Richard Wright

author of strange, dark fictions


Publishing Thy Fearful Symmetry: The Look

Welcome – Saturday is Thy Fearful Symmetry day, as I continue to prepare a new novel for release in August. Last week I gave you a little background about the project. This week, I’m into proper preparation, and proper investment, because I’m considering how the book is going to look. As far as I’m concerned, this is job number one.

A quick look through the covers of hordes of self-published books is enough to convince me that only a small number of authors really understand the value of cover art. I’d post examples, but I’m not out to criticise anybody specific. Nevertheless, there are three kinds of self-published book cover in the world, as follows:

  1. The home made ‘I don’t care’ cover. The author may or may not own a copy of Photoshop. He does have a few photographs lying around which he thinks might make a decent cover, and can work out how to drop some text onto them. He might, god help us, think he can draw or design. The results are predictable. The cover provokes mirth or scorn in anybody who sees it. They’re migraine inducing eyesores. The author doesn’t think a cover matters very much, because it’s the words that count. They don’t realise, or don’t care, that we all judge books by their cover, even if our mothers told us not to. The story beneath such a cover needs to be outstanding to succeed, because it’s already been cursed by the visual on top of it. The reader is going to assume, probably correctly, that the book isn’t going to be brilliant, because it’s been self-published by somebody without a basic understanding of how books work. It does not, therefore, inspire confidence.
  2. With the second type of cover, the tools are the same, but the author does know that the book cover is important. She’s tried hard with what tools are available, and put together something that doesn’t look awful. She knows she’s out of her depth, but managed to put something together that isn’t embarrassing. All power to her. On the other hand, the cover still doesn’t do any justice to the novel beneath it. It’s clearly home-made. If the author already has a readership, or word of mouth is exceptionally good, this might be enough. On its own though, it’s unlikely to prompt an impulse buy. Until reviews and testimonials start spreading (assuming it’s a good book), the author has an uphill struggle just getting people to read it in the first place. I’ve been this author, a few years ago, when I self-published a novella as a promotional tool. I took a great image, played with it in Photoshop, and called it good. Not too bad, for a homemade effort, but unmistakably that. Never again.
  3. The third type of cover, you might not have noticed. This is because, to all intents and purposes, it’s a match for what a good publisher would put out.

The last is the key, for me. The self-publishing tools of today make it easy to put a book out. What’s missing is discipline and quality control. While self-publishing Thy Fearful Symmetry, I’m not prepared to compromise on any aspect of the book that the reader will own. It has to meet the same standard as anything they’d buy from a traditional publisher.The cover is part of that – from a reader’s point of view, it’s the very first part.

So, in this world of DIY publishing, how can I possibly put together a book cover that competes with the best of what’s out there? This is basic stuff. Publishers are good at not having this problem, so I’m going to do what publishers do. I’m not going to do it myself. I’m going to hire somebody who knows what they’re doing.

A self-publisher is still a publisher. Editors at publishing houses don’t cobble together some text and a photo in Photoshop, and try to make it pretty. They pay proper artists and designers. Well, I can do that too.

I want three pieces of art & design for Thy Fearful Symmetry. I need a cover for the book. Though we haven’t discussed it yet, I’ll be releasing a free book (short story) shortly before TFS, tied to but separate from that story (more on that soon), so I need a cover for that. Finally, I need a single, strong piece of promotional art. Again, more on that further down the line.

I’m going to pay a lot of money for these.

Welcome to my own version of self-publishing, which is neither fast nor cheap. It involves an investment of time and money. In August I want you to buy this book. I want you to want to buy this book. if I don’t invest in making every aspect of it something that will make you happy, then I might as well give up now. That’s my thinking, anyway.

I’ve got a different designer for each book. Although the stories are linked, I want the free one to be a splendid thing in its own right, and not just a promotional freebie to be downloaded and never read.

When I was thinking of who to approach about these images, I kept it simple. Who already does stunning work in this field?

For the cover of TFS, I’m bringing Emma Barnes on board. I’ve long been a fan of the covers she produces for her own company Snowbooks, which all have a unique flavour, and all do an excellent job of visually establishing the mood and tone of the book. Last year, I hired her (she freelances under the Snowangels banner) to create the cover of my re-released novel Cuckoo. It was my biggest expense in the whole project. It was also the best decision I made when I decided to self-publish that book, and the lesson I’m bringing forward to this one. I paid for quality. Emma was briefed to take the best concepts from that book’s previous covers, and drive them forward into something that deserved to be on a bookshelf.

She had a lot to work with last year – existing reviews, back cover blurbs, the previous covers. I love what she did with it. This year, because I haven’t yet written promotional material I’m happy with, she’s working with not much more than I gave you about the book last week. Because she’s lovely, smart, and really good at what she does, that seems to have been enough to get her moving. Her second task is branding. She’s good at this, and has demonstrated as much while working with her own stable of authors. George Mann’s books have a consistent visual identity, because Emma understands the importance of branding. The same goes for the other authors she publishes. I want there to be a similar visual continuity between Cuckoo and Thy Fearful Symmetry. She’s away brainstorming right now, and I’m looking forward to seeing what she comes back with.

The free book is currently called When The Stars Threw Down Their Spears. This may not be the title for long, because it’s a lot of words to fit on a cover. We’ll see. It’s also a lot of words to type here, whenever I talk about it, so for now I’ll call it Stars. For this one, I’ve contracted Malcolm McClinton. Malcolm was the artist on the Hiram Grange series of books (and many others), including my own Hiram Grange and the Nymphs of Krakow. I love his work, how he uses light, tone, and movement. His art also has a strong narrative drive and character focus – Malcolm tells whole stories with an image, as you can see. For this reason, I’ve contracted him for that single promotional image I mentioned too. I call it the ‘movie poster’ when I email him, because it’s going to serve the same function.

As Stars is short, he read the whole thing and got back to me with a couple of ideas for a cover. I loved them all, and having to choose one made me pace backwards and forwards with actual angst. This morning, I woke up to his suggested cover image. It’s beautiful. It belongs on the cover of an handsome limited edition from the most exclusive presses. I fecking love it. I can’t wait to see what he does with the movie poster.

The benefit of biting the bullet and working with professionals is confidence. By bringing Emma and Malcolm on board, I’ve made sure right at the start that these books are going to catch the eye, and inspire interest and confidence in what lies beneath. That’s something that’s worth paying for, in my eyes anyway. Do you agree? It’s the most money I’ll be putting into this project, so if you think I’ve got it wrong, don’t be shy in saying so.

Over the next week, I’ll be getting When The Stars Threw Down Their Spears ready to go. With a bit of luck, I’ll have it all but ready by this time next week. Come back then, and I’ll let you know what that’s all about.

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