Book Promotion Tip of the Week #11: Don’t Give Up

Mary W. Walters Militant Writer(With a special P.S. for fiction writers)

This can be a very discouraging undertaking, this book promotion business.

Most of us didn’t set out to be book publishers, business managers, and self promoters – we set out to be writers. We wanted to communicate with readers, to tell a story, to express our dreams, hopes and nightmares. But however well or poorly we have done in the writing of our books, these days it is only the beginning. Even getting what we’ve written published is only the beginning. It’s the promotion that is the long, long haul and it can wear down the most determined and self-reliant among us, and devastate those of us who are lacking in confidence already.

For some of us, the writing is what sustains us: it is what we are meant to do. It is what gives the rest of our lives meaning. (I am one of those.) But a work of art (or wanna-be art) is only complete when it reaches its audience, as far as I’m concerned. And nowadays whether we are self- or traditionally published, the need to promote ourselves and our work eats up way too much of our writing time (such as it is in the first place, for most of us). And when it doesn’t eat up the time, it eats up our morale.

The Courage to Write

It has long been my conviction (like for 20 years or so) that it is necessary to have a whole lot of self-confidence in order to write a book. It takes gumption to complete any book, and as much courage as vision to complete it with any élan. When our self-confidence is eroded, we run into writer’s blocks, procrastination and all the other impediments that (in addition to our jobs and families and friends) can prevent us from writing well – or indeed from writing at all.

The problem, we are discovering as we put on all these new hats (publisher, publicity person, agent, bookseller), is that it also requires courage to promote a book or to promote oneself, and that our courage is threatened at every turn. Every time we check the sales stats on our books, or peek at the visitor-counters on our websites, our morale is likely to take a hit. Those hits affect not only our desire to keep promoting our books, but also whatever confidence we might have had stored up for writing the next book.

Some people probably decide to give up on promotion, but they are shooting themselves in their heads to spite their faces (or however the expression goes).  (Those who publicly announce that they are “giving up” or that they have been defeated are really only taking a new promotional tack. Check out this bit of self-promotion written under the guise of “being a failure” that recently appeared on the Salon website. Clever marketing.) To stop promoting means to disappear completely off the promo circuit, and the only result of that is  . . .  nothing. You sell even fewer books. And no one really cares but you. (The result is similar – or even worse, if that is possible – when you allow yourself to whine in public.)

Keep on Truckin’

In short, the only options are to a) move forward, and b) to sink without a trace. Which leaves only option a. And the only way to move forward is to “keep on keepin’ on.”

It helps to stay in touch with other writers who are doing the same thing we are, in places like this and other sites where people go to commiserate and encourage and share tips, rather than to promote themselves. (One might argue that I established this blog to promote myself, but I assure you that the strategy is not working. I have noticed no sales resulting from the blog, not even any clicks through to my books despite the 50,000 hits The Militant Writer has received, and therefore I claim innocence – albeit inadvertent – in the blog-as-marketing department.)

Ironically perhaps, I think it helps to be a writer in this strange new digital world of book sales – by disposition, writers are better equipped than most to take on solitary uphill battles where we slip backwards more often than we move forwards, where no one cares but us if we get anywhere, where giving up is really not an option: we do what we must do. It could therefore be argued that those who give up on book promotion are not real writers. :) (I am prepared to hear arguments that contradict this point of view. In fact, one of this blog’s regular readers, Kim Velk aka Woolfoot, is going to write a guest post on that very subject one of these days.)

It also helps to get enough sleep. Sleep knits up the raveled sleeve of evaporating self-confidence as well as care, and everything looks more do-able in the morning.

A Special Note to Fiction Writers

I have followed down link after link of tips on book promotion, as I am sure you have as well, only to find myself reading lists of strategies that relate primarily to non-fiction. Certainly some of the suggestions can be applied to fiction as well, but most non-fiction (with the exception of some creative non-fiction) is easier to promote than is most fiction: there is no doubt of it. Whether it is how-to, biography, history, memoir, even philosophy or psychology or economics, non-fiction always has an obvious hook that is more likely to interest the media – both social and traditional – than is a “made-up story.”

