Picture power - thoughts from cover artist and writer Marion Sipe

The Cloud Pearl: cover design by Marion Sipe
Continuing the series about writing for younger readers, here's an interview with design artist Marion Sipe, who created the wonderful cover for The Cloud Pearl.

Welcome, Marion! Let's get straight down to business.  Apart from reading the cover artists forms, how do you set about designing a book cover? Do you ever revert to pen and paper, or is it all high-tech design?

Oh, it’s all digital!  It would take me ages to design with pen and paper, so I use a tablet that allows me to draw directly into Photoshop, and to work with photos in a much more organic kind of way.  I love my tablet, probably unreasonable amounts!

I’m lucky enough to see the high-resolution image of a cover design, but is it galling to see a lovely full-size cover reduced to a thumbnail?

It can be, especially when I do something particularly nuanced and then the thumbnail just doesn’t pick it up. Some details are just never going to be visible at that smaller size, and as long as the important parts are recognisable, I have to be happy with that.

What are the key issues when designing a cover that will suit an ebook as well as a regular paperback?

Composition and typography are two of the most important factorsin any design, I think.  When working with a book cover you have to be able to imagine what you will do if the author needs a print version down the road. And the composition of the ebook cover has to be open enough to allow for further design. The typography has to look good (and be readable) at many different sizes and orientations. You have to ask yourself, if I use this font, how’s it going to look if I need to put it on the spine, too? That means that a lot of the more decorative fonts are just not something you get to work with on a regular basis, because they won’t translate well, or be readable at smaller sizes, or they’ll pixel, etc.

It must be a challenge designing covers for a series – an enjoyable one?

I actually love it when an author goes: “Okay, this is going to be a series, so how are we going to work that?”  I have a lot of fun things of design solutions for that ‘branding’ problem, and for seeing a whole series through.  I particularly had fun with you, planning out the covers for the Legends of Liria series, because you brought me a great concept to start with, and then were really excited about we could fit that to your story and series. I’m probably going to buy print copies just so I can have all the spines lined up on my bookcase!  *G*

I find the new cover artist forms for MuseItUp very helpful. How did they come about?

Well, we’ve actually had them for a while, but... honestly, I don’t like working with them. I’ve found that some clients find them intimidating, and instead would prefer to just talk with me about their book. Plus, I generally have an idea for the cover from reading the blurb, so I often start by sending out a proof rather than a cover art form. Many of my authors seem to find it easier to tell me what they don’t want than what they do, and if we have a starting place, they can tell me what parts of it do work for them as well as what doesn’t. It’s all down to the individual client, though. About a third are happy with my first proof or just want a minor font or colour tweak, about a third tell me what works for them and what doesn’t and we come up with a new concept, and the last third go: “Actually, I wanted X, Y, and Z.”  And I’m happy with all of those responses. I like to give the author a cover that’s special, that suits their story and isn’t just a cookie cutter job.

A tough question. Do you need to read the whole book to come up with a concept?

Oh, no.  I just don’t have that kind of time, partially because I do not read quickly. Everything I do, I pick up from the author, the words they use to describe their story, the blurb and the way they describe events. I get a sense of what kind of story they’re telling, what it’s meant to do for the reader, and then I put something together. Although, a few of my clients have asked me if I’d read their story, because I managed to pick out details that actually work really well with what’s in the book. One client was thrilled because her main character  owned a wedding cake bakery, and there’s a cake that plays an important role in the story, and I chose just the right color  and image for the cake.  It just happens sometimes.

How do you see the author’s role in the design? A team effort?

Well, that depends on the author, honestly. With some authors, it’s totally a team effort. We discuss what they want and what I can do, and there’s give and take. With others I’m more like an expert consultant. They have a vague concept of what they want, but don’t know how to make it a reality.  And with still other clients, I have free reign and they trust me to create a cover that will speak to their story and their audience.

You’re an author as well. Do you have an image of your ideal cover in mind when you’re writing?

