George Foster has been called the best book cover designer in the country, a master at creating covers that sell, and a true gentleman with a passion for his work.
Having earned over 200 awards, George has designed covers for over a thousand books including scores of bestsellers for publishers such as Simon & Schuster, Harcourt Brace, Pearson Education, St. Martin’s Press, Oceanview Publishing, and Crossroad Publishing.
Besides his design work, Fairfield fans enjoy George’s bass guitar in Skunk River Medicine Show, Big Bambu and other bands.
BUSINESS: Foster Covers www.fostercovers.com
“When starting your career, take every job you can. If a client asks if you can do a project, say yes. Then do whatever it takes to get it perfect the first time. Never complain. Go the extra mile. Always say, YES.”
When starting our publishing company, we needed somebody to lay out our newsletter. I asked my friend and artist, George Foster, if he could do it. George said, “Yes!”
In 1985 before personal computing, to prepare the newsletter for printing the designer pasted strips of typesetter output onto cardboard sheets. Given my limited budget and propensity for making last-minute changes, I could never have produced our first issue without George’s heroic, going-the-extra-mile efforts. Sometime later George confessed to me, he had done nothing like it before.
Fast forward 30 years — George is arguably the leading independent U.S. book cover designer. From 1985 to 2011 he designed every one of almost 200 magazine covers for my company. And, of course, George created the cover for this book.
Part I – The Journey
From Starving Artist to Leading Book Cover Designer
In the Beginning
As George tells it:
“After receiving my art degree from the Columbus College of Art and Design, in 1979 I moved to Fairfield. Fairfield bubbled with activity. I couldn’t throw a rock without hitting an entrepreneur, and I couldn’t spit without hitting a graphic designer. Older, more experienced designers got the work. Few full time jobs existed.
I had begun painting water colors and for income showed them. No one bought anything. Creating comics, another passion of mine, netted $50 from an out-of-town publisher.
I thought, ‘What am I going to do now?’ Then the phone rang. Somebody asked, ‘I hear you’re a graphic designer.
I said, ‘yes!’
‘We want graphics for a video; can you do that?’
I said, ‘yes.’
‘Have you done it before?’
I had never done it before.
I learned as I did the job, never complaining about the late nights. They liked the result and paid me. The phone began to ring with more work.
To attract clients each Saturday I showed my tiny portfolio of student art school work at a trade fair in the student union. People hired me.
I would also barter — a chiropractor visit or groceries for a newspaper ad.
I always give a hundred percent. Clients called me back and told their friends. I worked one job at a time, not charging much, staying busy.
Then comes Hal in the late eighties — his magazine, a catalog, and lots and lots of ads for his products. By the early nineties, I had done everything a client could want— direct mail, ads, stationary, brochures, logos, menus.
In over thirty years, I’ve always kept busy, but have seldom had over two weeks of work in the queue.
In 1993 my biggest client, a good friend who gave me a third of my work, died suddenly. At the time he owed me a lot of money, and I didn’t want to ask his widow for it.
A few days later another client went bankrupt. Unfortunately, I had ordered a large printing job for the client under my name, so he owed me more money than anyone ever had. Rather than not pay the printer, I worked out an installment plan to make good the debt.
Somewhat desperate, I listened to a friend about an entrepreneurial venture. In it he made $100,000 in nine months. He thought I’d be perfect for it and offered to coach me.
Following his lead, I made a coupon book, creating the ads and managing a sales staff. I now had employees, a phone room, and people doing things for me. I lost $10,000.
That was a turning point. I learned that I am an artist, not a business man. I didn’t want employees or big plans. I went bohemian — no more necktie, no haircut. Just my two hands doing graphic design.
Do what you love!
From the coupon adventure I learned not to try to be something I am not to make money. I recommend doing what you love. Don’t do something because you think you should or because of someone else’s success. Start inside, then look outside.
Finding my Niche – Book Cover Design
I went into a spin for a year and a half, sort of a long dark night for the soul. With tight finances, I prayed a lot. I regularly asked, ‘What am I going to do next?’ and let go.
