I’ve got it Covered

Over the last few weeks I’ve been working on the cover design for Singled Out. Not that I’ve been designing the cover myself… I placed a brief with crowdsourcing design site 99Designs. Here’s how I got on…

There are many ways you can get a cover for your self-published novel. You can design it yourself, although many are the respected sources which advise against this. You can use the template design capabilities available through Kindle and CreateSpace. If you’re lucky enough to find one which fits with your story, you can buy an off-the-shelf cover from several websites. Those with deeper pockets can work on a one-to-one basis with a freelance cover designer of their choice, many of whom have a great deal of experience with traditional publishers.

Or… you can do as I did and place your brief as a contest on 99Designs, and see what comes along.

99Designs works like this: Your brief constitutes a contest. The fee you choose to pay is the award which goes to the eventual winner of the contest. You can select to award at Bronze, Silver, Gold or Platinum levels and you deposit the requisite sum with 99Designs via Paypal. I chose the Bronze level, as I wasn’t sure how the process would work for me and I didn’t want to risk too much. The higher the award, so 99Designs advises, the higher the number of entries and the more experienced the designers. 99Designs also offered me some kind of an uplift package free-of-charge – I’m not sure if they do this for everyone, or if I had arrived on the site at some opportune moment. Each contest lasts one week at which point, unless there’s a good reason not to, you select your winner.

I looked through several recent contests and noted how people prepared their briefs. Then I created my own, outlining what sort of book I’d written, the setting, tone and other key elements. I gave a feel for the kind of a cover I thought I was looking for and a few pointers on what I might like or dislike. I also populated an  iStock lightbox with a few stock photos, so designers could see the sort of imagery I envisaged for my cover.   I uploaded my brief, and I waited…

I was overwhelmed – in a good way – by the response. I genuinely hadn’t expected to see so many concepts, from so many designers. Some were, let’s not beat-about-the-bush, truly awful. WordArt, ClipArt and Photoshop seemed to be the tools of choice for a small contingent of hopefuls. But many entries were thoughtfully put together and had interesting elements. And some were stand-out. Designers came from right across the globe – I didn’t check them all, but I noted Germany, Romania, Italy, Venezuela, USA, India and the Philippines amongst the locations of those who entered my contest.

The contest owner is supposed to rate each concept with 1-5 stars and eliminate those they don’t favour. I offered a positive or helpful response to as many as possible and after a day or so, the quality and focus of the designs improved correspondingly. By the end of the contest I had seen over 180 designs. That’s around 80-100 unique concepts, plus variants arising from my feedback.

I noticed certain things; one or two designers seemed particularly engaged with my contest, delivering several concepts, responding quickly to my comments and suggestions, refining their designs, developing variations on a theme. It helped me identify not only the good designs, but the good designers – the ones who felt an affinity with my project. I shortlisted three and from that, it was a small step to select my winner.

There’s plenty of opportunity to liaise with your designer(s) as the contest progresses and I imagine the more diligently you do this, the better the outcome. I made a proper nuisance of myself, but my winning designer was infinitely patient and helpful, and produced a cover design for Singled Out – in Kindle and paperback formats – that I’m totally delighted with.

A mock-up of the cover design for Singled Out

The winner of my contest was Alessio Varvarà, an art and design student from Palermo, Italy. His username on 99Designs is alsov . Not only did he create the winning design and a selection of six or seven alternatives which I had great difficulty choosing between (because they were all so right for my story), but he was endlessly patient in adapting his designs in accordance with my comments and observations. He did far more than I expected – and far more than was justified by the fee/award. As a result, I have a design which would hold its own in any bookshop, and which I’m immensely proud of.

Alessio has already completed a second small project for me – that’s the design of a set of pre- and post-release banners for my blog, Facebook and Twitter profiles. Once again, he exceeded my expectations. I’m actually sorry I don’t have another project for Alessio just yet; it has been a genuine pleasure to work with such a talented and enthusiastic young designer.

So, do you like my cover? I know these things are subjective, but for me, it encapsulates the themes and tone of my novel perfectly – the juxtaposition of dark goings-on in a blissful setting. When Singled Out is published in February 2015, you too might be the judge of this. Meantime, I simply offer my warmest endorsement of my designer Alessio/alsov and the 99Designs process, which worked brilliantly for me.

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Top Ten Takeaways: Self-Publishing in the Digital Age Seminar

fountain-pen-447575_1280I spent a fascinating day last weekend crammed into an airless room with 100 other would-be self-publishers. It was time (and money) well spent.

Bloomsbury Publishing’s Writers & Artists brand does a nice line in help and advice for would-be writers, whether we want to try our luck in the traditional publishing environment (as in W&A’s seminar How to Hook an Agent which I attended a few months ago – and blogged about here) or take the independent route.

The first half of the event ranged through editing and cover design to publishing via Amazon and alternative ‘assisted’ routes to self-publishing and marketing. The afternoon centred around the real-life experiences of several self-published authors and their varied approaches to the business of getting their words out there and noticed.

I’m not going to brain-dump the whole event. I don’t suppose W&A would thank me for that since if they’ve got an eye on what the market is looking for, they will doubtless be running and re-running this excellent seminar in the future. Instead, I’m offering you what I felt were my Top Ten Takeaways in terms of information, insight and advice for the would-be independent author.

