Self-Publishing & Merchandising : How to Give and Get a Blog Review

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We’ve examined several facets of the merchandising machine in light of our platform as self-published authors: the background, extras and special editions, book covers and jacket design as well as interior design, the all-important blurb, and even, in summary, the book review.  This week, I’ll be examining the book review–or more specifically, the book blog review.  As I promised in last week’s review, I’ll be examining the blog dos and don’ts, the ins and outs of diving into the pool of self-published authors looking for a good review in the blogosphere.

Perhaps I should preface the body of this post with a quick proviso: getting and giving book reviews is an incredibly simple process.  It is so very simple, in fact, that it almost seems too simple, deceptively simple, the kind of simple that an incredibly obvious villain in an incredibly obvious film might whisper into the ear of incredibly obvious innocent.  The fact of the matter is, there is only one rule to blogging book reviews, both as giver and receiver.  And that is ….


The Golden Rule of Book Blog Reviews:

Review others as you would have them review you.


Everything else follows from this one precept.  For example, if you’re looking for a good blog to request a book review of your own novel, look for fellow authors and bloggers who deal with the same sort of material as you, or evidence a similar perspective on key issues you’re concerned with.  Look for other authors and bloggers who are in the same position as you–self-published or otherwise independent writers with a need to raise publicity about their work.  Shoot them off an email suggesting a book and book review exchange, whereupon you will review that person’s book in exchange for that person reviewing your book–and honestly.

Honesty is important, here.  Remember that Golden Rule?  Something in you, something deep and inherent, rebels against the notion of a falsely enthusiastic book review even as it similarly rebels against an unnecessarily harsh and critical book review.  We, as humans, don’t enjoy being misled.  So how can we pursue honesty, even when a book we’ve been asked to review isn’t to our tastes?

First of all, we can admit the reality of the situation.  Saying, “This book isn’t my cup of tea” is, in the end, an acceptable alternative to florid prose or undue despair over a book’s failings.  A better response still might be to forego expressions of taste and opinion, and instead fasten upon elements of the book you’re reviewing that you can engage with.  Analyze the scope, subject, genre, and context of the book.  How does it fit into current social or cultural trends, or intersect with the greater publishing world as it exists in this moment?  Your personal reactions may find a more fitting framework in this sort of big-picture review.  A lot of book bloggers right now are turning to what’s loosely called a “reaction gif” or Graphics Interchange Format file that serves as an emotional touchstone for their reactions to different plot twists and so on.  This sort of out-of-the-box angle on the book review can infuse an otherwise ho-hum post with a zesty stab at storytelling (but do watch out for copyright issues!).

So where do we look for fellow authors and book blog reviewers?  We look to the internets, of course!  The first step is to make yourself “findable,” and the second is to stake your claim as a voice with something to say.  You can get your own blog listed at places like bookbloggerlist.com if you review other peoples’ books more than once a month, and there are simply loads of websites that serve as compendiums of book bloggers.  Book bloggers also tend to hang out in one of three places: Twitter, Goodreads, and WordPress.  (Though this isn’t to say there aren’t quality book bloggers on, say, Tumblr or Facebook.)  The third step is to take the time to go through these websites looking for bloggers with similar tastes and concerns–to put in the research legwork, so to speak.  And last but not least, the fourth step is to go out on a limb and initiate contact.  Fire off a tweet, an email, or a message by carrier pigeon, to all kinds of writers from all walks of self-published life.

The key is not to be afraid–literally, every indie or self-published author is coming from the same place, and both understands what you’re trying to do and the reasons why you’re doing it.  People, for the most part, want to help.  And if a book blogger is extremely popular and overburdened with requests, their silence or quiet nay is not meant to sting.  As you know, life sometimes doesn’t allow us to be as generous as we’d like; still, for the most part, you’ll find that your fellow self-published strugglers are eager to welcome you into their networking communities.

