Book Covers – Making Improvements

The beautiful thing about independent publishing is that nothing is ever really set in stone. In today’s digital age, with POD printing made as simple as uploading a PDF of your book onto an idiot-proof website, it’s incredibly easy to fix the little things that pop up as problems after you’ve hit that “publish” button the first time. It’s wonderful to know that you don’t have to live with that typo you just found on page 57 this week. Everyone who’s already bought your book  has to live with it, of course. But you can fix it going forward, and that’s an awesome thing.

The terrible thing about independent publishing, though, is that nothing is ever really set in stone. And if you’re like me, that means that you never really let go. Even after you’ve hit publish, even after your book has sold, you will (from time to time) look back and what you’ve done and think “I know I could make it better.”

That happened to me recently. Actually it’s been happening to me constantly, but just recently I decided that it was time to do something about it.

You see, when I first began this whole journey into independent publishing I realized that all of the research I’d been doing and all of the skills I’d been developing needed a test run. Before I published anything of significance (my first big project was a devotional book for my church, written by one of my pastors, that I absolutely did NOT want to be a disaster), I needed a test run (or two or four). And so I went to the most ready source of writing I had available to me – a blog I’d been keeping for a few years. I pulled together 30 posts that all connected to a central theme, put them together as a short devotional book of my own, and used that work as my lab-rat.

This book (along with two more I later developed in a similar manner) was the experimental creature upon which I tested all of my theories and ideas about bookmaking. It was never specifically meant to be a “seller”. I didn’t plan to make any money off of it. After all, ALL of the content was already available for free on line, if you were willing to dig for it. It was just a way for me to get my feet wet.

The results were … passable. Some things worked, some things didn’t. But the books served their purpose – I learned a lot in the process of making them.  And as time went on and I learned more and more, I went back and fixed or improved upon these three projects.

One of the biggest failings of these books were their covers:

Let’s face it – they’re awful. I’m NOT a designer, and these early attempts are proof positive of that fact. But I wasn’t about to spend money on covers for books that I wasn’t serious about selling. So I picked a theme (bricks, to go with the concept of the narrow way) and did what I could with them.

But now, more than a year later, those covers still bother me. They don’t fit in their genre. They aren’t pretty. They aren’t very readable, and the imagery is muddled at best. They were barely better than white lettering across a colored background. Simply stated, they sucked.

With every other aspect of these books I have gone back to make improvements, to fix, to tweak, and to otherwise make them more appealing. And for months I have looked at these ugly covers and thought “I need to do something. These can’t stay the same.” And finally I was simultaneously shamed and inspired, and so I finally came up with these new and significantly less-sucky covers:

I would call them “new and improved” but that suggests that they’re much much better. The truth is that I’m still not a designer. The type still isn’t as legible as I’d like. Anyone with any design know-how would probably look at them and cringe just a little bit. But they no longer glare at me from the computer screen. They no longer make me want to cry. They’re hardly stunning. But they’re not embarrassing any more. They don’t stick out like sore thumbs in their amazon categories. They’re significantly less awful.

And so this is me, making improvements. And that’s the good thing (and the bad thing) about publishing your own work. You won’t get it all right the first time around. But you don’t have to. Because you always have the opportunity to go back and make things better.

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Self-Publishing: A 6 Step Overview

It’s amazing to me to think how many people have asked me in recent months to tell them what I know about the self-publishing process. It’s just as amazing for me to realize that just a few years ago I was blissfully ignorant of all of this myself

I remember when I first started looking into the world of self-publishing. The sheer volume of information out there was overwhelming. So, in the hopes of sparing you a little of the tedium and confusion that I went through at the beginning, I’ll be using the next few posts to present a very basic overview of what self-publishing actually entails. Nothing I’m going to say here is new. You can find it a million times over on a thousand different blogs all over the web. But at least here you have a simple, real-world list of what you will need to do …

And just as a word of warning – this one is going to be long. I can’t help it – I’ve always been long winded, and there’s no getting around the sheer volume of information that you need to know, even in a simple overview.

So grab your coffee (or tea, or whatever you’re drinking to stay awake on this lovely Monday morning), and get comfy as I present The Six Steps To Self-Publishing (or whatever).

Step 1: You will need to write a manuscript

I assume that you know what that means. You may not, however, understand what it entails. To write a professional-level manuscript, one that will be taken seriously in a competitive market, you will probably need help. This means finding yourself an editor, or at the very least a proofreader (and no, your genius-mom or bookworm-friend won’t cut it, not unless that’s what they do for a living).

This is the “writing” part of the writing process, and it will take months of your life to see it through. The best advice I can give here is don’t rush it.  Work on it, and keep on working on it until it feels ready. Then let it stew for a few weeks and pull it out and work on it again.

