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RE-covering (from) A Failed Cover: Some Advice For (re)Branding A Book

29 Mar

This morning I launched the new cover art for Acephalous Book 1 (below).

CREATESPACE PRINT book cover FINAL-300dpi

Why I Made It

I was motivated to re-brand the book with a new cover and summary blurb because sales have been less than stellar and because, sometimes, you just come up with better ideas after the fact. Sometimes it’s not even on purpose, like this one.

How I Made It

This new cover art started as a mixed-media painting project. I was going to sell the painting at my event booth because it uses the dictionary page with the word “Acephalous” on it. (I do cat-related ones, too, for my other books, and people seem to like them). After tearing out the page and cutting it to size, I decoupaged the dictionary page to a canvas, made crown stencils to paint around, and once dry, added some copper leaf. When it was finished it screamed, “BOOK COVER!” and I just couldn’t sell it. Enter a high-resolution scan of the original painting, some digital touch-ups for color contrast, and the addition of the second dictionary page plus back-matter for the back cover. (Not as exciting a process as the painting.)

Why The New Art Is Better For A Book

Though the book is a good read on which I’ve gotten favorable feedback, the old cover (below) suffered a fatal flaw:

Published Acephalous Cover Final

It did nothing to indicate genre, subject-matter, or target audience. It was pretty. I liked it. When presented with the book, others liked it. But, it wasn’t a cover that grabbed anyone. Since I can’t put the book in people’s hands, strike up conversations about the book, tell them what it’s about all the time, the cover has to do that for me when away from events and speaking engagements.

Aesthetics and marketability are not the same thing. Marketability goes beyond the general eye-pleasing look of a book and must tell something about its contents. “It’s pretty” isn’t enough. As a YA Urban Fantasy with metaphysical elements and a major, plot-changing power struggle, a line of trees on a snowy path wasn’t enough. That book could have been about anything and for readers of any age. It says nothing of genre, although it might say what genre it isn’t (like fantasy, which is bad because it is). Though the cover comes directly from a pivotal scene in the novel, no one knows that until after reading. This is backwards. The cover needs to divulge a bit about what’s inside rather than what’s inside explaining the choice of cover.Enter the bold new cover I created (image 1).

Breaking Down The New Elements

The new art symbolizes parts of the plot in a more general way than the original, which was a verbatim scene. A scene is not a symbol. Symbols are immediately recognizable and have a connotation without further reading. Scenes have no meaning and give no messages to the audience until played out. Crowns indicate the power struggle, which is a relevant theme on a character-self level, character-character level, and character-world level, and they have a more fantasy-leaning connotation.

The new art includes a definition for the title word, Acephalous for clarity. (Note: If you’re going to name your book with a word most people don’t know and can’t pronounce, the explanation needs to be readily available in some manner. I chose a rather blatant method.)

The new art also has a handmade, artsy feel (because it is handmade) that appeals to me and others on an aesthetic and genre-consistent level. This makes it marketable–looks and function. Current trends in YA urban fantasy covers include dark color palettes, multiple textures/patterns, and either: bold, sans-serif text or wispy serif text verging on filigree. The wispy tends toward the more traditional realms of (high)fantasy, the “urban fantasy” approach meaning it is a modern-day setting in our real world, and the characters are less often fantastic creatures than real people with special traits/abilities. Many covers have people/faces on them (even before they’re turned into movies and re-covered with the actors), but that’s not my personal style. I like readers to envision the characters rather than be told who to see by the cover. Just look at a wall of new releases in the YA section of any book store. You’ll see these traits. Resist the urge to step out of the bounds of your genre to be different than that wall. It won’t necessarily pay off to not fit in. What started as the desire to not do what every other author/publisher is doing with their covers may end with confused readers. There are tropes and trends in marketing for a reason. Symbolism and connotation are deeply linked to language and social cues, and your book needs to look like it was placed on the correct shelf in the correct section of the store or people won’t take these cues to understanding.

Other New Features

In addition to the new art, I also rewrote the back cover blurb. At events, people would read the old blurb, put the book back down, and say something like, “That sounds dark,” or, “That’s just a little too heavy for me/my daughter/my students, etc.” The blurb was killing my sales. While there are many dark moments in the book, it is no darker than any other teen drama or fantasy, and I need people to know that. There are always elements of peril, loss, and hopelessness in a plot structured to show how and when a character is finally smacked by reality. I needed my new blurb to convey that there are high stakes and dark moments, but that they are vital to character and plot development, which must start at low-points in order to show realistic growth through a plot (especially with books in a series). The new blurb is shorter, equally telling, yet infuses a hint of hope to soften the darkness.

