Shoestring Publishing, Part Three

In continuing our discussion of items on our budgeting list, we’ve come to one of the most important and also one of the most potentially problematic. That item, of course, is the cover art.

7. Cover art

Here’s where we state the obvious–that the cover art is the first thing most people will see of your book. It generates an immediate first impression, and so of course you’re going to want it to look good. This means that if you don’t have skill at designing covers and if you’re not an artist, you may need to plan on spending some money to buy good cover art from an artist online.

If you are already an artist, particularly if you have an eye for graphic design, then cover art may not be an issue for you. If you know a good artist who could potentially create your cover art, then you are also a bit ahead of the game. But if you aren’t an artist or already used to graphic design, then you may have more of a challenge on your hands. The last thing you really want is cover art that looks as though it was created by an 8-year-old with a box of crayons. (The caveat to this may be if you’re publishing a children’s book or a book about children, and you actually think an elementary school drawing style would be perfect for the cover.) Most of the rest of the time, though, you want a cover that looks attractive, catches the eye, says something meaningful about your book, and gives your readers a good sense of what it is you’re writing about.

Hiring an artist is certainly an option. If you Google for “book cover art” or “freelance artists,” you can find many different people out there who do in fact design cover art as a business venture. There are even some who will do so for relatively low cost. Here are a few at random, and again, I can’t personally vouch for any of them:

I looked at all but one of these sites, (Fiverr has so many artists advertising their services that it would be an impossible task for me to chase all the links.) Many of the covers in the portfolios on these sites are gorgeous. But as with anything for which you pay money, be an aware and informed buyer if you choose to use any of the artists.

As I said, I haven’t personally had experience with any of the above artists. The links are just meant to give you an idea of what’s out there in the way of cover artists. Now, it’s possible/probable that some or even many of them are primarily creating or offering ebook cover designs rather than full print book covers. In that case, you might be able to buy just the front cover part and then have a plain spine and plain back cover, and do all but the front cover part yourself. Or it may be that some of the artists could design the whole print cover for you (which of course might involve a higher fee.) You’ll just have to contact some of them and see what they tell you. From what I’ve seen, many of the ebook cover art offered online ranges in price from around $50 to maybe $75, though there are of course some who go up into the hundreds. There’s a wide range of prices out there. Fiverr is a rule until itself, and I know that some people have had success in using that.

By now you’re probably wondering if I picked an artist for my own book covers. The answer is no. Bear in mind, however, this was my personal best choice at the time. In future, that will most likely change, and I will no doubt find an artist who can create any cover I need. If your budget is a bit larger than mine was and if you can afford cover art, I encourage you to pick a wonderful artist and get yourself a great cover that you’ll be happy with. I would have liked to do that, but it didn’t work out for me to choose that option at the times I was putting together my first two books.

When I created the cover art for my first book, my choices were incredibly easy. On a trip to my childhood home, I had taken a wonderful photo that I knew without a shred of doubt was meant for my first book cover. Given the subject I was writing about and the way the photo had turned out, it was absolutely the right choice to use it.

I was able to get a free layout program that not only helped me format the interior of my book, but also helped me format the cover art. That free layout software is called Scribus, and it can be found here:

At first, I was daunted by the notion of having to learn a whole new software program, but I had every incentive to do so. One of the most popular commercial programs for layout is InDesign, but as you might expect, this industry-standard program is Very Expensive–a prepaid year of use of InDesign on Adobe’s Creative Cloud is $239.88 for a single app, or $599.88 per prepaid year for the more popular “all apps” version. Not something I could afford. Yes, you can also pay for a plan where you only use it a month at a time and pay as you go, but here was a software program that I had no idea how to use. I didn’t want to get stuck renting (not even owning!) this for a few months while I went through all the effort to learn how to use it. Sure, you can get a free trial version that lasts for 30 days, but the whole notion of trying to learn how it worked while my free trial was ticking away just felt like too daunting a prospect for me. Besides, Scribus had been dubbed by some as “the poor man’s InDesign,” and I was more than willing to give that a try.