Step 2: You will need to create a book interior

This is not the same thing as writing the book itself. It’s a whole different step. This is about turning the words in your word processor into something that looks like the finished product that you see on the shelves of your local bookstore. In other words, this is the step where you design the interior of your book.

This is when you will need to do things like create a copyright page and a table of contents. You will need to design the layout of the text within the pages, create running headers with page numbers, etc. This kind of design is an art form unto itself, and there are very specific standard practices that you will want to follow in order to make it look “right.” We’ll get into more of that in a later post, but if it’s the type of thing that sets the hair on the back of your neck prickling, this is another one of those steps where you might want to hire professional help (yes, there are professional-grade, freelance book designers out there who do nothing but make the pages in your book look pretty!)

Creating the interior of an e-book, on the other hand, is often a much simpler thing. E-books aren’t static products. The look of a page depends on what kind of file you’re reading and what you’re reading it from. Even things like font sizes aren’t etched in stone, so much of the “prettifying” that’s necessary in a paper book becomes moot when you create an ebook.

You won’t be creating headers or worrying about text layout. You will, however, need to make sure the correct front-matter (copyright info, etc.) is there, but then it’s just about formatting the file in a way that will work well with whatever e-book converter you are going to use.  Again, we’ll get into more of that some other day.

Step 3: you will need to create a cover.

A book cover needs to contain some basic information (the title author’s name, etc.). It needs to be attractive and compelling – which means it needs to follow some basic rules of graphic design. It should be easy to read (it is especially important that it remains readable at thumbnail size, since that’s how most people will be viewing it if they’re buying the book on line). It also needs to be simple and uncluttered. And finally, it should conform to the expectations of your readers.

What does that mean? That means that they should be able to tell, by looking at your cover, what kind of genre the book fits into. In other words, you shouldn’t put a cartoon unicorn on your memoir or a creepy photo of a swamp on your collection of humorous essays. You want your book to find the right readers, and your cover should confirm to them that this is the book they want to read. It shouldn’t confused or annoy them.

*** Cover design is another complex area where you might want to find a professional to hire. Keep in mind that book cover design is a specialty of its own within the larger “design” world, so you would benefit from hiring someone who’s familiar with the field.

Step 4: You will need to pick a printer

For self-publishers this normally means using a Print on Demand (POD) printing service. To use a POD service, you create a PDF of your book file, and then upload it into their system. Then, any time someone orders a copy of your book, they print a single copy. There are several services out there that are widely used, reliable, and relatively easy to navigate. I use createspace.com because they’re cheap and because they make it super-easy to get your books onto Amazon. Other good POD options include lightningsource.com and lulu.com

The other printing option available to you is called “Offset Printing.” This is the printing process that big publishers use. It’s high quality, and in large print runs it’s significantly cheaper than POD as well. The problem with Offset Printing (for the self-published author) is that you need to print many (think at least 1,000) books in one shot. Most of us can’t afford that, and unless you’re a public speaker, pastor of a large church, magazine editor, or someone else with a large sphere of influence and the expectation that you will definitely SELL all 1,000 of your books, it’s normally not worth the hassle.

Step 5: You will need to publish.

This is the point in the process where all the bits and pieces come together to make a book that people can find and read. If you are using a POD distributor, this is the easy step. Createspace (the POD printer I use) is so user-friendly that it’s almost impossible to screw up the process.

In order to publish you will need an ISBN. If you are using Createspace (or many other POD publishers) you can get a free ISBN from them. This means that Createspace (or whomever) will be listed as the publisher of record. That doesn’t hurt you in any way or take any of your rights away as the author and owner of the work.  So if you are planning on selling primarily on line or in person (aka – not through book stores) feel free to take advantage of the freebee.

In order to publish you will also need to pick the size and type of book you want to create. Of course, you have already figured this out during the design process (because otherwise how would you know what size the cover and the interior pages needed to be, right?) so it’s just a matter of selecting the appropriate option.

This is also the point where you will set your price, pick your genre, enter a description, etc.  But once you’ve walked your way through these steps (there are more, I’m just skipping over the less pertinent, mostly because they’re self -explanatory and somewhat idiot-proof) and uploaded your interior and cover files to the publisher, you can hit the pretty little “publish” button, and off your book goes to be made available for purchase! If you use Createspace, your book will automatically show up on Amazon in a few hours or days.

Step 6: You will need to market your book

I should probably have put this first, because marketing is one of those things that should be started months before your book goes live. You will need to know who your target readers are and develop a strategy on how to read them.

How do you reach them? It’s impossible for me to say, because so much depends on who they are. But it’s very important that you do reach them, because as good as your book may be, it’s never going to sell itself. It’s only going to find its audience if you get involved in the introduction process.