Friday, February 24, 2012

Ebook Covers: Do It Yourself or Not?

As so well documented in Dean Wesley Smith's Think Like a Publisher, the decision to go indie requires an up-front, unwavering dedication to the practical aspects of getting a book to market. This post addresses only one of the tasks facing a new indie author, that of designing a cover for an eBook, and I'll limit the scope to the question indicated by the subtitle.

Which reminds me of a favorite bit of dialogue from the movie Jurassic Park:

Hammond (Richard Attenborough): I don't think you're giving us our due credit. Our scientists have done things which nobody's ever done before...
Dr. Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum): Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether they could that they didn't stop to think if they should. 

First, let's deal with the issue of whether an eBook cover is important. The answer is an unequivocal "Yes," but it's not my purpose here to justify that opinion. If you don't believe it, stop reading now. If you're unsure as to what you believe, do some research and the tally the results. Or save yourself the trouble and take my word for it. Respected sources will always vote in the affirmative.

If you're still here, thank you. Now consider the next important question, which is: Can an amateur with no professional training in graphic design come up with a cover that works? If your answer is "No," quit reading now. If you've seen the cover for Pilot Error and think it's ineffective, quit reading now. If you like my cover and you're unsure about whether your want to try it, I recommend that you do some more research. Many online sources help you through the process of cover design. But in this case, you'll have to weigh two sides of the issue.

Graphic designers will justifiably maintain that they can do a better job than any amateur. And that's not a matter of false advertising. They do it for a living and have the training and practical experience required. It's analogous to the famous words (paraphrased) of Red Adair, oil-well firefighter: "If you think Adair Enterprises is expensive, try hiring an amateur."

But that raises the question, "How good does a cover have to be?" Award winning? Capable of eliciting gasps of admiration from all who view it, readers and other graphic designers alike? Or can we consider that the most basic purpose of the cover is to stay out of the way by not shedding the interest of potential readers? And if the cover entices the reader to click on the thumbnail image or the sample, has it not served its function?

When facing this decision, I researched the cost of hiring a professional, and economic considerations ultimately forced me to design my own cover. I began with full acknowledgement that it would be an experiment, and that I might have to abandon the effort. But with more time to invest than discretionary funds, I researched the basics of cover design and opened up Photoshop Elements 8 for the very first time.

This "Photoshop for Dummies" application came bundled with a scanner I'd purchased the year before, and this yours-truly dummy was immediately overwhelmed by all the icons and menus and windows and a blank screen with nothing in it that I was going to have to fill with a cover. 

This post will not address the details of what turned out to be over two months of steady effort teaching myself how to use the application and design a cover. And when I had one ready to show my fellow writers, the comments ranged from thumbs down, to level, to up, just as they do when I ask for comments on the words behind the cover.

And as in all things writing, it became an iterative process of revising, accepting comments, revising again, until I finally gazed at a version with confidence that I had designed a cover that did exactly what I thought it should. Could it be better? Undoubtedly. Does it have to be better? I don't think so. Would I like it to be? Absolutely.

And maybe the next one will be. 

In the meantime, I leave you with this: If you are facing this decision in your indie journey and are willing to spend between $200-1000 for a professionally designed cover, save yourself the headache of doing it yourself. But if for whatever reason you need (or simply want) to give it a go, there's something especially rewarding about packaging your words in your own cover.

Which again reminds me of the scientists in Jurassic Park . . .

Tosh McIntosh is the author of Pilot Error and the upcoming Wings on my Words: Tales from the Writer's Desk, Words on My Wing: Tales from the Cockpit, and Red Line, second in the Pilot Error series.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

On Letting a Manuscript Age Properly

Zadie Smith is an author with whom I have little in common, not a bad thing from her point of view. She is relatively young, British, and acclaimed. Her initial novel, White Teeth, published when she was 22, caused a literary sensation. 

In her gracefully written book of essays called Changing My Mind, she has the following advice which applies nicely, I believe, to the work of any novelist: 

When you finish your novel, if money is not a desperate priority, if you do not need to sell it at once or be published that very second - put it in a drawer. For as long as you can manage. A year of more is ideal - but even three months will do. Step away from the vehicle. The secret to editing your work is simple: you need to become its reader instead of its writer. I can't tell you how many times I've sat backstage with a line of novelists at some festival, all of us with red pens in hand, frantically editing our published novels into fit form so that we might go on stage and read from them. It's an unfortunate thing, but it turns out that the perfect state of mind to edit your novel is two years after it’s published, ten minutes before you go on stage at a literary festival. At that moment every redundant phrase, each show-off, pointless metaphor, all of the pieces of dead wood, stupidity, vanity, and tedium are distressingly obvious to you.

