I really enjoyed this laid-back discussion around AI tools as part of the creative book cover design process with James Helps from Go On Write. We discuss how generative AI tools can help make more unique and interesting cover designs, and how designers can have a more imaginative time making them.
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James Helps is a book cover designer at GoOnWrite.com, offering pre-made covers and custom cover design. He also writes articles for authors about the impact of AI at his blog, HumbleNations.
You can listen above or on your favorite podcast app or read the notes and links below. Here are the highlights and the full transcript is below.
- James' history with computers, AI, and art
- Various tools for AI-generated images and the rise of text to video
- Midjourney vs DALL-E and how being an artist makes Midjourney easier to use as you have the language to use it
- How James uses Midjourney as part of his creative ideation process with a client and how it gives him more scope for imaginative designs, and how it takes more time
- Is AI a threat to cover designers and/or authors? How our human creative drive and connection is our real differentiator.
Transcript of Interview with James Helps
Joanna: James is a book cover designer at GoOnWrite.com, offering pre-made covers and custom cover design. He also writes articles for authors about the impact of AI at his blog, HumbleNations, which we're talking about today. So welcome to the show, James.
James: Hi there.
Tell us a bit more about your book cover design business and how you became interested in generative AI.
James: I guess the first thing I'd probably say is I don't really like the word business. It's more that I make covers for people that I like. They come in and chat to me, and I'm just a designer that really enjoys doing covers.
I guess when it comes down to the AI stuff, I got interested in that probably around two years ago when there was a lot of stuff in the air. There was like the DALL-E and Imagen that I was reading about quite a lot. I've always been sort of somebody who's looked at technology as a thing.
In my history, I did a computer science degree back in the early 90s. As a kid, I was always interested in technology and design. So it's something that I always read about. So I knew AI was coming, but I didn't realize that it was coming that fast.
It was actually a friend of mine who's another designer, Craig, who told me about Midjourney. For me, it wasn't completely perfect, but I felt, well, it's time to actually start looking at this and learning about it. So it's about two years, 18 months ago now, that I started playing around with it.
Joanna: It's interesting though, you said back in the 90s that you did a computer science degree and that you knew AI was coming, but you didn't know it was coming that fast. Of course−
People have been talking about AI since the 90s.
So do you think it's all just sped up in the last couple of years, as you say? Because it feels like people think, oh, it's come out of nowhere, but of course, it hasn't, has it?
James: No, I mean even in the 90s they were talking about neural networks and how machine learning was working.
I think Google, at a certain point, scanned all the books, and all those books that were scanned were used for machine learning to do things, to understand the structure of text. So anybody who's used Google Translate, that's basically AI.
I guess the thing that sort of surprised me, looking back on it now, is the fact that it happened just after the pandemic. That's sort of interesting. I've got a theory, which I've told the same theory to my friends, my more tech friends, and they said the same thing. They agreed with me.
It's the fact that there was a certain point in the pandemic where everybody was putting money into Bitcoin, and Bitcoin was shooting up and up. So then everybody was trying to mine Bitcoin, and the technology that they needed was graphics card server farms.
Then obviously, the pandemic finished, Bitcoin crashed, and there was all these sort of empty server farms, graphics card server farms, so they all became available. I think that was what actually sped up it all just happening at once. There was cheap computing power to actually start playing around with these things.
Joanna: That is interesting. I have also heard that, that they need a lot of these types of computers. It is interesting, isn't it, how we need this hardware to make the software to make things like nice images, and of course, words and all of that. We're not talking about the word side today.
Let's get into what design services are available right now. It feels like when we started emailing, maybe six months ago, like you mentioned Midjourney and DALL-E. I feel like people are like, oh, these are educators, although DALL-E, of course, is incorporated into Microsoft.
What are some of the other tools that have launched in the last six months?
James: I guess there's a whole host of things that are happening. Especially with things like video, you've got Runway ML and you've got Pika.
It isn't really a book cover thing, but then I started thinking, oh, maybe do a little animated cover, like take your image and have animations. I've kind of played around with them, they're not really there yet.
