Judging a book by its cover

“Never judge a book by its cover”.

What a great philosophy to to live your life by. It’s practically the first lesson in How To Live A Fair and Interesting Life 101. As a metaphor for looking beyond stereotypes and not taking people at face value and taking the time to look deeper it can’t really be faulted.

But what if we’re talking about literally judging an actual book?

Quality of writing is not, unfortunately, the only thing an author has to think about when publishing their work. For all that we want our work to speak for itself people aren’t going to read something if they don’t know it exists, and that’s not going to happen without publicity and marketing.

I will be the first to admit that these areas are not my forte. I have never been a natural promotor of my own work. But, just like anyone looking at self publishing, it’s something I’ve had to teach myself. The most obvious way has been to get involved with all the common methods of promotion, all the websites and online writer groups, to see what everyone else is doing. And one of the main reasons that this is a good way to teach yourself self-promotion is because after a while you really start to see all the things that other people are doing wrong.

I’m far from an expert, when you spend enough time looking into something you start to see the same mistakes over and over again until you recognise them without trying. And if I can notice them – a random guy just looking around the market – I can only imagine how often agents and publishers have to wade through them.

I’ve come to recognise three or four basic mistakes that a lot of authors out there are making over and over again. And possibly the worst of these mistakes – because it is the most obvious and impossible to ignore – is using a terrible cover.

Your book’s cover is the final line that the reader must cross before making the decision whether or not to put in the time/effort/money on your book. They might not care whether it’s the latest Hugo Award winner best seller or an impulse buy from an unknown author, but they need to believe that the author cared enough about it to care what it looked like.

We’ve all heard the old adage “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have”. It’s the same with book covers. Traditional publishing houses have promotion and marketing teams to do this side of things. If you want to be taken seriously you need to match that quality despite not having the resources.

Not everyone is going to be able to get a professional designer to create a cover, of course, but there are ways around that. What you can’t do is just accept any old thing and slap it on your manuscript. I’ve seen covers that look like they were put together in MS Paint. Covers that look like someone cut images out of a magazine, stuck them onto a piece of A4 and scanned them into a computer. Covers that look like the writer’s parents forced them use something their 12 year old cousin made in art class. Covers that, to sum this up, just plain look bad.

Self publishing is not an easy path to success. We all know this by now. The hard fact is there is still an entrenched prejudice that self-publishing is a path for writers who aren’t good enough to get a traditional contract. It is also a fact that there’s a lot of evidence to back up this attitude. There is so much terrible, terrible work put online by lazy writers who don’t seem to think that eighth, seventh, or sometimes even second drafts are a necessity. If you want to rise up from the dross that is out there, you need to make your book as indistinguishable from a professional publication as possible.

So what are my recommendations?

 

Look at what resources you have (and be honest with them)

Do you know someone who can create a high quality cover for you? Someone who at least has some design experience? It’s quite possible that they might be willing help you, if you ask nicely.

But make sure it’s someone you’re prepared to be honest with. The problem with a favour is you can feel uncomfortable about turning it down. This is your work, and you cannot allow yourself to feel obligated to please someone else with the final product. That’s your name on the cover. If the final product is poor quality it’s your reputation and your interests that are going to suffer.

If you don’t think you could tell someone that you don’t like their work then don’t ask them for help.

Invest in your own work

If you don’t have someone able and willing to help for free, spend some money.

It doesn’t have to be too expensive. There are a lot of aspiring artists and designers looking for the opportunity get their work out there, just like you. Some might even be willing to work for free (although see my previous point about that). There are even people who have seen this niche and sell pre-made covers to those authors who want something quick and easy.

Remember, if you are not prepared to invest a little of your own money in your work, why should a reader or a publisher?

Keep it simple (Not the face)

If in doubt, keep your cover as simple as possible.

Don’t try to depict scenes from the book or intricate landscapes. If you’re on a budget or forced to do things yourself, the simpler you can keep it the better it will be. Text on a plain background, with maybe a clean, simple logo or image. It’s classic, and the easiest cover to pull off. 

And this might be a personal choice, but avoid character portraits like the plague. Especially if you’re not a professional. Stock photos always look fake, and poorly photoshopped figures even more so. And unless you can draw really well, any attempt at a portrait of a human is going to slam your cover straight down into the Uncanny Valley.

 

So what choices did I make? As it turns out I’m lucky enough that I have a sister who is a graphic designer. At the point where I was finishing The Serpent’s Eye and needed a cover, she was actually in the middle of completing her Masters Degree in Graphic Design. This meant I had a family member who (a) had the skill and talent to create a professional quality image, and (b) who I was more than willing to argue with if I didn’t like the result.

If I hadn’t had this option? I would have researched some graphic designers and looked to commission one.

The last thing I would ever have attempted would be to create my own cover.

And so if any of you are looking for a decent cover artist head over to www.emilybranddesigns.com. Her contact details are on the site, and she’ll be more than happy to discuss what you’re looking for. I’m told she has very reasonable prices for non-family. I can vouch that you’ll get quality work.

A few thoughts following publication

So a few thoughts on my first week as a published author.

