Design Your Own Book Cover

Many indie authors and publishers create their own book covers.

Most of the time, I design my book cover before I write each book. The tone of the cover – the emotions, and how light (or serious) it is – affects my writing, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction.

I’m sure it helps that I’m an artist, but – really – anyone can create book covers. Mostly, it’s a matter of taking it one step at a time.

The following is modified from my article about “word art,” at Aisling.net.

It won’t teach you everything about creating book covers, but it’ll give you a place to start, and some useful resources.

Design book covers

Three parts of successful book covers

People do judge a book by its cover.

Successful book covers make an immediate, powerful impression.

Your choice of graphic – and how it’s positioned – can be a make-or-break decision.  (If your cover is mostly text, it needs to convey a visual message, too.)

Likewise, the style of the letters – the font (or fonts) – matter. So do the colors & proportions of the letters.

And finally, the layout matters, and can vary widely from one book category to another. Some book covers – particularly non-fiction – look great with the title as the focal point.  How-to books are a good example.

It’s ideal for all three elements to work together. But, if you’re a perfectionist, avoid tweaking more than you need to. Know when to say “good enough.”

Here are the steps to a successful book cover.

Start with a template

You’ll want a template for your book cover.

If it’s a Kindle book – not a printed book, as well – I’ll use the free template Amazon provides.

As I’m writing this (Sept 2020), Amazon suggests “Ideal dimensions for cover files are 2,560 x 1,600 pixels.”

Do not think you can start with a smaller graphic and “just enlarge it.” It won’t work. Not for Kindle and not for printed books. It’ll look blurry or pixelated. Or worse.

If your book will be sold as a printed book, your cover dimensions may be different. I recommend using Amazon’s basic template, and just guess how many pages your book is likely to be. (The front cover size probably won’t vary much, when you adjust for the actual page count, later.)

What do readers expect?

Your next step is to go to Amazon.com (or whichever Amazon site where most of your readers will be).

Look at competing books in your category.

Readers expect that books will be similar if the covers are similar.

For example, romance readers may not respond well to an all-text cover.  And your how-to book about welding is unlikely to sell if your cover features a photo of your puppy… no matter how cute your puppy is.

Colors

Look at the colors on each cover. A red-white-and-blue cover sends a very different message than one that’s black and white and red.

Too many choices? Not sure what colors are right for your book? Browse these resources:

Images

Then, see how the images are positioned on competing books.

For example, if it’s a romance novel, do all the faces usually show, and are they the main elements on the cover… or are they off the top of the cover altogether? How much skin shows, and is that a cue about how sweet or sexy the story is?

Where do the words usually go? Are they all the same size? Are they centered, or lined up on one side (right or left side)? Is the title in a reversed Z design, or a semi-circle?

I’m enthusiastic about the “rule of thirds” in cover design. Here’s a good resource to learn more: Book Covers and Layout Part 1: Rule of Thirds and Diagonal Scan

Tip: Yasiv.com used to be the fastest way to get an overview of the colors, layouts, and images used on books selling well in each Amazon category. As I’m writing this, it’s offline. Check regularly to see when it returns. Yasiv.com will save you a lot of time.

The big, initial impression

With those decisions made, you’ll probably start with a cover graphic. (If your cover will be entirely text with some minor graphical accents, you can skip this section.)

Once you have an image selected, try different placements on your book cover. (That is, how it will fit on your cover template.)

I’m working in Photoshop, but CanvaGimp, and other free tools can produce gorgeous results, too.

Important: At this point, your decisions aren’t permanent. Don’t get hung up on making the cover “just so.” Not yet, anyway.

When you add text, you may radically change where the cover graphic goes, and how large it will be.

Choosing fonts

Fonts matter. Just like your cover graphic, fonts can set the tone and tell the reader a lot about what’s between the covers.

Every font tells a story

Decide what the font should convey. For example, is your story (or message) traditional, modern, or futuristic? Is it sweet or sexy, or gory, or hilarious? Do you want the title (and your author name) to look ornate or plain? Should the text accent the style of your cover graphic, stand out like it’s 3D, or take a back seat to the cover image?

You can change your mind, later. For now, having a general idea will help you select potential fonts. (But, as you’re searching, pay attention to any font that’s very different and surprisingly appealing. It may be the visual signal you’re looking for.)

Legal issues

Like other artwork, fonts can be copyrighted… as software. (It’s complex. You may want to read this article at Lawyers.com.)

Be sure your fonts’ licenses allow commercial use.

Free fonts

My favorite free resources include FontSquirrel and GoogleFonts. They specialize in open source fonts, and fonts you can use (free) in commercial products.

That can save you a lot of time, reading the fine print.

I also use sites like DaFont, but it’s essential to check each font’s terms of use. If it’s “personal use only,” there may be a fee to use the font commercially. DaFont (and others like it) usually provide links to contact the font designer about this.

Some huge sites – like FontSpace – offer great, free fonts for personal use. However, when I searched FontSpace today, looking for commercially licensed free fonts, none of their 71,000 fonts met that one search criterion.

Fonts to purchase

When shopping for fonts, you’ll find many affordable options. Some are better than others. Frankly, many of them confirm the adage, “you get what you pay for,” but some stand out with great products, great prices, or great customer service.. or all three.