I downloaded Scribus, and found a couple of helpful books that got me through the learning curve relatively unscathed. They are as follows:

Creating Print On Demand Interiors & Covers Using Scribus 1.4.1

Using FREE Scribus Software to Create Professional Presentations

These books told me nearly everything I needed to know to use Scribus to do what I wanted, and what few details they didn’t cover, I looked up on the Scribus site Wiki.

I followed a few rules of thumb: I kept the cover simple and clean in design, chose harmonious and appropriate colors, and edited, edited, edited. I learned the craft. I measured, rearranged, and started from scratch when necessary. In the end, I had a first book cover I could be proud of, and because the photo I used was one I took myself, I didn’t even have to worry about paying someone for the right to use it. Given that with the photo, I didn’t have to do any drawing or painting, I was pretty sure I could manage to create a good-looking cover if I could learn how to use the free layout software, and still produce the cover within the small time frame I had left before publication.

As I was online shopping for free fonts to use for the cover, I found one that I absolutely loved but which wasn’t free. It was available via license, however, and I think the license cost $39.00 for lifetime use. I’ve always felt it was well worth the cost to get the font that I really wanted for the book.

I also bought those two Scribus instructional books, so to be fair, we have to add their cost in to the total of my expenses, but I also had to keep in mind that they would be useful again and again if I needed to refer to them while doing future books. That has indeed been the case, so the expense for then was well worth it. One was $5.99 as an ebook, and the other was $30.00. Now, you can get that one in used form for about $23.00, so it’s the used price we’ll be figuring into our budgeting.

My cost for cover art now came to about $53.00–about the same amount that I’d have paid for a single premade ebook front cover image. Instead of hiring a cover artist, I chose to invest my time and money into learning how to create the covers myself, so that in future, I’d know how to do it and could do it again. I also found that I really enjoyed the artistic side of putting the cover together.

My first novel was far more of a cover challenge than the first nonfiction book was. Photograph covers are easy, comparatively speaking. But for an epic fantasy novel, I needed something different. I needed actual art. A painting, if I could get it. However, I had a problem. Given my projected date for publication of the novel, I didn’t have time to wait for any artist I might hire to get the job done. Even if they could turn it over in a month, it would still not be soon enough.

Word to the wise here: don’t do as I did. Truly. I have a bad habit of putting off the most daunting part of any process until the very last. Consequently, I created my first two covers as the last item of production, close to the advertised publication date. I didn’t leave myself any time to hire an artist to do a custom design if I hadn’t been able to manage the cover art myself. That meant that at this stage of the process, my only option would have been a premade cover which might not have really fit the theme of my books. Don’t do what I did; don’t wait too late. Whether you’re painting it yourself or hiring an artist, get your cover art done sooner rather than later in the process. It’s what I plan to do from now on. Plus, having the cover art earlier in the process makes for a better chance at advance marketing/advertising for the book.

So, to wrap up this story, I painted my own cover for the epic fantasy. Had I ever painted a cover art painting before? No. How did I do it? I went to YouTube and looked up many videos of technique, and then followed the instructions like a student in an art class. I’ll probably post something about the art/painting process later in this blog. For now, suffice it to say that the painting was a huge challenge, but I was satisfied with most of the elements I ended up with for my first fiction cover. Most elements, not all, but we live and we learn.

True confession time: Do I think my fiction book cover is all the way up at pro level? No. Definitely not. Do I think it’s horrible? No. I think at least it isn’t terrible, and I do think the colors and design itself are highly appropriate to the subject matter of the book. There’s certainly room for improvement, but no, I’d have to say it doesn’t look as though it was finger-painted by an 8-year-old, so it’s good enough for the time being. Do I plan to do better next time? Absolutely. And maybe one day when I can afford to hire an artist to do a full custom cover art spread for each book in the series, then I’ll do a cover art upgrade and change all three of the covers at once. I will, however, have to budget a few hundred dollars for this, because custom work generally costs more than premade cover art.

That’s all we have time for this week, so we’ll keep on with our budget list every week until we’ve gone through it all.

An Author’s Dilemma

Since establishing RavenSidhe Publishing, I’ve frequently been approached by new writers at public events where my books were on display. The main concern of these new writers tends to be something along the lines of “I’ve written a book, but I don’t know what to do with it. I don’t know what happens next. I might need your help later.” The decision of whether or not to self-publish one’s own work has become a major concern nowadays, and it’s no wonder.