For me, when I started looking at it, I looked at all the services, and I liked Midjourney because it just basically had the best aesthetic, firstly. Secondly, it was a private company, so it's not run by one of the big tech companies. It's not a shareholder company. It was just the best of the lot, really.
Also, the guy came on every Wednesday and did a stream about how they're developing it. They're really connected to the user base, as well. So it's just the one that's the best one out there. So that's the one that I use, and it's pretty much the only thing that I'm massively interested in.
Apart from this, there's also little tools out there that I use in my sort of day-to-day job. Like there's a background removal service that's powered by AI. There's also a vectorize tool, which is just Vectorize.AI, which is useful for certain tasks as well. So there is other AI bits and pieces that I use.
Joanna: A few things there, so you mentioned Pika and RunwayML. Midjourney has also said that they're going to get into generating video this year, in 2024, as we're recording this. So I think that's really interesting, because I'm also a paid Midjourney subscriber.
I tried Pika Labs. I also, like you, I was like this is not really there, and Runway looks too technical for me. So I think I'm just going to wait for Midjourney video.
James: I think the interesting thing with Midjourney is that they're going about it in a slightly different way as well. The guy who runs Midjourney, David Holz, I think originally he comes from an augmented reality background. He was building like headsets or something years ago.
So he has this vision that he wants 3D-generative worlds, like art installations that you can go through. So I think he was talking about video, in terms of having it best in 3D.
I found this interesting because when it comes to graphics, obviously, you have foreground and you have background, and then sometimes you want to zoom out, sometimes you want to zoom in, sometimes you want just parallax scroll between things.
It's interesting that at a certain point, it will be more that you generate an image, and then you can move around that image to get the right angle, if you see what I mean. So I find that quite sort of a compelling way to look at it.
Then obviously, you might want to move and have videos. I think you will get more sort of zoom in, parallax scrolling videos with Midjourney to start off with, rather than those sort of trippy nightmarish things you get from Pika or Runway.
Joanna: It's so funny because, again, we're recording this January 2024, and it's going to sound old really fast because within six months, I mean, these things are just going to be amazing.
Coming back to some of the other things.
Adobe has Firefly, which is generative AI, and then Getty, one of the most expensive stock photo places, now has generative AI as well.
So it seems like all the tools that cover designers and graphic designers use in general now have their own AI services. So what do you think about that development?
James: Well, it's kind of interesting to a certain extent because, obviously, they're taking technology. Now, where they take that technology from, it might be Stable Diffusion white label or it might be OpenAI white label, where they take the actual technology of training the model.
So somebody's got to train the model for Getty or Shutterstock, and it's based on their catalog. But when I've looked at those, they're pretty bad. They're pretty, pretty terrible. The Adobe one is interesting, but it's still somewhat bad.
I have a friend, Craig, who's a designer and he's more corporate, he works for blue chip companies. Interestingly enough, he's used Firefly. What he uses it for is more, you get a picture and you want to extend the background. So it's like not really creating things from scratch.
Joanna: That's the generative fill, I think.
James: Yes, like generative panning across. So like maybe you have mountains in the background, you want the mountains to go a bit further, so you can use that image and it fits to the actual brochure or website that you're designing. So he's doing more of that stuff.
My friend, he's a bit of an AI skeptic in a way. We send each other when we find things that are really bad, like really nightmarish videos. We both kind of make music as well. The fact that he's a bit of a skeptic in terms of the quality and he's starting to use it, you can see where the future is leading with Adobe products, I guess.
Joanna: Yes, and you mentioned that you find Midjourney the best. I think that's because you're an artist, you're a designer, and you know how to drive it.
I have a lot of interest in visual art. My dad and my brothers and sister are visual artists, so I know a little bit. So I've been playing with Midjourney, but I actually find now that DALL-E gives me images that suit things like my speaking, for slides and things like that, or for the blog, for example, it's easier for me speaking just in plain English.
In Midjourney, I feel like you, as a designer, have the language to drive Midjourney to get what you want. I mean−
Do you think Midjourney is a platform for artists first?
James: Yes, I think at the bottom of it there's like a massive misunderstanding of what all generative stuff is. It's this idea that you just quickly say something and you get this amazing picture out of it, and none of them work like that.