(1)          Hope for the Future

The landscape has changed rapidly in the last couple of years with the stigma previously associated with self-publishing in its various forms now disappearing into the distance. Self-publishing is no longer traditional publishing’s embarrassing poor relation. It is, in the words of Dr Alison Baverstock, ‘part of publishing’.

(2)          Proof of Concept

Self-publishing is now regarded as a feeder to traditional publishing. Instead of wading through what is often branded the slush pile, agents and publishers are increasingly seeking talent amongst the self-published charts. If a book sells and if the author seems to understand what’s required to market it – then they’re an attractive proposition for the traditional publishing space (IF, that is, they can be persuaded to cross the trad/indie divide…).

(3)          The Professionals

Rapid change and the shifting fortunes of publishing houses has led to many skilled former employees now offering their services freelance to independent authors. The indie author now has access to skilled professionals – editors, illustrators, cover designers and more – to help them elevate the quality of their self-published books.

(4)          The Critical Role of Editing

All three phases are vital: Developmental (for help with story, structure etc), copy editing (to iron out oddities and inconsistencies, correct grammar, stylistic issues etc) and proof reading (elimination of those itty-bitty sneaky little typos). The focus is on achieving a professional finish and making your book the best it can be before you share it with the world.

(5)          Planning Ahead

Good editors are booked up well in advance. The time to start thinking about signing-up with an editor is before your manuscript is finished. Don’t expect an overnight turnaround either. Your editor will take around 6-8 weeks to review and return your manuscript.

(6)          You’ve got it Covered

Don’t underestimate the importance of a professionally designed cover. It must reflect the genre of your book (so readers know what to expect) and be eye-catching at thumbnail size. Budget anything between £90 and £350 for a professionally designed cover.

(7)          It’s all in the Brand

When you’re getting your cover designed, don’t forget to think about other marketing materials which may help to promote your book and strengthen your brand – designs for website, blog and facebook banners for example, bookmarks, flyers, business cards, promotional postcards.

(8)          Kindle is HUGE

Don’t undervalue this soft media as not being a real book (I’ve heard this a lot). Amazon sells around twice as many Kindle e-books as print books in the USA and the UK isn’t far behind. Kindle owners are adventurous and speculative readers, buying around four times as many books as non-Kindle users. This is seriously good news for the indie author who can manage to conquer the mountain of discoverability

(9)          Discoverability – the Holy Grail of Self-Publishing

More people are buying books on-line than ever before. They’re searching using keywords to find genres and subject matter that intrigues them. But with the stock of self-published material growing daily, discoverability is critical to success.  Your self-published book is but a blip, a note written in disappearing ink pinned to a tree in a vast forest, unless you can get it in front of readers. Being discoverable means getting your meta-data (all your book details) working for you on Amazon. Being discoverable means getting somewhere on the Amazon/Kindle rankings for your genre (a clue… it’s better for chart success to sell lots of books in bursts rather than steadily). Being discoverable means being active and engaged all over social media, blogging, building an e-mail list, cultivating interest and loyalty in readers, one reader at a time. Being discoverable means garnering a host of good reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, and a whole bunch of reader forums, genre and review sites. Being discoverable means getting creative with promotions and making use of every tool in the Amazon author toolkit.

(10)        Don’t Write Shit!

(Those, by the way, were the exact words used by the presenter!) This last point was echoed by every speaker. Everything begins with you having created a great book. None of this will do anything for you if you haven’t done the first job, which is to write a ripping good read.

So that’s simple then.

Happy Holidays?

american-flag-373361_1280Tap or faucet; pavement or sidewalk; mobile or cell; lift or elevator? All these and more are well known words which are different in British and American English. The one that’s troubling me at the moment is… holiday, or vacation.

I’m getting a cover designed for Singled Out, preparing to publish early next year. I’ve been using the services of crowdsourcing design site 99Designs. It’s been a fascinating experience so far (and I’ll write more about it once the ‘contest’ delivers my perfect design). The site gives access to designers from all over the world – as far as I can tell, entries to my contest came from as far afield as the UK, Venezuela, Italy, Spain, the Philippines, the USA, Germany, Romania and who knows where else.

I provided a brief, which included my strapline for the front cover: Everyone brings baggage on a singles holiday.

You see where I’m going with this?

Everyone duly included it in their designs, which was great; except one designer took it upon themselves to modify it to read: Everyone brings baggage on a singles vacation.

Cheeky so-and-so, I thought! But then I realised, the designer was making a very valid point – and in the process, doing me a favour.

It’s obviously preferable that my book is as attractive to the American market as it is to the UK market, or anywhere else. Ideally, I want to sell to any and every person who’s happy to read English language books, wherever they reside. So my question is this:

  • should I use the word holiday in my strapline, because I’m a Brit, or
  • should I use the word vacation in my strapline, because I want to appeal to American readers, or
  • should I invent another strapline that doesn’t involve use of either the word holiday or vacation?

It’s a dilemma, when your whole story is centred (or centered) around a… holiday/vacation.

Of course, the ideal solution would be to present a British English cover on Amazon.co.uk and an American English cover on Amazon.com (and whichever alternative is preferable in the various other Amazon domains) – but I haven’t yet explored whether this is even possible or practical. If it is, the problem goes away.

I’m still brainstorming alternative straplines anyway, as there’s always a better one hiding round the corner. But I’d love to hear your views, especially any Americans who might react either positively or negatively to a British English strapline. Or you could vote:

Oh, and since we’re talking about holidays – this seems like the perfect time to wish all my American readers/subscribers a Very Happy Thanksgiving!