Friday, January 18, 2013

Self-Publishing: Producing Original Cover Art, an Example

My newest work, Cage of Skin and Bone, features original artwork. For my previous novels, I or a digital artist created covers by blending stock photos. This time I decided to step up the quality of my product. After trolling the internet for cover artists, I found a great source at Tons of artists advertise their services, and offer samples of their work. While searching the site, I stumbled across the work of Mark Bulahao. His work in the fantasy/sci-fi area is stunning. Check out his work at his website:

Furnacehead: Mark Bulahao Art

Click on "Portfolio" at the upper left of the homepage to see what attracted my attention. I contacted him, and gave him the gist of my story as well as a basic idea of what I might like on the cover. From that he sketched two rough concept images:

The first shows the story's heroine, Crissa, in a cage with the wolf she raises. The second is more of a movie poster style rendering, showing Crissa, her nemesis Bayna, and a woolly mammoth (who feature heavily in the story). I was leaning toward the second concept, but upon seeing the sketches, was struck by the quiet poignancy of the first. We went ahead with that. Mark asked me what well-known person or actress might represent the "look" I had in mind. We settled on Elisha Cuthbert, seen below.

She's obviously gorgeous, but I did say that I didn't want the cover girl to appear too sexy. Mark re-sketched that one with Elisha in mind, and sent me this as a modified concept.

After some feedback, and a couple refinements of the concept, he produced the final spectacular cover art below.

Fantastic! Mark was great to work with, and I tried not to over-specify or nit-pick details. Given freedom to express his artistry, Mark produced a final cover that is far better than I anticipated, for an extremely reasonable price!

Shore of Monsters Modification

I've about decided to modify Shore of Monsters and Fall of Darkness to render Sky's story in first-person. My decision is driven by a recent Wattpad experience that blew me away. I'll post more about that soon. Stunned, I am. How's that for a tease?

ABNA Pitch Observations and Advice

Last year I entered my novel The Shore of Monsters in ABNA 2012. I literally did it at the last minute. Starting on my pitch about 3 hours before submissions closed, I entered everything with about an hour to spare. Given that I didn't spend much time on my pitch, I wasn't very hopeful. However, my novel made it past the pitch stage to the next round. Beginner's luck!

This year, I actually read a number of example pitches from previous winners, found at the following link: ABNA Winning Pitches

I also read a couple of dozen others that advanced deep into the competition. Only then did I realize what I could have done earlier to improve the pitch, and what to do for this year's entry. In particular, I noticed three common threads regarding winning entries.

1. The first fifty words should grab the reviewer by the throat and shake vigorously. In fact, those first couple of lines should be so intriguing that the rest of the pitch is not necessary. Given that reviewers have hundreds of pitches to dig through, instead of reading each pitch and carefully considering it, they probably adopt the mind set of looking for reasons to discard a pitch. If the first few sentences don't knock the reviewer's socks off, then it's too easy for that person to discard it without even finishing. (By the way, anyone who has ever gone through a giant stack of resumes understands what I'm saying; you find yourself looking for resumes to exclude, not include. Human nature!)

2. The writing in the pitch must reflect the writer's work. I mean that on two levels. First, the pitch must scream "this writer can sling ink with the best of 'em!" If the writing in a pitch is mediocre, then say goodbye your dreams of the big prize. Second, the tone of the pitch should reflect the tone of the work. Humor, darkness, melancholy, quirkiness - whatever drives your novel should be present in the pitch, and in abundance.

3. You should summarize the work in general terms at the end of the pitch. In particular, you must find a way to communicate how you believe this work will attract and affect readers, and what they will take away from it. Most winning pitches include this part, and they are extremely well-worded at that.

Given those unofficial guidelines, I wrote the pitch below for my entry Cage of Skin and Bone. Keeping it to 300 words was challenging, but it did help me both tighten the verbiage and consider what plot elements were the most important.

For eighteen year old Crissa, life as a caged display in a traveling freak show has no upside. Unless she counts free room and board. People stare with disgusted curiosity, and say terrible things about her. How ugly she is. How strangely she behaves. And worst of all, how much she resembles the brutish Humans who died long ago. But they come by thousands to hear her do what no other can do. Sing!

In a ‘what-if’ world where prehistoric Humans fell extinct and Neanderthals inherited the earth, Crissa looks like no other. Imprisoned by the brutal Tal-Bern, who six years earlier murdered her mother and hauled her away, Crissa serves the glory of the circus. Every night she faces hostile crowds who marvel at her disturbing strangeness. And every night she stuns them with passionate singing, before returning to a dank cage. If not bad enough, her circumstances grow bleaker. She is marked for death, sold by Tal-Bern to the highest bidder for sacrifice during the bloodthirsty Rite of Long Moon – which is fast approaching. Though all seems lost, the shuttered window to her future opens when one evening she spies a young man in shadows beyond the crowd – and his face is like hers!

Freed by the stranger, she flees with him toward the vague promise of a better place. Backed by the ruthless man who wishes to sacrifice Crissa for a dark purpose, Tal-Bern pursues the two. Crissa’s headlong flight carries her toward the mysteries of a murky past, her Human face, and the wonderment of love and belonging. If only Tal-Bern doesn’t destroy her first.

Crissa’s observant narrative drives Cage of Skin and Bone in a story that explores the burden of exclusion, the power of kindness, and what it means to be human.

Update: This pitch made it past the pitch round at ABNA 2013. O joy!

Friday, January 4, 2013

How Do You Sell Self-Published Novels?