While I’m flattered that people would think me knowledgeable enough on the subject of publishing that they’d want me to advise them, I’ve had to explain that I don’t personally mentor people on how to publish their books. I don’t have anywhere near enough time to do that–not if I hope to keep up with my own writing and other work as well. But what I can do is use this blog to give people an idea of what my writing journey has been like, and pull back the veil a little on the seemingly mysterious process of creating, producing and marketing a book. I can offer helpful links to resources and related information readily available online, with the hope that this will help people make up their own minds about what would be the best course of action available for them and their books.

Traditional wisdom advises a new author to find an agent if possible, and then seek publication from a larger New York publishing house, or if not that, then at least from a smaller press with some degree of respectability and recognition. For a long time, the stigma against self-published work scared off many a potentially independent author. Right out of the starting gate, let me just say that I was one of those writers. For the better part of three decades, I courted the New York publishing scene as ardently as could be. I played by all the “rules” and still lost the game as I had thought it was supposed to be played. Ultimately, I ended up not just self-publishing, but starting my own publishing company.

What combination of circumstances and events led me to do this? With the advent of easy self-publishing platforms such as CreateSpace, where any aspiring author could upload an e-book or even a print book with little to no start-up cost, why would anyone want to go to the extreme of registering an LLC and becoming a publisher in an official sense? To answer that, let me do what writers do. Let me tell you a story.

To begin, I’ll give you a little background about myself as an author, so you can see why I felt myself to be pushed kicking and screaming into the brave new world of modern-day publishing and self-publishing. Please bear in mind that the path I have taken is not for everyone. As in all things, it is always best to look at the information offered and then make your own informed and well-considered decision.

It seems strange to think about how long I’ve been in this game, but I have been a writer for well over 40 years. I wrote my first short stories in grade school and my first novel (longhand, in a spiral notebook) at the age of 16. Over the decades that followed, I went on to write several more novels. For some considerable time, I tried to no avail to secure a literary agent for my work. Always a stickler for grammar and editing, I went to a great deal of trouble to learn the craft of writing. I wanted not just to write, but to write well. Naturally, my first attempts at writing novels were terrible. My first million words of garbage went into the closet. Even now that I have become my own publisher and can produce whatever books I want, those first few novels will stay in the closet, because you all deserve better. Those first attempts might not have been up to par, but they were a good training ground nonetheless. I learned a lot from writing them and making all those rookie mistakes.

By the time I’d spent a few years taking master classes in technique at various writers’ conferences, entered a few contests and endured countless rejection letters, the miracle finally happened; I landed an agent for my novels. Of course, I was thrilled, and still am. My agent is a wonderful person whose opinion I deeply respect, and having formerly been an editor in New York, he helped further shape my writing into something I could be proud of. Unfortunately, shortly after he took me on as a client, the bottom dropped out of the market for big thick epic fantasy novels, which of course was exactly what I’d been writing.

Suddenly, editors seemed reluctant to consider taking on new authors in that genre, and while some still got into the club, I was not among them. I received positive feedback about the quality of my writing from various editors, including one who reportedly said she loved the book but could not find a spot for it. The length was quite likely one of the biggest issues, even though just a few years before, similar long novels were being sought after. After finishing the first one, I’d gone on to write an entire trilogy, which writing coaches and editors assured me was at a publishable level. Regardless, there was no spot for me and my books among the big publishers in the epic fantasy arena.

I then did what I thought to be the best thing at the time; I followed the market. Laurell K. Hamilton and several other authors were having a great deal of success in the urban fantasy genre, and even though my first love had been epic fantasy, I was more than willing to try my hand on the urban side of the tracks. The next novel I wrote was urban fantasy, but not the standard vampire/werewolf fare. Instead, I went for the thing that more readily held my interest: the world of the fae, and more specifically, the Irish Tuatha De Danann and related groups. I was happy with the finished novel, peer opinions were favorable, and although I had departed from the typical by not using first person point of view, I was sure that this book would fit right into the UF trend and be published. Unfortunately, despite the best efforts of my agent and myself, and despite the reports of writer peers and publishers who read it and really liked my writing style, this novel found no home either.

