Sunday, June 26, 2011

On Designing a Book Cover

I think a rite of passage in this self-publishing thing is to do your homework. This has been done before, and most certainly documented before in this, the Age of Documentation. So the new self-publisher’s first task is to educate herself using the lessons learned by those who blazed the trail. Among the advice that is most frequently and loudly repeated is this: Do not to try to design the cover yourself.

This is also the very first piece of advice I threw out the window.

It was a somewhat worrisome choice, I admit. There’s something about the covers of self-published books that scream “No Professionals Here!” What is it about self-published book covers that self-identify them as such? I have yet to put my finger on it. I think there are a few common missteps: designing in a non-design program, such as Word or PowerPoint; using common fonts like Times New Roman and not tweaking anything about them; using cheap, off-the-shelf stock photography or graphics. But those notwithstanding, professional designers do bring a certain je ne se quoi.

But only some of them.

I don’t want to skewer an entire industry, but let’s just say I’ve worked with enough graphic designers to know that they’re just like any other professional: some are really amazing, some are really terrible, and the bulk fall on the continuum in between.

I would be hard-pressed to call myself a professional graphic designer, but I do perform design on at least a weekly basis in the course of my occupation. I also minored in Fine Art at Goucher, and studied art for 17 consecutive years. I draw and paint at home. I have “an eye” as they say, so I don’t feel out of my element in putting together my own book cover. I’ve chosen to do this because I’ve committed to keeping the “self” in self-publisher. (I’ll tell you I considered for more than a long moment printing the books myself and hand-binding them, but that’s another story. I smartly moved on from that choice.) I consider myself an artist, and I feel I would be cheating some part of myself if I were to leave the cover art up to someone else.

But as I’m moving forward with a particular photograph from a particular photographer, I’m realizing the small piece of joy that I’m missing out on by doing it myself: the reveal. In the same way I will never be able to read Secernere for the first time like any other reader can, I will never be able to see my cover for the first time. It is evolving in draft after draft, tweak after tweak. I’m losing my objective eye for it because I’ve seen it through so many iterations. As explored in earlier posts, I have myriad reasons for knowing I’m ready to publish the book. I don’t have quite so much confidence in the cover design.

I’m a little disappointed that I won’t ever take in that gasp of breath and exclaim, “Oh my god! It’s perfect!” when I see the delivered cover from my hired gun. But neither will I ever have to be a PITA control freak client saying to the designer, “Can you try it once more with Garamond instead?”

It was difficult to settle on a photographer. It’s not the photographer; she’s amazing and her work looks like it was taken right out of my book. It’s more that it’s difficult to narrow my choices down. So it was even more difficult to settle on a handful of her photographs, from which I narrowed it down to one. Now that I’ve mentally locked myself into one, I’m beginning to feel a bit trapped, and I worry that feeling may get worse once I sign the paperwork. After that, the photograph has to become part of a design, and eventually I will be able to change nothing, not even the spread on the drop shadow under my name. That’s the thing about being a control freak: you wholly own the decisions you make, and you can never pass the blame onto anything except the passage of time.

But whatever I settle on will be imperfect and perfect in its own way. Perfect because it will be mine.

…And yours.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Cover Art

I am going to keep this short, because I am a few glasses of vino in... :) But I couldn't wait to share the news:

I just got a reply from an amazing photographer that she is willing to license me a piece of her work for the cover of Secernere, and at a very workable price. I am so stoked that my heart is actually beating faster!

I will have final cover art soon, and I'll post it here first!

Calm Before the Storm

Wednesday night was the screening for my team’s (Liquid Squid’s) entry into the Baltimore 48-Hour Film Project, and my team got together for dinner before the movie. Liquid Squid’s team leader is one of my oldest and greatest friends, and also happens to be one of my beta readers. There were 11 or 12 of us at the dinner, and the obvious topic was the screening and moviemaking in general. As much as I wanted to, it would have been rude of me to pull my friend aside and ask about her progress on Secernere.

I’ve run into this several times already. I’d given my book to two early readers, and then never heard anything from them. I didn’t want to be a bother; I thought it was already generous of them to volunteer to read it, and I thought they should get all the time they need. But at a certain point, I realized they weren’t going to either 1) start or 2) finish the book, and I would have to move on. It was frustrating, and a little damaging to my ego. I mean, if I can’t get my friends even to read it—let alone devour it in one night with a flashlight under the sheets—how on earth can I expect to sell it to anyone else?

Thankfully, my friend gave me a stage whisper of an update across the table: “I really want to talk to you about your book, but I know it’s not the time!” She had practically read my mind, and I was so grateful to her for bringing it up so I didn’t have to. She then told me she was about halfway through and was “preparing a full report.”

A full report?