I want to start with a big thank you to those of you who have downloaded The Serpent’s Eye already, and another to those who have been sharing it with friends. During the five days where the book was available for free it has had over 400 downloads! That’s just amazing. That fact that the number of people who have downloaded my book is pretty much double my Facebook friend list (which is pretty much what I expected my audience to be) is awesome.

I’ve even got my first review on Amazon. And people I’ve never met mentioning that they are reading my book of Twitter. It’s strange how little things like that seem to validate what you have done. The fact that I know have a book available to buy, an author profile on Amazon, and that strangers are leaving positive feedback, somehow makes it seem more real. It’s like I’m a real writer or something.

But I do feel a strange conflict. There is still a small part of me that cannot shake the feeling that putting something up myself as an e-book doesn’t count as “real” publishing. This feeling annoys me, as I’m proud of what I have done and in no way feel it is any worse than books that have been professionally published. If I didn’t believe it was good enough for publication I wouldn’t have self-published it. The reason I didn’t go down the shelf publishing route for my last book was that I wasn’t confident it was good enough without the input of a professional editor to help me out.

The fact is that the first hurdle in self-publishing is the easiest to fall at: believing your work is good enough without the work. You can look around the internet for five minutes and find hundreds of works people have self-published online that can’t even be considered half finished by any professional standards. People who seem to honestly believe that “My Mother said it was good” is enough reason to publish something. I swore I would never be one of those people, but that doesn’t stop them swamping the market.

A basic fact about today’s literary market is that if you seriously want to make it, the first step is to make sure that you stand out from the crowd half finished and poorly constructed drivel. The internet allows you to put your work out for people to find, but if you are lazy, hasty, make the same mistakes as others, or are just simply untalented, any publishers and agents who you manage to get to pay attention will dismiss you without a second thought.

And so my next step is to get an agent, and to get The Serpent’s Eye “officially” published. While I will always keep writing and putting out my work myself if that’s what it takes, I won’t deny that the end goal is to move into the field of traditional publishing. And if any one thing can help me get the attention of agents and publishers, it will be my book selling without any professional help.

The problem is I am not a publicist. Nor do I have any marketing experience. These are not things that you traditionally consider to be vital skills in an author, but in the modern publishing market they have become essential. If you want to stand out and be noticed, you’ve either got to (a) get working on the self publicity, or (b) pray that you’ll get reallyreally lucky.

So my work is set out before me; to grow word of mouth and build both book sales and blog-hits.

So, you know, start bigging me up to your friends. Suggest The Serpent’s Eye. It may not be free any more, but £1.53 is still pretty cheap.

Oh, and if you’ve still to get your own copy, you can download it here.

Rowling unnamed

By now everyone has heard about J.K. Rowling’s latest book. In as much as that it wasn’t originally known to be written by her. For anyone who hasn’t seen this news piece yet, Rowling recently wrote and published a novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling, under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Only the top executives at the publishing agency knew who the author really was. The book got published. It received good reviews, but got very low sales.

That is of course until it was revealed who the real author was. At this point it rocketed to the top of sale charts everywhere as Rowling’s fans rushed to get her latest work because it was written by their favourite author. It’s been argued whether it was ever meant to be known that Galbraith was Rowling; whether it was just a marketing ploy. Personally I don’t think so. Rowling is such a big name she doesn’t need a gimmick like this to sell books. I’m inclined to believe her argument that it was simply to see whether her books would be successful without her name attached. According to Rowling; “It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation, and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name.”

But somehow this is even worse. I find this really quite insulting to unknown authors.

Part of being an aspiring writer is the quest to make a name for yourself. To do this we need to get published and earn enough money through it to live by. But we all know that even if we’ve written the best novel in the world there is a chance we won’t get published. Our futures lay in the hands of fate, and a slushpile reader. A thousand barriers stand in the way; are they in the right mood, are they looking for your genre at the moment, do they think it will sell, have they signed someone similar recently?

But when you’ve made it, please don’t rub it in the faces of all of us who haven’t. What Rowling’s stunt highlights is that even excellent writers won’t necessarily find success just through the quality of their work.

Reading about this I came across this article discussing the case of Chuck Ross. It highlights this whole concept nicely. In the 1970s Ross decided to test the industry. He wanted to know whether his getting turned down by publishers was simply down to the quality of his work, or other factors. Did quality work always make it through the system?

To test this idea, he retyped the entirety of the award winning novel Steps by Jerzy Kosinski, the best selling novel of 1969. He then changed the title and sent it in to agents and publishers. So did quality writing get instantly recognised?

The answer, of course, was no. Ross was turned down over and over again. Publishers and agents sent his rejection letters telling him that having read the novel that there was no chance of it making a commercial or critical success. Even the publishers that had originally published Steps turned him down. With a form letter.

Wannabe authors live with this. I’m not being sour about it, it’s a part of the industry. We might not like it but we keep writing, keep improving and hope that one day we will make it. If I didn’t want to write even if I never sell a book then I shouldn’t want to be a writer anyway. I know that getting a publishing deal going to take an amount of luck but once I find that luck I’m not going to want to rub it in anyone else’s face. That’s what Rowling has done. She’s reminding us that even successful, established authors can’t rely simply on the quality of their work.