I’m realistic, or I like to think I am.  This topic is bigger than just me and my own thoughts.  I’d like to open the floor to you, dear reader.  If you have any thoughts to share on the topic of merchandising, or questions you’d like answered, send them my way via the comments box below!  I want to hear from you, and I love nothing more than a good excuse to do a little research if I don’t know something off of the top of my head.  Jump on in!

ABOUT KELLY SCHUKNECHT: Kelly Schuknecht is the Executive Vice President of Outskirts Press. In addition to her contributions to the Outskirts Press blog at blog.outskirtspress.com, Kelly and a group of talented marketing experts offer book marketing services, support, and products to not only published Outskirts Press authors, but to all authors and professionals who are interested in marketing their books and/or careers. Learn more about Kelly on her blog at http://kellyschuknecht.com.

Self-Publishing & Merchandising : What About Reviews?

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[ Apologies for my absence last week!  I *should* be getting a new hard drive in the next few weeks, but in the meantime I’ll be struggling along as best I can.  You are the entire reason I hang out here every week, dear readers, and I hate it when I leave you hanging! ]

So.  We’ve examined several facets of the merchandising machine in light of our platform as self-published authors: the background, extras and special editions, book covers and jacket design as well as interior design, and the all-important blurb.  This week, I’ll be examining the book review–or at least, I’ll be examining a few of the book review’s many, many permutations and details.  We’ve touched on the matter of reviews before–here and here, for example, and also here and here, just to point you to a few examples–but I think it’s worth noting that the matter of book reviews for self-published authors is somewhat of a moving target.  There’s no one-size-fits-all understanding, much less solution, for your average indie writer.

Why are reviews important?

As I pointed out in 2011, the number of reviews you receive on a website like Amazon, paired with each title’s star rating, leverages a lot of weight on new readers.  If all you had to go on was this:

poor reviewsgood reviews

… which book would you be more likely to choose?  The book with more reviews and a higher star rating, of course!  (Of course there are other factors at play to distinguish these two books from each other, including a skillfully designed cover versus a sort of ho-hum cover, as well as the emotional weight of a free book versus a not-quite-free book … but you get the drift.)  And every outlet through which your book is reviewed, whether it’s Amazon or Kirkus or some other website, magazine, or blog, will boost your book’s visibility.  Having a presence is extremely important!

How do I get reviews?

This is where things get complicated.  The short answer is: any way you can.  Query book bloggers that you follow, and authors that you admire, and of course your friends and family.  (They’re your built-in audience, so take advantage of them!  Just, you know, not too much.  You don’t want your reviews to radiate desperation.)  While there’s no one single right or wrong way to go about querying for reviews, do keep in mind that reciprocity is an important part of the publishing world, especially the world of self-published and indie authors, who have to build digital communities and networks for themselves.  It’s a great idea to offer to review another author’s book in exchange for a review of your own; that way, both authors benefit, not to mention avid readers of indie literature!

There are, of course, other reliable places where book reviewers hang out.  Amazon’s top reviewers make up one such group–and the best part is, it’s their job to review new products, and they tend to love it!  Some may have specific product and even genre preferences, but you should definitely consider turning to them when you’re looking to build your reviewer base.  Remember BookPleasures.com, BookReviewsRUs.com, MidwestBookReview.com, ReadersFavorite.com, and ReaderViews.com.  And don’t forget about Goodreads!  We’ve blogged about giveaways in the past (here and here), but it’s worth mentioning again: dedicated, socially-connected readers gravitate to Goodreads, even while avid book-buyers will head to Amazon.  Consider hosting a Goodreads giveaway to bolster both the visibility of your book and the number of reviews!

I only have so much time in the day–where should I spend my time?

The best thing you can do for your self-published book is to keep writing.  The more books you write and publish, the more linkages you will build between texts, and the larger your circle of influence will grow.  But also, you know, you are a writer first and foremost–so in all things your craft should come first, and promotion second.  That being said, self-promotion and merchandising is always going to be work.  Sometimes it will even be hard and thankless work.  In the long run, however, your book’s visibility will benefit if you put in a little time here and there, and chip away at the reviewing machine.