Check sites like TheHungryJPEG CreativeMarket, and Artixty. They regularly offer packages of fonts at low prices.

Generally, if I find two or more attractive fonts in a package, I’ll buy the entire package. That’s usually less expensive than buying the ones I like, individually. Sometimes those packages actually cost less than the price of a single, high-quality font in the set.

(Also, I’ve had great, fast response from TheHungryJPEG’s customer support as well as CreativeMarket’s. They’re eager to keep customers happy.)

Before making a purchase, it’s smart to double-check prices by searching (at Google, Qwant, etc.) for the font you like, by name.

If you can’t find it, search for the name of the artist or font foundry. Sometimes, their individual fonts are very affordable. (After all, at their own sites, they’re not paying commissions to CreativeMarket, etc.)

Learn from my mistake: For years, I recommended FontBundles.net and their sister site, DesignBundles.  Now, after a shockingly bad experience with their customer support – as others have, too – I will never shop there again. (I wish I’d read some of their one-star reviews, sooner.)

In a class of its own

My all-time favorite source of paid fonts is Design Cuts. (Obviously, they offer a lot more than fonts.) They offer bundles – often themed – for around $30. They’re dazzling, and the values – sometimes in thousands of dollars – are not exaggerated.

You can also purchase individual products; the more you buy, the bigger the discounts.

For fonts, Design Cuts earns my highest praise. Their fonts are stylish and high-quality.  You won’t find anything “plain vanilla” in their bundles or their individual products.

Their customer service has been flawless, as well.

A sneaky way to get the look you want, free

There are times when you want a great, stylish font, but you can’t afford it.

Here’s are two ways to work around that:

Sneaky tactic #1: Use a screenshot of several letters in the font you want. Then, use a free font-matching service like WhatTheFont!WhatFontIs, or FontSquirrel’s Matcherator.

See if they recommend a free or really inexpensive font that’s “close enough” to what you wanted.

Sneaky tactic #2: Search at free font sites (like DaFont) using the name of the font you like. Then try slight misspellings. If the price-y font is popular, there may be a pretty good (and free) clone of it.

Note: Be sure it’s not an outright ripoff of any commercial font.

Of course, no free or inexpensive (and legal) font is going to match the style and elegance of the original, high-priced font. But, until you can afford to buy that font, the lookalike might be all you need.

Learn the fine art of combining fonts

No matter what look you aspire to, font combinations can make a huge difference. The way fonts interact often highlights the best features of each font. In a way, it elevates the lettering into the “fine art” realm.

Search for “font combining” and you’ll find lots of advice. Add the current year (right now, that’d be “2020 font combining”) for edgy and trending combinations.

Here are a few sites to start:

Note: The words in this website’s header use the Beautiful Minds font from Design Cuts. (The header text on my Aisling.net site combines Black Diamond font from Design Cuts, and Lato, a free font from Google Fonts.)

You have the basics… now play!

After selecting the elements you might use on your cover, it’s time to play.

Try different combinations. Different placements. Different sizes of words and images. Different colors.

Don’t feel as if you absolutely, positively, must mimic the best-sellers in your book category. Sometimes, different is good.

Remember Seth Godin’s advice about creating a “purple cow”?  He said, “Today, the one sure way to fail is to be boring. Your one chance for success is to be remarkable.”

So, don’t be boring. Go ahead and be different if it’s right for you.

It may be exactly what readers crave.

OR… you may prefer a safer route.  You could create a few cover designs, and then ask your fans, readers, or friends which they prefer.

Whatever you decide, it’s your cover. If, six months from now, you’re no longer in love with it – or you know you could do better – you can change it.

So, try a few designs. Select the one you think represents your book the best, and will attract readers who’ll like (or even love) what you’re publishing.

Need more ideas?

The following may be useful, but I suggest visiting them after you’ve created a few books covers.

Otherwise, you may be overwhelmed with too many choices. (I’ve been there, and the lesson I learned was “keep it simple,” at least when you’re starting out.)

Do you have a favorite resource for book cover design ideas? Let me know.

If you have questions, comments, or suggestions, leave a message in the comments section below. (I read and manually approve all comments at all of my sites, and I’d love to hear from you.)


 

P.S.  Here’s an art tip: Space on the right side of any image (or book cover) gives the visual message of freedom… and a place to go. That’s ideal for romance stories and cozy mysteries.

It sends the message that everything will turn out well. Good things are ahead.

However, if you want to convey fear, make the right side of the image seem like a stopping point… a wall, or even something looming. That’s ideal for thrillers, some sci-fi, horror, and so on.

It gives readers the idea that something is lurking – perhaps waiting – for your protagonist. How will he/she/they survive when the Big Bad becomes evident? The reader will keep turning the pages to find out. And that’s what you – and they – are hoping for.

Choices for New Writers on a Budget

2020 has become a year of change. As a creative, it’s smart to be forward-looking, especially now.

Budget choices for new authorsThat’s why I’ve been studying trends that may show what we can expect in the new “normal.”

It’s also why I’ve been tinkering with my websites, which may have seemed confusing to people who don’t know me in real life.

For me, the foundation comes first. (I also design my book cover before I start writing a story. It’s a visual cue about the tone of the story.)