As an architect I never depended on my writing to eat. The proof is that I am here writing this blog, a feat difficult to pull off if I had starved to death many years ago. Zadie Smith is a more serious writer than I, but I can confirm that her recommendation is probably beneficial to any writer. During my pre-published writing career, I “finished” several novels. Unable to sell one novel, I would put it on the shelf and go on to the next. Eventually, new ideas for novels became more and more difficult to conceive and I decided that I needed to dedicate some time to polishing the old ideas. Now, I am going back to those to those old manuscripts and rewriting them. There is no doubt in my mind that they are far better the second time around. 

A second point, relating to self-publishing, is that I doubt very much that I would have ever gone back to those old rejects if it meant going through the traditional process all over again -- sending out queries to agents, having most of them rejected or ignored, sending manuscripts to the few interested agents, getting rejected again, maybe signing with an agent at last only to get rejected by publishers, writing a new novel, and starting the whole dispiriting process all over again (while hoping that agents don’t remember your first effort). Meanwhile, several years of my life will have come and gone. As it is, I expect to have three novels out in my first year as a self-publisher. 

These days, it is very easy and inexpensive to skip all those callous agents and publishers. Just take your completed manuscript and send the MS Word file to Create Space for the paperback edition (print on demand) and listing with Amazon. Convert your MS Word document to a “Web Page, Filtered” file (just two clicks) and transmit the resulting HTM file to Amazon at their Kindle Direct Publishing page. 

At this point, it’s a matter of hours, not months or years, until you become a published writer. Even if you don’t sell a single book, this is a far more satisfying experience than collecting rejections month after month. The next great benefit is that you can now afford to be patient while you wait for your audience to discover the love of your life. It will be around virtually forever rather than jerked off the shelves by unfeeling bookstore managers after a brief few months of fruitless display and converted to compost. 

So here’s my advice to aspiring novelists. Write the first complete draft of your novel, rewrite it once, then do the same thing for your second novel. Then go back to Number One and start rewriting. At this point, you will recognize for yourself how much you have grown as a writer. The improvements you come up with feel like inspirations from your Muse. After rewriting Number One, publish it, then go back to Number Two.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Get It Right

Aside from a court summons, few things will jar a reader out of a novel’s vivid and continuous dream so much as typos and misspellings.

The Dogs of Mexico was perfect. Willing beta readers had found gobs of mistakes—odd hitches and glitches of all sorts. Good. Thank you. I uploaded to Create Space and ordered four copies.

When they arrived, I started reading. Gaaaaa! I beelined it to Office Depot and bought a pack of 100 little arrow stickers and used them all on penciled notations, all the while praying no one would order Dogs before I got it revised.

I uploaded this new “perfect” version to CS. When the proofs arrived, I started reading . . . What! My brain went cockeyed; heart attack imminent. In short, I used up those 100 stickers again, and then some.

Okay. Finally, it really is perfect. Just as I’m ready to upload a third time, I get an email from my good friend Tosh McIntosh, author of Pilot Error. He pointed out just over one full page of missteps. I’m struck dumb. Some I had already caught; at least half I hadn’t, including a glaring typo on the back cover: “Pulishers Weekly.” Since I had already formatted the novel for CS and Kindle, I had to do a separate search through each one again.

Now I’m ready to upload to CS and Kindle again . . . but I hesitate . . . what else have I missed?

Dean Wesley Smith’s blog of Feb. 10, states:

But even on the great jobs out of traditional publishers, there are no such things as Perfect Books. Just doesn’t ever happen. And forget tastes in that equation. Every book has mistakes. Lots of them.

Smith has at least a hundred publications under his belt, and while I give credit where credit is due, I suggest that perhaps he can afford be a little more cavalier about this than the rest of us.
Flaubert spent an entire day trying to decide exactly the use of one comma in Madam Bovary. I like his work ethic. Despite my snafus (or perhaps because of them), I say louder than ever: Take your time; get it right.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Sky Is Not Falling

At the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August 2011, Ewan Morrison proclaimed the end of writing as a profession. In the Guardian article "Are books dead, and can authors survive?" he says:
"The digital revolution will not emancipate writers or open up a new era of creativity, it will mean that writers offer up their work for next to nothing or for free."
His article predicts that self-published authors will devalue the product and drive the "professional writer" to extinction. He makes the claim that "most notable writers in the history of books were paid a living wage" and offers the names of a dozen authors from the last half-century as evidence.

