Category Archives: Publishing

A Weird Fiction Cover Design Intervention

On Twitter this April, I went on a rant about cover design, specifically targeting indie authors and small press houses within the Lovecraftian and weird fiction genres. Both are genres of which I am proud to be a part, but as of late I’ve found myself disappointed when it comes to the quality of the book cover designs. Fellow author S. Lee Benedict suggested I expand on this topic here, and it’s a good idea…

...and here we go.

This isn’t the first time I have written about cover design; you can read my previous post, ‘Building A Better Book Cover’ over here. Cover design is something of a passion for me. I’ve been a professional designer for 16 years working on everything from software, branding, advertising, book covers, and a variety of promotional materials. I believe good design is important, and I know it’s important to fans and readers.

So, here’s our situation. I feel like Lovecraftian and weird fiction literature needs a cover design intervention. Honestly, that statement could apply to much, much more than just those two categories; but these days I am closest to those genres, so they get the brunt of my focus. I’m not fond of publically shaming. So, don’t expect me to call out specific examples of bad design. However, with a little searching, you can easily see what I mean.

It’s not that indie authors or small publishers start out with a desire to make awful covers. Sit in on any self-publishing panel at a convention and every author will readily admit it’s worth spending the money on an illustration for your cover. And, many books with terrible covers start with a great illustration. They’re on point for tone and mood, and often a good step in the right direction, but they completely miss the mark when it comes to typography and design. Strange font choices abound, bad effects mar legibility, and bizarre distortions plague the shelves. At best it’s boring, at worst it’s completely illegible. (And it tends to skew towards the latter, unfortunately.) It’s like someone put all their effort into illustration and completely forgot that paying attention to the cover’s typography and design is just as important as having great art. Those three concepts are the pillars of good design. Everything in a book cover plays off of one another; bad typography can forever mar a beautiful illustration.

“…paying attention to the cover’s typography and design is just as important as having great art.”

If indie authors and small presses were more honest with themselves, they’d know when a cover is done vs. done right. It’s not hard to compare; solid examples are everywhere. And it wouldn’t take much to improve; basic typography operates under a set of rules, and a few typography classes at a local college would go a long way to learning the ins and outs. If that’s hard to swing, sit down with a Skillshare class. Jon Contino, the illustrator who did the lettering for my books, offers a Skillshare class on Illustration and Lettering: A Hands-on Approach to Label Design that is excellent. If you’re looking for books on the subject start with The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst. It’s commonly called “the Typographer’s Bible,” and it’s a good (if not dense) place to start. Also, look into Ellen Lupton’s fantastic Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students; it’s a practical guide on the rules of typography and how to break them effectively and creatively,

The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst
The Elements of Typographic Style by Robert Bringhurst

As I mentioned in my post, ‘Building a Better Book Cover,’ Chip Kidd, one of the greatest book cover designers living today, has said, “A book cover is a distillation. It is a haiku of the story.” I love that quote. He’s not wrong; bad cover design does a disservice to the writing it represents. It detracts when it should enhance, it lies when it should entice.

But there is a silver lining! I know quite a few authors who have taken the time and put in the effort and have made strides in cover design. Word Horde is a great weird fiction press that does wonderful work, and Laird Barron’s novels often have fantastic covers. Recent strides have been made by larger print houses as well; Victor laValle’s Ballad of Black Tom (Tor) and Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft County (Harper) were recent standouts in the genre. So well designed covers in weird fiction are out there. Publishers, designers, and authors should study what those books do right and strive towards emulating their successes.

Weird fiction book covers

I believe weird fiction is one of the most exciting and imaginative genres to be writing in today. It pushes at the edges of speculative fiction as a whole and continues to broaden its reach. It’s only reasonable to desire that the covers of the great work being produced should live up to the potential within the pages. We all want these books to continue to attract new readers for decades to come, and a well-designed cover goes a long way to doing just that.

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Fear Never Leaves

Fear Never Leaves

Is there such a thing as post-publication depression? I mean we spend all this time working on a book losing our evenings, weekends, and holidays making sure it’s ready. Then the big day arrives, the launch happens! We’re giddy! We’re excited! The book is released! Then… silence. The book is out there. You see people buying it. You know it’s in the hands of readers. But you sit and wonder and wait and eventually fear starts creeping in.

