Why I designed my own book covers – and still wonder if I’ve done the right thing …

messy paint

Do you design your covers, or pay for someone else to do it? The advice available on this (as with most things) varies a lot. Some will say you should always use a professional designer; you won’t do a good enough job yourself, and you’ll just end up with the dreaded ‘self-published look’.

I have some sympathy with that view. You could say it’s slightly delusional and even kind of demeaning to designers, to believe that I can knock out a cover as good as an actual, real designer could produce. After all, graphic design and typography are real skills, just like writing – and, like writing, experience and practice makes you better. Someone who’s designed dozens of covers is bound to be better at it than me, aren’t they?

And I think most of us can agree on one thing: the cover is important. Along with the blurb, it’s one of the few things that potential buyers see before they buy (or not). So why compromise?

Well, the main reason is obvious: cost. It’s tempting to save the money by doing it yourself. It’s possible to spend hundreds of dollars or pounds on a cover; some top designers may charge even more. However, you can also spend a lot less, for example by using Fiverr to source a low-cost design. I’ve yet to try this myself, but I’ve heard good things. Then again, I wonder if there’s an element of ‘you get what you pay for’.

My own feeling is that producing your own cover is a bit like doing home improvement or DIY. I’m not a professional architect, builder, electrician or plumber, and there’s a lot of what they can do that I wouldn’t even attempt. But there are things I can do with minimal risk of disaster or death. I can wire a plug, fill small cracks, sand and paint, all in relative safety and producing acceptably good results. I learnt to do those things, followed some simple rules, and have done them enough to attain a reasonable level of competence. I know my limitations, and provided I stay within them then I’m probably OK.

With both Falling Girl and BASIC Boy, I had good ideas of what I wanted the covers to look like. Furthermore my ideas were quite simple, not requiring expensive professional graphics software or a high level of design expertise. They were concepts that I was reasonably sure I could execute to an acceptable standard, and so was comfortable having a go. Now, I’m fairly happy with the results. I don’t think they scream ‘look at me, I’m so self-published!’ (or maybe they do? If I’m deluding myself, I hope someone will put me right. The covers are below.)

Anyway … from the research I’ve done, I would say it might be worth having a stab at your own cover if one or more of the following apply to you:

  • You really can’t afford to pay even a low-end design price.
  • You have a very good idea what you want to do – and it’s not too ambitious.
  • You are aware of, and stick to, basic layout and typography good practice. If you don’t know what they are, there are a lot of resources and advice (much of it for free) available online. See for example my references below.

I won’t go too much into ‘good design practice guidelines here’ – but, I will share just a few that I’ve used as guidance for my designs of my two covers:

  1. Try to use a simple, striking image, rather than over-complex, over-busy design.
  2. If you use your own image, ensure it’s good quality; if you use a downloaded stock image or photo, make sure it’s not an over-used one.
  3. Use contrasting covers.
  4. Use an asymmetrical design.
  5. Don’t use a common text font like Times or Arial – rather, use a less common, display font (many of which can be downloaded for free) (Comic Sans? Don’t even think about it … unless your book’s an ironic meditation on the evils of Comic Sans – and even then I’d think twice.)
  6. Space the text out, rather than squash it up, for an easier-to-read and more professional look. (Sorry about the technical typographic jargon … you can just tell I’m an expert!)
  7. Your overall design must reflect the book’s genre / subject well – and as the market is today, not twenty or thirty years ago.

No doubt there are many other ‘rules’ too – and some are in the books listed at the bottom of this post – but the above seemed the most important to me.

Points 1 to 4 are about making your cover stand out – bearing in mind it must catch the eye even at thumbnail size (as it will appear on an Amazon search results screen for example).

Points 5 and 6 are about the typography looking professional and easy-to-read.

Point 7 involves having a good working knowledge of the genre and market. What do the covers of other, similar books look like? You want yours to stand out – but not look so different that the casual browser won’t recognise the kind of book it is.