Because of this, perhaps, I was particularly disappointed to have wasted an hour of my life on a webinar entitled  “Create a Marketing Plan to Sell More Books” put on by CreateSpace, of all companies. (For the uninitiated, CreateSpace is the publisher of choice of most of us self-published authors who choose to create a paperback version of our books. You’d think they’d know that most of their customers are small-time authors, primarily of fiction.)

I was going to save you an hour of your life by telling you all the reasons why there is no point in listening to the replay of the webinar if you are a) a fiction writer and/or b) on a small or nonexistent promotional budget. However, another blogger saved ME another hour of MY time by writing a most eloquent explanation of why Brian Jud’s message is irrelevant to most of us. (Hint: Jud has been selling non-fiction, how-to books for decades and has built up a critical mass and a bank account to support the promotional tactics he suggests: most of them are far beyond the resources of most of us and irrelevant to any book with a literary bent. Take this suggestion of his for example: you should hire an accountant and a lawyer before you go to the bank to apply for a loan for the funding of your next book. All I can say to that is Hah!) Thank you, Ellen Larson, aka The Constant Pen and author of the sci-fi mystery In Retrospect, for an excellent summary and critique.

As Ellen does on hers, I have been making an effort, based on my own self-interests, to make the tips I present here on this blog specifically relevant to fiction writers—even if the majority are also relevant to writers of non-fiction – and I will continue to do that. If anyone finds other sites that are specifically directed at promoting novels and short stories, please let us know. Thank you.

Book Promotion Tip of the Week #10: Turn Your Book Into A News Story

Book Promotion TipsAs we all know, all is not well in newspaperland: journalists are being laid off left and right, daily papers are getting smaller, quite a few of them have gone – or are slowly, painfully going – under.

People just don’t consume news the way they used to: by which I mean all at once, in one package, from one source, once a day. We no longer wait for the news to land on our front porches, or to arrive in a coin-release box at the end of the street: we go hunting for it on the Internet. Since people aren’t reading newspapers the way they used to, advertisers aren’t buying ads in them, which means that the papers have to cut and cut, and on it goes.

If you’re a writer (no one else much cares about this part), the situation appears to be particularly dire when it comes to books coverage. “Books editors” have all but disappeared, and finding a books page or even a single book review in a newspaper is less likely all the time. For those who have self-published, the situation seems even more discouraging (although we have to admit that no one forced us to self-publish): almost all of the books that do get reviewed are from traditional presses.

Perhaps A Silver Lining?

In considering the implications of the decline of the print media, I’ve made some observations that could perhaps add up to a window of opportunity for those of us who find ourselves promoting our own books at this particular point in time. The situation could be very different even two years from now, but at the moment, with a bit of creativity, we might be able to put these points to use in ways that may not only help us to sell books, but may also solve some problems for the people who are running the skeleton staffs of the world’s remaining newspapers:

  1. The print media have not disappeared completely. Lots of people are still reading newspapers on the subway, in coffee shops and doctors’ offices, on park benches and maybe even in their bathrooms.
  2. Most of us approach the papers we read differently than we used to. When I sit down with an actual newspaper these days, I tend to skim over items I’ve already read online (i.e., most of the news stories), and look instead for editorials and other opinion pieces, investigative journalism and those items known as “human interest” (to distinguish them from items of merely ferret interest, I suppose). I’m also more likely to read an article all the way through in print than online, because when I do sit down and open a newspaper, I’ve usually got a cup of tea at my elbow and have already mentally committed some time to checking out what’s inside of it.
  3. In addition to daily papers, there are weekly and monthly specialty newspapers, some of them subscription-based but many of them free: community and small-town newspapers, real estate papers, seniors’ newspapers, advertising flyers that break up the monotony with brief general-interest articles, etc.
  4. Since there are too few writers left on most newspapers staffs today, I am guessing that editors might be having a hard time generating items of local or general interest for the papers that do remain. Rather than ignoring it, if a compelling story falls into their hands that is already well written from a journalistic point of view (intriguing, apparently objective, answering the who-what-when-where-how questions, etc.) and that is about the right length for what they need, they might just sigh with resignation if not relief, and run it.
  5. Most people who are working on newspapers have an interest in writing and writers: many of them are would-be book writers themselves — even those who edit the automotives section or cover regional politics. An interesting subject line in an email might just attract such an individual’s  attention, and compel him or her to call you for an interview.
  6. A story about a book that appears in some section of the paper like “City News” or “Lifestyle” is going to reach a lot more potential buyers than is one that appears in a cultural silo, such as the Arts and Entertainment section or The Weekend Reader.