Oh, definitely not. I do think about it while I’m writing, but it goes through just as many revisions as the story itself does. I’m currently working on an urban fantasy novel called Wolfshadow, and been sketching the characters and some scenes and things, but I still haven’t come up with the cover. I know what I need, but honestly until I get the book done and get down to the cover art, I can’t make any real decisions. I actually think doing my own cover art is the hardest. People think that familiarity with a book is a good thing when it’s time for cover art, but I find it actually makes everything harder. I have to sift through a ton more details than I would with a client’s book.

Book covers, while they should absolutely suit the story (and the characters, etc.), should be an illustration. They should be easy to take in, uncluttered. Readers need to see them and feel an emotional connection to them, and that’s not about the details of the story. It’s about the emotional experience you’re offering your reader with the work. It’s about the thrills and chills, or the heart tugging moments, or the slow romantic tension, or the danger and adventure. You actually don’t want to try to communicate too many direct details, but rather speak to that emotional offering that’s going to get the reader to pick up the book. So, knowing too much about a book’s content makes it harder to get to the heart of the story.

How did you get into the world of cover design?

When I published my first novel, A Sign in Blood, I did the cover art myself and friends kept saying they really liked the cover and that I should do that – that I should make covers for other author’s books. I’d been working with Photoshop and doing non-professional art for years, and I thought . . . Why not? I can totally do that! So I did.

What makes a great cover? What stops you in your tracks and shouts ‘buy me!’?

Emotional connection. Every time. You can have the best artwork in the world and really professional typography and if it doesn’t speak to your audience, it’s all a waste. There’s more to cover art than just making a cover that’s clean, well composed and professional looking. While all of those things are necessary, they’re not the be all and end all. I actually know some really stellar artists that won’t do book covers because when they try it comes out cringeworthy. Cover art is also a form of marketing. You’re not just selling a book, but an experience. It’s not just about the pretty, it’s also about taking something that’s massive (a book, with all its details, characters, themes, and emotion) and boiling all of that down so that when a reader sees the cover, they see the book, they know what they’re going to get, what they’re going to experience, and know that it’s going to hit the right buttons. If you can manage to do that, to give the reader what they want with just a single image, they’ll pick up the book. After that, the author has to sell it, but that initial contact is all on the cover.

Any pet peeves? What would deter you from buying a book – an ebook or regular?

Bad typography. I can’t stand it. It drives me completely mad. I mean, you can probably find a stock photo that’s suitable (if generic), and it’ll be okay. But if the typography is bad, it screams “unprofessional” at the top of its little fonty lungs, and I won’t pick it up. Also, as a reader of fantasy, I hate chain mail bikinis, urban fantasy covers that have the women bent in ridiculous and barely achievable poses, and romance or erotica covers that cut off the character’s faces. Just... no.

You do designs for all genres. Do you have a favourite?

I do. I read in wide variety of genres, so I like to work in them all, but I specialise in fantasy, science fiction, and horror. I love making creatures and depicting strange new worlds, etc. It’s my favourite!

What considerations come into play when designing covers for younger audiences?

Hmm. I actually find this hard to articulate. There is definitely a difference. I think that, for younger audiences you actually have to be more explicit, less symbolic. But that doesn’t quite explain it, because that makes it sound as if YA or MG covers aren’t as sophisticated or complex as adult covers, and the truth is actually the opposite. I suppose it has to do with the fact that younger audiences are more open when it comes to genre, so you can’t rely on the genre to help sell the story.  Your cover should say: “this is fantasy, but it’s also got X, Y, and Z” and with adult covers, you tell them what kind of experience they’re going to get by starting with the genre and then narrowing it down. Does that make any sense?


What makes a strong teen/tween book cover in your view?

All the same things that make a good adult cover, plus a few more! Colour is particularly important when it comes to younger audiences. Bolder, more graphic designs are more likely to catch an adult’s eye than a teen’s or tween’s. Minimalism is not your friend with these types of covers, but they still shouldn’t be cluttered, just more aware of the context of the story.

As the sale of ebooks and tablets soar, is the role of the book cover changing with the shift in the public’s reading and buying habits?

Right now, ebooks are still new enough that what most people want is to look like the paperbacks people are used to seeing. However, I do think that things will change as people become more comfortable with the new formats and devices become more versatile. Animated covers could be really interesting, and comic books have a boatload of potential. I also think integration with the internet (links to cool websites, connection to social networks, etc.) could be big. Imagine being able to share the cover of the book you’re reading right from your ereader, or allow the reader to tap the cover and go directly to the artist’s website.  All of this will make the cover more and more important.

