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Interview with a book cover designer: Greg Stark

Updated: Jul 16

You can't judge a book by it's cover, except everyone does. This is why having an awesome cover is essential for any book.

Freelance designer Greg Stark and I sat side by side in multiple newsrooms in Western Kentucky back when I thought I was going to be a reporter and he all but ran the sports desk. All of us were impressed with Greg's design abilities, so when I needed a book cover, I tracked him down on Twitter.

In between reading frantic emails from me about design projects with vague descriptors for the book covers I have in my head, such as -- black, UK blue, Gillian Flynn but make it Kentucky, but no horses or tobacco barns, but highways, maybe? what do you think? -- Greg agreed to allow me to interview him about his design process.

Check out what all he had to say as well as all the awesome recommendations for books and podcasts that he loves!

What is your creative process? Someone asks for a design, where do you start?

I guess it depends on the project. In my full-time job as a newspaper designer, when I have to design a centerpiece, I try to read the story first to see if there’s an angle to illustrate what I might want something to look like. Also, the editors I work with will provide a headline, and if I can pull something from that, that is also helpful.

What is your favorite part of putting together a design?

My favorite part of the process is when there is not really anything to work from and you really have to come up with something on your own. During COVID, when there was nothing going on, I was working on a centerpiece for the Detroit Free Press that involved sports you could play by yourself at home. So I had absolutely nothing to work with. We have tools at our disposal to use like stock photos, I looked there and absolutely nothing. So I decided to make my own paper football and prop it on my finger and shoot it with my iPhone and use that as the art, and it worked out well!

A newspaper sports page with a paper football prominently featured

What software programs do you use and what would you recommend for people who are just starting out?

The pagination program I use at my job is called CUE Print, but the best program and the industry standard these days is Adobe InDesign, it’s really the best program to use for those who have that available, along with the other programs in the Adobe Creative Cloud/Suite. I do use Photoshop for photo editing.

What fuels your creativity? What are things that get your creative juices flowing?

What really gets me excited is like in the example I referred to about paper football, just when you literally have nothing and you have to scrap something together and it turns out great, that gives you a great feeling of accomplishment.

Let’s talk about newspapers. You and I met in college in our journalism classes and we worked together at the paper. We also worked our first newspaper jobs together. When I think about the lessons I learned as a journalist, I always think about the gifts I got from that time. For example, I have a sacred devotion to a deadline. If someone wants something on a specific date, I will do everything I can to make sure I meet it. What are some gifts you have gotten as someone who has worked so long in newspapers?

I would say, just thinking about my job right now, is structure. I work on as many as 10 products a day at my job and it’s something that none of us could’ve imagined we’d be doing when we were in school. Each product has a deadline we need to hit and it takes the responsibility of a lot of people in our company to ensure that happens, starting with the reporters who file the stories, the on-site producers who read the stories and get them to us on time so we can design them, and the designers themselves, who need to get started early enough to make sure we’re ahead of the game enough each day to hit those deadlines.

One of the things that I appreciate because we have worked together and have been friends for so long, is you have the capacity to translate my rambling ideas about what I have in mind into a visual design. So what is that like when someone emails you with a disjointed word salad of ideas? Do you have a process of clarifying what they are saying or do you just jump in?

I Google. I was remembering the podcast logo we came up with recently and how much of a process that took. I think one of the descriptions you said for it was “bubblegum goth,” so I had to look that up to get an idea of what that looked like or what that even meant. Then I was able to look at some stock images to get going in the right direction!

As a graphic designer, what catches your eye when it comes to book covers?

I guess designing a book cover is much different than designing for newspapers, in that you’re first looking for the title instead of looking for a striking piece of art. For some reason, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Gone Girl cover, I saw the movie but I never read the book, but I remember really liking the design because it was just the author’s name, title and all the spacing with the vague illustration against the black background made it seem very haunting.

Cover of Gillian Flynn's novel Gone Girl

What are three things (or more) that indie writers should know when working with graphic designers? What are things that will make the process smoother?

It’s kind of wild because the book cover I did for you has been the only book cover I’ve done so far. It was definitely a lot of trial and error on my part, and it eventually turned out well, but I definitely learned some things from the process that I would do differently the next time.

I don’t know if I have three things I would have for a writer but I guess I would say just to give the designer as clear a vision and a direction that they need for a project. And also give the designer the freedom to make some choices that might make the cover look better.

I had never done a book cover/freelance project before yours so I was looking up online about suggestions about what I should charge and how I should work with a writer. I’m sure there are designers out there who can give the writer what they want after two or three revisions, but there were some that were limiting the number of revisions they would have with the writer or I guess charge more for revisions. I guess maybe those designers have a lot of projects going on and have more limited time but I feel like you need to just work it out until you get it right, no matter how many times it takes.

What would be on your currently loving list right now? What are you watching, reading, listening to, or games you are playing that make you happy right now?

When I was younger I used to read a lot of crime/fiction. In high school I remember sitting in the auditorium during practice for our senior play reading a Stuart Woods book. I guess my gateway into that genre was really John Grisham back in the 90s though. I used to read a lot of James Patterson; several years ago when I worked in Arkansas, I was able to get a ticket through where I worked to go see him speak at an event and I got a book signed for my mom.

I pretty much read non-fiction/autobiographies right now, the last two books I finished were Deliver Me From Nowhere by Warren Zanes, which was about the making of Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen (it’s fixing to be made into a movie) and I’m about to finish A Fever In The Heartland by Timothy Egan, which is mainly about this trial that I had no idea about until it happened.

I just started West By West: My Charmed, Tormented Life, by basketball legend Jerry West, who passed away last week.

I recently discovered Swindled, it’s a true crime podcast that has an anonymous host that goes into a deep dive into cases that I’ve heard of and some that I haven’t. I’ve gone back through the last few seasons and each one I’ve listened to has been great.

If you are interested in contacting Greg you can find him on X (Twitter) @Greg__Stark, or on Instagram and Threads @starksy14

Read Books. Wear Boots.



Check out the awesome cover that Greg designed for the novel Mothers of the Missing Mermaid at the shop.


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