Two Plus Two = Just a Hunch

There has got to be a news story relating your book somewhere, even if it is only “Historic novel took took twenty years to write,” or “Nightmare inspired fantasy,” or “Author swears erotic novel is invention; husband begs to differ.” If there isn’t, maybe you can create one (“Book launch at swimming pool makes big splash”). (I’m sure you can be more creative: the more creative the better, in fact.)

Once you’ve written your news item, Google “daily newspapers Canada” or “weekly newspapers North Dakota” or “newspapers Roman Catholic” – whatever suits your fancy – and start sending out your story. In my brief experience with this type of endeavour to date, at least I feel as though I’m working on book promotion, even if it has so far failed to bring forth any fruit.

Who knows? If all else fails it might lead to another news story: “After 500 media releases without a single nibble, despairing writer seeks refuge in new novel.” Now that has a human-interest ring to it, don’t you think?

Update: After you’ve read this post, go immediately to the first comment below, from Marcus Trower, and read it. I was writing about my hunches on this issue in this post; he provides some genuine, practical advice from the field. THANK YOU, Marcus! (I’m hoping he’ll do a guest post at some point.) (I love the Internet.)

___________

I am looking for someone to do a guest blog post on book promo blog tours. Experience (with blog post tours) necessary. We want to know: How you set one up. What you do. What you offer other bloggers in exchange. What the outcome has been for you. If you can write such a piece, apply within (i.e., at mary at marywwalters dot com)

I am also looking for a few people to talk to about their experiences with video book promotion (YouTube or other) – either as the focus of the video or as a consumer of author videos. What is most effective  format? How long should they be? What should they be about – the book? The author? Does anyone actually watch these things? If you can help, contact me at mary at marywwalters dot com.

Graçias.

Book Promotion Tip of the Week #6.5: February 4, 2013

Book Promotion TipsReport on Our Facebook Launch

On Wednesday, January 30, 2013, John A. Aragon and I held the first “live” Facebook book launch I’ve attended: our own. It was a smashing success, although I may have one or two Facebook friends who are no long speaking to me.

You can still see the proceedings here:

https://www.facebook.com/events/509375175774289/

John and I were celebrating the launch of our new novel, The Adventures of Don Valiente and the Apache Canyon Kid, and our kind guests responded in the spirit of the invitation and the book. Several people brought liquor, and others brought food (Tina Sweet’s Hallowe’en “munchies” were a highlight). A few people played us some music that contributed to the atmosphere, and a couple of videos attracted positive attention (notably the Skeleton Dance that Charlie Maze posted, and the Old Man’s Dance that Liz brought along). There were fruit sculptures, pictures, and even fireworks. It was great.

A couple of people asked us questions about how the book had been written, which we answered. We also provided some info they hadn’t even asked for and probably didn’t want to know (like how the sex scenes – of which there are really only 2.5 or so, but they are notable – came into being).

We held the launch over a period of two hours (7 to 9 p.m. MST, where John lives, in Santa Fe, and 9 to 11 EST where I am). All told, about 40 people dropped by with comments, congratulations, quips and compliments. All in all, it was more fun than some real-life book launches I have been to, and I highly recommend a Facebook launch as a way to attract a bit of attention to your book.