I think things like DALL-E with OpenAI, like ChatGPT, it's good for things like slides because you can just say things in natural language quickly, and it understands that natural language.
When you're actually creating something like a book cover, you're looking at a sort of deeper idea of what you want to present. So there is always like imagination at the start of the whole process. You've got to come up with the right idea.
I mean, it's interesting with writers because I probably put them into three sort of distinct categories when they come to me for a commission.
I'd say there's a third of them that don't know what they want, they've got no idea. And I'm like, well, that makes me happy because I can go chat to them about their book and I can extract the right information to create something catching and interesting for a cover.
There's a third of people that have a very specific idea about what they want on the cover. They'll say, I want this exact thing. I'll go, yes, that's a good idea, and I'll do it.
There's also like a third of the people that come to me that go, I want this scene from my book, or I want something that everybody else does. And in that instance, it's for me to persuade them that that's a bad idea because that's not what a good book cover is.
A scene from a book is too much. There's too much visual information on there.
When you're talking about Amazon thumbnails or people scrolling on the phone, people are not going to see what it is.
So there's an interesting thing of there needs to be a concept at the start of any sort of project, or two thirds of the time, it's that concept.
That concept takes imagination. It takes artistic thought to connect the concept with a book. Then at that point, you can start to create images on Midjourney.
I think the thing that's interesting at the moment is Midjourney has gone from 5.2 to 6, well, it's 6 Alpha at the moment. The first thing that I did when version 6 came out, I was like, can it do this? Can it do that? Can it do this?
So one of my sort of classic things is “something made of something.” So like, “I want a zombie made of smoke,” or “I want a house made of green glass.” So then you see where the edges of the boundaries of what it can do are.
Then that just expands your imagination and expands like the concepts you can start thinking about when you're trying to come up with a book cover. So I find it a fun tool to see where the edges of my imagination are.
Joanna: I love the way you're describing it. I think it also relates to how a lot of authors, including myself, use AI for words as well.
It's like you don't just go in, say, “write me a thriller with this character,” and you know, boom, output. That's not how any of this stuff works.
As you said, you need the imagination, you need a deeper idea of what you want to create.
Well, let's get a bit more into your process because it's still that you don't go onto Midjourney and say, “make this one image,” and then you're done. It's like it's not one image that you can generate. Presumably, you generate lots of different things, and then you also make a composite in terms of a cover.
Can you talk a bit more about how your process works?
With a combination of trial and error and the composite sort of thing?
James: Well, I think the first thing to say, which is quite interesting, is sort of previous to Midjourney, I was using stock images. The interesting thing with that is you sort of chat with the client, it always starts with chatting with the client and hashing out the idea.
Joanna: On that, do you mean chatting by phone or by email?
Joanna: Yes, me too. I was going to say, aren't we all introverts? No one wants to chat.
James: The other thing is, I'm 50 years old now, and if I had a phone call, by the end of the phone call, I wouldn't have remembered what had been said to even type it down. So with email, it's all there on a nice email thread.
So once you come up with your idea, when I was using stock images before, I'd go try and find stock images to fit the idea, and I'd be like, no, there isn't any good ones.
So then what you're doing, even if you're like doing a composite, even if you’re taking different stock images and doing editing on them, you're still in that position where you're either trying to persuade the client to go for this compromised idea, or you compromise your idea as the designer.
Now with Midjourney, I've kind of changed the way I work to a certain extent. I'll chat with them and maybe send them a few, what I call, quick and dirty images that I've generated.
So here is sort of how it can go. Like there's a job that I'm working on at the moment where it's like a pig-man cowboy. Look out for that book, I can't remember the name of the author.
So it was, alright, I've generated some pig-man cowboys, which are not perfect, but then the guy goes, “Oh, yes, that's that, but maybe we can do it more cartoony, or we can do it more this.”
Actually proving to the client and proving to myself that whatever the crazy idea is is going to work, it just makes my life easier, in one sense, from the imagination point of view. But because you can do that, then it means there's a lot more work at the other end because clients/authors become more specific in what they want.
