Playing with Art and Book Design: An Interview with Miles Tan

by KB Meniado

We do judge some books by their covers, and like any self-respecting reader and book lover, I always swoon a little whenever I see pretty editions. Pretty is subjective, of course, but if we’re talking pretty as in lovely with a side of heart-skipping, then I think Miles Tan’s works qualify. I’ve long crushed on and actually have some of the books she’s worked on, and intended to publish this interview for Women’s Month, but of course, anytime is a good time to celebrate women and promote good art! And right timing, too, because Miles will have a talk about book cover design this May 25 (details below!). Here, she shares her creative process and tips on deciding your art’s worth. Enjoy!

Miles Tan is a full-time web and graphic designer. Most of her original art can be found on the book covers for independent authors of the #romanceclass community, which she’s also a part of, and #HeistClub. She is also a cover designer of Anvil Publishing’s Spark Books imprint such as Midnights in Bali and Don’t Tell My Mother. When her muse is taking a break, she’s either replaying Mass Effect 2 or getting through her TBR pile. (Lastly, you may have read one of her books.)

Visit her website / Email her / Follow on IG and Twitter @maedinn / Buy her books: via the Author (print)Amazon

Hi, Miles! Thanks for making time for this. My first question is: Have you always seen yourself designing book covers?

I have always seen myself doing art, regardless of the medium. I did take this in college, after all (haha!). Though I haven’t particularly seen myself doing book covers. I mean, I was interested, but I didn’t realize I could actually do this for work.

After writing Finding X (check out my thread of feels here!—KB), I had a couple of ideas to write, but I encountered an artist’s block and couldn’t produce anything creative for myself. I was given an opportunity to do book covers for Irene Recio, Laney Castro and Ana Tejano, which was then followed by Anvil Publishing’s SparkNA imprint, and the rest was history. It felt great that I was still producing creatively through other people’s books. It also felt great that I have been able to help their books look good. The upside to all of this is, it has lifted my artist’s block while still loving doing the work.

Can you take us through the process of conceptualizing and producing a book cover design? How do you choose a part from the story to highlight? How about typeface, colors, size of text?

The authors would usually already know what they want to see on their cover. Or they may not know what they want when we first talk, so I ask them a few basic questions:

  1. Do they have samples of covers or posters or artwork that they like? Why do they like it?
  2. Is there a specific scene they want to show? A feeling they want it to evoke?
  3. Is there a particular color scheme they want to use?

I also ask for when do they need the cover, so we’d know our timetable.
From there, I create rough studies for them, which can either be illustrated sketches or straight up photo mockups.

In an ideal situation, the author would pick one and only then do I start working on the full cover. If they couldn’t decide yet, I work on the feedback they give. There may be a lot of back and forth when this happens, but a good cover design owes much to honest feedback as it does hard work.

Typeface and text sizes are mostly chosen or done intuitively, or if the author has specific requests. But I make it a point, always, that both title and author name are legible. I make it a point to check my final artworks when it’s a small thumbnail in a sea of other book covers. I check it’s still readable in black or white, and if it’s accessible to the color blind. I make adjustments whenever I see fit. For me, it shouldn’t just be pretty but also readable.

Sounds very detail-oriented, and I can imagine the level of hard work and creativity that goes into it all. Can you share with us the most rewarding projects you’ve done so far? Any challenges you’re proud to have accomplished? 🙂

All of them are rewarding, for sure! Challenge-wise, I’ve received a few requests with really unique specifics, and some with portraiture, which I haven’t done in a while since doing it back in uni. There was one where my main task was to make the leading man look like exactly from the photo reference (Like Nobody’s Watching by Tara Frejas). I love how the colors turned out as well. I’m ready to take on another one of those, world! There’s also the challenge of making the colors come out right once printed, especially when it’s a mix of photo and illustrated graphics. 

How do you deal with different kinds of clients?

With an additional amount of patience! I also try to figure out the pain points of the relationship and why it happens (Is the design style not working? Are they looking for something else?) so I give them options I know I can knock out, or ask them outright if there’s something very specific they’re looking for. As I mentioned earlier, communication is key.

With all these back-and-forths, what is your average time of project completion?

In an ideal world, I allocate a lead time of three to four weeks to complete a book cover project. This already includes revisions. This is so I have room while working on my day job as well. But sometimes, we’re on a very strict timetable. There was one time, I had to finish four book covers in a span of three weeks! Managing time is really a challenge when client deadlines move. I’ve learned to take on just one project at a time so that they don’t overlap, but sometimes, the milestones still overlap because of moving deadlines!

Moving deadlines can be a pain in the butt but we all have to deal 🙂 Following that, especially for those who are interested to give book cover design a go, how do you decide what’s “enough and fair” for both the client and you?

From the very start of my freelancing career, I’ve been advised to have a standard rate per hour or per product for the core work that I do. This is so I have a starting point, and I can easily scale up or down, depending on what the project needs. It’s also easy to set a standard rate with book designs because I’ve already established the process of how things go on my end. It also helps that I have them posted up on my site so a prospective client knows the rate to expect. I decide on what’s enough and fair by figuring out what they need for the project. The client may have already commissioned someone else for the artwork they want to use for the cover and just want it laid out nicely, or they need help conceptualizing from the start. It also depends on how much time and work the project entails. I also offer a payment plan for bigger projects so that they don’t have to pay it all in one go.

Is there any author you’d love to make a book cover for? Any book cover you’d like to recreate?

I’d love to make a book cover for Mina V. Esguerra. Create one and be a part of the world she’s built, the one that paved the way for #romanceclass. I also hope I could have the opportunity to recreate Beginner’s Guide by Six de los Reyes, either in illustration or photo. Want the challenge to take on a new spin on one of NPR’s top books of 2016. 😉

No plans on doing yours? 😉

Durn, I haven’t actually thought of this yet! I’m actually pretty happy with what my friend Hiyas has done for Finding X. If I do decide to recreate its cover, it might be after I finish writing a couple more books! And it just might still be illustrated. And yes, still with the element of Matteo’s blue hair 😉

Ah, we can’t lose the blue, EVER. Speaking of not losing, do you have any tips or recommendations, such as workshops and lessons, for the aspiring?

There aren’t any local workshops specifically for book cover designs that I know about. Only online stuff, but I haven’t tried those so I can’t recommend. I do suggest following design blogs and artist accounts with the art and style that capture your imagination. I admire works by Jenna Stempel-Lobell, Emily Mahon, Leo Nickolls, and Jim Tierney. I also follow Spine Magazine for cover news as well. But [for the first time], I’m actually doing a #romanceclass lecture about book cover design with Mina on May 25!

[As for advice]: Be patient with your own self, and the challenges given to you by a project. Be kind to yourself, and don’t spread yourself too thin. It’s okay to not do everything! And definitely keep lines of communication open with your client. And, for the love of everything, RSI (repetitive strain injury) is no fun so don’t forget to do your stretches! ☁️

For more info about Miles Tan’s book cover design lecture, visit the #romanceclass website. Get copies of her books here.
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