28 Mar 2016
Being an indie author does not demand that you know everything about your profession before you publish your first book. Pastry chefs know how to make the desserts. The counter jockey at the fast-food joint knows everything about making hamburgers, running the french-fry machine, and running the cash register. Nobody expects a surgeon to operate without knowing what all the little tools on that tray are for.
But like indie musicians and indie filmmakers, indie authors pick up the rudiments of their craft in any order, from any source. There are no gatekeepers, and the only path that exists is the MFA, and that doesn’t guarantee success.
It’s possible to write a story in the morning, format it in the evening, slap a cover on it and shove it into cyberspace before bedtime. Author J.A. Konrath made that point a few years back, when he challenged his readers to write and publish a book in eight hours. They did.
I downloaded several of them. They were pretty terrible. Maybe one story had a hope of being good if the writer tried again. But quality wasn’t the point to Konrath’s exercise (I hope). The point was to make the potential good writers out there realize that the barriers are down, and that creating a story and getting it out there was easier than they thought.
I get that. When we’re alone with the page, it’s easy to be discouraged. There are those who have great faith in themselves who don’t have the problem, but I do. It’s easy to think that I’m turning out junk, that no one will read this, that it would be better for everyone concerned if you dumped the manuscript into the trash and walk away.
Instead, we should realize that writing, rewriting, editing, and publishing is an ongoing process. You’ll never get a certificate from Hamburger U. that says you know all there needs to know about this. That a book is never perfect; it’s simply taken from your hands and published. And the quality of that story, and the package that markets and sells it, will only be as good as the quality of your skills that you possess at that moment.
It never stops.
And since you’ll never reach proficiency — heaven help your readers if you think you’ve reached it, because you’ll never get better then — you might as well follow Heinlein’s advice about writing, updated for the new world of self-publishing:
1. You Must Write
2. Finish What You Start
3. You Must Refrain From Rewriting, Except to Editorial Order
4. You Must Write the Jacket Copy, Design the Cover, and Publish Your Story, or Hire Someone to Do It For You.
So You Want to Design a Cover
The majority of indie authors have no experience in cover design, or any kind of design at all. One way to get up to speed on a subject is to reverse-engineer something similar to what you want to do.
Last night, my wife and I were reading in bed and I noticed the cover for Jayne Ann Krentz’s “Secret Sisters.” The Wife follows Krentz’s novels. When a new one comes out, she’ll get it.
“Hmmmm,” sez I, “that seems like an awfully simple cover.” So when I next got the chance, I looked at it and broke down the elements that drew my attention.
1. Cover designer Rita Frangie reversed the colors in “New York Times Bestselling Author” so it wouldn’t get lost in the coat.
2. The type size favored Krentz’s name over the title.
3. Krentz’s name is the same color as the sky, while the title reflects the red in the model’s hair. Note also the subtle darkening behind the “J” and “E” in JAYNE so that it wouldn’t get lost in the sky.
4. The model’s coat has a sharp-edged look that suggests the background was cut away. Was it?
Fortunately, the book credited Mohamad Itani, a photographer who put up his photos at Trevillion Images, so after some poking around there, I found the source photo.
(Note: I deliberately trimmed and scaled down all of the Trevillion Images here to 79dpi. For “Fair Use” commentary only.)
Turns out I was wrong. The designer changed the color of the sky. She isolated that part of the photo, then altered it. This gave the coat a sharp edge that make it appeared cut out. The designer also added more clouds to the left of the model to obscure the tree line.
So what did I learn from this?
1. The existence of Trevillion Images, a stock photo service. Always useful to have another source of images.
In fact, the quality of Trevillion’s photos looks exceptionally high. Just scrolling through their latest images can be enough to inspire stories to go with them.
2. How much manipulation can be performed on a photo to make it your own. And why it should be done for a photo that can be bought more than once. If someone else buys this photo for their book, chances are they’ll use it as-is, or recolor it the way they want.
3. That typography for your book cover could be simple. “Secret Sisters” uses two sans-serif fonts: one for the author, and two variations of the same one for the title and the promo line. (How can you tell they’re the same? Look at the way the right leg in the capital R in “Sisters” and “Author” curve to the right at the bottom.) “Secret Service” is a condensed form of the font, and it appears the promo line was extended horizontally to about 110 percent. See? Even fonts can be played with to give your book a unique look.