On a random Tuesday in July, I started a contest on 99designs by Vista to create a cover for She Taught Me Everything.
99designs matches designers from around the world with work. They have excellent reviews and an easy-to-use website.
On the website, I filled in details of what should appear on the front, back, and spine of the book, and then gave my direction:
A beautiful cover for a literary novel about sisters.
I picked a palette (pumpkin, teal, and black––the colors in various intensities from pale to vivid) and attempted to hone in a style: minimal, clean, modern, etc. using the built-in slider-scales for each quality.
I noted that it would be both e-book and paperback cover, and that it should remain distinctive even when shrunk to thumbnail size. I included half a dozen images of book covers I liked.
Finally, I listed things I did NOT want. For instance, no covers that use stock photos literally. Please no white backgrounds (it fades into online listings). Also, none of that "faces merging" trope that's been popular of the past couple of years.
I think I had no more than clicked over to Facebook and removed a few spammy posts from the Flying Scot page (what is UP with that crap?!) before returning to 99designs. And there were 3 entries!
Next morning, 23.
By end of day, 51.
At the end of the four-day-long contest 120+ images for my perusal and selection! From perhaps 55 different designers.
In the same way that I have remind myself that the point of clothes shopping is NOT to identify the most hideous outfit*, I tried to breeze past the images that were frankly unsuitable: the straight-from-Canva ones, the really amateur ones, the merging-faces covers, the ones where a menacing hooded figure peers out from under serial-killer red letters. Gah. That comprised maybe 70 entries.
Because I've lived with a lot of mysterious rejection in my working life, I made a point of responding to each entry, offering at least a general––and I hope kindly––reason why. There's a nifty messenger system built into the 99designs site.
Of the remaining 50 entries, some were immediate stand-outs, and others were potentially good. I fired off messages to these folks too, expressing my enthusiasm and, again, offering my opinion.
Things started to get more interesting: having worked on book covers at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, I know there's going to be a bit of back-and-forthing. I deselected several designers based on their reaction to my note.
The one who spent several paragraphs telling me my opinion was wrong (I found his design "delightfully retro") sorry! We can agree to disagree no farther, sirrah.
One classy all-type cover had potential, and I asked if the designer might consider changing up the colors so that it was not on a white background. Instead, she sent me an all-red cover that she was certain captured the essence of the book. It did not. But thank you!
I don't doubt for a minute that I'll be seeing several of the covers IRL. There were images that would be excellently suited to young-adult fantasy novels, suspense novels, stories about middle-grade children on a walk in the woods.
After narrowing the list, I enlisted help from a few design- and book-minded friends. I treasure their help and salute Ned Johnston for winning the internet with a pithy comment about a beautiful but underwater cover, "She Taught Me Everything...about scuba diving without a tank."
I spent a chunk of time researching the potential finalists' background and winnowing out those who did not have previous experience with book covers. It's enough to feel my own way along this rocky trail by braille.
Achieving a new plateau of agita to pick finalists. (Did you know, as I do now after looking up its spelling, that "agita" means both anxiety and indigestion? How wonderful is that?)
If I were able to go back in time and offer advice, I'd say, "Yo, pick finalists on a Monday, not a Friday!" and "Include a safe pick that's maybe not wonderful, but that would be good enough." I did neither of those things, and the weekend felt remarkably high-stakes-y.
I made my decision after following Daddo's advice to ask myself before sleep and made the hard call––I mean message–– the next day.
So was I then ready to announce the winner? Nope.
There's a period of time for the files to be finalized (yipes! is that the right ISBN number?!) and sized to fit the applications, contracts signed, before that final handover.
So now can I? Nope
I did a test run with the files to be sure to get what I needed: art for the an ebook cover (essentially a front cover) and the print cover (that single piece of heavyweight paper that wraps from back to front) on the paperback.
Do I need to send this off to the printer in New Jersey? No, I simply upload files to Amazon and check out their "previewer." Oh brave new world.
But you do have to figure out a variety of other marketing things: categories and key words, for instance. And you do have to enter whatever remaining personal data that Amazon doesn't already know.
Now can I reveal the cover? Nope.
Because the preview ended up looking like this.
And while I can make the inside pages of the novel are look pretty nifty, I am not especially equipped to resize graphic files. I mean, I could try importing the image into Word and resizing it that way, but surely that's a crime against art.
So, this story goes on continuing.
*These fashion photos came from an ill-fated browse of a high-end department store last December. These are supposed to be festive holiday outfits. I can't even. Has the industry forgotten how to be cheerful?
We judge books by their covers.
Most of us can take in––at a glance––what sort of book a book is. And that's not a bad thing.