My business model shift may appear subtle, but – actually – the cumulative changes are pretty big. For me, this is exciting.

And, as an author, I’ve been studying what’s changed – and still changing – in 2020.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

2020’s ups and downs

Some of my friends are thriving. They’ve written consistently good books, and their stories (and characters) keep improving, tracking with shifts in reader expectations. Those authors have loyal fans who read everything they publish, and then tell their friends about those books.

One of those friends is cozy mystery author Leighann Dobbs. She’s still earning a very comfortable five figures per month as an indie author. So, if you’re wondering what’s possible… she’s a great example.

Other writing friends had good book incomes for a few years. The problem is, they’d built their indie publishing businesses on a variation of the “just in time” model. I’m not convinced that’s sustainable as we move into the new normal. Some of those authors are seeing their book incomes decline.

Several authors are trying to replace lost book income by offering training and coaching. Unfortunately, most are basing those courses on their own past successes.

Right now, I’m seeing radical shifts from month to month. What worked well a month ago may be “shifting sands” by the end of this year.

If you’re considering buying a course or coaching, make sure you’re making a wise investment.

The first big red flag

Early in August 2020, a friend mentioned a very expensive training package offered by a couple of people whose website I’d linked to, and raved about.

I was stunned. Kind of horrified, too. I mean, my enthusiasm may have suggested I trusted everything they did.

I don’t.

Yes, the free info in those writers’ articles can be great. I’ve kept one of their how-to books on the bookshelf next to my desk. I like them, personally.

But in this economy, anything costing money had better be worth the price. (That’s why I listed so many free resources in Budget Resources for Frugal Writers.)

The price tag on what they’re selling now…? It’s far higher than I’d expected.

I wondered, “Is this a fair price? Do people really pay that much for this kind of training?”

So, over the past week, I did some research.

When I saw the numbers, well… The word “shock” doesn’t begin to explain how I felt.

The ugly truth

My biggest mistake: I’d assumed those two authors were making great money from their books. After all, they talked like they did.

So, I researched their incomes, first.

Note: I used KDSpy (a browser plugin) for my research. It gives me a general idea of how much an author is earning at Amazon, as well as which book categories are competitive at the moment.

When I saw how little those two authors were earning, it was a shock.

One of them is earning around $500 from books sold through Amazon.  (I wish that was a typo, but it’s not.)

The other is earning about $2500 a month from his Amazon books.

While $2500/month is nice, it’s not impressive.

But what about other authors’ training and coaching? Could I recommend alternatives to my friends?

Uh-oh…

To see what other authors were doing, I searched Google for “authors offering courses.”

And then I checked those authors’ Amazon incomes.

I was stunned.

Case #1

The first course I found was by an author with several highly praised novels . This author offers training that starts at $500. Additional courses and coaching cost significantly more.

The author’s Amazon income is around $500 per month.

Case #2

Another “acclaimed author” can be your coach in a series of courses. Several cost over $300. Some are four figures.

The problem is, that author’s monthly Amazon sales are around $270, and only one book is ranked less than 1,000,000.  (That means the author isn’t selling even one copy, per day.)

Case #3

This author is selling training costing over $3,000. However, the author uses multiple pen names and reveals none of them. I see lots of boasts about income, but nothing to back it up.

Worse, as I’m reading between the lines (no pun intended), this author uses a popular, pulp-style business model. It relies on lots of readers paying for shallow, predictable stories.

For many writers, that’s not a sustainable or satisfying career.

I think you get the point, and – by then – I was so depressed, I quit studying the “authors offering courses” marketplace.

If you still want to pay an author to teach you to write and publish books, here are my thoughts…

Where’s the beef?

Long ago, a delightful TV commercial featured a cranky little granny staring at a hamburger on a plate. Then, looking at the tiny meat patty inside , she demanded, “Where’s the beef?”

In other words, does the product match the sales pitch?

When buying any course, look for proof that your instructor is currently earning an income you aspire to.

I don’t mean testimonials, and I don’t mean screenshots of a few students’ earnings.

I mean the author’s own income. That’s something you should verify for yourself… if he/she/they are willing to show you what’s behind the curtain.

Yes, that’s a Wizard of Oz reference. Did you know Baum got the name “Oz” from the label on the lowest drawer of his filing cabinet? Really. The drawer was for files with titles O through Z.

Some of Baum’s other books included The Magical Monarch of Mo, named for his M-O file drawer. (I love trivia like this.)

Here’s how “due diligence” works when you’re looking at authors’ courses and coaching:

  • Confirm that the author is currently earning the kind of money you aspire to.
  • Confirm that the author’s income isn’t in a steep decline. ($10k/month might look great to you now, but what if the author had been earning $50k/month just a few months ago?)
  • Be sure he/she/they are currently making money using the same techniques you’ll be taught in the course. Be sure nothing is held back.
  • Make certain you have more than enough resources (time, money, and creative motivation) to follow the author’s business model. There will be up-front expenses and trial-and-error losses during the first few months.

Is this sounding too scary?

Maybe it should, but that doesn’t mean you have to abandon your dreams of being a published, successful author.

For example, I did find one author who’s steadily shared his royalty statements, pen names, and his most successful sub-genres. Regularly, he’s practically given away his best “trade secrets,” too.

