Playing with cover art

original art by Marian Crane

I’m thinking about this for a fantasy short story cover. Still revamping the previously (anthology) published 25-page story, but seriously thinking about self-publishing this and some of the more-obscure Lonhra Sequence side stories. I have a lot of them.

Granted, this cover will be mostly taken up by text, but I like that it directly references story elements.

It wasn’t until revising THE PURIST and looking at my old notes for this story, ‘Saints and Heroes’, that I realized the huge volcano looming over Ajara City is called the Bell. Because the Sirrithani have twisted senses of humor.

Volcanoes are important in Sirr culture and myth: there’s a subset of earthwitchery dedicated to early warnings and control of fire-mountains. Their main goddess isn’t floating around in the sky; she’s below, curled around the world’s heart and trying to keep it from waking up and destroying everyone on the surface.

Tools: Painter 2017 oil paint filters, various tonal filters, volcano and banner sketched from web sources and heavily altered.

Self-publishing and Hybrid Authors, pt 1

I had a long, involved email exchange recently with some writer friends scattered around the world: print authors, digital authors, authors working for commercial contracts, authors who’ve gone almost exclusively to self-publishing. We all came to mostly the same conclusion:

We think the future, or at least the near-future to five or ten years out, is hybrid.

Commercial AND self-published. Digital, print, and multimedia. A mix of genres and platforms, opening up new opportunities and responsibilities. Some of us are more ready than others, I think.

In the commercial publishing industry, there’s been a knee-jerk loathing of self-publishing for at least the last thirty years, often equating it with vanity (author pays all costs) publishing. With the high-profile successes of some self-published and small-press-published authors, there’s a new awareness of self-publishing’s validity. Platforms like Amazon Kindle/Createspace, Smashwords, D2D, and others have made self-publishing far easier and cheaper than when I started writing in 1987.

Even formerly conservative, pro-commercial online writing sites are now showing real insight and efforts to include useful self-publishing information.

Self-publishing done right can be an incredible boost for a writer, and far more lucrative per-copy than many commercial contracts could ever be. It can be a faster process than most commercial publishing. But, just as in commercial publishing, there are no guarantees.

Self-publishing’s main downsides: market readiness and effective marketing.

This first part will discuss a manuscript’s readiness to be published.


I’ve written about this before, but it needs repeating for emphasis:

A lot of self-published writing is crap. It’s just math, folks: more stuff being published + ease of publishing = a large proportion of substandard products.

A staggering amount of text and imagery is self-published every day on many different platforms, especially as digital e-books. A great deal of it would probably have never survived the slush pile at a major literary agency or a commercial publisher. I dare you to read lots of sample chapters on Kindle or Smashwords, and tell me differently! I frequent half-a-dozen online writing sites, and I’m always saddened whenever I hear some version of ‘Down with the gatekeepers! Down with the haters! They couldn’t see my genius! I’ll show them and self-publish!’

In my personal experience, those claims usually are not backed up by genius. The claimants are often floundering in both Golden Word and Dunning-Kruger Syndromes, with an added dose of paranoid outrage that keeps them locked in the bubble of their own delusions.

When writers publish too early, without useful information on how various forms of publishing work, they tend to do several things that might ultimately swamp their writing career. They rely on readers to be editors who point out mistakes via reviews, after which the writers publish new editions. (No, please don’t do this. Your readers will give up on you when you keep waffling through the same book.)

Such writers tend to pick unprofessional cover art and fonts, further eroding reader interest. (No matter how much you love them, script fonts are not always your friend.)

If they don’t self-publish, they tend to pick low-quality small publishing houses on the theory that ‘they’re the only ones who will take me’ and ‘at least the work will be out there’.

When called out in bad or neutral reviews, unprepared authors can lash out in the most spectacularly career-damaging ways. (Not all publicity is good publicity.)

I can’t post snippets from it, but I just read an honest and fearless discussion from one author who realized what she’d done wrong and how it negatively impacted her writing sales. Being a literal sort, she took the advice ‘Build a backlist and make money from it’ without analyzing a personal strategy. Over five or six years, she published dozens of self-admittedly substandard works with small publishers who had abysmal track records in editing, cover art, marketing, and sales histories. She grew as a writer, but found those early books were giving her a lackluster rep in the market. She was making less and less money on new sales and her backlist. The only solution was to regain rights for the oldest books, ruthlessly edit them, and self-publish them while aiming new work at the best possible commercial houses. Time will tell if she can pull her writing – and its income – out of its disastrous stall.

