Sunday, July 21, 2013

Art and Business

We've been engaged in a discussion about book covers on one writer's email discussion list. The consensus is that the cover is super-duper important because people won't click on your link or read your book if it isn't wonderful.

Being the iconoclast (and realist) that I am I suggest that maybe it takes more than a good cover to sell a book, and that there is a point of diminishing returns. By that I mean that a poor quality cover
certainly is going to not attract readers and may well discourage them from reading your book. However, on the other hand, the assumption that you need to spend lots of money on a "high quality" (read: expensive) cover to be successful, probably isn't the truth either. There is a point between good and great cover design where the sales do not justify the expense. In other words, good covers do sell more books than bad ones, but great covers do not sell a significantly higher number of books than good ones. 

Of course, this raises the obvious question: How are we defining good? While many give lip service to marketing features like title and representation of content, in practical terms, most are defining it as artistically attractive. Of course, most book cover designers plying their trade on the internet today are not marketing specialists, they are artists. They think like artists and think in terms first and foremost of symmetry, balance, color wheels, composition and design. Nothing wrong with that. However, a well designed graphic on it's own sells nothing. From a marketing perspective, the cover must not only be attractive, but must communicate enough of the content of the book to cause the reader to click through to the sales page. A less pretty book cover that communicates the content of the book is going to generate more click throughs than one that is beautiful, but does not. 

Good art does not necessarily translate into good business. Unfortunately, when you say something like that, the critics of indie publishing and even many in the field think you are talking about poor quality covers that are just thrown together. That's not the point at all. The point is that a very create, very beautiful, very expensive cover design is not necessarily a good sales tool if it's only value is beauty. 

The Kindle (or Nook or Sony or Smashwords) search engine is not an art gallery. People are not browsing in order to simply see pretty pictures. They are browsing to find something to read. And if it is an ebook, after they purchase it, they will rarely see the cover any larger than about an inch square on their reader. So, what is the value of the cover? 

The value is in it's message. A cover that has fewer artistically skilled design components, but which clearly communicates to the reader a reason to buy the book or at least read the sample is going to be more effective than a pretty cover that does none of these. 

So, from a marketing perspective what should be on the cover. 

1. A simple, but bold graphic. This graphic should not be complicated. Avoid collages. Avoid pictures with too much ghosting. By that I mean a semi-transparent figure in the background. That is a common, romance novel technique that comes from the days of selling print novels in brick and mortar stores. But as a thumbnail, those subtleties are lost.

2. A graphic that communicates the substance of the book. You know what I hate? It's book covers that have two young people on the cover, but when you get into the book, you find the main characters are middle aged. Sometimes a cover can be beautiful, but misleading. Find a graphic that communicates the substance of the book. 

3. A clear, descriptive or evocative title. For nonfiction this is easier. You have a topic and you want your title to reflect that. For instance, my next Bible study will be called "Troubled on Every Side: On Being God's People in Difficult Times." The main title will be in large letters. Someone is searching for a Bible study they will see that in big letters. In smaller, but still readable letters will be the explanatory subtitle. Nevertheless, Just "Troubled on Every Side" gives a good solid idea of the general topic to be covered. 

For fiction, it is harder. But it can suggest the theme. For instance, Stephen King's epic, The Stand, doesn't tell us everything about the book, but it gives the central idea. These people are going to take a stand. Lillian Jackson Braun's Cat Who mysteries. Always include a clue to the basic plot of the book. The Cat Who Sniffed Glue let's us know that glue will have something to do with the story. 

4. Clear Readable Fonts. Some people want to play games with fonts. They are looking for something clever and then the reader ends up trying to decode the title. Remember someone is likely to spend a second or less looking at your book cover, that title needs to stand out. 

Yes, you want an attractive design, but if it doesn't sell what's inside, it is pretty useless. 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Some Observations upon Completion of my Last Private Commission

I rarely use this space for purely personal observations. I have done the occasional rant, but it's mostly about "out there." However, I decided to return to the original use of blogs as public versions of personal journals just to work through a few feelings.

About a half hour ago, I completed work on a web design project for a client. I helped him format and publish his ebook and then set up a webpage for him. I still have to upload his new website to the webhost, but that's just mopping up stuff.

What makes this important to me is that it is my last private client. When I retired a  year ago, I thought I would probably be teaching part time at my former college , writing books and doing a lot of private advertising work. Well, it turned out
that my college had to cut just about all adjunct faculty positions in my department. But I did have several private jobs. Seemed like a plan.

Along the way, I started publishing a lot of my own materials including novels, books on writing and Bible study guides. But I never seemed to have enough time because of the private projects. In February, I took a weekend retreat. I got a hotel away from all distractions and went into prayer. I got a very clear direction from God about what I should be doing. It wasn't advertising, PR or web design for other people. That had been a corner stone of my business. I didn't have any clients at the time, but a few weeks later, my hair stylist was striking out on her own and needed a website and I got an email from an author in Hong Kong who needed help with putting his novel on Kindle.

I took the jobs, but I kept getting behind. My health is not what it used to be. I have a bad back and bad asthma. If I have to go out into the outside air where I live, it can take me a couple of days to recover at certain times of the year. Also, colds and flu bugs get to me. I don't have the stamina I used to have either.

Unfortunately, I kept falling behind on my projects. But I also felt so guilty that I didn't put up new projects or wrote much on my own novels and books. I just couldn't when I had those hanging over my head.

But, I had only myself to blame. I went against what I believe sincerely God showed me. That money looked good. But interestingly enough, during that same time, I made more money from my indie publishing than I did from the big jobs. It was just delivered to me monthly and not in a lump sum at the end of the project.

I know this is the end of doing the private work. I am looking forward to working on my own projects. I want to do more self-paced online courses. I want to get back to my novels and Bible studies. I've fallen behind. I should have about 30 up by now and I only have about 20.

But I also feel guilty. I turned down an inquiry the other day. It was hard to do. But I had to be true. Also, it isn't right to the client because I can't set a reasonable deadline and meet it anymore. Still, that money came in handy and I have some obligations that don't only involve me, but also other people.

I remember something Henry Blackaby said in one of his books. "Doing the will of God is costly to you and those around you." I do believe this is the will of God and I am really willing to pay the price, but it hurts when that price is shared at least temporarily by others.

And there is a bit of sadness. I do enjoy doing that type of work. But more specifically, I'm sad because once again my health has taken something from me. I retired early because of my health. I have to figure that going shopping is going to land me in bed for a couple of days if the air quality is "moderate" or below. I know part of this is a consequence of getting older. I accept that, and in light of the alternative, I'll happily take it. Still, it is a passage that I was forced to take.

I hope this hasn't sounded too rambling. Maybe some of you have been facing your own transitions and have conflicted feelings. Feel free to share them below.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Some of my favorite Books on Kindle Publishing

I was on an email discussion list today and someone asked about books on Kindle Publishing. An hour later, I had written out an annotated bibliography of some of my favorites. So, I'm going to reprint that here. BTW, don't forget my own book about doing well in the Amazon Search engine Called Point of Sale

 I read several books before starting to self publish. I found good ideas (and some very bad ones) in each. Like my Mother used to say, "You take the chicken and you leave the bones alone." Also, you will find each of these writers, people who were quite successful individually, will disagree about several issues. 

So, with those disclaimers here are my collection:

A bit misleading title since he had a few years preparing the book, but the idea is still good. If you can stomach Locke's arrogance, pomposity and sense of self-importance, you can find some very useful information here. Some ideas, like his "Blog posts that will change your life" and his use of Twitter to build email contacts, I think will work only for people with a certain personality type. Also, remember, Locke got dinged for using "sock puppets" to post fake good reviews of his own books. But having said all that, there are some excellent pointers here. He was the one who convinced me to stick to my 99 cent price point. I loved his reasoning. His idea was that of being competitive. Someone could buy 10 of his books for the price of one James Patterson novel. He said something like: Is Patterson 10 times the writer I am? 