In a normal economy, I’d recommend his training and community in a heartbeat.

But I’m not sure anyone knows what the new “normal” is going to be for indie publishing. And, at a time when many people are putting their day-to-day expenses on credit cards…

Maybe it’s best to look for other options.

The answer is something you’ll find in greater supply than you might imagine: Free tips, advice, and training by successful authors.

Generous authors

Some authors realize that,  because they’re successful, they can afford to help the others.

And they do.

Chris Fox comes to mind. I admire him. He’s helped so many aspiring authors with his “20 Books to $50k” writing and publishing advice (Facebook group),  his how-to books, and his YouTube videos.

Much of his older advice is still valid because it’s generic, not genre-specific or based on a single business model.

Also, this past May, the authors at Sterling & Stone delivered a tremendous free course, “Zero to Published.” It helped me understand why I struggled with some fiction genres, and where my writing actually flows. (I’m still learning from it.)

That’s the tip of the iceberg.

If you’re new to writing, and want a step-by-step overview of what’s involved in writing a book – with helpful advice –  you’ll find that online.

And it’s free.

Start small. Think of it like test-driving a new car: You’re just checking out how this works, and seeing if you like it.

Where to learn to write, free

Some people suggest writing short stories, first.

I don’t. I think short stories can be more challenging than, say, novellas (short novels).

In a short story, you need to convey a lot of information with fewer, more carefully chosen words. (I’m terrible at that.)

Instead, try writing a short book – probably fiction – and plan to spend an hour a day on it. I suggest aiming for around 10,000 words, more or less.

Take a look at Amazon’s “Short Reads” books. Some of them are really short.

Yes, you can write a short book, and you’ll find lots of resources online.

In fact, members of an entire global community write a novel in 30 days, every November.

Well, they try to, anyway. They’re aiming for 50k-word novels. I don’t know many people who can write that much in a single month, without hitting burnout. I couldn’t. (I’ve tried, twice.)

It’s an annual event called NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), and – though I think the challenge is too steep a gradient for a new writer –people involved in NaNoWriMo offer lots of great, free advice.

Here are some links: NaNoWriMo Pep Talks, the NaNoWriMo calendar and week-by-week advice, and their NaNoWriMo 101 course/worksheets (52-page PDF).

You can start at any time. You don’t have to wait until November.

My two cents: the official NaNoWriMo character worksheets are far more than you need to think about. That’s especially true if – as I advise – you start by writing a short novella of around 10,000 words. Or less.

So, if you look at any writing advice and think, “Whoa! That’s too much work!,” it’s okay to scale it back.

Really, some people just sit down and write. (I don’t recommend that, but I’ve always been a “build the foundation, first” kind of person.)

At the foot of this article, you’ll see several free three- and four-week plans for writing your book.

Reminder: if you need more help, see my Budget Resources list.

Takeaways

If you’ve dreamed of becoming a published author, keep a few things in mind.

First – at least while the book market isn’t as stable as usual – avoid expensive training. (And if you are going to invest in training or coaching, use “due diligence.” If the author is hiding things from you, that’s a big red flag.)

You don’t need to spend a cent to learn to write a good story.

You don’t need to spend anything to publish it, either.  You can throw a book into Amazon (via KDP), FREE, and it’ll be selling in their store within a day or two.

For your first book, don’t bother studying the market. (And ignore K-lytics’ predictions, for now, but file that link for future reference.)

Now, write about anything. 

  • It could be a memoir.
  • A fairy tale, rewritten.
  • A mystery, and you’re the sleuth.
  • A spy story inspired by a movie, except you’d have tackled the problem very differently.
  • A romance set in Jane Austen’s world.
  • It could be anything that you’ve ever thought about and said, “Hmm… that could be a good subject for a book.”

Try not to be too critical of your own work. Just keep moving forward. After all, this book isn’t about commercial success.

Your first book serves just one purpose. It’s to help you decide if the writing life is right for you.

A short book is ideal; 6,000 to 10,000 words is a good starting point. (How long is 6k words…? Not much. This article is 2,000 words, and I researched & wrote it before breakfast.)

Free resources

Here are some “write a book in __ days” resources, grabbed at random. I may disagree with some on a few points, but any one of these can work well for you. Or, you may just grab the best ideas from several.

Here are some additional resources that might help. Mix and match to suit your interests and needs.

I’ll add more to this list as I have more time.

Storyclock Update

In the past, I’ve run straight into burnout by working too much. But even as I write that, it’s hard for me to say “too much,” when I still wasn’t producing books at a steady pace.

More than once I’ve said, “I’m working crazy hours and… getting nowhere.”

And then I found Storyclock.

So, I spent two days this week, reworking my current story outline so it made sense on the Storyclock template.

Storyclock updatesIt was excruciating at times. (I hate editing my own work, even when it’s just a plot outline.)

As I did that, I realized that one reason I’m usually at my desk before dawn is: As soon as I wake up, I’m trying to preserve that right-brain inspiration & creativity.

I want to get as much of my (usually new) story written, before the inspiration evaporates.

I know that when I stop, even with an outline, I’m going to lose my enthusiasm. Then my work doesn’t flow. It shifts into awkward starts-and-stops.

Eventually, the story just seems to quit working for me.

So, I tend to write & write & write, day after day, never feeling entirely happy with the book.