With my two covers, I tried to follow the above guidelines – but a couple of weeks ago I decided to refresh the designs. In particular I noticed that they weren’t very good on point 6, i.e. the text was a little ‘squashed’. So I opened it up a little for Falling Girl:

Before:

fg-cover-24mar14

After:

FG cover Oct14

It’s subtle I grant you, but a little better I hope.

I did the same for BASIC Boy – but, more noticeably, also blew up the ‘demented ghostly space invader’, making it more ‘in yer face’:

Before:

bb-cover-april-14

After:

BB cover Oct 14

But, for goodness sake, if you think that (1) either cover sucks or (2) the ‘before’ is better than the ‘after’ in either case, please tell me. I’m a self-published author: I can take criticism, in fact I expect it. (On the other hand, if you like the covers, that would be nice to know too.)

For my current project, Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer, however, I’ve yet to find much inspiration re the cover – and the one vague idea I have had so far I’m not sure I’d be able to execute very well. So that may well lead to my first foray into Fiverr. Mind you, I’m not even yet sure whether I’m going to self-publish or to propel myself into the gruelling agent/publisher-query marathon. If the latter, it’s probably not worth spending time or money on a cover at this stage.

Do you design your own covers? How do you think you did? Any experience of using designers, on Fiverr or elsewhere? Comments welcome as ever.

Footnotes

In Make A Killing On Kindle. Michael Alvear is very much of the ‘you must get a professional cover design’ school of thought. He has no time for do-it-yourself – he thinks your efforts will inevitably suck. I don’t necessarily agree, but looking at some of the covers of self-published titles on Amazon, I can see where he’s coming from.

On the other hand, both Derek Murphy in Book Marketing is Dead and Rayne Hall in Why Does My Book Not Sell? allow for the possibility of decent self-produced covers and give some useful design tips.

 

BASIC Boy and Falling Girl: free this weekend – with new covers

BB cover Oct 14       FG cover Oct14

Last night I got a call from the New York Times. ‘Christopher!’ barked the stressed journalist. ‘Your books are selling so fast, they’re breaking all records! Seriously, we’re thinking of taking them off the best-seller list, just to give everyone else a chance! For crying out loud, stop writing such excessively successful books!!!’

Partly because the above isn’t true, but mostly because I’m an incredibly kind and good-hearted human being – and also, both are ghost stories and it’s nearly Halloween – the Kindle editions of my two novels BASIC Boy and Falling Girl are free on Amazon this weekend, starting tomorrow (Friday 24th October) up to and including Sunday (26th October). Links to US and UK Amazon are at the bottom of this post.

(If you’re reading this after 26th October, don’t despair because (1) Falling Girl is always free on this website anyway, in PDF form, and (2) both books are very reasonably priced. And also available in slightly less reasonably priced paperback form.)

And … after reading some advice on cover design, I’ve slightly revised the cover of both books. I’ve also been giving some thought to the ‘do-it-yourself versus pay someone else’ conundrum. But that’s the subject of a future post.

Amazon links for BASIC Boy:

US: http://www.amazon.com/BASIC-Boy-Digital-Ghost-Story-ebook/dp/B00FLNLUYG/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=1-1&qid=1387582153

UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/BASIC-Boy-Digital-Ghost-Story-ebook/dp/B00FLNLUYG/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1384117495&sr=8-1&keywords=basic+boy

Amazon links for Falling Girl:

US: http://www.amazon.com/Falling-Girl-Ghost-Christopher-Peter-ebook/dp/B0095862M8/ref=sr_1_3?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1387582752&sr=1-3&keywords=falling+girl

UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Falling-Girl-A-Ghost-Story-ebook/dp/B0095862M8/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1384117617&sr=8-1&keywords=falling+girl

Reading: speed or slow?

slowreading1251

Have you heard of the slow reading movement? I hadn’t until I came across this article recently. It was in the Wall Street Journal and you need to subscribe or log in to read the whole thing, but here’s a quote:

Slow reading advocates seek a return to the focused reading habits of years gone by, before Google, smartphones and social media started fracturing our time and attention spans. Many of its advocates say they embraced the concept after realizing they couldn’t make it through a book anymore.

