Cirsova Heroic Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine is an independent self-published SFF anthology magazine focused on pulpy science fiction and fantasy in the style of Jack Vance, Robert E. Howard, Leigh Brackett and Edgar Rice Burroughs. P. Alexander first started work on the magazine in mid-late 2015, motivated by the lack of platform for this type of sci-fi. Today, he's here with us to talk about the design and art aspect behind the production of Cirsova.
1 - When you first started working on the magazine, was the design and art a primary concern or more of an after-thought?
I always knew that art and design was going to be something I’d have to tackle, so it wasn’t a case of suddenly realizing that I’d need cover art.
I’d actually put a lot of thought into initial design work, both for the cover and the interior, before even looking for an artist.
For the interior, I went back to a few of my favorite pulps and did some comparisons between what interior fonts were being used in the 40s and what I could find that had a similar look and feel. I showed some of my own experiments and comparisons here. As you can see by the date, there, I was working on these design aspects nearly six months before our first issue came out.
I actually had my cover layout dummied up long before I found an artist so that when I did commission a piece, my artist would know exactly what his work area was like. You wouldn’t want to get a wonderful piece of art where some of the best elements are covered up by the text placement.
I do have a little bit of an edge over some folks who are just getting started, since I have InDesign and have used it for several years making things like fliers for rock shows and putting together album art. I don’t consider myself some kind of phenomenal designer – all of the cover layouts I’ve done for myself are incredibly simple and no frills (I literally just use text placement), but the results still often look better than some things I’ve seen come from some supposedly professional cover designers.
InDesign is a bit pricy, but if you’re serious about self-publishing, the degree of control that it will give you over the quality of your designs is more than worth it. There is definitely something to be said, though, for good designers. If you don’t think you can achieve the effect you want, look for a designer who has shown that they can. You shouldn’t hold up publication of your work just because you don’t know the necessary tricks to make your cover look like you want.
2 - How did you find the first artist to work with you on the first cover?
We found our first illustrator, Jabari Weathers, through HireanIllustrator.com. It’s a site with many artists linked to their portfolios and websites that allow you to browse for something you’re looking for style-wise and reach out with projects. There are several similar sites, and if you are unfamiliar with freelancers, it’s a great way to find talent.
3 - How easy is to find artists that represent Cirsova's mood and themes accurately?
I’ll admit that finding representative art is never easy. One always has to temper one’s expectations. I was incredibly lucky to have found someone as immensely talented as Jabari Weathers whose style and aesthetic really jibed with what I was looking for.
We’re a “pulp” and in many ways take a lot of inspiration from the old pulps, but we really didn’t want to go for that kitschy retro look that you see in so many places. Instead, with Jabari’s covers, we ended up with a really cool New Wave Weird look that harkened back to some of the iconic SFF artists of the 70s, like Jeff Jones, but with a brilliant and beautiful palette of bright and contrasting colors that gave it a real vibrancy.
While Jabari has moved on to other projects, we’ve had Ben A. Rodriguez and Ku Kuru Yo fill in for us in 2017 while we look for a new regular artist.
I’d worked with Ku before on the issue 2 variant cover; he’d been great to work then and did great work for us on issue 6. His style is a bit more cartoony than I’d otherwise go for in a magazine like Cirsova, but he’s so great to work with and his stuff is a lot of fun, so I’m happy to find or make opportunities to send work his way. He’s popping up all over the place in the emerging “Pulp Revolution”, having done covers for Brian Niemeier’s Souldancer and Rawle Nyanzi’s Sword & Flower as well as us.
Up until recently, Ben had been the artist for a comic called Peter is the Wolf*, but I’d only been familiar with him through a piece he did for the cover of a game called Kagai!, an homage to the Japanese SFF gore film genre about highschool girls fighting Lovecraftian monsters from other dimensions. I really liked the piece he did for that, and since our 5th issue was an homage to Lovecraft and the cover story (Darla of Deodanth, by Louise Sorensen) was about a young woman fighting a Lovecraftian monster, it seemed like a great fit. Even though, like Ku, Ben’s style is a bit cartoonier than our regular style, the finished piece is wonderful and highly reminiscent of the 80s style RPG line art by greats like Erol Otis or Liz Danforth.
*He’s still doing stuff for it, I gather, just not as the primary artist.
4 - Have you always had a good experience with the artists that worked with you?
Generally, yes. I usually trust my artists to have a better idea of what will look good than I do, so what I typically do is give them an idea of what I want and provide some supporting text from the stories for details and context. They come back with a couple of sketches, and I pick the one I like the best. Then they go ahead with the actual work, changes being made, if necessary, after they send in a progress update.
One of the things that made me really mad awhile back was one blogger’s post complaining about “over the top sexy” art and the depiction of women in tabletop games, where the blame was being placed on artists rather than art directors. The implied gist was that basically lots of artists could not help themselves when it came to tarting up the women you see in gamebooks like Pathfinder and that art directors are just flabbergasted and defeated by how horny their artists were that they just HAD to let the art the blogger was complaining about get into the final prints.
