COVER STORIES

One of the great things about this self-publishing game is the control it gives you over your covers. This is also, of course, one of the scarier things about it.
Back when I was publishing traditionally with St. Martin’s Minotaur, they were very nice about asking for my input on the cover. It quickly became clear, however, that they really were just being polite. For instance, when I first saw the cover for the hardcover version of THE DEVIL’S RIGHT HAND, I let them know, I thought it was pretty cool, but (1) that’s not the car Jack Keller drives, and (2) Why is Michael Stipe of R.E.M.on the cover of my book?

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My editor told me “Okay, I’ll let them know how you feel, we’ll get back to you.” About a week later, I got an e-mail with an attached JPG, asking how I felt about my changes.

It was almost exactly the same cover, just with slightly different colors.

I got the hint.

I also got some really great covers from some really talented designers on that book and the next three, so it was all good.

When I went indie, I’d heard that a good cover was vitally important if you wanted to get people’s attention. What I didn’t have was any money to pay a professional cover designer. So I tried to do it myself.

Big mistake. My first attempt for my first Kindle book, STORM SURGE, looked like just what it was: some public domain footage with some MS WORD font slapped over it by a total amateur.

ImageIt looked like utter crap,  and the early sales reflected it. Then I heard about this guy named Jeroen ten Berge, who lives in New Zealand, and who was quite reasonable as to price. He’d done some covers for J.A. Konrath and Blake Crouch that I really liked, so I got in touch. Jeroen does something unusual for cover designers: he actually insists on reading the entire book before doing the cover. That makes things a little slower, but his updated cover for STORM SURGE made it worth the wait.When I got the rights back to my back catalog, I had him do the covers for the Jack Keller books as well. He also did the covers for LAWYERS, GUNS AND MONEY and GALLOWS POLE.

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When I delved into Science Fiction under the name of J.D. Nixx, I decided i wanted a new look to go with the new name. So I got ahold of my good friend David Terrenoire, who’s worked in advertising for years. He worked very closely with me in selecting the stock images (about which more anon) and was very patient as we did tweak after tweak for the covers of my military sci-fi/vampire/revenge tale, MONSTER: NIGHTRIDER’S VENGEANCE,   and my short collection of medieval fantasy/mystery stories, THE KING’S JUSTICE.

By the time  I returned to redneck noir, I’d come to really like the covers that my friend Robert Gregory Browne does for his books like the bestselling TRIAL JUNKIES. Yes, he does his own covers, but, unlike me, he knows his way around Photoshop and has more of an eye for design than I ever will. So when I asked, he gracefully agreed to do the cover for my follow-up to BREAKING COVER, which at the time was called BUCKTHORN. With his permission, I’m going to walk you through the steps in designing an indie-published cover.

First, he asked for my ideas. I really had only a few vague thoughts of what I wanted, since I was busy battling my way through the second draft: “Guy walking down lonely road, possibly with shotgun in hand, and sheriff’s star in background.” He came back with this image, which he’d found at one of the many sites like fotolia.com, shutterstock.com and the like that sell “stock” photographic images for ads, covers, and the like.

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It’s low res, as you can see, and has “watermarks” which the version you purchase doesn’t have. Rob told me “I could isolate this guy’s torso with the shotgun, fade his face and put him against a lonely road background. Have him foreground to one side, the road behind him and maybe the badge superimposed somehow.”  I said give it a try. This was the first go:

ImageNice, huh? The gritty feel was exactly what I was looking for. The storm clouds were a  plus, too, since a big storm that brings a clue to the protagonist is the inciting plot point. But we weren’t done yet. I wanted to get across that this was the sequel to BREAKING COVER, which has so far been my biggest selling Kindle title. Also, since it’s Tim Buckthorn’s book, and he’s a Deputy Sheriff, I wanted his star in there somewhere. I kicked other titles around with Rob and others and that’s how the book came to be called BROKEN SHIELD, which ties it to the other book. Here’s the new title, with sheriff’s star on the cover:
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Hmmmm…very good, but the star just didn’t work there. I considered dropping it entirely, but before doing that, I inquired if there was any way to put a black bar, like a ribbon, across the middle of it. It’s the lawman’s version of a black armband to honor a fallen comrade, and it references another plot point. Rob, Photoshop wizard that he is, managed not only to put the band on, but to pin the badge to the man’s shirt. I still don’t know how he did that.

