Friday, June 13, 2014

Say It Isn't So......Covers Really Do Make a Difference

We are always admonished never to judge a book by its cover, but in truth our judgment of packaging is a prejudice we apply liberally every day. Industries of every shape, size, color, kind, and creed play upon this judgmental tendency in an effort to draw our attention away from the competition and towards their product. I am not immune to the tactics, even as I apply my logic to the shopping list in hand. I find myself invariably drawn to the flavored water bottle with the refreshing cluster of juicy fruit painted upon the label when compared to the flat, unappealing label that bores me to death with words of promise for quenching my thirst. The prettily painted bottle might taste like moistened gym socks, but chances are I will reach for the packaging that appeals to me the most. Book covers are no different.

No one ever likes to admit their folly, so for me to acknowledge, in writing, the mistakes of my cover art for my first novel is tantamount to my standing naked before the world and giving each gathering gawker twenty minutes to draw their own personal crowd to watch me squirm. The funny thing about mistakes, however, is they offer us the opportunity to learn valuable lessons, and lessons are meant to be shared with others. What you choose to do with the information is entirely up to you.

When I first began writing The Case of Jack the Nipper, I had a vivid image in my head of what the characters looked like. They were as real to me as the world around me. I knew the sound of their voices, the jaunty manner of their walk, the nuances that made them who they were. It was like watching a movie of old friends. I did my best to capture those images in a painting of the two main characters; the result of which you see to the left. I was so excited by my efforts, I used a portion of it on my business cards, on bookmarks, and even on the first book cover of the first release.

I should have known there was a problem when I started handing out my business cards and people would say, "Oh you write children's books." Their smiles always weakened as they said this as though to utter it carried with it some sort of dread disease.

"No," would be my polite reply. "My books are meant for an older audience." I would proceed to explain what my book was about. I had my schpeel which often would liven them up a bit, but the damage was already done. People had already passed judgment on my book based on the cover. The colors of my painting were bright and cheerful, but the overall painting did not convey what the book was about. Using it as the cover of my book was a mistake. As a result, it lost me sales; sales that might have moved me farther along the path that I so desperately long to follow. It took me a year to swallow my pride and realize my error.

I found an award winning artist in Greece who designed and created the cover art for the first book. On the one year anniversary of the initial release, I re-released The Case of Jack the Nipper. What a difference the cover made. It grabbed people's attention rather than putting them off. In a single glance, the average passerby could tell there was a mystery involved, and the cat on the cover with the surprised expression intrigued people enough to make them read the back and find out what the book was about.

When my second novel The Case of the Wayward Fae was released, I took no chances. I had learned my lesson the first time and I hired a cover artist with a fantastic reputation and tons of experience to design my cover. Upon release of the book, I was thrilled at the results, and it helped boost sales of the first book as well.

Am I rich as a result of all of this? No. Am I a New York Times Best Seller? No, not yet. But I am a whole lot wiser now than I was when I started out, and I do have people spending their hard-earned money buying my books. It says something about the decisions I have made with my first two novels......that perhaps I got something right.

To draw a reader in, you have to provide three things:
1. A cover that intrigues (that is the appeal that pulls them across the room and sets you apart from all the other books around yours)
2. A great 'pitch' on the back of the cover or inside flap that gives the would-be buyer a sixty-second WOW that pushes him or her past the point of trepidation and over to the realm of wanting to spend their hard earned money on your work.
3. A great story that keeps them searching for your name for other titles when they are done with the one they just bought (assuming you have other titles for them to purchase).

If you can't get past number one, however, you certainly will never make it to number 3.

I am learning to lay down my pride in most things when it comes to this business of writing and publishing. There isn't a whole lot of room for it, outside of taking pride in writing a great story. But I recognize there will always be people out there who are better than I am. There will always be better writers, better artists, better editors, better marketers, better spellers, and people with better hair, and I am okay with that. At least I have enough sense now to leave certain things to the professionals.

If you are going to do a cover for your work, make sure it is a mantel that is worthy of the effort you have put into the rest of the book. Whatever you do, don't half-ass it. You spent forever perfecting the inside. Take some time perfecting the outside. It is after all the first thing people will see of your work. The price of neglecting such an important detail can cost you more than you will ever know, so make it count. Your future reading public awaits you.