And then I’m in burnout, and the book is added to the “to finish someday” pile I never seem to re-energize. Not really.

But now, with Storyclock, my stories have rhythm and synergy and resonance.

When in Rome…

Here’s an example.

Let’s say my story is a romance between a pilot and a flight attendant. They meet and the romance begins on a flight to Rome.

And, after that, every major turning point in the story – where the acts break (story beats) – they’re always in Rome.

Finally, at the end of the story, both of them – independently – go back to Rome to remember happier times.

And they accidentally run into each other, and confess how miserable they’ve been, apart, and it’s HEA. (Happily Ever After)

So, Rome is the repeating rhythm. And the reader knows – if only on a subtle level – when a scene is set in Rome, the romance makes progress, even if it’s not always smooth.

Everything else is the mundane stuff that happens between the magical moments (and drama) as the romance grows. And most of that probably isn’t in Rome. Not the way I’m writing the story, anyway.

Sure, those everyday scenes are essential, too. In fact, the mundane scenes make a romance seem more real. After all, that’s what real life is like, right…?

But having resonance and symmetry in the story… it makes it easier to write the chapters.

Or maybe there’s another cue. For example, “Okay, each of the Big Moments in this story happen where my heroine meets someone she didn’t know before, and that person connects her with more of her (missing) past.”

And, with that mindset, and aiming for resonance,  I make sure my heroine meets someone new at each big turning point in the story. Also, I do my best to echo the previous Big Moment in terms of tone and style. as well.

It’s not entirely new to me. In fact, by the third act of the story, each Big Moment is a headspace I’m familiar with.

And I can just let the story flow.

That’s an entirely different game, for me anyway.

It’s sort of like baseball

Here’s another way to look at it. Think of your story beats as if you’re playing baseball. You’re going from first base to second base to third, and then home.

Each of those bases may involve some major tension. Your readers will turn page after page, wondering “will the hero/heroine survive this and achieve his/her/their goal?”

The in-between scenes are just the lower-key steps that take your story from one base (or dramatic twist, or plot turn) to the next.

But each base has something major in common… a cue to the reader (and to me, as the author) about the tone & importance of what’s going to happen there.

… And that structure is how I could write another 1k words this morning (after moving & rebuilding three websites). It was almost effortless. I was able to drop right into the headspace I needed.

I’m still astonished. And pleased, of course.

So, the Storyclock system works well for me. I’m sure there are other ways to craft a plot for the same effect, but putting this on a clock-style wheel keeps it simple. And very visual.

If you haven’t already read my article about Storyclock plotting, here it is: Using Films to Understand Storytelling.

Using Films to Understand Storytelling

Late yesterday, I got serious about trying the StoryClock concept. After watching this video, I saw how the “clock” approach could help me plot stories faster and better. And, so far, it’s definitely helping.

So, I was pretty excited about this. See, I already had notes – with times noted – from when I analyzed “story beats” in films, a couple of years ago.

Understanding Storytelling with Films

But, putting those notes onto a “clock” to see symmetry and foreshadowing and all those good things… I realized I’d been noting the times on the TV screen. (In other words, that line – with times noted – that appears when you pause, reverse, or fast-forward through a show.)

So, I worried that the entire clock could be thrown off by as many as 10 minutes, depending on how old the movie was, and how grandiose the opening titles. (The original “Pink Panther” movies come to mind.)

This morning, I re-watched one of my favorite films – in terms of plotting, anyway – and… wow! I’ve learned SO much since then, in terms of telling a story. Now, the movie looks entirely different.

That movie is Crimson Peak. It’s more stylish than most movies, but I won’t pretend the story is The Meaning Of Life. I just love the layers that del Toro puts into his films.

My original notes started at the seven-minute point, when I noted that the girl’s father gives her a pen, and that’s foreshadowing.

But now, I realize that even before the seven-minute point, there’s a funeral, and a scene that resonates with, oh, at least half the creepy scenes in the movie… and then a specific warning about the dangers ahead.

And the symmetry and foreshadowing and so on… they go on & on.

Why didn’t I put those scenes in my original notes?

Well, until I’d learned more about storytelling, I didn’t realize how important they were.

At the moment, this is pretty cool. A whole lot of “Oh, THAT’s how important those cues are, to have the story resonate with the reader.”

So, if you’ve been writing for a while, or have been studying plotting and story beats, go back and watch your favorite old movies. You may see things that were so subtle, you hadn’t noticed them before.

And, as a writer, that’s important. In many cases, you want your cues and foreshadowing to enrich your story as it unfolds.

In films and TV shows, you may see things you’d never paid attention to, until you looked as a writer.

Recommended Reading

If I were stranded on a desert island with pen, paper, and just two books about plotting, these might be those two books. I recommend owning them in paperback, so you can flip back & forth between the pages, quickly.

Super Structure: The Key to Unleashing the Power of Story, by James Scott Bell.

This may look like a thin, short book. Don’t let that fool you. It’s filled with useful insights.

In 14 steps, Bell explains what happens in every essential moment of a good story. And he explains it clearly.

For me, the biggest discovery was what he calls “the mirror moment,” where the protagonist comes face-to-face to the situation he/she/they have landed in… because they made mistakes. 

