SPFBO 8: Let the madness begin

Okay, first things first, let’s have some straight talk. I vanished for a bit. It’s been crazy. Things in my last post got worse. Shoot me a message on Twitter, I’ll chat if you’re interested. More to the point, I’m dedicated to reviving this platform, and I plan to use the 2022 SPFBO to do so. I’m not a review blog and won’t ever be, but this is a really exciting competition and I really want to support the other authors putting their work out for evaluation.

Wait…What’s SPFBO?

SPFBO stands for the Self Published Fantasy Blog Off. The link to the main page is here for writers interested in learning about submission guidelines and here for readers interested in finding cool new books to read. Those links go to pages that link to each other, but I figure readers don’t much care about the specifics of submitting to the contest.

Here’s a quick overview of the rules so everyone understands what the competition does. The competition is run by Mark Lawrence (Thanks, Mark!) as a way to help self-published fantasy authors get visibility on their books, and it runs for a full year before selecting a winner. Each year up to 300 books are accepted on a first come, first served basis so long as they meet the basic requirements. Each book submitted must be a novel (not a short story or an anthology), must be published by the author, must be fantasy, must be available for purchase by day one of the competition (usually June 1), and must be either the first in a series or a stand-alone novel. The books are then distributed between 10 fantasy blogs (some of which are some of the most respected blogs currently in business), who consider their books and write reviews for the books they are interested in. Each blog selects a finalist and every blog is required to evaluate each finalist and select their favorite, which they then must also review. Whichever book wins must be reviewed by any blog in the competition that didn’t review it already. This means that each blog must write between 1 and 3 reviews, but most of the blogs write more, some as many as 30 to 39 reviews over the course of the year.

As well, Mark Lawrence runs a cover contest for the contestants each year (here) and there is a lot of hype around authors supporting each other, SPFBO authors running simultaneous promotions, and lots of other discussions. There is no better publicity in the world for a self-published author (did I say… Thanks, Mark!!!).

Okay, SPFBO sound cool…But what now?

I entered SPFBO this year with my debut novel, Wake of the Phoenix. I’m excited about the competition and I want to support my fellow writers who are in this with me this year. However, I very quickly noticed one thing. There are a lot of people collating lists and discussing entries, but I’m not sure which of these books even fits into a category I want to read. I don’t know about other readers, but for myself, I have to be prepared for the genre I’m reading. If I pick up a YA without realizing it’s YA until I start reading, I’ll dislike it even if it’s objectively good. So, I want to do a little categorization.

I’m not going to be able to post a full evaluation right now, so instead I’ll post some information from the books assigned to each blog every couple days for a bit until I get a list I can work with, and then I’ll start getting into the weeds a bit more.

Here’s the first blog’s worth of books:

Fantasy-Faction
Troupe of Shadows by Jennings Zabrinsky (Reverse portal fantasy? Real world setting, fantasy world protag; sounds kind of interesting)Tails by Jessica Grace Wright (“Children’s” fantasy; unsure if YA or MG)Breaker by Amy Campbell (Western fantasy…like if Firefly was a fantasy instead of a sci fi. Also, another BEAUTIFUL cover that looks illustrated)
The Darkness Calling by Kaleigh McCann (high fantasy, I think; looks like grand quest theming)Imagine The Fire by S.C. Gowland (Epic Fantasy; there’s a sick king, or maybe not sick, and a woman who is loyal to him for…some reason, and a guy who may or may not help; I really want to be interested in this because it’s my genre, but I can’t figure out what it’s about)The Alchemyst’s Mirror by Liz Delton (YA Steampunk)
Dust Bound by Clementine Fraser (post-apocalyptic Fae-based fantasy with romantic plot-threads)Blood on the Canvas by David Samuels (YA epic? fantasy…looks like maybe YA fantasy romance, but listed as epic)In The Shadow of Ruin by Tony Debajo (I think historical fantasy with forbidden magic themes? Oddly, it’s classified as “African Literature”, which seems to emphasize the setting more than the genre)
Burning Bright by Melissa McShane (gaslamp and/or historical fantasy romance; Jane Austen feels)Gold Glamour’s Ghost by Neil Adam Ray (Historical “gunslinger” fantasy…with a BEAUTIFUL illustrated cover)Born of Fire by R R Carter (Contemporary “NA” fantasy with witch burning vibes; looks like a “kitchen sink” fantasy that tries to include everything under rule of cool)
The Scorpion’s Lullaby by Juliet Vane (dragon rider/thieves book, maybe YA, maybe romance, maybe adult epic? /shrug)A Song For The Void by Andrew C. Piazza (Mostly horror, a few dark fantasy vibes; pirate ships, I think?)Beneath the Dragoneye Moons: Oathbound Healer by Selkie Myth (LitRPG…uh…that’s about all I know. Doesn’t seem to have much in the way of stakes? Or at least doesn’t tell me about them)
Master of the Flying Broom by Joseph J. Bailey (Martial arts fantasy, feels kind of tongue-in-cheek)Dungeon Man Sam and the Orphaned Core by J. W. Benjamin (umm….uh….I’m honestly not sure? It’s a fantasy book. There’s something about dungeon building. Some people said “LitRPG” but I see no LitRPG elements except people making D&D style dungeons…Someone tell me what this is)Forest of Forgotten Vows by Grace Carlisle (Contemporary fantasy mystery; Fae/fairy themes; feels a little like a 25-30 woman rediscovering her childhood)
The Soul Trade by Edward Rose (contemporary fantasy; a little Dresden Files-ish, but dark instead of humorous)Rise of Tears by Brand J. Alexander (Epic fantasy; maybe YA or some YA crossover appeal; coming of age story)The True and Accurate Log of the Sand Ship Uncertainty by Fowler Brown (Pirate fantasy but on sand with boats that move on sand? Something about evil landscape corrupting crew, maybe?)
Sacaran Nights by Rachel Emma Shaw (gothic fantasy…is that a genre? maybe dark high fantasy)The Pirate’s Deal by Elayna R. Gallea & Daniela A. Mera (Fantasy romance; I’m getting a YA vibe but it’s not categorized as YA; might be the Little Mermaid comparison)Darkhaven by Kel E Fox (YA contemporary fantasy; very “Coming of age, choose your life” feels instead of “magic cool, kids with magic!”)
Raven: Reawakening by Mitchell Hogan (dark assassin fantasy…yes, there exists assassin fantasy that isn’t “dark” in genre terms)Manipulator’s War by Elise Carlson (YA portal fantasy; set-up looks like it’s heading toward romance vibes but reviews mention nothing of the sort…are YA books allowed to not have romance? That would be so exciting….)Afterworld by James G. Robertson (Dystopian Fantasy…maybe. More afterlife introspection fantasy/sci fi/light horror vibes)
An Altar on the Village Green by Nathan Hall (fantasy horror, maybe some Warded Man similarities?)The Crypt Lord’s Call by Dawson George (LitRPG–yes, a real one–but says great for fans of epic fantasy? Those aren’t the same audiences…)The Heart of the Bloodstone by Philinna Wood (Epic fantasy, maybe with animal companions? Unsure if the obviously human intelligence tiger in the opening is a super-tiger or the protag has animal control abilities)

Please remember that my descriptions above are my own interpretation of the books and their topics. I encourage anyone reading this to click on the links and look at the books themselves. Since many of these are outside my typical preferred genres, I may have misrepresented the books slightly despite my best efforts.

As an extra disclaimer, I have linked to the blog these books will likely be reviewed by. Please support the blogs taking part in SPFBO, as they put in a lot of work to help support self-published authors. Any reviews for the books in this chart may not be posted for some time, as the first phase typically takes about five months (ending in October this year), but the blogs in question still have some great content to check out.

Reader Perspectives: Prologues


In drafting my recent post on prologue usages, my husband and I got into a discussion about the different executions of this common element of story-telling. We discovered that he and I have had some very different experiences with the same prologues. As a service to other potential authors, and in light of our surprising disagreements, I asked my husband to take a look at some of the storytelling elements from popular novels and give me some feedback. This will be a new series on my blog that investigates reactions to various story-telling elements from a pure reader’s perspective.

For context, my husband will be my initial subject–he is an epic fantasy fan who was very invested in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series as well as the older Dragonlance novels, and as a result the first few of these will be mostly within his genre. Not everyone will agree with these opinions, but hopefully it will give some visibility into an aspect of what works and what doesn’t for some readers.

This week I’m looking at a comparison between the Rage of Dragons prologue and the Game of Thrones prologue.

Rage of Dragons

My husband’s response to the Rage of Dragons prologue genuinely surprised me. I wasn’t completely pulled in by that prologue, but he hated it–and I mean that he hated it to the point where he was intending to do a read through of the entire book to prep for a compare/contrast on his opinions versus mine on the book as a whole and instead he refused to finish the book. His problems boil down to three specific items that broke his interest and left him confused and frustrated.

  1. Multiple POVs. This is a point where I agree. If your prologue is long and complex enough to need four different POVs, then you either have a first chapter or a separate short story (depending on how closely tied the content is to the main plot of the book). My opinion was that the Rage of Dragons prologue is a separate short story, which, while a bit confusing, was… well… fine. My husband was just really annoyed.
  2. Confusing words and/or confusing word usage. This didn’t bother me because I’m pretty accustomed to reading things, not knowing what it means, and waiting to learn later. It infuriated my husband. We had a twenty minute conversation about whether “Ingonyama” is a military rank, a name for people with a specific magic ability, or a name for people who are used in specific magic rituals without having magic themselves. And a similar discussion about “the Chosen”, “the Gifted”, etc. Having read further, I think I know what those words mean…
  3. Naming schemes. This complaint started with the character names. Everyone (or at least everyone portrayed as important in the prologue) had a name that started with a T, even the guy who probably didn’t pronounce the T in his name. This is just a general frustration with fantasy books. Exotic names are great, names which follow naming schemes are great, but if every name starts with the same letter, you’re likely to have readers struggle to keep names straight. After pointing this out to me, though, my husband flipped to the map. I barely even glanced at the map on my read-through, but there it was. Just a big peninsula with a country-border arc on the land side (turning the entire country into a big oval). Mountains in weird places. Names like “the north”, “the south”, “the center”, “the Curse”, “the Northern Mountain Range”, “the Southern Fortress”, “the Central Mountains”, “the Southern Mountain Range”, “the Fist”, “the Roar”, and “Citadel City”. None of these names are inherently bad, but the combination of all of them really broke world-immersion for my husband. Suddenly, instead of feeling like he was reading a book with an overly complex prologue that left him unsure of a lot of world elements, he felt like the complex prologue was trying to make up for lazy world-building. Now, I don’t think Evan Winter is lazy and I think Rage of Dragons is a good book. But it’s worth keeping in mind that a little extra care makes a huge difference to a lot of readers. The inhabitants of the world likely call those various elements something, and it’s pretty rare for an entire culture to name a mountain range “The Northern Mountain Range.” One such name he could have gotten away with. Eight was pushing it way too far.