Writing for publication means editing for publication. Most of us are not immediately qualified to know when we’ve effectively polished a first draft, let alone edit it. Those skills take time to learn, hubris to outgrow, and money to outsource.

I can give my own boring example.

In December of 2013 I was ready to self-publish a 17K fantasy novella. I’d signed up with Amazon, Omnilit, and other platforms. I’d mucked around with a potential cover. I knew I needed editing, so I contacted a very skilled and legendary editor familiar with the genre (based on a contact I’d made through a writing contest years earlier). She gave me a sample read and a great price break, along with a gentle warning about some of my writing. It wasn’t ready for a final edit. It needed structural work first, and I probably couldn’t afford her help on that.

I backed off from self-publishing, did a partial rewrite, and sent the piece out to two commercial markets. This was sneaky and horrible, because I had a feeling neither would take the piece – but I wanted more information. Both editors said no. Both gave me what I really wanted: short but personalized crits that told me I was on the right path, just not ‘there’ yet. (I don’t advise this as a constant or early strategy. Do this enough times and editors will begin to remember you as a pest.)

I contacted two very strong beta readers, who told me the same thing in more detail. I contacted my agent, because a major SFF publisher had just launched a novella imprint that might make it worth her time. My agent read my work and concurred with the beta readers and the two magazine editors. Even better, she gave me precise areas where I needed improvement. Too much telling, not enough showing, not enough emotion, not enough worldbuilding and too much infodumping of what was there…the list was brutal but accurate.

That novella is now nearly finished at 48K, and far stronger than the piece I would have self-published last year. Even if it goes nowhere in the commercial market, it will be a much better self-published piece for the extra time I’ve spent on it.

And yet, I see so many self-published authors avoiding that same work and publishing things too soon, then wailing about bad reviews and low (or no) sales. Garbage in, garbage out, as they say in IT coding. Start out with the best manuscript (and cover, and marketing plan) you possibly can.

If you can’t tell what that is, enlist qualified, experienced help…and please learn from them. Be honest about your strengths and weaknesses. Be suspicious of cheerleaders on both sides of the self-pub/commercial debate (they often have their own agendas which may not involve helping you!) There are no guarantees in this business, but your best efforts can help you far more than no effort at all.


My self-publishing countdown begins…

…Only I don’t really have an ending deadline date,  because I know all about best-laid plans.

Singer in Rhunshan will probably, at some point in the next few months, become a self-published fantasy novella.

There were valid reasons to delay this step: my fears, my ego, the complexity of doing this right, my worries that self-publishing this part of the story arc might derail my attempts to get the larger stories in front of Big Five science fiction and fantasy editors, my loathing for most promotional gambits, and my near-certainty that this novella will vanish into the self-publishing aether.

I can find just as many reasons to just hit the ‘launch’ button and hope. It has exhausted its chances at every major pro SFF market that I respected. It’s too long at 17K for many of them, too odd for others, not odd enough for a few, and one editor and I just don’t see by the same light. That’s fine. I’ve written the novella to the best of my current ability, and had some very industry-savvy people give me their approval. I have a decent cover. A good cover designer is looking at turning that into something remotely professional. I know too many other self-published authors who made the leap and are happy, if not rolling in wealth.

In various forms, this story has been taking up room on my hard drive since 1996. It’s time to let it out into daylight.

Singer cover, round three

Good news, everyone: I have found a skilled cover designer to do the text that I am obviously not qualified to go anywhere near. The designer and a pack of sharp-eyed folks in an online art forum found all the places I’ve messed up, and pointed them out.

It’s called a critique, and it’s a good thing. Workshopping this beast through my more-informed peers is only going to help it.

Singer round three cover baseHere’s the newest version. I added still more height and more space on either side. Where the stock photo original had the subject almost parallel to the horizon line, I angled him into the light. Refined his face and the shadow-cloud figure in the background. Trees and fog provide some more depth. A darker foreground gets rid of the light tan tangled weeds, adding a suggestion of shadowy foliage. More stars!

I’m still tweaking the text of the novella. Stop at decorously-vanilla romance? Include the next part of the story, which is fairly explicit, and fulfills all the innuendo of the first part? It would mean a 20K novella instead of a 16K one, which might make buyers happier about the projected $2.99 price. There is sex running through this whole series to greater or lesser degrees. I’d feel bad if someone read ‘Singer in Rhunshan’ and loved it for its oblique sensuality – and then read ‘Saints and Heroes’, ‘The Rubbisher’s Apprentice’, and ‘The Blue House’ and had a heart attack over the sex.