Then one day I rolled out of bed, and it just came: ‘Book covers.’ I thought, ‘Book covers! Wow! And it won’t depend on the tiny local economy.’
At the time I had done maybe half a dozen covers including three of the earliest Chicken Soup for the Soul books.
John Kramer, a Fairfield friend, book publishing marketing consultant, and best-selling author produced a newsletter. I asked John whether he could help me get more book cover work. John sold me an ad in his newsletter. Then came the phone calls. I started doing more book covers.
To make myself known I ran ads in several newsletters and taught classes at book publishing seminars. At the time I had designed only few book covers. To demonstrate what I could do, I created covers for non-existent books. Also, I offered to redesign existing book covers for free. I showed this expanded book cover portfolio to publishers. Nothing sells like samples.
When starting, my rates were low to get people to hire me. Since then, I have raised my fee many times.
An effective cover sells the book, blending beauty and communication. I always aim for a “wow” from the client, doing the highest possible quality. My business started building.
I no longer advertise. Business comes from word of mouth, repeat customers, and my website. Industry professionals — consultants, printers, editors, authors, and publishers — recommend me. A printer receives an awful book cover and tells his customer, ‘Don’t print with that cover. Call George.’
I did eight covers the first year, fifteen the next year, and then twenty. Now, I average between fifty and sixty a year.
Book Covers by George Foster
(Will include sample book covers and several before and afters like these from www.fostercovers.com)
Technology Changed my Job Description
Graphic design by hand
In the 1980’s I did hundreds of ads, many hand-drawn. Doing graphic design required a drafting table, a t-square, tape, cardboard, glue, translucent tissue for instructions, and a non-photo blue pencil. I drew headlines by hand or had the local typesetter create a typeface.
For his first issue newsletter, Hal provided me text files on floppy disk. I then specified font, size, margins and so forth to the typesetter, who would take the disk and produce the output — glossy paper with type on it. I then waxed the paper, glued it on cardboard, and prayed for no revisions.
We had already stayed up two nights in a row, and Hal says, “I’ve got more revisions!”
I then marked all the changes in different articles and gave it to the typesetter, Ron Flora. Ron, another Fairfield meditating entrepreneur, stayed up each night with us. He would go to his machine, create the changes, and output the different revisions in one long column of type. I used an X-Acto knife to remove the old type and stick in the new type, fitting it as seamlessly as I could.
‘Oh but, there’s a typo!’ Hal would say. To make this change I would look into a box full of trashed printouts of type to search for a “t” to replace a “j” and use the knife to cut out the letter.
Moving into the computer age
I didn’t buy a computer until 1990. Every day painstakingly I made ovals by hand using pen and plastic templates. The Mac’s ability to generate ovals in seconds convinced me.
A $20,000 lease bought me a Mac and a monitor. $5000 more got me a printer. The unhealthy, noisy, desk-filling, 19 inch cathode ray monitor made my hair stand up! I’d take breaks just to get away from it.
When I got the new computer, I didn’t know a thing. Hal tells me, ‘I’ve got a catalog to do.’
I said, ‘Yes, I can do that on a computer, and it will go real fast!’
During the day I would do all my other client work, the phone calls, and the running around. At night I would be back to Hal’s catalog, four long nights in a row. Back then, in Photoshop I could make one small command and wait twenty minutes on the computer, praying it wouldn’t crash. In 1998 the first version of Mac OS 10 launched, and that made life much better.
Everybody’s a designer
When the Macintosh came out in 1984, everyone thought they could design their own company logo over lunch. For about a year I lost some business.
Then those same people called me back, realizing design wasn’t their thing. Computers don’t create design, people do, leaving the good designers standing.
My Website Sells and Saves Time
I’ve spent a lot of time refining my website to educate customers about my service. Years ago, Hal told me,`Just put everything they might want to see or know on the website including your fee.’
I worried that my fee might scare them away. Hal countered that they wouldn’t have hired me anyway, but I would have wasted an hour attempting to convince them.