Game of Thrones

When we compare the Rage of Dragons prologue to the Game of Thrones prologue, there are some interesting differences. The Game of Thrones prologue is both shorter and, in some ways, slower than the Rage of Dragons prologue, but I’d argue it actually does a lot more work for the book and the series. Here’s a few of the elements that worked particularly well in the Game of Throne prologue.

  1. The events of Game of Thrones prologue are directly relevant to events of the first chapter of the book and to the larger world as a whole. This doesn’t mean the characters from the Game of Thrones prologue are relevant. By the end of the first chapter all three of them are dead. But the events of the prologue are the reason for the admittedly quite sedate activity in chapter one of the book. The prologue also gives the reader knowledge about a scenario that most of the characters have little to no direct experience with. As a result, when Jon Snow heads north to join the Night’s Watch, we the reader know that there are some dangers he may face that even the other characters in the book don’t believe in. We haven’t been told about those dangers, we’ve seen them. That gives an extra level of weight and importance to Jon’s commitment and adds tension that the book and series would otherwise be lacking. In contrast, the Rage of Dragons prologue may be relevant to the entire series as a whole, but it isn’t relevant to the immediate opening of the book. It doesn’t give context to every decision and discussion the characters have. That’s not a deal-breaker, but it does mean the Game of Thrones prologue has a little bit less work to do in justifying its place in the book than the Rage of Dragon’s prologue.
  2. Everything in the Game of Thrones prologue is simple, direct, and easy to understand. Three characters are riding through the woods. They are investigating a report of some dead bodies and are actively discussing their theories on that occurrence. There are no secondary plotlines going on in this scene. Nothing for the reader to focus on but the direct information, context, and atmosphere built by the actions and words of these three characters. As a result, it is very unlikely that any reader is going to be confused by the Game of Thrones prologue. They might not be immediately invested in it, but they aren’t going to be wondering what’s going on (at least, not more than the characters themselves are wondering that). This can be a bit of opinion (some people like more complex or more obscure openings), but there’s something to be said for a simple, clear opening that delivers specific information in context without dropping the info-dump bomb on the reader. As well, when we get to the portion of the Game of Thrones prologue which does have combat, the same simple, one-focus style is used. In that context, it suddenly serves to build tension, focus the reader on the specific POV character’s reactions, and keep the events clear and impactful. The larger, ongoing combat the permeates the Rage of Dragons prologue keeps the reader’s attention constantly split. Okay, we’re on a boat talking, but you said there’s a war going on? Wait, now we’re in the war…are we going to hear about the queen? And there’s how many things going on? And which of these characters have I met before? And what am I supposed to know about the context by now?
  3. Which brings me to the third point, and the one I think is probably the most important part of the Game of Thrones prologue. At no point during the events of the prologue does it feel like the characters are actively using information the reader does not have. This is a big, big deal in fantasy prologues and honestly a lot of fantasy writing in general. It’s the main reason why the most common main character in epic fantasy is some form of naïve “everyman” character who is being introduced to a new world for the first time. The Farmboy learning he’s the Chosen One. The modern realm-traveler stuck in a fantasy world. The guild apprentice on their first solo mission. The mundane child admitted to a school of magic. The examples are endless, and primarily it’s because one of the greatest challenges in fantasy writing is getting the right balance between telling the reader what an experienced character knows and not spending pages info-dumping the appropriate backstory. The Game of Thrones prologue is a masterclass in doing exactly this. We have three characters. One is fairly new to a particular organization and somewhat uncertain. Another has some experience and is a bit cocky. The third is a long-time veteran who is always looking for clues as to what is coming next. We never learn the specifics of that organization in the prologue, just that it is called “the Night’s Watch” and that these members are out looking for information. Their job is not to investigate dead bodies, but the veteran thinks they might learn something related to their actual goal by examining the bodies. The characters know plenty of other bits of information about the world, but they aren’t currently thinking about any of those pieces of information, so we don’t get told them. Every action the characters take is a logical reaction to the information we have already been given up to that point. In Rage of Dragons, however, our POV characters mention summoning dragons, being hunted by something called “the Cull”, and a dozen other very specific references that the characters obviously know much more about than the reader does. As a result, those references feel more like coy, author-hidden hints at things that will be cool later. We the reader are immediately distanced from the characters because the characters are hiding information from us when they shouldn’t know we’re there. It’s not the same as the GoT character not explaining the mission of the Night’s Watch, because none of the actions those characters take are direct results of information the reader doesn’t have.
  4. And finally, naming. A lot of complaints around names can come down to preference, and it’s certainly true that people from certain backgrounds will find the character names in Rage of Dragons more complicated and confusing than readers from other backgrounds. But regardless of that, the names in the Game of Thrones prologue are more varied. We don’t have Gerad and Grendo and Gavin, we have Gerad and Ser Waymar Royce and Will. It’s easier to keep track of people when the names aren’t similar. As well, beyond character names, very little is actually named in the prologue. We have the three characters, the organization they are a part of, and the general term “the Others” for the creatures which attack the characters. Anyone familiar with the series knows that “the Others” is not the name for the creatures which attack. It is, however, a simple phrase which readers can quickly identify as referring to something scary that the POV character doesn’t understand. When we are later given an actual name for those creatures, we have enough context from the descriptions and other discussions to know that the name refers to “the Others” from the prologue. None of the other names those characters know have any meaning in this context, and so they don’t come up. In Rage of Dragons we get names for everything from the mysterious inquisition-style enemy that’s hunting the queen’s people to the name of the queen’s old nanny from when she was a toddler. Some of those we know to ignore, but the very inclusion of those meaningless names speaks of an improper scope for the prologue. Especially when you turn the page to chapter one and realize that hundreds of years have passed and the events of the prologue are ancient history to the protagonist. Why did I get the prologue-queen’s nanny’s name, again?

In Summation

I’m comparing Rage of Dragons to Game of Thrones partially because they’re the books my husband picked up, but mostly because they’re both good books. They have a lot of positives and, like all books, they both have some negatives. The interesting element of this comparison, though, is how the craft differed between the opening of each novel. And, to be fair, George R.R. Martin was a well-established author when he released A Game of Thrones while Evan Winter was releasing Rage of Dragons as his debut novel. That might be the entire difference between the books, since they both have obvious potential. However, the next time someone says they don’t like prologues, it’s worth discussing what they dislike about the prologue. If they dislike prologues like the one from Rage of Dragons, I understand. There are a lot of debatable craft choices in that prologue. And I do mean “debatable,” not “obviously bad but I’m trying to be nice.” Preferences vary and some people love that prologue. But in a lot of ways it’s a harder prologue to love than one that focuses on a more directed scope with a more straightforward approach and gives the reader the same information as the characters.

Prologues: A Defense and a Primer


I have long been a supporter of prologues, especially in longer fantasy works. My own debut novel has a prologue that I fought for when I was considering traditional publishing. But the stigma against prologues still runs strong in many communities and is stronger than ever in traditional publishing circles. Let’s take a moment to look at what prologues are good for and discuss proper prologue usage.

What is a prologue?

We all know the obvious answer. It’s that opening chapter of the book that is often confusing or boring and is labeled “prologue” instead of “chapter 1.” But there’s actually a specific purpose for a prologue–or, more accurately, a few specific purposes, each mutually exclusive. So, here’s a quick listing of some good reasons to use a prologue:

  1. Give a first-hand account of a specific event that is central to the primary story line but does not take place in the natural arc of the story. A great example is the Game of Thrones prologue, which kills everyone involved but makes clear to the reader that White Walkers do, in fact, exist.
  2. Tease a particularly cool aspect of the world-building which won’t become obvious to the reader in the opening chapters of the book to build excitement in–and offer context for–the opening.
  3. Offer a POV that is useful for the reader to understand but doesn’t fit in the main narrative. Often termed the “villain POV prologue” because of a trend to use these to explain villain motivations, this is a tool that can be great, but it better be very important or you’ll get a lot of complaints for extraneous information.

I hesitate to say this list covers everything, but if it doesn’t fit any of these three elements, be very cautious about using a prologue for that. As a general rule of thumb, if your reason for including the prologue is anything other than “I think this addition will help my readers get greater enjoyment out of the primary story arc that starts in Chapter 1” then you should cut your prologue.

Is this thing working?

Once you’ve determined that your prologue fits into one of the above reasons for use, you need to make sure your prologue accomplishes what you set out to do. Prologues are a much finer art than many realize. Here’s some common mistakes and ways to correct them.

First, did you spend your prologue dropping a bunch of world-specific terminology without much explanation? You probably have a problem. If readers are on page one or two of your book and don’t understand what you’re saying because of world-specific words, you’re going to lose a bunch of readers. And I completely understand that the prologue is not the place to explain those words. Please, for the love of all decent writing, do not edit your prologue to have a definition after every world-specific word. Instead, find ways to make clear through context what the words mean. My husband uses the Rage of Dragons prologue as an example here (and not a good example). See below for his full opinions on that prologue. The important part of this point is, it doesn’t matter if the word has a typical meaning that you’re leaning on. Evan Winter uses “the Chosen” and “the Gifted” as world-specific words, which can easily be assumed to mean something we understand. But it’s clear that the usage isn’t the general sense, and as a result, the lack of clarification can be confusing. If possible, don’t use words which have world-specific meanings in your prologue, or if you must, make clear through the immediate context what the word means.

Now let’s talk about how long your prologue is. Is it more than 3 or 4 pages in the printed book? This is typically about 1500 words on the high end, and shorter is almost always better. If your prologue is longer than this, you’re probably not focusing on the correct elements, or you’re explaining too much context, or maybe even mixing goals. Chapters can have multiple reasons for existing. Prologues must be lean, precise, and clearly understandable. Evaluating a prologue that is too long can be a challenge, so get some beta reader feedback to determine how to cut it down.

Prologues are typically designed to hint at information that will be important later in the book, but this often leads to an additional problem. Does your prologue go out of its way to avoid explaining what’s going on in that specific moment, and/or intentionally end without resolving the scene in an attempt to be mysterious? Stop that. You’re trying too hard and I guarantee it will fall flat for a lot of readers. If you’re writing from a POV you don’t want to go into too deeply for fear of breaking a later reveal, change the POV. Nothing frustrates a reader more than feeling like the author is intentionally hiding things from them. We are, but they shouldn’t feel it.

Finally, what’s the effect on the book if you remove the prologue entirely? Does the story remain completely unchanged by dropping the prologue, including context and reader engagement? If so, cut that thing. It might be the coolest scene in your mind, but if it doesn’t enhance the story, the reader doesn’t care. Conversely, does your book fail to make any sense or feel like it’s missing major story elements if you pull the prologue? Well, turns out, you don’t have a prologue at all. What you actually have is a first chapter and you need to connect it more directly to the main story. If the events are too removed to fit in the story arc there, find ways to drop the information throughout the narrative (or, if it fits your book, through the dreaded flashback) instead of in a prologue. Or maybe consider if your story starts in the right place.

Why even try?

As disliked as prologues are in the modern publishing world, you may be wondering if it’s even worth trying to write one. Some agents will reject on the prologue alone and those that don’t are extremely critical of prologues. Maybe even more critical of prologues than of first pages.

