Self-publishing in print, part 2: People do judge a book by its cover

So, you’re ready to self-publish. You have the inside of the book, but how do you get a cover?

The good news and the bad news are the same: You’re in charge of your cover.

Unless you are a professional artist, preferably with some graphic design training, don’t try to do it all by yourself.  Your cover is a critical part of selling your book. Even for e-books, the cover is what customers see when they go shopping. It can either turn them off or draw them in. You want them to love it so much they just have to see what’s inside the book.

If you are an artist or know someone who is, that’s an advantage. However, not all artists know how to do book covers, and you don’t want to ruin your friendship if it doesn’t work out. Still, a wonderful image, such as an original painting or photo, can make your cover sing.

Having control over your own cover is one of the advantages of self-publishing. I have had publishers provide covers that I loved and covers that I hated. If you look closely at my Freelancing for Newspapers cover, the print on the third newspaper down talks about “genital warts.” I was horrified when I saw it, but there was nothing I could do.

Likewise, on the first edition of Stories Grandma Never Told, the publisher used a picture of one of the women I interviewed. I hated it. I wanted a picture of my great-grandmother, but here was this other lady, and I didn’t want her on the cover. Too bad.

When I published Azorean Dreams through iUniverse, I sent them a picture of a harbor from one of the Azores Islands. They sent me a gorgeous cover featuring a couple kissing on a rock, with the harbor behind them. The background was a luscious blue. Just one problem. My hero had a mustache and this guy didn’t. They drew on a mustache. Fine. A couple years later, I discovered the same picture on the back covers of six months worth of Oregon Coast Magazine as part of an advertisement. The same picture. The same couple, minus the mustache.  By then, I was pretty sure that was Italy, not the Azores. They had used clip art, available to anybody willing to pay for it. I was appalled, but that’s still the cover on the book.

When the original publisher let  Stories Grandma Never Told go and I republished it myself, I got the cover of my dreams. The designer, Andrew Cier, from Newport Lazerquick, used photos I had provided to design a gorgeous cover that still makes people stop and comment.

For my latest book, Childless by Marriage, I didn’t know what to do. I was hoping the artist suggested by my printer would catch the essence of the book and come up with something wonderful, but she didn’t. She e-mailed me several completely inappropriate covers and insisted I choose one. Refusing, I wound up with a plain brown cover with a pair of wedding rings on the front because I needed something to get the e-book out by Mother’s Day. Ultimately, I went back to Lazerquick. My “artist” had used “clip art,” nothing I couldn’t have gotten myself . I went online. I found some great images, but then I thought: wait, I think I have something in my photo albums. Sure enough, I found the wedding picture that Jeffery Shirley turned into a cover I truly love. I wasted a bit of money with the earlier unusable versions, but it was worth the expense to get the right cover.

What I’m saying is that if you’re publishing your own book, you have to get the best cover you possibly can.  Don’t try to do it without expert help, but also don’t expect them to be mind-readers. Look in your photos, your art, even at clip art for images that might work. One precaution: You can’t use somebody else’s copyrighted image without obtaining permission. It’s easy to grab something off the Internet or scan a picture you find in a magazine, but it’s illegal to use it for your book without taking the proper steps.

Study other covers to see what you like and don’t like. Remember that the cover has to allow space for the title and your name.  Think about what colors you would like for the background, the spine and the back cover, all of which will include print that you want people to be able to read.

If you Google “clip art,” you will find sites such as “clipart.com” where you can purchase images for a surprisingly reasonable fee.  A search for “book cover design” will bring you lots of companies willing to design your cover or offer you templates. These may work. Check them out carefully before you spend money. Just make sure you get the cover you like, preferably one that won’t turn up someday in a magazine ad.

Coming up: formatting your book and finding a printer

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So You Think You Want to Write a Book

It seems as if everybody’s writing books these days, even celebrities who never did anything literary before. And if you’re not a celebrity and can’t get a million dollar contract, you can publish your own book, so why not?