For instance, two covers with similar images: white ladies in Regency outfits, probably sourced from period oil paintings. The Georgette Heyer looks like a romantic romp of some sort, while the Moshfegh promises NOT to be any sort of sprightly entertainment.
The difference is in the design: the mood of the paintings, the placement of the words, and the font.
Signifiers. Got metal-foil raised letters and a stylized weapon on the cover? Military suspense. A cool photo of someone from a decade or more ago? Maybe a memoir. Hot pink cover with a pair of oversized sunglasses? Probably an amorous adventure set in the big city.
Signifiers can include the obvious (woman+wolf with manly torso) as well as the more subtle (the type font for Hunting Ground is specific to fantasy/speculative fiction.
It's all about helping the reader find the book. A cat lover would know that Hunting Ground might not be a good fit.
With covers like Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, signifiers are subtle on top of subtle: the font choice says "serious" but the image is...peculiar. The roses are pretty but imperfect reflections, which kind of tugs at the attention to make sense of it. As befits with the theme of the book.
The point for an independent publisher like myself? It means it's time to get a cover on this novel.
In strictest honesty, this process started earlier in the year, when I spent way too long snapping photos in every bookstore. And browsing listicles like this, or this.
And then came the familiar, depressing part, where I started e-mailing designers. And Fiverr. And contacting the designers recommended by other independents. And waiting.
While wall-flowering, I even tried my hand at putting a cover together myself. My skillset lies elsewhere, but I enjoyed Canva.
Meanwhile, the stuff inside the cover was chug-chug-chugging along. There's a sort of juggling act I never appreciated when working for a traditional publisher: the book's page count obviously affects the measurements for the book. The design of the interior can change the page count by a hundred pages in a big novel like mine. BUT the interior should coordinate with the cover.
You kinda have to get everything done at once. I've got word processing skills, so that's cool (my eyes might be bleeding a little, but I'll walk it off). But the cover!
99designs by Vista is a design house that attracts a global pool of artists and designers. As a client, you can browse their site and find a book designer. The process takes a lot of looking and a lot of backing and forthing.
Or you can host a contest and hope the right designer comes to you. I was reluctant to play this game at first. A little too much like singing for one's supper. But then, I've done my share of sample edits/writing samples to get a gig. Is it so different?
So last week, I filled in the design brief, selected a price point, took a deep breath, and pressed, "Start contest."
[story will continue...]
After college, after the Denver Publishing Institute, I went to the big city, where I got a job at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which, at that time, was owned by the original Mr. Straus and Mr. Giroux.
The company sprawled across two dusty, non-contiguous floors in a building on Union Square in which Jean Paul Gauthier occupied the penthouse. I once rode the elevator with both Gauthier and Grace Jones. She is taller than humanly possible, and more stunning.
I digress, but who can blame me?
The point I am circling is that I worked in publishing for a few years. Fast forward: FSG is now owned by Macmillan publishers. E-books and audiobooks outsell printed books. Plus there's a little thing called AI rising like the sun in the west.
So I no longer know diddly about modern publishing.
Lucky for me, the new business model of self-publishing is based on getting rid of gate-keepers.
Instead of courting an agent or a publisher (pick me! pick me! Like being back in first grade, knowing the answer and NOT getting picked.), you do it yourself or pay up front to have it done.
There's a certain joyful honesty in writing a check and getting what you want.
And there's also a surprising camaraderie among writers. I might make the parallel of school kids in bitter rivalry for attention from the teacher versus the boisterous play of unsupervised kids on recess. (P.S. Yes, Lord of the Flies. But did you know that novel parallels an actual event that, as it happened, turned out great?)
In the new publishing world, everyone is climbing the same mountain, and most understand that there's room up top. After all, readers gotta read, emma right?
Hence, the help from away.
Christopher Minori is a horror writer who lives in Central America. We kevinbacon by way of a sailing pal, Paul Leonard.
It is SO a verb.
Christopher has a series of comical horror novels involving a banished demon, and he kindly shared insights and lessons about how he was making modern publishing work.
Christopher sells some physical books in local book stores, comicons, hair salons –– wherever, he suggests, people read.
The bulk of his readers get their fix electronically through Kindle, which is Amazon's almighty e-book arm.
He told me about his PR/marketing strategies, which revolve around Twitter (he has thousands of followers who get the word out) as well as showing up for podcasts and guest blogs.
And, btw, he has a new book coming in July. I'll link it HERE when it's available. Meanwhile, if you like Supernatural and/or Terry Pratchett: Christopher Minori.
My strategies diverge somewhat different (I prefer Instagram, NetGalley for reviews, etc.). Plus, this first novel is NOT part of a series, which makes marketing it quite a bit more of an uphill slog.
Still, here I am, relearning some diddly.
File Under Should Have Known That:
"Diddly-squat" probably comes to us by way of "doodle" or "doody," that childish synonym for excrement. Poor Bo.
