Hello again! This is the third installment of Natalie’s Notes from Ventura County Writer’s Weekend. The first post on Social Media for Authors is here. The second post on Book Marketing 101 is here.
As has been said and will no doubt be said again, today’s publishing world is a mess of opportunities. There are so many things you could be doing that the only visible truth is that there’s many ways to go about publishing a book these days. The main problem plaguing writers isn’t that their book can’t be published: it’s garnering enough attention for readers to slow down their fast -paced, digital lives to read your blog post and buy your book, no matter what format it’s published in. And you have to do that while everyone else is vying for attention as well.
Ignoring the minor stomach ulcers and groaning from everyone who knows what I’m talking about, the Ventura County Writer’s Weekend panelists did a broad sweep of what every sort of writer could do to get published, and I’ll try to organize their thoughts.
Making a book is a three legged journey: writing is only the beginning, and the second leg is producing the book, and the final leg is marketing the heck out of it until everyone you want to know about it, knows about it (and hopefully has a copy). Writing and marketing are their own things and discussed in previous blog posts. The panel wanted to focus on the production aspect of the book-making process, which you should focus your energies on when you’ve finished writing and revising. First, we’ll speak about what it takes to produce each portion of a book (cover, pages, back cover etc.), and then I’ll go into different ways to go about this production.
Note before we begin: what you take away from this blog post will depend on how you answer the following two questions: why are you making a book and what do you hope to get out of it? The panelists repeatedly said writers should ask themselves this question, and it’s an excellent starting point.
The answers to these questions vary greatly and determine what you’re going to do with your manuscript. Writing for money and fame is very different from writing for the enjoyment of a group of family and friends. Let’s examine what the perfect book looks like, piece by piece.
Front Cover—This is where an author’s going to make the majority of their first impression. The average browser spends 7 seconds looking at the front cover, 15 seconds reading the back cover, and, if still impressed, will go on to the first paragraph. You’ll want to be completely obsessive about your covers: have an eye-catching title; make the font fit your story and easy on the eyes; don’t put “by Author Name” but just “Author Name;” have a tagline for your novel discretely in the corner. Another thing most professional covers have is reviews. Once your story is polished, ask a magazine, newspaper, blogger, friend, fellow writer, or anyone with recognized reading authority to review your book. Make sure to give them at least three months to read it, and, assuming they get back to you put positive quotes from their reviews on your book jacket. These mini-reviews can go on the front, back, or even on the first few pages of a book. It lends authenticity to your book and encourages doubtful buyers. Moving on, the images on your cover say a lot about your book. There was that whole #Coverflip shindig about gendered covers, but, whatever you have on there, make sure it suits your book and is suitably eye-catching. For the digital age, it’s good if your image looks recognizable in thumbnail size—or at least not an incoherent blob.
Copyright page—Make it look as professional as possible. Even if it’s just a Smashwords copyright, it’s yours and you don’t want people messing with it. If it looks professional, then people will assume you’re a professional. Sketch copyright pages make your book look sketch, and so help me I will blackmail any plagiarists.
The part you wrote—Overall, the quality of your writing is your best business card and your best insurance for future business. You can have fantastic ideas, but if you can’t coherently get them down on paper, then no one will be able to read it. Hit the reader with your best shot—no matter what manner you publish in, have someone you trust give your manuscript a once over. Besides having your best writing foot forward, you want to be internally consistent. The chapter heads, page numbers, page headers etc should all look professionally neat and clean. Chapter heads must be in a larger sized font, if not a different font altogether. Page numbers. Please have them. (Charlotte inputs that if this is an e-book you shouldn’t have page numbers because it will be different on every device and is distracting if they’re wrong.)
Back Cover—This is similar to your front cover in that you want it to be aesthetically pleasing and nicely designed. A brief, cliffhanger summary of the book—called a blurb in the pub biz— should be on it. In traditional publishing houses, copy editors write your blurb because they have more distance from your book and an eye on the market. Reviews can also be on the back cover. One thing you’ll also want if it’s not already on your book’s back pages is an author bio and photo. As discussed previously, your name is your brand and attaching an image to that name will make it all the more memorable. Depending on your photography chops, you may want to have your photo professionally done or at least professionally retouched. If you want an example of a good author photo, just think of your favorite author—do you remember their face? Then they had a successful photo.
Book Jackets & Other Formats—Above are the basic bits and pieces for a good cover. They may be moved around depending on the specific book—hardcovers’ book jackets usually have the blurb, author picture, and author bio on their flaps and reviews on the back cover. If you’re looking for guidance or need an example, go to your local bookshop or Barnes & Noble and examine the book covers you like, want to emulate, and/or are in your same genre. This can generate ideas for cover images, font style/size, and overall design and formatting. The same goes for e-books too—notice how they’ve transferred the traditional book format to the Kindle or Nook. If you have a series, having the cover of the next book at the end of the preceding one is a great marketing tip, as it encourages the happy reader to immediately purchase the sequel.
The above is the anatomy of a book’s production, and there are many achieve all the different parts. The author has an unprecedented about of say and choice in the process, and I’ve tried to lay them out in an easy-to-reader manner. I’ve also summarized the cost and benefits of each choice at the end.