I’m also obsessing back and forth over buying one ISBN number, or a related block of ten for a relative pittance more. The jump from $125 for one, to $250 for ten, is substantial value. Having an ISBN on the novella means several good things. Print versions would be eligible to go into major retail and warehouse outlets, as well as some of the bigger romance, science-fiction, and fantasy genre contests. I’d have linked ISBNs ready in case I have to self-publish the whole bloody Lonhra Sequence. I could print respectable-looking Advance Review Copies. A book with an ISBN looks more professional to critics and buyers. I could add an ISBN later, but that would mean taking down the current version and completely re-doing everything…

These are the questions a self-publisher must answer, long before the book is launched.

I’ve also decided that my current human-figure rendering program is too old and clunky to deal with anymore. I’m looking at more-modern alternatives (as opposed to bullying my friends into photoshoots. Not enough beer in the world, one of them has informed me.)

This is all part of the adventure, I keep telling myself.


My first real try at self-publishing

…Okay, okay, there was the socially questionable and morally bankrupt comic book I wrote when I was maybe seven, but that didn’t last longer than fifteen minutes, a stern warning, and the ten feet to Mom’s shredder. It doesn’t count.

Nor do the 130K of various fan fiction stories I’ve written over the years.

What does count is that sometime in the next few weeks, I’ll be posting the final cover shot and buy links to a 14,500-word e-book called Singer in Rhunshan, set in the same Lonhra Sequence world as my Cleis Press story ‘Saints and Heroes’. But not a sequel, not exactly. More like a M/M/F fantasy retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice legend, with a tone somewhere between Andre Norton and Patricia McKillip.

Eridan Singer chose music and the love of a half-breed warrior woman over his duties to his nearly-extinct royal family. When the spell holding his wife in human form fails forever, Eridan barters for shapeshifting magic of his own, from a pack of ancient gods. Even if the price is his safety, his soul, and the other half of his heart.

Why am I self-publishing it? Because of length and style, it doesn’t fit into most of the pro-paying SFF short fiction publishers. While it’s part of a longer book called Baneflower, Singer is just on the low edge to be a novella…and it doesn’t have enough graphic sex to be considered by the best erotic romance e-publishers.

Nor am I going to wager a core story of my Lonhra Sequence arc on a lesser publisher I don’t trust, who wants me to do all my own promotions anyway, who has awkward covers, and who might have a meltdown and trap my work in bankruptcy. (Being published badly is far, far worse than not being published at all!)

How am I going to do it? The latest, strongest version has been beta-read by some great readers. I’ll give it another editing pass-through, then set up my cover art and titles, and send everything to a service called Draft2Digital.

They’ll format it (since an e-book formatter I am not!) and upload everything to the various vendors that I want. It’s no risk and no up-front cost to me, and they take minimal commissions off sales. The service is set up by self-publishers for self-publishers, with none of the vanity-press nonsense or propaganda getting in the way. I’ll do my own promo – but I’m fine with that. There’s even an option for paper copies through CreateSpace, in case I want to take print books to a convention. Best of all, I know some high-powered authors who’ve been using D2D to re-release their out of print backlists, with great results.

I’m scared and excited. Thank you, dear readers, for sharing the journey.

Misery Memoirs and Pay-to-Play Publishing

“Laugh and the world laughs with you. Weep, and you weep alone,” runs the quote from poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox.

Maybe not. The NY Times Bestseller list almost always has at least one example of ‘Misery Literature’. Misery memoirs (and their cousins family histories and autobiographies) have been made into major movies and won significant literary awards. And maybe because of that, and because all bets seem off in publishing right now, every would-be author with a compelling life story earnestly believes they too can strike it rich.

Or help just one more person who shares their situation.

Or at least vindicate the suffering they have either surmounted, or are still enduring.

And maybe they are right.

There is almost nothing like the thrill of finishing a piece of writing, whether it’s a poem, short story, essay, or novel – especially if it was born from a writer’s deepest, most personal experiences. But even better is having someone else read it and relate to it. Getting published and meeting that wider audience often seems like the next step.

