Let’s talk about making cheap covers!

1 One More DayMost indie authors are working on a budget.  Usually a very tight one.  We still want a cover that’s good enough to make sales.  I’m going to show you how to do it on the VERY cheap.

My first book, One More Day, was an experiment.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to commit to this whole indie author thing.  I certainly didn’t want to spend a few thousand on an attempt that might go bad.  I also happen to have a whole lot of experience in marketing and advertising design.  In other words, I was pretty sure I could make a cover that would do the job.  The final version is doing well on Amazon, and One More Day is currently my best selling book.

In other words, the cover is working.

But let me tell you how it started.  THAT was not my first cover.  With a love story that is about a girl with cancer, I didn’t want a cover that would come across as sensual.  I felt that would give the reader the wrong impression.  It’s a story about hope and friendship, not jumping in the sack with a hot guy.  Hell, the main character has CERVICAL cancer.  (To quote a character in the story, “I know where the cervix is, man”) So sex was off the table from the start of the book.  Instead, I needed to push the emotions.

I started with something easy.  My first cover was decent but not great.  It had the right idea, but did little to make potential readers feel a connection.

One More DayI took a lovely stock image of a hand-drawn heart and some art supplies.  In the story, the main characters are a tattoo artist and a girl who went to college to paint, but had to drop out due to real life.  Her drawings are what brought them together, and art has a major place in this book.

Sadly, that’s not what the potential reader will KNOW when shopping.  They aren’t looking for someone drawing hearts with oil pastels.  They are looking for a story about people.  This is a romance novel afterall.

But I still had a cover that sold a few copies.  The font was free from 1001 Free Fonts.  The effects are little more than a couple of button clicks in Paint Shop Pro (like Photoshop but a lot cheaper and with less toys).  Total cost of this cover?  $80 bucks for the software – which I can use over and over to make many more covers, teasers, and such.

But, I realized that it’s not about crayons.  This story is about a girl struggling to make it one more day, then one more after that.  In other words, I needed a better cover.  So I found myself a half decent free stock image:

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Ha!  This one had the cup of coffee that keeps cropping up in the story.  The look on her face is perfect!  Like she’s lost in her own thoughts and nothing else matters.  The lighting draws the eye to her face, but it’s too dark.

So, let’s crop this up a bit.ASJL0UIGOR

Then color the whole thing in cervical cancer purple.

ASJL0UIGOR

Make it a bit bright and adjust the contrast around.

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And now we’re looking at her face.  Increase the vibrancy of the color, add in the title, layer on the author’s name (ahem, mine) and…….

1 One More Day

Eventually, I got something that made the reader want to know more.  It’s not the best cover in the world.  It’s probably going to be replaced one day, when I can figure out how to do it better, but it is a massive improvement on the stock image that I started with, and took a few hours.  It was within my budget.

I’m not trying to say that I’m the best cover designer out there, but after seeing so many crappy books being hawked on Twitter the other day, I think that showing how “easy” it can be might help.  I’m hoping that some author out there is willing to put in a little more effort, and see that it does have a huge impact.

This book, with this cover, is my best seller.  It’s in the top 1% of all books on kindle, and even seven months after release, it’s selling very nicely.  Total investment: $80 bucks for the software.  I made that, and more, in the first month.  Plus, that investment allowed me to create:

Now I have some options when talking about my book on social media.

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As a Reader…

surreal_fantasy_art_boats_maps_digital_art_photo_manipulation_Wallpaper HD_2560x1440_www.paperhi.comI love books.  I always have.  Even now that I’m writing them, I still love to read books by others.  Like, a lot!  This means that most Saturday mornings I shop my Twitter feed to see what other indie authors are offering.

Today, I wanted to bang my head against a wall.  This is HORRIBLE people.

Grabbing the first free stock photo you see that’s close enough, cropping it to the right shape, and slapping some Arial 48pt font across it with standard leading is NOT how to make a good cover.  If it takes you less time to design the cover than write the blurb, you’re either a professional designer – or doing it wrong.  Probably the later.

Typography is the art of choosing the right font, setting it together in such a way as to appeal to the eye, and adding those pretty little flares.  Knowing your font families, how many of them you can use at a time (and I mean ALL text on a cover) and how to draw the eye to the important and appealing events on your cover?  Yeah, that’s what will sell your book.

Covers demand more than a basic stock image.  Try some filters.  A little photoshop maybe? Enhance the saturation, contrast, and maybe soften something up.  Take that stock image and make it YOURS.

