“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Good advice, and yet that’s exactly what we all do. Appearances matter. You know when you see a well-designed book, as compared to an amateur DIY project, in the same way you see and know the difference between a designer suit and a workman’s overalls. You may never have met me, or any other book designer, but you appreciate our work every time you browse in a bookstore or library. When you’re writing a book, you think only of the text. You imagine your text in a printed, published book. Yet there’s a step in between a manuscript and publishing. We must transform that Word document into a digital file that a printer will use. (Actually, two files – the interior of the book, and the cover.) Large publishers have an art department to handle this step, but self-publishing authors usually hire a book designer. A book designer serves two functions for a self publishing author.
How can you know if your audience will find your book interesting? That depends on who your audience is, and what they find interesting. Your hard-earned knowledge is fascinating to you, but what excites your readers? The earlier you ask yourself this question, the easier it is to choose the contents of your book. Many family histories are intended for private publication and they will only be read by the family. In this case, you can concentrate on sharing personal, or even intimate, family stories, photos and documents. This “insider” history, along with the family’s jokes, beliefs, recipes and myths, will fascinate your relatives, and intensify the sense of identity and belonging that families enjoy.
Writing a children’s book is a unique challenge for an author. Children’s books are illustrated books. So the author, from almost the moment she gets an idea for a children’s book, thinks about the illustrations which will accompany her words. For the first time children’s book author this usually raises the question, where do I find an illustrator for my book? The answer is less simple than the question. It begins with another question, where do you want to publish your book? Do you hope to sell it to a traditional children’s book publisher in exchange for an advance and a share of any earnings the book might have? Or do you plan to self publish your book and undertake the work of marketing and distributing it yourself?
If you have finished writing and revising your memoir or family history book, you may imagine that completing your manuscript means you're done. But authors who self-publish have a a final critical step to take before publication – book design. Book design combines decisions about elements of the book, style, organization, illustrations, layout, and cover design. The choices you make about the design of your book will give it the unique character you wish to create. Here are some of the things to consider when designing your book:
It’s easy when your book is a mystery, or a children’s book, or another easily identified genre. People know if they like those type of books. But some writers have an idea they want to write about, and like a square peg in a round hole, they don’t have a nice genre slot to fit it into.
In business, we are all taught to give an “elevator speech”, to describe in just 30 seconds, if need be on a short trip to the upper floor, what exactly it is we do. Why? So people will know if they are interested in us and our business. The same goes for books. They need to be easily slotted into a genre category, for the ease of the casual browser, who will likely make a snap judgment.
Just take a look at your supermarket’s bookshelf. The genre is announced loudly by the book’s cover design, and reinforced by the tile and promotional copy. These westerns and romances and thrillers are easy to recognize and are guaranteed to sell.
Other genres are more troublesome. I’ve been reading In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, a new book out by Margaret Atwood. (If you haven’t read her, I cannot praise loudly enough Atwood’s fascinating novels, essays, and poetry.) Margaret Atwood has been hard to slot in the book-buying world. She terms The Handmaid’s Tale and some of her other novels “speculative fiction”, which has aroused the ire of science fiction fans who would like to claim her as one of their own. Ursula K. LeGuin criticized Atwood’s genre definition, writing in a Guardian article, “This arbitrary restrictive definition seems designed to protect her novels from being relegated to a genre still shunned by hidebound readers, reviewers and prize-awarders. She doesn’t want the literary bigots to shove her into the literary ghetto.”
Atwood tells this story to illustrate a point: calling it science fiction or speculative fiction may seem to be just semantics, until it isn’t. Atwood defines the genres this way: science fiction deals with things that might happen in the future, such as space colonies. But speculative fiction deals with things that might be happing already; it is a more direct commentary on current culture; and it’s not necessarily “scientific”. And fantasy, also often lumped in with SF, is about things that have never happened and could never happen – think unicorns.
Why niggle about this? Because of the book marketing campaigns that follow once a book is slotted into its genre. Or pounded in, like a square peg into a round hole. Atwood describes her horror when her publisher released her books with lurid, sexy covers. Imagine how disappointed those misled buyers would be to read her un-sexy words! She imagines poeple angrily throwing her words into the trash, unread. Ouch.
The publishing industry used to dictate a lot of these genre terms, as they had a pipeline to the bookseller’s shelves, arranged by genre. It was out of the author’s control. Now, in this brave new world of self publishing and online social marketing, we must think about genre, and decide how to present ourselves. Carefully.
Many of our blog readers, and our author clients, fall under the big genre umbrella of biography. This encompasses autobiography, memoir, and family history, and many fascinating topics are also nestled under there too, such as a memoir about a career as a spy or the biography of an avid butterfly collector.
So how do we communicate what exactly our books are? First, unless you’re as good as Atwood, stay under the umbrella and associate yourself with what is already known. Not sure? Find comparable books and see how they have described themselves. Or ask an editor. Next, communicate your identity clearly. Link the genre with the specific subject, such as Suspense Thriller, Cold War or Self Help, Diabetes. Develop a good elevator speech, and try it out on those who have read your draft. Be accurate.
Next, design the book to look like what it really is. Sepia photos on the cover are fine for a memoir, but they are the kiss of death for contemporary chick-lit. (Chick-lit’s neon colors and cartoon illustrations wouldn’t do well for most memoirs, either.)
