Cover-Artist Interview with Maria Zannini

Okay, I LOVE saying this woman’s last name.

This month I thought I’d do something a little different. Covers are the first thing a potential reader notices about your book. It’s the first step in grabbing the reader’s attention. With that in mind, this month’s interview is with Maria Zaninni, an author who decided to become a cover artist after putting out several book with Samhain Publishing.

So let’s begin…

1. Let’s get to know you a bit. Where are you from, and what do you do?

I’ve come full circle in my life. I was born in Texas, but grew up in Chicago. Now I’m back in Texas.
I knew early on I was going to be a commercial artist. My plan was to work at one of the big advertising agencies in Chicago. I even had an ace in the hole. The father of one of my friends was a well known artist in the business–one of the biggies. He took an early interest in my goals since neither of his sons were interested in following in his footsteps. Whenever I was ready, he’d make sure I’d intern with the best.
Then I got married and forgot all about my career plans. D’oh!
But what is meant to be will always find a way to come about. I returned to university after I married (and relocated to Texas) and earned my degree in graphic design. You might say I got lucky the hard way.


Seasons rgb, FINAL, for diva2. With all the risks and uncertainty around publishing, what was it that drew you to a career in creating cover art?
Someone once compared indie publishing with the Wild West and I think it’s true. There’s a freedom here I’ve never experienced in other careers. After 30+ years in the corporate world, I’ve reached a point in my life where I want to have fun and do what I want.

Writers sometimes have to toe the line when it comes to genre and style (or take on a pen name), but with cover art, one day might find me creating an epic fantasy spread, and on the next, I’ll do a quirky comedic mystery. I love the variety–and no pseudonyms required.
I’m naturally well organized and self-disciplined so the freelance life suits me perfectly.


3. With the rise of self-published books, a cover has become more important than ever. How do you come up with an eye-catching design?
I’m going to tell you my super secret strategy. With every project I try to imagine how it would look if it were a movie poster. I want to achieve that kind of drama. If the client trusts me, I can usually create something bigger than life. My goal is to stop the casual viewer in his tracks and entice him to open the book to find out more. If I can get you to read the back cover blurb or open the book, I’ve done my job. The rest is up to the author.


4. I know you used to write novels. Does your process for designing differ from when you used to write?
Yes and no. I’m probably more sensitive to the author having been in their shoes, but the actual design process hasn’t changed. I’d like to think that I’m better at explaining why they should choose one design over another, and to go beyond the superficial of a “pretty” cover. I want them to understand the marketing aspects of their book cover design and how to leverage that to their advantage.


5. What’s your favorite part of designing a cover?
Well, it makes my day when I hear: “Wow! That’s better than I could’ve ever imagined.” But the artist inSeeing Ghosts, FINAL, RGB, Front Cover, 3 x 4half, 96dpi me relishes the
first few seconds after I read a book’s blurb. In my mind’s eye I can already imagine what I want to see and the gears start to turn. Sometimes the images I want to composite are easy to find, but most of the time it requires a lot of manipulation and Photoshop magic. It’s that moment when I realize I can pull off what I initially imagined that gets me excited.

It’s nerve-wracking until I hear from the author. Did I create the look they wanted? Was it better than they envisioned? Are they as jazzed about the final layout as I am? When they tell me I hit it out of the park, it sends me over the moon. I want nothing better than to please and surprise a client with something they hadn’t thought of before, and to go above and beyond the book buyer’s expectations too.


6. How much input do you want from the author?
Like Goldilocks and the three bears, there are three kinds of authors. There’s the kind who treats his book blurb like a government secret and expects me to do some fancy mind reading about the story. Then there’s the other extreme who gives me so many facts that it becomes almost a manifesto in itself. Finally, there’s the author who gives me just the right amount of information to start work.

In some ways, I prefer more information than less because it gives me the chance to scan the copy for keywords. It’s the keywords that help me isolate what’s important and intriguing. Still, it’s not foolproof. Sometimes the author wants it all. Every little detail is significant to him and he can’t bear to part with anything.
The nice thing about having someone else design your cover is that you’ll generally get an impartial opinion on what is and is not essential. One powerful image can say more about a story than a dozen details that are important only to the author. You don’t want to burden the cover with minutiae.

Give me the high points, but allow me to use some creative license so I can take it to the next level.


7. How many hours go into an average book cover layout?
Hoo, boy. That’s a loaded question and it’s a two-parter. You see, I usually send a low resolution dummy to the client first. This is a rough draft of how I think the cover should look. The manipulation is loose and the details are roughed in. The art might still have its watermark because I hadn’t bought it yet. My goal is to provide the client with a concept. If he likes it, or has changes, I then go back, buy the art, sharpen everything up, and finish the cover.

In the beginning though, a lot depends on whether I find the right art and how much it needs to be manipulated. Sometimes I know immediately what needs to go where, but finding the right art, or even ‘close’ art eludes me. I have a lot of art databases at my disposal. Some are more expensive than others. This is where the bulk of my time is spent. I’ve spent anywhere from two to ten hours looking for art.

Sometimes it’s the manipulation. One client needed the color of the model’s clothing changed. I wasn’t sure I could do it because it was a dramatic shift and I knew I’d lose some of the details. In the end, it came out fine, but it took a lot of time (at high magnification) to compare the original with the modified art to catch where the details were lost and try to put them back in.

The average cover will take anywhere from 10 to 20 hours–more if looking for art takes longer, and less if the cover gods are on my side.

Since I’m not a photographer, I’m at the mercy at what’s available. If I can manipulate it to become what I need, I’m overjoyed, but first I need good base art.


8. I heard Nana, the wonder dog watches you work. Being an opinionated dog, does she ever share her border collie insights?
Nana cannot stand not to be with me. She would give up food, water, or even going outside if it meant she was going to lose sight of me. I’m beginning to suspect she might think I’m her sheep.