But the cold truth about commercial ‘trade’ publishing is that its products have to be marketable. In some way. Books must strike some emotional nerve in a reader that whispers: ‘Keep reading. You want to know the rest of my story.’ They should also be well-written and coherent. Unfortunately, many inexperienced memoir writers are so emotionally involved in their stories that they can’t see when their writing is ineffective, awkward, off-putting, downright lunatic, or (I’m actually going to say this) whiny.

So even if such authors find the courage and necessary information to submit their works to major publishers or reputable small presses, they might get a rejection notice on the objective merits of the work alone. Or on the grounds that the house already has a similar book in the works or in its recent catalog.

That hurts, especially when it’s about words torn from the heart.

At that point, many misery memoir authors are at their most vulnerable to some outright scams and not-quite-scams that lurk around the fringes of the publishing world.

Some authors take the leap into self-publishing, improving their writing skills while learning on their own about formatting and marketing.

Some take what appears to be an easier way out, and pay for a vanity or subsidy press to publish their work for them. They might have found their publishers through recommendations from other vanity or subsidy-published authors, ads in writing magazines, desultory online searches, regional book fairs, or writing workshops more structured as multi-level marketing pitches than actual discussions of craft or good business practice.

Even that route is not a terrible thing, if done well. If the publishing fees (100% of the production costs for vanity, an allegedly smaller fee for subsidy) are not too high. If work and refund guarantees are not hedged around by clauses that effectively protect the publisher more than the author. If the publisher can show a website aimed more at book-buying readers than subsidy-paying authors. If the publisher can get well-priced books into bookstores (not just their online catalogs for pre-paid order), or to major reviewers and industry groups. If the publisher lives up to its claims of effective marketing – or is at least blunt about when most of a book’s marketing is really on its author’s shoulders.

Because of their emotional investment in their work, misery memoir authors appear to be one of the most lucrative target groups for unscrupulous vanity and subsidy publishers. These authors, if they are inexperienced about different publishing strategies, often spend thousands of dollars to publish their work, with little to no editorial guidance, bad formatting, bad cover art, ineffective marketing from their alleged ‘publisher’, and lackluster sales. Even more remarkable? These authors often submit subsequent manuscripts to the same or similar publishers. (What is the definition of insanity, eh? Doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result.)

I’m not posting links, because you’re supposed to be testing your Google-Fu skills. Look up Sunk Cost Fallacy and Dunning-Kruger Effect.

The senior citizen memoir, misery memoir, autobiography, self-help, and inspirational genres are still strong sellers. Because of that perception of success, they are also huge lures for authors With A Message.

There is information out there on how to publish well, at nearly any level of work effort and financial outlay.

Here are a few links. 

Added 12/03/2015: From literary agent Janet Reid (she of the famed Query Shark blog) comes this blunt but kind discussion of authors trying to sell their memoirs or life-experiences books.








‘My Turn’ and the end of an era

A lot has happened in the world since I last chimed in on this blog.

I could talk about gun violence and mental health, in the wake of numerous high-profile and tragic shootings. But many people are already doing that, to far better effect.

I can shake my head at the political gamesmanship over the oncoming economic difficulty variously called ‘the fiscal cliff’ or ‘the fiscal curb’. I’ve already written to my Republican senators and representatives, politely begging them to get back to work in the name of hundreds of thousands of ordinary folks who will feel the pinch when sequestration begins. I’m not a lobbyist, so I can’t do much more than that.

I can look at civil war in Syria, megalomania in Egypt, anti-rape protests in India, a dozen political or financial-bingo-card topics from around the world. My voice doesn’t matter in any of those discussions, save as a minute part of the aggregate conversation.

And yet, it does matter…because I have a platform. No one might ever read it, but I can technically be published and thus exposed to millions of readers, just by hitting the ‘publish’ button on WordPress.

People who’ve grown up with social media as a background in their lives have no idea what came before. Think of a loud, sprawling, and gloriously messy city, filled with every convenience at the click of a button or screen icon. Then consider a vast and isolated desert surrounding carefully guarded oases, a wilderness crossed by caravans of experienced travelers banding together in more-or-less mutual protection and apprenticeship.

A very long time ago, a print magazine called Newsweek began a feature called ‘My Turn’, which was technically open to the public. Technically, because unlike many local newspaper opinion slots, those meant for Newsweek were considered for relevance and literary merit. My Journalism and English classes in college were filled with students aiming at ‘My Turn’ and other open forums, because they provided a shot at real journalistic credit. We kept score how often we’d submitted opinion pieces to various magazines. We compared notes on fiction markets and literary agents (or sometimes held the information jealously to ourselves.) We made horrendous mistakes and learned from them; or else crawled away shattered, in denial, seeking less maddening professions.