All three of the artists I’ve worked with on Cirsova do erotic content (the reality is that many, if not most, do), but have I NEVER had a problem with them either not giving me what I asked for or not changing something that I wanted changed.
All artists have a style, true, and you hire them with an understanding of what that style is, but at the end of the day, you’re the one writing the check, and the artist is trying to give you what you’ve asked for, in their style, to the best of their ability and understanding.
So, really, it’s a long way of saying “Don’t be afraid to clarify what it is you’re asking for and give the artist guidance if they’re taking the piece in a direction you don’t want. Communicate with your artist, because they want to make you happy with their work.”
5 - Did you have a budget for art and design? And is it easy to find art that fits your budget?
Going in, we had a budget of about $300 for our first issue, and we try to keep it in that range, though we’re moving a little higher in some cases.
Again, we got incredibly lucky with Jabari, who offered to do the work at that rate while keeping the originals himself.
Artists who work with physical media can create some really stunning stuff. Having only seen the high-res scans of Jabari’s pieces, I can only begin to imagine how fantastic they look in person. Of course, physical media can increase the cost of a piece, because an artist has to factor supplies into his or her costs. Physical media does give you some options, though. You can pay an artist more for both the rights and the physical media, and then will have the original to own or sell to defray costs. On the flip-side, the artist can sell you the rights and provide you with a high-quality scan while keeping the physical media, which they can in turn sell; this allows the artist to charge less for the piece because they still have something with value they can sell later.
Digital only can be cheaper, in part because things like canvas and paint costs aren’t factored in. Of course, if there’s no original physical piece, neither the artist nor the commissioner can have the original art to resell.
6 - Once you had the art and illustration, did you have any help for the magazine cover designs including typography and layout, or did you do it all yourself?
I did all of the layout work myself.
7 - Did you have any prior experience in designing covers and layouts? How was the learning process?
From about 07-12, I’d played in several bands and even had a small record label for a while. I’d done some work making fliers and eventually did layout for several CDs and even an LP. I basically took what I’d learned doing those and transferred it to books. Really, the only difference between making a record jacket and book jacket are the dimensions.
I still don’t know all of the bells and whistles of Adobe InDesign, and anyone who has seen my layout work knows that my style is pretty simple and straight forward, but I really think that it works for what I’m doing. The temptation to add crazy glow and drop shadows and any number of wild visual effects has ruined countless otherwise competent indie designs I’ve seen to come out of the self-publishing field. Like I said before, if you don’t know how to achieve the effect you want, be sure to find a designer who has shown that they can do what you’re looking for.
8 - In general, how important do you think the first visual impression of a magazine or book is?
It’s absolutely important. We’re in an age where the covers of even the most popular and celebrated titles are incredibly generic and non-distinct. I can barely tell Dresden Files covers apart from every other series featuring a guy dressed in black standing in front of something on the cover!
So many books these days just feature a model from a stock photo model shoot photoshopped onto some monochromatic stock photo background. You end up with dozens of books that look the same, featuring a bunch of pretty people standing around looking cool where nothing is happening.
By making your book stand out, it’s going to draw people’s attention. That’s why I’m so in favor of self-published and indie authors hiring real artists to create something truly unique for them. And there IS a difference between an artist and a designer. The best covers will come from synergy between a good artist and a good designer. Hiring an artist will give your designer something to work with, whether you’re designing your own cover or paying someone else to do your design work for you.
9 - Are you happy with the final look of Cirsova magazine? Would have you done anything differently?
Honestly, I can’t think of anything I’d change. I’m incredibly happy with how the magazine looks. I’m still playing around with the Hardcovers’ dust jacket designs, in part because I don’t think Subway looks as good for the pull quotes as it does the title and authors’ names, but I think the softcovers have looked fantastic.
10 - What was the most challenging part in the whole design process?
This may sound silly, but the biggest problem I have had in the design process has been the spine text.
The first issue of Cirsova was the shortest (only about 96 pages); unfortunately, Amazon Createspace requires 102 page count minimum to allow for spine text.
Additionally, Amazon will go into your design and squish down your spine text if they think it’s too large for your spine width, rather than allowing you to order a proof copy and see for yourself whether the text fits. So, for our first couple issues, the spine text has been a little squished. As our issues have gotten thicker (we’ve settled into a 128 page count for 2017), this has stopped being a problem.
11 - Cirsova's blog is an important part of the magazine's history, and it's the main source of updates for your readers and fans. Is a fully dedicated website part of your plans, out of your budget, or not considered beneficial at this point?
While there are benefits to a dedicated website, at this point, I think that our WordPress does most of what we need. The biggest change, if we get around to it, is going to be registering a domain name.
Ironically, Castalia House, a publisher whose blog I’m a contributor for, just got rid of their website’s landing page and put the blog on the front, since it was the site’s main draw.
12 - In terms of marketing efforts, what would you say it has been the most effective in terms of spreading the word about Cirsova?
Honestly, the best thing so far has been our fans. We gave people something they were missing and wanting, and we’ve been repaid by their support. While we don’t have a huge fan base at this point, the fans we do have are all very vocal and very loud supporters of what we’re doing, and I cannot thank them enough.
