Monday, April 25, 2011

The $6 Bestseller: The Fallacy of "Use Pros"

While we are engaging in new thinking, there's a new universal truth that is clearly not so universal--that you need to be edited by a pro and that you need pro book covers to be successful, and you need to invest $2,000 to get published.

Here's a little secret--nobody touched Liquid Fear or even saw it besides my all-star proofreader, Neal Hock at Bookhound's Den. I did the editing, I did the cover, I did the formatting, all in house, all with easily available and free tools. Besides my time, I have maybe $6 invested in the book (Neal and I work in trade). It hit #25 on the Kindle bestseller list and has sold pretty well. Conclusion: You DON'T need to pay a whole bunch of money to look like a certain thing in order to be "successful."

In fact, I've found the opposite to be true--if you duplicate the professional-quality look of NY, the expectation of what a book should "look like," guess what? You look like all the other hundreds of thousands of books. If you have your kid go into a Paint program for the first time and make you a cover, you're going to look like the other hundreds of thousands of people who totally don't get the new era and do the amateur thing because they are trying to imitate a book cover but don't know what one is.

Here's why I will probably do all my own covers from now on: it's fun!

I don't claim to be a graphic designer, because I'm not. I did spend a couple of years learning basic skills to function in the new arena, but since I don't care about making a NY cover, or a crappy cover (which may take even longer than a pro cover), I can just find an image that tells my story and then come up with clean, legible font and look at in it postage-stamp size, in black-and-white.

That's another reason I started doing my own covers--I was having a difficult time explaining to people with big, fancy computers and large, high-resolution screens that this wasn't art, this was NOT a book cover, it's an icon button for a digital product. An entirely new product, and it needs an entirely new presentation.

The third reason-- since few cover artists ever read the books for which they do covers, they work only from their own idea of what the book should be. In NY, that may be a synopsis or editorial instructions, but very rarely is the author consulted. See the problem? The author knows the book better than anyone else and would complicate matters tremendously by trying to explain it to an artist. I know the tone and feel and nuance of my book and how I think it should be presented. I should know better than anyone how I want to invite my reader inside.

I hear my writer friends talk about the exhausting back-and-forth with a cover artist, or the four-month wait, and I can only shake my head. That's another reason I re-did a few of my existing covers. I discovered the ones I did in 20 minutes were more effective than the ones I labored over for days, because simplicity is the keyword for today.

Editing. I am a professional editor, but that doesn't mean I think everyone needs to be edited. Potential clients send me five-page samples for free. Sometimes the writer is not yet at a stage where I can help--that writer needs more experience and it would be immoral for me to take the money. If I feel we can each benefit, I will take on the job. But it's also not uncommon for me to realize a particular writer doesn't need my services, and I tell the writer so.

I don't think editing is an absolute need. I do believe you need a proofreader, no matter who you are, and preferably several, even if your book is professionally edited. I would probably be kicked out of the editor's union if I were in one, but the idea that "Every book can be improved by editing" is one of those stories told to keep editorial jobs alive. Why should anyone know the book better than the writer? And if editors are so brilliant, why aren't they writers instead?

Formatting is another skill that can be learned. I like doing it and I put in a year tinkering, even though I am not naturally a tech whiz. It's hard work. But I realized it was critical to my business. If you sell widgets, you should understand how widgets are made. My friends at Dellaster Design and Book Looks do low-priced e-book formatting, and Stephen at Book Looks does the print formatting of my books. I can use them if I want, but I don't need them.

The point of all this is not to minimize the wonderful skills of artists, editors, and e-book formatters everywhere. If you personally need them, by all means, you owe it to your book and your creative happiness to do everything within your means to make your baby shine. But you don't need them. That type of thinking is just setting up another gatekeeper system, where only those with money can play in the sandbox.

Could Liquid Fear have been improved with the guidance of an outside editor? Maybe. Or maybe it would have been merely changed. That's subjective, and the world will never know. I may even revise it myself later--I have revised at least four of my books while they were already on sale. Why not? I can do it, and if it improves the book, I have an obligation to do so. Maybe an editor would have pushed Liquid Fear to #1. I don't care, because I don't need #1 to be "successful."

I play in my sandbox because it's fun, and I love every single aspect of what I do, and there are no rules and no absolutes and no certain direction--it seems like every universal truth I ignore, the happier I am and the more creative I can be and the freer I am. That's "success" for me. And, guess what? I earned my $6 back. The rest is candy.



John G. Hartness said...


Thanks for the link to Neal - I've been looking for a good proofreader! I do a lot of my own editing and formatting as well, and do my own print layouts, too. I plan on using an editor and proofreader for the next book, mostly because I can almost afford it now and really want to polish a little more. I've always used a cover artist because I have little to no interest in doing that myself, but if I had the ability I certainly would do my own (and may in the future if I have more time to learn).

Keith said...

This is a post I can relate to! I was wondering just the other day whether you did your own covers or not, and concluded that you probably hired someone. It's really interesting to me to find that you do all your own work.

I've self-published three novels as part of an ongoing series (I'm currently writing Book 4). I have regular proofreaders, do all my own editing, cover designs, formatting, and so on. I love it. Like you, I don't claim to be the best designer ever, and I'm constantly wishing I'd done better, but it's so much more satisfying to do my own covers and have that level of control. It's worth spending inordinate amounts of time learning all this stuff.

A while ago I converted my books for Kindle and Nook (again, all my own work, since I'm a website designer and can work directly with HTML). I realized my cover text wasn't really bold enough when viewed as thumbnails, so that's a lesson learned!

Please excuse the plug here, but I also learned a valuable lesson about the subject matter of my book covers:
(see top left thumbnails)

The books are aimed at the 9-12 age group although half my readers are adults. I did the first cover to conjure up a sense of fog and mystery, which basically sums up Book 1 of the series. Adults seem to like it. Book 2 has a dragon on the front and is less mystery and more adventure. After I published it, I found that the majority of younger readers wanted to buy Book 2 before Book 1 simply because of that dragon. So I learned (well, duh!) that younger readers need something "exciting" on the front rather than "foreboding and mysterious" that an adult might prefer. So all my covers will have a creature of some kind in future.

I suppose this is obvious to most professional designers, and probably to anyone else but me! I'm a slow learner. :-)

author Scott Nicholson said...

Hi John, I do think it's fine to consider your book an "investment," and one worth spending $ on, but there's no absolute rule to anything. Just do the best you can!

Keith, it sounds like you are figuring things out--part of the fun of the indie way!


Trey Lindsay said...

Totally agree with the DIY aesthetic - not to say you HAVE to do everything from writing to covers to formatting yourself, but in a world of naysayers, it's great to hear from a successful professional that that option is just as legitimate.

Also, being a book cover design fan, here's a couple of great links for inspiration:

I miss the fun "luridness" of the vintage pulp paperbacks... and the lessons learned from those vintage covers can be extremely helpful in today's Amazon-browsing, one-click marketplace. Perhaps now more than ever.

author Scott Nicholson said...

digital pulp is back, Trey!

Nicholas La Salla said...

I agree about editing, Scott. There is no reason a writer can't edit his or her own work. I have been editing my own work for years. That's one reason why I never would have self-published until very recently. My confidence had to be to a level where I could comfortably put what I write out there without fearing getting slammed for stupid writing mishaps.

As an example: my ghost story One More Day was actually bought by a publisher, Wizards of the Coast, back in the day. It was edited all the way to the final draft, and they did a good job, but I STILL found things to fix after the fact before I put it out on Kindle.

Just because you have the word Professional added to your name doesn't mean you can't make mistakes.


Three Before Dark: A Collection of Horrifying Novellas
One More Day: A Ghost Story

Tim McGregor said...

While I agree that the author knows the story better than anyone, I disagree about the use of an editor. Or a beta reader. The author is too close to the work to see the forest for the trees. Having a pair of objective eyes read your work is indispensible. The editor or beta reader has no emotional attachment to the piece. If they have a problem with the story (plot, character, logic) then you can be damn sure that your average reading public (ie: the people buying your work) will also have a problem.

Having an outside reader, be it an editor or a beta reader whose opinion you trust, is a key step in prepping the work you present to the world.

Claude Nougat said...

Your post is full of good advice and I just tweeted it!

I especially like your comment about cover art for ebooks: you're so right, this is a whole new ball game. The cover has to be super simple from a design point of view and work not only in colour, but above all in black and white because that's how they show up on the Kindle etc!

As to the need for an editor, I believe that's very subjective. If you have good beta readers around you, whether friends of family, I guess you don't really need one. But if you don't, or your beta readers are sycophants in disguise, well then, an outsider would be advisable...