Historical and Contemporary Romance Author

Putting the Cart Before the Horse

After I wrapped up the cover art design for Wrong Side of the Grave, Stephanie Draven mentioned on Twitter that my experiences were making her wonder if packaging shouldn’t come before writing the book. Or, put more bluntly, whether I was foolish to be spending time and money on cover art for books I haven’t written yet and could, in theory, fail to finish. (ETA: I don’t think Stephanie actually meant that at all. I’m totally joking!) Since I’ve wondered the same thing (especially since I have a hard drive absolutely cluttered with unfinished manuscripts), I thought I’d talk a little more about the thought processes that drove me to commission the cover for Incarnate and fritter away three days on the cover of the prequel.

The primary reason I commissioned the cover art for Incarnate, as I’ve mentioned before, is that the artist, Nathalia Suellen, made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Knowing Nathalia as I do now, I’m sure she would have done the artwork for me at the same price she quoted me six months from now, but at the time, I was more than a little worried that if I waited, I wouldn’t be able to afford her.

But I’ll admit that there was a little more to it than that. Specifically, it’s precisely because I have all those unfinished manuscripts littering my hard drive that I decided to get the cover art done now. You see, I need motivation. And there are few things more motivating when it comes to finishing a book than a) having spent money upfront on it and b) a gorgeous cover. And because what Nathalia did for Incarnate is honestly so much more perfect and wonderful than I ever dreamed, I’m truly motivated to finish writing the book (even if I am a little intimidated by the prospect of having to write a story that lives up to the cover).

Okay, so what about Wrong Side of the Grave? After all, the idea of doing a free short story as a prequel to Incarnate only occurred to me last week! And I’ve already got cover art? What am I, crazy?

Well, I am crazy, but that’s a separate issue :).

Here’s the reason I did the cover now instead of waiting until the story was written: I found an image on iStockPhoto that was practically perfect.

But why was a looking in the first place? Honestly, mainly for inspiration. I didn’t have a clear plot in mind for the prequel, just some pretty vague ideas about exploring my heroine’s backstory in a little more detail, and pictures can often spark ideas. And then I found this near-perfect image of a woman standing next to a gravestone. The model even looked startingly like the model on the cover of Incarnate. It was kind of like kismet. The image itself wasn’t cheap, but it was something I knew I could work with even with my very rudimentary graphic design skills.1 Knowing that sometimes artists take images off iStockPhoto, I didn’t want to wait until the story was written (or even started) to buy it, and of course, once I bought it, I had to go ahead and do the design, just to see if I could do something that looked reasonably professional on my own.

So, do I think it’s a good idea, in general, to do the “packaging” for a book before actually writing it?

Well, first of all, this obviously isn’t even an option if you’re not self-publishing the book, unless you want to spend the time and money on creating cover art solely for your own use. It’s a rare publisher that lets the author provide the cover art. But if you find having an image to be motivating or helpful, then by all means, go for it.

But if you are self-publishing, I do think having the cover art (as well as the cover copy) earlier rather than later is good thing. Maybe not THIS early–I’m obviously listing books on my website that won’t be out for a minimum of six months, which is very far in advance–but it’s certainly not a bad thing to begin letting your readers know about upcoming releases earlier rather than later, and I think cover art gives readers something visual to help them imagine the story. (Just as, indeed, that visual can give the author inspiration for the writing process.)

In the past, I used to say that the way I wrote a book was “Title, Hook, Book.” That is, I usually come up with the title first, which then suggests a story for which I write the cover copy. I’m pretty religious about writing cover copy before I write the book. I’ve found in the past that if I don’t do this, I often discover a fatal flaw in the story idea that prevents me from continuing it. (If I can’t write a blurb for a story, it almost inevitably means I have insufficient conflict.) Only after I have the title and the hook figured out do I actually write the book. (By the way, I have even more titles/hooks for unfinished books on my hard drive than I have unfinished manuscripts. I may start selling them one of these days…)

But now, I’m thinking maybe my process is going to becoming “Title, Hook, Cover, Book”. I’ll have to see how it works when it comes to writing these two books, but if it goes well, I may actually decided that packaging should come before writing. At least for me.
1Actually, calling them “skills” is too kind. Here’s how I actually put together the cover. I use a free graphics program called GIMP. I understand how to use about 5% of its capabilities. I don’t really understand how to make all the layers separate, so everything I paste into the image becomes part of the main layer, which means if I need to change anything, I have to start over. I know this is not efficient, but it hasn’t bothered me enough that I’ve bothered to learn. I am absolutely clueless to how to insert text directly into the image in GIMP, so I use Word’s Word Art feature to create blocks of text as images and paste them in. (Lucky for me, they come over with transparent backgrounds.) This is how I did my Romance Trading Cards, too. It’s a totally lame process, but it works.


