Well, happy October and happy early birthday to me! This year it all feels a little bittersweet since I’d normally be ecstatic about the start of the novella event, but as some of you hopefully already saw, I had to cancel the event due to burnout and prioritizing my mental health. It sucks ass and I’m still mad about it, but there’s not much I can do at this point beyond resting up and crossing my fingers that next year will be different.
To learn more about the specifics of this new hiatus, definitely check out the public announcement I posted on Patreon a week or so ago. As of right now, I have no immediate plans to put my monthly author blog on hold. Something like this doesn’t really strain me given it’s mostly stream of thought. If that changes or starts feeling like a burden, I’ll revisit this monthly schedule. But for this month, we’re back to asking more of my team about their specific gifts and talents. Last month we heard from my incredibly talented editor NIL, and this month we’re going to get to know Ambi Sun, the graphic designer and cover artist behind The Tempest Series and Ossuary, everyone’s favorite badass skull-encrusted book!
I met Sun… God, it’ll be nearly ten years ago pretty soon. We met how I met most of my team, ie through Tumblr, and more specifically, through the Hunter x Hunter fandom. Sun was just starting out a sketch blog and had posted something asking for boosts, sketch suggestions, and general promotion to get her feet wet in the fandom. Given I was a relatively large name in said fandom, I promoted her and sent her a few sketch requests to get her going. She in turn DM’d me a thank you, asked a bit about my own work (she was on the KilluGon side of the fandom whilst I was HisoKuro), and ended up reading the entirety of my written collection over the course of the next week XD. Eventually, I told her that I was in the middle of turning Brontide into a book. She asked if I had a cover artist yet and I said no, and that, my friends, is where the really, really funny start to our friendship began.
You see, Sun’s art blog was a sketch blog. It was full of chibi doodles and scratchy, 5 minute sketches meant as warm ups and treats for those who were kind enough to send her requests. It was not a good representation of her actual skill level, and while we laugh about it now, I sincerely thought she was a “clipart frog graphic designer” a la that one Graphic Design is My Passion meme—or you know, just a young student starting out who was eager to do a book cover to pad a growing portfolio. So, polite midwesterner that I am, I answered, “No, I haven’t gotten that far into the process yet.”
She then sent me her portfolio, and… Jesus. I can’t tell you how gobsmacked I was to see just how good her fully rendered artwork was.
I say it often, and I do so because it needs to be said: I wouldn’t have published one book let alone ten without Sun’s expertise. In the early days of publication hell, Sun was the one with the practical knowledge. She knew how to format the interior of a book for print. She knew how to calculate spine width to equate the page numbers. She knew how to pick fonts, create moodboards, and breathe life into my work in ways I never would have been able to figure out all on my own. We make a great pair when it comes to creating. Sun is inspired my writing and fills in the world visually in ways I couldn’t conceive of. The faerie lights in the Tempest Series were never originally supposed to look the way they do: I changed the text to reflect the visions Sun had in her head. She is far too good for me and yet I’m too greedy to ever think of letting her go. The work she’s done and continues to do for me and my work is beyond anything words can express.
Sun has taught me so much. My graphic design skills have improved by leaps and bounds because of her careful example. I now know how to format (at least somewhat) in InDesign and Photoshop, and I’m much better now at advising the other artists I work with for other covers than I was when I first started. I made my life harder by going the self-publishing route because I care too much about what I’m putting in peoples’ hands. Without Sun in those early days, I would’ve been stuck with a much uglier cover, a much worse final product, and a third of the readers I currently have because the promotional material I would’ve come up with myself would have paled in comparison to the things Sun’s churned out for me overnight.
Anyway, I’m gushing. I just can’t help but do so. I’m incredibly fortunate to have the friends and team that I have behind me. Not many people in my position start out with such a good artist, such a good editor, and the support of a caring fanbase all before they’ve published a single book. I’ll stop now for the sake of time, but only because I need to, not because there’s not so much more left I could say about all of them.
Anyway, I’ll give way to Sun now to speak about her work. If you have questions for her that aren’t answered here, please leave a comment and I’ll pass it along to her! She’s a delight to talk to and even more of a delight to pester, I promise.
Tell us a little about yourself. How long have you been involved in professional graphic design/art and what initially drew you to the work?
I’m Sun! I’m a Freelance Illustrator and Graphic Designer from Malaysia, although I now reside in Melbourne, Australia. I received my Graphic Design diploma in RMIT, Melbourne, and my Bachelors of Illustration from SCAD, Atlanta. I started working professionally as a graphic designer in 2012, starting out as a freelance designer and eventually working in design/marketing agencies and big retailers as a packaging and brand designer. Nowadays I mostly work as a freelance illustrator, developing my own projects.