Absolutely you should write one.

Despite everything I’ve said about the dangers and pitfalls of prologues, I would never tell you not to write one if you think it fits your story. Prologues serve a very specific set of uses and are often misunderstood and misapplied. But in those instances where they are done right, they are absolutely critical to the story. I’m going to use my own work as an example here.

I went back and forth on a prologue several times and had several different drafts of my potential prologues. I queried initially without a prologue. Rewrote to improve flow and queried with a prologue, but got some backlash over my prologue. Pulled the prologue and got significant reader feedback that my opening was too abrupt. I finally settled on the prologue I have because it fits my rule above. The story was complete without it, but my prologue gave readers a chance to explore the political landscape and underlying tensions between a handful of important side characters. It was a short, direct scene that addressed the setup of the story without giving you a full history of the world, or even the recent war. This is the sort of prologue that supports the main narrative without frustrating the reader with world-building details or being so removed that the reader only understands the context several books later.

The same can be said for the Harry Potter prologue (you don’t have to like the books or the author, but the prologue does it’s job: telling you that Harry is important); the Game of Thrones prologue (you, the reader, have knowledge that the characters only learn later, so you feel more tension when Eddard Stark says that White Walkers are myths); the Red Sister prologue (you know from page one that “a nun” has a very different training than in our modern world and that becoming a nun must be dangerous); and many others.

A final, cautionary comment

Many epic/high fantasy authors and epic science fiction authors make a very specific faux pas that is often credited as the reason prologues have a bad name. They use the prologue to info-dump setting or history. I’ve even seen numerous advice web sites describe this as a potential use of a prologue.

Do Not Do This!

Unless you are well-established author with a loyal following of dedicated readers, you will, not get away with this. An agent who sees this in a debut author’s submission will auto-reject (if they even look at a submission with a prologue at all). A reader who picks up your book without knowing you as an author will look at this and skip it–or they might just put the book down. Either way, that prologue isn’t helping and might be hurting. Feel free to add an appendix discussing these things if you think some readers might be interested. Some people will be. But placing it in a prologue has a very, very high likelihood of harming the marketability of your book.

Hand Selling Your Book


Most self-published authors will, at some point, find themselves in a position where they have to physically talk to a potential customer and sell them a copy of their book. This is pretty different for those who only publish e-books versus those who also publish print books, but the core skill is the same. You have to be able to describe your book in a compelling manner.

There are two main locations where you might find yourself directly trying to sell your book to consumers: Conferences and Book Signings. Obviously the latter only applies to people with physical books to sign, but the events are different enough that it’s worth discussing.

As a quick aside, yes, a lot of indie author sales come from e-books and the majority of those are “sold” via discussions online. Many of these skills are less applicable to internet discussion because they involve establishing a rapport with your potential customer. Still, learning how to describe your book can be valuable even for more distanced, online communications.

Conferences

Let me share my anecdotal experience from my recent conference on October 1, 2021 as a example of how to sell your book in person.

I was seated between a 20 year veteran attendee of the conference who had been publishing for a few years and had connections with most conference coordinators (my table-mate) and a woman who was selling a YA portal fantasy with adult crossover that decorated her table with a bunch of pretty cool dragon miniatures. This positioning was great for me. People walking down the hall tended to stop at the dragon minis, discover that the book was YA with crossover potential, and about a third to half the time look around for other interesting things in the area. Or, they would stop at my table-mate’s book, chat with him about his publishing plans and how well he’d been doing at the conference, and then notice my book and ask about it. The pitches are what I want to evaluate, though.

The YA crossover author always opened the same way. “Do you like dragons?” At a science fiction/fantasy convention, that answer was about 90% yes. But then she moved on. “Great. My book is about a boy who must master the magic in his blood and learn to wield his magic sword.” I got that pitch wrong, especially because she had a decent stakes sentence in there and did mention dragons in it, but that’s close. It always led to a similar question. “So this is YA?” And just like that, she’s immediately trying to justify why it’s not only for teenagers. It didn’t help that her series was named “The Dragon’s Children” series or something similar, which hinted to a lot of people that her book starred children. To be clear, She did perfectly well at the conference, and I sat next to her for three days and walked away a bit interested in her book. When I have time to read (probably over the upcoming holidays) I’ll likely buy a copy. If you enjoy YA crossover or are interested in giving it a shot, she had several dedicated readers stop by, as well, and clearly writes a good book. Give it a shot here if it sounds like your thing: Red Dragon’s Keep.

My table-mate had a similar approach. People stopped to check out his table and–in the rare occasion that he didn’t already know them–he had a pitch pre-prepared. “This is the book I’m encouraging people to start with. It’s two master mage, shape-shifting dragons running an interdimensional hotel. It’s the ultimate cross-genre book. A little bit of everything.” Now I don’t know about you, but when I hear “this book has a little bit of everything,” I immediately ask myself what it’s really about. A disjointed book held together by common setting has to be really good to work. That pitch worked on some of the people walking by, and some of the people already knew about him and were looking to buy his book. But a lot of others immediately asked about his other books. Those were collections of short stories, some independent of his trilogy but some about the same dragons going on vacation (“Sometimes the dragons take a vacation, and find other, well-known tropes but react very differently from what we’d expect. Master mage dragons don’t view a zombie apocalypse the same way, you know!”). Again, as with the author on the other side, he had a fan base and after talking with him for several days the book does, actually, sound interesting. Here’s the link if you’re interested: A Day at Georgie and Armand’s Place. But his pitch, similar to the YA crossover pitch, tried to include everyone.

This is a great starting point for talking about your book. I quickly learned to have a short verbal pitch that I could rattle off, along with a hook that could connect with my audience. For me: “I have a political epic fantasy about a king trying to bring peace after a civil war when his countrymen think he’s a traitor while a reluctant thief is manipulated into stirring up rebellion. Some early readers said it’s Game of Thrones-ish, but I insist I’m nowhere near that dark!” Almost always I was able to start a conversation about what the reader looks for in a book, even if they didn’t know that’s what they were telling me. “So you’re not going to build up an amazing character for me to love just so you can kill them off?” Ah. This reader wants to connect with their characters and ride the entire story with them. My kind of reader. And from that I can discuss the elements of the book that I think they’ll enjoy. I had one possible buyer who hesitated over my description of the book as “political epic fantasy.” He said he wasn’t sure he could handle more politics after the events of the recent election. I agreed, telling him that was understandable, and made no effort to convince him to buy even though he was obviously interested. Why? Because he wasn’t in the right mindset to enjoy the book and selling the book to someone who was going to be frustrated by it wasn’t going to help either of us. The authors on either side of me probably would have tried to push the sale. I’m happy that he was drawn to the book despite being unsure about the politics. He’ll be a reader or he won’t, but he definitely won’t be someone who read the book when he was unsure and disliked it because he wasn’t ready for it.

I ended up outselling my table-mate at this conference. Admittedly, I only outsold him by two books, and we both had a good weekend, so I don’t think his strategy wasn’t working. It clearly was. But mine, improvised off the activity I saw around me, worked just as well. I think we were all surprised by that.

Book Signings

A signing is a different world from a conference. At a book signing, you’re trying to get a group of people gathered, talking about your book to draw in other potential readers. If you can get some personal friends to show up and get that started, all the better. This worked for me. A few people I knew from work and/or writing groups showed up early in the signing, which resulted in a couple other people in the store stopping by to check out the event. At the end, I left 7 copies out of 20 the store ordered on their shelves (hint, if you live in the Colorado Springs area, the Barnes and Noble on Briargate still has a few copies of my signed book in store). But the way I manages that was actually not about bringing my friends in, though that helped.

After my initial crowd died down, the store manager stopped by and talked to me about successful and unsuccessful signings she’d seen in the past. The best author she’s ever had, she told me, is a mystery author who drives up from a nearby town to do signings there. He stands in the doorway, greets everyone, asks what they read, and directs them to his table if he thinks he can get them to give his latest book a shot. I don’t recall the exact number, but she told me he sells tons of books for them every signing. I think it was 70 or 80 books a signing.

I admit that I didn’t have that confidence. I got up, I stood by the door, and I greeted customers. But I didn’t try to strike up a conversation with them. I just offered them a free bookmark and if they paused and looked interested, I tried to catch their attention. Most of the bookmarks I handed out didn’t get me any additional attention. How many of those customers would have paid attention, maybe even bought a book, if I’d been more engaging? Probably more than a couple. But it’s hard standing in a store that you are not affiliated with and trying to convince their customers to care about you. If you piss those customers off, the store might not invite you back. But if you don’t sell enough books, the store also won’t invite you back. So where’s the balance?

Having been through it and comparing to my conference experience, here’s my advice. First, find the simple pitch that you can say while offering a handout. For my book, I should have said “Would you like a bookmark for my political epic fantasy novel?” And I definitely should have approached a couple people and said “Hey, I notice you’re buying (George R.R. Martin/Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson). Would you like to hear about my new epic fantasy novel?” But the manager was right. Sitting behind the table does nothing but scare people away. I sometimes just walked away (in visual range but far enough that I wasn’t lurking by the table) and watched people stop to take a look. Sometimes those were the same people who had specifically avoided coming near the table when I was nearby or sitting there.

So, how do you talk about your book at a signing? By engaging with other content they want to read as authentically as possible. This has a lot of similarities with conference discussions, but it is not the same. In a book store signing, you have to convince potential readers to look at your table at all, because they’ll tend to avoid a place where a person is waiting to talk to them. At a conference, the readers stop by the table because they want to talk to the authors. Know where you’re selling, and know what the consumers there are looking for. That’s the key to getting people to give your book a shot.

Release Day!


Happy Tuesday, everyone! It’s release day for Wake of the Phoenix!

I’ll admit this feels like a day that both came way too soon and took way too long. I’m very excited to share this world with other readers and find the audience that loves it as much as I do. A very special thanks to all the ARC reviewers who have already given this book a shot and shared their comments. Special bonus for anyone in the Colorado Springs area: I have a couple in-person events coming up over the next couple weeks! Here’s the initial list:

  • Mile Hi Con–Denver, October 1 through October 3. Vendor table on author’s row
  • Book signing–Colorado Springs, Barnes and Noble at (on Briargate near Academy), October 9 from 12-2

I’ll make sure to announce any other events I schedule. I’m hoping to be able to attend more events (when it’s safe) throughout the next few months, possibly outside of Colorado.

Self-Publishing Guide Part 5: Marketing Resources


If you’re just here for a list of great marketing resources, this is your lucky day. I’ll re-iterate what I said in the first piece of this marketing discussion: If you haven’t planned your marketing, you should do that first. Take a look at part 4 of this self-publishing guide for an overview of how to think about marketing your books and think about the elements discussed there before picking among the resources below.