They may now be like, “Oh, I like that, but can we have it a little bit lighter?” or “It shouldn't be in the woods, it should be with a mountain background.” So the more sort of directions you can go, the more things we need to generate and get right, really, as a whole entire thing.
So in terms of commissions, it was easier to do with stock images because it's like, well, that's what you've got. We're putting these images together, we're doing a bit of editing on it, there you go.
Whereas now it's like, oh, we're exploring this sort of visual space and this idea we've got. That takes a lot more time, probably about two or three times more work than it did before.
Joanna: Oh, interesting. That is interesting because a lot of people then go, well, it's much easier. But I think it's easier if you aren't a designer, because as you say, it just kind of expands the time.
I mean, I play around with AI in my writing, and it definitely doesn't speed it up. It just changes the process and what you can do. As you say, you iterate a lot faster when you're thinking about it and using different words to generate these images.
Then after, let's say you get all your concepts sorted, how do you then put it together into a cover? Are there specific other tools you use to do that, and fonts and things?
James: Yes, that's just the boring part of the job. So I mean, strangely enough, I don't actually use Adobe tools. I use something called Xara Designer Pro, which is something I've used for like the last 20 years. I don't know, nobody's heard of it, but I really like it.
I actually got a copy of it when it first came out. It was called Design Xara Studio. It had a red sort of car on the front. I got a copy of it because I lived in a shared house in Leeds with a girl whose friend worked for the company, and he went, I've got this design software. And I was like, oh, I’ll have a look at it for you.
Joanna: And it was on a CD or something probably about then.
James: Oh, definitely. It was the 90s.
Joanna: I love that. So you're working on software from the 90s and using the latest in generative AI tools.
James: I think the version of Xara I use now is from 2012. It's like 10 years old.
Joanna: I like that. I think I'm also the same. There are some things I really like using that are pretty old school and then I like to play with these other new things.
Okay, so that kind of goes through some of the benefits, I guess, for using AI. So I guess one of the questions that people wonder is, is this going to destroy all the jobs?
Are you worried about your cover design lifestyle?
I guess, if you don't want to call it a business.
James: No, I'm not really particularly worried. It's kind of interesting, I did a survey, I always like to ask my author's questions. What covers do you want? What do you think of this? What do you think of that? So Google Forms is my best friend, I use it a lot.
So I asked them last year, and one of the questions was, “If AI replaced me, what do you think I should do?” Strange enough, 45% of them said I should become a writer.
I thought was quite ironic because I actually got into cover design and Kindle stuff because I am a writer, but the irony being that I'm too busy designing to actually write my own books these days. So they're like, oh, yes, if we destroy your job, you can actually do the thing you wanted to do, like the original idea. So I found that amusing.
Also, my other idea when I thought about it, when I have a doomsday sort of picture, I think I'll open a chicken wing shop. That is sort of my idea. There's no decent chicken wings shocks in Barcelona, I thought it would be a little bit of a money spinner.
So I mean, it's a lot of hype around AI. There's more things that can't do than it can do.
It takes a lot of work, and it takes a lot of learning. It takes a lot of exploring and playing with it.
I think that if you're somebody who likes playing with technology and being like, let's just see what this can do, you find out where the edges are.
I'm kind of that person where you find out the boundaries of what it can and can't do, and then you find out what's actually useful. At end of the day, it's just a tool.
I think the hype that's out there is very different from what the reality is once you started playing with it, and went, oh, no, it can't do that. As you say, you can't go, “write me a thriller,” and it'll write you a full thriller. It just doesn't do that.
Joanna: Or even if it did do that at some point, and I'm sure it will be able to do that at some point, that's not the book I want to write.
James: Yes, or read.
Joanna: Exactly, so I think that that is the more important thing. So yes, I can actually output a book cover really quite quickly now. I mentioned to you that I've done it for a short story, Beneath the Zoo. It was one prompt on DALL-E, and then I used Canva to put some text on.
So that can be done, but that's because that was that project and it was something that was in my head. But today, for example, I sent two new things to my book cover designer and said, “Look, I need these,” and we'll go through the usual process.