“I wasn’t reading fiction the way I used to,” said Meg Williams , a 31-year-old marketing manager for an annual arts festival who started the slow reading club. “I was really sad I’d lost the thing I used to really, really enjoy.”

Apparently there are ‘slow reading clubs’ popping up all over the place quite, er, quickly. And there’s something pleasingly counter-cultural about the whole thing. In these days of reduced attention spans, changing reading habits on electronic devices, blizzards of tweets and sound bites, not to mention the ever-increasing time pressure more and more people find themselves under, the idea of immersing yourself in a good book in quiet companionship with like-minded souls is more than a little appealing. Isn’t reading supposed to be enjoyable, after all? Are we sometimes putting too much pressure on ourselves to read too much, too quickly? So that something that’s supposed to reduce our stress levels actually starts to have the opposite effect?

Funnily enough, a few months back I started on a book about speed-reading – which (just to demonstrate how fickle I can be) also struck me as a thoroughly good idea. After all, writing swallows up huge chunks of time, but us writers are also meant to keep reading too – and since writers generally love books that’s no great hardship, except that too takes yet more time. So the promise of doubling or tripling my reading speed, of being able to devour book after book and still have precious writing (and oh yeah, day job, relationships, food, sleep, etc.) time to spare, is an alluring concept.

However, I never finished the speed reading book (I struggled to find the time – yeah, I know: irony overload) and now I seem to have mislaid it. Ho hum.

So should I be reading fast or slow? I guess it depends on what I’m reading. If it’s non-fiction – if it’s for basically cramming facts into my brain as quickly as possible – then a way of doing that more quickly seems to make a ton of sense. But fiction? That’s more for pleasure. And if I’m reading something really good, lovingly crafted, I’d like to linger over it a bit more. Only if I’m reading something I’m not really enjoying – but still want or need to finish for some reason – would I want to speed up too much.

Bottom line, then, is it depends. I guess I don’t want to worry too much about how slow or quick I’m reading. I’m reluctant to put pressure on myself either way. I need to dig up that speed reading book, finish it and see if it equips me with something useful. But I hope it’s something I’ll be able to switch on or off as the occasion demands. I’d really hate it to rob me of the ability to linger over a good book.

Because when I’m reading a good story, I’m going to try not to dash on to the next page or the end of the chapter too fast. Fiction is made to be enjoyed and appreciated. Who knows, I may even join one of those slow reading clubs one day … but I’m in no hurry.

 

Are clichés always bad?

cliche1

Writers are often warned against the use of clichés. In fact their prohibition has become so widespread that it’s become – well, a bit of a cliché. My own recent stab at ‘rules’ of writing, in fact, had this at number 9. But what do we really mean by this?

What is a cliché, and why is it usually thought of as a ‘bad thing’ in creative writing? Here’s a definition – a cliché is:

… a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse,

We can all think of obvious examples. One that springs to my mind is probably the first time someone else pointed it out in my own writing – in an early draft of Falling Girl, I wrote that a startled character looked like ‘… a rabbit caught in headlights …’ That’s a commonly used expression – though sometimes it’s a deer instead of a rabbit, but the exact species doesn’t make much difference. (Mind you, if you substituted ‘elephant’ that might be enough to de-cliché it – except it probably wouldn’t make much sense either …)

Going back to the definition above, the real problem is that ‘… lost originality, ingenuity, and impact …’. We surely want our writing to read as fresh, alive and vibrant. It needs to have impact, not lose it. We want to speak with a distinctive voice, something that stands out. Clichés tend to work against that by making our words sound, instead, like someone else’s. Something that’s been written so many times before, and become stale through sheer repetition.