But I swear, most authors forget what it’s like to shop for a book as a reader.  They spend all their time writing, and none of it making their art into something appealing to the masses.  They want to do it cheap (because that’s the path to riches?  I dunno.) and think that spending money on something like a cover or a PR company is just “too expensive”.  THEN they wonder why no one buys their most brilliantly written masterpiece.  Well, I’ll make this easy:

If you don’t believe in your book enough to spend money on it, then why should I?

That’s really all there is to it.  When I look at the cover and blurb for your book, if I get the feeling that you rushed through it, then I’m going to assume that you put as little effort into your manuscript.  You probably didn’t spend money on an editor.  You very likely didn’t listen to any advice you were given (because this stuff is everywhere on the internet) and you are lazy/cheap.  Probably both.

And no matter how many times you spam your Twitter feed, throw it up on facebook, pin it on Pinterest, or whatever else you do, that won’t make me suddenly have a desire to actually SPEND MONEY on something you’re too cheap to pay for.  You, the person who created it.  You should be its biggest fan.

Instead, it’s likely to convince me that you’re a hack who sucks at this – and that’s before I ever read a word.

Having a bad cover that tried is different.  Putting effort into something is usually obvious.  Now, maybe your cover sucks, but I can see you tried.  Well, I might make it all the way to the blurb – where your WRITING has a chance to impress me.  I might not.  I also won’t think less of you for changing your cover because it sucks.  Rather the opposite, in fact.

We all know this independent author thing takes a little learning to get right.  There will be trial and error.  What we as readers unconsciously avoid like the plague are the authors who come across like they are out to scam us.  Writing is not a get rich quick scheme.  It never will be.  It’s art, and you should treat your ENTIRE book like a masterpiece so that I’ll think it’s worth as much as a cup of coffee.

Because I promise you, dear author, that you do not deserve my money.  You have to earn it.

My thoughts on Piracy

skull-34133_1280Authors are always terrified of their work being “stolen”.  They think that somehow they are losing a sale because someone may have read their work without paying the paltry few dollars for the privilege.  I happen to disagree.

I see piracy as the best free marketing plan EVER!  I’m not some big shot who can command millions of people to line up in wait for the release of my next book.  I’m just an author – a rather average one – like so many other authors out in this new age of digital books.  I write stories that grab people and shake them, refusing to let go until they have read the entire series.  I pride myself on books that almost force the reader to get the next and spend nights laying in bed wondering what is happening to the characters.  This is my forte.  Marketing?  Not so much.

So when someone wants to recommend my book to a friend?  That’s golden.  It’s the best way to spread my “brand”.  It’s also how I found every author I love.  I can honestly say that I didn’t buy my first Harry Potter book.  Nope, I was loaned it by a friend.  I didn’t buy my first Anne McCaffrey book, I was allowed to read my mother’s copy.  I didn’t buy my first Lewis Carrol book.  I picked it up at the library.

deaths-head-487276_1280And then I became addicted.

I found authors to love based on a single “free” copy of a book.  I’ve found others through less “acceptable” means.  One of my current favorites, Anne Bishop, is such an example.  I was researching something for one of my books and stumbled upon one of those links.  Being Captain Oblivious, I clicked it, and began reading this story on the web.  It was an amazing tale of our world – but in an alternate timeline where things were much more magical.  The characters, the setting, and everything sucked me in!  So, I bought the first three books and began waiting for the rest of the series to be finished.

Yes, I found my most recent preferred author from a pirated book.  The horrors!  Now, keep in mind that I had no idea she existed otherwise, and hence wouldn’t have bought any of her books.  That “free to read online” copy of her book sold me on four novels, and I plan to read her other series as well.

So now, every time I have to decide whether to click the DRM box or not, I don’t.  If someone is too poor to afford my book, then let them read it however they can.  If they love it, maybe they will tell a friend.  If enough people do that, maybe more people will read.  The libraries are closing.  The ability for people to read for free is vanishing.  I want to make sure it never truly disappears.  To me, that means more than a couple of dollars from people who wouldn’t have bought my book anyway.

And maybe, now that they know I exist, they’ll buy the next one.

The Series Continues

Salryc Instinctual3The enemy wants to kill them.  Their own country wants to make sure they never rise above slaves.  Humans created them to be the perfect soldiers, but iliri will never be equals.  They’re animals, vicious enough to be the perfect killers, but unable to be trusted.

So why are the Black Blades the unit chosen to stop the Emperor’s bribe of steel on its way to Anglia?  One of the rareest materials on the planet, metal could change the tide of the war.  It cuts better, stays sharper, and is stronger than the resin armor soldiers wear.  In the hands of the largest army on the continent, it would give Anglia an unparalleled advantage.  Their government might be antiquated and their military is archaic, but not even the Conglomerate can stand against the number of bodies Anglia can throw at a war.