Like a lot of artists, most of us found our calling to this path since early childhood. I’ve been drawing ever since I was a kid, with my earliest memory of drawing was of me scribbling under my parent’s nice wooden dinner table. There is something wonderful and transcendent about bringing ideas to life through the act of creating marks on a surface, changing its purpose and embedding it with a piece of our own soul.
What is your process for creating a book cover? How do you start, where do you focus your ideas, and what sort of things factor into something specific like this versus a standard, non-book piece of art?
When creating a book cover, I tend to work closely with the author as I know that the cover has to represent the client’s vision. If the client has a clear vision of what they’re looking for, I will typically follow their lead, only chiming in if I see major design pitfalls in the idea.
If given the opportunity of creative freedom and time, I would read through the book and pick out 1 - 2 elements that I believe encompasses the tale as a whole. I would then pitch the idea to the client and discuss if this aligns with their vision.
When creating a book cover, there are 4 main things to consider:
What are the client’s expectations? ( Can be applied to all projects)
What genre and demographic is this book for?
Does the idea proposed fit with the genre of book?
Where will this book sit ( bookstore or just digital ), as this would impact how the cover is seen and changes how we would design the cover.
What’s it like working with T.D.? Which project of hers was your favorite to work on and why? (Also tell them why I’m your most favorite client in the whole wide world and I can never do wrong in your eyes *bats lashes*)
T.D. is one of my absolute favorite clients. She can do no wrong. I loved every project we worked on, and I hope we’ll be able to work on more in the future.
If T.D. has a million fans, I'm one of them.
If T.D. has one fan, then I'm THAT ONE.
If T.D. has no fans, that means I'm dead.
What advice would you give an author client to make designing a cover as smooth a process as possible? Is there prep work or specific information you like to have?
There are a few processes that can help make the process as smooth as possible.
Make sure the artist fits what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for a detailed oil painting style of figures, it might be a waste of your time to hire an illustrator that only draws flowers. If you require the artist to also do the typeface for the cover or prepare the file for print, that’s an entirely different set of skills, so your illustrator may not be able to execute it.
Ensure that you have a clear deadline for the illustrators. While it might seem to be a good idea to tell the illustrator they can take as long as they want, this is likely to cause you to never have your cover done, as most illustrators would be juggling multiple projects at the same time and if yours is not “urgent” it will likely always be pushed to the back burner.
Clear communication on thoughts and expectations. Please do not hold back on feedback especially in the early stages of the process, this will help ensure the designer knows exactly what you want.
References or a simple sketch of what your idea is! If you can, create a simple moodboard on pinterest or just pick 2 - 3 images of how you envision your cover to look like stylistically. The more visual images you can provide the illustrator, the closer they’ll be able to match your vision, this is especially true if you have characters in the cover.
Here’s an email template that you can fill out to send to your designer/illustrator:
Hi [artist name],
My name is [your name], I am a self-published/indie writer and I found your work on [where you found them] and I especially love [share a piece of theirs you love so they know what you like]. I am about to publish my new book on [ Amazon/Kindle/Barnes and Noble/Kickstarter. Just provide some context where this book will be published ] and I think your illustration style would be a great fit for my new book.
My book [name of book]is about [insert one sentence summary about the book] and would love to hire you for my book cover project. I [tell them if you already have an idea or if you would like them to come up with the concept for you here. Example: “I would like you to illustrate a single acron on the front cover and design the title for me”] .
Here is a detailed spec of the work:
Book Name/Author name/ text for back: Please provide any of these if you need the artist to include text on the work
Book Genre: Fiction/Non-fiction/Sci-fI
Product Type: Physical / Ebook / Audiobook / All
Services needed: Please state what services you need from the artist. Is it just Illustration only, do you need them to include text on cover, does this also include prep work to send to printer
Dimensions: Put in the cover dimension as provided by the printer, or online requirement for dimensions
Color Space: CMYK / RGB / BLACK AND WHITE
Illustration needed: Cover Only / Spread ( cover, spine, back ) / Interior Illustration ( please state how many illustrations are required in total )
Budget: Please be upfront and transparent about your budget, most illustrators will be able to tell you how much they can do for you with your budget.
Timeline: Hard deadline for the project. If you can, please write out a timeline of when sketches are due/and when the final is needed.
I would love to work together if this project interests you. Please let me know if you have any further questions about the project, and I hope to hear from you soon.
