It’s not every day we tell you to judge a book by its cover, but in the case of Kerry Ellis (aka Llywellyn) we encourage you to.
Kerry has been a prolific book cover designer on 99designs for more than six years. While she may be modest, her portfolio is vast with inspired covers ranging in style from Saul Bass to Celtic classicism.
We recently chatted with Kerry to learn more about what makes her tick creatively, where she finds inspiration for each cover and who she’s reading right now.
Name: Kerry Ellis
99designs handle: Llywellyn
Location: United States
Specialty: Book covers
Tell us a little about yourself.
My childhood was spent moving around the States until high school, which gave me a nomadic travel bug at a young age. That led to a study-abroad program in Ireland during my university days, which connected me to a professor who unknowingly set me on my path to become an editor by hiring me for the Writing Center when we got back to campus. I’ve spent more than a decade in various publishing fields as an editor, and I love it.
You’ve been a member of 99designs for a long time (six years!). Can you talk a little about your experience?
Gosh, has it really been that long? I started like most folks with a passing knowledge of Illustrator: thinking I could easily make some extra money by creating logos. I mean, how hard could a logo be, right?
I was horrible at it. Probably better than some, but my first contests on 99designs showed me how much learning I had to do. So there was a long hiatus where I wasn’t very active at all.
After more hands-on experience with layout design at NASA, I returned to the 99designs platform and discovered the book cover category. As an avid reader and full-time editor, I was smitten with this category. That’s when I really found my niche and started to make good progress on the platform.
What do you enjoy most about freelancing?
The freedom to choose what I’d like to work on. Since I have a full-time day job, I have incredible freedom in selecting what I’d like to work on during my evenings and weekends. Since it’s work on top of a day of working, it has to be work I’m really going to love doing. Freelancing allows me to do that.
You’re clearly a bibliophile. What do you love most about designing book covers?
The stories! There’s such an endless supply of stories, and I love discovering new worlds and characters through them, then trying to bring them to life.
What do you think is the greatest challenge when a designing book cover?
Condensing what took the author several hundred pages to tell into a single image. This is even more challenging when you don’t have the entire manuscript to read. Given only a short brief, you have to rely on the author to identify what’s truly most important about their work.
Often, they’ve spent so long in the company of their own words, they can lose sight of some of the subtle themes and imagery a designer with fresh eyes might pick up on and run with. Doing all that writing justice is so challenging and incredibly rewarding when you get it right.
Your style changes for each cover you work on. How do you decide on each specific “look”?
Does it? Funny, because I feel like I’m always doing the same thing: minimalism and grids!
Sometimes the author has a specific style in mind, which will set me down one path of image mining. Other times, a particular word or phrase will create a picture in my mind, and I set about looking for stock photos or old paintings that fit that image but also spark a gut reaction when viewed. Whatever I find that creates that spark ends up driving the style for that cover.
Of course, I do this all with the genre in mind. Each genre has its own look and feel, but I don’t always like to play by those rules (which is probably why I do so poorly in some genres). For example, if a book is a hard-hitting thriller/mystery, I’m not likely to use a frilly script font on the cover.
However, I also don’t want to use the cliché dark-blue-tones-with-big-serif-font style if I can avoid it (I can’t always avoid it, but I’ll start in left field until the author kicks me out of it!).
Has there been an author you loved working with? Or a certain project you’re especially proud of?
Quite a few! But I’ll keep it to a couple of big personal milestones.
The first was a contest for a trilogy. The books were mystery with Celtic mythology as a theme throughout. If you couldn’t tell from my incredibly Welsh username, a quick look at my bookshelves would tell you just how obsessed I am with mythology and all things Celtic. So that contest was personally thrilling for me.
Even if I lost, I had to try because the subject matter was so near and dear to my heart. It ended up being the first big cover prize I won! I was absolutely elated and kept stalking the books’ publication because I honestly wanted to read them. (The first book is finally out!)
The next was the contest that gave me enough courage to ask for Top Level status: The Gondola Maker. That was an intimidating contest—tons of great talent and entries. I personally love reading historical fiction, which is what first drew me to it, but I had also recently been to Venice and had tons of photos from there (what I feel is my best photographic work to date).
I noticed that none of the entries actually had a gondola maker represented. Now, a lot of times going for the obvious thing is also the dumbest thing for book covers, but I still wanted to give the author something different than pages of gondolas and no makers.
That composite ended up being the largest I’ve cobbled together to date (that’s won): the hands and wood file from one photo, the apron from another, the rolled sleeves from yet another, and the gondola itself from one of my own photos. Then the wax seal, the winged lion, the prow fork—all of which I turned to public domain images for because the required stock purchases were starting to add up.
It turned out better than I could have imagined. The author loved it. And she sent me a few copies, all of which I gave to friends and family except one—my own keepsake. That’s the cover that made me think I was actually good at this and should keep going.
Where do you typically draw your inspiration from?
Art and photography, which are a big part of my background. I love modern art museums and the old masters with their classic portraiture. Art history was one of those university classes that I never, ever missed, and started me on a path of visiting art museums in every city I visit across the globe.
About 8 years ago I started delving into photography and immediately fell in love with the likes of Alfred Stieglitz and George Hurrell (probably didn’t hurt that I’m a classic movie buff). Old tintypes and cyanotypes give me butterflies.
And vintage posters. Alphonse Mucha was the first to draw me into that world, and I simply adore it.
Those are my go-tos when I’m in a rut and need reminding how much great art is out there waiting to be rediscovered and repurposed and introduced to a whole new audience.
What are you reading right now? Do you have an all-time favorite book?
I’m in the middle of several books at the moment: The Long Mars, Station Eleven, The Brothers Karamazov, Remembrance of Things Past (which I swear I will someday finish…). I also just bought 6 Thomas Hardy books because I somehow missed reading him entirely during all my years studying literature.
All-time favorite book is tougher. I have many, and each for different reasons. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, because it was my introduction to fantasy fiction courtesy of my father (he gave me his leather-bound copy of The Hobbit, and after I finished it, he surprised me by buying the trilogy for me that week).
Grania, by Morgan Llywelyn, because she blended my loves of Celtic mythology and historical fiction into a powerful woman who I would never had known existed otherwise. So enamored was I that I wrote to Morgan Llywelyn when I went to study abroad in Ireland to ask if I could meet her. To my surprise, she replied and agreed. Unfortunately, her schedule didn’t end up allowing it, but I called her from Dublin right after seeing the real Tara Brooch and had the most wonderful conversation with her.
And The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett. Because it introduced me to his writing and the Discworld. A journey I’m so sad has ended but I’m forever grateful to have experienced and read.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’ve likely gone on too long already! I’m honored and still a bit flummoxed at being asked for an interview. Thank you so much. It’s been fun!