Interview: Cover Designer Jenny Zemanek

Today I have the wonderful pleasure of interviewing Jenny Zemanek, award-winning book cover designer from Seedlings Design Studio.

How did you get into book cover design?

I started a book review blog in 2010 as an additional creative outlet to working as a graphic designer. I’ve always been an avid reader and book lover, so the blog gave me the opportunity to not only do something I loved, but also interact with people who shared that same love. Over the course of the six years I ran the blog, self-publishing and indie publishing became increasingly popular, and suddenly a long-shot dream of designing book covers seemed possible.

I started by re-designing the covers of some of my favorite books and began posting them on the blog both for fun and to build a portfolio of work. My very first client saw one of those posts and got in touch to see if I might be interested in designing the cover for her book, and I nearly fell out of my chair in my haste to respond with a very enthusiastic YES! Shortly thereafter, a small publisher ran a cover design contest open to anyone and everyone, and I decided to try my luck. I had the very surreal experience of winning that contest, and was commissioned to work with them on the final design. Winning the contest and the interest of that very first client (thank you Intisar Khanani!) gave me the courage to shift my freelance design business from wedding stationery and corporate branding to full-time cover design, and it’s been one of the very best decisions I’ve ever made.

What's your process like? What can a client expect when working with you?

I start each and every job by sending clients a short artwork form to fill out to give me an idea of what they’re looking for in their cover design. Every client is different – some provide a great deal of very detailed information and have definitive ideas as to what they want, and others have absolutely no idea where to start and look to me for guidance. The form helps both types of clients (and everyone in between) get a few thoughts down on the page to give me a starting point.

After reviewing the form, I put together idea boards. The idea boards consist of raw stock images, rough sketches and existing covers for inspiration grouped together into various design concepts for the client’s review. These boards are meant to get ideas flowing and to give the client a variety of design options to consider before we move on to comps. I always strive to make my process collaborative, and I want my clients to feel comfortable both expressing ideas and providing feedback.

Once a client and I have discussed the concepts presented on the boards and we’re both comfortable with a chosen design direction, I move forward with comps. Since I work in a variety of styles from photographic to illustrated to typographic, the comps can take various forms, but they’re all essentially rough drafts submitted to clients based on their feedback from the boards. I typically then make revisions to the comp of a client’s choosing and move forward with final front cover artwork.

Any favorite genres you prefer to work in and why?

Each genre comes with its own set of challenges and I love getting the chance to push myself to try a variety of new things, but I do have a soft spot for the fantasy genre (YA and adult both). I love the broad scope of visual creativity that accompanies this genre, from vast or unusual worlds to mythological creatures and magic; there are so many opportunities for me to take an idea and just run wild with it.

What do you do to recharge your creative energy?

I of course love to read, but I also really love taking classes. I find nothing inspires me more than learning something new, I get that giddy sense of anticipation and can’t wait to put what I’ve learned into practice.

Right now I’m absolutely obsessed with lettering, and I hope one day to get proficient enough at it that I can create completely custom title work for my book covers. Lettering is a very time-consuming process though, so right now more often than not it just makes more sense to find a gorgeous font and use that as a foundation.

I’m also really focused on illustration at the moment, and am actually going back to school in October, November and December of this year to broaden my skill set in that area. Illustrated covers are my passion, and as with lettering, I hope to be able to create more custom artwork for my clients in the future rather than relying on stock illustrations as the starting point for my design work.

Where have you drawn inspiration from when developing your style?

I’m hugely influenced by the Mid-Century Modern design aesthetic, which I think really comes through in my illustrated covers. My illustrations tend to be very stylized and graphic, dominated by more simplistic shapes and bold, flat color. I love bringing in texture to add interest as well, so my illustrated covers usually have a lot of grit accompanying the smooth vector-drawn shapes.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Don’t be so afraid to takes risks! I dreamed about working on book covers for years before I finally took the leap and gave myself permission to try something new. It’s so easy to settle into a routine, and it can be hard to justify walking away from a job that’s making money for something with no guarantee.

I’ve taken risks twice now in my design career, first when I left my corporate job to go full-time freelance (yikes!) and then again when I shifted my freelance business from stationery to cover design. There was so much stress both times, so many what-if questions and second-guessing, but I’m humbled every day by my clients. Their enthusiasm for my artwork and their trust in me to give them the best cover I’m capable of creating makes every stress-induced chocolate-eating binge worth it!

