Behind the Cover – Will Staehle
(A Darker Shade of Magic, V. E. Schwab)

by Diana Sousa


After a break, Behind the Cover is back! As always, I accept suggestion for covers and designers I should feature, so feel free to send them to me.

This time we have Will Staehle, the amazing designer behind the US cover of A Darker Shade of Magic, by V. E. Schwab, published by Tor Books.


A Darker Shade final for Irene

How did you become a designer? Was it an area you always wanted to explore, or did it simply happen?

I’ve always been interested in art. I even have a bunch of sketchbooks from back when I was three and four years old!

It also helped growing up in a artistic family. My parents own and run a design firm in the midwest, so I grew up working summers there, and learning various art programs at a fairly young age. I moved to New York after college and was offered a cover design position at HarperCollins publishers, and eventually worked my way up to be art director there before heading off for the west coast.

How did you get involved with this cover? Did Tor contact you directly, or did they already know your work?

I’ve worked with Irene Gallo the art director at Tor on a number of projects now. ( Including: Something More than Night / The Revolutions / Made to Kill / The Unnoticeables)


I feel very fortunate to get to work with her. She’s a great art director and Tor has a bounty of great books on each list. Irene reached out to me about working on A Darker Shade of Magic, and after a quick read-through of the premise, I was hooked!

How was the process of developing the cover? Was there a clear goal in mind?

I wanted the cover to be strong, and somewhat magical, but not overly so. Perhaps it’s just me, but I often approach these fantasy / sci-fi books a bit carefully. I try to walk a fine line between celebrating the fantastical nature of these stories, but also packaging them in a way where “non-sci-fi / non-fantasy” readers can pick them up and fall in love with them too. I’ve always felt that there is a huge part of the population that would love sci-fi and dragon stories, but they’re also the same audience that would never pick up a book with a dragon painting, or robots fighting on the cover ;) So I guess in some way I’m trying to trick people into expanding their horizons. Even more importantly is to make a serious attempt to present the book in the best possible way. Many of these authors work on these novels for years and years, and as a designer you’re given a few weeks to “package” it. So you want to put your best effort into it. ( Especially if you love the book, like I did for A Darker Shade of Magic! )

How was the author involved? Was there some back and forth conversation with Victoria Schwab, any ideas or suggestions?

I’m not exactly sure which notes came from Victoria vs. Irene, but the only real issue I had to address was that Irene had asked me to change the type, and add the additional author-of line to the cover. If I recall the illustration stayed as it was originally drawn.

Do you have pictures of earlier designs, or works in progress?

Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 1.04.25 PM Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 1.04.39 PM

Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 1.04.49 PM Screen Shot 2015-07-26 at 1.05.05 PM

As you can see I tried a few different approaches, but I personally always felt that the graphic, and bold solution was the best. ( It also creates a sharp and unique look for future books in the series. ) That being said, I also explored other options including a more photo-collage approach, as well as some more vintage, and map / surveyor-style illustrations.

From your experience, does the publisher have the final say regarding the design of the book, or does the designer/illustrator (and in some small ways, the writer) have free rein?

After 10 years of designing covers, I have yet to find the project that allows me free reign with no feedback ;)

You have to keep in mind that there are often many people involved in the cover approval process. You have at very least: The Publisher ( and sometimes an assistant publisher ), editor, art director, sales team, author, agent, and often times the large book-buyers themselves also chiming in on the cover.

So there are many, many cooks in the kitchen. Tor’s process seems more streamlined than most to me, with less back and forth, which I think has allowed for very strong covers to make it to market.

Was there anything particularly different or interesting about this illustration, interesting facts you’d like to share?

Nothing beyond the obvious, it was an excuse to play with some fun, graphic shapes though! I’m generally interested and intrigued by very graphic, and bold shape-driven covers, something I also channeled recently in the newest Ernest Cline novel: Armada.

I was also very pleased to hear that Victoria was in love with the final cover. It always makes the project a little better when the author and the book publisher are equally happy with the end product.

Finally, what are some of the favourite book covers that you’ve seen (recently or not), from other designers and illustrators?

This is always fun! There are so many talented cover designers nowadays. Some of my favorites continue to be: Roberto De Vicq, Iacopo Bruno, Charlotte Strick, Jacob Covey, Robin Bilardello, and Helen Yentus. But I could write a near endless list of favorite cover artists. As far as favorite covers of late, I’d say: The Book of Numbers by Oliver Munday, and The Buried Giant by Peter Mendelsund are both spectacular.


On the topic of books, I actually have a new one coming out in the fall! It’s my first original middle-grade novel, I created the character and had a college friend of mine write the story’s text. I did the cover ( obviously! ) and created over 200 illustrations in the interior. It’s somewhere between a novel and a graphic novel ;) The book follows the adventures of a cursed victorian bellhop named Warren the 13th, and a grand and powerful mystery that is hidden somewhere within his family’s hotel! If people enjoy my design work, I’d highly suggest picking it up! It comes out November 24th, but is available for pre-order now.

