Judge A Book By Its Cover – An Interview with Larry Rostant
I never intended to buy The Painted Man by Peter V. Brett. I was walking through a bookshop intent on picking up something else, most probably a crime novel. I hadn’t read a fantasy novel in a long time. But the cover caught my eye and stopped me in my tracks. The hooded man glared at me, full of power, mysterious markings covering his face in front of a fiery sunset. I picked it up, read the back blurb and then flicked to the first page. I was hooked.
I didn’t know anything about the book or the author prior to that. I had no interest in the genre but that cover did its job. It sold me a wonderful tale with a single, striking image.
The man behind it was Larry Rostant. His work graces the covers of some of the best names in fantasy. People like K. J. Parker, Douglas Hulick, Myke Cole and a certain George R. R. Martin.
Recently I had the opportunity to chat with him about his work, his influences and where he sees the future of book design heading.
How did you first get involved in creating book covers?
When I started out most of the work I did was for advertising then I moved over to publishing. During the last recession, I noticed all the advertising work was drying up but publishing wasn’t affected at all, so I thought I’d try that instead. At that point, I was doing super realistic work so it was quite easy to transfer over to publishing.
I like the freedom of working in publishing and I’m very lucky they let me do more or less what I want.
Does the publisher come to you with a brief synopsis or do you read the book?
I only read a very few of the books because I don’t need to read them. I don’t represent the editorial content. My job is to get people to pick a book up off the shelf because I know what they are interested in looking at.
Publishers work in two ways.
They’ll come to me and say, “I have this new military novel or a story about a medieval knight. It’s a new author that no one knows about – what shall we do?” So I’ll show them the books that are out there which are similar. I’ll suggest that we give them the look that everyone’s buying at the moment but suggest we change it so it’s unique and different but still resonant. Then people walk into a bookshop and see that cover and think, “That’s a book like all these other books that I like and it’s going to deliver this type of story but I’m interested in it because it looks slightly different.”
For instance, in England, they are lots of books about medieval or Roman soldiers so they need to reinvent that or do that in a different way. So I’ll say let’s do the Roman soldier with a graphic novel style of lighting, with bits of grit and sparks flying like the film posters for Batman. I give them something that everyone recognizes as being currently interesting. And then hopefully the people who buy the books will see it and it will tap into their psyche and they will understand why the cover is looking like that. And buy it.
The other way publishers work is they will know exactly what they want and my job is basically a craftsman for them. I enjoy both ways. It’s nice to be just a craftsmen sometimes and just produce what you think is a beautiful image.
I’m in a very lucky position where publishers come to me and ask me what I think they should do. It’s my job to know what the current zeitgeist is, what’s currently selling. In America and Europe, which are two different markets, I need to know what people are looking at.
Do you sketch out your ideas first?
I don’t do sketches and that can be a bit frustrating for art directors but I tend to go straight to the finished piece of work. I’ll know in my mind what I’m trying to do. I’ll shoot everything and work up about 6 different images, all completely finished and totally done, and present all six and hopefully the publisher will choose one and maybe ask for slight changes.
I can put it together so much more quickly on the computer than I can sketching things.
I notice a lot of covers feature heroes with their faces in shadow. Why is that?
Editorial feels it is better to let the reader make up his or her own mind as to what the character looks like. They feel it is more interesting for the reader to leave it to their imagination. So they cut them off at the nose or hide them in deep shadow.
I don’t necessarily agree with that – I think if you get the right model then it looks much better to see the face.
Is there more pressure when you do a book for someone like George R. R. Martin and a book people have been waiting 7 years for?
Absolutely not. I’m sort of a bit blasé about it. I don’t worry about if it’s a big book or a well-known author. It doesn’t come into it at all. It’s about the imagery that I’m interested in. I did GRRM ten – twelve years ago when no one knew him at all. They handed me the manuscript and said what do you think? I did the typography and the photography and they worked very well and then HBO came along and suddenly everywhere I go I see them. Which in a tiny way is a bit embarrassing as some of them aren’t that brilliant. They were done a long time ago and I’m a lot better now.