Next wednesday, I’ll be looking at reviews again, but with a more refined microscope: I’ll be examining the blog review–dos and don’ts, and the how to make them happen fiddly bits that didn’t fit into today’s blog.  Stay tuned!

I’m realistic, or I like to think I am.  This topic is bigger than just me and my own thoughts.  I’d like to open the floor to you, dear reader.  If you have any thoughts to share on the topic of merchandising, or questions you’d like answered, send them my way via the comments box below!  I want to hear from you, and I love nothing more than a good excuse to do a little research if I don’t know something off of the top of my head.  Jump on in!

ABOUT KELLY SCHUKNECHT: Kelly Schuknecht is the Executive Vice President of Outskirts Press. In addition to her contributions to the Outskirts Press blog at blog.outskirtspress.com, Kelly and a group of talented marketing experts offer book marketing services, support, and products to not only published Outskirts Press authors, but to all authors and professionals who are interested in marketing their books and/or careers. Learn more about Kelly on her blog athttp://kellyschuknecht.com.

Self-Publishing & Merchandising : On The All-Important Blurb

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Let me introduce you to some blurbs.  These are selected randomly from my to-read bookshelf (yes, I have a whole bookshelf dedicated to my to-reads), and are therefore subject to my intensive pre-read evaluation, which consists entirely of three questions:

1. “Is it shiny?” “

2. “Does it sound interesting?” and

3. “Does it fit in my purse?”

That last question is why Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna remains on my to-read shelf, two years after I lay hands on it.  More importantly, however, you will have picked up on the fact that the second question is tied directly to the blurb, that abbreviated section on the book’s back cover that summarizes important plot points.  I say I selected the following books randomly, but the selection has proved somewhat fitting, as there are many genres represented—fiction, science fiction, nonfiction, junior fiction, self-published and traditionally published—as well as many flaws and triumphs in blurb-writing.  I shall address each individually, if briefly.


“What would you do if the world outside was deadly, and the air you breathed could kill? 

     And you lived in a place where every birth required a death, and the choices you made could save lives—or destroy them? 

     This is Jules’s story. 

     This is the world of Wool.”

— Hugh Howey’s Wool

And so we begin, with one of my favorite blurbs of yore, for the erstwhile poster child for self-publishing success stories, Hugh Howey’s science-fiction thriller, Wool.  You’ll note that the blurb begins with two questions, neither of which is answered in the blurb itself, and these questions are followed by two very short––to-the-point short––declarations.  We as readers receive the exact number of details we need in order to make a decision about whether to read the book or not: the protagonist’s name and agency in the story, the nature of his environment, and at least three potential challenges the protagonist must overcome (the physical problem of toxic air, the social problem of regulated lives, and the psychological problem of making big decisions that will impact others).

If you’re looking for a blurb that does its job and does it well, you need look no farther than that on the back cover of Wool.  As one of my writing professors would say, “Trim the fat, dear.”  Trim the fat, and what’s left will do some great work.


“‘Are you a gifted child looking for special opportunities?’ 

“When this peculiar ad appears in the newspaper, dozens of children enroll to take a series of mysterious, mind-bending tests.  (And you, dear reader, can test your wits right alongside them.)  But in the end just four very special children will succeed.  Their challenge: to go on a secret mission that only the most intelligent and resourceful children could complete.  With their newfound friendship at stake, will they be able to pass the most important test of all? 

“Welcome to the Mysterious Benedict Society.”

—Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Mysterious Benedict Society

This blurb does some very interesting things.  It employs both third and second person, including a parenthetical aside that serves as a direct address to the readers––a challenge designed to instigate their participation and emotional engagement with the book.  It employs an excerpt of a fictional primary document––another rhetorical question!––as its opening hook, and it leaves more room for exposition than Howey’s, clocking in at almost double the word count.  The effect is subtle, yet straightforward, placing the emphasis on the mission to be embarked upon by the book’s four insofar-unnamed protagonists.  This blurb is the sort to appeal to readers of adventure tales, mysteries, and other tension-driven readers.