I think we’re entering an interesting time for artists, really. Traditionally, if you liked an artist’s work, you bought a print or a poster. And we can still do that, but that medium is slowing down. I don’t think it will ever completely go away, but I think it will change. For instance, think of digital picture frames and expand the concept to wall art. You could hang the frame and then surf the net for images you can buy to put in it. Buy the art, and it’s instantly up on your wall, and you can change it as often as you like! Commission someone to do your family portrait, or any art you want, and then have it sent to your frame’s IP when it’s finished!

The great thing about art (including writing) is that it’s part of us. It’s not going out of style, it’s just changing. Reading is up in this country for the first time in like 40 years! And I think art will come out of the clouds as well. Many people think of art as something you can only buy if you’ve got tons of money to burn, but then people get on Facebook and they see tons and tons of art. Some of it is cat macros (before, you had to buy those cat hanging from a tree posters, now? They’re delivered to your Facebook daily!) and some of it is just beautiful images that seem to come out of nowhere (sometimes with quotes!). And all of this art exposes people to images, to the communication and emotional content of visuals. I think they’re changing our definition of ‘fine art’ and with it, our concept of art, in general, is changing. Imagine if you could see a beautiful image on Facebook or Pinterest, click on it, and buy a high resolution copy to hang over your desk with just a few clicks!

Er, okay, I’ve probably rambled enough now.  *G*

Pam: Not at all. This was absolutely fascinating, for all authors of all genres. It's certainly made me see things quite differently. I love all your comments - including your feelings about typography. I'm a bit of a fiend.

Thanks for sharing these thoughts, Marion. Good luck with your designing and writing.

Interview by Pamela Kelt 

Marion's blog


  1. What a great post, y'all. Good questions, Pam, and fascinating answers, Marion. One of the many things I've been impressed with about MIU is the quality of the book covers. Across the board they rock. Almost everyone comments about the gorgeous cover Charlie Volnek did for my first book, Vermont Escape. And I have to tell you, and I mention frequently to others, how lucky we are here to work with CAs who want authors' input. That is not the case at all publishers. So thanks, Marion and Charlie and all our CAs. I can't imagine not having some input. One last thing. I think I know what you mean when you say, "topography," but not certain. Know the word, but how are you using it, Marion? Thanks, y'all. I'll be sharing.

    1. Hi, Marsha. I so agree. The strength of the covers drew me to submit at MIU. And what a good choice it was!

  2. Wonderful interview, Marion. Marion is one of my favorite cover artists, having done the covers for four of my Muse books ... and I hope more in the future.

    1. Isn't it interesting to see the process from the 'other side'? Thanks for dropping by, Jim.

  3. Interesting interview Pam and Marion and very in depth! Great questions and answers. Hope to be working with my cover artist soon.

    Susan Bernhardt
    The Ginseng Conspiracy coming 1/14

    1. I've just seen Marion's reply .... Another great cover to look forward to!

  4. Hello all! And thank you for the awesome comments!

    Marsha - "Typography" is everything having to do with the design of the words on the cover. It's not just what font you choose, but how you position the words, both on the cover overall and in relation to one another and the art, the colors you choose, the style, the kerning, the negative space, etc. Type actually has a lot more design elements than a lot of people realize and so it's something it's really easy to do badly. Type needs to complement the art, it's part of the composition. And composition should always lead the viewer's eye so that the important cover elements are the ones being highlighted. Type is a huge part of that. Does that help?

    Jim - Thank you, Jim! You're always a pleasure to work with!

    Susan - Um... Hi! I'm your cover artist! I'm actually working on a proof and will have something to you in the next couple days! It's nice to meet you. *G*

  5. The Cloud Pearl cover is gorgeous! Marion is so talented - she did the cover for my Soul Cutter, and I adore it! I really enjoyed hearing about how she got into the business and all the tips she gave about fonts, etc. Great interview! :-)

    1. Hi, Lexa. I've been lucky to have three covers from Marion and I'm so impressed. So glad you find the interview so useful.


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