The only drawback was that apparently all the people who’d been invited (which was ALL of our Facebook friends) got notices by email every time anyone posted anything during the party. After about 100 emails, a couple of my friends alerted me to this problem. I knew, as did many others no doubt, that you can “turn off notifications” (upper right-hand corner of your screen) when you don’t want to get any more information about an event on F/B, but they didn’t know that. And a lot of other people probably went offline for the evening and came back to find their email boxes inundated with launch-related info. I apologized to them. I had not realized that unless you decline an invitation to an event (which some people don’t like to do because they think it’s rude), you get a notice about every post that relates to it.

Therefore, if you are having a launch or hosting any other live activity on an actual Facebook Event announcement page, you might want to warn your invitees that if they don’t want to get an avalanche of emails (or an “avalaunch” perhaps), they should decline or turn off their notifications.

For those who did want to attend, however, it was a great party!

Fiction in 2013: The Ugly Truth (and a call for patience)

iStock_000015635745XSmallOkay.

So I was going to write a post about the sorry state of fiction publishing during this transition period, as we watch the established presses, gatekeeper agents, chain booksellers and respectable book review outlets grind through the death throes of their former heyday — those days soon gone forever when they got to decide what books we should read.

I was going to detail a few of the horrors that one former “mid-list writer” (me) witnessed as she set off on her lonely road to self-publication, and witnesses still as she trudges down the even more harrowing and thorny trail of self-published-book promotion. Several of the appalling sights I’ve seen have contributed to a precipitous decline in my faith in my fellow human beings, such as:

