Judged by Its Cover: Dean Samed Talks Cover Art and Entrepreneurship
Referred to as “the UK’s most prolific genre cover artist” by DIYPhotography, illustrator and digital artist Dean Samed has never been one to shy away from a challenge. Responsible for art that has accompanied books by Stephen King, Clive Barker, H.P. Lovecraft, and Graham Masterton, Samed thoroughly appreciates the importance of cover art in the overall scope of book marketing.
It only seems a natural progression, then, that Dean’s latest venture, NeoStock, sees him depart from the custom creation of artistic imagery (and his strict focus on horror/alternative genres) and into stock asset production for a wide range of publishers, authors, and fellow artists.
As a new and fast-growing resource, NeoStock’s unique, community-driven approach to stock photography caught our eye – so we sat down with Dean to talk about his history as an artist, what it takes to create an attractive book cover, and the genesis and hopeful future of NeoStock.
AutoCrit: You’ve grown quite a reputation as “the horror guy” – a formidable niche presence when it comes to eye-catching genre cover art. Give us a bit of insight into your artistic background.
Dean Samed: I started freelancing very young, at fourteen years old. I was doing stuff for musicians; event flyers, posters, and then album covers. This was before the internet, so people had to travel to my house and take the files on a ZIP disk. That’s how far back it goes!
After that, I was working day jobs and doing small freelance stuff in the evening, but then the e-publishing boom kicked off. My first love has always been horror artwork, so even though I was doing commissioned stuff for music, I was doing my own horror art on the side.
I’d posted some horror artwork on Deviant Art, and an author contacted me. He was writing H.P. Lovecraft fanfiction, for the joy of it, and he asked if he could use some of my artwork for one of his short stories. I said yeah, go ahead. I didn’t charge him or anything, and then [later] he came back and said he liked the last piece and asked if I could do him something else for another story he was pitching to a publisher. I said yeah, it’ll cost this much, did the commission, and then he came back with another title and told me ‘We’re published, and I’ve asked the publisher if you can do the book cover.’ I said ‘sweet!’
The publisher was Permuted Press, when they were going on a mad rampage, signing everything, and I got on well with the original owner, prior to their takeover. I started promoting aggressively within that niche – I can’t remember what year it was, but I started doing digital art and book cover design full time. I put my full attention into it, to ride the publishing boom.
I also did some Dark Tower fan art, which I put on Deviant Art, and that was picked up by a European publisher to be used for the Stephen King Dark Tower books in European markets. They actually commissioned me to do the full series.
A Clive Barker job came through pretty much the same way. I posted some cenobite fan art on Deviant Art, and I sent a tweet directly to Clive Barker. He messaged me back saying he loved it and asked if I wanted to do more – so I actually did a short series of comic book covers for a Hellraiser series from Boom! Studios [as a result].
Those are two titans of the genre I can cross off my bucket list. Once you’ve done work for Clive Barker and Stephen King, you can’t really go anywhere after that! I think you’ve just completed the game.
AC: What do you think are the most important points you learned about the business of cover art during your time as an artist, and why exactly publishers sought you out?
DS: In the book cover sphere, there are a lot of generalists who will do a lot of different niches and genres, whereas I’m a horror fan through and through. I live it; I breathe it, I watch horror films every day, I read the books, I read the comics – I’m fully immersed. So I think I had quite a lot of context and experience.
By the time I got to that stage [of being in-demand], I was nearly 15 years deep into doing digital horror artwork, so I’d learned a lot of tricks. I drew a line in the sand, and I specifically said to everybody I am the horror specialist. That was just a way to differentiate me from the horde. Not only that, but my style was a little bit different. I prefer to do creature feature covers – things like body horror, and demons, creatures, monsters, and kaiju. They’re the kind of things that not many others within the sphere are competent at.
There are things these guys will absolutely decimate me at – things like fantasy, with the stylised colors, the swishy pinks and purples, and head-swaps and things like that. So I’m not good at everything – but the things I am good at, I managed to excel and gain the attention of the authors and publishers I want to work with.
AC: The old saying is “never judge a book by its cover” – but people do judge the aesthetic quite heavily. Do you have any top tips for authors looking out for a cover artist?