In those days what was selling fantasy and period fiction was loads of helmets or swords or axes against a plain background. That was the big thing back then. So that’s what I did – fantasy icons on a plain background.
And what’s happened now, because he’s become so popular, and those covers have been reissued, people are coming to me now and saying, “I want an icon against a plain background”! So something ten years old has influenced a whole new trend.
What are your influences?
A lot of my influences, like a lot of people, are films and film posters so I spend lots of time looking at those, seeing what’s going on. Publishing tends to follow the aesthetic set by films and film posters anyway.
For instance, all the recent Batman films and posters have got over the top bits of rock and sparks flying about. This look started about three or four years ago with the Harry Potter posters and the Medal of Honor games so that look seems to have reached publishing now. It looks really, really good but it probably won’t be around for too much longer. Things seem to be moving towards a fine art style now.
You do such a wide variety of genres: from fantasy to sci-fi to war to romance. Are some more difficult to do than others?
They have their own challenges but I like to do all of them. I don’t want to be just a fantasy artist or a historical artist or a crime artist. I like to do a bit of everything. My role is to know what ticks the boxes, what people are looking for so it doesn’t matter to me if it’s a cheesy American romance novel or a more literary historical fiction novel.
However, I do a lot of naval history books and they require more work. I spend a lot of time researching and producing Victorian naval ships for Master and Commander type imagery, which takes a long time. Anything involving dragons takes a very very long time. They take forever to create.
I travel round photographing tanks, airplanes, helicopters, backgrounds, architecture, skies and anything else I need and then I use them to construct a cover using an illustrative aesthetic. Instead of drawing everything, I build an image out of lots and lots of bits of different photographs. In any cover, there could be up to 50 different images put together. For instance, if it was a picture of someone running down a hill, I’d use different bits of hair, different bits of arms and different bits of fingers all put together to create the quintessential perfect representation of someone running down a hill.
Have you found you’ve become a pseudo-expert on Roman soldiers and Victorian war ships through your work?
I’m a mini expert in lots of things – like what rigging looks like on Victorian ships, how belts go around medieval knights and how their armor works. I like learning all that. My studio is full of odd things now. I have a spear gun in front of me, bits of armor and bits of swords. Great stuff!
Have you ever had anyone write in and complain that’s someone’s holding a gun incorrectly or you got some small detail incorrect?
It happens a lot! These books get seen everywhere, especially with someone like Clive Cussler. I do the covers for the US and UK so many people see them and there’s always someone somewhere who’ll say, “No, no, no, that’s not right!” and they get very worked up about it. Authors, as well, will say, “That ship or that uniform doesn’t work like that,” but then I’ll go back to them and say, “What I’m interested in is getting this book picked up off the shelf so we have to have a bit of artistic license. If it looks better and people buy it then that’s more important than getting it historically accurate. It’s not a reference book!”
My job is to sell the novel. Once someone buys it, it’s over to the author to give them a great story.
Amazon is now selling more eBooks than they are paperbacks and hardbacks -has that changed the way you work?
Not really. There are fewer books being published now and I think the days of the paperback are numbered. The hardback will still be around because people always want it – collectors want those to put on their shelves. Trade paperbacks were invented for people to take on their holidays – why would you buy 4 of those when you can have a kindle?
However all books need to be sold. How else will you sell a book unless you can add some sort of art to it? That will let people know what the book is about and help promote it.
In the future what will happen, if all the books are sold on Amazon, there will be no limit to the proportion of the image so I could do a landscape cover if I wanted to, which will be fantastic. It also doesn’t have to be a still image. It could be a moving image. I could take my beautiful girl in her lovely costume and, instead of just shooting her, I can film her with all the Photoshop elements in the background so you still get the cover image but you also get a movie. You can’t do it now because Amazon can’t take big files but that time will come. To go from flat images to moving ones will be exciting.
I’m very excited about the future. I think it’s the best time to be a book cover illustrator. It’s all changing and all exciting.
You can see more of Mr. Rostant’s work by visiting his website.