If a few thousand kilos of steel reach the Anglian king, Terric will rule the Conglomerate.  The iliri will be exterminated.  Sal’s head will be preserved and hung on a wall somewhere as an example of human superiority.  But the only way to stop this threat is to trust the very people who made it happen.  Without humans, the Black Blades will lose everything.

While Sal struggles to learn everything she missed being raised as a human’s pet, the Black Blades try to protect their secret weapon.  The elite units are gathering in the base, but in  the slums of the capital city, iliri mongrels are starting to smell hope.

Preorder Instinctual (Rise of the Iliri #2) on Kindle.  

Waiting for Reviews

airport-923970_1920Sometimes, as an author, it feels like I’m all alone.  I work on the next book.  I stress over the cover.  I try to think up a blurb that is accurate and still enticing.  Between all of that, I wait.

Just me, looking at my phone, my tablet, or my monitor, hoping a review comes in.  Wondering if all those people who read the book even liked it, or if I need to seriously look at what I’m doing.  Hoping that I can get some kinda of hint about how the public feels about my writing.

I’m not alone.  I know that.  All authors deal with this.  Now that Amazon is cracking down on who can review the book, it’s even harder.  To help readers find us, we turn to social media – and yet those people who do follow us are often not eligible to review our books.  Our best fans, our loyal haters, and so many in between have their reviews eaten by the system.  Why?  Because they could be biased.

It’s an infuriating thing, and one that I don’t have a clue how to deal with.  I could go and beg for reviews from well-known reviewers, but would they even get posted?  It’s not like I want people to say my book is good when it isn’t.  I’ve had enough book bloggers tell me they honestly love my work for me to feel a little confident.  But book bloggers aren’t readers.  They chew through so much that they are now looking for different things.

So how am I to know what the average reader wants?  Some of my fans have been kind enough to send emails.  So far, they have all been good (even if a few are honest about pointing out mistakes I missed!).  But I’m pretty much operating at a 1% feedback rate.  Gah!  And I thrive on feedback.  I’m all about making changes (often when I shouldn’t but that’s a different story!)

And, of course, I’m even worse when the editor is done with my work.  After wading through the technicolor vomit of corrections, I can’t help but worry that I need to do more, do it better, and do it NOW.  Hoping for some sign, I’ll click on my books only to see….

Nothing.

Man, I really hate waiting.  Maybe I’ll work on a book, instead.

What is Indie Author Success?

refugees-1020163_1280I research my profession – a lot.  Ok, kinda obsessively.  None of the data seems to be consistent, until I realized I was asking the wrong question.

I wanted to know what percentage of independent authors are successful.  Well, that’s a real broad term, isn’t it?  What does that word mean?  Above the median?  Profitable?  Able to quit their day job?  Millionaires?  Until I defined the question better, there’s no way I was going to get a good answer.

So, what does it mean to be successful?  For me, I hope to one day stop working “somewhere else” and focus all my attention on writing.  I’m currently halfway there.  I have a lovely part-time job with a team leader who spends the day talking plot outlines and a boss who checks up on my latest release results.  Saying “I have a book emergency” is a valid excuse for running out the door like my hair is on fire.  I can’t beat this job, but I still would rather write full time.

But still needing to work doesn’t mean I’m not successful.  All of my books are profitable.  They bring in more money than I spend to create them.  That, my friends, is the definition of profit.  I include everything in that calculation, too.  From ad campaigns to design costs and website hosting, if I spend it on the books, then it is an expense.  If it’s vague – like web hosting – then I break the cost evenly among the books.  If it’s specific (like an ad push) then I expect the book to make it back.  So far, my only book in the red is the one that released last Friday, and it’s quickly earning out.
But what kind of money can an author expect from doing this?

To be honest, not much – but what do you expect when you sell something for the price of a cup of coffee?  This game isn’t about making it rich on one book.  It can’t be.  On a book priced at $2.99 (USD) I make less than $2.00, and that money gets divided up by the expenses.  You see, THIS IS A BUSINESS.  I have to treat it like one, and that means volume of sales is the only way to be successful (i.e. a full-time author).

money-1090815_1280So how do I sell a whole lot of books?  Well, it usually helps if there’s a little variety.  I mean, really, how many people are going to rush out to buy a series about some princess turned gladiator?  Not exactly a “high draw” storyline.  Instead, I wrote a novel that hooked the people who DID take a chance on it.  I make them love it enough to want more, then feed it to them like a narcotic.  Once they are addicted, I show them the next shiny thing, then the one after… I mean my books, of course.