DS: An instant test you can do for gauging how serious they are is checking whether they have a branded domain and website portfolio. See if they have a dedicated website, as opposed to [just] a social media profile like a Facebook account or an Instagram – preferably with their own domain, as opposed to a suffix like .wordpress.com or .weebly or .wix. That is one instant way to figure out how serious your [potential] designer is.
Check the frequency with which they’re posting new work. Some will be working part-time in the evenings, with other plates spinning like day jobs or families, and there are people that dedicate themselves to it full time – but the main thing is whether they’ll be able to articulate your vision, and whether they’ll be able to do it on time and be personable.
It’s just a case of: do they have a portfolio that contains similar books you like the style of? Do they seem to be posting consistently? And do you believe they’ll be able to complete the job on time and with the least amount of friction possible? I think that’s about it!
AC: There are a whole host of bad book covers out there, alongside websites dedicated to making fun of them. We can often sit, as third parties, and amuse/bemuse ourselves over what the author might have been thinking when they published with an objectively atrocious cover design – but what do you think are the main reasons some authors go ahead with it? Is it simply a belief that cover art is not particularly important?
DS: There are a lot of different answers to this. One is the client budget – they’ve decided that they want to spend $25, and they’ve got somebody who’s worth $25, and they’ve churned it out. That’s number one: price.
The second is many authors have just tried to do it themselves. What exacerbates this issue is that if they exist within an echo chamber and have a close-knit group of friends as supporters, everybody will tell them it’s wonderful, while any discerning viewer knows it’s not.
There are very straightforward ways to gauge whether it’s a hit or not – even posting it on a platform you have no control over, like a Facebook group. If you get loads of likes and comments from strangers – people you don’t know – then you know you’re onto a winner.
AC: Moving on to your current status… you’ve started an exciting new resource for authors and designers, called NeoStock. Tell us about it – where did it come from, what’s the ethos, and how does it work?
DS: As I’ve been a cover artist in the publishing world for a while now, the number one stumbling block for me has been finding decent stock photography to depict the characters that the authors and the publishers have in their heads.
In the stock photography world, the vast majority of the content out there is produced by photographers who are guessing what graphic designers want. They have no context – no real idea what’s needed. There are issues with female characters being unnecessarily sexualized – you know, skimpy bikinis, unpractical armor; there’s not enough poses, not enough dramatic intensity, the model doesn’t look right. For all cover artists, even today, it’s the biggest pain point for producing composited photographic cover art. That’s the big stumbling block.
So I decided I would create a company to address this and solve the problems of book cover artists, graphic designers, and digital artists worldwide. That’s the idea behind it!
AC: What do you think gets more favor in the industry – digital photographic cover art, or original illustrations?
DS: I’m sure if the authors could afford it, they would favor original illustration work for most things. But when composited work is done well, I think it’s some of the best work. I know I’m biased, but it has a finesse that’s unmatched by any other art form, in my opinion.
Illustrated work is good for huge concepts that are just unfeasible for composited artwork – that’s what we call photo-manipulated artwork – but the price point for a bespoke illustration is a lot higher than getting someone to do a photo-manipulated cover for you.
AC: You officially launched NeoStock in December 2017, following a controlled “beta” period. How has the response been so far?
DS: The entire venture was bootstrapped – there was no Kickstarter, no bank loan, and no money from friends or family. The whole thing was started on my income as a cover artist. Even to this day that’s how it’s run. We operated from a Facebook group for the first year, and then in December 2017, we launched the official platform where people can buy direct from the website, and everything is automated.
The response has been epic, right from the beginning. Within our focus group on Facebook, we’re nearly at 1,500 members now. Very high engagement, lots of comments and likes and shares on the posts. Lots of support – the artists supporting each other, the models join in, publishers, authors… it’s a really, really good community. I love it.
Our USP is that we involve publishing professionals in the process of what we’re going to shoot. I had my assumptions before I started this business, but through the focus group, I’ve discovered what exactly authors, publishers, and cover designers need. I had a fairly good idea, but I’ve been surprised by a few things – particularly the urban fantasy niche, which I didn’t know was so popular… but now we shoot more urban fantasy than anything else [because the demand is so high]!