Adding that moment in a story can make a major difference in the impact on the reader. It adds to the suspense, as the reader wonders, “Will he/she/they get out of this mess? Was the lesson really and truly learned, this time?”

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need, by Jessica Brody

This explains the story beats of each of 10 basic plots/genres. It’s useful to understand how a romance is different from, say, a superhero story.

It’s more by-the-numbers than Bell’s Super Structure book is, but – especially for those new to plotting – this book is a time-saver. Big time.

(And, weirdly, that paperback is currently less expensive than buying it in Kindle format. But, at over 300 pages, there’s no way I’d want to be trying to flip back & forth through the pages in digital format.)

But… if you’re a new writer and you’re working on shorter fiction (“short reads”), you may want to take a look at How to Write Short Stories And Use Them to Further Your Writing Career, by James Scott Bell. It’s short, so it’s fine to read in Kindle. Also, he includes a lot of additional information about writing & publishing.

(If you don’t want to spend the $3.99 for the Kindle edition, here’s the most important point I learned from this book: “A great short story is about the fallout from one, shattering moment. What is a ‘shattering moment’? Well, it’s like when you shatter glass. You’ll never get the pieces together again.”)

Related Resources

Dan Harmon’s Story Circles (a bit dramatic/gruesome)

Plot Clock (at Fiction University) – a more formulaic approach, for authors

StoryClock products – notebooks, workbooks, etc. And here’s an explanation of how to use the notebook, but the video I posted at the top of this article is better, imho.

Do you know of a similar/better, circular plotting system? Let me know.

Boston in the late 1880s

When I read – and write – books, I love historical trivia. For me, it makes the story richer.

So, since my first “Love at Sea” book, The Earl’s Engagement, starts in Boston, Massachusetts, I wanted to make sure my city details were accurate. (Growing up in the Boston area, I was familiar with the modern streets of Boston… but not so sure what they were like, or even named, in earlier times.)

The first surprise was how little downtown Boston has changed in over a century. Here’s a map from 1885.

Boston Massachusetts 1885

So, when my hero and heroine were in Boston, most of the street names were the same as they are now. That made it easier for me to understand what kinds of businesses were in Boston… and where.

In my research, I learned that Filene’s department store opened in 1881 at 10 Winter Street in Boston.

And, by 1883, a sort-of circus (described as “sideshow freaks”) opened at 585 Washington Street. It was called Keith & Batchelder’s Dime Museum.

On the second floor, over their museum, the men created a vaudeville theatre. It opened daily at 10 AM and usually presented eight shows per day.

That theatre was run by Edward F. Albee II, whose grandson was noted playwright Edward Albee, famous for plays such as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Sandbox.

Then, when I researched pawnbrokers, I learned that the word was in use in that era, but some pawn shops were part of “collateral loan” institutions. (See the ad in the upper right corner of the following illustration.)

Collateral loans pawnshops

All of this makes writing historical fiction fascinating, and I hope my readers enjoy this kind of trivia – and accuracy – as much as I do.

Love at Sea – Book 1, in progress

I posted this when I was working on my first “Love at Sea” romance…

I’m working on The Earl’s Engagement, the first book in my “Love at Sea” series.

Here’s how I’d describe it, for now:

A ship, a dilemma, and a dangerously attractive faux fiance

The Earl's EngagementLady Anne Travers’ family fortune has been lost to a bad investment. Ruin seems inevitable. So, she needs to win back wealthy Lord Owen Phipps, the cheating fiance she recently spurned.

When she hires handsome actor Michael Edgerton to play her faux fiance and make Owen jealous, sparks fly and nothing goes as planned.

As Anne, Michael, Owen, and Owen’s new fiancee sail back to England on the S.S. Oceanic, almost anything can happen… and it does.

Can Anne prevent financial disaster without compromising her own future happiness?

This is a short, sweet, Victorian romance set aboard a luxurious ocean liner.

You’ll find this book at Amazon, and it’s free to read in Kindle Unlimited.

Click here to read this book in Kindle

 

Marketing Basics for Authors

Recently, someone asked my advice about marketing to reach more readers. It was a rush-rush morning, but I wanted to say something helpful.

Here’s what I said, in email, warts & all…

To sell more books, start with the basics. Even if you’ve already set up some of these systems, revisit them regularly. (I do, with my own books & marketing.) There’s always room for improvement and updates/tweaks.

If this is new to you, it may seem daunting. It’s not. You can do nearly all of this – or at least start the ball rolling – in half a day or less.  (My marketing motto is: “Better, not perfect.” A little here, a little there… it adds up to greater success, week by week.)

1) Set up an Amazon Author page.

You’ll do this via https://authorcentral.amazon.com/  You can use up to three pen names per Author Central account.

(If you have more than three pen names – as I do – set up a second Author Central account with a different email address. That’s perfectly legal.)

A short, whimsical/intriguing author bio is good, whether you’re in fiction or nonfiction. In the bio, lean more on “fascinating, extraordinary person” than on the authority angle.

If you’re in a fringe niche, go with the cool/weird/interesting vibe. 

Make sure your blog feeds to your Amazon Author page, too.  You’ll set that up in Author Central, with just a link.

For more details… well, I haven’t watched this video, but Dave Chesson is a good friend and he’s usually a reliable resource:

2) Create an Author Page at Facebook.