“Nearing thirty and trapped in a dead-end secretarial job, Julie Powell resolved to reclaim her life by cooking, in the span of a single year, every one of the 524 recipes in Julia Child’s legendary Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  Her unexpected reward: not just a newfound respect for calves’ livers and aspic, but a new life—lived with gusto.”

—Julie Powell, Julie & Julia

Maybe you’re like me and you’ve already seen the movie, starring Amy Adams and Meryl Streep as Julie and Julia (respectively).  Given that the book’s cover is a still shot from the film, it’s fair to say that the publishers are relying on their audience’s familiarity with the story to boost interest in the book.  This assumption explains, in part, the brevity of the blurb––unusual in nonfiction, by and by, a genre given to longer blurbs in general––as it serves more as a reminder of what readers loved in the movie than it serves to deliver new information.  The blurb is matter-of-fact, wasting no space, and wraps up with a dash of humor, referring to two of the more challenging recipes Julie will faces as she wends her way along through the books.  That humor is vital, I think, in drumming up interest for nonfiction books, which in general have more specific, less across-the-spectrum mainstream appeal.


“In their youth, Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza fall passionately in love.  When Fermina eventually chooses to marry a wealthy, well-born doctor, Florentino is devastated, but he is a romantic.  As he rises in his business career he whiles away the years in 622 affairs, yet he reserves his heart for Fermina.  Her husband dies at last, and Florentino purposefully attends the funeral.  Fifty-one years, nine months, and four days after he first declared his love for Fermina, he will do so again. 

     With humorous sagacity and consummate craft, García Márquez traces an exceptional half-century story of unrequited love.  Though it seems never to be conveniently contained, love flows through the novel in so many wonderful guises—joyful, melancholy, enriching, ever surprising.”

—Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera

Márquez’s book is not one of the thicker volumes in my collection, but its blurb weighs in at a whopping two paragraphs, dense with detail and information.  Not only do we get a blueprint to the entire plot, including insight into several of the protagonist’s major decisions, but we also get a final sentence that goes out of its way to flatter the book with purple prose, talking up the book’s appeal on an emotional level.  These kinds of appeal achieve varying degrees of success, and while this one is nicely written, it tends towards the overblown side.  The whole blurb runs a bit long on talk and fairly short on impact, as it carries none of the punch of the actual book’s prose––or at least, so we hope.  If I had not been exposed to Márquez elsewhere and come to appreciate his artistry, I might not choose to give the book a try based on its blurb.  (But that, of course, comes down to personal taste.)


“CLAUDIA: This is the officially true history of the War Between the Tapper Twins.  As documented by me, Claudia Trapper—the mature, responsible, and totally innocent half of the Tapper twins.

REESE: What?  That’s crazy!  This whole thing was your fault!

CLAUDIA: Not according to this book.

REESE: Then this book is a big, skronking lie!

CLAUDIA: (A) Skronking is not a word.  And (B) did you even read it?

REESE: I meant to.  Is it just your side of the story?

CLAUDIA: It’s everybody’s side of the story.  Yours, mine, Sophie’s, Akash’s, your evil friend Xander’s…. You seriously have to read this book ASAP.”

—Geoff Rodkey, The Tapper Twins Go to War

And here we have our representative for junior fiction, the colorfully designed and written cover for Rodkey’s The Tapper Twins Go to War.  This blurb looks radically different from any of the others, as it is formatted as an exchange between the two primary characters, transcribed as dialogue.  This is part and parcel with how the book itself is written, and therefore provides a useful reference point for new readers, but it could easily confuse them just as much.  Why dialogue?  What does writing it this way do for the reader that a straightforward prose description wouldn’t?  It definitely generates an ‘interest factor.’  It also sets the reader’s expectations for certain plot details, including secondary characters and relationship dynamics.  It’s light, it’s energetic, it’s fun, it’s different––and it reads like an inside joke, one that will make an increasing amount of sense as the book progresses.  That’s an interesting sort of unspoken challenge to the reader, I think, and one that hooks me in––just a little.


