Should I start making my book cover design before I finish writing my book?

writingI used to tell people that you can never start your book cover too early. On the one hand, having a great cover can motivate you to write a quality story that lives up to the picture. On the other hand, you need to get your story out there and create demand for it, even if you haven’t finished. So hiring a book cover designer or making your own book cover early can work really well for indie authors.

However recently I’ve been noticing something less advantageous: some of my clients hire me to make a book cover for their book when they’ve just gotten started writing their book. Maybe they’re 30% done. So they think they know some things about the characters and the plot… but as every writer knows, books have a life of their own. Characters change and evolve. New directions and plot twists spring up.

I’ve had clients start with a main character in a certain costume, change ethnicity, age, costume, hair style and location as weeks (or months) progressed. Rather than one book cover design, I’m doing the work of four or five different ones, waiting for the story to take final shape.

So my new advice is this: start as early as possible on your book cover design, but not until you know for sure what your book is about. At least have a solid first draft.

You can hire a cover designer about the same time as you hire a book editor. That way, the cover will be ready by the time you start formatting for publishing.

More Things to Consider
Before you hire a designer or start the book cover design process, here are some things you should have ready:

1) The Perfect Title. Although this is easy to change later, knowing your title will really help direct the style of your book cover. Have variations. Use Google Adwords to test what gets clicked. Get tons of feedback. Innovate.

2) The Perfect Tagline. Summarize your book in one sentence. Note the key conflict, the key setting/location, the transformation journey or challenge, the main character(s). Write down all of the keywords that readers might use to discover your book. (The genre and sub-genre, the setting/location, the topics, vocations, and issues that are dealt with directly or indirectly). Once you have those checklists, try to put them all together (as many as possible, choose the strongest) in one or two sentences that tell readers what the book is about while also hooking their attention.

These same lists can be given to your book cover designer.

3) Examples of 5 book covers that you like, and why. Your book cover doesn’t have to copy, but knowing what appeals to you will make it much easier for your designer to make something you like, and save some time. A good designer will probably make a few samples of what you think you want, and a few samples of what he thinks would look good – the final result will hopefully be a collaboration between both.

4) Help search for your own art/photo.

Your designer will search through thousands of photos on stock photography sites. You can save a lot of time by looking for things you like as well – you may find something you love, or at least help him narrow down what you’re looking for.

WARNING to indie and self-published authors: A book cover design is not your soapbox!

This is a rant I wrote a while ago, which I didn’t publish, but I’ve decided to now. I love my authors. I want the best for them. So it’s frustrating when I know they’re going away with less than my best work. I feel like I’ve failed them. There is no remedy.

Being a book cover designer can be frustrating.

I don’t believe a cover design should make the author happy. I think it should sell books.

My typical process goes something like this:

1. The client tells me they are “not visually creative” or have no idea what to do with the cover – they are word people, not picture people.

2. The client tells me what they want. I get as close to possible. I show them a dozen great ideas, and a few mediocre ones. If they have a vision in mind, I try to match it, but also show them some alternatives that are visually more pleasing. I tell the client which ones I like best.

3. If I’m lucky, the client agrees with me, we finish the cover, and we’re done. But about half the time, this happens: The client picks a mediocre design – actually they will probably pick four mediocre designs and then go through several rounds of revision on each cover, continuing to change what they want as their whims change. We are braving brand new territory. I dutifully carry out all of their suggestions so they can see how it looks (not being visual people, they can’t just imagine how it would look, they have to see it).

This is absolutely fine – it’s all part of the process. Hopefully I’ll convince the client at this point to post some of the designs on their platform to get some feedback, to see what people respond to. Unfortunately, sometimes the final-final-final cover we come up with is much less appealing and powerful than my original design ideas from the first batch.

Think of it like this: the typical author’s graphic design skills are probably “C-“. A great designer’s are “A+”. So when they collaborate, and the designer does what the author wants, the final cover will be a strong “B”.

Your book cover is not your soapbox

The main problem, invariably, is that authors want to fit their whole message in the book cover – they want to COMMUNICATE their ideas, their vision, their plot, the characters’ personalities, everything, into the cover. Getting “The Message” right is the most important thing.

However, your book cover is not your soapbox. Your BOOK is your soapbox. The cover is the packaging. The cover is the “ooh, shiny” pretty/colorful thing that makes people want to impulse-buy your book and read your content.

That’s not to say that the cover shouldn’t reflect your book, of course it should. You don’t want people to enter your book with false assumptions and be disappointed. But you can’t fit everything on your cover, and in the end, LOOKING GOOD and having clear, easy to read text is more important than everything else. Aesthetics is king, and that should translate to, “listen to your cover designer.”

Why did you hire a cover designer?

A lot of authors hire a cover designer to make them a beautiful cover, but then take over the process and tell their designer exactly what they want them to do. A “bad” designer is someone with amazing graphic design skills who will give the author EXACTLY what they want.

The author will love it – they will be ecstatic. At least until a year later when they can’t sell any books, and begin to realize that nobody else likes their cover design. A “good” designer is somebody who says “I could do that, but I’m not going to, because it would be ugly and nobody would buy it.” That’s the designer who has your best interests at heart.

Of course the tricky part is that while professional book cover designers work for publishing companies, and can design selling covers without even getting the author’s input (who cares if the author likes it, if it sells more books?), independent cover designers like myself are paid directly by the authors, and “the customer is always right.”

This creates a moral dilemma. For my part I always let the authors know which cover designs I like, and which ones I think will sell better. I hate to complain (because my job is awesome), but how can I not feel bad about knowingly delivering sub-par covers to my authors?

This is not to say that I am always right and that my clients are design-challenged; sometimes my authors spur me on and on to make changes, and what we finally come up with is really awesome. Sometimes what I think is “good design” may really not be attractive to the authors’ target readers, in which case what I think is pretty shouldn’t matter much. So what’s an author to do?

First, always err on the side of simplicity – don’t make the mistake of having a way-too-busy cover with everything going on.

Then, when you have some cover samples (hopefully your book cover designer will give you at least several options to choose from) get some feedback. Post them on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, etc. Offer free books for cover critique. Getting feedback on your cover is also a great way to start generating interest for your book.

If it’s a YA book – offer to talk about publishing at your local middle school and show the class your samples, see which they like best.

Finally, realize that your designer’s opinion doesn’t have equal weight against your brother’s, mother’s and neighbor’s. If you choose a design that is different than what your designer recommends, slow down and think very carefully about what you want your book to do: Make you happy, or be read by lots of people.


Seeking Book Designers, InDesign Layout Experts and Ebook Conversion Fiends for Collaboration!

I’m trying to make a database of people I can recommend or work with when my workload exceeds my abilities.

Especially for ebook conversion and book layout/formatting, because I don’t think I’ll be doing these myself anymore.

But I also routinely need author websites designed, so web designers/wordpress coders are welcome.

I also want to list alternative book cover designers when I’m too busy, so if that’s you, let me know.

I hope I can turn this into a major resource page for indie and self-published authors.

If you’d like to be included, please send me a message or comment on this page – I’ll need your website if you have one, email, and average prices (I know, it depends on the project, but ballpark figure)… If you have a picture of you, it would help also!