There went my fantasy: my betas would respond much like my mom did with an “attagirl” and a few pointed-out typos. I’d fix the small things and one step closer to the final product. I think I’ve been deluding myself that there isn’t going to be (any more) real, hard work ahead of me. But I’d also be deluding myself if I said I didn’t mind putting out a flawed product.

If I follow the schedule I set up for myself, I have until early August to get the narrative locked down so I can lay out the interior and get a copy to my proofreader. I still think that’s reasonable, if I really buckle down. The hard part about right now is the waiting. I don’t want to start any round of editing until I get all beta comments back. I can start the interior templates, I can continue to mess around with the cover, I can take more footage for the Kickstarter video. But nothing feels like it matters until I get the book itself locked into final. So I’m mostly just waiting.

It’s like the calm before the storm.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

How Do You Know When Your Book is Ready? Part 2 of 2

We’ve covered why I don’t think rejection of book lack of book quality. For the second part of this post, I’m going to stop ranting about the publishing industry (for once!) and actually talk about my writing. The original question was, “How do you know when your book is ready?” To me, the underlying question is, “How do you have enough confidence in your writing to put it into print without getting a thumbs up from a reliable third party (e.g., a publishing house)?”

These are my answers, and they are actually pretty similar to those of Rachel Starr Thompson, who posted a 4-part series of entries on this same topic.

1) I’ve been writing for a very long time. There are only two ways to get good at writing: Write more, and read more. I do a lot of both. As Rachel explains, when you write and read a lot, you develop an ear for what sounds good and what sounds, well, bad. I also used to be a professional book editor. I’ve edited 11 published books, and 6 more as a freelancer (pub status unknown). I’ve also worked with editors on my own writing. I write and edit professionally on a daily basis, so I am constantly in practice. Basically, writing and editing are second-nature to me by now, so I have a certain level of skill with words that allows me to do with them what I want. They don’t obey every time, but I do have a reasonable amount of success achieving the results I’m seeking with my writing.

I’m also educated about technique. I have studied creative writing in academic and personal settings for over 16 years. I have a degree in writing, specializing in fiction, and I have read numerous books on structure, editing, punctuation theory, publishing, and more. Not only do I know “best practices” in writing, but I understand why they’re important and how to apply them. You can never master a technique until you understand why it works—and when you can (and should) break the rules.

I won’t say I’ve mastered the novel, but I’ve written three or so long-form pieces, and I’m getting to know this form pretty well. I have also had multiple shorter works published, so I know publication quality is not an extreme reach for me.

2) I’ve rewritten Secernere from beginning to end twice. Some sections have been rewritten 4 or 5 times. This ain’t no first draft. I’ve put the most recent draft through the editing ringer twice. Now I have beta readers looking at my latest draft, and I’ll incorporate any feedback that resonates with me, and edit again. I have lined up a professional copyeditor to go through the final draft for typos—because I admit to being blind to those at this point.

I call editing a funnel, because on each pass there should be less to do. Developmental editing, which usually occurs after the first rough draft, takes a massive amount of work, and the changes will be substantial. I’ve done this on several authors’ novels when the backbone of the story was there, but the meat just wasn’t hanging right. After you’ve gone through large-scale developmental editing and gotten to another complete draft, you really oughtn’t need to do it again. If you find yourself continually re-jiggering large swaths of your book, you may have a bigger underlying problem in your premise that needs to be addressed before you can ever dream of getting the words right.

Once developmental editing is done, you can move onto editing on a smaller scale, usually at the chapter or scene level. Then comes line editing, where you get the words right. And finally, copyediting or proofreading, where you make sure all your T’s are crossed and your I’s are dotted.

I have needed “narrower” editing with each pass, and that makes me feel like I have been driving toward a quality product. I’m not just putting any old thing out there; I’m going out with a book that has been revised and improved numerous times.

3) I’ve read every single word of the novel out loud. If you have ever sought out writing advice, I’m sure you’ve come across this tip before, and it is one I stand by. Read every word aloud to yourself. It’s the only way you’ll find things that sound funny—not funny haha, but funny off. It’s easy for your brain to fill in the holes when you’re reading by sight (illusions of visual perception), but when you read out loud, you’re much more likely to catch mistakes and missteps.

4) My mom read it and she loved it. Just kidding. Well, not kidding. She did read it and she did love it. But that is not a valid reason to think my writing is ready for print.

5) I’m satisfied. I’m ready to move on. Yes, I could work on it some more. And maybe some more. I could probably fiddle with it forever, and never let anyone see it because I don’t think it’s perfect. But that’s not what I want to do. I don’t think any author is every 100% happy with their writing (if they are, they’re deluding themselves). I’ve been reading The Shining lately, and even the King says in his introduction that there are parts he would change now. But the writers who have writing in print knew when to stop, say “enough,” and move onto the next project. The bottom line is that you can’t get it published if you never stop working on it. For me, I think my book is ready for the next stage of its life, to move out of my house and get a job. And I know I’m sure as hell ready to move onto the next project.