After entering the realm of independent self-publishing in late 2011, I focused my energies on selling my novels. Two problems:

(1) I had not a clue of what to do, and,
(2) I needed to spend time writing, and selling is very time consuming!

By Spring of 2012, I had three fiction novels in publication and one study guide (for the Great Gatsby). I managed to sell 400+ copies of those books over the course of the year. Four-hundred is an interesting number. It's not the thousands I'd like to sell, but it's also not the few dozen that many self-published authors report. The number was high enough to give me hope, and to allow me to learn some of what does and doesn't work.

So what did I learn? Here's a short list.

(1) Reviews matter. The more positive reviews I had for a novel, the more it sold.
(1a) Pay attention to the reviewer comments. They are solid gold. I learned more from a couple of critical reviews than I did from twenty positive ones. I appreciate readers who are honest enough to say "I liked it but ..." or even "Seriously?"

(2) Publish on multiple platforms, but focus on Amazon and Smashwords. I published on Amazon, Createspace (paperback), Smashwords, and Barnes and Noble. Seventy-five percent of my sales came from Amazon. Twenty percent came from Smashwords, who pushed my work to a dozen platforms that I couldn't do on my own without great difficulty (particularly Apple). Of those platforms, Apple sold the best.

(3) Be active on reader sites like Goodreads, Safari, Amazon, Yahoo Answers, Wattpad, etc. That includes having author profiles, participating in forums, and running promotions. Readers appreciate your active presence, and leave lots of helpful reviews. Goodreads alone boasts millions of readers. Yahoo Answers is a good forum for building a reputation as someone knowledgeable in your space, as long as you provide informative answers and don't try to pimp you books.

(4) Speaking of Wattpad, post your story there, particularly if you write YA. Teen readers are happy to tell you what they like (or don't like) through votes, fanning, and even comments. Wattpad has umpteen millions of readers and writers.

(5) Give away copies of your novel - the more the better. That includes Amazon (KDP Select) giveaways, and promotions on Goodreads. Probably one-third to one-half of my sales were generated in the week following giveaway promotions (I did several). I read one self-published author say "I'm not giving my novel away; it's too good for that." His comment was one of the dumbest things I've ever heard, and I've heard some dumb comments. The guy sold only a few copies of his novel last year. There are millions of readers in the U.S. alone. Even if he had given away 100,000 copies, he wouldn't have scratched the surface of potential readers, and his novel would have been famous. If I could give away a million copies of my novels, I would. My numbers tell me that one million giveaways would result in 50,000 to 100,000 sales. I can live with that!

(6) Publish multiple novels. One novel sale often generates another novel sale to the same reader.
(6a) Write in series, if it makes sense for your story. Readers who like your novel are somewhat likely to buy the second and third installment. That tactic is a bit difficult for me, because I prefer standalone novels to drawn-out, indefinite series. However, I did produce a two-volume series, and the follow-on effect was very evident.

(7) Editing matters. Mistakes, even a few, can depress the review rating a reader would have otherwise given you. It says, "I'm not a serious writer." Self-published authors can't often afford the $1200 or more to hire a competent copy editor. If that is the case for you, then give a copy to as many of your highly-literate friends as possible - other authors, your high school English teacher, your reclusive friend who reads two hundred novels a year, and the like.

(8) Blog about your area of expertise. It gives you credibility, connects you to readers, and increases your social network (i.e. potential readers of your work).

(9) Set your price either at 99 cents or $2.99. Don't mess around with anything else. A 99 cent novel can generate a larger number of sales because most readers are willing to risk 99 cents on a novel that might not be good. The $2.99 level is an Amazon-driven number. If you set your price at $2.99 on Amazon, you keep 70% of it (compared to 30% for 99-cent novels). That means one novel sale at $2.99 nets the same revenue to you as six or seven 99-cent sales. Use the 99-cent price to generate volume, and then switch to $2.99 when the sales are steady. There are lots of theories about "right-pricing" your novel. This is just my unscientific opinion, not "The Voice of God".

What should I do next year? Here are a few things I've learned from other authors and my experience.

(1) Get as many reviews as possible, especially from those who have a platform on which to share reviews with others. I tried a bit, but not nearly enough, to get professional reviews. I ended up with four reviewers promising to post a review at some point. However, they get megatons of requests for reviews, including requests from publishers. Going forward, I plan to ask for reviews from at least fifty reviewers per novel. Annie Oldham took this approach with her novel, The Burn. Lots of reviews, not all of them effusively positive. However, it got her novel noticed. As a result she enjoyed great sales, as extrapolated from her steady Amazon ranking.

(2) Create a larger social media footprint. I am limited primarily to blogging at this point. I haven't taken advantage of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms to create a following. Nick Cole (The Old Man and the Wasteland) rose to the top of Amazon bestseller lists with help from his extensive media footprint.

(3) Work harder at my craft. A tiny fraction of authors sell more than a few hundred books per year. The number of sales is usually a direct result of effort. The more time I spend writing and marketing, the better I do. Simple.

(4) Find an agent to get my novel(s) into publication. It is hard to beat the marketing opportunities provided by a traditional publishing house. There are a few well-known self-published authors who describe traditional publishers as the devil, and insinuate that you would be stupid to go that route. These folks also tend to sell tens of thousands of copies per year, so it's easy for them to offer that advice. For the other 99.99% of us, publishing your novel through traditional means is a fantastic achievement.

Authors - what works for you?

Cage of Skin and Bone

I changed the working title for "The Ugly Girl" to "Cage of Skin and Bone". Then I landed the services of the very impressive Mark Bulahao, who created original cover art for me, shown below. I couldn't be happier with his work! Right now I am contacting potential agents. Wish me luck!