Production: When’s the Best Time to Design Your Book Cover?


Headshot of Debbie Young

ALLi blog editor Debbie Young

For self-published authors, which comes first, the cover or the book? In the past, I’ve considered the cover to be like the icing on the cake, rather than the baking tin, and focused on writing the book before thinking about the cover design. However, a recent conversation on the ALLi members’ Facebook forum has made me think again.

Book cover design

First the cover, then the book – now being written by Derek Murphy

What prompted the conversation was a Facebook post by one of our members, Derek Murphy. Announcing that he’d just started planning a new novel, his post was accompanied by what looked like a fully-formed, ready-to-roll cover design, which was already exciting interest from potential readers in the eventual book.

As Derek is also a book designer, his approach should not have surprised me – but I was intrigued to find out whether he was the only author who thought this way. So I put the question to our members, and here’s a summary of their responses.

  • Mocking up a book cover before you start writing makes a book seem “real”, which can help motivate you to write it.
  • Defining the cover before you write the book makes you consider your readers’ perspective.
  • Having the cover in front of you while you’re writing keeps you focused.
  • Once you’ve planned your book, you know what the key elements will be, so it’s easy to brief it in to your designer at that stage – why wait?
  • Planning it early gives you the chance to live with the cover for a while before you have to commit to the final version.
  • If you’re taking this approach of writing the book from the outside in, so to speak, why stop at the cover design? Also add a working title, strapline, and make up a puff quote from the type of person you’d like to endorse it.
  • If you show off the cover while you’re still writing the book, you’ll intrigue your audience long before the book is published, via a cover reveal announcement at any stage you like, and warm them up to purchase it once it’s published.

You Can Always Change It Later

Planning your cover before you write the book does not commit you to sticking with it. Nor do you need to worry about wasting money on a cover that’s eventually changed – you can always do a mock-up for free, so that you’ve got a cover to live with, and bring in the paid, professional designer towards the end.

  • If the book evolves into a different animal as you write it, you’ll obviously want to change the cover.
  • If a new trend arises in cover design for your genre, such as the notorious “headless women” that fronted historical fiction for a while, you may want to jump aboard that wagon – or, as an indie, you may choose not to!
  • If you discover someone else has produced a similar cover in the meantime, you may want to change

Of course, you don’t need to stick with your draft cover design once you’re ready to publish, nor after it’s been out there for a while. Both trade and indie publishers often switch covers to keep a book looking fresh and up-to-date, or if to boost sales if the existing cover isn’t leading to sales. But as an indie author, one big advantage you have over the traditionally published is that you call the shots on your cover. Authors with trade contracts usually have very little say in the way their book is packaged for publication.

Inspiration for NaNoWriMo

Rough cover design for Best Murder in Show

Rough cover idea to inspire my imminent NaNoWriMo project

This conversation has prompted me to try a new approach with my own next book, a cosy mystery that I’m planning to draft during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in November. As usual, I’ve had the title in my head for a long time, Best Murder in Show.  When I registered to take part, I noticed that the profile for each author’s WIP includes a placeholder for an image. So I’ve mocked up a rough, home-made cover design and plugged it in there, to inspire me to complete the NaNo challenge. I’m planning to commission a professional cover design when the book is done, but for the moment, I’m hoping I’ll benefit from this strategy for all the reasons outlined above. Will it work? I’ll tell you in December….

With thanks to Pauline Baird Jones, Julie Day, Keith Dixon, Michael MacMahon, Karen Myers, David Penny for joining the conversation on our closed Facebook group (one of the benefits of ALLi membership), and to Derek Murphy for the initial inspiration.

OVER TO YOU When do you start planning your cover? When do you reveal it to potential readers? What top tips on timing your cover design would you like to share? Join the conversation via the comments box!
Other interesting posts about cover design:


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26 Responses to Production: When’s the Best Time to Design Your Book Cover?

  1. Precious kc George November 9, 2015 at 8:57 pm #

    wow I’m going to work on this I can imagine how fired up I could be when I just have a glance at my already designed cover. thanks

  2. Jamie Davis October 30, 2015 at 6:36 pm #

    I, too, worked up a cover design first on the latest NaNoWriMo round. I’m so fired up to write every time I look at the cover, I can hardly wait to start writing on the 1st of November. It’s a good point to think in different ways when approaching different projects, including doing some things out of order.

  3. Belinda Pollard October 19, 2015 at 12:07 pm #

    I do the cover early. It’s one of my favourite forms of procrastination. But it usually changes at least slightly (and sometimes a LOT) by the time of publication.

    Can’t wait for your cosy mystery, Debbie!! 🙂

  4. Wendy Raebeck October 19, 2015 at 3:18 am #

    I’m publishing a backlist of my books, so editing is always in progress right up till launch time. Since the paperback publishing cycle can take a long while (for finicky perfectionists), any advance work I can do on covers is highly beneficial. The sooner I get started, the more time I have to improve the concept. (I do my own covers.) I’ve completed 3 so far, and the cool thing is that when I light on that final concept, there’s real excitement—I know I’ve captured the feel of my book. The flavor of the story is spilling right out onto the cover. And when the cover design genuinely excites me, I’m pretty sure readers will dig it, too. Especially the readers I’m looking for.

  5. Denise Barnes October 18, 2015 at 3:22 pm #

    Food for thought, Debbie. At a Faber course I did, one of the guest speakers, Steve Watson (Before I go to Sleep) said he had a full mock-up of an extremely rough draft made by Lulu, cover and all, which really motivated him to keep going. Apparently, he only kept a third of the text in the eventual best seller.

    I liked Steve’s idea, but doing the cover first before you’ve even written the story…hmm. Might be fun. I do think covers are incredibly exciting, whether before or after the novel is finished.