Marketing Tools

  1. Social Media. Yes, I know, many of us hate the concept of becoming engaged in social media, but here’s the thing. You don’t have to do much. I’m occasionally on Twitter, by which I mean, maybe 3 posts a week and sometimes I don’t even open the app for a week, mostly my comments are responses to other people in the writing community. I have like 300 followers (which is basically non-existent in the marketing world). But my tweets about my book have gotten some attention, so it’s working for me (sort of). This isn’t about becoming a social media giant, it’s about finding a small group of people you can connect with somewhat regularly and then occasionally mentioning your book in relevant posts. And you don’t have to be on every platform, just the one or two that work for you. If you happen to be someone who loves making videos, go for YouTube. If you love creating interesting photos to convey a message, Instagram. When in doubt, join the Twitter writing community and answer writing tweets that sound interesting to you. The key here is to have at least half, preferably 2/3rds of your posts have nothing to do with anything your audience has to pay for.
  2. NetGalley. A lot of people don’t even know what this is until they start researching publishing. Netgalley is basically a web site that helps authors distribute advance copies of their books to readers for free in return for a review. Now, you won’t get 100% return. I got 362 readers and about 40 reviews… and that was a pretty good return. Still, this is the web site traditional publishers use, and if you go for discounts through BooksGoSocial, ALLI, or even just the listing offered through membership in the IBPA you can get listed for a reasonable price. If that’s still out of your range, there are other options for this type of service, but they don’t have as good a reputation in the publishing field. I genuinely don’t know how good or bad those other options are.
  3. Bookbub. This is a featured listing you purchase through the company after your book is released. You are not guaranteed a spot and if you get selected, the cost is relatively high. For a fantasy book, for example, buying a feature costs between $480 and $2500. While I haven’t directly used this company, I’ve heard very, very good things about them from those who have, including that they made way more money than they spent on the listing. But nothing is a guarantee. You could easily drop a thousand dollars here and make less than a quarter of that back in ROI.
  4. FreeBooksy/BargainBooksy. These are the same website, just slightly different services based on whether you’re offering a free or reduced price book. It’s basically the same deal as BookBub but way, way cheaper and with more flexibility. You can choose to list your book for between $45 to $110 dollars, or you can request a spot as a deal of the day (if you meet their criteria) for between $100 to $170, or you could promote an entire series (if you have more than one book out) for about $170. The subscriber lists for their fantasy genre are not much lower than Bookbub, though they are lower. Despite that, I know a few self-published authors who swear by advertisements on these sites.
  5. Amazon/Facebook/Bookbub ads. Purchasing advertisements can be a good plan, but there’s a few caveats. First, this is rarely worth the money before you release your first book. For the most part, an unknown author buying ads for their debut novel’s pre-order is just throwing money away. Once you have a couple of books out as a backlog, though, buying ads to spotlight a pre-order for the next book in the series might work. For those of us releasing a debut, ads after release might do some good. What I’ve heard is that the targeting algorithms may need regular tweaking, you may need to spend a decent amount on ads to get much return, and it’s hard (but not impossible) to make this worth the investment when you only have one book released. Since my book isn’t out yet, I can’t give you personal experience, but that’s what others say who have tried this.
  6. Emailing reviewers personally. Reviews are the lifeblood of any self-published book’s success, so including reviews from well-known reviewers is a great marketing strategy if you can get the people in question to try the book. This will also be the single most work-intensive portion of any marketing campaign that includes it. The reason for that is that you probably don’t want to just blast a mass e-mail at these reviewers. Instead, you want to evaluate the options and pick only the people who will be good for your book’s image—and between blogs, YouTubers, review magazines, and other social media, there are tons of reviewers to comb through, and some of them won’t accept self-published books so sending to them is a waste of time. As well, you want to give each reviewer a reason to care about picking up your book, which typically means explaining how your book fits in with the other content on their platform. That only works if you know what content they have on their platform, so there’s another mountain of research. That also means you have to write a slightly different form letter for each reviewer—and yes, use a form letter with a couple sentences of personalization. A personal letter to everyone will take you several months. But if you can get a few well-established reviewers to give you reviews (say, Fantasy Faction, The Fantasy Inn, or Fantasy Book Critic), people will definitely notice your book.
  7. SPFBO (or SPSFC). These are contests created by a couple of established members of the publishing industry specifically to help good self-published fantasy and science fiction books get more recognition… You know, because some people are fucking awesome. SPFBO was the original, standing for Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off and created by Mark Lawrence to get ten different well-known fantasy blogs to evaluate and discuss self-published fantasy books. This year is the first year of the spin-off, SPSFC, which I believe stands for Self-Published Science Fiction Competition (or maybe Contest?) to give the same voice to science fiction books. The submission windows are small (submissions rarely stay open for an entire day), but if you catch it and have a qualifying book, it can be great for your publicity.
  8. Foreword Reviews. Every self-published author should be submitting to Foreword Reviews. It’s free and while they might not choose to review your book, if they like the book and give it a review, it’s a huge step in the right direction. Again, reviews are the lifeblood of a successful book launch. This does not hold true for their affiliate, Clarion Reviews, which is probably perfectly reputable but is not free. Clarion reviews is a paid editorial review site. There’s nothing wrong with these, but there’s a time and a place for them and it’s not for everyone.
  9. Kirkus Reviews. Kirkus Reviews is another paid editorial review site. They have a pretty big reputation in the publishing world, so you may want a review from them. But they aren’t quite the giant they used to be. These days there are several editorial review sites, and many of them are cheaper (Clarion Reviews, Blue Ink Reviews, etc.). Before deciding which company to use, first decide if you want an editorial review. One of the best uses of this type of review is as advanced marketing to gather some feedback you can quote either on your book cover or in a “readers said” page in your opening pages. This requires you to have a book ready to submit in time for them to read and review the book before you start your marketing in earnest. Completely honestly, the reason I didn’t do any of these type of reviews is that I mis-timed my release and wasn’t able to submit a copy early enough to get the review for my marketing. There are other uses for these reviews (Amazon has an entire section where you can add editorial reviews of your book to build hype) and they aren’t useless, but I simply wasn’t willing or able to pay the prices required to get one when I couldn’t add the quotes where I wanted to use them. These range from about $300 to $600 per review, depending on the site and the length of review.
  10. Building a mailing list. This is a big, big deal in a lot of writing circles. The main piece of advice I hear from a lot of successful authors on how they built an audience able to support themselves is that they built a mailing list and started a newsletter to keep the interest of their audience. If you look around my site, you’ll notice I don’t have one. I may start one, but so far I haven’t known what I’d even say in a newsletter. I have no desire to spam anyone’s inbox with junk mail, so I won’t start a newsletter until I have something to say. That said, a lot of authors insist this is the number one marketing tactic that worked for them. I doubt they’re all lying. If you can create meaningful content for a newsletter without losing all your writing time, this is a good tactic. You can even get help building your newsletter subscribers with the service AuthorsXP, and possibly save some money doing that through an ALLI discount code.
  11. Submitting to competitions. I’ve mentioned SPFBO and SPSFC by name, but there are plenty of other reputable competitions you can submit your books to for visibility. A couple reputable ones I know of are IndieBRAG and the Foreword INDIES. If you google self-published book competition, you’ll find a ton, and probably half to two thirds of them will be scams. I use the ALLI listing of competitions (found here) to evaluate any competition before I decide to submit to them, and if it isn’t there I typically assume the worst. It might be fine, but I’d rather not be the example that teaches others about a poor decision.

Now I’m sure this is not an exhaustive list of marketing tools. ALLI has some discount codes for a few other providers that I haven’t even mentioned and there are plenty of things not listed on ALLI’s web site. But this should definitely get you started.

As a quick reminder. Many of the above resources only work if you’ve done the work to create a quality product targeted at the right readers. Keep in mind at every stage that self-publishing has a reputation of being lower quality, so any defect someone finds is likely to be added to the heap of “self-published novels suck and no one ever edits them” that plagues everyone who tries this route. I’ve had reviews that claim my book needed a good editor because the reader didn’t like the pacing, but my editor (who was a former employee of a traditional publishing house before she went freelance) thought the pacing was perfect. Anything you can do to look more professional (read: more like a traditionally published novel) will make you look more legitimate to readers on the fence about your book. Within reason. At the end of the day, every reader who loves your book has just as valid an opinion as those who don’t, so when you feel like crap about a bad review/comment/whatever, remember: Listening to only the negative comments disrespects every reader who loves your book. Don’t disrespect your readers. Trust them when they praise something in your book and focus on those elements when finding new ways to talk about your book. Use their words if you can (with permission, of course). Honest readers are the best marketing simply because money can’t buy their opinion.

Self-Publishing Guide Part 4: Marketing Planning


One week until my book releases! Thanks to everyone keeping an eye on my blog. I’m very excited. Over the next couple weeks I’ll be trying to release a few additional posts to help build some additional visibility. Speaking of that…

We’ve finally reached the end of my personal self-publishing guide. Today we’re focusing on a thing that frustrates most self-published authors (including me): Marketing. This topic is a little different from the others in this guide for a few reasons. First, there is no “correct” way to do your marketing, because a strategy that worked for one person will rarely work for a second person, sometimes even in similar genres. Second, we’re going to start with a paradigm shift about your book as a whole, and discuss some things you may want to think about before you ever get to the actual selling your book stage. And third, I’m nowhere near as confident in my knowledge of the practical elements of this area as I am about the others in this guide. That said, I’ll tackle this as thoroughly as I can and hopefully be of use to others trying to build a career in self-publishing.

Since I got a little more long-winded than usual this time (and marketing is a complicated topic), I’m actually breaking this into two posts. Below is an overview of the things to do to prepare for your marketing journey. In a couple days I’ll be releasing an additional post in this guide, which will outline specific marketing resources and their pros and cons. I highly recommend taking a look at the content below and making a plan before moving on to the next one. Using good resources poorly will hurt you more than using the wrong resources. Why, you ask? Because good resources will get you in front of readers, and then those readers will think your book is bad. Bad resources will simply waste money and get you little to no visibility.

So, to start off, let’s look at some basic principles of good marketing. You need to have a good product (write a good book), have good packaging (buy a well-designed cover), and present the product in an interesting way to the right people (properly identify your genre and sell it well). Each of these is its own mini challenge, and we’ve covered some of them in the previous few posts. You may see some repeated messages (do not skimp on editing), but remember that in this post we’ll be talking about the effect of each of these on your marketing, as well as looking at some ways to utilize those earlier decisions in your presentation of the final product.

Before we go any further, please take note: your book is a product. It is not your personal baby or your journey to self-discovery or your dissertation on how the world should change. It can be any or all of those things in the writing and editing stage, but when you’re ready to sell it, your book is nothing more than an object that some people might want to purchase. If it doesn’t give a particular reader the experience they wanted, then it was not a good product for that reader. It will almost inevitably be a great product for a different reader. Your job, as a marketer of your book, is to get your book in front of the readers who will consider it a good product.

Where Do I Even Start?

The first step of marketing your book is determining who to market it to. Many successful marketers will tell you to determine your readers before starting your book, and to some extent you should, but as a discovery writer I tend to lean away from that sort of pre-determination. I sat down to write an epic fantasy novel. The fact that it became a character-heavy, slow-burn political epic fantasy with LGBT+ characters was just something that happened along the way. Despite that, when I started planning marketing, I needed to know that I had a character-heavy, slow-burn political fantasy to know how to sell the book. I’ll address the LGBT+ aspect in a moment.

