(As a reminder, this is part one of the series discussed here. This series was originally concieved to be part of a roundtable discussion, so don’t be afraid to comment, disagree, offer new suggestions, etc.)
When an author decides to self-publish, they must assume responsibility for turning their raw drafts into a finished product (arguably, that’s true even if they decide to go through trade publishing, today — submitting a raw draft to a publisher is a surefire way to a rejection letter). That means, in addition to doing the writing, an author must deal with getting the book edited, designing the book’s interior, and attaining an attention-getting, story-appropriate cover.
Covers are the first thing your reader will see of your book. They will sell your book to more “new” readers than anything else you can do. Arguably, of the three components you are most likely to outsource in the production of your book, the cover might be considered your highest priority.
While covers attract new buyers, well written and well edited text will keep them. Readers are willing to forgive some small mistakes if the story is engaging enough, but good editorial work will make it so they don’t have to. This usually requires multiple passes through your work (one thing about writing and publishing: There are exceptions to just about everything), but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to hire multiple editors (more on that below) to get a quality product.
Of these three most commonly outsourced objects, Book Design is the easiest to DIY. Now, if all you’re releasing is an eBook, you should be able to handle this one with just a bit of research.
Key word there is “should.” Having seen some rather horrid eBooks in my day, I’d argue that indie writers may be more than likely to get this one right than trade publishers, but I’ve seen both do things that ruined otherwise fine books. Print books, on the other hand, require more training to get right — this can be self-taught, to a degree, but there’s a lot more work involved in making a print book look professional.
There are a few people out there who are, in fact, capable of doing all of these things themselves. And there are even more people who think they are capable of doing all of these things, themselves; if you disagree with them, you’re disagreeing with their mother\father\husband\wife\brother\etc. who told them so, and don’t you be insulting their mother\father\husband\wife\brother\etc. by calling them a liar! *sigh*
To create a good product as a self-publisher, you need to be able to recognize your own limitations. That’s true of a lot of things, but I’ll add this to it: There are some people who think they’re able to “learn on the job,” who recognize that their editing\cover design\book design\etc. isn’t up to par but think they can learn those things after “getting their feet wet” by publishing a book or two, first. I suggest that such a person is not able to improve from experience unless they also have a guide to help them figure out their mistakes.
Some people may have professional skills or training that allow them to handle certain tasks. Others are self-taught, using blogs or books to learn how to draw or design or edit their own work. Others pick things up from a friend or relative who has such skills. If this is the case for you, great! But there needs to be some starting point beyond just jumping in off the deep end — if you know nothing about art and start trying to design your own cover, don’t be surprised if your book winds up on LousyBookCovers.com. Even if your friend\relative\barber who is a “pretty good” artist gave you free artwork to use, you can still mess things up if that artwork is inappropriate, or your typography is horrible, or if you place the title over the artwork’s best feature, or if… well, you get the idea.
For myself, I think that I’m decent with book design. It’s one of the only parts of this process that I’ve actually had formal training in. It has, admittedly, been more than a decade since I took those college courses, but re-learning this stuff was much easier for it.
Despite that, I think that I made a few minor design mistakes with the print version of In Treachery Forged (nothing worth the effort of releasing a second edition, but I could have — for example — chosen a better font). By the time I got around to producing The Kitsune Stratagem, I think I’d worked out most of the kinks and managed a better, more “professional grade” product. With two more books hopefully coming out in the next few months (though they’ve both already faced significant delays), I expect to continue improving until what I produce is better than merely “professional.”
That doesn’t mean I necessarily do things the same way every established book designer would — I don’t always agree with modern book design, and I do still make the odd flub — but I’ve learned enough about it I’m comfortable on my own.
However, while I may know something about design, I am not an artist. If I want good cover art, I have to employ someone else to draw it.
Likewise, I may feel capable of editing my own books, to a degree. I was taught how to edit by my late father, a librarian and all-around book man who, among his other industry credits, professionally edited translations of foriegn poetry (and other things, but I’ve always been most impressed by that). However, I am also mildly dyslexic, so there are some grammar and spelling issues I know I cannot be certain of without a second set of eyes.
I think it’s important that an author know how to design a book, make a book cover, edit a book, and how to find and hire people to do all three.