The Hard Choices, 4x6, 72dpiShe is definitely an opinionated dog and perhaps even psychic. Right now, she’s sitting on an office chair, snoring, but as soon as I typed her name she woke up and glanced over at the screen. Now she’s nuzzling me and giving me kisses. That could be Border Collie for “Don’t forget to tell her how cute I am–and FAST”. “Tell Darke I can outrun lions, and tigers, and rabbits–well, rabbits for sure anyway.” *pets Nana* – Darke

As for what she thinks of my work, unless there’s an animal on the cover, she pretty much ignores it. She’s the same way with television. She doesn’t care if people are on the screen, but let a horse, dog, or reptile show up and she’s eyeballing them until they leave the scene. I’ll be sure to ask for her opinion if I ever need to put an animal on the cover.


9. We’ve all heard the saying you can’t judge a book by its cover, but what do you say to those authors who don’t like the idea of paying someone to do a cover for them?
To each his own. I don’t like paying for a lot of things. Heck, I’m the original frugalista! But very few things are actually free, let alone free and high quality. Everything you see has a value. It’s up to the individual to decide if it has value for him.

Case in point: I’m a darn good editor, but even I know to spend the extra money and hire a professional editor. I need an objective opinion to read the copy to make sure it’s free of mistakes and readable.

The same way with cover art. If you’ve got some talent with layout and design and can figure your way around PhotoShop, by all means try it, then find an unbiased opinion for your cover. That’s harder than it looks because no one wants to hurt your feelings. I’ve seen countless posts where people rave about an ugly cover only to spare a friend’s feelings. Nobody wants to be the one to burst his bubble.

There are a few web sites and blogs that actively hunt down ugly covers and show them off, but I think that’s wrong. Yes, maybe they need to be told that it’s a bad cover, but doing it in a public forum doesn’t seem very nice or professional.
So my advice is to get the best you can whether it’s free or for big bucks. You owe that to yourself.


10. A question for your fans. Have you put away your writer’s quill for good?
Ha! If I had left the decision up to my husband, he’d tell me to stick to covers. He thinks I spent too much time writing for little return. Whereas my covers have brought me recognition, some fans, and even an award.

My plan for now is to let my published books finish their run with their respective publishers and then get my rights back. I have several ideas for sequels for a couple of them, plus a nearly completed manuscript for a brand new story. By the time all this comes about, I should be able to self-publish several volumes at once. This could be useful from a marketing standpoint.

For now, I’m happy creating covers and banners. The books will happen when they happen. I don’t plan on leaving this earth any time soon, so I still have time.

Thanks for having me on, Darke. If I can answer anyone’s questions about cover art I’d be glad to answer.

You heard her folks. Do you have a question about covers?

Where to find Maria online:


Maria’s Portfolio:Β


About Darke Conteur
Darke Conteur is a writer at the mercy of her Muse. The author of stories in several genres, she prefers to create within the realms Science Fiction and Dark Fantasy. A pagan at heart, her personal goal it to find her balance within nature; exploring the dark through her stories and the light through her beliefs. When not writing or working with crystals, she enjoys knitting, gardening, cooking and very loud music.

24 Responses to Cover-Artist Interview with Maria Zannini

  1. Thank you for letting me have center stage, Darke! Of course, Nana, the wonder dog keeps pushing me out of the way. πŸ™‚

  2. Angela Brown says:

    Maria is so talented with words and drawing. I’ve enjoyed reading her works and seeing her fantastic covers. πŸ™‚

  3. Mike Keyton says:

    How much does Nana charge?

  4. DRC says:

    Maria Zannini is my idol… πŸ™‚ writing and book covers. Life couldn’t get much better than that for me…

    • If I could do covers, I think I’d be doing the same thing.

      • DRC says:

        I love doing book covers, but I want to do a course in photoshop design before I start charging as I feel I’m not giving a professional enough quality…if you get my meaning.

      • I’ve always enjoyed designing. The tools today are different. In some ways that’s good if you have a nerd talent for software, but it’s also a headache if you can’t get the software to do what you want.

    • πŸ™‚ Thanks, hon. I’ve reached a point in my life where I want to do the things I love and not the things I have to do.

      • I meant to add that Photoshop is a bear to learn. I recently updated to the latest version and I was shocked how many more tools they added. It’s all cool and very wonderful but it was a little intimidating until I had a chance to use them regularly.

      • DRC says:

        I know what you mean. I’m self-taught in photoshop CS3 but my way in doing things isn’t always the right way. I ‘wing it’ if you know what I mean. I’ve done numberous covers, posters, even done the graphics and logos for the company I worked for (still do, freelance) but if I’m to go down your route – which I would LOVE – I feel I need to learn how use it properly in order to offer a more professional service. I feel I can’t charge otherwise… I’ll get there πŸ™‚

      • I can barely use the paint program I downloaded….

      • I know you will. It just takes practice…and alcohol. LOL.

        I was lucky, The company I used to work for hired me even though I didn’t know Photoshop. It so happened they were just then switching over to the Photoshop format so I hired in at the right time. Over the years and through the many upgrades, you get a hang for all the tools and how best to use them for the special effects.

  5. Jenny Schwartz says:

    Really interesting. Self-publishing does feel like the Wild West. It’ll be interesting to see how it all settles, what the new landscape looks like. Meantime I think your advice is gold, Maria. Put out the best you can.

    And you can definitely see the difference between professional and amateur covers.

    Thanks for the interview, Darke

  6. I hear you about scouring for base images! I’ve done that a couple times and it’s NO FUN. Whew! Five hours later when your brain feels like it’s ready to explode… =)

    You do awesome work.

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