Oddly, this is my third post on the subject of fear as it pertains to writing. (See: I’m Scared and Fear Is The Mind Killer for the others.) I say “oddly” because these are never the articles I set out to write, but somehow I still write them. Which shows how constant these emotions are in our lives. Over the last three years, with each successive launch I have taken the time to write about the tangle of emotions that swell around the launch of a book.

The greatest feeling in that knot is always the same; it’s fear. We’re afraid it’s not good enough. We’re afraid our books will be failures. We’re scared it’s full of mistakes. We worry that people will hate it. Those ideas can be debilitating. They gnaw at us, and if we let them they can devour us. But, here’s the kicker, I don’t think those feelings ever go away.

Worry comes with this job. Sure, in some magical land a writer writes a manuscript and everything is perfect, editing isn’t a bear, and reviewers laud them with praise, accolades, and candies. La de da. But that isn’t today, and it’s certainly not the world where we live. It can be tough out here. People can be mean. Some want to be mean. But, here we are. Three years ago, when I stared into that long tunnel and faced the launch of The Stars Were Right I was there. I was terrified. But I pressed on. A year later, when I set out to launch Old Broken Road, I still felt those pangs. Hell, here I am standing on the other side of Red Litten World‘s launch, and I still feel it. Those emotions are still there even three books and thousands of copies later.

“Perfect is the enemy of good.”

There is an ancient saying (Seriously, ancient, it’s attributed to Voltaire) that I like to quote, “Perfect is the enemy of good.” Now, I am not saying you shouldn’t try to achieve perfection. Quality matters. That’s a given. What I am saying is that so often we get so stuck in the chase of perfection that we never stop. We run and run and run afraid of failure. Projects never see release because they haven’t achieved an unreachable ideal we set up in our heads. Fear fuels it, and it’s empowered by those lingering “what if” questions. Questions that bog us down, snare us, and stop our momentum.

The biggest lie in life is the idea that failure itself is permanent. I’ve seen it crush writers, artists, designers, architects, and creatives of all types. I’ve seen it destroy dreams. But… it’s a lie. Failure is a state of being, and like every other state of being, you’ll realize that it’s temporary. Once you realize its temporal nature fear begins to take a back seat. The panic becomes a white noise. The post-publication depression that hangs over our head and sabotages us begins to fade. As that happens, you become powerful.

“You’ll have more failures than successes.”

Last week, Kari-Lise was watching The Trojan War, the latest in ESPN’s documentary series 30 for 30. (It’s a brilliant documentary series and I encourage more than just sports fans to watch it. A lot of great stories.) During the program, Lawrence Turman, the producer of The Graduate and American History X, had a great quote. It was something that has stuck with both Kari-Lise and me. I’m paraphrasing here, but it was something along the lines of: “you’ll have more failures than successes.”

Think about that for a moment, more failure than successes. That’s intense and yeah, it’s scary. But the trick, the thing a lot of people don’t understand, is you can’t fail unless you try, and you certainly cannot succeed until you’re willing to fail.

So, I’m scared. I feel the fear. I always do. But, now three books in, I’m realizing: that fear never leaves. It lingers, it picks, it torments. Somedays I give in, but more and more I find myself pushing past it. My reaction to it has changed. I’ve changed. The way I react is shifting. Emotionally I realize that fear is part of the process. Sure, I can still feel it moving beneath the surface. I know it wants to reach up, and (excuse the Lovecraftian imagery) grip and strangle me in its tentacles. But I push on. What else would I do? Give up? *scoffing noise* Not a chance. I want to write. I want to tell stories. I don’t ever intend on stopping.

So yeah, fear is out there. We all deal with it. But we can’t let fear stop us. Keep at it.

Now, go make great things.

Crunch Time: The Realities of Indie Publishing

Crunch Time: The Realities Of Indie Publishing

This is not a pity post. I say that because I know some folks will read emotion into blog posts like this and I’m not looking to garner sympathy. My intention is to share my own experiences and inform people about the work it takes to launch an indie title. It’s no secret that indie publishing is hard work. It requires a lot of time and intense dedication, the cliche “blood, sweat, and tears” applies. I want to help in that regard, I want to let you know what the book-launching part of indie publishing entails so when you face your own launch you are better equipped.

First, a little bit of background. For those unaware, I work two full-time jobs. There’s my day job (UX designer) which I have been doing for a long time and I love. It helps support my second job… which is being this writer here, the guy who writes books, blogs blog posts, tweets tweets, etc. It’s another job that I absolutely adore. Both are incredibly fulfilling, and every day they take me down different paths creatively. I have mentioned before that I chose indie publishing because I didn’t want to give up control. I wanted to be responsible for my books from start to finish from the moment a reader hears about it on the web, to the moment they crack open the paperback. I wanted to curate the reader’s experience by making the story of The Bell Forging Cycle to be as cohesive as possible. To achieve that I felt I needed nuanced control over everything. I wanted to have control over the design of my web presence, the covers of my books, even the interiors of the paperbacks. Many of those elements are involved in a book launch, and as the series has grown, so has each consecutive launch.

It’s easy to write, but in reality it’s tough. It makes for a lot of work. September for me has become crunch time. Right now, here’s my typical day: I wake up around 7:30 a.m., pour coffee down my throat, run to work, spend eight to nine hours at my day job, run home, eat a quick dinner with Kari-Lise, and then it’s into my office where I work until at least 12:00 a.m. (recently it’s been closer to 1 or 2:00 a.m.). Then when the day ends, I crash out. The following morning, I am back at it. While I enjoy the work, it has made most of September a weird routine of cycles. I also haven’t done much writing (or reading for that matter). Life right now is the launch.

To put it in perspective, here’s my list of things that I need to get done before Red Litten World’s launch. Some of these take more time than others, some less, but I feel each of them are an important part in making the launch of Book III as successful as it can be.

  • Finalize edits & copy edits (Yay!)
  • Finalize paperback interior (I think I’m real close)
  • Finalize paperback cover (Again, real close)
  • Finalize ebook interior (Close, if not done)
  • Finalize ebook cover (Aww yiss)
  • Deal with Nook layout (Yeah, it gets its own line item)
  • Finalize bookmarks
  • Finalize stickers
  • Product photos
  • Finalize buttons (Yay, done!)
  • Prep redlittenworld.com for launch
  • Prep bellforgingcycle.com for launch
  • Prep kmalexander.com for launch
  • Prep updates for store.kmalexander.com
  • Prep [REDACTED] (Got to keep some things secret)
  • Finalize [REDACTED]
  • Work on [REDACTED]
  • Prep launch blog posts (I usually write posts in advance)
  • Prep advertising (For the sake of brevity I am listing this as one line item, on my real list it’s four or five due to the various ad networks and their various requirements)
  • Finalize new contests
  • Set up Goodreads page (Done! Add RLW to your To-Read list)

It’s a formidable list, an it’s just the start, my to-do list continues to grow and deadlines approach. There’s a misconception out there (one I have spoken about before) that indie publishing is easy and cheap. But it’s not. To do it right takes time, money, and will. All those things have a cost. Not everyone wants to spend the effort, and that’s okay. Thankfully there are other alternatives for people who aren’t as insane as folks like me. (Traditional publishing, while stressful in its own way, removes a lot of this labor.)

As I said at the start, I’m not looking for sympathy. I love this. I love the thrill. I love being able to insert little secrets and details, not just in the books themselves, but throughout the experience as a whole. For me, it’s a rush. I’m lucky I have an understanding partner and I’m blessed (#Blessed) that I am able to carve out time to do all of this. (Usually this comes at the expense of time-sinks like games, movies, and television. Try cutting back yourself, you’ll be amazing at how much time you have.) I share this because I like transparency, I enjoy telling of my journey to publication. It’s why I started this blog in the first place. I hope my experiences can help others learn and grow in their own lives. I also hope others are able to understand what it takes to “do it right” as it were. I think some of the usual shade thrown at indie publishing comes because there is a group who dive into the deep end and don’t fully understand the work involved with launching a quality product. Our collective reputation grows the better we all strive to become.

The best part about all of this: it’s all totally worth it. Whenever I hear from a reader, talk with a fan, meet someone at a convention, or see a new review, all the effort fades away. I tell stories to entertain, to enrich, to challenge, and to thrill. If I can do any of those for even one person, I’m a pretty happy writer.

Now, back to it, Lovat awaits and the launch is near.

Red Litten World arrives October 6th, 2015

On October 6th, It’s Time To Return To Lovat

“…legend said that it had come from a mysterious inner realm beneath the red-litten world—a black realm of peculiar-sensed beings which had no light at all, but which had great civilisations and mighty gods…”

H. P. Lovecraft & Zealia Bishop, The Mound

The sharp scent of ash lingers in the air, the city’s cold streets feel deserted, and the revolver rides heavy in the pocket of our hero. In the distance, a jazz band warbles through an ancient tune from a crackly radio speaker. You can feel the tension on the wind, it sparks across your skin like static. But, the wait is nearly over. On Tuesday, October 6th, 2015 you’ll be able to join Caravan Master Waldo Bell in my next book, The Bell Forging Cycle, Book III: Red Litten World.

As I promised yesterday, you can check out a free sample chapter right now! Read it over at the official website: redlittenworld.com (which is the best reading experience, IMO) or you can read it right here on my blog. I hope you enjoy it. The goal with the Bell Forging Cycle’s prologues has always been to treat them like the cold open of a television show. Set things up, get the plot moving and hint at what’s to come. As you can probably tell from Red Litten World’s prologue, things for Wal are going to get very interesting.

While I’m very excited to share the sample chapter with you, there’s more. As of today, Red Litten World is currently available for pre-order for Kindle users! Really! Just click here and you can preorder the Kindle edition for $5.99 and it will automagically appear on you device launch day.

There’s a lot more to come. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be revealing a bunch of fun little things. Check back often, add Red Litten World to your to-read list on Goodreads, and please tell your friends!

It’s high time we to return to Lovat.

Indie Or Traditional: The Cost Of Publishing

I’ve been going down the road of licensing the rights to print the lyrics to an old Louis Armstrong song from the 1920s. It’s an interesting set of hurdles, and if you ever want to use lyrics in your book I recommend starting with Helen Sedwick’s article How To Use Lyrics Without Paying A Fortune Or A Lawyer over on The Book Designer. Like most things in indie publishing, this will probably cost some money. That’s okay. That’s a part of indie publishing. It’s what I signed on for when I decided to publish my books this way.

I’ve noticed a theme in a lot of writing advice blogs. There seems to be some weird desire to encourage people to go into indie publishing with the assumption that there isn’t any overhead and that indie publishing is essentially cost-free. A vocal part of the community likes to rally behind the idea. I hate it when I see this. Not only is it an outright lie, it does a disservice to the whole idea of indie publishing. When an unfinished, poorly edited, or badly designed book goes to print it affects everyone. The lack of quality control is cited all the time as a major reason why so many readers are very hesitant to read indie titles.

Publishing02
Men with printing press, circa 1930

Doing It Right™ cost money. There is overhead in everything. When you become an indie writer you become a small business. You can’t do it alone. You need to hire an editor, you need to hire a designer, you need to hire an artist. You’re going to pay for ISBNs. You’re going to pay for marketing. You’re going to pay for print copies. Often, the publishing advice you read online skips over these details. But if you want to make a quality product (and you do) then you have to come to grips with the reality that it’ll cost money.

Traditional publishing does provide a way out. It doesn’t require much in the way out of pocket costs. But instead of money it takes a lot of your time and hard work. You need to write queries, polish synopsis, meet and greet with agents, and submit over and over and over again, and then weather the storm of rejections. It’s hard, but it’s (mostly) free.

Publishing03
Hoe’s six-cylinder rotary press from the 1860s

The choice for any writer is to decide which path they are interested in. Both provide ways to share your story with the world, but both are hard work and require different types of out of pocket expenses. It’s up to you to decide which path is right for you. For The Bell Forging Cycle, I chose to go the indie route. For me, it was a matter of control. I didn’t want to surrender the control of the cover design and interior layout to someone else. I have a very specific vision for my series from cover to cover and I wanted to see that through to the end.