I think what you're saying is, you know, we're exploring and playing with this is because we really enjoy it. This is what we like doing. But most people, they don't want to do this anyway. It's not their chosen field or their chosen interest.
James: I think it's like a strange thing because, like, to my mind, everybody is doing whatever they're doing, but have their own place to do that, and they'll find their own tools to do something, and they have something that they enjoy.
I have musician friends, and I've made music in the past. I love music, I adore music. I don't have a Spotify account. I'm a Bandcamp person. I like to buy my music. I like it in high quality. I like to give my money to the artists. I like to find obscure stuff that nobody else has heard and Bandcamp is fantastic for that.
Then I've got friends that are more into vinyl or won't get anything unless it's on vinyl. You live in a world where things change, and probably most people are on something like Spotify, but there are spaces for everybody in the world.
I think to feel that way is the way it should be, that you go, “this is my thing.” Or you can only listen to live music and don't even listen to records. So however you want to be, that's entirely up to you.
There's space for everyone.
So I guess it can sometimes feel as though like, oh no, this is the way it's going, or this is the way it has to be, or this will destroy this, or this will create that. But things change, the world changes. It's forever turning. You just find your own place in the world, and what you enjoy, I guess.
Joanna: ‘You do you,' I think the modern saying is.
James: Yes, that sort of thing.
Joanna: Now, I did want to return, so you mentioned the survey about AI that you did towards the end of 2023.
What were some of the other things in that survey that you found surprising or interesting?
James: The first thing that I really found surprising−well, no, I didn't actually−is that the amount of people that responded to it, five times as many people went and read the results to the survey than responded. I was like, people kind of don't want to talk about it, but they want to know what everybody else thinks.
I guess there were a few things that were like really sort of shocking to me. Firstly, I asked people, “How much do you know about AI?” And two thirds of people said either a lot or a moderate amount.
I'm somebody who's been reading about stuff, I follow quite a few people, and my response to that actual answer would be not very much, and I kind of follow it. People like to think that they know more than they do.
The fact that it's just changing so fast, it's hard to keep up. So at a certain point, I let go a little bit. I was like, oh, that's mildly interesting, but I stopped deep diving into all the new services and everything that was coming out, I just sort of like glance at it to a certain extent. So that was interesting.
The other thing that was very interesting to me is that 30% of people that responded, said, “Don't like AI. Will never use AI.” As I said, that's fine. People can be in their own little space, you do you sort of thing.
Then later on, I asked some questions like, “Which AI-based tools would you use if they were available?” So things like if there was an AI marketing tool, would you use it? If there was an AI audiobook tool, would you use it? If there was an AI, etc, etc.?
When it came to editing, 80% of the people said they'd use an AI editing tool to help edit the books, even though 30% said they will never use AI.
Joanna: Well, people do already. Like they use Grammarly and ProWriting Aid, both have GPT-4 or other tools embedded in them now. So most authors, I think, are using it. Especially now that Microsoft has rolled out lots into their Microsoft 365. So yes, that is interesting.
I think what people think is AI changes over time.
James: Yes, I mean, it just makes sense, doesn't it? Like, if you're not using that tool, you don't understand how that tool works. So there is like a separation, until you start using something you don't understand how it works. It's really that simple.
Then it's like needs and musts, isn't it? Necessity is the mother of invention. So as soon as there's something that's actually useful to you, you're going to pick it up and start playing with it and using it.
I think there's sort of a separation between authors and cover design, because those people are writing and they're not designing book covers.
Joanna: You've been using software for decades because cover design and graphic design has been on software a lot longer than writing has, I guess.
James: I'll tell you, the first job I ever got was in maybe about 1983, and it was on Lotus.
Joanna: Oh, I remember Lotus.
James: Yes, it was one of the Lotus Desktop Publishing. There used to be a thing called desktop publishing software. I did a newsletter for my dad's friend who was running a business and I got paid four pounds.
Joanna: You've been around a while. I just wanted to ask, on that survey, so people said, “Oh, I'd never use AI,” but−
Did they then say they were happy for you to use AI in part of the book cover design process?
