Self-Publishing Masterclass :: Cover Design :: CL Smith

insightIn the wake of any revolution there is always a slew of new opportunities. And, naturally, where there are opportunities, there are opportunists. The self-publishing revolution – and there definitely is one – is no different. Everywhere you look at the moment, there are professional services being offered to the hordes of ordinary people who always knew they had a book in them, or even a series of books. These services promise to guarantee self-published authors the best possible chance of success. They range from the benevolent and honourable, such as the free publishing platform Smashwords, to the execrable and parasitic, such as the vanity publishing behemoth Author Solutions – recently purchased by Pearson for $116m, yet widely despised, denigrated and unapologetically likened to syphilis.

Then there are designers who offer pre-made covers for self-published authors. There are a lot of these and the majority of them – like the majority of the writers who pay them – are not very good. In fact, a great many of them are peddling covers that would not appear out of place in the pantheon of grotesques that is Lousy Book Covers. For example, feast your peepers on these, taken from a number of apparently reputable sites and costing between $25 and $140 a pop…


So when I recently followed a link to a depository of pre-made book covers entitled Go On Write, I didn’t do so with any degree of expectation. Actually, that’s not true. What I expected was to be appalled, as per usual.

Instead, I was – not to put to fine a point on it – gobsmacked. For once, the pre-made covers on display looked like proper books. More impressive still, as well as clean, sharp images accompanied by striking fonts and colours that didn’t clash violently, they were all finished off with believable fake titles and authors. So rather than the usual ‘Your title here’ and ‘Author name’ nonsense, here was someone who’d gone to the trouble to exercise a little imagination. Here is a small selection of my favourites, some of the reasons I felt the need to get in touch…


So I did a little background reading and sent an email to CL Smith – the CL stands for Cheap Literature; his real name is James – to see if he’d consent to an email interview.

A couple of hours later I received a reply. ‘You loon!’ it began. ‘Google talk is what you need to be using. Now is an extremely good time. I am a man who works hard and plays hard. I am an animal. Barely human! I still think I am a little drunk from last night. Bring cigarettes and coffee. Contrary to belief, coffee does not sober you up. The caffeine actually accelerates the heart beat. You do the math. A good journalist / writer catches their subject unguarded. So we’re good to go, baby. Expect typos – leave them in edit them out – either way’s good for me.’

I take them out, because I’m super-anal.

So, for the next couple of hours, having been caught unguarded, I am subject to the weirdest interview I’ve ever conducted. Actually I didn’t conduct it at all, and it felt less like an interview and more like being trapped at a party by a slightly manic artist who’s read rather a lot of books and has quite possibly taken drugs.

I start by asking him which of the titles he’s made up are his favourites. He points me at these…


On the back of the Tim Roth title, via Made in Britain and Meantime, we chat for a while about Mike Leigh films.

‘I really really loved Another Year,’ he says. ‘That’s a shockingly brilliant character study, and really really sad. But that’s the way people are. They say they have friends and try and help people out but they do not give a fuck. It’s almost Ronnie Laing in it’s psychological acerbity.’

I do a quick search for Ronnie Laing and realise with something of a surprise that he means RD Laing, the noted psychiatrist. Calling him Ronnie seems audacious to me.

‘That’s a Will Self quote,’ he says. ‘He calls him Ronnie, so it’s good enough for me.’

I mention around now that James seems very affable, if a little unhinged.

‘I’m not unhinged,’ he tells me. ‘I’m real … I’m honest. I do not have a front … You want to know my theory?’

I tell him I do.

‘You see what you have these days is a lot of people living their lives out on Twitter and Facebook. Or at least a good chunk of it. Now, you can’t be honest on those things because you’ll get shot down in flames, so everything tends towards a middle, friendsa really horrid, inane middle, and people don’t know how to be any other way. I am a little too old to do that [social media] thing … I’m more of a conversation in a pub kinda guy.’

James is not quite 40.

He works as a designer of book covers. For the pre-made stuff, he buys up the images from stock websites, makes up the covers and posts them to his website. I read somewhere that he writes as well. I ask for confirmation.

‘I do write as well, yes. Not that get much time for it what with all the covers and such. I have one story on Kindle. It is a quietly revolutionary tale. Not that most people would get it. So there’s the icing of a nice funny little tale on top … which amuses people. I have other stuff under way as well … about 10 other things I’m working on … I should work on one really and get that finished. The main one at the moment is about a shed that disappears. By the way, Umbrella by Will Self is utterly unreadable. And after The Butt I thought he was calming down.’