The value of determining your readers is that it let’s you determine what they consider a good book. Every reader group will have a different definition of this, so it’s important to know who you’re targeting so you can see what other books they’ve enjoyed. This will determine what types of edits to make. An epic fantasy audience is far more likely to enjoy longer scenes with subtle character work and expansive descriptions. A more traditional high fantasy audience probably wants a faster pace, fewer descriptions or more minimalistic narration, and slightly less subtle plot. Whether or not a particular passage is an info-dump will largely be determined by your target readers, not your editor and definitely not the publishing world as a whole. Your readers’ favorite books are also a great source of cover art information to help you determine what elements work best as visuals for your packaging. There’s a few static things all readers like (books without copious typos and covers that look like the elements go together, for example), but a lot of things will vary by target audience. So know your audience before you start trying to sell the book (preferably before you edit the book).

Determining your readers is best done through beta readers. They are the ones who can tell you if the story fell flat for their expectations and what they wanted out of the read. You’ll probably start out with just a few close friends or family, or maybe even members of your writing group, as members of your beta team. It’s a great idea to find additional sources of feedback from places like Scribophile, paid readers from Fiverr, or maybe even twitter or discord groups. This can give you a much broader view of the work you’re creating so you know who to target it toward.

What genre am I, really?

Once you think you know your genre, it’s time to decide how to target your descriptions of the book. As I said, I started with “epic fantasy” and ended at “character-heavy, slow-burn political epic fantasy with LGBT+ characters.” That second level of specificity is something you need to convey in your marketing text without dropping the entire description every time you mention the book, and it’s important that you target the book at that subset as precisely as you can. Here’s why.

My book currently has a 3.5 star rating on Goodreads. The reason for that is that it was characterized in a way I didn’t expect in some of the early reviews. They referred to the book as a “queer political fantasy.” Many of these reviews were extremely complimentary and I love how many of them engaged critically with the book and discussed both positive and negative elements they encountered. I, personally, recommend the review by “Lexi” on Goodreads to anyone wavering on whether or not they’d like my book. I think they did an excellent job, highlighting reasons why someone might or might not enjoy the work. But I would never pitch my book as a “queer political fantasy” because, to me, that implies that I addressed serious issues related to LGBT+ relationships, lifestyles, or just in general focused the plot line around LGBT+ interactions. That’s not my book. My book is about a man who is technically considered a traitor trying to keep peace against a nobility that dislikes him for fighting against the previous emperor in a civil war. The fact that my main character is a gay man in an established relationship with another man is largely a sidenote to the plot (although I am genuinely humbled by people who point to my book as an example of positive LGBT+ representation). However, because of the label “queer political fantasy,” a number of readers came to my book expecting a heavy focus on the LGBT+ relationship, expecting a homo-normative world, or potentially just not really excited by slow-burn, character heavy political epic fantasy but still interested in what this book was doing. Predictably, my book did not connect well with those readers, and they left honest (and universally extremely polite) negative reviews. I appreciate those negative reviews for helping to clarify what my book isn’t and helping guide the right readers to the book, but let’s be honest. Sometimes it hurts to see the lower rating. And, of course, that’s not the only negative reviews I’ve gotten. No book is right for every reader.

But this brings me to a very important point about choosing your readers. At the end of the day, the readers define your genre more than you do. I wouldn’t define my book as queer political fantasy, but a lot of readers have, so I have to accept that label. A similar situation happened with Daniel Greene, a popular fantasy YouTuber. He released his debut novella back in March and was surprised that it was rated among the “dark horror” genre. Now, from what little I know of the book, it should be, but he didn’t think to categorize it that way. Nonetheless, his book is in that category because it’s the category that his readers use to tell others like them what to expect. This is actually a story that I’ve heard several times among self-published authors: they wrote a book, pitched it to their audience as one thing, and after release or in ARC reviews got feedback that it didn’t fit that thing but worked well as something else. So, be aware that the elements you include in your story may define it in ways you don’t intend. Have a gay protagonist? It’s LGBT+ regardless of your intentions. Have a mutilated baby in the first few pages? It’s dark horror (and why did you think that wasn’t, Daniel?). Have a book that centers around two characters starting a romantic relationship? You’ve written a romance, whether you intended to or not.

So, when you’re planning your marketing copy, consider what elements you want to highlight as central to readers and what elements you won’t be able to escape. From that you can start deciding how to pitch the book to readers. And that pitch is critical.

Finding the Right Pitch

The primary marketing text for your book is the description on the back of your book. This has several different names depending on the circle you’re talking to. I’ve heard it called the book blurb (or back cover blurb), the synopsis (a real synopsis for a literary agent is a VERY different thing), or even the book catchline (also a different thing). I think the proper term is back cover blurb (from my connections in the publishing industry) so feel free to call it whatever you want, but that’s what I’m calling it here.

One of the most common mistakes that debut self-published authors make in preparing their books for release is not creating the back cover blurb well. I have no statistics to back that up, but this is a hill I will die on. A massive number of self-published novels have back cover blurbs that say things like “[Novel Name] is a thrilling new mystery featuring [plot element 1] and [plot element 2]!” Traditionally published novels don’t have back cover blurbs that read like this because all that says is that the author of the blurb (likely the author of the book) thinks the book is good. The point of a back cover blurb is to tease the feel of the book, not explain the idea behind it. Read the blurbs of some traditionally published novels to see what I mean. There may be lines that say things like the above quote, but those are always attributed to a different person that the author, often a well-known review site or another author. These lines aren’t actually part of the blurb but are actually cover quotes, often also called “blurbs” by traditional publishing in what sometimes feels like an intentional attempt to be confusing. But they are never written by the author. The blurb on the back of your book is basically the same as the blurb you’d write for a query letter. Here’s a few tips:

  1. The back cover blurb is almost always in third person, present tense. This is true even when the book is in first person and/or past tense. There are a few examples of blurbs in different tenses that work, but they are mostly gimmicks that work once or blurbs that work for a specific type of book but not in general
  2. The blurb follows an established formula: introduce character along with some hints of inner conflict—>introduce central conflict of the book—>hint at difficult choice character will have to make. If you have multiple important characters, introduce them in the order that makes sense for the flow of the blurb and then make sure your conflict and choice paragraphs address both characters. If you have more than two important characters, find a way to cut it down to two. Maybe three characters can work, but that’s pushing it.
  3. Make sure your blurb has a mini-plot arc of its own to tell. That arc has a beginning in the character description, a turning point in the central conflict introduction, and a cliff-hanger resolution in the choice paragraph. If those elements don’t flow from one to the other like a story, then you’re blurb is either confusing (and probably focusing too much on small details) or boring (and probably glossing over things too much).

Keep in mind that editing is just as crucial here as it is in the rest of your book. If you have clunky sentences or confusing wording in your blurb, most people won’t even give the book a shot.

A Final Warning

A last thing to remember. A lot of sources will recommend that you start building a following on social media, a blog, or on some other platform before you ever reach the point of discussing a book release. Be careful how you do this. I’m going to use Daniel Greene again as my example here, because I was really excited for is book until I learned what it was about.

Daniel Greene has built a reputation as a YouTube book reviewer, fantasy commentator, and all around SF/F buff. I came pretty late to his channel, but some of his favorite series are also some of my favorites. So when I heard that he was writing a book, I assumed that it would be in the genre that he built his reputation around. Admittedly his world is fantasy, but as discussed above, it’s also horror. And not just horror, but semi-modern fantasy horror surrounding detectives investigating a murder. Nothing could be further from the books I came to his channel to hear about (and still be in the fantasy genre, at least). His “marketing” tricked me into assuming his book was something it wasn’t, and I was very disappointed and may never even attempt to read his work (not because of some personal offense, but because I just can’t handle horror stories).

A similar story is true of both the iWriterly channel and Jenna Moreci’s YouTube channel to lesser extents. They were both more clear about what type of books they were creating, but their YouTube content has nothing to do with their book topics. Someone who came to their channel for writing advice would have no reason to think their books would appeal to them and vice versa.

To be clear, none of these authors have done anything wrong, per se. I picked three relatively popular YouTubers who had released books precisely because they are examples that it can work to build an audience from unrelated content. But it’s worth considering if that’s the audience you really want.

That wasn’t the audience I wanted, so my solution was this blog. Half personal experiences with publishing that even non-authors might find interesting and half fiction bits taken from world-building for my novels.

Find the middle ground that you enjoy and believe in and stick with it.

Self-Publishing Guide Part Three: Final Packaging


Welcome back to my self-publishing guide, driven by my personal frustration with finding useful resources when planning my own self-publishing journey. Today I’m going to examine topic number 3 of my guide: Finalizing Your Book for Release. This is a topic that is going to cover several smaller elements that are often brushed off in other self-publishing resources. “Once your editing and cover design is done, you’ll need to get the interior formatted, file for copyright, and upload the files for distribution.” Awesome. How does all that work? How do I get my book in the hands of readers and how do I make sure the interior looks appropriate? Do I need a copyright?

I’m going to break down these elements here, discussing tools I’ve found useful in this process, costs to expect, and what elements of each are important. This one got a little long, so use the headings to find the piece you need to know about.

Formatting

By far the single most important piece of this step is the interior formatting, but that doesn’t mean it has to be difficult. As well, the complexity of your formatting will vary depending on what formats you are releasing your book in, so let’s start there. Are you releasing a print book? A hard cover? Just an e-book? You’ve probably thought about this before (at least, I hope you thought about it when considering cover options), but this is the first place where your decisions will be different based on what formats you want to release.

If you’re releasing a print book and an e-book, the formatting for those two formats is pretty different. I did this formatting myself and it’s entirely doable, but there are also a number of other options for getting formatting done. Here’s a few of the options:

  1. Some distribution options allow you to use their system to auto-format your interior content. I know that Smashwords, does this and I am pretty sure that Amazon has a system for this as well. Check with your distributor to see if this is an option, to take this step off your hands entirely. Many of these are free for using the distribution system.
  2. Some software exists that will do formatting for you, allowing you some pre-set choices to customize your book without any real effort on your part. The most obvious of these is Vellum, but it’s Mac specific.
  3. Some more complex software exists that will let you do complete customization of your formatting if you learn the way the tool works. The most popular of these is Adobe InDesign. While this is a tool that can be learned relatively quickly and there are some pretty good tutorials on YouTube, this is the option that risks you being able to really screw up your book if you aren’t careful.
  4. You can hire a professional formatter to lay out the interior of your book. This is relatively inexpensive, running somewhere between $100 to $300 depending on the vendor. Also, some cover artists will include interior formatting as an add-on to their cover design services. In the instance of formatting as an addon to cover design services, it’s somewhat common to get a discount on the formatting cost for pairing the service with covers.