Having the confidence to self-publish is a mix of talent, ego, guts, and willful, blissful ignorance: it’s about having a pretty good grasp of what you’re good at, being more que sera sera about what you can’t change, and not thinking about all the bad things that could happen.

When Are You Ready? Part 1 of 2 (or more!)

A recent commenter, Emily, asked me a wonderfully tough question: “For me, …I know I've been rejected because the book isn't ready yet. I admire your confidence in yours. How do you know your book is ready? I realized this wasn’t something I could answer in a few lines, so I wanted to post in reply.

I’m actually going to split this answer into two parts. First I want to take that question and twist it a bit. Since I have decided to self-publish, the first question is not so much “How do you know your book is ready,” as “How do you know the publishing industry will never be ready for you?”

Reason number one is that I used to work in publishing. I don’t want to come off as being bitter about the publishing industry just because I haven’t been accepted by it. I actually never thought traditional publishing was the way to go, but the sensible part of myself told the other part of myself, “Oh just try it. If you fail, I give you permission to go another way.”

Anyway, I spent 18 months as a reader, editor, and marketing manager at a small independent publisher in Baltimore. It was my dream job. I had always wanted to be a book editor, even more than I wanted to be an author. There is something extremely appealing about making other people’s dreams come true. However, I was forced to leave because of the volatility of the industry. As a recent college grad, I needed something more stable—and indie publishing is anything but. I could tell you loads of stories about slush piles taller than me and what it’s like to be on the sending end of a rejection letter. I had to reject books of extremely high quality, simply due to lack of financing to put them into print. Our house only put out about 12 books a year, and we received over 1000 manuscripts in the same time period. The experience gave me a perspective that not many writers are privy to, and it was a major reality check.

But one story stands out in my mind. With one particular novel, Like We Care by Tom Matthews, I saw it from slush pile, through acquisition and negotiation, the editing funnel, exterior and interior layout, and ultimately publication and marketing. (Look for my name in the acknowledgments when you purchase this terrific little book.) Tom is an extremely talented writer, with strong credentials in both journalism and Hollywood. Like We Care is excellent, and Tom has great connections and a name for himself. School Library Journal compared it to Fight Club. Booklist gave it a favorable review, too. We thought this was a recipe for a breakout novel.

But the breakout just didn’t happen like we’d imagined … and it broke my heart.

My takeaway from this is that publishing success is almost completely arbitrary. It frankly doesn’t matter whether Secernere is wonderful or terrible, because whether it sells enough to make back the money put into it hinges on so many unpredictable factors that I can’t control from my end, with my pen and imagination. And frankly, that’s all I want to control.

But I also firmly believe it will never be accepted by an agent or publishing house because it doesn’t fit into a neat little box. Selling in the publishing industry is all about packaging—Who’s your market? What’s the genre? What books are comparable? What kind of “platform” do you have? What’s your 100-word synopsis? (Might I add that 100 words is about .001% of the entire novel. Even a 2-minute movie trailer is over .02% of a 90-minute movie. You’re going to judge and reject me based on .001% of my novel?) Publishing professionals simply do not have the time anymore to read a book from cover to cover and make a judgment based on that. Personally, I think that any judgment based on anything less than that has no merit.

Reason number two is that the traditional publishing model is dying. eBooks and POD books are gaining on traditional large-run, offset printed books. This has have opened the market to anyone who wants others to read their books. Amazon has tons of free eBooks—proof that many authors would rather have a slightly imperfect product actually read, than have a polished, homogenized, rewritten for the workshop, rewritten for the agent, rewritten for the editor, rewritten for the editor’s boss, packaged, agented, marketable, marketed, pretty little book perhaps sit on a shelf, or perhaps sell a little—with the lion’s share of the money going to the publisher.

So my feelings about the publishing industry are what made me know I was ready to go the self-publishing route. As for how I know the actual writing is ready for public consumption … I’ll tackle that in my next post.

Monday, June 20, 2011

More on Rejection

I don't want to sound like a whiner. I'm trying really hard not to sound bitter. Mostly I'm trying to justify my choice--maybe to others, maybe to myself. I feel like both publishing roads--self and traditional--are both difficult, fraught with risk and potential ego-shattering disappointment.

A lot of publishing professionals tout rejections as a way to get tough, to learn to improve your writing, to be vetted against others who know what they're doing. My creative writing teacher at Goucher, the esteemed Madison Smartt Bell, said we all have to grow rhinoceros skin--egos thick and impenetrable. But I think it's a flawed and failed system. I've been rejected a ton of times. I should state also that I've been published multiple times. I don't want anyone to think I don't know what I'm doing. I've had half a dozen short stories published, as well as multiple non-fiction pieces.