  • New lows for the publishing industry. Traditional publishers have “evolved” from basing their guesses about what books they should publish next year on last year’s bestseller lists, to basing them on the lists of top-selling self-published novels — whose authors they then race to sign. How ironic is that?
  • Sticking fingers in the dam as the ship goes down. Almost all traditional book review outlets, booksellers, awards competitions and funding agencies continue to refuse to review, sell or reward self-published books on principle, no matter what the track record of the author or the quality of the self-published book (why? Because they might have to THINK if they were to become more open? How much easier it must be to simply proceed as they always have done, by accepting only those books published by traditional presses?). This makes book promotion for former mid-list writers very difficult, but it also means that readers who are wise enough not to participate in on-line review forums never hear about self-published books with any literary merit;
  • The Crap. Oh, the Crap. I draw your attention here to the hundreds of thousands of works of so-called fiction that have been released into the marketplace in the past few years by self-published writers who are incompetent, inexperienced, badly edited, and/or merely ignorant or boring, many of whom grow apoplectic and even threatening if anyone suggests that they don’t know how to punctuate, much less how to write (This enormous garbage heap is offered as justification by publishers, booksellers, review outlets, awards organizers and granting agencies for continuing to proceed as they do, and I do not argue that it is a major issue. However, a bit of diligence on the part of these institutions could sort the wheat from the chaff – sorting is not THAT difficult – but who has time to be diligent when your house is crumbling around you?) ;
  • False Positive Reviews. Then we have the proliferation of ridiculously positive, 5-star reviews of the aforementioned Crap now posted to Amazon.com, Goodreads, book-review blogs, and other book-related sites. Most of these patently fluffy reviews have been written by the authors’ well-meaning but inexperienced, uninformed and not widely read friends and relatives. One book-review blogger favourably compared an utterly talentless writer to one with the world-class stature of, let us say, a Jane Austen – a comparison that was then, of course, gleefully quoted by the writer in subsequent promotion. Now, if you were an unaware book buyer and a fan of Jane Austen, would you know to proceed with caution? I don’t think so. (Yep. It’s a zoo out there. Be careful where you step);
  • Books that sell on reputation and gossip rather than content. These are the Honey Boo-Boos of the current literary world. Take, for example, the Fifty Shades series, which has sold an astounding, gut-wrenching, nauseating 68 million copies so far. (Lest anyone accuse me of sour grapes, I have no qualms admitting that I am fifty shades of green over E.L. James’s book sales, but I would never, ever want to be associated with such bad writing, even in exchange for a lot of money. Thank you anyway, Mephistopheles.) As far as I can tell, this phenomenon MUST be due to the lack of literary reviews of the book, for why would anyone spend good money on a totally unerotic, misogynistic, implausible piece of shit? The only possible explanation is that  is that 67.32 million of those 68 million purchasers bought the book by mistake. I’m telling anyone who hasn’t yet made the error: I bought the first book in the series. I read as much as I could stand. I threw it in the garbage. Don’t waste your money. Read Anaïs Nin or someone else who can actually write erotic fiction instead);
  • Review Police: Then we have the packs of on-line sleuths, most of whom hide behind pseudonyms, who apparently have an intense dislike of writers in general and suspect us all of being guilty of the most nefarious crimes, particularly ones pertaining to reviews. (I have personally been the victim of their sordid and senseless attacks when I stupidly ventured onto their forums to point out the errors in their thinking. Like two-year olds, their arguments are not constrained in any way by the need to use logic, and they will therefore win all arguments). Among other things, such individuals believe to the very cores of their Neanderthalean little hearts that if you have received a free copy of a book rather than purchased it, you are incapable of writing an objective review of it. This opinion of course invalidates every review that has ever been published in the New York Times, the Globe and Mail , the London Review of Books, or any other respected review publication: since the beginning of (literate) time, reviewers have not paid for books they have reviewed; they have received the free review copies that have been sent to the publications by the publishers. The “review police” seem to have very little to do with their lives aside from hunting down authors they can report to the Amazon gods for having engineered positive reviews for their own books – or, better yet, of having written such reviews themselves, using false names. Such witch hunts commonly occur on the Amazon Top Reviewers Forum (which is not exclusively about books, but also talks about reviews of toilet plungers and whatnot; here is, however, a charming recent thread that reveals the biases of many of the habitues of the forum) and The Kindle Forum;
  • Overkill Response by Amazon: Last fall, Amazon responded to accusations by these sleuths by deleting thousands of reviews by writers, inflammatory or not. Here are the details, as set out in the New York Times and The Telegraph;
  • Last but not least, it doesn’t help that at least one traditionally published author has admitted to actually doing what we are all being accused of doing: not only has R.J. Ellory written reviews of his own books and posted them under pseudonyms, he has also used fake personae to slag his fellow authors.

So, yeah. It’s a pretty disgusting time to be a fiction fan – as I am, both as a writer and a reader. I remember a bookseller once telling me (about 30 years ago) that she didn’t bother to take ID from book purchasers when they wrote cheques because they were all so honest. The nature of the beast seems to have changed, and I am very sorry to be seeing it.

What I was going to do was to just advise everyone to stay away from fiction–even mine!–until this all shakes down. If you can’t trust what is being published to be good, and you can’t trust the reviews to be honest, much less representative, then what’s the point?

But then I reminded myself that this IS just a transition stage. I reminded myself how far we’ve come in the past four years. I remembered how I’ve noticed that several of the newly published writers I didn’t feel were very good seem to have given up on their dreams to become millionaires from writing the next knock-off Twilight, and stopped plugging their books everywhere. It seems likely that many others who are not “real writers” will follow because this is (as it always has been) a hell of a lot of thankless work.

I thought about Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours and reminded myself that I’ve been at this fiction-writing stuff – working at improving my writing – for more than thirty years now. I reminded myself that I finished my (first) half marathon back in the 1990s , and lost 30 lbs last autumn, by keeping on and keeping on–no matter what. Giving up on writing, even for a few months or years, is not an option anyway: I love to write. A writer is who I am.

