Createspace works in mysterious ways

May 18, 2012 at 5:06 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , )

I logged into Createspace today, which is no longer a daily activity for me, the way it was when I first published Scar. Sometimes I’ll go a couple of weeks without checking in.

But today I logged in and found the dashboard looks a little different. It now displays royalties earned in dollars, British pounds and Euros. I clicked around a little more, and found that there’s a whole new sales channel Scar wasn’t enrolled in: Amazon Europe.

When I got started with Creatpace, I paid extra – $35 or something like that – to have my book placed in their Extended Distribution Channel (EDC). This would help my book get listed in non-US Amazon sites, such as Amazon.co.uk, .de, .fr and so on. A while ago, they did away with this system and started including EDC for everyone.

Now they’ve changed the system again, and it’s actually a good thing. It seems they’ve finally realised the whole point of print-on-demand, and started printing books in the country they are ordered in. This means faster shipping times for customers and, thanks to lower production costs, (slightly) higher royalties for authors. Honestly, it’s ridiculous that it’s taken them this long to figure it out. It’s not as though Europe doesn’t have printing facilities, after all. Why print a book in America and ship it across the world when you can just send a computer file?

It’s all good news for those of us who sell books overseas. I just wish Createspace had let us know when the changes were made; an email would have been nice.

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Creating a book cover: The Dostoevsky/Kardashian Method

December 11, 2011 at 5:03 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , , , , )

It occurred to me recently that I’ve neglected to mention one very important aspect of publishing Scar: the cover. Part of what got me thinking about this was going through the self-published books on Smashwords, goodreads.com and other sites, and seeing some truly awful covers.

Forget the old cliche about not judging a book by its cover; that’s what the cover is there for. How do you make your book stand out when it’s surrounded by thousands of others, whether on a physical bookstore shelf or online? Your cover is your first chance to get people interested in your book, and if it doesn’t do that, it doesn’t matter if you wrote the best novel in human history; no one will ever know, because no one will ever get past that boring/hideous/offensive cover.

For the self-publisher, the cover of your book needs to do three things:

1)      Grab the (potential) reader’s attention and make them want to know more.

2)      Convey in an instant what kind of book this is, so that you know you’re engaging with the right kind of reader, ie. people who actually read the type of book you’ve written.

3)      Make your book look as professional and high quality as any other book out there.

The first two points are just as important for a major publisher as they are for anyone else, and big publishers will spend thousands on getting the covers of their books right. You don’t need to do that, but you do need to be aware of the tricks and techniques the big guys use, so you can steal borrow them.

Step 1: Grab the reader’s attention

Which of these looks more interesting?

I’ll admit that “Database Issues…” isn’t helped by its subject matter, but the cover for “The Sisters Brothers” draws your eye towards it. It has bright, bold, primary colours; red, in particular, always attracts attention. It has interesting fonts. It has both human figures and what looks like a face, two things we are evolutionarily conditioned to notice and look for, as anyone who doubts Jesus’ appearance in a piece of toast will tell you. One of these books makes you interested to know more, and the other doesn’t, unless you’re really curious about geographic information systems.

Step 2: Attracting the right kind of reader

A good cover should convey the essence of the book in the time it takes to glance at it. Sounds difficult, but fortunately, we humans are visual creatures, and we’ve been conveying information visually for a very long time now. Not only that, but publishers have developed a visual language of book covers that enables customers to make snap-second decisions on books they know nothing about.

Look at these two:

Both attract attention, but whose attention? One is an intense, harrowing exploration of morality and suffering; the other is by Dostoevsky (Ba-boom! Thank you, I’ll be here all week.) ‘The Idiot’ promises sophistication, abstraction, intensity; ‘Kardashian Konfidential’ offers glamour, celebrity and gossip. Both of these books might catch my eye in a bookstore, but I’d only consider buying one of them. The publishers are marketing to two very different demographics, and when they designed the cover on the Kardashian’s book, they weren’t thinking of me.

Look at books similar to yours; does your cover look like theirs? If you’ve written a story about a single girl in the city trying to choose between her sexy but caddish boss and her endearingly nerdy childhood sweetheart, a hot pink cover with a pair of shoes on the front is perfectly appropriate, but it might not work as well for a dystopian steampunk fantasy.