If you enjoyed this post, don't forget to connect with H.L. Stephens on Google+, Facebook, Goodreads, and Twitter. Also check out H.L. Stephen's mystery series The Chronicles of Mister Marmee. Book 1 - The Case of Jack the Nipper and book 2 - The Case of the Wayward Fae are available in print and eBook format. Book 3 - The Case of the Monkey's Misfortune will be ready for release in the Fall of 2014.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Tempting the Fates By Setting Your Own Course

There is nothing quite so appealing to a writer as the thought of being published. It is after all what most of us strive for. Few of us write with the plan of hiding our work away so that no one will ever read it. It is our hope to share it with others; to experience their joy in reading the words we painstakingly punched out upon the keyboard or scrawled upon countless sheets of paper. The sharing stage is perhaps the most vulnerable position a writer can put themselves in. Our work is after all a reflection of some portion of ourselves - our emotions, our experiences, our loves, our losses, our weaknesses, our strengths, our hopes, our disappointments. The list goes on. For a writer to present his or her work to the world is tantamount to presenting the soft underbelly to every and any passerby.

The unfortunate reality behind this daring dream to write and share with the world is that the place where creation and distribution intersect is a treacherous one and the paths themselves can be paved with enough pitfalls, challenges, and roadblocks to turn even the bravest among us into simpering little ninnies from time to time. It is a hard road to travel.....this road of writing; one that can feel impossible when first embarked upon. There are enough critics out there who will tell the wide-eyed dreamer there is no hope of success. This is true even for the most talented, steel-hearted writers among us.

When facing such hardships and such hopeless-seeming trials, it is easy to fall prey to advice that would tell the would-be writer to be something he or she is not. It doesn't matter whether the well-meaning direction is to follow the current book trends by trying to create a work that is not the writer's forte or by trying to reinvent one's self by projecting a persona that is not real. Like trying to be edgy and crass when you are really filled with a soft nuggety center that cringes at the very behavior you are attempting to mimic.

Such disingenuous actions in my mind can be the death knell for the hopeful author who is just beginning to find their way. My reason for saying this is simple.....being something you are not is treacherous and darned near impossible to maintain in a consistent manner. Pursuing the path of a writer is hard enough without adding more self-made pitfalls in your own path.

Please understand I am not passing judgment on any who have taken such advice to heart in pursuit of their dreams. We all must do whatever it is we feel is best for us, but at the end of the day, when the world is silent, what then? Can you still recognize the person looking back at you in the mirror? Do you like what you see? If the answer to those questions is no, then perhaps seeking the road less travelled is the best course of action after all.

Duplicity takes energy which, for me, is better used in the creation of fantastical worlds, not in the recreation of a false image of one's self. Just as time is a finite resource, so is the creative energy a writer has to dedicate to his or her craft each day. And trust me when I say, readers and fans can detect a phony. It may take time, but eventually they will see the chink in the proverbial mail. Far better that they fall in love with you for who you are, whether you be, in truth, the edgy, crass individual that makes dinner guests cringe with every word from your mouth or the soft, nuggety soul who tears up at pet commercials. That soft nuggety soul can still write a horror story that will keep the multitudes awake at night, and the edgy, crass individual still has the capacity to move men's souls with the depth in his stories' characters. Such contrasts can make the author more intriguing to the reading audience simply because it is real and different than what they expected.

No one said the path was perfect, nor did they say it would be easy. I struggle each and every day with the boulders that appear before me and the potholes that threaten my progress. My face is sore from the number of times I have fallen down and bumped it on the road I travel. The bumps hurt, and yes, there are times when I sit and wonder if the real 'me' is not enough. Then I look in the mirror and realize I can walk this road another day. My dreams mean everything to me, but not at the expense of myself.
It takes courage to be be yourself, even when the world is telling you that you are not good enough. There will always be someone out there to find fault. There are over six billion people in the world. You are never going to please them all. In my mind though, there is only one person who truly matters and that is the person who is looking back at you in the mirror at the end of the day. If you are happy with what you see, then maybe it's all worth it.
All I know is, today, I got a little farther down the path. A few more people know my name, and I am still writing. I haven't given up. On a path that sees more attrition than just about any other career, I would say that is progress. And who knows. Perhaps tomorrow will be the big day. In a realm where everything is possible, it never hurts to hold on to big dreams. It is when you lay those dreams down and walk away that they cease to come true. So to all my writer friends out is a silent prayer for you that today the path is straight and the way clear. For any others who have dreams that are 'impossible', never give up on them or yourself. The critics will never stop discouraging, it is true, but that doesn't mean you have to give up either. Who knows, you might just beat the odds by tempting the fates and setting your own course.
If you liked what you read, don't forget to sign up the blog through Google+ or by clicking the Join this site button. Also check out H.L. Stephen's mystery series The Chronicles of Mister Marmee. Book 1 in the series is The Case of Jack the Nipper. Book 2 is The Case of the Wayward Fae. Book 3 The Case of the Monkey's Misfortune will be released in the Fall of 2014.