James: I think, yes. I think there's a sense that people are wary. Generally what happens with a commission, and I've talked to other book cover designers, I don't see them as competition, I see them as people like myself, so I don't not chat to them.
We've all come to the same conclusion that when it comes to commissions, 80% of the people are happy with AI, and you've got 20% that are a little bit wary of it. On the actual survey, the number was like 10% higher. 30% were quite wary of AI book covers. But when when it comes to crunch, it's about 20%.
Joanna: I mean, as we said towards the beginning, now services like Adobe and Getty, and there are lots of them now that have it, more and more designers will be using aspects of AI. I think things are changing. I even wonder whether this will be out of date because it'll be an accepted part of the process within six months.
I was thinking about TikTok, so TikTok is the biggest thing in book marketing these days, and I was laughing about the owner ByteDance have now released what some consider to be the best text-to-video product (MagicVideo). So the best video AI product is coming out of TikTok, which, of course, has trained this model on everyone's TikTok videos.
James: Yes, completely. I saw the same thing. In fact, I do think we follow the same guy on Twitter.
Joanna: Yes, the same people and the same newsletters. I keep an eye on these things, and I feel like a lot of authors who protest about, say, Midjourney, happily use TikTok, and when their video product comes out, maybe they'll use it for their own book marketing.
I feel like in many ways, people are happy for book marketing to use AI. Like Meta, for example, Meta ads. Or Amazon ads, Amazon, of course, is driven by AI.
So it is such an interesting time where I feel like perhaps the fear and things have lessened a little bit in one way as inevitability sets in.
Do you think things have changed, even in six months?
James: Yes, I've got certain searches I do quite regularly on Twitter, and this sort of AI book cover thing has died down somewhat. There was one that I saw, I think it was a few weeks ago, where somebody posted up, “I'm going a little bit mad because I can no longer tell whether or not it's AI or not on book covers, and I don't like AI.” But they couldn't tell, so it was like, really disconcerting for them.
In fact, I've seen a few messages like that. So it is changing, and it's just the way it is. Also, I mean, it's a strange thing because if you're going, “I'm 100% against AI in all things,” then firstly, you need to log off from social media.
Joanna: Get off the internet!
James: Pretty much. It's like a purity test, isn't it? Like, if you're saying, “Oh, I'm 100% not AI,” and then you've got all these things that are actually using AI or are going to be using AI. I mean, there was a thing I read the other day about Windows, the Microsoft Surface.
Joanna: Oh, it's got a new key, right?
James: They're putting a new key on for Co-pilot.
Joanna: All the new keyboards will have a button for AI. I love it.
James: Then also, I think you've got a few companies that are a little bit late to the game. You'll see Apple having a bit more AI stuff this year as well, because they've sort of been−
James: Yes. I mean, Meta is the interesting one because they seem to keep doing lots of missteps. We didn't all end up in the metaverse, did we?
Joanna: Not yet, but of course, the word Metaverse. I mean the Apple headset, which is coming next month as we record this, it could be the iPhone moment. I mean, I didn't get an iPhone in 2007 when Apple launched the iPhone, but they certainly weren't the first people to put out a smartphone. Like they weren't the first people to put out an mp3 player, but they took a lot of that market.
So, I mean, we're just at the beginning, I guess. As older people, perhaps, in the tech industry, we've seen a lot of change and there's a lot more to come.
We're almost out of time. So why don't you−
Tell people where they can find you and everything you do online.
If people are interested in commissioning a cover or checking out your blog, where can they find you?
James: My website is just www.GoOnWrite.com. If you want to call it Goon Write, you can call it Goon Write. Some people call me the goon, so that's fine. It doesn't bother me. It's amusing. There's a link to my blog from there. It's HumbleNations.wordpress.com. You'll find all the stuff there.
I've made some awful music that's online, which I'm not going to tell you where it is because it's awful. I've also made some humorous, quite dark Princess Diana t-shirts, not going to tell you whether those are either.
Joanna: What about your writing?
James: Oh, my writing. JamesHelps.co.uk.
Joanna: Fantastic. Well, thanks so much for your time, James. That was great.
James: It's been an absolute pleasure.