I told myself that within another few years, there will be a new and much better system, in which the readers will find the good books for themselves from among all the self- and traditionally published books that are released, and then will tell the rest of us about them on book blogs that we will come to trust to point us in the best direction for our own personal reading interests. Within a few years, really good editors will offer to put their imprints on self-published books they’ve edited and liked. There will be awards programs that are open to both kinds of fiction publications. Writers who have established presses and agents will stop dumping and ignoring on principle those of us who are not dragging around similar litters of dependents. (See, for example, this.) We will have book review outlets we can trust to cover ALL good fiction writing, no matter where it comes from, and booksellers who will recognize their new roles as community gathering places for book lovers rather than as gatekeepers.

It will take a few more years for the evolution to shake down properly, but it will happen. And I am optimistic, despite my dismay and discouragement right now, that the world is going to be a better, more open and less expensive place for writers and for readers. And that we will once again be seen as a group as honourable people who are kind and supportive of one another.

So I decided not to write that depressing, bleak, discouraging blog post I had been thinking about after all.

Book Promotion Tip of the Week #5: January 4, 2013

Gold starCause a Ruckus

Do something that will attract attention and preferably cause a few (of the more intelligent and discerning) people (i.e., your ideal readers) to cheer you,  but will cause even more people to get so aggravated with you that they start write-in campaigns from bases in bunkers on writing forums and other blogsites that point out in blindingly mundane, uninformed and narrow-minded detail that you are ignorant, misguided and rude, and that if you think you are so hot and know so much, you should just prove it.

I have done this once before, on April 17, 2009, when I (rightly) denounced most literary agents and publishing companies in my first-ever blog post for The Militant Writer: about 4866 people stopped by in a single day and nearly 400 wrote comments – many of them in an effort to explain to me what an idiot I am (however,  those commenters in fact proved only that they don’t know the meaning of the word “irony,”  that they were utterly unaware of what was happening to the publishing industry at the time, and that they would do anything to suck up to agents such as Nathan Bransford, Janet Reid and others, in the faint hope that those august people might deign to even look at their work). That post (and its comments: I didn’t censor or repress any of them) has been read at least in part by 18,000 visitors to the site since I published it.

Unfortunately, I had no books online to sell that day. But I do now.  And now I have another article planned that should have a similar effect. I intend to put it up, right here, one week from today, if not before.

So wait for it… Wait for it…. Wait for it….

Book Promotion Tip of the Week #1: December 2, 2012

Gold starDemonstrate Your Excellence

If you are the author of a well written, well edited, self-published book, you need to help it get the attention it deserves. There are lots of people who will assume that just because your book is self-published, it must be crap – poorly written drivel featuring lots of typos laid out incompetently on the page.

Since there are, in fact, many “indie” published books fitting that description to a T, it is very difficult for most self-published authors to get their books reviewed by established media. To take advantage of this situation, some book-trade publications (including the erstwhile respectable Kirkus Reviews and Publishers’ Weekly) are now selling reviews for what I consider to be way too much money  ($425?? Are you kidding me? What’s the point? How is even a good review from one of these outlets–and the price doesn’t include any guarantees that the review will be positive–going to improve your sales? You’re still not going to be eligible for most awards competitions, and most established booksellers still aren’t going to stock your books. Furthermore, your average readers couldn’t give a damn about Kirkus Reviews or Publishers’ Weekly–if they even know what they are). As far as I’m concerned you can spend your book-promotion budget, if you have one, much more wisely.

To help get your wheat to stand out from the chaff:

1) Submit your book to every awards program for published books for which it is eligible that you can afford. (Some awards programs are also quite expensive, and may not be worth the investment, especially if there are likely to be so many books submitted that winning becomes a crapshoot: check out the previous years’ winners of these competitions. But don’t dismiss award competitions just because they cost a bit of money: there are certainly administrative costs involved–including, we hope, some payment for the judges.) Don’t overlook local and regional competitions, and those specific to your genre (e.g. western, historical fiction, speculative fiction). Google to find them (“writing competitions self-published books, steam punk” for example). You may not win, but you may be a finalist or semi-finalist, as The Whole Clove Diet was in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Competition four years ago, or you may not be even a semi-finalist but may still get a great review from a judge that you can then use in promotion (as I recently did from the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards);