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You’ll see that the colors have changed, and the storm clouds seem to be showing through the figure. That was going to need tweaking. But now that we had the concept and design down, it was time to buy the images. Yes, you actually have to pay for them, and some sties demand that you set up an account and buy lots of “credits” towards images at a time, which required searchng for sites that had images at the right price. Nothing is ever easy.

Meanwhile, we messed a bit with text placement:

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And coloring (I liked the original yellower coloring because it fit better with the cover of the last book.):
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Until we finally came up with this:
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I don’t know about you, but I dig it. So much that I think I’m going to ask Rob to re-do the BREAKING COVER cover to be more like it. But don’t tell him yet. He’s sick of me enough as it is right now.

And that, my friends, is how you get covers for an indie book.
I’m working through my first readers’ note and doing some revisions on BROKEN SHIELD, but I hope to have it out by the end of the month. Hope you like it!

Ulterior Motivations

In the writing life there are two kinds of motivation. One is the kind that gets you to apply your backside to a chair and get some writing done every day. The other kind is the reason why your characters do the things they do. Both motivations can be difficult at times, but let’s start with the more basic: why do you write?

Most fiction writers, it seems, like to be read. Writing for yourself is interesting but not ultimately satisfying, so if you write for publication the communication continuum is complete. Editors give you feedback, reviewers give you thumbs up. You hear from readers, they like your novel, they hate it, whatever. They read it. Fifteen years ago I would hear successful writers talk about their “brand.” You still hear this, about branding yourself. Back then they said it with a touch of regret. “I write about this character, that’s the brand.” This usually meant their publisher wanted only their series books, a known quantity, and didn’t want them to veer off into the unknown. Stick with success, baby. Don’t mess it up. Since a significant amount of money is riding on that success, for both writer and publisher, everybody’s happy if the brand is continued. These writers are motivated by their own success. They worry about doing better on this book than the last. They worry about their publisher turning sour on them. They worry about their next three-book contract.

Actually I have no idea what they worry about because I am not one of those writers. So I’m not motivated to write by the contract deadline. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with making a good living as a bestselling writer! But I find it a bit sad when writers refer to their books as their products and their career as their brand. Writing is so personal. (Good writing anyway.) It comes from a place you don’t even understand, the subconscious, and informs your story in ways that are surprising and sometimes even magical. If you are pre-determined to write about a specific character ad nauseum, doesn’t this take away from the joy of writing? (This is probably why I no longer have a New York publisher!)

What motivates a writer when there is no one clamoring for that next book? Your love of the process. For me writing a novel is like putting together an enormous jigsaw puzzle whose picture is fuzzy. As some of the parts come together the picture clears up. But then other pieces don’t fit with that part so you take it apart and start over. Novel-writing is an organizational challenge, and a big challenge it is. If you like to see the big picture, work out how to make sense of characters’ actions, think hard and then re-think and re-think, then novel writing is for you. If you’re in love with words, write poetry. If you want to write about a slice of life, a moment or a day, write a short story.

It can be extremely frustrating to write a novel, especially if you’re trying to do something new. And (you knew this by now) I don’t like the old. If I’ve conquered a type of novel, at least in my own mind, I want a bigger challenge. I want to dig deeper. Every novel I write touches me in a new way, makes me see the world afresh. I don’t know why you would be a writer if you didn’t have your own ulterior motives for writing. Mine is to see life from a different angle, to explore what it means to be a human being in a certain place and time, to figure out what’s going on inside my own head and my own heart.

Which leads us to the second motivational challenge, getting characters to act in a way that appears rational. If characters have no motivation to do certain things, your story falls apart. Back to the drawing board. This is another hurdle you have to cross yourself. Good prep work can solve most of these problems. If you outline, make sure the seeds of important actions are planted early on. If you’re a pantser like myself, fill your notebooks with the wanderings of your mind, figure out what sort of person would do whatever it is they must do. (Being a pantser doesn’t mean you can just sit down and start a novel without figuring it out ahead of time. It just means every part of the novel isn’t figured out.)

It’s a great journey, writing a novel. Enjoy the trip.