So, I’ve put everything on the site — my portfolio, testimonials, FAQ, my fee, input needed from the customer, a well defined description of services. It’s such a time saver. People just call me and say, ‘let’s go, let’s do it.’
Empathizing with the client
I’ve written and rewritten the fee page to make it customer-oriented. They’re buying me, right? But I have to make it about them. Why should they hire me? What’s in it for them? They don’t buy because I am good; they buy because I can do something for them.
Part II – Business Wisdom
Think Long Term
I tried being a starving artist once, and didn’t much like it. Yet, I never worried too much about money. By listening to my heart and doing what felt right, by staying inspired and following my intuition, things always worked out.
If you don’t want to be at work Monday morning, then you are in the wrong profession. If work excites you, you will never work a day in your life. I see my work as my passion in motion.
Ideas never run out. Ideas that thrill me work best. The creating process is a kick, just a kick.
One Man Business
I’m the opposite of thinking big — you can’t get any smaller. I do the whole thing — answer phones, manage the register, respond to emails, attend meetings. In the early years by evening I would make time to do design work.
The entire business is in every moment. That means I see every situation, every decision, no matter how small, as the whole business.
You gotta show up
I can go to work in a bathrobe and a bad haircut without consequence.
That said, working for yourself requires a special passion. I gotta show up. My business doesn’t work unless I work. Working means attracting clients and making them happy.
Think Long Term
I think long term. That means I am continually improving my graphic art abilities and my business systems.
Honing my skills
I work on my craft, always getting better, learning from each project. I never think, ‘Oh god, they want this. How will I get through it?’ Instead, no matter how rough, I see each project as an opportunity to be smarter the next time. Who am I when I begin the job, and who am I at the end?
Also, I identify heroes, people whom I emulate and can learn from. When stuck, I think, ‘What would they do?’
Making my business work better
Both Hal and I studied with Michael Gerber, author of The E-Myth Revisited – Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It. Gerber emphasizes working on the business rather than in it. That means refining systems, making the business turnkey, so you can do what you enjoy rather than fight fires.
I am always working on systems a little at a time. If something takes too much time once, it’s a fluke. If it comes up a second and third time, I fix it.
Whatever works best, I do again. It’s like paths — see where people walk and pave there. I find the natural flow and support that, rather than trying to make a path where I think it should be.
I’ve created paths — routines, simplifications, refinements — for every aspect of my business including getting clients, servicing clients, quotes, invoicing, paying taxes, getting supplies, developing the web site, Facebook. That way I can focus the majority of my time doing what I love, designing for my clients.
I used to always answer the phone, believing it a point of honor that no one should have to wait more than two rings.
Predictably, I would often go through the whole day talking to clients and telemarketers, then do my design work late into the night. I now no longer answer my phone. Voice mail tells me what matters and what doesn’t. The time saved still amazes me.
Using the best tools
When I see the Mac cursor turn into a beach ball again and again, I purchase a faster model. I appreciate the value of my time and don’t want to spend mine watching that beach ball. Being in business for the long term makes the upgrade expense worth it.
I don’t know how to do taxes and don’t want know, so a CPA does that. I design my website, but hire an expert to make it functional.
I used to spend lots of time on the phone and at trade shows to solicit business. Now the website does the work for me.
When a customer tells me how much he likes the cover, I remember to get a testimonial. That way when I need an endorsement, I have plenty to choose from.
I used to spend lots of time quoting and billing jobs — balancing projected hours with hours actually spent and the client’s budget. Now my unambiguous description of my cover design services for a fixed fee saves enormous time and energy.
Money and Pricing
I did not think of money until I got married at 29. I learned that without money a business isn’t a business, it’s a hobby.
Find your price niche — high price can be a selling point
In finding the right pricing level, there is much competition in the middle, and not much at the big discount and prestige levels. Over my career, I spent time at the low end and the middle, and ultimately discovered the high end. No matter what price level I chose, I made it about value for the customer.
I’ve now staked out the expensive, prestige position. Having a high price and high perceived value sells as long as I deliver tangible value that matches or exceeds the price.