I can’t imagine what it would cost in terms of actual marketing to achieve the same effect as a handful of people taking every opportunity to point out how awesome we are because we promised them something in terms of content then did not disappoint.
13 - Do you have an email marketing plan? Why / Why not?
I don’t. I probably should, but I don’t for a couple of reasons.
I don’t like receiving spam myself, and there are other ways that our readers can keep up with us by social media that don’t require us blowing up people’s inboxes.
Also, and this is probably more important, I don’t want to crap up the email account I use for Cirsova. If I had multiple accounts, including a donotreply account for sending out email updates, I wouldn’t risk getting the account I use to communicate with our contributors flagged.
14 - Do you feel there is still more you want to do in order to spread the word about the magazine, but can't due to lack of expertise and /or budget?
Where do I start? Cirsova’s at a unique numbers cusp. Where we are now, our current methods of distributing (manual entry for drop-shipping) are just barely manageable. If our numbers grew by just a few dozen, it would be a huge pain point, where if we grew by just enough more than that, we could change our methods in a way that would be cheaper and more efficient (minimal stock shipped from a single location to subscribers). But that’s more distribution than it is marketing.
Finding out how and where to advertise something like Cirsova is a bit of a challenge, as well. For reasons I don’t have time to get into here, we would likely be persona non grata on the typical sites that people would go to for science fiction and fantasy news, so we have to look for alternatives. So, for the time being, traditional web-based marketing may not be in the cards for us.
That said, I’ve tried to make up for it through engagement. I’m always happy to talk to readers or bloggers on just about any subject. I’m very lucky to have been given my own regular column at Castalia House, and while I try not to abuse it, I do have the privilege of occasionally shilling for the magazine (which is helpful when I’ve fallen behind on my normally scheduled content). I’d like to be able to do more guest posts by request, but I honestly don’t have the time or energy necessary to do them without everything else suffering a little bit.
15 - What can we do to help spreading the word about Cirsova and supporting the project?
Stuff like this is always fun! At some point, I may not have time to answers everyone’s questions about fiction, art, games, whatever, but until then, I’m happy to talk.
Reviews are a big thing that anyone can do. It doesn’t have to be an in-depth blog post, either – a simple one or two sentence review on Amazon is a bigger deal than people realize. In fact, any time you read something by an independent or self-published author, leaving an Amazon review is one of the easiest ways to help them out.
Other than that, just telling friends and reading the magazine helps a lot! If you have a copy, loan it to someone. It takes a bit, but word of mouth can be a huge thing.
Reviews are a big thing that anyone can do. In fact, any time you read something by an independent or self-published author, leaving an Amazon review is one of the easiest ways to help them out.
16 - Thank you so much for your time today, P. Alexander. Would you like to leave any tips for artists, designers or authors interested in collaborating with Cirsova?
Thank you a lot for talking with me!
For artists, we’re looking for weird, strange and exciting. Dynamic is good; we aren’t looking for people standing around. I’m still on the fence as to whether I’d want anything ‘retro’, because we aim for substance over appearance and don’t want to be mistakenly pigeon-holed into “New Pulp” or “Pulp Revival” or whatever they’re calling it. Still, I would not turn my nose up at someone who might be the next Virgil Finlay or Allen Anderson.
As for authors, it’s a good rule of thumb to always check out at least one issue of a publication before submitting to it so that you have an idea of what they’re looking for. We aim to keep some back-issues free on our website so that people can see what it is we’re about. I’d also recommend that authors actually read a few of the old pulps before submitting to us – I’ve found that there’s a massive disconnect between what is in the old pulps and what people think is in the old pulps.
If someone hasn’t read any Leigh Brackett but would like submit something to Cirsova, I’d recommend checking out any of her stories first. Jack Vance and Ross Rocklynne are also names worth looking into. And I’ve said on numerous occasions that Basil Well’s Raiders of the Second Moon is one of the most perfect short SF stories ever written.
P. Alexander is the editor for Cirsova Heroic Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine. A dabbling writer and game developer, Alex blogs about gaming (both tabletop and video) and fiction at the Cirsova weblog. He is a regular columnist for Castalia House, where he reviews short stories from the 30s, 40s, and 50s and tries to convince people to stop whatever they’re doing and read Leigh Brackett.
Cirsova #5: Heroic Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine
Spring 2017 special Eldritch Earth issue.
Burroughsian adventure on a prehistoric Lovecraftian Earth.
- The First American, by Schuyler Hernstrom
- War of the Ruby/Shapes In the Fog, by Brian K. Lowe
- Darla of Deodanth, by Louise Sorensen
- In the Gloaming O My Darling, by Misha Burnett
- The Queen of Shadows, by Jay Barnson
- Beyond the Great Divide, by S.H. Mansouri
- Through the Star-Thorn Maze, by Lynn Rushlau
- The Bears of 1812, by Michael Tierney
- A Killing in Karkesh, by Adrian Cole
- My Name is John Carter (Pt. 4), by James Hutchings
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