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.