I increased my fee when I got too busy. At one point I doubled my already substantial book cover fee, and continued to get business. After six months, I reexamined. I made a little less, but had a lot more free time. Since, I enjoy spending my time working, I brought the fee down some, and find that works well.
Selling my Service as a Product
I learned from Michael Gerber that if a business is a service, you can set yourself apart from the competition by making it a product. (Similarly, you can make a product, a service.)
So, rather than billing hourly for my cover design service, I charge a fixed fee for my book cover design product. I work until I satisfy the customer. I lose sometimes, but over a course of a year, I win, and I don’t have to track my time.
Many customers prefer buying my guaranteed book cover design product rather than being charged hourly. They budget my fee and forget about it. They don’t care if I spend one hour or a hundred hours as long as they get the high quality results I promise.
Part III – Success from the Inside Out
Service and a Pure Heart
I give one hundred percent, focusing on the work, not minding the time. I know when to push and when to let go. I am not attached to my creation.
I’m an artist, but lost the ego part years ago. Making the client happy is what counts, no matter the number of revisions, no matter if it means scrapping what I just created.
The client may tell me ‘That’s not it at all. What were you thinking?’ I reply, ‘Okay, thank you, no problem; we’ll try again.’ I then retool and restart and new ideas come, ideas not there the week before.
According to Maharishi, purity of heart attracts success. My heart tends towards purity, and that protects me. Hal once confided that it felt like yelling at Bambi when he got annoyed at me.
By cultivating an open and giving heart, always giving good service, my luck has increased through the years. Even when a giving heart does not bring money, it brings wonderful friends, good health, and happiness.
You can’t predict the future. You can’t make anybody call you. When starting, I could only afford one pair of pants. During these past thirty years, I have just kept throwing wood on the fire, always giving rather than trying to take. And my lifee keeps getting better and better.
The rock in my life is service. The client always comes first.
Service to others has grown my business, and allowed me to grow as a person. Everything connects. Skill increases through giving service, and that brings better clients, a better reputation, and more satisfying work.
A guiding principle for me: ‘People don’t care how much you know, unless they know how much you care.’
Care about what? Care about them, their needs, and their goals.
My work is a people business. I want my clients to have a pleasant, happy, uplifting experience working with me. Many excellent artists can’t make a business fly because they’re difficult to work with.
Treat everyone well
I no longer take every job, but I always treat everyone with kindness. I often help people even though I know they won’t hire me, sometimes even working for free.
I try not to say ‘No’ but instead re-frame the question to say ‘Yes’. When you treat people right, word gets around. If you treat somebody wrong, that gets around too, maybe faster.
Service, kindness, and limits can work together. We all have to draw the line somewhere. I ask myself, ‘Will it be time well spent?’ If necessary, I am quick with someone, but always gentle.
I Remain Undisturbed
I need not show off or be praised. I smile when criticized. This ‘lack of ego’ serves me well as a designer.
It is not really a lack of ego, but a lack of fragility and insecurity. I simply enjoy. Working is its own reward.
I credit TM for opening me to unbounded awareness, leaving me full inside, self-sufficient, free of the need for outside validation. The TM Sidhi program has helped integrate that unbounded awareness into my design work and my ability to communicate.
Sure, I love it when someone says I’ve done a great job, and I treat a client’s disappointment seriously. Yet, neither praise or complaint disturb my peace of mind.
- It served George and his clients well that George always said, ‘Yes,’ when asked if he could do a graphics job, even when he had no idea. On the other hand, do you think there might be something wrong or unethical about this approach?
- When one client died, George didn’t ask the widow for payment. When soon after another client went bankrupt, George paid the printer bill. He ended up in bad financial shape for a year and a half. Did George make the right choices? What would you have done?
- George gave up his passion for water-color painting and comics. Did he sell himself out? If he were determined, do you think he could he have made it?
- George says: ‘Put the client first.’ He also tells us that as an artist, he needs to do his own thing. Can you think of a time when serving others and doing your own thing came in conflict? How did you resolve it? Can you do your own thing while serving others?