ON BOOK DESIGN:
As I said in the introduction, of the three things most commonly outsourced, Book Design is probably the easiest of the three for an author to do by themselves. Ebooks require little in the way of design to look good — you don’t have to worry about hyphenation, widows and orphans, justification, and any of a number of other things that are a component of print book design; with dynamicly formatted ebooks, it’s all handled automatically.
But that hasn’t stopped some people from ruining their ebooks with poor design. For most trade publishers, that usually comes about with their backlists when they do OCR scans of print books and don’t bother proofread afterwards. All sorts of wierd graphical artifacts (and strange spellings, bizarre margin errors, inexplicable hyphens, etc.) get left behind, sometimes to the point of rendering the book in question illegible.
Self-publishers usually mess up their Book Design in other ways — after all, most self-publishers (unless they started in trade publishing and so have a pre-existing backlist of their own) aren’t converting their print books to ebooks.
One book design flaw indies make in ebooks is re-designing the wheel. Now, I have heard people making decent cases for using block paragraphs instead of indented paragraphs in their ebooks. I have heard people who want to move the table of contents around for technical reasons. I know self-publishers who are required, for one reason or another, to embed monotype font in one particular section of their books in order to properly line up characters vertically as well as horizontally, but leave the rest of the book as a different (or undeclared) font.
But then there are authors who feel that hey, we’re self-publishers, the gatekeepers are gone, we don’t have to follow any rules! In some cases, these authors do things just because they want to take it to “The Man,” and make design decisions specifically because they want to make their books look as little like print books as possible. They think these books look good, but in the end what they’re doing is trying (and in most cases failing) to “re-invent the wheel” of good book design. It’s a self-defeating effort that makes their books look unprofessional.
Things I have seen show up in eBooks (both self-published and trade) include: Books using both block paragraph style and indent paragraphs at the same time, ebooks without a table of contents (in this case referring to the .ncx file, which allows you to navigate between chapters), books in double space (a book is not a manuscripts; manuscripts are double-spaced to leave room for comments. A little extra space between lines is acceptable, but double-spacing a book makes it look… unfinished; a subconscious tell, to me, that the book hasn’t been fully edited), and books which change fonts (and\or font size) just about every paragraph. Heck, I’ve seen a trade-published book that had graphical scene seperators (which can be a nice addition, depending on the book and the graphic) that were over-large and cut across multiple page-turns, and which seemed to randomely rotate in design with other scene seperators for no apparent reason.
It need not be that extreme to look garish. If you don’t know your coding well, a single drop-cap at the start of each chapter can turn an otherwise professional-looking book horrid and ugly. Even a simple embedded font can mess up a book (for example, changing all the text in your novel to comic sans in an effort to make it look “handwritten.” Yes, I’ve seen people do this).
If you know what you’re doing, there are little things you can do to tweak your ebook away from boring and basic without crossing the line into gawdy. Embedding a font for titles, for example — you can decorate the front of your chapters without overwhelming your readers by trying to make them read your book in, say, Lucida Blackletter from start to finish.
And yes, it is possible to embed a font into an eBook; despite what some veteran self-publishers think, embedded fonts will not ruin your book. Those veteran self-publishers had a point; back in the early days of the Kindle — for generation one and two and part of three — there was a glitch that made it impossible for the e-reader to interpret embedded fonts. Those characters were replaced with blank boxes or gibberish characters that made the book unreadable. That was a software issue, and it is my understanding that this has been corrected (confirmed going back to at least the Kindle 3\Kindle Keyboard version), though this shouldn’t be taken as license to fiddle with the fonts of your book willy-nilly. Readers will frequently change the basic font type and size at will, so trying to ensure that your whole book is 10-pt. Garamond won’t do you much good.
The key thing here is, if you want to try something… unusual, say, for your ebook, run it by someone unbiased, first, to see if it makes sense to them. This can be a book designer, another experienced author, etc., and it gives you a sanity check over whatever it is you plan to do.
Print books are another matter entirely. Book design for print is much more complicated, and if you are unable or unwilling to educate yourself (and much that can easily learned in theory can still throw you in practice, even with simple book designs), I would strongly recommend hiring a book designer instead of just winging it.