Step 3: Looking the part

If you take the time to learn the language of book covers, you’re already halfway to not looking like an amateur, because you’ll quickly learn how to target the right audience with your cover. But there are other pitfalls to avoid. One that self-published writers often make is having covers that are far too ‘busy’.  Just because your book has scenes set in Paris, Australia and outer space doesn’t mean you have to have the Eiffel Tower, Ayers rock and the moon on the cover. Don’t try and tell the story in an image; that’s not what the cover is for. You want to give a sense of the overall tone of the book, but that’s all. Is it a fun summer read? A rumination on the transience of all things? A political pot-boiler? A murder mystery? These are things a good cover makes clear.

Another common error by self-published writers is having too much writing on the cover. You know those taglines that movies have, like ‘Alien’s memorable “In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream?” Leave those to the movies. Big publishing houses don’t put taglines on the front of their books, and neither should you. If you really want a tagline, you can put it on the back cover, where the blurb goes; not on the front.

The front cover of a novel really only needs two pieces of text; the author’s name and the title. Sometimes a pull-quote from a favourable review might find its way there too, but be sparing. Also, if the book is in a series, it’s fine to mention that on the front. Murder mysteries seem particularly prone to this, often listing the main recurring character by name: “A Sluethy McSolve Mystery”. (Sluethy McSolve is the hard-boiled private detective/concert pianist I just invented, in case you were wondering.) This falls under the category of conveying to the reader what kind of book this is.

Simplicity is key; less here is definitely more. Consider the fact that the world’s biggest bookseller has no physical stores, only a website which will shrink your cover down to the resolution of a three-year-old’s drawing and display it as a 1 inch jpeg. The simpler a cover is, the better it will look in those conditions. (Up to a point, of course. The simplest cover is no cover at all, but that won’t sell many books.)

Scar: The story behind the cover

Throughout the process of publishing Scar, I’ve had quite a few people comment favourably on the cover. Not just friends of mine, either; even the folks at Createspace complimented me on it.

I wanted to keep it simple and stark. The tree comes from the mythological themes of the book; the tree has always been an archetypal image in mythologies throughout the world. Also, Scar is a book about family and the past; I felt the tree with its spreading roots was a good representation of that. The red was my girlfriend’s idea; it makes the cover much more striking, and also hints at the theme of blood, of family. The roots in the black soil also hint at the underworld, a major theme in the book being the psychological/mythological descent into the underworld of one’s psyche. That the upper branches of the tree suggest the human brain was a happy coincidence lost on me until my brother pointed it out.

I can’t draw worth a damn. But happily for me, and unhappily for them, artists are abundant, and cheap. There are as many people trying to break out into art as there are trying to write books, and in the meantime, many of them are happy to take on small jobs. I put an ad on craigslist looking for an artist, and got dozens of replies.  You can also explore deviantart.com to find someone whose style suits your book.

My cover was drawn by a Seattle artist named Michael Yakutis; he also drew comics of a few scenes from Scar for my website and advertising material. He’s talented, a real pleasure to work with and ridiculously reasonable; you can see more of his work at http://www.artifolio.com/artist/michaelyakutis888/.

There’s a lot about Scar that I’m proud of, and the cover is definitely one of those things. Every time I look at it, I feel a small swell of pride; that’s what a good cover can do.

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Ebook publishing blues

November 27, 2011 at 5:48 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , )

With Scar out in paperback, I quickly set about getting an ebook version available. Now, personally, I’ve never read an ebook – at least, I hadn’t until I started making one. I don’t have an eReader, and I don’t really want one. You see, it’s not just stories that I love. I really love books; the physical object itself. I like bookstores. I like having books around me at home. While I can see the appeal of being able to carry a library around with you at all times, I can’t quite make the leap, yet.

But I’m not one to make war on the ocean. Ebook sales for January 2010 were up 261% against the previous January, and that statistic is now two years old. Ebooks outsell hardcovers on Amazon, and that’s for established authors. When it comes to self-published authors, the difference is more dramatic. It’s anecdotal, but from talking to authors on forums such as the Createspace forums, ebooks are where it’s at. Check out J.A. Konrath’s blog (http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/) and see what he’s doing with ebooks and self-publishing. This is a man who’s turned his back on traditional publishing to self-publish ebooks, because he can make more money that way.

