Photo credit: Sincerely Media on Unsplash
The most important thing to know is what you don’t know.
In my case, this includes a wide array of topics. Luckily, I’m a researcher by trade and by nature. This has upsides and downsides.
The upside is obvious: people pay me to research things, which pays my bills. Having the time, experience, and inclination to dig deeply enables my clients to advise their clients of their options and rights. Knowledge is power, or so Sir Francis Bacon is believed to have said.
The downside of being a researcher is that it’s too easy to substitute the process of research for the goal. We’ve all heard of writers who spend so much time researching their books that they never get around to actually writing the books. Research is seductive: it makes you feel as if you’re accomplishing something when what you’re really doing is procrastinating.
I know practically nothing about indie publishing. This meant when I made the decision to publish my book independently, I had two choices: wander around in the high grass of ignorance, or figure out what I don’t know and learn it.
On Friday, I turned to an authoritative source on all things involving the business of writing, Jane Friedman. Not only has Jane written on the subject of self-publishing, but she offers a downloadable free checklist for things that need to be done, including guidance as to when each step should be completed. (Note: the checklist was posted in 2015 and refers to CreateSpace, which has undergone significant changes since then. In all candor, it’s not clear to me whether CreateSpace still exists or offers any benefit. Clearly, I need to do more research into this, but according to Jane’s checklist, I have some time before that step.)
Several of the items on Jane’s checklist are designated as steps to take “as early as possible” or “3 months prior to pub date.” Among these items are “Research/write a creative brief on cover design” and “Hire out the cover design (send creative brief).”
Um, what’s a “creative brief”?
According to my research (see what I did there?), it’s the information you provide to the person you’re going to hire to create a cover that readers will find appealing enough to click on. The brief, which (fortunately) does not resemble a legal brief, includes information like your title, your audience, the essence of your book, and your own taste.
Another consideration I’ve seen in posts about cover design is, “What books do you think yours should be placed next to in the bookstore?” Obviously, the best way to answer that question is to go to a bookstore and look around. Fortunately, even in these turbulent times, some bookstores are open for browsing.
Note: you may think you can get all the information you need by browsing your own bookshelves, but unless you’re currently buying a lot of books in your genre, it’s possible that the covers on your shelves are several years old. Styles and tastes change, and it’s important to know what’s selling now since now is when you’re publishing.
And so I spent Saturday afternoon at the illustrious RJ Julia Booksellers, snapping photos of covers for later study. I noted the types that appealed to me and those that didn’t. I also chatted with store staff and asked them for thoughts since they’re the ones who know best how customers react to books. One gave me a piece of advice that seems obvious: “Make sure your title is easy to read.” To me, this means a high contrast between lettering and background, an easy font, and a background that is not too busy. Interestingly, a number of books in the store failed this simple test, at least for me, which underscores the incredibly subjective aspect of what makes a good cover.
These are just a few of the covers I saw on novels at RJ Julia yesterday.
After dinner, I resumed my online study into cover design. It was simultaneously overwhelming and reassuring: overwhelming because there are so many choices, and reassuring because a plethora of information makes me feel as if the answers are there somewhere. (Knowledge is power, in case you haven’t heard.) Designer Derek Murphy has written a short e-book about covers—what works, what doesn’t, why he prefers some to others, and why (contrary to instinct) having a lovely, unique, artistic cover isn’t the best idea if what you want is for people to actually pick up or click on your book. I ended up not only buying his e-book, but downloading a number of articles by various designers for future reading.
Needing a break from cover design research, today I turned my attention to email lists. “Start an email list” isn’t on Jane’s checklist, but it’s something I’ve heard about repeatedly from indie publishing guru Joanna Penn and others on her podcast. I searched “how to build an email list for a book” on the assumption that the responses would be as varied as the cover design search. On that, I was correct. What I wasn’t prepared for, however, was the extent to which the articles and websites used terms I didn’t understand and made assumptions about what information I would or should want. Everything in me screamed that I should keep this simple, but that’s never been my leading trait. On the other hand, I’m a whiz at procrastination, so I downloaded a slew of materials for later reading.
For anyone’s following me because they thinks they may someday want to publish their own book, here are my takeaways so far:
1. If your goal is to produce a professionally published book that’s worth buying and reading, plan to devote a lot of time and energy (and at least a few bucks) to that end.
2. The internet is replete with articles, videos, and other materials that can help, which can be either invaluable or overwhelming (sometimes both in the same day).
3. It can take conscious effort to avoid research paralysis, i.e., all research and no execution. At some point, you have to make a choice, check that item off the list, and move on to the next one.
4. Charles Dickens self-published “A Christmas Carol” without any of these resources, which means (a) it can be done, and (b) the most important thing is still the book itself.