#DesiLitBiz: Harshad Marathe on book cover design and tips for debut writers

About Harshad Marathe:

Harshad Marathe is a versatile illustrator and storyteller who works in many different media, traditional as well as digital. The themes that interest him tend to be timeless explorations of the subconscious, the destruction or inversion of ideas, reversal of what is conventionally expected, explorations of darkness, and work that carries information and meaning that is beyond the obvious, the literary or the intellectual. His view is that, if his work doesn’t surprise himself, it won’t surprise anybody.

He graduated from the ‘MFA Illustration as Visual Essay’ Program at the School of Visual Arts, New York City, in 2014. His clients span the globe and a wide range of industries. He’s won several awards for his work.

Harshad Marathe is a versatile, award-winning illustrator and storyteller, working in both traditional and digital media. In #DesiLitBiz, he discusses book cover design and shares useful, important tips for debut writers. @DesiBooks


Desi Books: Please describe your path or journey to becoming a book cover designer? Was this a conscious career choice or did you slowly evolve into it? Which artists have inspired you along the way?

Harshad Marathe: It wasn’t a conscious choice. I made a conscious choice to be an illustrator, but I didn’t know where in the industry I would find my footing. Things happened by chance, word of mouth and as a result of circumstances. I was introduced to or spotted by people in publishing. After working with them, more publishers spotted me. 

My list of influences is long. However, some of my most important influences were illustrators whose work I became familiar with during my years in New York City. Some names that come to mind are Keith Nagley, Eleanor Davis, John Hendrix, Jeffrey Alan Love, Lisk Feng.

Desi Books: What are the main ways that projects come to you? Is it mostly directly from publishers? Authors? Do you ever actively reach out for particular cover assignments?

Harshad Marathe: It can be either authors or publishers. I do try to reach out and write to particular clients to get work from them, but not for particular assignments. Cold emailing new potential clients isn’t a very successful strategy, but sometimes it’s the only thing you can do.

Desi Books: What are some of the key criteria that drive your decision to take on a book’s cover design?

Harshad Marathe: Beggars can’t always be choosers. This work pays my bills so I can’t always have a very high bar. I generally like to take on projects that I can respect, and I like to work with people whom I enjoy working with. There are definitely themes and causes that appeal to me, but getting work that fits those is often the cherry on top, not the qualifier.

Desi Books: How would you describe your particular design style versus others out there? Do you gravitate toward certain kinds of illustrations or approaches?

Harshad Marathe: I definitely have certain peculiarities that I gravitate towards, but I also believe that I’m still in the process of discovering my voice, and perhaps I always will be. Discovering one’s path (and I say path because I believe that even a style/voice constantly evolves and you can stray from it or get stale and formulaic, even after you find it) goes hand in hand with discovering parts of ourselves and growing or evolving as a person.

“I’m still in the process of discovering my voice (as a designer and illustrator) . . . a style/voice constantly evolves and you can stray from it or get stale and formulaic, even after you find it . . .” ~Harshad Marathe #DesiLitBiz @DesiBooks

Desi Books: Once you’ve signed on a project, what’s your creative approach? I know this probably changes from cover to cover. You and I have now done three covers together but I’m sure your approach with different books, publishers, and writers varies, right?

Harshad Marathe: The basic approach remains similar actually. I like to understand my client and their project as much as I can and then come up with rough ideas. All the parties involved pick one direction and we proceed. Sometimes inspiration strikes and I go for the kill with one idea without making rough sketches, but this approach has risks.

Desi Books: What aspect of the book cover design process or journey do you find the most interesting and why?

Harshad Marathe: I love that I get such a wide array of themes to work with across different authors and publishers. I have also picked up so many new skills—such as making patterns, illustrated gifs, hand-lettering—that I didn’t have in the process of working on book covers.

“I have also picked up so many new skills—such as making patterns, illustrated gifs, hand-lettering—that I didn’t have in the process of working on book covers.” ~Harshad Marathe #DesiLitBiz @DesiBooks 

Desi Books: What’s one of your personal favorite covers you’ve designed and why?