To reflect the new cover and blurb, I switched up some of my keywords on sales platforms. Poor sales sometimes have more to do with putting the book on the wrong shelf (even the digital “shelves” and categories used by Amazon and others) than with the book itself. For me, it’s not that people were buying the book, reading it, and disliking it. It’s not the writing. People weren’t buying it in the first place. A reason for this might include lack of visibility, especially for online markets where there is so much competition. The book has to appear to the right people at the right time. Search terms/key words and category matter immensely, and having these set to target the right shoppers helps online stores continue targeting correctly. The more imprints (that’s the people who see the book for sale either by ad or search) that turn to sales, the better the store algorithms learn to keep showing the book to other shoppers like the ones who purchased. Essentially, your book has to be on the right shelf and look like it’s on the right shelf.

Since this new cover has just launched, I have no proof that my efforts work on this book, but I have high suspicions they will. These changes will compound as books two and three in the series are released, as the more books you publish, the easier you are to find. And now, I have a definite style and image theme to work from when creating those series covers. Expect to see the dictionary page plus crown silhouette continue, re-styled, in later volumes.

Other authors and marketers make similar decisions to overhaul stagnate back-list titles all the time. Experts in the publishing field recommend this method in hundreds of publications. (I recommend How to Market a Book by Joanna Penn and Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century by John Brookshire Thompson.)

The Takeaway

Don’t be afraid to let go of what isn’t working just because it took a lot of time to create. If you put that much work into the original, you told yourself it was worth it. If it isn’t selling in that state and you’re unwilling to change it, what are you saying about that piece of work? That it was only worth one attempt?

It may feel for a while like the first attempt (or however many) was a waste of time if it has come down to a re-do, but I think it’s a much larger waste of time to let something that isn’t working linger with no results when the addition of a little more work could reap huge dividends. And yes, it is about the money.

(Authors will tell you that they do it because they love it, because they can’t resist the compulsion to write, because they will explode or go mad if they don’t. This is true beyond words. But when an author sets out to make a living by writing, all the love for the craft in the world can’t finance life. If that means I put in another 80 hours recreating a cover for a passion-project book I started at 14 years old and, despite my expectations and yearning for people to read it, is going nowhere, so be it. I put 12 years into that manuscript before it published. You better believe I want it to sell.)

Hopefully I’ll be able to update this post in a year with clear results that prove the experts were right and that my changes worked. I’ll keep adjusting until they do. It’s worth the extra time to me. The first try wasn’t a waste. Failed first attempts only remain failures if nothing is done to resolve the issue. Once there’s a success, that “failed first attempt” becomes a special edition, a limited run, a rare collector’s piece. And those are usually worth more to fans and readers anyway.

A final, somewhat contradictory note:

I fully acknowledge the validity of quitting while ahead, cutting your losses, and prioritizing by cost-benefit analysis. I said it was about the money, and the above are cost-related decisions. I respect every author’s decision to forge ahead with multiple attempts or to say, “That really was a failure. I’m done.” The threshold for if and when these decisions are made is different for all authors. For every project and timeline, there is a point that, when reached, makes it impossible to ever, in a lifetime, make enough money on it to pay back the effort involved, much less turn a profit. My stance in this article is based on my threshold for this project. I haven’t met that threshold yet.

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A Book-Nerd’s Nightmare (and some complaints)

2 Mar

stress

If you’ve followed me here for a while, you know that I’m working on three books series at once: Acephalous, Humans In My House, and Nova June: Inventor. I give myself deadlines to stay organized, and I typically try to finish one novel completely before cycling to another series. I publish about one book per series per year. But the addition of Nova June is a new experience, and I’ve been working on it and Ontogenesis: Acephalous Book 2 simultaneously.

Nova June: Inventor is a children’s picture book, and I’m doing the illustrations myself. As I expected, but hate to admit, my self-imposed deadlines for this one are hard to stick to. Illustrating takes forever when you’re not really an artist (and no, I’m not saying it’s quick for true artists. I acknowledge the time and effort that goes into artists’ work). I’ve already missed my cover reveal deadline for the book by a day. It will likely be out next week. But, I digress.

One of the hassles that pile on top of these deadlines when you’re an indie author is marketing and publicity. I recently sent off all of my novels to Barnes and Noble’s small press department for consideration for placement in their stores. The books are available online and for special order, but you won’t see them on their shelves.