I’ve been drinking a lot of Bloody Marys recently, perfecting my recipe, and early on in our conversation, probably because I’m attempting to bond with James in a predictably male but winningly sophisticated way, I ask him how he takes his Mary. ‘Most people use lemon,’ he says, ‘I’m more of a lime kinda guy.’ Then he nips out to the shops for cigarettes and when he returns, he sends me a photo. ‘An image to break up your article,’ he says…


It’s not quite 3pm but I feel an irresistible urge to join him. I put sherry in mine. I’m a sherry kinda guy.

‘”Makes me feel blank like I missed!”‘ he writes. ‘”GET HELP!” Bloody Mary by the Jesus Lizard. What a song!’

He sends me a link.

‘Anything by The Jesus Lizard.’

I ask him to stop sending me videos to watch as I can’t watch them because of a weak-ass dongle, so it’s a little frustrating.

‘Yes, but you can publish them if you’re publishing this interview online and other people might enjoy them. Don’t be so god damned selfish! … While we’re at it, here’s Boiler Plate as well by the Jesus Lizard. The best rock and roll song ever written. Boiler Plate. Is that what I said? I meant Boilermaker

I ask how I should refer to him in the article.

‘My name is James,’ he says. ‘My pen name is CL Smith, as in Cheap Literature Smith. It’s a facetious tip of the hat to mister Dickens. Charles that is. James (aka CL Smith, aka Humblenations, aka the GOON of, aka JJ of drinking fame). I can keep this going for as long as you like. Refinement, nobility and constitution. Constitution being the most important factor. Stayability.’

I ask him if he’s an alcoholic.

‘Yes, but a highly functioning one. I couldn’t have done 1,300 covers in the last four months any other way.’

We have a brief conversation about excess – ‘I  have these parties every six months with my friends, male friends, and it’s all about the best stuff: the best wine, the best food, the best music’ – which leads him to a quote by Chris Evans. ‘I know,’ he says. ‘That ginger twerp. I actually like the man.’

‘Life is in two acts,’ said Evans. ‘You’ve just got to survive the intermission.’

‘Brilliant quote,’ says James. ‘I’m all grown up now.’ Then: ‘Everyone reading this wants to know about those amazing tunes. So here’s one. Answer Phone by Green Velvet. Answer Phone?!?!?! Answering Machine.’

I ask him what he thinks of

‘I love it. Fuck that bullshit of everyone being nicey nice. Be honest. If something’s crap, someone should be allowed to say so.’

When I try to end the interview, he calls me a lightweight and says we haven’t even touched on taste yet. Then we touch on taste. In an attempt to be amusing, I posit the notion that taste is objective. ‘Taste is not objective!’ he exclaims. Then he proceeds to explain precisely why, in actual fact, it is.

blood‘Let me give you an example. 2004. 2004 was an excellent year for rioja. It just was. It’s not like I’m a wine snob and know loads but I do know that. The weather was favourable for the grape. Now in that year, any vineyard will make batches. Some are reserva. They charge more for that because it tastes better. Then up from that you have familia reserva, the shit they’re saying they’re keeping back from the family, but still sell the best of the batches. You pay more for that because it’s better. So for a nice 2004 familia reserva today, you’re looking at £30. But wow … it’s nice. And some people will say “but I don’t like wine”. Tough shit. Drink it, motherfucker. Now drink this 2007 five quid bottle. Which do you prefer?’

I suggest that some people might genuinely not be able to tell the difference.

‘Fucking liars,’ he replies. ‘That’s the difference between your “subjective” and my “objective”. Taste is objective. It’s not because it costs more. It’s because it’s better. Most people can’t afford to be objective about taste for one of two reasons: 1. They lack the tools to be objective – which is a euphemism for they’re not smart enough. Or, and more often than not, 2. They don’t have the time to be objective, they don’t want to put in the effort and time. I spend a lot of time with music. I like all genres. All of them, because there is the best of everything. But this takes time. A lot of time. But I search it out. Do you see where this conversation is going?’

But of course this is not really a conversation at all. This is a monologue. And a good one.

‘Book covers. No? People buy my covers because I spend a lot of time with my taste, to search out 1. the right images, 2. the right fonts – placed together they’re pretty nice covers. People think they’re paying for my skills, but in truth they’re paying for my taste in things.’

We move on to the relationship between taste and skill. He tells me I’m wrong about some things. And then…

‘You rarely see taste done badly. You want to know why? It’s because taste comes from intelligence, and it’s a joy. Taste is a joy in your own thoughts. You spend time on it and it makes you happy, like looking for the best country funk song from 1974 – and then you find it. It satisfies an intellectual desire.’

Do you not think that two intelligent tasteful people can have totally different tastes?

hat‘No. I have very clever friends. Most are cleverer than me. I have a Russian pure chemist friend. Pure chemistry is about theoretical ideas. It has no application. It’s about understanding. And a friend, Pete the Hat, he’s a statistician, a math head. Under that hat. He works in the medical research field. Do these two people have the same taste as me? Most of the time they do. Which is to say, that affirms my own brain in the most vain way. I understand that. But when I find the best 1974 country funk song and email them with it, they’re like, fuck James, that’s nice.’