Victoria Schwab had some words about the cover:

I would just add that the cover PERFECTLY encapsulates this book. I love the graphic take and the slightly retro/universal aesthetic, and it’s so beautiful that I have a poster of it on my wall!

Thank you Will for this interview! And thank you Victoria for your time!

If you want to see more of Will’s work don’t forget to check out his website, but in the meanwhile, here’s a preview!


Behind the Cover – Todd Lockwood
(Memoir by Lady Trent series, by Marie Brennan)

by Diana Sousa


Today Todd Lockwood is here on the blog to talk about the covers of the Memoir by Lady Trent series, by Marie Brennan, published by Tor Books.

Website | Twitter


How did you become an illustrator? Was it an area you always wanted to explore, or did it simply happen?

A little of both. My parents encouraged my artistic pursuits, though they discouraged me from comic book art, sadly, which is what I enjoyed most when I was young. It’s how I taught myself to draw. In my mind, I was really telling stories, so writing and drawing at the same time. I went to the Colorado Institute of Art in 1979-1981, and leapt straight into advertising. I did design and illustration for a local design firm for a year and a half, then left to try my hand at freelance illustration. I painted many many beer cans and satellite dishes and other extraordinarily dull things for the next fourteen years. Throughout that time I admired the book covers of Frank Frazetta, Michael Whelan, and others, and played D&D with my friends to preserve my insanity. I was so sick of ad work, I was prepared to hang up my brushes and get a real estate license.

Then in 1994 I attended my first convention, World con in Winnipeg, Manitoba. A whirlwind two years later TSR hired me on to their art staff. It was a huge break—career saving, even.

How did you get involved with these covers and illustrations? Did Tor Books contact you directly, or did they already know your work?

TOR Books was the first publisher outside of TSR to hire me for cover work, so I’d known the art director, Irene Gallo, for quite a while. I’d done other work for her and she knew my dragons, in particular an anatomical study I’d done for my own entertainment.

How was the process of developing the covers? Was there a clear goal in mind?

The first one was, I believe, fairly directly inspired by my anatomical piece. I revisioned it for the cover—mine was a muscle study, but that would have been a little hard core for a book cover, but we wanted that feel of a scholarly study. So I left the skin on the front of the dragon and made it more transparent as it went toward the tail, gave it a jauntier step so it would feel alive, not flayed (as it turned out, that same dragon gets dissected in the book!). The conceit is that “Lady Trent” is also the artist, so I went with a pencil-and-watercolor look.

I honestly don’t recall how the second cover came about. I had met Marie some time after the first book was done—we met at a book reading in Seattle, and exchange emails regularly. I might have suggested it, or Marie and I in combination with Irene might have discussed it. I do recall that we switched from the original idea in order to choose a dragon that would be more interesting in motion. I had in mind the illustrations of an artist I recalled seeing a lot of during the 80s, Bob Ziering, who did these amazing, fluid motion studies. I had done something similar for the Draconomicon that Wizards of the Coast published a few years before, of a red dragon’s movements as it took off.

Marie suggested the third—a size comparison chart. I was totally on board with that. And Marie suggested a bunch of marine fauna to use and gave me the taxonomical names.

Do you have pictures of earlier designs?

See below for some earlier stages. The need for typography dictated the pose and motion to a certain degree, but I knew from the outset that it would be anther profile moving from left to right, back to front.

(click on the images to make them bigger)

DragonNature II_sketch_001 copy   DragonNature II_sketch_003 copy

DragonNature II_sketch_008 copy

From your experience, does the publisher have the final say regarding the design of the book, or does the designer/illustrator have free rein?

The degree of autonomy varies from publisher to publisher, but the publisher has final say, of course. I received a great deal of trust and free reign on these covers, which adds to the enjoyment of doing them. I was so into the project that I took it upon myself to design the typography for the title treatment. I didn’t want it done wrong. It needed to evoke the design sensibilities of the time in which the novels are set.

Was there anything particularly different about these illustrations for you?

They are a refreshing change of pace for me, in that I get to explore a look that doesn’t come up very often for me, the pencil-and-watercolor technique I mentioned previously. They’re almost all drawing. The paint part of it goes pretty quickly. But that means that the drawing is carrying much more of the load than normal.

Finally, what are some of the favourite book covers that you’ve seen (recently or not), from other designers and illustrators?

There are so many outstanding artists working these days that it would be impossible to pick a favorite. I grew up on NC Wyeth, Maxfield Parrish, Frederic Remington  (below), Charles Russell, and others. Then Frazetta and Jeff Jones, Whelan (below), Boris… Along come the TSR artists: Parkinson, Easley, Caldwell, Brom. So  many others working now whose works inspires and challenges me: Donato, Scott Fischer, Jon Foster (below), Rick Barry, Stephen Martiniere… Too many to name or remember!


Thank you Todd for your time!

Here are some other examples of Todd’s work: