Publishing — A Self-Publishing Adventure Part 3


Well, release day is just around the corner (June 29th), and today, we’re talking about covers.

Covers are, of course, a subject of huge excitement and fear — especially if you decide to do it yourself, which is something you should never do, and I’m doing it.  Why?  Oh, why?  Oh, why on Earth would I choose to do it myself?  Well, here’s an interesting aspect of self-publishing — you have to think like a business person — twice.

The first time is like any self-employed writer — and if you’re ever considering quitting your day job (which you shouldn’t), you should know that you will have to think like a self-employed business person because that’s what you will become.  A writer is, essentially, a content provider for publishers.  The business contact we have is mostly business-to-business.  But we also have to deal with promotions and some sales, albeit in a non-retail mode of operation.  We have to negotiate contracts, weigh the investments of cons and speaking engagements, and even pay quarterly estimated taxes.

But the second time around is as a publisher.  When you self-publish, you become the publisher, and you have to make many decisions with that hat on and not the hat of the writer.  And this is where covers come in to play.

The fact is that short story collections are not big sellers.  This should not be anything surprising and for most of our readers, I suspect this is old news.  So, while the writer in me would love to pay an artist five hundred dollars to create something beautiful and eye-catching, the publisher in me knows that if I spend too much, I probably won’t make my money back.  And let’s face it — I’m not doing this to lose money.  If this were a novel, I would certainly shell out the money and more, but as a short story collection, I had to focus my funds on copy-editing and the like.  So, I did the cover myself.

Of course, because I care a lot about this book, I didn’t just throw anything on the cover.  I researched what was needed and acted accordingly.  Here’s what I learned:

  • Covers for printed books and covers for ebooks are different animals.  Printed books go by the 3-foot rule — a book cover should be easily understandable from three feet away — in other words, the maximum distance for somebody walking by in the aisle.  An ebook cover, however, needs to be understandable from the tiny scale of a thumbnail .jpg!
  • So, big titles in easily readable fonts and colors are important — thus, my title is almost half the cover, and I’ve checked the cover out in the various thumbnail sizes used by amazon, bn, and others.  As far as I can tell, it holds up well.
  • Like print books, the author’s name should only be as big as the value of that name.  In my case, my name won’t sell across the country, but it will sell to those who know my work (I hope), so I made it a decent size, though not as big as the title.
  • Blurbs and extra-wordage are useless for an ebook.  Really.  Take a look at any of the book covers on this site.  They are all far larger than you’ll get at the search/browsing level on amazon.  Can you make out any of the blurbs or other words?  No.  Title and author are what readers will see.
  • Finally, a single strong image that expresses the book is more useful than a more detailed image.  There can be some detail.  My cover for example has a single image — a brain — but when you see the larger cover, you can enjoy the “labels” that are provided.  But overall, this is not good news for my illustrator friends who made a living painting sweeping planetscapes or massive cities and the like.  Not that these will go away, but rather that the demand for such art will lessen (and according to them, has already begun to lessen).

Go to amazon and check out the book covers.  Some of the print ones are beautiful in your hand but translate poorly to thumbnail size.  You can barely read the titles and the colorful images are tough to see — especially on a b/w e-reader.

So, with all that in mind, I went to work and came up with what follows.  It’s not perfect, but I think it’ll do the job.  And in the end, one of the perks of ebooks is that should this collection sell better than expected, I can pay an artist for a new cover and update the file, instantly creating a new edition!

Without further yapping, here’s the cover:

And here’s the cover in one of the smallest thumbnail sizes (in fact, smaller than anything I’ve seen at the major ebook retailers) to illustrate what I’m talking about:


17 comments to Publishing — A Self-Publishing Adventure Part 3

  • That’s a pretty good cover, Stuart. The title is big enough, and the title is interesting enough to draw some folks off the tiny thumbnail to the product page, where you can hook them with your blurb. I like the little segments of the brain, too, those are cute. I think this will work just fine for you. I recently wrote about my own cover issues, which I’m approaching by hiring someone to redo all the covers of my books. It’s costing me about $400 per book, but I should be able to recoup that fairly quickly.

    This is a fantastic primer on ebook cover design, and should be read by all self-publishers before uploading their first work.

  • wookiee

    I hope this doesn’t come across too harsh, I’m hoping to be constructive. The old adage “don’t judge a book by its cover” doesn’t carry any weight with me. I do it all the time, and I do it particularly often with the Kindle eBook store. With self-published eBooks, I’m always looking for an easy way to discredit a book simply as a way to filter the vast virtual bookstore.

    If it looks like the author hasn’t put the time into constructing a polished cover, I assume the author hasn’t put the time into constructing a polished story.

    I’ll probably buy your book simply because I know you, but if it were by someone else I wouldn’t based just on the fact that it looks quickly whipped up in Photoshop – cloud filter background, soft focus on color drop-shadowed title, gradient behind brain. The color scheme with the text is fine, but the aqua gradient background in contrast with the solid pitch-black brain just don’t seem to fit with the other blue and softer colors. However, these might just be matters of taste and I often walk out the front door dressed questionably, so take it as you will.

    There are obvious anti-aliasing artifacts, which may simply be due to resizing/compression of your original for posting here – if not done in a vector program like Illustrator, it’s often necessary to completely reproduce the image at the smaller thumbnail size rather than simply asking the graphics program to resize it down.

  • I think your cover looks great. 🙂 Thought, suddenly with the critical eyes being expressed here, it makes me want to get feedback on my own cover work. Mine are only concept art, as I’m still unpublished, but now I’m curious!

    Thanks for the input; I learned something! 🙂

  • John — Thanks. And $400/book is a good deal (assuming the artwork is good). Good luck!

    wookiee — Not too harsh at all. My hope is that the book will sell enough to people who already know and trust my name that I’ll eventually be able to justify paying the money for a professional cover. As I said in the post, if this were a novel, I wouldn’t hesitate to pay the money, but since this a short story collection and my first attempt with an ebook, there’s only so much $$ I’m willing to shell out to start. Hopefully, you all will get the book, enjoy it, and help spread the word.

    David — Glad you like the cover. And like anything else in this business, getting feedback is important. But just like beta feedback, don’t start changing everything just because of one opinion. Wookiee is right — for him. And he clearly has an understanding and an eye for how these things are constructed. But of the three comments, so far, two are positive. Of course, three comments isn’t enough to change or keep anything. I’ll need a larger response before I bang my head against the computer. And as I pointed out, I don’t have the money to hire somebody just yet. We have to do the best with what we have and I put my money in the copy-editing. Also, the verdict isn’t in yet on how people browse books online. Anecdotal evidence is all over the place with some treating it like a bookstore and basing it all on cover, while others are taking advantage of the product description and samples. Still others go with the “Others who bought this item also liked” suggestions. Oy! That’s why it’s a self-publishing ADVENTURE!

  • I think it looks pretty good, Stuart, and it translates to the thumbnail well. But I do think you should do something to make your name more prominent in the smaller version. I know that you’re not yet — YET — a household name, but you do have a following from the podcast and your story sales, and I think you should take advantage of that a bit more. I hope the book is successful beyond your wildest dreams.

  • David — Glad you like it (especially because your names on it!). The thumbnail I show in the post is smaller than anything used by amazon or others. I made it that small merely to show that even at an obnoxiously tiny level, the title can still be read. If you look around amazon and see the three main sizes they use, my name comes out looking fine. So, no worries there — the few who know me should be able to find me!

  • Love the cover, Staurt. Very smart, very clever. Covers can make or break a book, and I think you’ve got a winner.

  • Stuart, I love the brain. My zombie-loving pals will adore it on sight. 🙂 I also like the colors you chose, the blues and aqua and the bloody red outlining the font.

    I hired a proff. cover designer for Cat Tales, and am having to eat the expense when the pub bought the stories. I wish I had taken your path — do it myself first, then hire an artist *after* it proved a worthwhile investment. With e-books takeing over, cover designers may (unfortunately) go the way of the buggy-whip-makers, leaving only the cream at the top.

  • Cover win when in .jpg size. The only things that makes me think ‘self published cover’ are the little red words with the lines indicating the parts of your brain.

    I think that style works when you have a richer brain image, like here.

    With a simpler image, like here, simply placing the words over parts of the brain looks better for me.

    Also, might be more recognizable as a brain if you included a cerebellum and brain stem. Looks a bit like a ‘blob’ from a distance without those brain bits.

  • Ed — Thanks. From your lips to the peoples’ ears.

    Faith — Just as ebooks have created chaos in the writer/publisher world, it has had a similar effect in the publisher/illustrator world. Nobody knows for sure what’s going to happen. After all, the books still need images. But once enough hard data exists to say whether a self-made cover does or does not make the same, or more, money than a professional cover, then their road will be a bit clearer. There are still many other avenues for artists — gaming cards, websites, concept art, and much more. It reminds me of what I said during our ConCarolina interview — if you do good work, you can find a way to the audience. It may not be the traditional way, or even a way you had ever imagined, but it’ll find its way.

    Roxanne — Thanks for the feedback. I actually tried a variety of brain images and labeling methods. It comes down to how the image fits on the cover and (more importantly) how it translates to the e-reader. Since, for now, most e-readers are black and white, I found that labels on the brain disappeared in b/w unless I used a white brain — and a white brain really looked like a blob from a distance. Then again, this is my first time using any kind of art program (I used for those who care), so the learning curve was steep. In fact, I had to laugh at wookiee’s comment that the cover looked like it had been dashed off in a short time since it took me a LOOOOONG time to figure out enough to get what I got! Anyway, if there’s ever a second compilation, I’ll hopefully have better skills, and can see if I can do better with the brain. 🙂

  • pepperthorn

    I think the cover looks good. It’s clean and is very easy to see at the tiny size needed. My only concern/criticism is that it looks kind of clinical, like a nonfiction cover. But maybe that’s just me.

  • Wow, you did that all with learning it fresh? That’s double-plus impressive.

  • pepperthorn — I agree it does have a clinical look, but I figured a) anybody stumbling upon this will be looking in the Fantasy/SF sections and b) the title is hardly clinical. Hopefully, those two points will draw interest when coming across a clinical cover. But then, who knows? Thanks for the input. I’m taking notes on what everybody here says and once the book comes out, if sales are in trouble, I’ll be taking it all into account — or if sales are great and I opt to hire a pro to redo the cover, I’ll have these comments to help shape the new cover! Point is, THANKS.

    Roxanne — You’ll make me blush. I’m glad my meager skills are even a little impressive — thankfully, you’ll never see my drawing capabilities (or lack there of), or anything impressive will go out the window!

  • Good overview on the issues of creating a decent cover, Stuart. You mention a couple of critical things that many cover designers obviously don’t know or don’t care about: how it looks in B&W, and how it looks when tiny.

    The cover isn’t a bad effort for an amateur designer, but it does look like an amateur design. On the other hand, I’ve seen far worse from other self-published authors, and even the pro’s occasionally turn out a real dud. I know I certainly couldn’t have done better than you did.

    If your sales don’t achieve your goals and you decide to make changes, I’d seriously consider changing the title. It doesn’t speak to me at all of being fantasy related. I’d probably never really look that closely at the little red brain labels to figure out what the book is really about. Even just taking the word “My” out of it might help: “Ten Bits of Brain.” I know, sounds a bit macabre, but maybe that’s a good thing.

    I wish you the best of luck on this project, and I look forward to picking up a copy.

  • Tom G

    Stuart, I think you did pretty good. I know it’s hard. I put up a UF short story as an experiment (under TW Gallier), and made the cover myself using GIMP (a free software program). I used Royalty free art, that was “sold” for free. I’m still not pleased with it, and will change it someday. Sales don’t justify a pro cover at this point.

  • Okay, the marketer in me has to point out something here. A focus on ROI tends to make us think things like “If the book does well, I’ll just have it pay for its own pro cover design.”

    Here’s the problem: if your book doesn’t sell well, how much of that is because the cover doesn’t resonate with your audience?

    Realistically, the time to try a new cover or title is when the book does poorly, not when it does well.

    Take advantage of the fact that, as a self publisher, you can change your book’s cover, title, or price in a heartbeat. With e-publishing and POD, you have no inventory to worry about.

  • DR — I appreciate your comments. Thanks. My only real problem in making some of these decisions is that there’s not a lot of evidence one way or the other regarding, for example, the value of a good cover in ebooks. Print books? Sure, no problem. We have decades and decades of data to know what works and what doesn’t. But people browse differently on-line — especially the generations after mine (I’m X-gen) who grew up with computers already in existence. So, it’s all up in the air. All your points are good ones and apply to most situations spot on. And, frankly, you may be 100% right in this situation, too. I’m taking this quite slowly to gather data as I go. One great thing about ebooks is that they don’t get taken off the shelf. So, as you say, if the book does poorly, then perhaps that’s the time to try a new cover! Anyway, thanks again. You’ve given me plenty to think about.

    Tom G — Glad you like it. And you’re right. It is hard. But the more I delve into all this, the easier it’s getting. So, if there’s a next time around, I’ll be all ready to go!