New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead was a young woman in an English coastal town when she first read George Eliot’s Middlemarch, regarded by many as the greatest English novel.  After gaining admission to Oxford and moving to the United States to become a journalist, through several love affairs, then marriage and family, Mead read and reread Middlemarch.  In this wise and revealing work of biography, reporting, and memoir, she leads us into the life that the book made for her, as well as the many lives the novel has led since it was written.

     My Life in Middlemarch takes the themes of Eliot’s masterpiece—the complexity of love, the meaning of marriage, the foundations of morality, and the drama of aspiration and failure—and brings them into our world.  Offering both an involving reading of Eliot’s biography and an exploration of the way aspects of Mead’s life uncannily echo that of the author herself, My Life in Middlemarch is for every ardent lover of literature who cares about why we read books, and how they read us.”

—Rebecca Mead, My Life in Middlemarch

This blurb is interesting in part because it is such a perfect summation of everything we understand nonfiction books to be––long, dense, intricately researched, philosophically unwound.  Generally speaking, readers of nonfiction expect their books to be a bit of ‘work’ to follow, and based on the highly complex relationship between biography, reporting, and memoir––which we are told are this book’s underpinnings––we can expect this book to fall neatly in with its genre fellows on that score.

Another feature which distinguishes this blurb from others is its emphasis on the author.  In our other blurbs in this blog post, the authors sometimes merit a mention, but they remain just that––mentions.  Here, in the blurb to Mead’s tome of literary nonfiction, Mead herself is made vitally important, and transfigured into a major plot element.  I won’t say that this is uncommon, per sé, but it is only made possible by the blurb’s detail and length.  The jacket copy writer goes to great lengths to assure us, Mead’s readers, that this book is both important to Mead and important for us to read.  I find the blurb a touch long-winded, but then I know a fair amount about Middlemarch, and so my interest was determined more by my relationship to that book than by my exposure to this book’s description.


I’m not trying to be coy by writing this blog as a series, held together by little more than pulp and wood glue.  But by presenting you with a number of blurbs––all of which do some things right, occasionally while also doing something not quite so right––I hope that you’ll see first and foremost just how much diversity there is to the world of blurbs.  There’s no one way to write one, and no one way to ruin one.  Plenty of other blog sites will give you detailed how-to lists of what to do and what to avoid doing when writing (or requesting) a blurb, but I find that the standard rules of good clean writing tend to apply here, as elsewhere.  These rules are perhaps best summed up in the KISS principle (Keep it Simple, Stupid).  Which is not to say you are stupid––that’s simply the mnemonic my college professors used to teach me, and I most definitely was a touch stupid then.  KISS is easy to remember, in part because it both is and advocates simplicity.

 Finding ways to describe and compliment your own work––without coming off as a foppish and overblown self-flatterer––is incredibly difficult.   But worth it, in the end, I think.  Many other blogs have compiled lists––lists which only rarely lead to sound blurbs, as modulating your voice can feel awkward and generate awkward blurbs.  Take a look at books in your genre, and at your own favorite blurbs.  What are they doing well?  And how might they serve as touchstones for your own blurb?

[ NOTE: If you’re looking for the first blog in this post, a general overview of merchandising for self-published authors, you’ll want to look here.  If you’re interested in reading up on extras and special editions, take a look at my second post in this series.  For the third post, on book cover and jacket design, follow this link.  And last but not least, if you missed last week’s post, on shaping a book’s interior design, fall into this looking glass. ]

I’m realistic, or I like to think I am.  This topic is bigger than just me and my own thoughts.  I’d like to open the floor to you, dear reader.  If you have any thoughts to share on the topic of merchandising, or questions you’d like answered, send them my way via the comments box below!  I want to hear from you, and I love nothing more than a good excuse to do a little research if I don’t know something off of the top of my head.  Jump on in!