Set up a Facebook Page (not a Group) for your pen name. At first, set it up so you moderate all comments. Once the fans are there to speak louder than trolls, etc., you can change that, so you reduce admin time. You’ll use this to promote your books and make it easy for readers to Share your posts, too.

I’m assuming you’re using something like HootSuite‘s free service to manage your social media accounts.

(I’m using PromoRepublic, and absolutely love it. But, if you’re starting out and have more time than money, there’s no reason to leap into that kind of expense… yet.)

Social media is kind of a must. Focus on whichever media reach your target audience. Facebook followers are very different from Twitter followers, in age, income, and interest.

See this article about which audience is where: https://promorepublic.com/en/blog/10-ways-find-audience-social-media/

3) Work on “also boughts.”

If this is new to you, read https://www.writtenwordmedia.com/also-boughts-authors-books/ but don’t pay any service that might look shady to Amazon.

Mostly, think about the people who should buy your book and know what you’re doing. What best-selling books are they already buying? (Yasiv.com can be useful for this.)

Work on those as “also boughts.”  I recommend using your free days in Kindle, coordinated with a $5 promotion or two by bknights at Fiverr.com. bknights’ promotions are easily the best deal I’ve seen for the money, and they can organically improve your book sales, while staying within Amazon’s Terms of Service.

I’m not sure if this podcast might give you more insights, as I haven’t listened to it, but Chris Fox is pretty reliable on any book marketing topic:
https://cksyme.com/episode36/ 

This video (also by Chris Fox) may be helpful, too:

4) Put your book covers (and Amazon OneLink Affliate links to them – https://affiliate-program.amazon.com/help/node/topic/202165020 ) in the sidebar of your website.

Add Pinterest-ish graphics to your posts, for more exposure. I recommend  LH OGP Meta Tags (free WP plugin) for OGP Image selection, and Social Media and Share Icons (Ultimate Social Media) (also a free WP plugin) to get more buzz, as well.

Those are starting points for authors to reach new readers.

When the Writing Spoils the Book – Editing and Proofreading Tools

when writing spoils book - editing and proofreadingAs a somewhat compulsive reviewer – with lots & lots of reviews at Amazon.com – I read (or at least start reading) several books every week. For me, it’s relaxing and I enjoy writing reviews.

But now, perhaps in “physician, heal thyself” mode, I need to talk about the quality of writing in some books I download to my Kindle reader.

See, in my book about fast nonfiction, I said that content was more important than being finicky about editing and proofreading.

The success of many of my own books – that were published despite being first drafts – proved that my readers want facts.

The more data and trivia I can provide, especially while the topic is trending, the better.

That’s still true. But now, competition can be steeper. I need to revise and update my “write fast books” book. Above all, I need to recommend taking an extra day or two to fix the most glaring problems.

While I’m editing that book, the following advice may help fast nonfiction authors. It goes double if you’re publishing fiction.

No excuse for terrible grammar or typos

If your readers see errors in the “look inside” part of your book, they won’t buy or borrow it.

If they get halfway through the book and put it down because the typos or grammar glitches are too annoying, you’ll get one-star reviews.

Spend a little extra time fixing the worst problems that leap off the pages of your book.

Most word processors, including free ones like OpenOffice and LibreOffice, include spellcheckers (and sometimes grammar checkers) that catch far more mistakes than they used to, even two or three years ago.

For free editing, the Hemingway Editor (formerly called “the Hemingway app”) was one of the first free, online editing tools. It’ll highlight the text that really needs improvement. (It will also highlight a few things that are fine, as-is, unless you’re writing a dissertation for your Literature or English degree.)

Note: The free, online version can require a lot of tedious cut-and-paste, and it doesn’t seem as precise as the paid/desktop version that I own… but rarely use, now.

Then there’s Grammarly. I’ve used it and liked it. They have a free version. It can be good enough for most writing projects. Add it to Chrome and then write in Google Docs, and it’ll identify your worst writing blunders. It’s more finicky – but also more helpful – than Hemingway Editor.

About a year ago, I started using (and absolutely love) ProWritingAid. Like Hemingway Editor, ProWritingAid offers a free, online version.

For me, it’s the next best thing to hiring an editor. And, since I use their Premium edition, it interacts with Scrivener.

Their customer support is personal, and run by the team that created the software. They respond quickly.

So, ProWritingAid is easily my top recommendation. I can choose how finicky I want to be. If I’m rushing through a topical nonfiction book, I can decide what kinds of grammar errors I want to fix… and skip the rest.

In other words, I don’t fix everything they flag as bad grammar. Don’t feel as if you have to, either.

It saves me time. It helps me polish my work. I love it. Try the free, online version and see if it works well for you, too.

Ghostwriters can be great… or terrible

Sometimes, I read a book and, within the first few pages, realize it was outsourced. The grammar is awful. The sentences make little sense. Only the gist of the topic (or scene) is there, and even that is difficult to discern.

That’s how I know the author actually hired someone at Fiverr.com or a super-low bidder at Upwork.com, or at a similar site.

Next, the person they hired may hire someone cheaper, or even use Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, which is ridiculously inexpensive… and the middleman (the one you thought you hired) pockets the difference.