AC: What’s it like, moving from artist to creative director?
DS: I’ve enjoyed it! For one, it gets me out of the house. I’m not hunched over the computer, in a dark room like a pit gremlin. I’m doing things outdoors, going to photo shoots.
It requires a different set of skills to do that kind of work. It’s more mechanical. Lots of editing, lots of social media, lots of SEO. It’s a different suite of skills, and a large portion of getting this business going in the early days is nurturing the community – answering questions, posting content, creating mood boards, and basically creating a community and letting people know what we’re doing and how we can help them.
AC: How would you recommend emerging authors approach stock imagery for their book? Diving straight in and just slapping on a stock image with your title usually isn’t the best idea…
DS: My recommendation here is to listen to your cover artist. You’ve spent time seeking out the right artist for your manuscript, that you’ve spent x amount of months working on. Hopefully, you’re prepared to pay them a decent amount to receive high caliber work – because why spend two months on a manuscript and then put a ten dollar cover on it? It makes no sense whatsoever.
Speak to your cover artist – say ‘this is the concept,’ and let them decide what image would work best. It may not even be an image from NeoStock – it may be from elsewhere, but if they say ‘I believe this is the one that will produce the most high-impact cover for you,’ then I would say that’s probably the best approach to take. Trust in the cover artist.
I would give this advice: you have a choice. You can either have extreme narrative accuracy – so try and botch everything together to be as accurate to the story as possible – or (and this is the better way to approach it) sell the sizzle.
Create something that’s going to stop people scrolling on their timeline – that’s going to make them stop dead in their tracks and go wow. And once they’ve stopped and they’ve gone wow, they’ll move on to read the blurb. And if the blurb is good, they’ll buy the book.
Now, some authors – not all, but some – get a bee in their bonnet and say things have to be exactly this way, the shirt has to be exactly like this, so the cover artist is jumping through hoops, bodging all these elements together to get it one hundred percent accurate. But the actual cover itself has no impact. And then people are scrolling, and it just looks like a “me too” mish-mash of bodged elements that doesn’t have the wow factor.
So sell the sizzle. Go for the wow factor as opposed to complete narrative accuracy – because it’s that wow factor that will sell the book for you.
If you’re writing genre fiction, you need to have genre hooks on your cover and not be so obsessed with narrative accuracy. It’s about capturing the attention and the imagination of the reader instantly, and sometimes that visual motif doesn’t one hundred percent match the narrative details of your book… but you know, grab ‘em!
It’s hard in this day and age – because there’s so much content. There’s more content out there than we could ever consume.
AC: What’s your vision for the future of NeoStock? Do you think you’ll branch out into other genres, such as romance?
DS: The reason we’re not doing romance at the moment is because I’m not a reader of romance. I understand sci-fi, I understand fantasy, I understand horror, action, and suspense. I have a deep familiarity with these genres, but I don’t read romance, and I don’t think that I would be able to articulate romance concepts sufficiently because I’m not involved in the genre. It would be disingenuous to try and sell that, if that makes sense.
But later down the line, who knows? The romance market is worth more than all the other genre fiction markets combined. More than fantasy, sci-fi, and horror combined – it’s madness. If I was chasing the money then I could possibly do that, but I can imagine the only capacity that I’d get involved in romance is if I’m working with somebody who understands the genre. Our main objective is to solve the problems of publishers, authors, and digital artists and cover designers – so I’m best equipped to produce images within those niches that I understand. And that’s what I think will give us the edge in the long run – being a genre fan and having a sense of taste for what looks good and what doesn’t look good.
I don’t have a huge dislike of romance – I’m not scared of photographing guys with their shirts off, but I want it to be authentic. With the present setup it would not be authentic – it would be me guessing what readers of romance want. I just want to be authentic in absolutely everything we do, and that’s how the quality will shine through.
Our thanks go out to Dean for taking the time to speak with us. For more information on NeoStock, and to download your free sample image pack (with included commercial license), visit www.neo-stock.com.