But it all happened by mail, and it happened with seemingly geologic slowness. The process forced patience upon us. It made most of us hone our writing and research skills with each major disappointment or minor victory.

In the summer of 1988, I had the chance to see the process from the other side, as a summer intern for a modestly-successful literary agent. The agent herself was busy helping her existing clients. I read her slush pile. It was both awful and awe-inspiring, because every single one of those authors was as sure of themselves as I’d been. Most were terrible writers. By looking objectively at their efforts, I realized I was also a lackluster writer.

My responses didn’t come from any kind of ‘sour grapes’ – I’d already signed a waiver that my employer would not consider or recommend my work to any of her colleagues. If anything, I felt deeply connected to and sympathetic toward each author. Even so, I answered total strangers’ hopes and dreams with carefully bland rejection letters created from macro phrases. The phrases meant no more than ‘No’, but the agent thought they’d make the submitting authors less unhappy. She wanted them to keep going, to learn their way, and be as successful as possible. But until she accepted one of them as a client, she wasn’t their babysitter, tutor, therapist, or best friend.

In the grand old days of mailed submissions, we received 10 to 20 query letters or manuscripts a week. I passed on a larger number to the agent than I was perhaps supposed to: 12, that whole summer. Of those, she considered 2 manuscripts. If I recall clearly, she accepted one of those manuscripts and sold it to a genre mass-market paperback publisher a year or so later. One summer’s slush pile = one published novel.

Now, with the explosion of digital media and publishing platforms, those hapless authors don’t need to go through gatekeepers like myself or the agent who hired me for a summer, or through the editorial winnowing at big publishing houses. If authors are skilled enough at formatting and design, they can self-publish electronically for free or at very modest cost. If they are unsure about their skills or strapped for time, they can pay independent editors, artists, and designers – or pay a subsidy publisher to do most of that work. Self-published success stories make every author dream about the new Gold Rush.

It’s a wonderful new world, but it comes with its own heartbreaks. Because publishing is so easy now, authors can publish long before they’re ready – before they have the chastening epiphany that they are not ready. There’s more stuff published now, so readers have more unmitigated crap to wade through on the way. Social media links authors with readers, but those linkages can be easily gamed with paid reviews and interviews, meaningless contest awards, and retaliatory online flamewars. Readers have a tendency to stay within favorite genres. Newer writers often seek more-sympathetic social groups who will blindly support them, instead of encouraging them out of comfort zones. Authors who self-publish have lost first rights, and their books are often off the table for any serious publisher.

Many of these authors will never have the financial payout they wanted. Sales of self-published or subsidy-published works seem to average under 100 copies per edition, unless the work is 1) really good and 2) a viral marketing campaign gets it noticed by more than gushing friends and family. These numbers are sadly, eerily similar to the numbers of people never earning good money in most multi-level marketing businesses, and for similar reasons. Authors run out of friends and family ‘customers’ quickly. The ‘product’ may be overpriced and of lower-quality, and not as important as the nebulous feel-good goal of ‘I’ve been published!’

Many authors who jump the gun go on to make the same mistakes with other books – or even the same book in multiple editions. Without improving their work, they keep self-publishing, subsidy publishing, or publishing through small, new, untested companies which might or might not survive the first year. I’ve noticed a fair number of these authors go on to create their own publishing companies, which may or may not perpetuate the previous problems. Some are outright scams designed to separate credulous authors from easy money. Most are run by well-meaning folks who genuinely want to offer something new in the marketplace, but their experience may not be enough to make the business succeed.

One thing I really love about the new electronic publishing world: it’s so much easier to learn the ropes now than 24 years ago. Every facet of the publishing world is dissected at length online, somewhere, by people who know the business. We have no external excuses anymore for being taken advantage of and rushing too quickly to publication. The information is out there, if we just just take the time to look.

Soon Newsweek will cease as a print magazine. The ‘My Turn’ feature continues as a vibrant, career-building, consciousness-raising venue for people with passion and important stories. But it’s one tiny thread in a tapestry of millions.

It’s never been a better time to be a writer – but it’s never been a worse time to be a lazy or impatient writer. The wilderness is still there in the dark places between the big-city lights.