had amazing people at my side. With people like you, Juliana, helping me with Beta reading, and improving my stories, I have been able to have polished pieces that might stand out for that reason. So it is imperative that you send as polished of a piece as possible. Don’t write a first draft, and fire if off into the world. Get it beta read, and take the advice of your colleagues. An outside perspective is very important in making sure your pieces are always improving.

I remember talking with Em (E.J.Tett) about it, and she said that it can be like a snowball. Once you get a yes, the momentum keeps going. That being said, you have to work your butt off to get those yeses. You have to keep writing, subbing, writing, and subbing. Not every story needs to be put out there to the world, but as an author, we know which ones we really want to find a home. Then you can get to know some of the publishers, and maybe next time you can get in with them because they enjoyed your work, and you were nice to work with etc. I have also made a habit of trying to spread myself out there. I think getting stories into multiple publisher’s anthologies is a good way to make contacts and network.

If I can give one piece of advice, it’s this. Never give up. Even though I’ve started to see a lot more acceptances, my spreadsheet of submissions has much more Red (rejection) than Yellow (acceptance). So when you start out and get the rejections, and they were kind enough to give you any criticism, use that to better your story, or your next story. Don’t get upset, and dejected, just keep working at it and keep writing and subbing. It will all eventually come together.

Juliana: Would you mind sharing some of your favorite authors with us?

Nathan: I have always been a huge fan of reading fantasy. I don’t write it often (though I do have a fantasy short being published this year) but I love to read it. Brandon Sanderson, Joe Abercrombie, Robin Hobb, and Stephen King probably top my list. I read a lot of authors and they all bring something different to the table for me, whether it’s me learning from them or just getting lost in their stories.

Juliana: Thank you very much, Nathan, for taking part in the blog’s first Spotlight, and sharing such great advice. And… is it weird that now I really want to read some Lovecraftian Robot Romance set in Canada?

Nathan Hystad can be found blogging on his website, http://nathanhystad.com, and his work is in the anthologies Malevolence: Tales from Beyond the Veil, Whispers from the Past: Fright and Fear, Tales Told in the Dark 4, and Beyond Science Fiction May 2015. Some of his magazine work includes Kraxon and Saturday Night Magazine (for the last, type Nathan Hystad in the search box on the stories page to find his three shorts).