Unless you are writing non-fiction (and even then, narrative non-fiction looks better if it more resembles fiction in design), you almost certainly don’t want to use block paragraphs in a print book. You never want to use ragged right (or, worse, ragged left) justification. You don’t want it doublespaced. You don’t want to use comic sans. Heck, you don’t want to use any bizarre or ornamental fonts.
Doing these sorts of things makes you look like an amateur, and I don’t care if “there are no gatekeepers so I can make it look like I want,” you’re far better off not re-inventing the wheel, here.
That doesn’t mean there are no areas where you can disagree with “modern” typographical and design choices. Designers love to go on about how they hate “rivers and channels” in fully justified text which they claim are produced by… well, just about anything the are obstinately opinionated about — hyphenation, the spacing after a period, even line spacing and font choice. Two spaces after a period is wrong, they tell us, and it’s always been wrong, they lie. They love hyphenating words to change where word wraps take place — it think its ugly, and interferes with reading flow (in fact, I’m looking for a way to turn the automatic hyphenation off on this blog. Any wordpress veterans out there know how?).
Those are stylistic choices, they haven’t been enforced universally for decades and decades on end like the “no ragged right” rule, and I’m sure some typographer or book designer can come in and give a long explanation as to why what I think is ugly is “best for readability.” Honestly, it only matters if the readers care, and I’m pretty sure most don’t even notice those things. As long as there’s a significant precedent somewhere in the history of publishing and typography, it’s okay to disagree.
If you go your own way, though, you need to learn that there’s only so far you can push things. A “line break after every sentence” would be very strange, and your readers would notice. You might get away with it in, say, poetry (where doing unusual things is part of the job), but if you wrote a novel that way you would drive your readers crazy. If you worry that your favored design choices might be pushing the envelope too much, that is the time to hire a book designer. Using one at least once in your self-publishing career to help you figure out where the “unbreakable” rules are can help you learn where these design choices are really rules and where they are simply guidelines.
Book design for novels should be relatively cheap. Last time I priced it out, I found reputable book designers willing to handle simple (if your novel isn’t illustrated and isn’t poetry, it’s usually simple) book design for $200-350. It’s been a couple years since then, but I doubt the cost of book design has skyrocketed, considering the other services I’ll be talking about in this blog have remained fairly steady in price. A warning, though — if you’re doing something more complex than a basic novel (for example, you’re writing a non-fiction book and you’re going to be putting in lots of illustrations, charts, tables, etc.) that cost will skyrocket into the four or even five figure range.
Finding a reputable book designer is fairly easy. There are people who specialize it, but the easiest way to find one is to package the book design with your cover design, as the two services are often offered together. Now, finding a cover designer….
Recall that the title of this blog post is “Cheap, Fast, and Good: Pick Two.” Well, that’s the problem with finding cover artists and editors — it’s almost impossible to find someone who is all three. It’s not exactly all that easy to find a cover artist who fits even two of those traits, sometimes.
You need a good, high-end cover in two weeks? Well, you can get that… for about $1000. You want a cover for free? You might be able to stumble across one or two free covers somewhere on the internet, but good luck getting exclusive use rights to it. Don’t want to spend much money and want it fast? Well, there’s always Microsoft Paint to the rescue!
If you have no time and need a good cover now, it’ll cost you in one way or another. If you’re on a budget and need a cover, you either need to DIY it — and if you aren’t a good artist, readers are getting better at discerning (and disliking) DIY covers — or you need to find someone cheap.
The “money” part of that doesn’t have to be too much. Indie Designz, while it isn’t my style, offers quality book covers for far less than that $1000 mark I mentioned above. Those covers are build around stock imagery — an effective method, but it can have a few flaws: You (the author) won’t know how much the final design will cost until the stock imagery is chosen, some stock images get used on so many covers that they’re mocked when they are identified, and the style required by using stock imagery does not work for every genre.
There are other options. Here was how I took care of my covers:
I started getting “In Treachery Forged” ready to publish almost eight months before it came out. I knew I needed a good cover, but attempts at home-made covers (my brother gave it a try) were… well, I knew they weren’t what I wanted on a book cover.