What are your favorite things to draw, both for book covers and in your general artistic life? Do you prefer one genre of book versus another?
I love drawing fantasy and horror themed books as it allows me to really indulge in my maximalist illustrative style. I especially love subjects that are nature based with fantasy elements and fascinating lore.
I used to say I was sci-fi adverse, however I’ve been obsessed with the Murderbot Diaries, so I guess I’m a genre hopper. As long as the book has interesting characters, I’m pretty much down to read them :)
What’s your dream project? Doesn’t have to be book related.
My dream project changes from time to time. At this very moment, I’m interested in getting my illustration on packaging for beverages or chocolates. I would love to draw some ornate and beautiful work for companies looking for detailed lineart.
Are you taking on more clients? If so, where can we find you and your work online?
I am not taking on any clients at the moment due to my schedule, however, I am open to possibilities around the middle of next year.
You can find my works here:
General portfolio and shop www.ambisunart.com
Detailed illustration portfolio: https://www.behance.net/ambisun
Everything Else: https://ambisun.contactin.bio/
The best way to get in touch with me for work purpose is via email:
Anything else you’d like to add or would like T.D.’s readers to know?
T.D. here to take things back. That last one is so funny to me. You guys have no idea how many times Sun screamed at me as she read Ossuary. She hates what I do to her favorite characters and still pimps the books regardless XD That’s true friendship, it really is.
Sun really is amazing. If there’s anything you all should take away from this, it’s that. Her work is just… so beautiful, but even more beautiful than that is her personality, her heart. She’s one of the kindest people I’ve ever had the honor to know, and having her in my corner gives me the courage to do what I do. Which is funny, honestly, because she tells me the same. We’re both prone to stressing out, to taking on too much and then doing everything in our power to shoulder the burden until we physically can’t anymore. I don’t feel the stress vanish until I know Sun is there to fix any weird formatting issue that comes up, and when we do her tarot and oracle decks, having me take the writing reins gives her peace of mind in turn.
Before we close this blog out, I want to give an example of how Sun and I collaborate. We work very well together because we both trust each other. I very rarely if ever come to Sun with a cover design in mind. I simply give her the manuscript, let her read it, and whatever she comes up with is what we go with because it’s always, always, always perfect. I may offer a few details here or there (in the case of Ossuary, the initial design involved a hand holding a skull.
Because of Sun’s lessons, I could tell where she was going with it. The line of the arm was meant to guide the eye, but the existence of a hand meant the skull had to be smaller. Since I knew she wanted that angled line, I offered up the idea of a wand instead, because as anyone who’s read Ossuary knows, the cover shows off a very specific scene, one that changes the entire vibe of the story as a whole. From there, Sun ran with it.
From there, the talisman emerged from Sun asking if there were any defining characteristics that made it obvious the wand belonged to a specific character. In the original version of the story, there wasn’t. Conversation led to the talisman, which led to me writing it into the story, which led to it being a very impactful element to Thierry’s terrible, terrible experience over all.
Everything else about the cover came from Sun’s own imagination as she read the book itself, and any little tidbits I had in my Ossuary pinterest board, namely aesthetic skulls, the written epitaphs inside the Parisian Catacombs, and myriad semi-horny, semi-horror photos of vampires and witchy things as well as other book covers I liked the vibe of. The board guided the shape of Sun’s imaginings, but the contents itself are all her, and to be honest, most of the time I don’t even have a board for her XD. I’ve only just started making those to make life easier on the artists I work with, so honestly, this time I spoiled her.
We’re going to be working together on my next release, Infaust, coming early next year. I can’t wait to see what she does for it. She really loves drawing horror covers, so I think she’ll do something really amazing with the dark folklore aesthetic of the story, and with Hiraeth right after that—I’ll be finishing the last two chapters of that between now and the end of the year, taking my time as my energy allows. With any luck you’ll see two books next year with Sun’s beautiful artwork on them. Cross your fingers for us both!
That’ll do it for now, though. Thank you all for the understanding and patience as I figure out my new limits, and thank you for indulging me in these AMA’s. I’m not sure what next month will bring, but I’m hopeful it’ll lead to something good. Regardless, stay tuned, and check out Sun’s work if you need something beautiful to look at while you wait.
Until next time,
P.S. I just released a short, smutty little oneshot over on my brand new Itchio account to ring in the spooky season! It’s called Death-Knell and it’s a pretty fun time. If you’re interested in keeping an eye on what weird little projects I put out while I work around my burnout, definitely consider following me over on Itchio, as that will likely be the place I dump anything not worthy of a full publication release!