Think of it this way: no one’s ever heard of me, or my novel. They don’t know what to expect from me. For all they know, Scar could be the greatest work of fiction ever created, or (and this is far more likely) it could be a poorly written, unedited exercise in dilettante ego-stroking. But if they read the synopsis and it sounds interesting, they might consider taking a chance on my book. If they want a print copy, they’re risking $14.95 plus shipping. The ebook costs $2.99, and they can download and start reading it instantly.

This is basic marketing psychology, and if you want to sell books – if you want to sell anything – you need to get to grips with this. Ebooks can be priced so low that they become an impulse buy. But when you sell ebooks through Amazon, you get a 70% royalty. 70%, when traditionally-published authors who sell in the MILLIONS get 15-20%. If I sell two ebooks, I make almost as much as I do from one print book; that is to say, a $5.98 ebook sale gets me $4.18, and a $14.95 (plus shipping) print sale gets me $4.45.

I knew I had to make Scar an ebook. But I’m a dunce when it comes to computers. I basically have the same attitude to my PC as I do to my car; I can make it go, but I have no real idea how it works. If something goes wrong, I am powerless to fix it.

Enter smashwords.com. Smahwords is a DIY ebook distributor, and what they do is really quite impressive. When you sign up, you get a free ebook by Mark Coker, the founder of smashwords. (The first and so far only ebook I’ve read, incidentally.) This 88 page behemoth may seem daunting, but it’s an incredible tool that will teach you, step by step, how to take you book (assuming it’s in Microsoft Word) and make it into an ebook. Smashwords will then convert it into every conceivable ebook format, and sell it on their website.

Createspace will offer to make your book available on the Kindle for $79 dollars. But if you follow the Smashwords style guide, your Word document will be Kindle-ready for free. You can then go to Kindle Direct Publishing (kdp.amazon.com) and upload your book for free.

Honestly, if you write a conventional novel, you’d be stupid not to do this. It’s all free, it takes a few minutes, and it’s a whole other way to sell your books. Moreover, the ebook market is the big story in publishing right now. Rely only on print sales, and you will be left behind.

BUT….Scar is not like other books, and so transforming it into an electronic version was a quick day trip to an upper circle of hell. Scar has almost 150 footnotes, each of which had to be individually linked in Word to the point to which they’re supposed to refer. Technically, you can’t do footnotes in an ebook, only endnotes; so they all had to be moved to the end of the book. The blacked-out pages had to be reformatted into images, and once that was done, it turned out they were the wrong kind of images. The palimpsests and overwritten text – the very feature that makes Scar, Scar – simply couldn’t be replicated. Believe me, I tried. I spoke to every professional who would answer an email, and they all said the same thing – no way. Can’t be done. It took a week to turn Scar into a functional ebook, and it still wasn’t perfect.

Ultimately, I had to choose between a neutered version of Scar for the ebook, or nothing at all. But I really believe that this is the future of publishing. I love books; but I said the same thing about CDs. I liked the physical object; I liked the record store. I finally bought my first iPod in 2006, and I haven’t bought a CD in at least three years. Ebooks are new – so new that my spell-check won’t recognize the word – and they have very definite limitations. But that’s how technology goes; we laugh at what seemed impossible a year ago. If you’re not part of the future, you’ve consigned yourself to the past.

So Scar is available as an ebook, without the palimpsests (http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/97573). The blacked-out pages are in there, but they seem to appear and disappear depending on what reader you use. The fact of the matter is, I think Scar can stand on the story and the quality of the writing. There’s no doubt that it loses something without the palimpsests; but they’re not essential to the story. I’d rather have it available in this form than not at all.
The way I see it is this: there’ll always be a market for printed books. It’s 2011, and albums are still put out on vinyl; what does that tell you? Sometimes, a cultural artefact and distribution technology meld so perfectly that the object itself becomes a thing of beauty. That’s how I see books. The print version of Scar is a beautiful object, at least to me. It’s the ultimate way to tell the story I set out to tell.