How about a proper introduction to this novel?
Here's the pitch:
She Taught Me Everything
When 26-year-old Nicola Jones gets that phone call in the middle of the night––the one she's been dreading her whole life––she doesn't stop to ask questions.
What else does she need to know? Her charismatic older sister Viv has been in a car crash.
She packs a bag and races to her sister's hospital bedside.
Until then, she would have said she and Viv were as close as––well, as close as sisters. Once in Nashville, however, Nicola discovers that Viv has been concealing one terrible secret after another.
With her own life on hold as she waits for Viv to wake, Nicola must delve into the mystery of their shared past and decide what their future will be.
She Taught Me Everything is a story about sisters and secrets, and about the choices we make that shape a family.
In the strictest of honesty, the accompanying photo is actually where I might write, but only when it's above 45 and not pouring rain. Which, as many know, is uncommon conditions for the Would-Be Farm in springtime.
But who cares about the weather outside? I have a heavily notated Word document to peruse.
I hired an editor. Oh, believe me, I know the irony. Having made a living editing the idea that it's taken years for me to pay someone for this service? Oy.
I've thought idly about what metaphor might illustrate my giddy joy at having someone read the novel so closely, with such candor and insight.
Is it like giving yourself over to a really good massage? One that might hurt a little, but that will leave you better off? Or is it like having the undivided attention of a professor you really admire when that professor is in a generous mood to discuss you and your marvelous ideas?
Erm, I'm going to go with massage. Some strong-fingered person who's really good and can find pockets of soreness that need to be worked away.
Anyhow, I'm less than a third of the way through her suggested edits. I don't know if it's relief at having direction or sheer vanity at getting someone's lavish attention, but I'm bubbling with happiness.
Granted, I may indeed need an actual massage at the end of these long days at my computer screen, but perhaps that too is part of the new publishing world.
Like a rose smelling just as sweet, that quality that keeps people chasing their dreams in the face of rejection...
Call it what you will. I like temerity. And sauce.
I have my very first rejection letter (from Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine!), which was a formulaic "Thanks, but this is not for us," along with a list of multiple-choice adjectives. Some anonymous, hard-working reader at the magazine had circled the word "opaque" before sending it back at me in my self-addressed stamped envelope.
Being in the eighth grade, I had to look the word up, and even then, re-reading my feverish and (it still gives me a pang of shame) incoherent story, I had to agree.
Nevertheless, I continued to shoot submissions into the literary stratosphere. Nobody claims it's easy; luckier yet, I had no concept that I might be resistible. Srsly.
Getting that first acceptance letter (from a tiny 'zine produced in someone's mom's basement) was nice. I should have celebrated it more vigorously, but my myopic high-school eyes were straining toward the next thing.
Later, when I'd amassed a portfolio of newspaper and national magazine stories and what-not, publication didn't seem like all that and a side of fries.
I've said that I lucked into journalism (thanks Diane Roback of Publisher's Weekly! Thank you Jon Wilson of the St. Petersburg Times!). Heartfelt gracias, Kevin Walker of the former Tampa Tribune!
I do appreciate every door journalism has opened for me. Go on –– walk right up to anyone, armed with a pencil stub and a cub-reporter notepad, I dare you! But that wasn't my dearest ambition.
A published novel, that's what I wanted. Yeah, baby –– and not just one.
Do I have any advice for aspiring writers? Yes: Polish them brass balls, puff out your metaphorical chest with self-esteem, cling to your belief in yourself, and take joy in every little victory.
When victories are not forthcoming, change the battlefield.
I wrote a novel a while back. It's a thing.
I'm writing an additional two more, though I've been feeling a sense of a cork in the bottleneck...
But having written the living bejeebers out of that first novel, and hooking up with a dang high-powered literary agent (in Manhattan! Squee!), and the agent not working out for me (in super slo-mo! actual years passed!), and fully exploring the advice of so many writers before me (Keep trying! Never surrender!), 2023 seems like the time to take a different route.
Independent publishing. AKA self-publishing. These days, publishing my own dang book means I need to relearn the business of publishing and more or less form my own publishing house. And my own public relations strategy. Et cetera.
So after waiting waiting waiting, I am angling my toes into the the starting blocks and getting ready to get ready to go. But first, a timeline.
Chicken, meet a dozen eggs.
Here are some of the administrative bits and bobs I have to put in order and execute:
And heeeer we go, she said, with an uneasy giggle.
Those of you sweet readers who are still with me, thanks! I can't tell you how cheering it is to know you're out there interested in my stacks of words.
Hope to brag some good news soon. I'm thinking late summer/autumn 2023 to bring this novel to market. If you have advice, don't hesitate to drop me a line. There's so much to learn about all this...