ABOUT KELLY SCHUKNECHT: Kelly Schuknecht is the Executive Vice President of Outskirts Press. In addition to her contributions to the Outskirts Press blog at blog.outskirtspress.com, Kelly and a group of talented marketing experts offer book marketing services, support, and products to not only published Outskirts Press authors, but to all authors and professionals who are interested in marketing their books and/or careers. Learn more about Kelly on her blog athttp://kellyschuknecht.com.

Self-Publishing & Merchandising : A Book’s Interior Design

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When we speak of books, we mostly speak of them as one of two things: an object, made up of surfaces and contours and textures, or as a vehicle for ideas.  We rarely pause to consider the interior design of a book, unless of course it is a book that draws attention with smart graphic design and accentuation.  What readers and producers of comic books, graphic novels, and illustrated fiction take for granted, the prose community has by and large neglected; that is, when we crack open the cover of a new book by Hugh Howey or Rachel Swaby or Sarah Taylor, we forget that every letter on those pages, every jot of ink and swathe of white space, has to be carefully arranged in order to make for a pleasant––and submersive––reading experience.

For the self-published author, a book’s interior aesthetic can spiral out of control quickly.  This is because a self-published author is not, generally speaking, a renaissance man with phenomenal powers of writing and artistry and graphic design.  A beautiful cover may seem like a more worthwhile use of a self-published author’s limited time.  Though there may be the rare exception, the average person who chooses (or is required by circumstances) to bypass traditional publishing also lacks the legion of highly specialized editorial staff who comb through manuscripts and ARCs looking for even the tiniest flaw––an orphan sentence, a snafu in line spacing, you name it.  And believe me, even though we don’t tend to think of readers as detail freaks, they have a sensitive nose for anything that feels “off.”  Your job as a self-published author is to keep your reader reading your book, not caught up in the intricacies of its design.  For that reason, a book’s interior should look as polished as possible.

Here are a few tips:

1. Choose your typeface carefully.

Whether you decide to opt for a serif or a sans-serif typeface, make sure you know what it will look like on whole blocks of text at once––pages and pages of text.  Also keep in mind that while sans-serif fonts have a sort of “cool” factor and are often evocative of popular science and science-fiction––and therefore add a dash of visual interest as well as genre resonance––serif fonts are actually easier to read at length.  That’s what the serif tags are there for, to help your eyes track seamlessly from one letter to the next.  Still, your choice will come down largely to preference (mine is for Monotype Bell and MVB Sirenne, both of which read well in multiple sizes, as well as in italicized passages and headings).

2. … And about those headings?

Not every book uses chapter headings on every page.  Take a look at the books in your genre, to get a feel for what’s normal there.  I’ve found in my collection that there’s a tendency toward headings in nonfiction and certain chapter-driven science fiction pieces, but that for the most part, fiction sticks with simple page numbers.  Also keep in mind that your inclusion (or exclusion) of headers and the positioning of your page number will affect your margins.  It’s absolutely essential that you leave extra white space on the edge of the page with a page number or heading––both of these things are considered extensions of your typewritten page, and they affect the eye as such.

3. Margins do deserve the attention, I promise.

Take a look at the nearest book.  (In my case, it’s Howey’s Wool.)  Compare the inside margins of the pages (the ones adjoining the binding) to the outside margins (the ones your thumbs touch as you flip pages).  In the standard book, the standard traditionally published book, those inside margins are significantly larger.  This is to allow the book’s binding to curve as you crack open the spine, letting the pages curl away and yet remain readable.  It is not uncommon for self-published authors to forget this tiny detail, and for the book to suffer for it.  If I have one piece of advice for authors looking to format their own books, it’s this: Don’t sacrifice your margins––for anything.  Yes, it’s cheaper to pack in more words per page, and so to save on printing fees.  But I promise, more people will want to buy your book if they pick it up and it feels gracious, spacious, and easy to read.  It’s wise to aim for about 12 words per line of text––this is the standard in traditional publishing, for good and time-honored reasons.