But if people want to buy an ebook, for one-tenth of the price of a print copy plus shipping, I’m not going to stand in their way. I’ve been poor too long myself to start getting elitist. They might miss out on some of the effects I fought so hard to create, but the story will still shine through; they’ll still get it. That’s really all I want.

As a compromise, there’s a note at the back of the ebook. It gives readers a link and a password, so they can go to my website and download a pdf of Scar, the way it was meant to look. This way, those who really get the book, who really understand what I was trying to do, can see it the way it was should be. For those who just want to pass a few hours reading a story, that’s fine too.

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Createspace screws up a second time

October 1, 2011 at 10:26 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , )

It’s been a while since my last post, and there’s a couple of reasons for that. Tectonic shifts in my private life have kept me on the back foot for much of the summer. Also, proof reading took far longer than expected. Every time I thought I had the book exactly right, I’d send it off to Createspace; they’d send me another proof, and I’d find more mistakes. I went through four different proofs in this way. (The last error I found was a discrepancy in the reported ages of the main character and his father. I must have read this book fifteen times by now. Five other people have read it, including a professional editor, and no one spotted this. A lesson for writers: you can never read closely enough!)

Normally, when you receive a proof and it isn’t right, you go to your Createspace account and reject the proof. They will then ask a couple of questions as to why you don’t like the proof, essentially to make sure it’s not a printing error on their part. Then you upload a revised PDF, they process it and send you another proof, and the process starts again.
However, last time I rejected a proof, something strange happened. I got this message:

Congratulations on making “Scar” ( 3575000 ) available! All Content Creation products have been fulfilled and we would like to thank you for using our services. If you have not already, please follow the steps below to enable your title through our distribution channels.

I quickly emailed them back, explaining that I hadn’t accepted the proof, and that it wasn’t ready for publication. I got this message back:

In viewing the history of this title, I see that it has never gone available and that it is now currently in “Incomplete” status. The message you received seems to have been an error on our end and I sincerely apologize for any misunderstanding it may have caused.

Upon further review of your account, I was able to see that you successfully uploaded revisions on August 29; however, these files have not been submitted for our review process. To do so, please log in to your account, navigate to the “Complete Setup” step in the “Setup” phase, and select “Submit files for Review” at the bottom of the screen. We’ll then review your files and send you an e-mail notification outlining the results of your submission within 24 to 48 hours.

Once your files pass review, you will have the option to either order another proof copy of your title or skip the physical proof step and make your title immediately available.

So I did what they said. I submitted my files for review, and got this message:

The text overlaps on the PDF page 126. Please adjust the text in the native program and recreate the PDF for publishing.

That was too much for me. After the months of work I put into getting the book right, after getting four different proofs which all had the unusual text effects I wanted, I was in no mood to be told a second time that what I had fought to get wasn’t possible. I fired off a slightly nasty email, telling them that I knew that what I was asking could be done, but if they were unwilling to do it I’d find someone else who would. I got this back:

Our Technical Services team has confirmed that your files will be accepted as they are submitted in your account. We have set your title back to “In Process” and you should expect to receive a new review shortly. I apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.

Obviously, this was all a frustrating waste of time, but all’s well that ends well, no? They fixed my problem, once I got firm with them.
What irks me, though, is that without my consent, they moved me one step further along in the publishing process. By accepting a proof I told them to reject, they advanced me to the next stage in the process, and once you reach that stage, additional proofs cost additional money. I had to pay $12.99 for the proof I’m currently waiting on.
I understand that they’re a business. I got four proofs for free, and I would have no problem if after that, they decided to charge me. If they had just sent me a message saying, ‘we can’t keep sending you books for free. From now on, we’ll charge you for additional proofs’, I would have been fine with that. But instead, they made a ‘mistake’ that I now have to pay for. Not cool.

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The edit’s the thing…

March 21, 2011 at 6:56 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , , , )

So you’ve written that novel and you’re ready to publish it. You’ve shown it off to your family and friends, and at least some of them have agreed that it doesn’t suck. Good. But if you’re going to self-publish your novel, you’re going to need to hire a professional editor. You do. And those of you who think you don’t need one probably need one most of all.