In a much quicker period than expected, I got my to-the-point rejection letter essentially saying that there are too many print-on-demand books out there to consider. They won’t accept mine only because of that reason. It made me angry because I’m guessing they didn’t even read them, otherwise there might have been some useful criticism. They (probably) flipped to the back of the books, saw the CreateSpace printing address, and sent them to be pulped. I hope they at least donated my books to a charity instead.

I’ve seen CreateSpace books on their shelves before, so at some point, they were giving us little names a chance. Their online guidelines for making these submissions said NOTHING about not accepting print-on-demand. If they don’t want to consider them, they should give authors the advance notice (like Books-A-Million does). Getting the materials ready to submitting was a time consuming process. To make matters worse, print-on-demand does not mean the books cannot be purchased at wholesale, but big book stores care that print-on-demand makes it more difficult to return overstock for a refund (but Ingram does this via CreateSapce direct, so that reasoning for their rejection is moot).

book vortex

All the print-on-demand books swirling away into the pulper. (*facetious*)

I won’t bore you with additional ranting about the ins and outs of the publishing industry. In fact, I didn’t realize I was still so riled up by this whole thing. My point in telling you all this is to lead into the stress-induced book nightmare I had the other night, which I find hugely amusing in concept now that it’s over.

Picture it. Sicily: 1912. (Just kidding.)

I receive a package with a paperback copy of Acephalous and a rejection letter from Barnes and Noble. Their reasoning for not accepting the book is the same as in reality: no print-on-demand books. The letter additionally includes notes about how poorly formatted it is, that it is unreadable. I scoff and make some angry comments about them then decide to flip through my book to see just what they mean.

To my horror, the book is indeed as illegible as they claim, and at this point the dream turns to black and white. It’s grainy like an old TV. Every page in the book has multiple fonts and sizes of text. Some of the words are huge, dark, bold. Many of them are tiny, grey-scale. The pages aren’t even in order. I go to the table of contents to see if it could help me read the book in the correct order, but the table of contents (which my book doesn’t even have in real life) is just a list of random words from throughout the book and arbitrary numbers beside them.

tv

If you’ve ever had one of those elevator dreams where the button doesn’t take you to the floor it says, or one of those “dial 911” dreams where the numbers on the phone are in the wrong place or don’t dial as the number you press, the table of contents part was just like that. Totally useless. As if looking for the word “the” in the TOC would be descriptive enough. Come on, subconscious.

And even though there isn’t the slightest bit of scary material in this dream, it still woke me up as if it was a nightmare. For a book-nerd, an author, editor, publisher, it was truly horrific. No one should see their brainchild mangled up like that in dreams. (I’m being dramatic. I really find it funny, now.)

Amazingly, until this dream, my Red Ink Enthusiast-related work had NEVER crept into my sleep. And that’s really saying something considering how much better I work under some stress and a deadline. Looking back on it, I’m certain the dream was expressing my lingering irritation with Barnes and Noble, essentially saying that unless my books looked as bad as it did in my dream, there was no reason not to accept them.

I can’t stand knowing the only reason they were rejected is because there are too many others. It would be easier, almost, if they just thought my writing was bad. That I can improve. But it’s not. Especially Humans In My House. I really thought they’d bite with that one, and it’s my dream to see that series in the kid’s section. But, I can’t do anything about the amount of other writers out there trying to do the same thing as me. So, I’ll plug on, hunt down the (dwindling) indie stores, shmooze with the people who make decisions, and try to compete in the current market while many of my methods are still stuck the 1900s–in person, with a small budget. 

Here’s to getting discovered.

Exhausted is the new Sexy? No.

21 Feb

notebook-pen-table-blank-158771.jpeg

It would be easy to leave this page blank.

But that’s not what writers do.

I could make it sound like I always want to write, that it’s always easy, and that I’m ecstatic to be doing this right now. And sometimes all those things are true. But, at this moment, it’s ten in the morning, sunny, and 72 degrees out–in FEBRUARY!–and I’m inside talking to you. No offense.

It’s one thing to write advice for writers about useful topics like grammar, composition, and publication. These are important parts of the craft. They need attention. But, it paints this pristine picture of writers, including me, doing everything they’re supposed to do and doing it the right way (often the first time). It doesn’t show the scraps of paper, the huge chunks of deleted text, or the blank stare of writer’s block. It doesn’t show the restless shifting in my seat or convey the heavy, sluggish sensation of having zero motivation for getting anything accomplished today.