Finally, the author/publisher received the book, and thought it was ready to publish.

It wasn’t.

Maybe the publisher was rushed. Maybe he or she has reading challenges. Or maybe the person’s first language isn’t English.

Whatever the reason, he or she hasn’t a clue how bad the book is.

That’s tragic when it’s fiction and the plot seems fun, but I just can’t get past the awful writing.

Note
From this point on, most of this is for fiction writers. Nonfiction authors should skim this for the points that affect their books, too.

The plot matters… a lot

Make sure you’re starting with a good plot.

If readers don’t care about your characters and what happens to them, or your plot doesn’t hit the right notes, the writing doesn’t matter.

I recommend Save the Cat! Writes a Novel. If you can buy only one book about writing fiction, that’s probably the best one to get. And, in my opinion, it’s most useful as a printed book. (As I’m writing this, it’s less expensive in print than in Kindle, too.)

What to expect from ghostwriters

Many people have jumped on the “hire a cheap ghostwriter and get rich with fiction” bandwagon.

Umm… that can work, but don’t count on it.

Let’s say you had an idea for a book. You (or someone you hired) crafted a great plot with engaging characters.

Then, you hired someone to write a novella, around 25,000 words. Now, you’re not sure if the book is ready to publish.

In ghostwriting, price matters.

  • If you’ve paid them less than $200, expect a rather rough first draft.  It’s not a ready-to-publish, finished manuscript. (Exception: when the ghostwriter is fantastic, but just starting with a site like Upwork.com. He or she may offer super-low prices, just to build a resume and get great reviews.)
  • If you’ve paid over $1,000 for that novella, the book should need little or no work before publishing.

Between those extremes, anything is possible.

Is it good enough?

Here are different ways to decide if (and when) your book is ready to be published.

  • Read the book carefully, yourself.
  • Have a friend (or beta reader) look at it, too.
  • Run it through ProWritingAid or other editing software, to see how many problems it flags.

Then fix what’s broken… at least the worst things. (Hire someone if you can’t do the line-editing yourself.)

Also, authors I know (in real life) rave about the book, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. I trust those authors’ recommendations, so I bought a copy of that book. I may even read (and use) it, someday. But, to be honest, all I’m using is ProWritingAid.

But how does your book sound?

Here’s one of the best editing tools I’ve stumbled onto, after I’ve run my books through ProWritingAid: Read Aloud. It’s a text-to-speech addition for your Chrome browser.

And it’s free.

I’ve tried several text-to-speech tools, and Read Aloud has been the most glitch-free of the bunch.

Basically, I sit at my desk – with my manuscript open – and have Read Aloud read it.

Note for Scrivener authors: I’ve tried a few options, and like pasting the text into Google Docs, for Read Aloud to read while I have Scrivener open. Then, I fix problems as I hear or notice them. There’s probably an easier way – and I’ll update this post when I find one – but, for now, this works for me.

Hearing my book read has been one of the best ways for me to recognize when a sentence reads awkwardly. Or when a scene needs to be restructured or totally rewritten.

But this bears repeating: Use editing software before – and possibly a second time, after – you use Read Aloud. Don’t waste your time listening to a book that will need a major rewrite, anyway.

When you struggle with English

Back when I edited books at Harvard and M.I.T., one of my clients was a challenge. His writing was terrible.

Oh, English was his first language, but he usually spoke in partial sentences.  (I’d say, “How are you doing?” He’d reply, “Working too hard. As usual. Yourself?”)

Most days, he worked in a lab by himself. He didn’t need to speak with many people. (He was like Sheldon in Big Bang Theory.)

He was a noted scientist, and – no doubt – a genius. But rewriting his books and papers… wow. That was a struggle, every time.

He wasn’t my only client. Most were visiting professors from other countries. They spoke enough English to take courses, and sometimes teach them.

There was no way they could write books and papers, in English, without the help of a line-editor.

I’d edit the work and give it back to the professor, to be sure I had conveyed the right concepts. Then, she or he would sit down with me, and we’d talk about it.

I’d fix what I’d misunderstood. They’d ask how to express certain ideas, and take notes. And then I’d edit the resulting work, one more time.

Often, I was just the first editor. The publishing house would take my work and edit it even further.

If you struggle with English, it can be essential to hire an English-speaking editor. (You can find some at sites like Upwork.com, but be sure to check reviews and references. Or ask your friends who write/publish books.)

My experience as a “fast book” author

I won’t pretend I’m a great writer. Research is where I shine, but that seems to be enough to offset my writing skills.

Competition has increased in the marketplace. I’m editing and revising all of my books. What was “good enough” even two or three years ago… that bar was far too low to remain competitive now.

Keep that in mind when someone talks about outsourcing your way to a fortune, and uses his or her older books as proof.

How Much at What Rank?

When I set book marketing goals, I like to know what I’m aiming for. That helps me decide what to budget in terms of time, money, and other resources.

The following chart is just a ballpark estimate. I started with the Kindle Sales Calculator on Dave Chessons’s site: Kindle Best-Seller Calculator.

Then I added the average net income, per book, for a Kindle book sold in the U.S., and I figured my  numbers from there.

(I’m posting this because I keep misplacing my own copy of these figures. If they’re on my website, they’re easier to find.)

Approximate net income per book sold