Continuing my series focussing on some of the wonderful people I’ve met on my writing journey, today’s guest is cover designer Berni Stevens. As an independent author it was important for me to ensure my covers were appealing and professional. I needed the right designer to transform my ideas into reality and I’m so glad I found Berni! Berni created all three covers for the Eliza Kane books, as well as the re-issue of The Theatre of Dreams. Berni was recently nominated for an industry award by the Romantic Novelist Association in recognition of her work. And, not only does Berni create covers, she also finds time to write her own novels too.
Welcome to the blog Berni. Can you start with telling us a bit about how you got started in your career as a cover designer?
Thank you for inviting me. As a child, I was always either drawing or writing – or both. I used to write stories and ‘illustrate’ them. And of course, I was an avid reader too. I think I would always have been involved with books somehow.
My first year at art college offered several different career paths from fashion and photography, to illustration, textile design and graphics. I was a bit torn, as illustration had always been my intention, but looking around at some of the superbly talented illustrators in my year, made me realise I should think about a more ‘commercial’ approach.
After a few months working for a small advertising agency, I went for an interview at a publishers in Mayfair, and I just knew this was the industry I wanted to be in. In the beginning, I worked on both covers and promotional material for some years – at W H Allen, Fontana paperbacks (part of HarperCollins) and Michael Joseph (who had just been bought out by Penguin.) Then I just sort of graduated into cover design from there and never looked back.
When did you cross-over into writing your own novels?
I had a short story published by the Dracula Society in (about) 2002 and the editor of the anthology said my story read like the beginning of a novel. I’d never thought about attempting a full-length novel but paranormal romances were starting to take off round about this time, so I thought I’d try. This was pre the Twilight saga, but there were quite a few adult paranormal romances around by American authors like Sherrilyn Kenyon, Charlaine Harris and Laurell K Hamilton. I used to write on the tube journeys to and from work, but I didn’t do anything with my scribblings for some time. Another editor friend kindly read it and gave me some very sound advice in how to make it better! Eventually, I plucked up the courage to send it out into the world where it was taken up by The Wild Rose Press and finally published in the US in 2011.
When you are writing your own books, do you always know straight away what the cover will be?
No, almost never, it’s actually quite difficult to design for yourself, being that close to the story. I wasn’t allowed to be involved with the WRP cover at all – which incidentally I didn’t like much. I was simply given a form to fill in regarding descriptions of the main characters, setting etc. Having seen a lot of the American fantasy covers with bare-chested Chippendale type men, I had asked not to have a male hero on the cover. But they put a male hero on the cover anyway, who incidentally bore no resemblance whatsoever to my hero, and the title lettering read as Hedgling when actually the title was Fledgling. But I think this experience has stood me in good stead and helped me understand authors better.
I know you work with a diverse range of authors, are there any genres you won’t design? Alternatively, do you have a favourite genre to work with?
I’m not keen on the Science Fiction genre design-wise, although I do like Science Fiction books and films. The design for this genre is very specific and incredibly difficult if you’re not very experienced in the field. The illustrators who work on the genre are brilliant and I really admire their work. I love working on quirky romances, Rom Coms, paranormal romance, ‘cozy’ mysteries and thrillers.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever been asked for on a cover?
I designed a Steampunk romantic thriller once which was a lot of fun. Obviously, I needed the hero and heroine to be dressed in the appropriate clothes and I needed a few steampunk balloons for the background!
But the strangest request I had, was for a table with about ten photographs on it and there were detailed descriptions for every single photograph. It was eBook only and I had to politely remind the author that the content of the photos would never be visible on Amazon.
It must be wonderful to look on Amazon or wander through a bookshop and see your designs on the shelves. What would you say has been your proudest career moment?
Print books tend not to be taken by bookshops as often as they used to be, times have changed. Celebrity biographies and cookery books rule a lot of the shelf space as well as the celebrity fiction. Bookshops rarely take the kind of point-of-sale material we used to do at HarperCollins either, and I was always the ‘mad person’ straightening the POS in various shops if it was one of my designs! Proud moments for me, has to be seeing a lot of books with my covers all together on a shelf in The Works or on tables in local garden centres.
But possibly my proudest moment is when the CEO of one publisher I worked for, held up the cover I’d designed for a David Bowie biography, and said she couldn’t even begin to say how brilliant she thought it was! (I knew I liked her!) It was a labour of love of course, as he’s one of my favourite musicians ever.
David Bowie’s one of my ‘heroes’ too….That must have been quite a moment. What’s coming up next with your writing?
I’m working on two sequels at the moment, and actually I’m a bit stuck with one of them. Usually if that happens, I ditch the bit that’s annoying me and rewrite it until I’m happy with it. But it’s been very busy cover-wise for the last few months and the covers always come first. The Christmas covers tend to start coming in earlier each year – and they are very important!
With two busy careers, you probably don’t get a lot of time to relax, but how do you like to spend your spare time?
Five years ago, I trained as a Zumba instructor, I’ve always liked dance and originally trained in ballet, tap and modern jazz. I was a member of the Pineapple Dance Studios for years, until I went freelance and worked from home. (It became cost prohibitive). But I do take a Zumba class every week. I don’t make much money as I have to hire the studio and most of the money I make, goes to pay for that, but I love taking my class and we all have a lot of fun.
Also, my husband and I go out to the American desert when we can and hike canyons. We like to search for Native American ruins and rock art to photograph.
And we go to as many live concerts as we can afford (my husband is an ex rock drummer).
Berni Stevens lives in a tiny, ancient cottage in Hertfordshire – which really will look fabulous when all the work’s done! (It’s taking a long time). She trained in graphic design and photography and has been a book cover designer for more than twenty-five years.
She’s long been a fan of Agatha Christie’s, but her favourite novel ever is Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
She loves to dance and is a licensed Zumba instructor, Hiking canyons in the American desert is another passion as are the many rock concerts she and her husband go to.
Her first novel was published in the US in 2011. She has had six books published so far, and intends to write more!
Many thanks to Berni for sharing her cover designing experiences with us – she’s had quite a career. I’m sure you’ll agree the Eliza Kane covers perfectly depict that vintage look of the Isle of Wight.