Lise McClendon’s new novel, All Your Pretty Dreams, is a twist on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It comes out August 15.

The changing marketplace

My favorite librarian sent me a tweet this week:

Hi, Lise! I like buying books from Amazon, but am concerned about its multiple efforts toward dominance/monopoly. Your thoughts?

Lately Amazon seems to be taking drastic measures to destroy its competition. This isn’t exactly news. They’ve been in that zero-sum game for some time, where they spent vast amounts of money to expand into everything from diapers to lawn mowers, not to mention their bestselling Kindles and exclusive deals on e-books. They undercut everybody else’s prices, hoping to drive everyone else out of business. And then what? Are they going to raise their prices? Are they going to be sued by the government like Microsoft? Or just sit back and rake in the cash?

This week brought the news that both Barnes & Noble and Books-A-Million will not carry Amazon Createspace titles in their stores. As far as I can tell they will still carry them on their websites. E-books are a different story, not apparently affected. But for the library market, well, often librarians buy directly from Amazon or Barnes & Noble. It’s faster and cheaper. But will it stay cheaper if Amazon is the only game in town? The future is murky, my friend.

I told my librarian friend that things are changing so fast in publishing that I couldn’t get riled up about any particular change. Tomorrow there will bring something else. Jeff Bezos of Amazon said: “As a company, one of our greatest cultural strengths is accepting the fact that if you’re going to invent, you’re going to disrupt. A lot of entrenched interests are not going to like it. Some of them will be genuinely concerned about the new way, and some of them will have a vested self-interest in preserving the old way.” He says they plan to disrupt themselves. They can be something different next year, next month. They can change on a dime, and plan on doing so. Are bookstores entrenched interests? Absolutely. Are publishers? Without a doubt. Are libraries? I hope not.

Let’s face it: the old way of publishing, where you as a publisher bribe bookstores to carry your book then take it back at full price (hardback) and/or encourage them to tear the cover off and throw it in the garbage (paperback), was fundamentally broken 50 years ago. Entire forests have died for unloved literature. Yet the broken system continued plodding along, until the Internet and Amazon turned it on its head. Thank God for Amazon!

But if you don’t like the changes, you can always squawk about them — everywhere. This week showed again the power of social media when the Susan Komen Foundation decided to blacklist Planned Parenthood, pulling over half a million dollars in grants for breast cancer screening. Three days later they got the message loud and clear: petitions on Facebook, rants on Twitter. The outcry was deafening and they backtracked. News travels at warp speed on the Internet. Public opinion of your decision, good or bad, is democratic and widespread. Everyone has a voice. Like the revolutions in the Mideast, you can’t keep a good opinion down, no matter how much money or power you have. As an old sociology major I find this fascinating — and encouraging.

The biggest change this past year for Amazon is expanding into their own publishing with Larry Kirshbaum at the helm. (An interesting article about him here.) The ultimate insider, Kirshbaum brought Jeff Bezos to a publishing meeting way back in ’98 when Amazon started as an “internet bookstore.” (Another article, on Bezos, here.  Wired Magazine, by the way, is full of great writing!) As much as publishers (and some authors) talk about Amazon’s business strategies being evil, they are making money there. (Full disclosure, I made about $11,000 on e-books at Amazon last year, much of it on books that had been traditionally published years before.)

Every year won’t be like 2011. It was a wild ride for e-books, e-readers, publishers, self-publishers, and authors. But it’s hard not to be excited by all the changes. The author is now in the driver’s seat, (even if your book is proclaimed by Publishers Weekly to be “The Worst Novel Ever.” At least you can upload it and get a reaction.) Nobody is forcing readers to buy your book but at least they have a chance to see it and decide. You have to write the best book you can, get it edited and proofread, put your baby out into the world all fresh and shiny. You have the opportunity with Amazon — and Barnes & Noble and Smashwords and Apple. May there always be choices in the marketplace. Lots of competition out there, from great writers, mediocre writers, and crap writers. Amazon and those who followed them have leveled the playing field. Will the cream rise to the top? I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Monday 2/6: We didn’t have to wait long for the next part! Over the weekend Indigo Books in Canada also decided to not stock Amazon books. And this just in: Amazon will open their own bricks-and-mortar store. Reportedly to open in Seattle in the next few months. As the worm turns…