So, what if you’re not willing to deal with traditional publishers (and there’s a whole slew of reasons why you’d want to go your own route) but the thought of putting down money is terrifying or out of the question? What options do you have? Why not consider one of the following:

  • Kickstarter

    Crowd funding through Kickstarter is a great option. There’re a lot of writers who have had great success kickstarting their project. If you have a decent social media presence this isn’t a bad way to go. In a lot of ways, you can use this to pre-sell your book, and pay for the necessaries, without a lot of out of pocket expenses. Make sure when you put together your Kickstarter pitch you put as much effort into the pitch as you do your book. People want to see you as excited and engaged as you want them to be, a good presentation is important to that end.

  • Partnerships

    This is another option. Instead of paying people up front, why not offer to split the profits with other professionals. So editors could get a percentage of your sales, as would the designers, and artists, and so on. This is a bit more difficult to manage as it requires a lot of transparency and trust, but it’s a good way to have everyone profit from a good book. You essentially build a team of people who want to see a successful book and the more folks you have to help you market your work the better.

  • Crowdsource

    I tend to shy away from crowdsourcing professionally, as it is essentially spec. work for no pay. (See No!Spec for why this is troublesome.) However, I feel like I’d be remiss not mentioning it here as there are a lot of authors who have found success thanks to crowdsourcing platforms like Wattpad, Worthy of Publishing, and Figment. It tends to be a long road, but if you’re willing to put yourself out there and allow a community to give you feedback as you write it’s a good way to work without a lot of out of pocket expense.

Indie or traditional, the choice ultimately is yours. Decide how you best want to represent your manuscript. Know the choices you have and be willing to understand and accept the costs be they financial, chronometric, or both. In the end, I encourage you to focus on quality. Quality matters and your readers will thank you.

The Beauty of the Standalone

The Beauty In The Standalone

I watched Whiplash the other day and I absolutely loved it. In my opinion, it should have won best picture. Miles Teller and J. K. Simmons are fantastic and Damien Chazelle’s storytelling is superb. In many ways, it’s a fantastic example of the perfect story. It didn’t have thirty minutes of slow character introduction and back story like so many of the superhero movies leading the box office these days. It didn’t have a long drawn out ending that wrapped everything up in a nice little package. It was succinct. It was sharp. It was alive. It left a lot to the imagination. It was beautiful.

Whiplash is a great example for what I am about to dive into. You see, several times at recent conventions, during discussions of favorite books, I have had people tell me that they only read books in a series. That is unfortunate. There are a lot of great books out there, and many of them are standalone novels. But I’ve heard this sentiment many times, and I think this kind of thinking tends to prevail within the speculative fiction market. Many novels get thrust into a series when they would have been better off remaining a single work. Sci-fi and fantasy publishers tend to be looks for writers who want to work on a series, especially in the YA market. Take a look at this list of the purported “Top 25 Fantasy Novels” only three are stand alone books (Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, Robert Jackson Bennet’s City Of Stairs, and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.)

Some of this is a reaction to the marketplace. Publishers want to sell a bunch of books and people clearly love supporting a series. They love the long story. They enjoy following characters from one book to the next. The odds are high that someone who loves the first book will come back to the second. As a reader, author, and a publisher, I completely understand. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against the series as a concept. I love reading them. Hell, I’m writing one. But, I think as fans of speculative fiction we need to be willing to embrace the standalone novel as quickly as we embrace the series. Not every sci-fi and fantasy story should be three, six, or twelve novels long to catch our interest. Like Whiplash we should have vibrant stories that are told in one succinct volume. We should allow for stories that leave us wondering and send our imagination spinning. We should be eager to support those books as quickly as we support a series. Think back to some of the classics speculative fiction authors: Isaac Asimov, Octavia Butler, Philip K. Dick, and the likes of Alfred Bester. Some of their best work was standalone novels. There’s a beauty in the standalone. And as fans of sci-fi and fantasy, it’s important to remember that.

How about you? What is your favorite standalone sci-fi or fantasy novel? Why not leave a reply and let us know in the comments!