Monday, 21 July 2008

The Art of a Three Second Pitch that can Make a Best-Seller - Part One

Sci Fi and Fantasy artist Karl Kofoed can reveal with a magic brush-stroke what it takes a writer tens of thousands of words to say.

And in over three decades as a world-class pro - illustrating and covering work from Isaac Asimov to Twisted Tongue Magazine - he's earned an international reputation as the author's best friend; the guy who sells stories at a glance.

Because Karl works to a golden rule that would make any other salesman's hair curl … he allows himself only three seconds to hook a potential book buyer.

"Maybe you can't judge a book by its cover," he says, "but the cover is what sells it. If I can't grab the browser within three seconds, his eyes drift further down the aisle. I've lost him."

With a working lifetime in sharp-end publishing, advertising, marketing and artwork, Karl applies his rounded experience when it comes to instantly catching the buyer's eye and steering him from the shelf to the checkout counter.

To do the job successfully, he'll use any medium that will work to best effect; everything from old fashioned oils to sophisticated computer software and even clay models he painstakingly sculpts and photographs.

"I strongly believe that a book cover has a three second maximum sell time. The message should jump out, so simplicity is the watchword. They say you can't tell a book from its cover, but most people do (unless they are already aware of its content). The cover designer's job is to persuade someone in a flash that an author's work is worth many hours of reading time."

Two-time Hugo Award-winning best-selling author and renowned art director John Grant agrees: "There's no doubt about Karl's selling power. He's one of the best there's ever been."

And among other glittering awards, Karl's contribution to the continued popularity of SF and Fantasy was crowned when he was named Artist Guest of Honour at the prestigious Philadelphia Science Fiction Society Congress in the US.

But Karl's uncanny knack of projecting the message of thousands of words at a glance took an unexpected turn when he got so deeply under the skin of his writers that he decided to turn his own hand to the keyboard.

First he published the lavishly self-illustrated Galactic Geographic 3003, and then he got an even firmer grip on the pen and produced his first two novels, Deep Ice and Joko: cover art by … Karl Kofoed, of course.

He said: "I guess my late mother made me try my hand from the author's perspective. She was an English teacher. Both parents were educators. Literature they understood, but art? Nope. She begged me to try prose. I am thrilled that her hunch was somewhat redeemed."

Karl believes his earlier work groomed him for the writer's bench. He told Twisted Tongue: "A lot of skill that I possess was learned on the job, handling promotional materials and advertising. Editing to fit text for ads is often left to the Artist or Art Director who is also best at wording headlines. Artists are conscious of eye-flow - how the text looks and reads - while writers and editors are more conscious of what it says.

"Typography has always been one of my secret loves and it is clearly an art that most take for granted. A graphic artist composes text. After a long career that experience is perfect training for a wordsmith.

"It is often said in the ad game that writers make the best art editors and art directors make the best text editors. The truth is that it takes two orientations to create great text that is readable and gets read. My working life has been an apprenticeship for a publishing Jack-of-all-trades. Writing books is another string to the bow"

The tricks of the illustrator/cover artist trade Karl picked up and honed, he applies to his writing - the value of knowing that a wink's as good as a nod; the art of producing the subliminal hint that stimulates a reader to use his own imagination.

"An artist works within the framework of the medium. Great artwork, even illustration isn't too finely detailed. The best painters know that brush suggestions look better than finely detailed work. Same, I think, in literature. You have to allow the reader to fill in the details himself. Suggestion works best. 'Always leave them wanting more,' as Barnum famously said.

"Artists who write often are asked how they choose to express an idea; in words or image. I think; why choose at all? Why not do both if you can? Everyone is creative if they create something, and there are no limitations on our forms of expression. Words and images speak of an idea in different ways, that's all."

Karl was born in Westfield, New York State late in 1942. As a child, he first showed talent drawing with his cousin, Pete, when the family got together. The youngsters were impressed by the early Disney movies, but what fascinated Karl most were books like the Time/Life series, The World We Live In and Bonestell's work in Conquest of Space.

"I learned later that those days were probably the great days of publishing," said Karl. "If my work was stimulated by anything it was them - and being raised during the Space Race, of course.

"My dad was trained as a scientist, my mom; English. Pop taught me the Scientific Method and mom fed me literature. I read more science than fiction. That's where I get most of my ideas.

"By college I'd chosen to be an illustrator and attended the Philadelphia College of Art. I was there when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. I found myself to be more of a general artist and designer than one with just one style or vocation. Art Direction seemed to suit me. And illustration was a lucrative sideline.

"Becoming multi-talented over the years meant I could fall back to being a house artist if illustration failed or got slow as it often does at times for illustrators. This helped pay the bills but it cost me as an illustrator. If you want to be one, you have to stick to it through thick and thin.

"But I later found that my diversity all came together under one title - The Galactic Geographic."

Galactic Geographic helped make Karl one of the most popular SF artists/writers on the planet. He was first text published in 1979 with the words that went with his groundbreaking Galactic Geographic illustrated series in the hugely popular Heavy Metal magazine. Also a series called Music on Other Worlds appeared in Music and Sound Output magazine. But becoming a novelist was his personal giant leap.

Part Two

Interview by Alexander James

Interview first appeared in Twisted Tongue Magazine

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