I started creating books shortly after I learned to write. When I was about 8 or 9, I put together little books with cardboard covers and typing-paper insides. I printed the text with pencils and did the illustrations with crayons. I only made one copy of each, but it showed the direction I was destined to go in. I was always the little writer girl. I got sidetracked in the newspaper biz for a long time, but I still had this dream of a bookshelf full of books I had written. That shelf is half full now, but I’ve been at it a very long time. I wrote an awful lot of articles, short stories, essays and poems and published quite a few of them before I ever published a book.

My first two books were works for hire. The San Jose Chamber of Commerce hired me to write a guide for newcomers moving to Santa Clara County. They supervised the whole thing, which was really a compilation of articles and photos, not so different from my newspaper work. I got paid by the hour. By the time they updated the book a few years later, a private company had taken it over and hired their own writer. But it was a start. The second book, The Iberian Americans, came as a result of an ad in Writer’s Digest. Chelsea House, which publishes books for young adults, was looking for people to write about various nationalities. I sent an outline and sample chapter and got the gig. I got paid a flat fee, no royalties, no book tour. But it was and is a beautiful hardbound book full of wonderful photos and with my name on the cover. I was so thrilled when I saw it that I cried.

The Iberian Americans, which was about Portuguese, Spanish and Basque immigrants, led to Stories Grandma Never Told: Portuguese Women in California. That one was completely my idea, and I’m proud that it’s still selling well after 14 years. But here’s the thing: It took nine years from the time I roughed out the idea to when I held the finished book in my hand. That’s a long time. Much of that time I wasn’t working on the book at all, just trying to sell it. I had decided to just photocopy the damn thing and hand it out to my friends by the time Heyday Books took it on and made my dream come true.

I’m not going to torture you with the process for all of my books–six published now, several others not published and set aside. Childless by Marriage, the new one, has been in the works for about 20 years. What I’m saying is that a book can take a long time. After it’s published, it becomes part of your life. You will always need to be selling it, talking about it, and answering questions as some kind of expert. As I write this, I’m on my way to California to sell books at a Portuguese festival, where I will be pushing Stories Grandma Never Told, a novel called Azorean Dreams and my newer books. Because of these books, I have a reputation as a Portuguese-American writer.

My question for you is this: Are you passionate enough about your subject, whether it’s nonfiction or fiction or poetry, to spend years getting it published and the rest of your life loving it, promoting it and talking about it? It’s a huge commitment, a bit like marriage or having children.

It can be daunting to face a whole book at once. Try writing a short version first, an article, essay, short story, or poem. Is there a market for it? Do you have enough left for a whole book (think 300 pages)? Are you eager to keep going? Then go for it. If you never sell a single copy but you enjoy the process of writing the book, it’s still worth doing. Plus, you’ll be a better writer for having done it.


Self-publishing can be a challenge

Well, I held my new baby in my hands last week, and then I had to send it back because it was flawed. The baby, of course, is a book. Shoes Full of Sand was printed and bound and delivered, along with a substantial bill. We loaded up my Honda, and I drove home with a carload of pride and possibility.

Then I opened the boxes. It’s not a big thing. The glossy cover is wrinkled along the spine. But considering what I paid and considering that readers are expecting perfect, unwrinkled books, it is not acceptable. I already had orders, which I filled with the least wrinkly copies, then took the rest back to be re-bound. Now we’re waiting until next Friday. Phooey.

At that point, I no longer wanted to be a publisher. If someone else were publishing this book, I wouldn’t have to deal with wrinkly covers. This book has been eating my writing time for weeks, but I do enjoy most of the process. When the unwrinkled copies arrive, I’ll be delighted to sell them far and wide. I know I was born to make books. In elementary school, I put together little books made of cardboard and typing paper, lettered by hand and illustrated with crayons. This is just a grownup variation.

Working as Blue Hydrangea Productions, I previously published two booklets and another book, Stories Grandma Never Told: Portuguese Women in California. I have almost sold out the second printing. It can work, but if you’re considering self-publishing, think about whether you’re ready to take on a whole new job.

Unless you have a strong desire to be a publisher, always try traditional publishing first. Send out those queries, synopses and proposals to agents and editors. You may strike gold.