For example, how about this sparkling prose?:

cliche2

But (and with rules, there’s often a ‘but’) … I don’t think clichés are always necessarily fatal to good writing. I present as Exhibit A my recent post on ‘Striking Sentences’, where I shared a passage in a book I was reading:

An air vent in the tiny window is held together by masking tape and on the still are some dried flowers in a wobbly clay pot and a wooden cat. A health-and-safety-notice clings to the wall for dear life.

I really liked that passage. I found myself re-reading it several times. To me, it was a fresh, vibrant piece of writing with a dash of humour. It had impact, on me at least. And yet, as my fellow writer and blogger Christine Plouvier pointed out, that phrase ‘clings … for dear life’ is really … a cliché! Oh dear.

But she went on to say (and Christine, I hope you don’t mind me quoting you here but I can’t really put it any better):

Whether or not something is a cliché is in the eye of the beholder … they’re called clichés because they “click” – and that expression “clicked” with you, because it communicated well. Idiomatic expressions distil the essence of language. That’s what makes them beautiful. There’s been too much negative labelling applied to parts of speech and other components of our language’s lexicon. There are no “bad” clichés; like the occasional profanity or ungrammatical construction, they have their place … As you said: right, appropriate and judicious are the keys.

So there we have it. For me, the above passage was not damaged beyond hope by the cliché lurking within in. Perhaps it didn’t help … maybe the author could have used different wording. But it still sounded somehow right in that context. It fit. The passage still struck me as being, basically, good writing.

So there you go. There are exceptions. However, I do still believe that clichés are to be avoided whenever possible, simply because doing so will improve your writing more often than not. Find them, and look for a different, fresher way of saying the same thing. It might take several revisions to weed out all the little blighters. Reading your work out loud will probably help. So will getting someone else to read it – it’s amazing what they will spot that you haven’t. That, of course, applies to a lot more than clichés.

One more point – you can usually get away with using more clichés in dialogue. People often do use them in speech, after all; and it could even be used to define character. If you want to paint someone, for example, as being boring, conventional or unimaginative, you could have them speaking in clichés a lot. That style of speech would be a good way of ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’ the reader something about them.

So there you go. At the end of the day, clichés can be a real bone of contention; but, if you handle them with kid gloves, you could really strike gold. (See what I did there?)

Improving my book: manuscript critique vs beta readers

eye-magnifying-glass-book

I wrote last week that I’d finished the second draft of Danny Chaucer’s Flying Saucer, and that my next priority to get some outside input – people who can help me clarify what’s good about it (hopefully something), what could be improved … and what stinks. For me, this step is absolutely critical.

For one thing, I’m reading the book aloud to my two sons. The other thing I’m doing is getting another adult to review the manuscript. I know of two common ways to accomplish this. First, find someone (or more than one person) to be a beta reader. Or, second, to pay for a manuscript critique. I’ve chosen the second option. Why?

Well, there are several reasons:

  1. By choosing an established, reputable literary consultancy (I’m using The Writer’s Workshop) you know you’re getting someone who knows that they’re doing, an experienced editor and/or author who’s been there, done that. WW use a pool of published authors, from which they select the most suitable to review your manuscript.
  2. I’ve used WW before and I’ve always been impressed with the results. You get a pretty detailed report (typically about 8-10 pages) which identifies problem areas, along with suggestions for improvement. There’s always some very perceptive stuff in there. There is usually also some encouraging feedback about those things that do seem to be working.
  3. The report can also give advice on where to go next with the book, post-revisions. My first two books are self-published, and I totally buy in to the ideals of indy publishing. But it’s unavoidably true that most books sell very few copies – and most of the biggest success stories there have tended to be in certain genres. DCFS is a children’s book, and I believe that’s an especially difficult market to succeed in with self-publishing. (If anyone has any views or experience about that, I’d be very interested to hear it.)

I have no doubt whatsoever that Falling Girl and BASIC Boy were much the better for having been critiqued in this way, and for me then implementing the majority of the reports’ recommendations.

