Judge a Photographer By His Book Covers

Photography: Zach Cordner

Zach Cordner decided that he needed to look like a wooly mammoth. A large beard wasn’t a requirement of the job but flying up to Wasilla to photograph Levi Johnston, the father of Sarah Palin’s grandchild, was going to mean spending a couple of days trekking through cold Alaskan woods shooting the outdoorsman doing what he loved best — if not killing animals then at least looking the part. Cordner’s image of Bristol Palin’s former fiancé wearing a camouflage jacket and peering out from behind pine trees was later used on the cover of Johnston’s book Deer in the Headlights: My Life in Sarah Palin’s Crosshairs. It was the fifteenth book cover that Cordner had been commissioned to shoot.

Although book covers are little different to any other photography commission, the special use to which the images are put does give them an extra appeal. A book cover won’t just sell a product in the way that the result of an advertising shoot will do. It will appear in stores across the country, on bookshelves around the world and it will help to summarize a cultural product. We might be told not to judge books by their covers but we do anyway, and we certainly buy them and recognize them by their covers. A photographer whose image appears on the cover of a bestselling book can know that his image has been printed thousands, if not millions, of times, has helped to create success — and will act as a calling card for future work.

The Cover Comes Before the Copy

Not of all that success is down to the photographer. Art directors at publishing houses are as much a part of the process as the photographers they hire. They’ll usually produce general ideas and use them to guide the photographer towards an image that the publishing company can use.

“Usually the art director will tell me a few concepts and I have to narrow it down to the right setup,” explains Cordner.

Nonetheless, Cordner will try to learn as much about the book and the author as he prepares for the shoot. That might not mean reading the book itself. The cover may be shot anywhere from three to eight months before the book’s release, and before the copy is available. When that happens, Cordner has to make do with the chapter outlines. Once he can understand what the book is about, he says, it’s easier to come up with the right concept for the cover.

And the concept he’ll be looking for is something simple, a hard-hitting image with little background noise and which can blend well with the design and the layout.

“The image has to be balanced with the book title so they complement each other and deliver a one-two punch that makes it stand out on bookstands,” he says.

It’s something that Cordner has managed to do with some success. His portfolio now includes the cover of Big Boy’s An XLife: Staying Big at Half the Size, which shows the formerly overweight disc jockey standing in front of his now unused 9XL sized t-shirt. The image that Cordner shot of Chelsea Handler’s Are You There Vodka, It’s Me Chelsea ended up on the cover of a book that went on to reach the top of the New York Times bestsellers list.

Winning Book Covers

1.     Build a portrait portfolio.

Covers of memoirs and much other non-fiction depend on portraiture. A record of expressive images will help persuade buyers.

2.     Know what a good book cover should do.

An effective book cover should be simple, communicative, free of distracting backgrounds and well-matched to design elements.

3.     Create connections.

Not easy to do but if you can get to know art directors — or people who know them — you’ll be on your way to building a client base.

4.     Don’t depend on them.

Even for established professionals like Zach Cordner, book cover jobs are occasional treats complemented by magazine jobs and other commercial shoots.

Connections Help

That cover was designed by Michael Nagin, an art director at Simon and Schuster, with whom Cordner also collaborated on Kendra Wilkinson’s memoir Sliding into Home,” and it’s those connections that are vital for a regular flow of book cover commissions. Cordner won his first book cover shoot after being recommended to Simon and Schuster by another photographer. Other art directors who saw his work then began contacting him to shoot covers for their projects, giving him a network of art directors at several publishing houses.

Not all photographers rely on those connections or even on commissions to produce book covers though. Spanish photographer Edward Olive has received commissions to shoot book covers but his stock images, sold through Getty, have also been used by publishing companies.

It does help though that Olive is also known as a destination wedding and art photographer. While a book cover is a form of photography with its own demands, art directors will be looking at a photographer’s other work as a guide to his or her capabilities and especially their ability to portray personality.

“If you want to shoot covers it comes down to a strong portrait portfolio,” says Cordner. “Publishers are looking for photographers that have solid skills in lighting and posing. Also being able to put up with celebrity egos is always a big plus.”

Work in other fields will also make sure that there’s income between shooting book covers, a consideration that’s becoming increasingly important as the publishing world feels the pressure from ebooks and pirated downloads. In addition to working with publishers, Zach Cordner also shoots regularly for magazines and for companies.

Shooting book covers then requires connections and experience with portraiture. It helps to know the right people as well as the right way to put across the message and feel of the book. But it helps most of all to shoot the cover of a successful book — even if that means looking like a mammoth to do it.

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