So this is me trying to write something additionally useful even when I don’t feel like it. This is me saying I’d like to take a break, that the weather’s great and I’m missing it. 

What’s useful about that?

The acknowledgement that rest and enjoyment are equally important parts of the creative process when pit against research, brainstorming/daydreaming, and writing. Without it, we burn out. A small, voluntary break now might prevent a longer, necessary break later on.

The quicker we begin to reject the glamorization and glorification of overwork, the sooner we stop applauding ourselves and others for how exhausted we are, the more guilt-free enjoyment we can have and still get things done.

I’ve seen so many memes circulating among the creative communities online about, “you should be writing” and, “it’s not research, it’s procrastination.” This is ridiculous. Yes, at some point, you will have to write. Yes, you should finish what you start. But the ideas that we have to complete it in the smallest amount of time, that we need to pull all-nighters or we’re not dedicated to finishing, that sleep is a weakness and procrastination isn’t a productive way of letting the mind wander, is harmful. And heaven forbid we stop our feverish writing long enough to remember to eat. Don’t glamorize forgetting to eat. (It happens sometimes if you’re really in a flow, and a flow is great, but celebrate the productivity of the writing, not the forgetting to eat part. Come on.) Since when is “overwork” the same as “hard work,” y’all?

Rejecting these flawed equivalencies is why this post, written when I didn’t want to, is useful. Its existence proves my point. I saw advice somewhere that said authors should post new content to their websites two to three times a week. It’s Wednesday and I hadn’t created anything new yet. By some construct of society, I obligated myself to do this.  And I would have felt guilty if I didn’t stick to my plan.

But there has to be a balance between doing what you said you were going to do and cutting yourself some slack.

And so that I’m taking my own advice and not just preaching, this will be my only post this week. 1. Little. Article. One opinion no one asked for. You’re welcome.

(that’s me telling myself thank you.)

How to Babysit Your Author: A Guide

12 Feb

couch

Staying in on a Friday night? Parking it on the couch for the weekend?

If you love an author, you might be stuck in the house with one of these bleary-eyed, curmudgeony, hand-cramped word-herders. Here are some surefire ways (in somewhat chronological order) to babysit your author successfully.

  1. Say goodbye to the corner seat of the couch.
  2. Turn on the coffee maker; put on the kettle. It’s only a matter of time. Whether your author wants coffee, tea, or hot chocolate, the hot water will be in demand.
  3. Hand over the remote. Watch some mindless, guilty-pleasure TV. Don’t feel guilty.
  4. Those little bitty decorative throw blankets? You can do better. Pull the comforter off the bed and throw it over the couch.We want our feet and our shoulders covered.
  5. Place cat in lap.
  6. Intersperse a few good puns throughout conversation. Hint: The best puns are the ones that make your author comment on how bad they are.
  7. Make a cheese plate, except with chocolate instead of cheese. Actually, the plate isn’t even necessary. Just hand over a stack of chocolate bars. Your author will know what to do with them.
  8. No nap-shaming. If you don’t want to sleep while your author does, read their draft. If it’s not ready to read, mute your phone/computer/video games, and don’t load/unload the dishwasher. Please.
  9. Wake your author only if you’re dying or dinner’s ready.
  10. Breakfast for dinner.
  11. Offer a neck and shoulder rub or a hand massage. Typing is easy, but it’s still strenuous work.
  12. Even if they already have plenty, surprise your author with a new journal, date book, note pad, or pen. Post-its are also a practical option. Your author might not have time to journal every day, but random thoughts worthy of a post-it crop up constantly, and they make great bookmarks.
  13. After reading and writing for work, authors often don’t make time to do it for enjoyment. Give your author a few hours of uninterrupted read-for-pleasure time to work on that To-Be-Read pile. It’s getting dangerously tall.
  14. Your author’s eyes might be too tired to read for fun. Give them a cold rag or gel mask to relax. Save the cucumbers for some hummus.
  15. Make hummus.
  16. Listen to your author’s anxiety-riddled plot-hole repair plan. Don’t just nod and smile. Give real feedback by telling your author the things that will actually help the story, even if it’s not what they want to hear. Your author would rather screw up in front of you and then put in more work than publish something iffy under the impression that it’s great.
  17. Remind your author that it’s fine they aren’t writing right that second. Rest is essential work, too.
  18. Did I mention cats? More cats. Also, refill hot beverage of choice. Your author has run out by now.
  19. Stay up late with your author, even though they napped and you didn’t. Remember to nap with them next time.
  20. Run a bath.