And last, perhaps most important, find ways to tell the story of your story. Talk about what your book means, specifically, so that people care and appreciate what you’ve written. If you do this part well, you can communicate your unique idea and transcend your genre.
Wow! There are a lot of people with a book they want to get into the hands of an audience. We spent last weekend at the Tucson Festival of Books, with thousands of other book lovers, answering questions and talking to people who had books they are working on. What was amazing was the range of books they asked about.
I spent the weekend in Arizona at the Tucson Festival of Books. A lot of that time I was talking to people about editing their books. It made me think about the first time I worked with an editor. Back in the late 70s, I had just picked up a job as a stringer for the San Mateo Times, a local newspaper in the San Francisco Bay Area. I would be reporting on local sports. My first assignment was to cover a game in a youth baseball tournament. I brought all the intensity and enthusiasm to the assignment I would have to covering the World Series. I went to the game, kept score, took careful notes, conducted post-game interviews, and carefully crafted what I thought was a pretty good account of the game. I handed the newsprint sheet with my story on it to my editor, and said, “I think this is okay,”
Hats off to Terese Davis. Terese is one of those people who overflows with energy and enthusiasm. She is an inspiration to any author who hopes to self-publish and actually profit from book sales.
The first time I spoke to Terese, I laughed when she raved about Miatas, a sports car I had barely noticed in the past. Now, having read, edited and designed her illustrated, full color book about Miatas, (guess what the pictures are) I love them too, and I spot them everywhere I go!
Terese is a first time author, and a natural entrepreneur. Read her article about her author’s journey as a case study and as a success story. This article, published last month in an online newsletter, is just one of the ways Terese announced to the world that her book has arrived.
Since this article appeared last month, she has published her book Just Miatas, and she is selling them like hotcakes. Look for the book on amazon.com when it is available there later this month.
I hope her article inspires you. -Nan
IPads, Kindle Fires, Nooks, and an array of other tablets seem ubiquitous. Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project indicates in a report titled Tablet and Ebook Reader Ownership Nearly Double Over the Holiday Gift Giving Period that ownership of tablet computers among Americans increased from 10% to 19% during the holiday season. Ownerships of e-readers experienced similar growth. 29% of Americans now own at least one such device. “And some of the millions of consumers who have bought tablets and sampled e-books on apps from Amazon, Apple and Barnes & Noble have come away with a conclusion:” said the NY Times in a March 4th story. “It’s harder than ever to sit down and focus on reading.”
Brewster Kahle wants to preserve one copy of every book ever published. Every week he adds 20,000 books to his Physical Archive of the Internet Archive in Richmond, California. “You can never tell what is going to paint the portrait of a culture,” Kahle told the New York Times in an interview for a Sunday cover story. Is he serious?
It’s hard to sort through all your wonderful pictures and limit your possibilities. You want to, and you should, put many pictures in. Making your memoir or family history a fully illustrated book will give an additional dimension to your reader’s experience. A lot of people have been led to believe there is a limit on the number of photos commercial printers will include. Many big self publishing companies offer packages that limit the number of photographs. Xlibris’ Basic Package sets the limit at 25 images. The Author House Portfolio Package allows 50 images. Why? It’s easier and cheaper for them. When you choose to work with your own book designer, like Stories To Tell, to prepare your book you face no such limitation.
When should I have an editor look at my manuscript? Sooner, rather than later! Your book deserves the same kind of thoughtful editorial support that bestselling commercial authors receive. Self publishing shouldn’t mean producing a book of lower quality. In the world of publishing, the editorial process isn’t a cursory look at your manuscript once it’s finished. Editing is woven all the way through the process of creating the manuscript to prepare it for publication. The graphic below illustrates the continuum of services we provide as professional editors during of the writing process.
The 800 pound gorilla flexed its muscles last week. The New York Times reported Amazon Pulls Thousands of E-Books in Dispute Amazon.com, seeking to increase its relatively low profit margins while continuing to sell e-books at low prices, decided to change the terms of its contract with the Independent Publishers Group (IPG) when that company’s agreement came up for renewal. “They decided they wanted me to change my terms,” said Mark Suchomel, president of the Chicago-based I.P.G. “It wasn’t reasonable. There’s only so far we can go.” When the two parties were unable to agree, Amazon made all of IPG’s 4,443 e-books unavailable on its Kindle devices.
A few years ago we worked with four members of a family who wanted to collaborate on a family history book. The problem was that they all lived in different states. Trying to manage their contributions and revisions of the manuscript was not always easy for anyone involved. So, I was excited when I saw a recent Wired article that described, GitHub, a new tool for online collaboration and version control. GitHub was originally created to help software developers to manage collaborative open source projects As Wired explained, “It keeps track of who made what changes where. And it helps merge all those changes together. It “controls” the various versions of an open source software project.” Recently GitHub has been employed to manage collaborative projects far beyond software development.
Richard Gilbert, in a recent post on his excellent blog, Narrative, “Undercurrents in Narrative Essays” explored what engages readers. “Stories that grip us,” said Gilbert, “ involve some tension—a conflict or question.” When that conflict isn’t present the “narrative lacks any urgency or even movement…Such flat writing flunks the ‘So What?’ test.”