Traditional—This is a very familiar, well-trodden path. It’s also the most difficult to get going. Traditional publishing means a book with the Big Six aka Penguin, Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Scholastic, or Macmillian. These powerhouses also own 20+ “imprints” that specialize in publishing a certain type of book or genre, but are still owned by their parent company. For example, HarperCollins owns Amistad Press, which specializes in works by or about people of African descent. To garner the attention of these publishing gods, you can send a cold query to their acquisitions editor, but your best bet is to find yourself an agent who has established personal relationships with the publisher’s editors. Agents will make sure your manuscript is as polished as possible and present it with a few marketing ideas for the company, which makes the publisher’s job much easier. For any press, it costs around $5,000 to print an initial order of your book and $1 after that, so publishers are only interested in books that are more or less guaranteed to sell a minimum of 10,000 copies. This means that only authors appealing to a broad audience will do, and preferably these authors already have connections on the web or in large communities. However, the Big Six will do most of a book’s production and marketing for you: they’ll polish your manuscript even more, design your covers, get your reviews, put your book on the right shelves, organize book tours and author appearances, pay for adverts, organize/pay for your copyright, deal with publishing rights, manage your image/publicity, and the thousand other little things that make for a monetarily successful book. If your book does well, they’ll ask you for another and even organize a writing timetable. Some authors become disgruntled over profit percentage or their lack of say, but these companies will work hard to get the best bottom lines.
Cost: It’s really difficult to get in, they are very concerned with bottom lines, and the author’s percentage of the profit is lower.
Benefit: Most of the marketing and production is done for you, they’re very concerned with the bottom line (that’s a cost and a benefit, depending on how you look at it), and the amount of copies sold & therefore profits accumulated is high for a successful book.
Small/Indie/University/Specialty Press—Small presses are basically publishing companies not owned by the Big Six. There’s hundreds, if not thousands online and in real physical places. They can digital, print, or some combination thereof. Academic presses like Columbia University Press (http://cup.columbia.edu/) and presses that strictly publish a certain type of book fall under this category. For those not wanting a huge amount of pressure to be instantly super successful, they have lower expectations—they’d ideally like 3,000-5,000 copies sold. Their size also means authors are given more say and individual attention, which is a plus, though in turn the author is expected to be more involved in promotion and marketing. The thing to watch out for with these is they are the definition of mixed bag. Some are fantastic and lovely, their staff filled with talented designers, editors, and publicists, but others are plain scams. LearningIsland (http://www.learningisland.org/) is an excellent digital children’s book press, filled with pleasant, hardworking people that will do their best for your book. iUniverse and Xlibris have been known to ask you for $3,000 and then do nothing to help you sell (http://www.iuniverse.com/). Before you sign anything or agree to give your book to these presses, make sure its run by people who know what they’re doing and have a long track record of happy authors. There are excellent small presses out there, but be careful.
Cost: They have less promotional and marketing resources, you are expected to do more, and you must watch out for scams.
Benefit: It’s more hands on with the production process and perfect for books meant for smaller audiences. There are many presses to choose from.
You & Freelancers/other groups/Print-on-Demand—Alternatively, you can mostly do everything yourself. There’s a near endless amount of freelancers looking for work (says the freelance editor looking for work). You can be your own small press and do as much of the book production process as you like and hire other people to do the rest, from manuscript editing and publicity to graphic/cover design and the actual printing. You can even hire book shepherds like Ellen Reid to guide you through the whole process (http://www.bookshep.com/shepherd.html). Again, make sure the people you hire know their stuff and are worth their salt. See if they’re listed anywhere, part of an association, or have a record of happy customers. For example, here’s the website for an Editorial Freelancer’s Association http://www.the-efa.org/. If you’ve been following Charlotte for a while, you know she went this route with Those We Trust—she hired a freelance editor (me) to polish her manuscript, enlisted some help from the Invisible Ninja Cat (http://invisibleninjacat.wordpress.com/) with the initial cover design, and then put that fantastic, heartbreaking novella up on Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/Those-We-Trust-Charlotte-Blackwood/dp/1483944875/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1371063176&sr=8-2&keywords=those+we+trust+amazon) , BN.com, iTunes, and Smashwords (https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/248902) herself.
Cost: You have to pay the people you hire, and there’s varying amounts of author involvement, depending.
Benefit: All profits go to you, and you’re the boss.
All by myself & Print-on-Demand/Online Platforms—Alternatively, alternatively, you can do everything yourself. Really. Once your book is written and revised, and your cover is set, you send it to a print-on-demand company and/or post it on Amazon, Smashwords, iTunes, BN.com, or any other selling online platform you wish. Make sure to check out the design/formatting guidelines for submitting to these places.
Cost: It takes lots of time and everything is on you to sell this book. You do all the writing, marketing, and promotion yourself. Some people become wildly successful with this, but most do not, sadly. Please consult this article: http://www.tobiasbuckell.com/2013/05/27/survivorship-bias-why-90-of-the-advice-about-writing-is-bullshit-right-now/
Benefit: You receive 100% of the profits, and you do all the writing, marketing, and promotion yourself (some people like it).
Whoo! Long post is long. Next time’s notes are from the Literary Agents Panel. Hope to see you then!