Which means I need to keep writing some damned good books.  I can’t put all my eggs in one basket.  I can’t expect that The Rock is going to RT my tweet about a girl fighting cancer.  I certainly can’t sit around and expect my BOOKS to find people to read them!  Sounds silly, right?  But how many people have done exactly that?  How many people think that “if you write it, they will come”?  How many people are so blinded by the passion of their art that they forget that critique is necessary to get better?  They refuse to fix something because the LIKE it like that – and then wonder why it never sells.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I am NOT saying that we authors should sell out and write vampire BDSM magician school stories because those sell like hot cakes.  I’m saying that whatever story we have to tell, we need to treat it as art, and make the best art we can.  We need to LISTEN when someone posts a bad review.  We need to celebrate when we get a good one.  Most of all, in order to be a successful author, we have to work our asses off, because overnight success usually takes a few years to make happen.

And if you’re wondering, I make approximately $125/month/book right now.  With each release that number grows.  The more books I have, the more chances for someone to stumble upon my work and read everything else I wrote.  The more books I have begging for readers, the greater my odds of success are.  Remember, 1 in 4.2 million isn’t as good as 1 in 2.1 million (2 books), or 1 in 1.4 million, or where I’m at now – 1 in 1.05 million (with 4 books available).  Never mind the quality of the books, because if your book sucks, no one will pay you for the torture of reading it.  If you’re not getting sales, look there first.

Advertising Experiment

face-1103708_1920Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Tumblr, Instagram, Imgur…. the list goes on and on.  Social media is often an author’s best means of exposure, but it’s impossible to hit them all.  I think most of us just try to focus on a few.  For me, that’s twitter and facebook – along with my blog here.

Why those?  Well, I actually LIKE Twitter.  Facebook gives me a larger method of communications.  It’s literally about the characters in that instance.  Granted, the familiarity with it for many users is pretty nice.  And I might show up in other places later, but I’d rather be writing a book than writing a post to people I really don’t know.  I think my stories express more than my 140 characters or less ever could.  If I had MY way, I’d probably forgo social media completely, and just live the rest of my life in my dreamed up fantasies… I mean my books.

But, even if you build it, they won’t come unless they know it exists (to badly quote that old movie).  Which means I need to advertise.

Last month, I started an experiment.  I chose two different twitter blasts that had similar styles.  Both offered their services for just under $15 bucks per month.  Both put out a tweet once a day about my book.  The results?  One was MUCH better than the other.

BookTweep featured my cover art and a catchy phrase, with a clear link to the product.  I had fans retweet the post, comment to me about it, and direct message me.  Sales went up.

BeingAuthor cost me a couple bucks less, and gave so much less.  The post had an overpowering image of my twitter avatar posted next to the cover.  The catch phrase came right from the book’s description, but chose the wrong part!  “This is a complete novel without a cliffhanger ending”.  Yeah, that’s going to bring the masses in!  When I sent a direct message asking for a tweak, I got nothing.  After 20 days, it was adjusted, though.  Sales increases?  Not noticeable.

cash-1169650_1280I will definitely use booktweep again.  For $14.99/month I think it’s a great deal.  Granted, I don’t want to make my audience exhausted of the content, either.  We all know that most of the twitter lists for these massive marketing tweets are made up of other indie authors like myself, but that isn’t a problem.  I’m sure I’m not the only author who enjoys reading!

And now, I’m focusing ONLY on Amazon’s Marketing Services this month.  Each add requires a “minimum” commitment of $100, but that doesn’t mean you’ll spend that much.  Last time I ran an add through Amazon, I think I spent about $50 bucks.  The trick is to manage the advertising each day.  If it’s spending too much, tweak a few details, or even pause it.  Right now, I have two different ads running for One More Day.  The first is product based.  The second is interest based.  This allows me to see which method works best for that book.  As of today, it seems to be working better than anything else I’ve tried.  Sales for One More Day just overtook When We Were Kings.  Considering that book 2 of that series just came out on the 12th… that’s rather impressive to my way of thinking.

The only downside is that there are limits to what cover art can be used with AMS ads.  When We Were Kings had to get a SLIGHT cover tweak:

I prefer the cooler colored vignette on the left, but couldn’t quite replicate it on the right without losing the character details.  Now why did I have to make this change?  I mean, it’s almost inconsequential, right?  Because Tristan’s nipple violates the rules.  I’m serious!  The customer service rep suggested a cover alteration, so I’m trying it.  If the new cover is denied, then I will revert back to the preferred cover.  Otherwise, get used to seeing Tristan’s arm bent to prevent anyone from being offended and his man boob.

Here’s hoping the added draw to my work is worth it.