Just to clarify one point, however: the critique is not a line-by-line edit, nor a proofread. The WW report is an assessment of the books a whole, including the plot, characterisation, dialogue and general writing quality. If you need a copy-edit or a proofread, that’s a separate thing – and, in my view, a second draft is much too early for that. There’s no point in proofreading something that’s bound to be at least partially, if not extensively re-written.

The most obvious drawback of the critique is the cost, which is dependent on the length of the manuscript. Fortunately DCFS, being a children’s book, is relatively short – the second draft is just under 27,000 words. For that, the WW critique cost just under £300 (i.e. around $500).

For some, of course, spending that might not be an option. You might also take the approach that, if you view self-publishing as a business, how likely are you to earn back the money? Well, if my first two books are anything to go by … probably not.

But then, I don’t view my writing as a business. I’d love it to be, but so far at least I haven’t had the sales to make that a reality. Instead, I see it more as my hobby. Some people have fairly expensive hobbies. They might renovate old cars, play golf or tennis or join a gym; I do less expensive things like running and cycling, and spend the money on improving my writing instead. That way I can justify spending money on things like this.

Of course, I don’t want to waste money, and apart from the critique my costs are minimal. I publish on Amazon, doing layout and design myself. I also do my own proofreading (wisely or not, I’m not completely sure). So manuscript critiques, so far at least, have been my only major expense. I see improving my writing as the area where paying for outside help adds the most value.

Asking for beta readers to review the book would, of course, avoid this expense. But I haven’t gone down that route, at least not this time, for three reasons:

  1. Finding the right beta reader might not be quick or straightforward. Anyone’s opinions are valuable – but some probably more so than others for this purpose. I’d want an experienced editor who knows a lot about about writing for children. In reality, it’s hard to avoid having to pay for that kind of expertise, along with the time and effort involved.
  2. Time. People are busy, writers certainly not excepted. It might take a beta reader some considerable time to get round to doing their review.
  3. If you don’t pay money, there’s bound to be a reciprocal element – i.e. someone reviews your manuscript, and you review theirs. That’s fine, and in many ways I’d like to be able to do that. But at the moment, I’d find it very hard to find the time.

If you can live with and/or mitigate the above drawbacks, then I can see that beta readers would be a good option. Especially if you already have one or two that you know and trust. But for now, for me, for this particular project, the paid critique seemed the better way to go.

Now the question is – will I be brave enough to reveal the feedback (warts and all) on this blog? Of course I will! [crosses fingers …]

 

The ten things I’ve learnt about blogging

blog_thinker1

This is my 50th post on WordPress. I started about a year ago, so that’s roughly one post per week on average.

First, a confession. My main motivation for starting my blog was that (1) everyone was telling me I should and (2) to help sell my books. I don’t think either were the best reasons by themselves, and I still haven’t sold many books. But here I am, and I like to think I’ve emerged from my first year a little bit wiser and not just older.

So here, in no particular order, are ten lessons I’ve learnt about blogging over the last twelve months or so. Some of these thoughts are quite personal to me and I don’t expect everyone to have drawn exactly the same conclusions, but this is how it seems to me anyway.

The first lesson: It’s all about the people

I’ve seen the light. I admit I didn’t arrive on WordPress necessarily eager to engage with lots of other people. But I have, and I’m much the better for it. You, my fellow bloggers, have taught, encouraged and inspired me, made me laugh, and sometimes all of the above at the same time. Some of you have also made humbled me with your blistering honesty about some of the problems and challenges in your lives. I wish I was that brave.

The second lesson: Be yourself

Everyone is different, and so is every blog. Although it’s good to learn from others, the things I have to say, to contribute, will never be quite like anyone else’s. That doesn’t make them any less valuable, or any more come to that. If I wasn’t here, there’d be a Christopher Peter shaped hole that no-one else could entirely fill. Exactly the same thing applies to each one of you (apart from the Christopher Peter bit obviously).