2) Look for groups of readers that are giving their stamps of approval to well written, self-published/indie books, and submit a copy of your book for their review. Leaders in this field include the folks at the Book Readers Appreciation Group (B.R.A.G.): their readers evaluate books that are nominated or submitted, and the ones they find to be of sufficient quality receive a B.R.A.G. Medallion and appear as recommendations on their site. Such notice can bring side-benefits aside from the actual selection: not only was The Whole Clove Diet a B.R.A.G. Medallion honoree (which is an accolade I can and do use in my promotion and on my website), the news of its status was also tweeted by the B.R.A.G. organizers and mentioned on their Facebook page. Recently the novel was also named a B.R.A.G. Book of the Week, which gave it even more attention.

Aside from B.R.A.G., there are many other sites that are devoted to helping readers sort the worthwhile from the junk in indie/self published books. (I invite you to add your recommendations of such sites as comments to this post for the benefit of other writers.) In a world where agents and publishing houses are no longer the gatekeepers they once were, readers need to help other readers find the best new writers and books around. When they get themselves organized into groups (or become individual book review bloggers), the work they do benefits us not as readers, but as writers too.

It’s A Wrap! Create a really effective cover for your book – Part II

In Part II of this mini-series of blog posts about book covers, I talk to my friend and colleague J. Allen (Jeff) Fielder about how writers can ensure that their covers attract readers to their books. Jeff is a graphic designer who has created covers for several independently published authors in the past few years, along with a number of other related products such as bookmarks and web graphics. He is employed full time as a graphic artist, and is also a writer of fiction and nonfiction and a photographer. His own second book – and first book of fiction – a collection of short stories entitled Voices of the Field, is currently in production. Check out some samples of his covers and info about him on his website: JAllenFielder.com

MWW: So, is it true that “You can’t judge a book by its cover?”

JAF: It’s completely untrue. You can judge a book by its cover—and people do it all the time, probably even more so in the digital age. Today, what your book looks like on a screen at about 1 inch by 1.5 inches can be the tipping point between whether someone clicks on it to read more, or just keeps scrolling.

MWW: Aside from being interesting to look at, what else does a good cover do?

JAF: Every genre has its own expectations about what a good cover looks like. Black and minimal is the style, for example, in young-adult urban fantasy, colorful and cartoony for feel-good adult fiction. A designer can help guide you through what your cover should look like, based on its tone, content and target audience. But there has to be more to it than just looking good: the cover has to look good up close as well. The covers of many self-published books I’ve seen have no depth to them. They are flat text on flat photos. That sends a message to the reader: if the cover is flat without depth, the book probably is, too. The designer has the experience that helps you to overcome issues like that which you might not even be aware of.

MWW: Okay, so clearly we can’t afford to go with something we whipped up in PowerPoint. But authors are often afraid that they can’t afford a cover designer. How much do you people charge, anyway?

JAF: Be ready to spend $200 to $500 on a good cover. You can probably get by with cheaper, but just like buying at a dollar store, you’re probably going to get what you paid for. You can find hungry designers in high school and college, but will they know how to work with vendors? Will they know how to set up bleeds, and trims, and the format types each vendor requires? Will your designer spend more time trying to figure out how to set the file up than actually designing?

MWW: Tell me about the process that a designer goes through when creating the cover of a book.

JAF: In my case, first I have to understand the book, either by reading the manuscript, or getting a detailed brief. Then I need time alone, maybe even a few weeks, to go over ideas, before I involve the author. I might spend days upon days going through stock-photo sites, or thinking about how I can shoot a photograph myself – evaluating whether a photo is even the right approach. After that, there’s constant dialogue with the author. I ask them questions about their tastes: “Do you like minimalist art? A particular text? What other book covers do you like?” Together we explore color palettes, and font treatments, and theme. In short, there’s a lot more than just going to a photography website, typing a key word or two, finding an image that appeals to you, and slapping Comic Sans on it.