Like it or not, I had come to a turning point I could no longer avoid. I had multiple experts in the field telling me that my writing was good enough to be published, but I still had no publishing contracts forthcoming. I’d had only one success in the short story arena when my story “The Truth One Sees” was published in the Warrior Wisewoman 3 science fiction anthology from Norilana Books in 2010. Other than that, my work always seemed to be hitting the market just after the curve, and I was doing a very professional job of getting nowhere. I was eventually forced to make a very hard choice. I could continue as I was and keep chasing the ever-shrinking New York market until eventually someone gave me a shot, or I could strike out on my own and take my writing fate into my own hands.

That sparked off a host of new worries and questions. If I self-published, would I be struck down by the same stigma that had affected many self-published books in the past? Part of the problem with so many of those is the editing. Some authors fail to learn their craft well or do proper editing, and then release books rife with typos, clunky sentence structure, and glaring amateurish mistakes. While it is an injustice to assume all self-published books will be badly done, it is also true that there is a reason the stigma against self-publishing came about in the first place. I didn’t want my books to be categorically dismissed by readers just because I’d published them myself.

There was also a huge amount of work required to produce the books, none of which I knew how to do. I wanted a paperback version, and I had reluctantly come to admit that e-books, at least to some extent, were here to stay. I didn’t have the slightest idea of how to design and format either one. That being the case, I wondered whether I should hire a book packager to produce my book for me. If I did, would it be worth the money they’d charge? I didn’t know. I set out to do some research, and while I was still deliberating, I began to save money so that if I eventually did decide to use a packager, I’d be able to pay the huge fees to get the book produced–fees that could range from about $1000 upwards.

My family had been in very tight financial straits for several years. Consequently, it took me about a year and a half to save enough money from doing Tarot readings to potentially pay for a book packager. When I’d saved the minimum and was ready to make the final decision, I was inclined to use a packager because I felt so daunted by the prospect of producing a book on my own. There was just so much I didn’t know. However, general Internet opinion indicated that using a book packager was considered “vanity press,” and was therefore to be avoided. Many sites and sources made a strong distinction between the so-called “vanity press” and “self-publishing,” in which the author does all or most of the work. I was torn, and feeling a bit pressured to conform to a new set of publishing standards that hadn’t even finished sorting themselves out yet.

In the end, I decided not to fight the old stigma against self-published books and the stigma against vanity press both at the same time. It looked as though the most effective way to move forward was to learn how to publish my own book. Even with what I’d saved, I didn’t have a big budget, so I would have to do almost all the work myself. I resolved to do as good a job as possible and make the final product as professional as I could manage. Perception is key to any market.

The other big factor in my decision was money. I could spend about $1500 to have one book published, or I could spend the same amount and create a business that could eventually produce hundreds of books at my discretion and perhaps support me one day. I, who dislike math, did the math this time. My decision rapidly became clear, even if the oncoming learning curve terrified me.

At this point, you’re probably wondering why I considered it necessary to start a publishing company. I could have produced more than one book as an individual author without registering an LLC, of course. But in considering my options, I decided that as long as I was going to so much effort to learn all the things I’d need to know to publish the first book, I might as well create an entire business, of which I could be the CEO and sole management. I’ve discovered that I like being my own boss. I like setting my own standards and making my own stylistic decisions. It gave me a freedom and power I hadn’t even known I lacked.

Never in my wildest dreams did I envision having to publish my own books. Always, I assumed I’d be picked up by a New York publishing house and the rest would be history. I wanted only to wear the writer hat, not ten other hats as well, but fate–or perhaps my higher self–had other ideas. In August of 2013, the local government office stamped my application form, and RavenSidhe Publishing, LLC became official. I had a daunting but important learning curve ahead–Publishing 101, learned in the field. In upcoming posts, we’ll talk about the process of creating publishing companies and published books from scratch on a shoestring budget, pros and cons of various decisions that arise, and options available. By the time we run out of topics on the subject, you’ll either be certain you never want to try this at home, or you’ll be hooked.