    (My latest blog is about covers and how to get them right for your genre.)

    Good luck for your next book, Debbie. I shall look with interest to see how close you came from your mock-up to the final one!

  6. clare weiner October 16, 2015 at 7:43 pm #

    Inspiring post: I’m struggling with getting novel no. 3 in the Mullins family series sorted before committing to keyboard, and the idea of thinking around What Cover? has excited the trying-to-make-a-pattern-of-what-I-want-to-say thoughts begin to come together.
    Have never done NaNoWriMo but may just find myself beginning this wip in November, in which case I may end up there.

  7. Atulya October 16, 2015 at 5:49 pm #

    This isn’t something I’d ever thought about until my second book, when the cover proved to take ages. This totally slowed the publishing process up. I became quite frustrated by it, but learned my lesson. This time I’m getting the cover ready at the outset. As mentioned, you can always alter it, and get feedback on it while you’re writing or editing.

  8. Judith Cranswick October 16, 2015 at 8:25 am #

    Fascinating post! I’ve never even thought of producing a cover early but I can see the value especially now as I’ve just finished the first draft of my latest novel and am beginning to panic as I can’t find anything suitable.
    A few weeks ago I gave a talk to a local library group and when it came to the What are you writing at the moment question while I was preparing my presentation, I had to do a hurried mock-up which was frankly very substandard. As the 4th book in a series, it needed to follow the style. How I wish I’d seen this post earlier!
    I would also endorse the point about titles and straplines etc. I always start with a title but working out the strapline and the blurb do help to focus the writing. Something I must confess I haven’t done with this novel yet!

    • Debbie Young October 16, 2015 at 12:41 pm #

      Thanks for your comment, Judith, and I’m glad you found the post helpful. Good luck with your fourth book in your series – well done!

    • Raymond Cook October 17, 2015 at 11:46 pm #

      Because the photo is what grabs my imagination, for me it makes sense to get the book cover first. So far, it has worked wonderfully.

  9. Gordon A. Long October 16, 2015 at 12:20 am #

    I’m not sure about designing the cover first, but when I found the perfect model for my cover she had the wrong colour of hair, I had to go back and change the book 🙂

    • Debbie Young October 16, 2015 at 12:40 pm #

      I thought for a moment there, Gordon, that you were going to say you’d persuaded the model to dye her hair the right colour for your book! 😉

  10. Stephanie Flint October 16, 2015 at 12:00 am #

    Nice post. I’ve made mock-up covers for NaNoWriMo before, mostly just for fun, but I can see how having the cover before hand could also be used to help focus on a particular idea/theme/genre.

    I also like your mock-up cover, and your title, “Best Murder in Show,” is intriguing. Good luck with NaNoWriMo. 🙂

  11. Raymond Cook October 15, 2015 at 11:18 pm #

    I search through thousands of photographs until I find the photograph that tells me I can be inspired to write a story around that photograph.

    It has worked well for me 22 times.

    • Debbie Young October 15, 2015 at 11:53 pm #

      That sounds a really fun way to write, Raymond. I love writing to prompts, though my tend to be snippets of conversation that I’ve overheard rather than images.

      • Raymond Cook October 16, 2015 at 4:08 am #

        Hi Debbie:

        Thank you for the time you took to comment.

        Every writer has their “Method” to nudge that bit of creativity in their imagination.

        I go to

        There are a million photographs at that site.

        In my case, I type in the bar something like, wild west desperado.

        Then I sift through the pages that appear. Literally hundreds are viewed but I pass them up quickly.

        Suddenly I see the photo I want. I see the entire story in my mind as I look a the photo.

        Then I have to contact the photographer for permission to use the photo for my eBook cover.

        Until I get approval of a photograph I cannot write.

        If I get approval, I’m half way home. I use 3×4″ index cards to write down parts of the story I will write. Maybe a month will pass. I even will wake up in the middle of the night with a wonderful part of the book and scribble it down.

        By the time I am finished, be it a long or short book, I am happy.

        Then comes the typo’s and grammar.

        For example,

        One line said, “As Bill opened the lid of the picnic basket, he smelled the aroma of fried children!

        Good Lord, am I glad I caught that typo, lol.

        I am a new unpublished writer and have much to learn.

        It is an exciting journey for me and I wish everyone a great career.

      • Raymond Cook October 16, 2015 at 10:58 pm #


        I clicked on your name and like your website.

  12. Derek Murphy October 15, 2015 at 9:54 pm #

    Thanks for sharing – sometimes I actually make the cover first and figure out what the story will have to be afterwards. If I see something really pretty I like that I know will make a great cover, I just need to write a story that matches.

    So far, not so easy, but I’m getting closer to finishing.

  13. Debbie Young October 15, 2015 at 8:50 pm #

    Sounds as if you have a great relationship and mutual understanding with your illustrator, Edmund – and thanks for adding that important point. Glad you like my title, too – I’m very excited about it!

  14. Edmund Pickett October 15, 2015 at 8:48 pm #

    “Best Murder In Show” is a great title! Another reason to order your cover early is if you’re using an illustrator who takes a really, really long time to deliver. I think the guy I use is the best in the business but he couldn’t meet a deadline to save his soul. Since I don’t want to look for someone else, I order early. Also, I usually don’t meet my own self-imposed deadlines, so I can’t say he’s delayed a book launch, but it’s frustrating, at least until he comes through. Then he’s Picasso and Rembrandt rolled into one and my eternal best friend.

    • Raymond Cook October 15, 2015 at 11:20 pm #

      Hi Edmund:

      I feel your pain.

      I had the laziest web tech on the planet who updated my web pages. I am so glad I dumped him and found someone very fast and tech savvy.


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