I was on a very tight budget (after the money I’d hoped to use was re-allocated to repairing a non-functioning hot water heater, I had to borrow money from my mother for the cover), so I knew that those $1000 covers were beyond me. I also knew those Indie Designz covers weren’t to my taste. While my brother continued to try and refine his design (you might find the final result of his effort buried somewhere deep in the archives of my Facebook page), I tried a longshot: I went to the artist behind one of my favorite webcomics (as background, I had never met the man before, nor was I very active in posting in the comments section of his comic, so there was no pre-existing friendship of any kind there) to see if he was willing to do it, and how much he would charge.
To my surprise, he was quite willing… and for about half of what I was expecting to have to pay. The search for an artist took a while, and negotiations took some time, but three months before the final release of the book I managed to hire him for the cover.
Now, my experience may be atypical, but I’d heard stories of professional artists that weren’t experienced with book covers who failed to understand their requirements. My new cover artist was not a cover artist by trade, so I made sure we discussed the following things before signing him on:
- What rights was I getting? (In addition to both exclusive rights to the artwork for ebook and print book covers, I needed to be able to use the artwork for marketing. That included the right to make slight modifications — such as cropping — for use in different formats)
- What fees did he charge for changes? (Up to a certain point in the design process, they were free. I wound up being charged a small fee because my mother, who was bankrolling the cover, insisted on a significant tweak after that point. Some cover artist specialty services limit you to two or three changes, total, or charge a fee for every change; you will probably need your artist to make tweaks, at least, so keep that in mind)
- How and when to pay (we agreed to no payment until completion, but some cover artists will want pay in advance, or a split payment part in advance and part at completion)
Once we agreed on these things, I had to give him instructions on the artwork itself. I’ve heard horror stories about artists who got the scale wrong, or the dimensions wrong, or didn’t leave room for a title. So, in addition to giving him a pick of scenes to choose from as possible cover illustrations, Imade sure he knew the following things:
- The exact dimensions needed. Since this was for both eBook and the front of the Print copies, I needed to account for bleed edges on three sides (the fourth side would be the spine), the proportions of the image, room for cropping to account for the different proportions, and the size of the book (I did mention the size by pixels, too, but it turned out that the pixel size was smaller than the dimentions of the print cover size — 6″ X 9″, not counting the aforementioned bleed edge and cropping space)
- How far from the edge the title needed to be. I also warned him that I would need space for a few additional lines of text (author name, series title, and possibly a space to incorporate a line from an editorial review in the future).
- I warned him that it needed to contrast well in grayscale\black and white, as it would frequently be seen on an e-ink reader (such as the Kindle\Kindle Paperwhite\etc.).
- I offered to place credits for his art wherever he wanted (on the cover, inside the book, etc.)
Now, I was a little concerned that — in giving him such instructions — I might be venturing a little too far into “teaching grandma to suck eggs” territory (ugh… who came up with that phrase, anyway?). My artist didn’t take offense at all.
From that point to the completion of the cover, it took almost exactly two months. That was after about a period of querying, negotiating, and so forth — much of that delay on my end, as I was investigating other options, but I would say at least a few days to a week should be budgeted in order to vet and negotiate with your cover artist. It may take even longer, depending on the artist.
The second cover artist I hired proved this was not a fluke. I was quite satisfied with my first cover artist (and just recently opened discussions with him about producing the cover for “In Forgery Divided”), and will continue using him as long as he is interested, but I was starting a second series. When it comes to multiple series, there is always the possibility that you will be in the production phase of two different books (editing, covers, books design) at the same time, so I knew I’d need to find another cover artist.
This time, I went a different route: I went after someone with experience designing book covers, but I still wanted original artwork and not photography. I found a half-dozen veteran cover artists and sent queries asking if they were taking commissions, what their rates were, etc.
I got one reply. The artist wanted close to $1000. Now, my budget for this cover was a bit higher than the last cover (and I didn’t spend to the limit for that cover), but $1000 was too much. I was stumped, but then I found the name of an artist listed in the amazon.com credits of a book I liked the cover of.
Once again, I took a chance and asked him to do a book cover for me… and I got back a bid to do this cover for even less than my first cover. I went through roughly the same process as before on roughly the same timeline. Even though this artist had a few dozen more credits to his name and probably knew things like how to leave space for the title and so forth, he still didn’t react as if I was “teaching grandma to suck eggs.” And I think I got some pretty good artwork in the end — better than I would have gotten from that $1000 cover artist I’d found.