McDaniel is probably my favorite writer on Kindle publishing. Her books are clear, easy to read, and take a step by step approach. Having said that, I think sometimes she over charges. She sells her books at various prices, but sticks close to the $2.99 price point which bothers me a bit when some of her books are under 100 pages. However, having said that, this is a good basic primer for the person wanting to get started. It is a bit dated because some things have changed with Kindle since its publication, but overall, it is a good solid book. 

Everything I learned to format my first kindle upload came from this and the next book I'll mention. It's simple, easy to follow and once you get this process down,
you can do the whole thing in 30 minutes or less. The book however, is dated. You no longer have to convert your file to a .mobi format. Kindle will do the conversion for you. However, if you have InDesign, there is a plugin you can download from Kindle that will do the conversion so you can both download and preview before uploading to Kindle. But that's for design geeks and others who want to do a bit more. I did that for awhile, but then I started just uploading my MS-Word files and couldn't tell the difference in the output. Therefore, I just decided to cut out that step. 

Publish on Kindle With Kindle Direct Publishing by Amazon
Building Your Book on Kindle

One really good thing about all of these is that they are free. The other good thing is they are from the source. The Simplified Formatting Guide is technically not a book, but a webpage. Kindle's help section is wonderful. Anything you want to know about formatting, uploading, account information, requirements, etc. you can find simply by going to your Kindle Direct Dashboard and clicking on the help button. There is a great section just on formatting your document. It is the most up-to-date information. I noticed, when preparing this, that they are suggesting now to convert .doc to html files. No biggie since it can be done inside of any word processor, but it is good to know. However, I've not had any trouble with my .doc files, except for one which was my fault entirely.

BTW, the most useful and recent content I found is in the Building Your Book on Kindle. It shows everything based on the most recent version of MS-Word 2013. (No big changes between 2013 and 2007 but it shows how recent this book is.)

One of the things I emphasize with new ebook writer/publishers is that you don't have to spend a fortune on "experts" to help you do everything. Most people have on their computers or available by download (free download) or in the cloud
everything they need to create a good quality book cover. That's why I like Harper's book. She shows you step-by-step how to do it using MS-Word or Photoshop. Some of the book is a bit dated, but the basics of design are still strong. BTW, if you don't have Photoshop, you can download GIMP ( ) which is as good as photoshop for this sort of thing and is free. Also, I've designed covers using advanced editor. Both of these free options have the same look and feel of photoshop. If you learn the photoshop technique she teaches, you can probably use one of these programs to do the same thing.

Incidentally, Amazon has upgraded their Kindle cover creator which simplifies the process greatly. My last book, I used it and had a cover done in about five minutes that looks great. I don't know I'll use it for all my covers, but it was better than I expected. 

While not specific to ebooks, this was a great book about coming up with ideas and market testing them using tools you find on Amazon. I really found this useful. And now that I'm clearing out the last of my private clients and going into writing books full time, I'm sure I'll be using these techniques a lot. Not fiction oriented, but most writers, I believe, should diversify if they want to stay fiscally solvent. 

Okay, like Locke, Alvear is a bit full of himself, and his language is less than
pristine. And as a social media person, I say he is probably right about blogging, but Facebook and Twitter are the town square or general store of the new millenium where people meet. However, I do think you can probably do away with them all and still do a good job selling on Kindle because of the conversion factor. If you are depending on your social media to sell a book, you are going to be in trouble. Conversion rate is very low - under 1 percent. So, even if you have 10,000 friends, you will be lucky to get 100 sales from your social media.

What I like about Alvear's book is his discussion of the Amazon search engine. A bit dated, but still relevant. 

However, I must put a big RED FLAG up about his chapters on getting reviews. Many of his suggestions are marginally unethical, some are totally unethical and some, if used today, can get you banned from Kindle. Any type of review gathering that involves using your friends and family or you as an author planting a review on a competitor's page can get the review removed. If you are found to be using fake reviews or buying reviews you can get sanctioned from Amazon. So, about the only suggestion he has that makes sense concerning reviews is including a link to the review page in the back of your book. Something I need to start doing. 

So those are my picks, what are some of yours? Add them below.