Personally, I feel like there are too many options to get your own interior formatting done to justify hiring a separate formatter just for interior design. If you’re getting a good deal by pairing it with your cover design then go for it. It can be a bit of a process, so if it’s cheap to take the process out of your hands, go for it. If, however, you are looking for it as a separate service, check out the softwares and auto-formatters before you look at vendors. The best reason to hire a professional formatter is that you need some customized formatting but you can’t learn to do it yourself in the more complex formatting softwares that exist. Mostly, this means you’re picky about what your interior looks like or you have a lot of pictures in your book. If you choose to do this work yourself, it is entirely doable, but the tools available to you will vary by what computer system you use.

If you’re using a Macintosh, you have an awesome tool available to you: Vellum. I tested this one despite using PCs myself and it’s a great tool. You can play around with all the formatting you might want before you pay for the software, resulting in the best trial of a piece of software I’ve ever seen. When you’re ready to create the final files to upload to your distributor, it’s a one-time fee of $250. That cost allows you to format as many books as you want without any additional fees. I love any software that has a one-time cost instead of a subscription system. As well, Vellum is particularly good at simple, well-crafted formatting that makes both print and e-books look great. The two downsides are very situational, but can be pretty frustrating if they affect you. First, you can’t use Vellum on a PC. While you can rent time on a Macintosh server through services like Mac-in-Cloud, that adds to the cost and adds back in the requirement to manage time carefully when doing your own formatting. Second, Vellum doesn’t work great for picture-heavy books, like illustrated chapter books or picture books.

If you’re using a PC there are fewer softwares that will just do this for you. I’ve heard rumors of a few that are in production, but nothing that is solid enough I’m willing to mention it here. I’ll be keeping an eye on this and will update the blog if I find something on par with Vellum for the PC. On PC, the best software is actually Adobe InDesign. While it can have a bit of a steep learning curve, the YouTube tutorials make it easy to get basic formatting done for print books. Translating that print formatting into e-books can be challenging, but again, YouTube has tutorials. My personal favorites for YouTube tutorials are here for print and here for e-book. The most frustrating elements of this software are the subscription model, which means the longer it takes you to learn the software the more it costs, and the risk that the flexibility available will let you screw up your formatting. Always check proofs before finalizing anything with using InDesign.

Copyright and Other Registrations

Do you need to copyright your work? Yes and no. Your work is automatically copyrighted when you wrote it, so technically filing for copyright is redundant. That said, when you file for copyright, it makes a legal record of the work as belonging to you. That can matter if you ever need to defend the ownership of the work. So how likely is that to happen? Honestly, pretty unlikely. Most authors never have to think about defending their work from plagiarism. But it does happen, and if you do a Google search, you’ll find dozens of instances, including a slew of reports related to an early review distribution site where some people were apparently registering, taking the work from the review site, and publishing it on Amazon as their own. The author can contest that and should win, but it’s messy, especially if they hadn’t yet filed for copyright. Personally, I just created the book in the appropriate distribution sites and didn’t release it, so anyone trying to do that would find the book already exists there. My book hasn’t been pirated, but I couldn’t tell you if that’s related to my copyright, my pre-creation of placeholder versions, he security of the particular review site I chose to use, or just because no one knows who I am and so hasn’t bothered to pirate my book. You are probably in the same boat as me. You can take a dozen precautions, you’ll almost certainly never see any issues, and you’ll never be able to know if that’s because you were careful or because no one cared.

All of that said, I do recommend you copyright your work. It’s cheap, it’s easy, and if you do get hit by thieves you’ll kick yourself for not having the legal documentation. So, if you want to do so, here’s the process.

First off, you don’t want to copyright your work until after you’ve done 98% of all edits and adjustments you will make. This is because you need the file you copyrighted to match the file you released. If you rewrote five pages of chapter 7 after filing for copyright, then chapter 7 isn’t covered by that copyright filing. The exact threshold is somewhat vague, but in general, copyright as late as possible, but before you send the book out for ARC review readers. And if you don’t know what that means, don’t panic. I’ll discuss ARC reviews when I get to marketing, because they’re really a pre-release marketing tool. Typically proofreading is minor enough that you can do that after filing for copyright without risking issues, but copy editing is too much editing to do after filing.

Once you’re sure the book is ready to file, you go to the web site of the United States Copyright Office (or if you’re outside the US, you find your local office for registering creative works). Once there, you create an account and click the buttons to file for copyright of a literary work (even if you’re writing trashy romance—they aren’t judging the literary quality, they’re categorizing what item you own). The forms are pretty self-explanatory, but you will have to upload a copy of your work, so make sure you have a digital copy. You can also send in a physical copy, but I recommend just sending the PDF from your formatting. This costs $65 (I was quoted $55 about 6 months ago, so I think this recently went up). The catch is that you do have to include the contact information of the owner, which is stored in their database. You may want a separate entity like a single-member LLC to own the work if you’re concerned about personal privacy. Other than that, it’s a very simple process. There exist companies that will do this for you, but they charge an extra fee for doing the work and it’s very simple, so I would tend to do it myself rather than hiring a legal services company to do it. Save the $50 or so.

On a similar note, this is a good place to discuss ISBN numbers. These are a separate thing from copyrights, but the copyright office will ask for one. The ISBN is just a unique number that identifies your book. You need one per type of book you are releasing—i.e., one for print, one for audiobook, and one for e-book, but Kindle e-book and Nook e-book can use the same one. Some people have run into issues using the same ISBN for Nook and Kindle e-books, but it appears to be a mistake in how they were filing through various distributors. You can use the same ISBN. ISBN numbers cost about $100 each, or you can buy a block of ten for $300. Sometimes there are sales on blocks of numbers, but not always, so it might be worth keeping an eye out in earlier stages to find a good deal. ISBN numbers never expire, so buying a block is worth the discount either way if you can afford it. ISBN numbers are another place where you are required to list your personal information as an item of public record. So, again, if you’re concerned about privacy, creating an LLC might be the way to go. There’s a lot more involved in that than just filing, though, so look into it before doing so. Unfortunately, I decided not to, so I don’t have a lot of great advice on that.

Some people will tell you to just use the free ISBN that Amazon will offer you. If you’re only publishing an e-book you can do this and there isn’t a penalty, but it does limit what you can do with that book. You can’t use that Amazon-provided ISBN no Barnes & Noble Press, for example. It belongs to Amazon. If you want everything to be Amazon exclusive (and there are reasons to do so), then this is a perfectly reasonable option. Just know what you’re giving up to do so.

Distribution

Finally, let’s talk about distribution for your book. Basically, this is just about deciding how readers are going to find your book. There are two major categories for distribution: Print distribution and E-book distribution.

E-book Distribution

The vast majority of self-published e-book sales are purchased on Amazon. I don’t know the exact number, but it’s something like 90% of all e-book sales. That said, there are other distributors. Barnes and Noble has its own self-publishing platforms and Amazon doesn’t make your book available there (or, probably more likely, Barnes and Noble doesn’t choose to pay Amazon to carry their books). Kobo is a popular platform in Canada and Amazon doesn’t distribute through Kobo. Many libraries can’t list your book as an e-book if it’s only distributed through Amazon. But only Amazon has Kindle Unlimited, which is a service which lets people pay monthly for as many books as they can read. Kindle Unlimited is a great way to get people to give your book a shot, since it costs subscribers nothing to take a peek inside.

One of the other very popular methods of listing e-books is through a distribution conglomerate. Two of the most popular ones are Smashwords and Draft2Digital. These are services where for a small fee (often charged as a percentage of your royalties rather than an up front cost) they will send your book to various other distribution channels. As a result, you can use one location to distribute to Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, and libraries. Awesome! But, there are some drawbacks there as well, primarily that Amazon won’t let you earn the 70% royalties they advertise when you’re selling through a conglomerate. So, do you use a distribution conglomerate or Amazon or some combination thereof?

When I was first investigating self-publishing, someone told me the best path was to list on Amazon and Barnes and Noble personally, then use a distribution conglomerate for the rest of the platforms. That is no longer the case. I don’t know if the person in question was right at the time—it was several years ago now—but this is not true right now. The reason for this is that Amazon does not allow you to run a discount promotion on your book if you aren’t listing exclusively through them. As a result, if you want to use a conglomerate, you should list there exclusively, because you can run a discount through that service which will apply to Amazon. But if you listed separately on Amazon, then your Amazon book doesn’t get the discount.

But I just said that you don’t earn 70% royalties on books sold on Amazon that are distributed through a conglomerate, didn’t I? This is true, but you are getting 35% royalties and that 35% isn’t reduced for delivery costs. Most people don’t realize that the 70% royalties on Amazon aren’t really 70%. Instead, Amazon charges a distribution cost which it deducts from your 70% royalties. Now, for most e-books that distribution cost is around fifteen to thirty cents, so that my $5.99 e-book makes me $4.10 instead of $4.25. But if your e-book is much cheaper than mine, that distribution cost can be more significant. It’s worth noting at this point that Amazon doesn’t allow 70% royalties on books listed at less than $2.99 (unless it’s a temporary promotion), so if you are listing your book at $0.99 you won’t be paying for distribution.

All of this is going to be a matter of personal preference, but here’s the best, simplest way to think about the options for e-book distribution:

  • If you want to be available at multiple different vendors, expect to have significant sales in foreign countries, or expect significant visibility from libraries, use an e-book conglomerate.
  • If you plan to rely heavily on Amazon because you expect primarily US based sales, or if you are doing rapid release strategies (I.e., releasing 3-5 books over the course of a single year at regular intervals to build hype) and therefore need to rely heavily on Kindle Unlimited, or you are a genre that traditionally does very well on Kindle Unlimited (most YA and a lot of romance), then go Amazon exclusive.
  • Only do a hybrid release where you are manually uploading to Amazon and Barnes and Noble separately from an e-book conglomerate if you do not intend to ever do a price promotion (which would probably be poor marketing techniques, but it depends somewhat on your release plans).

Print Distribution

Print distribution is much simpler than e-book distribution. There are only a couple of common vendors that do print on demand options, and the most common ones are Amazon and Ingram Spark. The print quality for these two options is actually pretty similar, although at one point Amazon had a reputation for being a bit lower. That doesn’t seem to be the case now, but the reputation still lingers and has come repercussions.

At a base level, Amazon is much easier to use for creating books that Ingram Spark. The Amazon system is streamlined and user friendly, and it has plenty of info boxes and helpful features to make the process easy. The Ingram Spark system is complex in part because it’s the same system they use for smaller publishing houses which use them, many of which need the more complex system to record all the data they use to identify and categorize their books.

Still, the most significant of the differences between Ingram Spark and Amazon print copies is the ability to get your book placed on some bookstore shelves. Larger chains like Barnes and Noble won’t tend to carry books printed by Amazon regardless of quality. That might be a competitor thing, but they cite quality in most discussions about it. If you have a local indie bookstore you want to place your book in, I’d talk to them in person and see if they have a restriction. It may be harder for them to order books when printed through Amazon since Ingram Spark is a more well-established distributor of print books to physical stores. Another major reason for Amazon being refused by many retailers is that Amazon won’t let you discount your book for other vendors where Ingram Spark does. Most retail locations require you give them a discount of approximately 50% on the list price so they make a profit on selling the book.