My point is, (1) don’t be afraid to approach any artist you like to make your cover. Yes, the likes of Michael Whelan won’t do anything for you (he says so in his FAQ), but you’d be surprised who will. And (2) when you do find a cover artist, it is okay to give them precise instructions. They will listen, and not be offended.
Note: Ironically, this article needed editing after I posted it. (The final revisions I made didn’t save when I clicked the “publish” button)
And now for the job the fewest number of authors can, or should, attempt: Editing. I’m not saying it’s impossible for someone to edit their own work — their are outliers who do that and do it well — but more people think they can edit their own work than actually can. That doesn’t mean that doing your own editorial pass is worthless, or that you need to spend great gobs of money on editing, but — if for nothing more than a sanity check — someone else (and someone who knows the basics of both your genre and the English language, please) who you know will give you an honest opinion should look at it first.
Let’s start with something I’m sure most people who’ve done any research into the process already know: There is more than one type of editor out there. I usually see it broken up into proofreader, copy editor, and developmental editor.
But then there are:
- line editors
- content editors
- substantive editors
- structural editors
- stylistic editors
- manuscript editors
- book doctors
- technical editors
- fact checkers
- SEO Editors (better known as marketers)
- project editors (mostly found in trade publishers, but sometimes someone working on an anthology would be called this)
- acquisitions editors (which should be, by definition, exclusive to trade publishers)
- layout editors (another name for book designer, as is design editor)
- …and probably one or two I’m forgetting.
To add to the confusion, many publishers use different editors (assistant editor, associate editor, editor, senior editor, editor-in-chief, and a couple others) to place people in their corporate hierarchy rather than to indicate any editorial skill in their employees.
While one group or another (some with official status, such as the “Editor’s Association of Canada”, and others with less official status, such as “Seth’s Blog”) have tried to define each type of editor, I’ve never seen two groups (even two “official” groups) agree on every definition. But let’s try and group these editor types into “what you kinda\sorta need these people to do for you” types. (Some of these job types will be in multiple categories)
If you are done writing, but you think your beginning is a mess, your middle is just full of continuity editors, your climax is misplaced, and don’t think you can fix these things yourself, you want:
- Developmental Editor
- Content Editor
- Substantive Editor
- Structural Editor
- Book Doctor
- Stylistic Editor (heh… more on this below)
Of course, if your book is in that bad a shape, you might not be READY for an editor. I’d recommend self-editing, using beta readers, maybe even consulting with friends and family asking them for advice (which may be useless, but even if it is useless it might inspire you to fix it yourself).
I’ll probably get in trouble with one or two of my Facebook friends for saying this (as some of these are their job titles), but you’re more likely to find frauds and scams in the above editorial types than you are anywhere else in the editing field. To be clear: There are a lot of legitimate editors who use the above titles.
However, a lot of old, classic vanity press scams used to send authors to shady “editors” or “book doctors” with the above titles. These so-called editors charged exhorbitant rates, and their service was sub-par at best. The scam vanity presses don’t employ that strategy as much, these days (they have other ways of extracting money from authors), but a lot of those ex-“book doctors” have hung their shingle as freelance editors to try and swindle authors on their own.
If your book is in pretty good shape in that regard, but you need a grammer overhaul to go along with a sanity check and maybe a little more smoothing of your manuscript, you might want (at least one of):
- Copy Editor
- Line Editor
- Substantive Editor
- Structural Editor
If all you want is a typo hunter and last-minute grammar checker, you probably want a:
- Copy Editor
- Technical Editor
- Stylistic Editor
Please note, technical editors are usually for business writing, not fiction, though there is some crossover there. Also, if you want to employ a “stylistic editor,” read their own description of what they do. Sometimes a “stylistic editor” means they fix the “broad strokes” style of your book, trying to make your story flow better; other times, it means they go through and change your otherwise gramatically correct book to convert it from one style guide (say, Turabian, which was an “interpretation” of the “Chicago Manual of Style” my college insisted of for every course) to another (say, the Oxford Guide to Style — a.k.a., you’re converting your book from American English to British English).