The reality is that the majority of traditionally published novelists do not pay the mortgage from their advances or royalties. Author incomes, like the incomes of musicians, actors and other creatives, are products of what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls Extremistan in The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. A small percentage of outliers account for a large percentage of the income for the group. The overwhelming majority have day jobs. In fiction, there are the one-percenters and there are the rest of us. This was true before the advent of the ebook and self-epublishing won't change that.

I suspect that Morrison's analysis of the future has less to do with a true prognosis and more to do with the performance of his traditionally published novels. I say this because of the opening statement in his next Guardian article.

Morrison spent the intervening six months touring his doomsday argument in the "End of Books" reading tour. In his equally alarmist follow-up article titled "The self-epublishing bubble" he begins by stating:
"The internet is full of ironies. I, for one, could never have guessed that writing about the end of books would generate more income for me than actually publishing the damn things."
I don't see Morrison's article as uncovering or explaining an actual trend. Instead, I see it as an example of the pressure to create controversial content to sustain a career in writing about writing, which is evidently more viable than a career in fiction.

Morrison's second article maps the self-published ebook wave to Hyman Minsky's seven stages of an economic bubble. (Disturbance, Expansion, Euphoria, Over-trading, Market Reversal, Financial Crisis, Revulsion)

The analysis in this article is no more cogent than in the first, as is pointed out very quickly in the comments. The problem is that the self-publishing wave is nothing like "the dotcom bubble, the commercial real estate bubble, the subprime mortgage bubble, the credit bubble and the derivative trading bubble" or any economic bubble.

No one is investing their life-savings or millions of venture capital dollars into self-publishing their memoir or Amish vampire novel or zombie western. They are pursuing a passion, investing plenty of time but very little money, and they won't come to financial ruin if it doesn't pay off. No too-big-to-fail financial institutions will require a government bailout when thousands or millions of self-published authors decide to throw in the towel. Assuming, that is, that great masses of indie authors do decide to throw in the towel, as predicted by Morrison.

I think the more appropriate stage theory for Morrison and his publishing experience is the K├╝bler-Ross stages of grief. (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance) Let's just hope he stops writing about the industry before he moves from Anger to Bargaining.

Brad Whittington is the author of the Fred trilogy, What Would Jesus Drink? and the soon-to-be released Muffin Man.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The End of Rejection

I remember my last rejection letter quite well. I had decided to move forward with my novel Baby Dust as an independent, perfectly aware that books on its difficult subject matter had fallen out of favor with traditional publishers. But as I sent the book off to be copy edited and drew up contracts with cover artists and interior designers, I had this terrible panic—what if I was wrong?

So I sent a flurry of query letters to agents. This was a no-holds-barred round of submissions. Any agent I’d ever met at a conference, anyone with whom I had any tenuous connection, got the letter and opening pages. I knew I had everything ready. My sales copy had been honed over years. And I actually already had blurbs from the biggest names in the community that would be the initial audience for the book. I had a marketing plan.

Several agents did read it. About half requested it. I got nervous yet again. Maybe I had been wrong—this book was traditional material.

Then the rejections came in. Kind. Personal. But still, rejections. They told me once again that the book was beautifully written, the subject matter important, but they could not sell it. Only one had a substantive criticism.

I hadn’t heard from them all when I green-lighted the upload to Lightning Source, when I approved the first proof, and reviewed the Kindle and Nook versions of the novel.

Eight months after the submissions, I still hadn’t heard from one last requested full, but went ahead and started the marketing tour, preparing for release day. I sat down a time or two to write that last agent and tell her that I needed to withdraw the book, but something always ended up coming first, and I forgot.

On my actual release day, the last rejection came. “I agree that it's an important topic, but I think it's too dark for me to sell it successfully.”

For the first time, a rejection made me feel giddy. It didn’t matter! Too dark, too niche, too small a market. Not important! The book was in my hands, and today, was out in the world. I felt empowered for the first time. No one could stand between me and the readers I knew needed and wanted this book. I was independent.

Four months after the release of Baby Dust, I feel as though my gamble has paid off. I’m coming up on 1000 copies sold and sales increase each month. People write me every day, thankful for the book, even though it’s a difficult read.

I confess that sometimes, surrounded by my traditionally published friends, I feel a pang, that maybe I should have just written another book. Tried another tactic so that I could get listed on Publishers Weekly, be invited to talk at conferences and meet librarians who are on award nomination lists, and feel part of that club.

But THIS was the book I wanted to write. I couldn’t help that the publishers didn’t want it. And so I made my own way.

Now that I see how well I can do this on my own, I won’t look back.

My last rejection letter was, indeed, my last.


Deanna Roy is the author of Baby Dust, a novel about miscarriage and pregnancy loss.