Why? Well, a professional editor is, or should be, utterly unbiased. They get paid no matter what they think of your work, and so if it’s garbage, they’ll let you know, and if they praise it, you can believe them. No matter how objective your circle of friends tries to be, if they have an interest in your happiness, chances are they’ll go easy on you. A professional editor doesn’t have to live with you sulking because they suggested you could stand to lose chapters 7, 18, 119 and 237-298; or that your main character has the depth and complexity of a damp Kleenex on a rainy sidewalk and your plot twists may as well come with two week’s written notice.

Secondly, a professional editor probably knows more about what sells books than you, your family or your friends, unless you happen to come from a publishing dynasty or regularly lunch with the heads of the Seven Sisters of publishing. And if that’s the case, it’s pretty unlikely you’d be self-publishing in the first place. For example: my novel, Scar, contains a number of different fonts, representing the viewpoints of different characters. While my editor understood the impulse behind this, he cautioned against it, especially if I was to try to publish the book via the conventional route. Agents and publishers, he pointed out, are very wary of writing with more than one font; it reeks of amateurism, like wearing jeans to a job interview. No matter the quality of the work, most agents and publishers will stop reading once they see the font change. And there I was thinking I was all edgy and cool like Mark Z. Danielewski.

Editors – good editors – know books. It takes real skill to look at a finished manuscript written by a complete stranger and figure out how to make it better. After five years of writing Scar, I had reached a hopeless impasse. Too familiar with the story and too invested in the outcome to be able to so much as approach the clean-eyed objectivity of a new reader, I knew I needed a professional’s opinion. It was nice to hear that my girlfriend thought it was good, but I needed a more in-depth analysis.

So how do you find an editor? The same way I find everything else – the internet. If you’re self-publishing with one of the big companies, like Createspace or Lulu – more on them later – they can edit your manuscript for you, for a fee. Createspace, for instance, charges $0.0175 per word for a basic copyedit on a book longer than 10,000 words. Doesn’t sound too bad, until you consider that Scar would cost $1750, just for a review of spelling, grammar, punctuation and the like. A more comprehensive edit, in which they offered me the services of “a professional editor who will focus on improving sentence structure while providing suggestions to help you strengthen your book’s content” would have cost me around $3200; far more than I’m able to spend.

If you have money and time’s an issue, this might not be so bad. I can’t speak to the quality of Createspace’s editors. One thing that did put me off, though, was the fact that I had no way of knowing, at least before buying the service, who my editor was. If I’m laying out that kind of money, I want to be sure it’s being edited by someone with experience, who knows what they’re talking about.

So I decided to use the internet to do some shopping around, and eventually settled on pronovelediting.com. One of the many things I liked about them was that they were willing to do a sample edit of a couple of pages for free so I could see what to expect. I got samples from a few different companies, but the edit from pronovelediting.com was hands-down the sharpest, most insightful and most helpful of the bunch. Also, their turn-around times are impressive. And best of all, the edit for the entire manuscript came in at around $1500! (Though in fairness, I should point out that this was an edit of content, style, plot and things like that, and did not include the basic mechanics of spelling, grammar and punctuation. As it happens, I’m a fairly decent proofreader myself, and in order to keep costs down, I decided not to pay for that service. It’s easy to find people who can spell to help you out; not so easy to find help with the structure of a story, plot and character development, imagery, etc. That’s where I found I needed professional help.)

Editing your manuscript is one of the most important steps to making a great book, so price isn’t everything. Getting it done right is going to cost you money, no matter which route you go down. I went through a bunch of different editors, and was quoted anywhere from $800 to $5000. This isn’t the time to cheap out, but your own circumstances will dictate what you can afford. The quote for $5000 I got was from a big name in the publishing industry, a man with decades of experience behind him who has edited some of the biggest bestsellers around. It would have been great to have someone like that in my corner, but I simply don’t have that kind of money. I’m guessing lots of people don’t.

In the end, I was very happy with the service I got from pronovelediting.com. The editor really seemed to understand what I was trying to do with Scar, and the suggestions he made helped it to be a far better book than it would otherwise be. Scar is not the easiest novel to edit by any means, and $1500 was, to me, a small price to pay to make sure it was all it could be before I set it loose on an unsuspecting public…

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