But it's a losing game, and the house is collecting way more than I am. That's because of the way the system is set up.

This is a screen cap of my agent spreadsheet. Dark red means form rejection. Light red means personalized rejection. Gray means never bothered to get back to me. Blue was a request for pages, and white are ones I haven't approached yet.

Now, notice I said "agent spreadsheet." The agents are the first gatekeepers. In fact, I would argue that the agents have their own gatekeepers--interns and junior assistants. Who knows how many of the form rejections I got were from these assistants, some/many of whom (I say bitterly with tongue planted firmly in cheek [I was once a publishing intern, too]) are young, naive, unsophisticated, perhaps fans of Twilight, perhaps bitter at their own low rung on the ladder or lack of publishing cred.

So there are gatekeepers before gatekeepers. Perhaps one or more of my queries got past the intern to an actual agent, and then was rejected. Say an agent finally did accept my manuscript. Then they must go through their own submission ringer. The idea is that they have contacts and friends and they know how to shmooze and they know how to pitch--it's their job. But still, they're working with the same manuscript. No matter how good a salesman they are, the product doesn't change. So they're going to get rejected again--possibly by another bitter intern, possibly by a big-name editor. There are many more gatekeepers to pass.

Then the editors have to convince their own houses, make a business case, secure financing. Then the book gets published. But then there are still more gatekeepers--distributors, bookstore and library acquisitions managers, book clubs, reviewers, and ultimately the readers themselves. There are layers upon layers of people just waiting to say, "no thanks."

People in publishing say that passing through all these gates ensure that a fine quality product is put out for the reading masses. Is that so? Then why is there so much crap on the shelves? Why do I still find typos in books when I'm not even looking for them? Why isn't everything a bestseller?

The thing is, I get rejected all the time in my day job. I manage proposals for a government contractor, and sometimes we win them, but more often we lose. This is industry standard; the average win rate for companies in this business is well below 50%. So I'm used to playing a losing game, 40-50 hours a week. But I think that's a big part of the reason why I can't play the same losing game at home, with my writing.

I have the choice to take a different path, and I'm taking it. I'll take unknown odds over known bad odds any day. And if I can load my own dice, so much the better.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Become a Patron

There are centuries of history behind patronage of the arts, with the most detailed recorded history of it occurring from the Medieval to the Renaissance periods. Shakespeare, Da Vinci, and Mozart all benefitted from the assistance of sponsors in the creation of their art.

As it was then, however, patronage now is concentrated in small, powerful, elitist centers—mostly corporations, government, and educational institutions. Whenever control over decisions is concentrated, the art output is purposely or inadvertently homogenized, with a bent towards return-on-investment. This does not bode well for the independent artist, from whose mind commercialization is often far away.

Those arts which can be reproduced, packaged, and commoditized—namely, books and music—are extremely susceptible to death by lack of perceived commercial appeal. Large upfront costs for said packaging and reproduction, combined with the paradox of economies of scale, make independence in these media cost prohibitive for the so-called “starving artist.”

But thanks to the power of the internet, social networking, and (dare I use the term) crowdsourcing, the decision-making power can be spread across the masses and the risk/reward model changes. The risk for the patron is diluted to almost nothing. The reward for the artist is that she foregoes being a (financial, intellectual, creative) debtor and remains the artist, with requisite artistic control.

Over the summer, I will be finalizing my first novel, Secernere, preparing it for print. In autumn 2011, I will be opening a Kickstarter campaign to fund the publication of Secernere, and will be soliciting patronage to help defray the costs related to professional proofreading, printing, and shipping & handling costs. In return, my patrons will receive a variety of rewards, including autographed copies of Secernere, original artwork from the book design, handmade bookmarks, and special acknowledgments in the book.

For a nominal cost—what one might pay for two Frappacinos, or a hardcover of Twilight, or a blu-ray disc—the patron can now directly contribute to the creation and distribution of a new work. Once, the publisher would put out tens of thousands of dollars in what was essentially a gamble, expecting, no, hoping for that return on investment. Now, the investment is small, and the expected return is not financial; it is creative, intellectual, soulful. The patron is not commercial consumer, but a part of the creation myth.

Watch here for more information as we move toward the Kickstarter campaign. If you want to contribute early, please feel free. Your name will be recorded for a reward once they have been determined.

Friday, June 17, 2011

A Glimpse of the Future

One of my beta readers, Jes, loaded up her Kindle with the draft of Secernere and sent me this shot last night. It makes me giddy to see myself in print--well, in e-ink anyway!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Something's Brewing

I'm about to embark on an adventure.

I've decided I'm going to be published before I turn 30. That means I have a little under 6 months.

Come with me. This is going to be fun.