Another difference is the cost to you for copies you might want to distribute. Amazon has slightly cheaper author copies than Ingram Spark, and in some cases is quicker at printing and shipping them to you. As an example, my book costs $6.76 to print on Ingram Spark and $6.03 to print on Amazon. That difference actually has a pretty significant effect on profit, especially if you want to give a discount for any reason.

As a quick guide, if you want physical copies to give to friends, sell at conferences, and let people order physical books online, Amazon may be the best option. If, however, you want to have a chance of seeing your books on bookstore shelves, you probably need to use Ingram Spark.

Publishing Services

The one thing I haven’t mentioned in this list is publishing companies that offer to create your book and distribute it for you. Many of them often offer marketing services as well. Some examples of these are Bookbaby or Lulu. I’ll briefly address those services here, but I am a poor resource for that, so if you’re interested I recommend finding reviews on those types of services and looking for others who have used them to discuss.

The concept behind companies like Bookbaby or Lulu is that they offer a collection of services (often cover design, editing, formatting, printing, and distribution all in one, as well as marketing in some cases) and charge the author for those services. Typically you can buy the entire package or just a subset of the services offered. The marketing for these services typically says things like “All the benefits of traditional publishing and the control of self-publishing!” Sounds great, right? But the thing to keep in mind is that these companies aren’t similar to publishers. They don’t make money by selling your books, they make money by selling services to you. This point was driven home to me best by a demonstration I saw at a conference. The presenter opened a web site for one of these conglomerates, selected “create book”, told the system that he had a cover already made, had formatted his own files, and needed no services from the company, and the cost to publish an e-book on Amazon was $200 despite them selling him none of their services. Uploading those files to Amazon yourself is free.

Self-Publishing Guide Part Two: Covers

Welcome back to my self-publishing guide, driven by my personal frustration with finding useful resources when planning my own self-publishing journey. Today I’m going to examine topic number 2 of my guide: Cover Design.

Let’s start with a quick overview of the process, and then I’ll take an in-depth view into some of the important things to know about cover design. I’ll also include some specific resources at the end. Spoiler: One of those resources is the Alliance of Independent Authors!

How does cover design work?

The basics of cover design go something like this. First, you have a book mostly written and decide you’re going to self-publish. Then you google “book cover designer” and get several hundred results with prices ranging from $200 to $2,000 and maybe beyond (or occasionally less). You have no idea what you’re doing, so you send a bunch of questions to a few designers you like. Make sure to ask details of their process at this stage so you know what to expect. This includes number of revisions and what you’re allowed to do with the final images if that information is not clearly conveyed on their web site. Eventually, you pick someone in a price range you like with covers that you think look decent and you hope things work out. That designer probably books three months to a year out, depending on how popular they are.

Did you read my editing post a couple weeks ago? Noticing a trend in timing? Don’t ever expect to book custom services less than three months out unless you’re paying for a rush job. It’s extremely rare to find someone with good experience with an opening right when you contact them.

When time comes for your design, you have a design meeting. You and your designer will discuss your vision for the cover and typically some details that help the designer get a feel for the genre, themes, and tone of your book. The process from there will vary depending on your designer’s process. Mine sketched an initial concept on a video call with me right there. It was some seriously impressive work, even though it was understandably rough. Others will take some time to create a couple mock-ups and get your feedback. You can provide some feedback here, but once a concept is agreed on you typically can’t change the broad strokes of the cover idea. Then the designer sets to work. Throughout the process, make sure you give specific, thorough feedback on adjustments with as much detail as possible (and images when able) to help your designer create what you want. The more information they have, the better product they will create for you. Also remember that you are the customer in this transaction, so asking for a change isn’t an inconvenience. It’s literally what you’re paying them for.

A good designer will give you regular updates on a schedule you know ahead of time. My designer took about five weeks and gave me three updates in that time. He also did the text layout on the cover (i.e., the title and author text and the back cover copy). Make sure you know if your designer will do the text layout for you. This is an important step that you need the right software to do well or you’ll ruin your beautiful cover. When this is done, you’ll receive final files ready to include in your final packaging.

Now, everyone knows that covers are important to a book’s success, but what that actually means can be a bit vague. In my experience, most newer authors (and some experienced self-published authors) make one of several mistakes when planning their cover design.

  1. They don’t understand what the cover is really for.
  2. They bring ideas that are either too specific or trying to convey too many things.
  3. They don’t understand the different styles of covers and what they do.

Let’s take a look at these mistakes and how we, as authors, can be better prepared for our cover design.

What is the cover for?

A lot of authors have very romantic ideas of what their cover is and how it might look, but at the end of the day, this element is a very practical thing. The book cover is marketing imagery. It is not there to add context or details to the story. It’s not intended to give readers visuals on certain moments or characters. And it’s definitely not there to make the author geek out about how cool it is to see a scene or character or setting from their book drawn out. This may seem somewhat counterintuitive, since for many of us our favorite covers feature dramatic moments from the story. But take a moment, pull out one of those favorite covers with a scene from the novel, and compare it to the actual description of the moment in the text. I bet it’s very different. There’s a few reasons for this.

First, the cover isn’t for your readers. It’s created to entice other people–people who haven’t read your book–to give the story a try. To those people, the inaccuracy of that scene is meaningless. They don’t know if that’s what happened or not. All they know is if the scene gives them the type of feeling that makes them want to open the book.

Second, the cover must convey your genre and some approximate themes or feel of your book. Can you name a single scene from your book that accurately gives an impression of genre, theme, and feel of your book? Few books actually have that scene, and for those that do, the scene in question generally falls into the too complicated category that we’ll discuss in the next section.

Third, most books that have any sort of scene on the cover like to include the major characters. Does you book have an Avengers: Assemble moment? If so, honestly, maybe consider if it comes off as too cliché. It might be fine, but it probably doesn’t also include an enticing representation of genre, theme, and feel. There’s other reasons why our favorite scene-specific book covers are often inaccurate the the moment in the book, but it boils down to one thing.

Good book covers are complicated endeavors trying to sell the book in a dozen tiny ways, and that job is typically not done well by any given scene within any given book.

What book covers are good at is getting attention. They need the right color contrasts to catch the eyes of appropriate readers. Dark fantasy shouldn’t have bright yellows and golds and romances shouldn’t be all muted greys and browns. At least, not without a major contrasting theme to draw the eye. Whether or not your cover has characters on the front also depends on your genre and the focus of your book. Is it a character-driven political fantasy? Give us an image of characters with obvious tension (but probably not any weapons in hand). A fun-filled sword and sorcery? Cue the lightning bolts and fantasy creatures. Steamy romance? Someone better be half-naked on the front.

The point of all of this is to create an image that you can share as widely as possible which makes the right readers excited to pick up your book. No one wants a reader looking for political fantasy writing a review of the steamy, contemporary romance novel. Maybe they’ll like it, but that’s not who you wrote it for.

Bringing the right ideas to the discussion.

Now that you know the point of the cover, let’s discuss what cover ideas are useful in selecting your cover. This is important both for choosing your designer and for your first discussion with your artist. In your initial google search for cover designers, you probably noticed a trend. Most books had one, maybe two, characters on the front with some sort of dramatic scene behind them. If they didn’t have a character on the front, they no doubt had one central image with a secondary image behind that contrasted the first image. The reason for this is that design is all about drawing the eyes to the right places. Many authors come into the process wanting some complex scene but that defeats the purpose of the cover. It makes every part of the image important, so the browser can’t focus on what the cover is saying.

In the last section I said that your cover needed to convey three things to be effective. First, the genre. Second, the theme. And third, the feel (or tone). There’s a hierarchy to these three things, and honestly, my list is out of order.

The most important thing for your cover to show is your genre, and I don’t mean “fantasy.” My political epic fantasy has a very different cover from Patricia Brigg’s newest contemporary shapeshifter fantasy for very good reason. Her cover needs to convey a fast-paced actiony genre while mine should look like a methodical, and possibly dangerous, dance of manipulation.

After the specific genre, your cover needs to convey tone of the book. Using my own as an example again (viewable on my books page here if you want to check it out), the lighting streaming from the windows contrasted with the shadowy figure on the side gives a sense of danger approaching. As well, the presence of the sword without it being directly active adds to that tone. There’s no open conflict on that cover, which fits the pacing of my book, but there’s definitely tension in the image. I’m quite happy with my cover, but that’s as much because it’s a good representation of what the reader can expect as because of the quality of the art.

Lastly, theme or a hint of the theme or plot is common in cover art. For mine, a reader would realize that the shadowy figure is my secondary protagonist, Niamsha, while the main figure on the throne is my primary protagonist, Arkaen. Those facts aren’t critical to my cover being strong, but it adds a little hint extra, juxtaposing the two primary characters before you even open the book and giving the reader a sense of what is to come. This element is less important enough that it can easily be omitted without harming the quality of the cover. And that is why covers so often feature scenes not present in the actual book, or present only with significant alterations. The cover isn’t trying to give you a visual prologue, it’s trying to tell you what type of book this is.

What cover style is right for you?

By now, some people are confused by what I mean when I say “style” of cover. Aren’t I talking about themes, or whether or not to include characters, or how to convey genre? No, although some of those decisions will affect this one. I’m talking about a fully illustrated cover versus a photo-conglomerate cover. My cover was fully illustrated, it’s beautiful, it fits my book perfectly, and I paid a pretty penny for that thing. You can get cheaper fully illustrated covers, but I loved this designer and I have to say, he didn’t disappoint. I already have 25-ish reviews and the book doesn’t come out for just over a month yet. That’s not my advertising at work. That’s the cover.

But for some books, a cover like mine would be a terrible idea. A great example is Jenna Moreci’s The Savior’s Champion. It’s basically The Bachelorette meets Gladiator where the competition winner gets to marry a magic goddess–with some fun plot twists, of course. The feel of that book is more modern than mine in a lot of ways (despite it still being a low-technology setting), and as a result, a photo-conglomerate cover was perfect for her work. The covers of that series rely heavily on symbols with the scenes more as background shots when they’re present at all, and they look amazing.

She does not pay anywhere near as much as I did for my cover. Like, probably half of what I did and she got exactly what she needed. But my book wouldn’t have thrived on that style of cover design.

And this is what I mean by style of your cover. This is something only you can decide, and unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of tips. The best I can do is drop you some cover resources and suggest you consider which artist is making covers that might be next to yours on a bookstore’s shelves.

  • The Creative Penn. I mentioned this site for editing resources. She also has a great listing of book cover designers.
  • The Alliance of Independent Authors. I told you you’ll hear a lot about them in this sequence. They’re the resource I wish I’d checked out before making a bunch of decisions. I might have still used my designer (I mean, that cover…), but this is a great place to check for discounts and find reliable vendors.
  • The resources page of my cover artist, Jeff Brown. I hate to be that person that raves about someone then doesn’t recommend him, but he charges $2k. You probably don’t have that cash. I didn’t have that cash until a family member saw his work and donated the money to help me get the best. But Jeff understands that his prices might be out of your range and maintains a listing of other cover designers that he considers good alternatives if you like his style. But if you do have that cash and you want an illustrated cover, Jeff is amazing.
  • Reedsy. I haven’t used their cover design but they do operate a marketplace of cover artists just like their marketplace of editors.
  • Artstation. This is another place that I have heard about and have no direct experience with. A lot of people found great artists here. Daniel Greene, for example, found his cover artist here (Felix Ortiz, I think?). I have heard of other artists through other connections. It’s a good hub to check out.