I ask him if he’s really suggesting that anyone truly intelligent will like what he does.

He laughs, or at least he types that he laughs. ‘No. Some idiots like it too. That’s a joke by the way. All the swear words have been done. If you want to really insult someone – at least in the western world nowadays – you say they’re stupid.’

Because – I guess – I’m trying to see how far he’ll allow his ego to flourish, I ask him if his work is ever disliked by intelligent people.

‘I don’t know because they don’t buy from me, so how would I know?’ Then: ‘No one would have the honesty to do that. That’s the truth. Everyone is polite.’

I ask him to imagine it. In theory. Imagine someone saying ‘I don’t like your work. I find it a little … gauche. A little … obvious.’ Imagine it.

‘That would be fantastic. I’d love that. I would say … yes yes yes. My pre-made shit is totally obvious. That’s what sells. I can’t do myself out of paying my rent … Putting people on covers lacks imagination. I’ve said as much. But people on covers sell. So I do them.’

I ask him if he considers himself a great artist, irrespective of what he does to pay the rent. He sends me a link to an article on one of his websites, the ferociously ironic Humble Nations, an article entitled 14 Tips for Good Kindle Cover Design.

‘Published last year, way back. I am … what I like to call … a Whore Designer. If the money is right, I open my legs. And I am great artist. A piss artist! I enjoy designing immensely, and it pays the rent, and the taxman. I like telling stories, entertaining people. There’s a fantastic quote by Nietzsche. “Those who dance are considered insane by those who can’t hear the music.” But that’s not the one. “We should consider every day lost on which we have not danced at least once. And we should call every truth false which was not accompanied by at least one laugh.” I hold that pretty strongly. Literally. That’s me.’

I agree that these are indeed words to live by and I’m thankful that though there are undanced days in my life, there aren’t that many.

‘People pay me to design covers, not necessarily because they’re stupid, but usually because they don’t have time … I am a gopher, a scout. And people pay me for my taste in things. Horrid when you put it that way, but hey, what’s a little bit of truth and honesty between writers?’

I come across the reference to Haruki Murakami in the aforementioned article and mention that I recently read much of his back catalogue in France. James did a similar thing, coming to Murakami via Max Richter, Robert Wyatt, Richard Brautigan and a clever, ambitious, beautiful but apparently unkind Bosnian scenographer, then reading one after another till he had to stop. I ask him about Norwegian Wood, which was his first, and my least favourite. He responds….

tokyo‘Fuck Murakami. Writes the same book over and over again. It’s dull if you’ve read them all … to be honest I can take it or leave it. Overdosed I guess. I like shit like Dan Rhodes. Nicola Barker. Alan Warner. Odd stuff. Odd with humanity is always what I savour. The precision of Japanese writing doesn’t appeal massively to my soul. I like things more sloppy. That’s the libertine in me.’

He goes on to mention a thread about romantic films he started on an online forum. He did it not because he had any interest in romantic films, but because he found it funny, to see how people would react.

‘It was a lightning rod for proving to myself they have no taste … I am such a cunt. I do stuff to amuse myself. I am a troll, through and through. It’s an honourable art form.’

I am reminded of self-confessed internet troll Limmy: ‘Why do I want to annoy people? Because annoying people is funny.’ And also of Jamie Catto, who puts it slightly less baldly when he writes: ‘I am a provoker and a disruptor, a wind-up merchant and a tail puller, a prodder and a poker. When I meet someone’s “appropriate” mask my first impulse is to want to dance with them to the edge of their “appropriate” version of themselves and see what illuminating fun can be had when the mask slips. Suddenly, then, there’s a chance of intimacy and often some well-needed oxygen.’

‘People love their own opinions,’ says Mr Smith, who clearly adores his. Then he’s back on RD Laing, Don Quixote and Jasper Carrott in Golden Balls. No, seriously. This is to prove that politeness is an act of pure selfishness. ‘Being good to other people is good. Helping a brother out is amazing. Shame you can’t watch this,’ he says. ‘It’s brilliant.’

‘That, my friend, is politeness. In truth, it’s game theory. It’s a wholly selfish self-preservation act. Now manners. That’s something different. Manners are good.’

At which point, I thank Cheap Literature Smith sincerely for his time and his passion, and our interview is concluded.

His book covers are here, and they are incredibly good value. As is he.

About the Author

I am Karl Webster. I wrote these words. If you liked them, you'll be overjoyed to know that there are plenty more where they came from. So you should definitely sign up to my newsletter if you haven't already.

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