These are just a few ways to babysit your author. This list is not exhaustive, nor does it cover the preferences of every author. That means your author might be easier, or harder, to please. If the latter, I apologize on behalf of my temperamental, wordy kind and wish you good luck.

Where are all the parties?

26 Jan

When I set out to become a writer, especially when I was young—I mean 13, 14-years-old-young—this glamorized image of what that would entail seemed unreachable. I realized as I aged, as I published not one, not two, but three books, with more on the way that it really IS unreachable. And it’s not because I’m not popular enough, rich enough, good enough.

It’s because it doesn’t exist, at least not in its original form.

cocktail party.jpg

The days of lavish launch parties and book tours with throngs of fans clamoring for an autograph are mostly behind us.

The industry just isn’t like that anymore.

I mean, sure, if you’re a brand name writer, a big name that still manages to get the Today Show and Good Morning America so many years after both productions canned their book review and author segments, then potentially these parties and fans still abound.

But I’m not that writer and, if you’re reading this, I’m guessing you aren’t either.

No offense meant. It likely means, no matter how excellent your work, you came into the game too late. We started the journey at a time when that approach to publicity was dying or already gone. There’s no way to change it or yourself or your writing to turn the book industry back into one that flocks after its writers rather than the writers flocking after it for attention, contracts, marketing. Ugh, marketing.

We are in the age of DIY (even if traditionally published). So what do I say of those images of a bygone era in publishing still floating in my mind from 15 years ago?

I say I’ll throw my own party.

I’m still not sure at what point of publication success I’ll deem myself deserving of one of those huge affairs, and this is despite the fact that every book release makes me feel like going out and spending a bunch of money on sushi to celebrate. But once release dates come and go, it’s always, “OK, maybe with the next book.” And I’ll probably never feel like I’ve done as much as I could to garner that attention. I’m a one-person operation, and it’s a ton of work to be your own manager, marketer, publicist, accountant. And I certainly don’t know enough people to pack a rented space, but I keep telling myself that one day I’ll release the book that shoves me out of the shadows and makes that party a no-brainer.

It’s not a matter of the previous books not being good enough to do that. It’s a matter of how many people were watching when I was brand new versus now, five years from now, and so on.  Some authors get lucky and have that with the first book.

It’s what we all dream of.

But there’s nothing wrong with writing myself out of obscurity and into the public eye with a shelf of previous publications behind me. Books make great step-stools, and the unreachable gets just a bit closer to the fingertips when you have a pile of them to stand on.

(Plus, I’ll need a big stack in order to reach the candles at the top of the enormous cake I’ll have when I finally throw that party.)

cake.jpg

Just Checking In

23 Jan

leaves

The holidays are over and life is settling back into its normal rhythm. For me, that means lots of reading and writing.

Using the GoodReads Reading Challenge tool, I’ve resolved to read at least 24 books this year. So far, so good; I’m already on book 4. The best method to succeed, I figured, was to read as many books as possible while my schedule is relatively calm. It will set me up with a cushion for travel days and events later in the year when I’m unable to devote time to reading for pleasure.

I’ve also been polishing my manuscript of Acephalous Book 2. I finished the draft during NaNoWriMo 2017, and judging by my current rate of progress, I’m thinking it might publish by the end of Summer 2018 rather than Winter. That is, if the beta readings go swiftly.

Regardless, I’m thrilled with Acephalous Book 2 so far. It’s better than book 1 in a number of ways, and I’m excited to share it with readers. I plan to do a finalized title and cover reveal in March. If all goes well until then, the book might release in time for my first event in April: Roanoke Author’s Invasion. That’s pushing it, though, and I don’t plan to rush it.

In other news, I’ve got a new project in the works that I will be announcing right here on February 1 that I’m also aiming to complete by April!

AND Humans In My House 3 will be out by Christmas.

(If this is what my life looks like when things are settled, imagine what it’s like when I’m busy!)

I realize I’m just throwing random titles, dates, and vague entreaties to you, but trust me. You’ll want to stick around and keep checking back to find out what all the suspense is about. In the meantime, sign up for my newsletter to get less cryptic updates about my projects and event schedule, plus exclusive writing tips that I don’t post here. To sign up, click here. I’ll also post the Red Ink News sign-up on the navigation bar.

In the meantime, happy reading!

 

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