MWW: You can’t just go to a website, find a photo and use it on your book anyway, can you?

JAF: No, you can’t. And it’s really not as simple as going to a stock photo Web site and buying a $10 photo, either. First, of course, there’s copyright. Even if it doesn’t expressly say it’s copyrighted, assume all photographs and images are. Just because it’s on the Internet, doesn’t mean it’s free. Also, photographs, paintings, even fonts, have what’s known as an End User License Agreement and Terms of Use. You have to read the fine print to know what it is you’re buying. Some stock photo sites will sell you a photograph, but the license only allows you to use the image on Web sites, or for personal use. Some stock photo sites require that for covers, or other resale, you have to buy an “Extended License,” which can cost up to several hundred dollars. So be careful, and know what it is you’re buying.

MWW: Sometimes you can’t get the image you want at all – as I recounted in Part I of this cover series, I ran into that with my efforts to get a Botero on my cover.

JAF: Or it might just not be worth it. One writer I was working with found a shot he really liked for his cover from a professional photographer. I contacted the photographer, hoping to work out a deal to license the image for the book. She wanted $500 to use the photograph, and $2,000 to buy the full rights. The $500 would have included the first 1,000 copies, and then the contract would have a continued life where every 100 copies after that would include royalties ($200). There’s no way the writer could ever have recouped that cost: it was probably more than the royalties he would make on his own book.

MWW: What advice do you give writers on how to work with a designer to get the best cover possible?

JAF: A good relationship with your designer should be one where there’s back-and-forth and understanding. A designer shouldn’t dictate, but neither should the writer. As a writer, you need to be able to bring ideas to the table, know what you want, and be able to express yourself. But you also need to have an open mind and be flexible. If either side lays down the law and won’t budge, you’re probably going to get poor results. Ultimately, you might get what you want and find out it’s not what your readers wanted. Your cover shouldn’t be about ego: your cover should help sell your book.

MWW: Obviously, choosing the right designer is almost as important as choosing the right cover.

JAF: You have to be able to trust your designer to take care of you. A good designer is not only going to give you the cover you want, but will know how to make it usable for all of your needs. Today, you may just want a great cover design so that you can sell the electronic version of your book, but when the time comes that you want to produce a paperback, a single front cover that can’t continue the theme to the spine or back flap isn’t going to do you any good. You need to be sure that your designer will set up the file so it can print large scale as well as small. Electronic images might look good at one inch by one inch, but if you go big and your cover wasn’t designed for it, you might have to start all over.

MWW: Thanks, Jeff. The ball’s in your court with the cover of my next novel, The Whole Clove Diet. I am looking forward to seeing what you (we) come up with!

* * * * *

Note to writers/independent publishers from Mary the Editor aka The Book Charmer: The text that goes on the back cover of your paperback version of your book is also critical. Go to a bookstore and pick up lots of books and really look at the elements on the back cover. What do you want? An author bio? An author photo? Quotes from pre-publication reviewers/readers of your manuscript? Reviews of one of your previous books? A brief summary of plot that gets the reader hooked?

Don’t try to include all of these components on your back cover – you don’t want the text too dense. And make sure you get your cover proofread: one of the first books I supervised through production as editor in chief at Lone Pine came out with the name of a government minister (who later went on to become prime minister!) spelled wrong on the back cover. And in those days, you were stuck with selling an entire print run before you could fix the error. Ever since then I triple check the text on the cover, and get someone else to take a look as well.

Once you have the text prepared, your cover designer will be able to help you compose a back cover layout that complements the design of the front cover and the spine. For a great example of this, check out the layout (and the design!) Jeff created for John A. Aragon’s first novel: Billy The Kid’s Last Ride
(Sunstone Press). The images on the cover are from John’s “Last Ride” mural in Santa Fe.