Let me leave you with one final piece of information: A rough guide to cover pricing.

Photo-conglomerate CoverFully Illustrated Cover
Premade CoverRanges from $75-ish to $300-ish, depending on coverRanges from $250-ish to $500-ish depending on cover
Custom CoverRanges from $150-ish to $800-ish; prices depend on complexity, number of elements, number of revisions, and types of covers (e-book, print, audiobook, etc.) Ranges from $500-ish to $2,000-ish; prices depend on complexity, number of elements, number of revisions, and types of covers (e-book, print, audiobook, etc.)
Additional offeringsSometimes will offer formatting included or for small additional fee, also often have addons like banner images or ad design from the cover image for $25-$75 per item.Rarely if ever offer formatting services, more expensive packages may include banner images or ad design from the cover image; may also offer these separately or as addon services. Some illustrators also do character art and/or map drawing for additional fees.

Self-Publishing Guide Part One: Editing

It’s official! My debut epic fantasy novel, Wake of the Phoenix, releases in eight weeks! This blog will have an eight week build-up even featuring in depth information I learned while tackling self-publishing interspersed with a series of fiction blogs from the four POV characters of my novel.

Several months ago I released a post comparing self-publication to traditional publication and looking at the challenges inherent in each path. While the discussion was a little tongue in cheek at times, it also captured some of the unexpected stresses I encountered after choosing self-publishing for my own path. Having now been through the majority of the process, I want to take a little time to evaluate those experiences and share some gained wisdom. I know everyone does this, but none of the YouTuber “My Self-Pub Path” videos did me any good while researching the process. As a result, I’m looking into four primary categories of self-publishing in detail over the next two months: Editing, Cover Design, Final Packaging, and Marketing.

Where to Start

One of the great challenges of producing a quality book through self-publishing is ensuring your editing is of high enough quality to keep readers entertained. There are several aspects of this struggle. First, knowing what editing you even need. Second, knowing how much to pay for editing (and having the money to pay it). Third, finding the right editors for your project. Fourth, scheduling edits at the right time in the process with enough leeway for unexpected turns. And fifth, knowing when your editing is done. There are other, smaller issues that I’ll also address in this discussion, but these are the major ones. And let’s be honest… I’ll no doubt miss some things, as well. No one’s perfect.

So to get this started, let’s define the types of editing. In order of when they should be completed, the types are Developmental Editing, Line Editing, Copy Editing, and Proofreading. For those who know these definitions a bit, yes, proofreading is a bit different, but I want to emphasize the importance so I’m including it.

A development edit is one that looks at big picture pieces. This is the time when you’ll change character arcs, re-imagine how your plot goes, make changes to the fabric of your world, magic systems, or political standings, and remove (or add) entire POVs. You should not spend any time at this stage evaluating if a particular word is used correctly, if you could improve your minute descriptions, or if your comma placement is right. Any—and often all—of those details may change by the time you’re done with your developmental edits. Almost every book will need developmental edits, but not every book will need to be edited by a professional developmental editor. The decision on whether or not to hire an editor for this rests heavily on how thorough and diverse your critique partners and beta readers are.

Line editing is the next type of editing and that covers looking at the structure of your sentences, the clarity of your writing, and your word usage. It will also include small amounts of rewriting—a paragraph that is confusing might get rewritten, but if it’s a couple pages you’re back in developmental editing territory. This stage is sometimes (honestly, in self-publishing, often) combined with copy editing, which looks at internal consistency of details and technical grammar. However, these are different edit types and you should ensure that any editor claiming to do both at once is actually doing both. This is best handled with a sample edit, which most reputable editors won’t have any issues providing. All books should go through these edits using a professional editor well-tailored to your book. No exclusions. Trust me, you’ll be shocked by what they find.

The final type of edit, proofreading, is technically not an edit pass so much as a polishing sweep. This sweep focuses exclusively on typos and missed punctuation and is unique in that it can be done after typesetting so the proofreader can also catch oddities created by the formatting. All the other edit types should be completed before you start finalizing covers or formatting. The proofread is another area of uncertainty somewhat like the developmental edit. Every book needs a proofreading pass (or five), but there are a number of ways to do this without hiring a formal proofreader. That said, if you can afford a formal proofreader, it’s better to spend the money. I opted not to hire a proofreader and use volunteers from my network and I have been very, very frustrated with constantly catching typos that got missed as I prepare the manuscript for release. Nothing frustrates readers like a novel riddled with typos, and this is the stage that fixes that.

Planning Your Editing

In my personal research, the definitions above were the end of the discussion about how to select your edit types. But that doesn’t tell me anything about who to hire. So, in an attempt to create the resource I wish I’d had, let’s look at ways how you decide if you need a developmental edit.

Most authors don’t know if their plot arc sags or their characters fall a bit flat. They rely on critique partners and beta readers to tell them if their writing has issues, but finding good critique partners and beta readers can be challenging. So here’s a flowchart to help you decide if you need more developmental edits.

If you’re having trouble finding independent readers, you can try a few options. Reddit has a beta reader subreddit. Several book reviewer YouTubers have discord channels that help you connect with similar readers and you can find beta readers there (I use Jenna Moreci and Merphy Napier). Local writer’s groups are typically big on supporting critique partner swaps. Twitter has been known to help people network within the writing community. NaNoWriMo forums can be a great place to find like-minded writers. And if you can’t find anything else, I always recommend Scribophile. It’s where I started getting good feedback on my work that helped me focus on the type of writing I wanted to create.

When considering line editing and copy editing, remember that every book should have these done, preferably by an independent, professional editor. Line editing can maybe be handled by a robust critique partner group and an editing software like Prowritingaid but that’s riskier and if you’re going that route I highly encourage you to use an editor that does line edits and copy edits together. I do not recommend Grammarly—Prowritingaid is much better for fiction writers. I’ve already addressed proofreading. You need to do it, if you can afford to pay for it then do, but it can be done yourself.

The Cost

The next step in planning is deciding how much you can spend on editing. If you need a developmental editor, be prepared to save some money. For line editing, copy editing, and proofreading, keep in mind that skimping on those costs can really bite you later. That said, prices are very, very confusing in this field. A quick search will tell you that editing prices run between 1 cent per word for the low end of copy editing rates to 8 cents per word for the high end of developmental editing. Personally, for my 130k word novel, I paid $2500 for a combined line edit and copy edit (2 cents per word). However, I know indie authors who swear that’s insanely high and insist that edit should have cost only $800. So, it matters where you find your editor and what you’re looking for. Here’s a few resources to help you out.

  1. Reedsy—I used Reedsy and I was happy with my editor, although I do think the rate ended up being a bit high for the work she did. She herself said my line edits were very light because my writing was strong. That said, she wasn’t on the high end of Reedsy quotes. Don’t expect to get an editor from Reedsy that charges much less than I paid, and they may charge more. It’s a great network of professionals that can really help you get a selection of options, but it won’t be on the low end.
  2. I’ve heard very good things about Kimberly Cannon, although I haven’t personally used her. She’s on the lower end (0.6 cents per word) of copy editing and I’ve read some books she edited that had high editing quality. That said, I can’t tell you if those well-edited books were due to her work or not, only that the author of those books recommends her.
  3. The Editorial Freelancers Association has a listing of editors and you can post there requesting editors. When getting bids like this, make sure everyone is willing to give you a sample edit. That will (hopefully) protect you from scammers claiming to be editors who don’t really have the credentials or skill needed for the job.
  4. The Creative Penn is a web site with a ton of useful information on various aspects of self publishing. Her resource on finding editors is listed here. As with the above listing, I encourage you to ensure the editors you consider are willing to do a reasonably sized sample edit before committing to one.
  5. The Alliance of Independent Authors. I wish I’d found this organization before I booked my editor. They have a community you can talk to when you have questions and offer discounts on some editing services. Most of their editing is on the lower end of pricing anyway. This is another great resource and I highly recommend them for a variety of reasons. They’ll come up several times in my self-publishing discussions.

The Editing Process

Now you’re ready to schedule your edit. First, look at your timeline. If you’re doing a professional developmental editor, you’ll want at least six months from the start date to complete that process and maybe longer, depending on the length of the novel. You’ll be booking that edit at least three months out, maybe longer depending on the editor’s backlog. If you’re starting at line and copy editing, that typically take one to two months and gets booked three or four months out. Proofreading you want to book at least three months in advance as well, and just as a reminder, all other edits need to be done before you get to that stage.

Once you have your timing decided, pick the right people. This starts with sample edits. You can also ask for other books they’ve edited and look at the quality of those (either from online samples or, if they’re in your genre, support your fellow authors and give the book a shot). As much as possible, I encourage using developmental, copy, and line editors who tend to work within your genre or similar genres. An editor who usually works on contemporary romance is going to be less valuable on a grimdark fantasy than one who usually works on urban fantasy. This isn’t the case for proofreading, since proofreading shouldn’t be subjective to genre at all, and is less true for copy editing. But it is something to consider. Also, make sure that the types of edits they’re suggesting fit your vision. One of the reasons I chose my editor is because I inquired about a developmental edit and she read my sample, was intrigued by my sample, and encouraged me to go for a line and copy editing instead of developmental because she thought the development was strong. Look for someone who’ll give you that type of honest opinion on your work.

And finally but most importantly, remember that the book is yours. If the editor you’re considering is telling you to make major changes to voice or book content that don’t fit what you want, find someone else. I promise you, there is someone else. If five different editors all tell you to make the same changes, maybe consider why they’re saying that, but never change your book to please one person. All editing is subjective.

The Final Challenge

I said above that one of the challenges of editing for self-publishing is knowing when the editing is done. I don’t have any tips for that one. Barely four days ago I was debating with my entire support team (my husband, my parents, and my discord communities) over whether or not to write, edit, and proofread an extra thousand word epilogue to add to my book in response to my ARC reviews because several felt that the ending was a bit rushed. I talked it over with everyone, got mixed responses (split about half and half), and finally re-read the ending. It ends where I wanted it to, and leaves the right feel at the end, at least for me. As a result, I’m not changing it. Part of that is because I like the end, but most of it is because I realized that those ARC readers aren’t getting what I am, so if I tried to “fix” their frustration with a new ending, they wouldn’t feel what I did there, either.

You may get your edits back and love them and never be concerned. Or you may hate everything the editor said and argue with yourself over every decision. But if you worry that this round of edits is maybe not enough for the next stage, or maybe you need another change before release, or whatever insecurities nag at you, consider this: I almost restructured my entire ending to include a new last scene on a whim eight weeks before my release day because I, like all authors, struggle to know when the editing is done. Sometimes you just have to let it go.