  • Courtney Milan November 15, 2011 at 1:25 pm

    I use the Gimp, too.

    1. For layers, CTRL-L brings up the layers dialogue.

    2. I don’t do layout of text in the GIMP, just the graphics layer. I use inkscape to add text. At some point, catch me in person with my laptop and I will show you what I’m talking about.

    3. I do my covers far, far in advance of the book itself. I try about eighty bazillion combinations, starting from the color of the dress and going through adding textures, etc.

  • Jody W. November 15, 2011 at 1:28 pm

    Ha, yes, I have the same boggeldiness re: layers. Layering means wearing a flannel shirt over my T-shirt, man!

  • Stephanie Draven November 15, 2011 at 1:34 pm

    <blockquote cite="Stephanie Draven mentioned on Twitter that my experiences were making her wonder if packaging shouldn’t come before writing the book. Or, put more bluntly, whether I was foolish to be spending time and money on cover art for books I haven’t written yet and could, in theory, fail to finish."

    For the record, that is not at all what I was wondering, bluntly or not. I was wondering quite the reverse, actually. I started out as a pantser. Later, I became a plot planner, with detailed outlines and I teased out themes and the heroine’s journey and all that. But more recently I’ve discovered that just because a book is fascinating doesn’t make it marketable, and once you’re stuck in the middle of writing it, it’s hard to see your way out to writing the cover copy, the logline, and everything else.

    Your process, by contrast, is allowing me to see the kind of book and its position in the market before you even write it…which I think might be genius.

    I’m going to try my next novella going from the outside in, using your method, thinking up the title, the imagery, the logline/hook before I even start outlining the plot and see what happens. It’s only a novella, so what’s the harm?

  • Jackie Barbosa November 15, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    @Stephanie: I was joking when I said that about wondering if I was foolish. I probably needed a smiley icon there, because I honestly didn’t think you were implying it was foolish at all!

    @Courtney: I’ll definitely find you at RT or RWA (doubt I’ll see you before then). While we’re at it, maybe you can teach me how to use GIMP to change something like the color of a dress. I have not yet figured that out. If I had, I might have changed the background of the cover for Wrong Side of the Grave to a sepia tone so that it “matches” Incarnate even better.

  • Jackie Barbosa November 15, 2011 at 1:56 pm

    @Stephanie said “Your process, by contrast, is allowing me to see the kind of book and its position in the market before you even write it…which I think might be genius.

    I haven’t ever thought of my process as a way to see the book in the context of the market, but I think that’s definitely a potential benefit.

    Although doing the cover art early is obviously relatively new for me, the main reason I started doing cover copy/taglines and titles before writing the story is that I found I have a much harder time doing those things if I wait until after the book is done. It’s kind of a forest for the trees problem. Once the book is written, it’s all detail to me, and it’s hard for me to nail down the central conflict and plot anymore. That, in turn, makes condensing it two a two paragraph description, a short sentence, or a title way too hard. (I still often fail at taglines but I didn’t do them early enough. Having done my covers early sort of forced me to come up with taglines, which I think is really helpful.)

  • Courtney Milan November 15, 2011 at 2:11 pm

    @Jackie Barbosa

    Changing the color of a dress ranges from simple to difficult. It depends on a lot of stuff like what color the dress starts at and where you want it to end up, the underlying fabric, the amount of contrast in the original photo, and so forth.

    Changing colors introduces a bunch of weirdness to the file, and so you have to figure out various ways of compensating. It’s been a learning experience, to say the least.

    Even the simple version takes a lot of time–at this point, I’m probably putting around 20-40 hours into each cover, spread out over a large number of hours. So I do this stuff early simply because otherwise it wouldn’t be done by the time the book is done.

  • Anthea Lawson November 15, 2011 at 9:33 pm

    I’ve been doing covers early, too. And I use GIMP – slowly figuring out the layers and varying coloring techniques.

    I, too, like to poke around stock image sites, and found a perfect image of the couple in my WIP. Although I’m months out from possible release, I knew I’d use that particular image. Haven’t started playing with it (curse you, NaNoWriMo!) but I’m looking forward to the process.

    And yes, I find it totally fires up my creative process. I *like* my finished covers, and I want to see them out there, so that motivates me to finish up the darned writing part. 🙂


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.