The third lesson: Give something back

Just as with all writing, quality should be non-negotiable. I’ve received so much from other bloggers, and in return I’d like to at least show them the courtesy of writing posts that have some value, or are thoughtful, or hopefully interesting, or sometimes funny – and always spell-checked. (You realise it’s now inevitable this very paragraph will have a toe-curlingly bad typo in it that I’ve seen right through. You just know it.) Yes, a few of my posts will be about promoting my books, directly or indirectly. But then, I hope those books will bring some enjoyment to those who read them too.

The fourth lesson: Find your focus

Of course, to be yourself you first have to work out who the heck you are. Which isn’t always easy. More to the point, what’s my blog for? I decided pretty early on that it wouldn’t try to be about everything I am. Some people put their whole lives into their blogs, writing about anything and everything, and there’s nothing wrong with that of course, but it wasn’t my aim. I wanted this site to be about me as a writer – my books, ideas, the way I write, what I’ve learnt, my struggles and mistakes, and sometimes opinions and thoughts connected to the world of books and fiction. Occasionally I go off-piste, but I’ve concluded that the tighter I keep to my ‘brief’, the better the site works. Plus, if people decide to follow this blog, at least they’ll know what they’re getting.

The fifth lesson: Thou shalt not take the Like button in vain

… but I’ve decided not to be afraid of using it either. I never press it unless I really have read the post in question – but assuming I have, and can’t think of anything in particular to write by way of a comment, and/or just haven’t got time to – then this is just a good, quick way of expressing appreciation for the time and care the blogger has taken. Usually I really do like it as well. Occasionally I might read something I massively disagree with, and/or can’t really understand, in which case the button remains unpressed; but that’s relatively unusual. Even if I don’t completely agree with what’s been written in every detail, I normally like that it’s been written at all and so a contribution’s been made to a debate. But …

The sixth lesson: Blessed are the commenters

I’m trying to do this more, even if it’s just a quick sentence or too. Who doesn’t like comments on their posts? I certainly appreciate them – unless they’re about hairpieces – as it shows that someone’s taken a bit of extra time and trouble, and I know how busy they probably are because I am too. For that same reason however, I know that, more often than not, a visitor will only have time to press Like. And that’s OK too; but nothing beats a comment.

The seventh lesson: Don’t try to follow the whole world

I appreciate every time someone follows my blog, but I’m also not naïve. I know that motives are often mixed. Sometimes I can see why a particular person has chosen to follow – because I can see, looking at their blog and profile, that we have something in common – often because they’re a writer too. Other times, it’s less clear. And sometimes, it looks very much like they’re amassing followers because they’ve got something to sell. Now don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing wrong with trying to sell something. It would be pretty hypocritical of me to complain when the main reason I started my own blog in the first place was that I hoped more people would read my books. And when I first started getting ‘XYZ is following your blog’ messages, I thought it was only polite to reciprocate and follow their blogs, too.

Now I feel differently. There are only so many hours in the week after all. So when I get a follow, I will always visit the follower’s site. I will read something. But I won’t always follow. And if I don’t, that isn’t an implied criticism of that blog. It isn’t that I don’t think it’s any good. It’s just that I would rather make fewer, more meaningful connections, blogs that I will continue to visit and read and sometimes contribute to, rather than dozens that I will probably never visit again because I just haven’t got the time. Not all the blogs I choose to follow are by other writers (though many are). Some are just interesting, or quirky, or funny, or represent another common interest, or something else. They just aren’t every single blog I visit.

The eighth lesson: Know when to take a break

As I’ve said, there’s never enough time. And that’s the curse of blogging – it can be so darn time-consuming. I still think it’s worth it anyway, but sometimes I have to take a break. Blogging regularly is good, and I try to do that, but sometimes other things have to take priority. Like actually writing books, my family, holidays. Eating, the day job, you know. Stuff.

The ninth lesson: Blessed are the brief

If you’re going to blog regularly, it helps to keep posts brief. Just like I’m not doing now.

The tenth lesson: Keep learning

As with writing books and everything else, I still have much, much more to learn.

So thank you for reading this, and thank you to everyone who’s visited my blog, liked, commented and/or followed.

And here endeth the lessons.