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Review: Traitors' Fate by Andy Peloquin

Ilanna, Master of the Night Guild, has waged a war for eight years to cleanse her city of the rival criminal organization that nearly destroyed it. When she uncovers a ring of slavers trafficking young girls for sexual servitude around the continent, she is forced to venture into the city of Voramis, the seat of her enemy's power, to hunt down the true culprit and put an end to the enslavement of innocents.

But her enemies will not be so easily eliminated. She must turn to the one man certain to get the job done: the Hunter, legendary assassin of Voramis.

The Hunter willingly accepts a fortune in gold to kill one of the richest men in his city. A mansion fortress and a private army should prove no match for his inhuman abilities.

But as he stalks his target, he unmasks a bloodthirsty conspiracy in the guise of a holy mission. If he doesn't stop the men responsible, the gruesome murders will continue and people—including those he has sworn to protect—will die. 

4 of 5 stars

This book is comprised of two novellas, and straddles the space between two trilogies. In the first novella, we follow Ilanna, the leader of the Night Guild, as she and a small crew track down the members of a rival guild, the Bloody Hand, who are running a slave trade and sex trafficking operation through her city. Ilanna is enraged by this for territorial reasons and personal ones.

In her plans to destroy their leader and their trade, she takes great risk, following the Bloody Hand into their own territory. There was a lot at stake, the tension was high, and the plot unpredictable. I thoroughly enjoyed this novella.

The second half of the book is a novella from the point of view of an assassin known as The Hunter. I think it serves to set up this character for the next trilogy. Without giving too many spoilers, we follow him through a complex job during which he is sidetracked a bit, developing reasons to turn one hit into two and further complicate his own plans. The Hunter is skilled and resourceful in his actions. I didn't quite connect with him, though he is a well-written character. For me, this second novella had less tension and I wasn't thoroughly hooked into it.

There's a lot of great world building in both stories. Overall, Traitor's Fate is a dynamic and immersive story of rival thieves guilds, rife with intricacy and intrigue.

You can find it here on Amazon and here on Goodreads.

Review: The Finder of the Lucky Devil by Megan Mackie

What would you do if someone dangerous asked you to help them find...well... you?

Rune Leveau has a magical Talent for Finding things and a mountain of problems. Those problems get worse when she’s approached by a charming, but dangerous, cybernetically-altered, corporate spy. He wants her to help find a wanted criminal named Anna Masterson, who went missing six years ago. That should be easy for a woman who's special gift is finding things, right? But Rune has a dangerous secret. She IS Anna Masterson.

Over the past six years, St. Benedict has searched for the Masterson Files, a computer program rumored to do the impossible—cast magic spells. The technology could reshape the world. For his own reasons, he's determined to find it and the mysterious woman connected to it, Anna Masterson, before anyone else. Having exhausted his other options, he’s left with a new hope that this Finder of the Lucky Devil can lead him to the prize he has sought for so long. But the Finder is proving difficult, and St. Benedict isn't going to take no for an answer.

Set in an alternate Chicago, where technology and magic are in competition with each other, this fast paced Cat-and-Mouse chase makes The Finder of the Lucky Devil a welcome addition to your urban fantasy/cyberpunk library.

4 of 5 stars

The Lucky Devil is a very cool bar and restaurant in a fantasy version of Chicago. Owner Rune Leveau is The Finder, a human with one simple magical Talent: she can find just about anything. People drop into The Lucky Devil to make wishes and ask favors, seeking her help.

Rune only recently inherited the bar, and she's having trouble making the mortgage payment on time, so she's pretty much open to taking any Finder job people request, until a corporate agent named St. Benedict walks in. He's mostly human, with some technological "upgrades" that help him perform his spy-like duties more effectively. He needs Rune's help finding one person, and he's offering a large payment. There's one problem, one reason Rune turns down the job: the person he's looking for is someone she's spent years hiding from the government.

St. Benedict is nothing if not resourceful, and through a crazy set of circumstances, Rune finds herself seeking his help in no time.

The adventurous next few days takes them through a maze of the mysterious and fantastical underbelly of Chicago that tests their skills, their loyalties, and their conviction. 

This is a fun read with some heart stopping moments. I did not accurately predict how it would end, and Mackie so artfully dropped the bottom out of my heart then splashed me with a satisfying thrill of hope. 

If you're looking for a fresh urban detective-style fantasy with wizards, fairies, corporate spies, shapeshifters, and even a mermaid dog stylist, don't pass this one up. It might be just the thing you need to find.