Sometimes an editor doesn’t actually know which of these types of editor they are (for quite understandable reasons, since the definitions seem to be so varied). They will hang out their shingle as a line editor or a structural editor, but when they write out what they think a “structural editor” is, they turn out to be a developmental\content editor. Sometimes, they’ll call themselves a copy editor but will actually be a proofreader (I’ve heard a copy editor described as a “proofreader on steroids” on occasion, so this one isn’t that big a stretch).
This doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t any good — in fact, there are a lot of very good freelance editors who think they’re one kind of editor while they really are another one — just that you need to make sure you know what sort of editor you’re hiring.
The editor will generally say what they do with each type of edit they offer, but if you want to really experience their editorial process, don’t be afraid to ask for a sample edit. Most editors will do the first thousand or so words of your book as a sample. You can also ask them for editing credits and contact past clients to see if they were satisfied with the work. Basically, whatever kind of edit you want to get done, make sure you check out the editor to be sure they’ll do an edit you’re happy with.
Editors cost money… usually. With In Treachery Forged, I made a deal for an editor in exchange for babysitting services (at the rate babysitters are charging, nowadays, I’m not sure that was all that much of a bargain). It helped that we were related, but I’d nearly negotiated an an exchange of the services with another editor I’d never met (again, I did research him, just to be sure) for one of my mother’s art quilts. (As I’ve said before, my budget was tight with that book, which was partly why it took so long to get it out the door). So, if you want editing services and are tight on cash, don’t be afraid to try and go the bartering route.
If you are paying cash, it’s a good thing to know what an editor costs. Unfortunately, there is a wide variety of prices, partly delineated by region, and the only official guidelines (the suggested rates by the Editorial Freelance Association) are obscenely high for 90% of the country.
The EFA calculates its rates based on the overhead of its most frequent employer of the past fourty or fifty years — New York City based publishing houses. New York City-based publishers had to pay their freelancers at a rate that allows those freelancers to pay the overhead for living in New York City, since they needed to be able to meet with those editors in person. As the internet has taken off, editors could find work living in places much less expensive than New York City, and many of those editors were able to undercut the New York City based editors. But those NYC editors continued to find employment at the EFA rates.
That doesn’t mean that people who charge the EFA-suggested rates are trying to rip you off; it most likely means they’re probably getting enough business from bigger publishing houses that they don’t need to compete with the outside-of-NY houses. And those editors who do undercut the EFA-suggested rates aren’t really “cut-rate” editors — they just don’t have the same overhead as the other editors, which allows them to price their service for customers on a budget.
There are processes for “self” editing, as well. Now, as I said before, I don’t really recommend publishing your book without getting a sanity check on it, at a minimum, but I think a lot of expense can be saved and quality added to any edit by first completing one or more “self”-editorial processes.
The reason “self” is in quotation marks is because not all of these processes are not done alone. Dean Wesley Smith suggests a process involving multiple beta\first readers, for example.
There are options if you’re on your own, however. For example, Holly Lisle’s One Pass Manuscript Revision technique can be done entirely by yourself, but her process isn’t for everyone.
Then there’s a technique I’ve heard from everyone (though it was first introduced to me by Allen L. Wold): Give your manuscript a dramatic reading aloud; where you stumble (and I will add the caveat the stumble shouldn’t be related to a dry mouth, an unexpected phone call, etc. Only a “natural” stumble), you need to make a fix.
Or you could just go through and make line-by-line revisions, just the way you would edit anything else. Yes, it’s hard to retain objectivity, but that’s why you get someone else to give you a sanity check.
I’ll remind everyone that this whole blog series is built around a panel I was putting together for CapitalCon. And this is only part one. Obviously, I’m presenting more information here than I would have had time to mention at the convention itself. I was preparing for discussions, and filling in (usually with anecdotal information) where I thought needed. The added content kind of obscured my intended theme for this section, “Cheap, Fast, and Good: Pick Two,” but I think I’ve given you all some good information.
But I’m still one of those “intermediate” self-publishers I mentioned in Part Zero. I think I’ve got a little experience and am pretty well-researched; I believe I’ve done a good job of seperating wheat and chaff in the realm of other people’s self-publishing advice; but I know there are self-publishers out there who have more experience and more knowledge than I do. There probably are people out there who have less experience than me but still have some insight on the topic. That was why I wanted this to be a roundtable discussion.
With that in mind, I’m inviting anyone who wants to speak on the topic to comment below — I’d love to discuss this with you.