Harshad Marathe: I get asked this question a lot! Currently I’d say I really like the cover I made for Ramarao. There are also several covers for books that haven’t yet been published, so I can’t include them. One of them, of course, is the US edition of your very own The Shehnai Virtuoso.

Desi Books: Tell us about a favorite book cover that you did NOT design and why you’re drawn to it.

Harshad Marathe: It’s so hard to pick one! Truth be told, I go through phases of admiring the work of different artists. Every season, I have a new favorite illustrator. Currently I’m enamored by Owen Gent’s illustrations and I love many of his book covers.

Desi Books: In this Scroll piece about working during the pandemic, you’ve covered a lot of ground about how you work, compensation in your line of work, etc. If there’s one thing that you believe has improved during your time in the field and one thing that remains a challenge, what would they be?

Harshad Marathe: Well, I can’t speak for the state of the industry overall, because my experiences aren’t necessarily consistent with the experiences of other artists. That Scroll interview happened between the first and second waves. I know that the second wave was very difficult for many people in publishing. There were many frustrating delays and many people I know and work with were down with COVID. Globally, things are slowly getting back on track and, hopefully, this means that there will be a resurgence. But let’s not speak too soon.

Desi Books: What are some things that a debut writer should know about how to work with a professional book cover designer?

Harshad Marathe: This is such an interesting question.

First, there are many excellent illustrators and book cover designers, but only a few of them may be suitable for a project. It can really help if the author already has a vision for what they want and if they can gauge which artist’s work speaks to their own sensibility.

It can also be very useful if there is a detailed conversation right at the start about the artist’s process and the author’s expectations.

It’s also best to be clear about all the terms like the deadline, the timeline, payment, and deliverables right at the start.

Often authors ask their friends, advisors and relatives for their opinions about sketches or the artwork. I feel like too many opinions can be very confusing, so it’s better to have just a few whose insights and aesthetic sense the author trusts.

Editor’s Note: I’ll add a few that I’ve learned from Harshad after having three of my book covers created by him:
—Work with a palette of 3-4 colors at the most or the cover is going to look too busy and garish.
—Provide as much specific detail as possible upfront about the aesthetic you’re aiming for with images, specific text/excerpts from the book, etc.
—Be careful with too much intricacy in the illustration or the typography as it may not come across visually clear in thumbnail images and such.
—While everyone knows that the book’s cover should communicate what the book is about, we’re also in the age of social media. Covers need to not just stand out but stand apart to make people pause their scrolling and click.

“It can really help if the author already has a vision for what they want and if they can gauge which artist’s work speaks to their own sensibility.” ~Harshad Marathe with several terrific book cover design tips on #DesiLitBiz @DesiBooks

Desi Books: If you were to give one piece of advice to someone considering a career in book cover design, what would that be?

Harshad Marathe: I feel like my advice is going to sound very general. I’d just say that building strong professional relationships with clients (publishers and authors) is the key. Clients are looking for a reliable, punctual person who genuinely cares about their book project, and is willing to put their needs above other considerations. There’s no way to fake this. If one wants to come across as such a person, one needs to be that person.

“Clients are looking for a reliable, punctual person who genuinely cares about their book project […] There’s no way to fake this.” ~Harshad Marathe’s advice to potential book cover designers #DesiLitBiz @DesiBooks

Desi Books: Thank you for your time, Harshad. My usual last question: what’s your favorite desi book and why? (It could be a recent read and it doesn’t have to be in English.)

Harshad Marathe: Probably Kiran Nagarkar’s Cuckold, even though I read that book many many years ago. It’s historical fiction set in 16th century India. It’s got history, war, drama, conflict, politics, religion, royalty, love, and more. All written in a contemporary idiom and language. It’s both a very Indian story and a universal one.


Learn more about Harshad Marathe.

Harshad Marathe is a versatile, award-winning illustrator and storyteller, working in both traditional and digital media. In #DesiLitBiz, he discusses book cover design and shares useful, important tips for debut writers. @DesiBooks


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