4. Justify your paragraphs.

Take a moment to modify your text alignment from “left” to “justified.”  This means that your text still begins at the left-hand margin of the page, but that it’s right-hand side also ends at its respective margin, creating a smooth visual block of text, all the way from the top to the bottom of any given page.  Leaving that text simply aligned “left” will create a jagged line along the right-hand side of the page, wherever the words leave off.  You want to check your kerning line to line before you release it to the printer, in order to ensure each page looks perfect, of course––that’s par for the course.

5. Leave no blank right-hand pages.

The first page of your book is going to be a right-hand page, and the first page of content––not the title page, not the copyright information, not the dedication––will be “Page One” and should be marked such.  (Page numbers should only appear once the content of your book begins, and not before.)  Every succeeding chapter should begin on a right-hand page, even if the previous chapter ended on a right-hand page.  The solution is to leave a blank left-hand page, which you can utilize for illustrations, quotations, or other related material.  The point, however, is to play to a kind of “psychology of reading,” which asserts that readers find it easier to begin new thoughts if there’s that reliable visual cue there.  Blank pages should be left entirely blank, including of page numbers and page headers.

6. Go easy on illustrations, graphics, and other addendums.

It’s easy to get carried away inserting pictures into our books––after all, a picture is worth quite a few jots of ink, right?  But there are a couple of dangers to watch out for here, as with everything else related to design.  First of all, your images need to look every bit as polished as your text.  If you’re inserting inexpert photographs, clipart, or hasty sketches, they’re going to negatively impact the reader’s opinion of your book’s quality.  (We do judge ideas based on their presentation, for better or worse.)   Secondly, they need to be important.  If they’re not somehow integral to a reader’s understanding of your book, then they don’t need to be there, and they shouldn’t be there.  Illustrations, like your words, have to work to earn their keep.  And finally, your images need to be high enough in resolution that they hold up and read well at different scales, both large and small, and on multiple platforms, including tablets and e-readers.  If readers can see pixellation, they’re likely to dismiss a book as amateurish.

And last but not least:

7. Fresh eyes are vital.

The best advice I ever received from a writing instructor was to work until I thought a piece was done, and then to walk away for days, preferably a week, and then to return for a final (or quarter-final) evaluation.  Invariably, coming back with fresh eyes led to me spotting weaknesses and glitches and errors that I would never have seen otherwise.  It’s also important to remember, as a self-published author, that there’s a promotional benefit to showing early readers advance copies of your book, with a plea that they give you feedback on what’s working and not working, in terms of design as well as content.  Their advice will help you tweak your book to perfection, while also spreading the word that you have an upcoming publication on its way!

[ NOTE: If you’re looking for the first blog in this post, a general overview of merchandising for self-published authors, you’ll want to look here.  If you’re interested in reading up on extras and special editions, take a look at my second post in this series.  For last week’s post, on book cover and jacket design, follow this link. ]

I’m realistic, or I like to think I am.  This topic is bigger than just me and my own thoughts.  I’d like to open the floor to you, dear reader.  If you have any thoughts to share on the topic of merchandising, or questions you’d like answered, send them my way via the comments box below!  I want to hear from you, and I love nothing more than a good excuse to do a little research if I don’t know something off of the top of my head.  Jump on in!

ABOUT KELLY SCHUKNECHT: Kelly Schuknecht is the Executive Vice President of Outskirts Press. In addition to her contributions to the Outskirts Press blog at blog.outskirtspress.com, Kelly and a group of talented marketing experts offer book marketing services, support, and products to not only published Outskirts Press authors, but to all authors and professionals who are interested in marketing their books and/or careers. Learn more about Kelly on her blog athttp://kellyschuknecht.com.

Self-Publishing & Merchandising : Book Cover and Jacket Design

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So here’s the thing: you’ve written a book.  Now you have to sell it.  But you’re going to self-publish, and you’re just self-conscious enough to do a little field research, so you drop on by your local indie bookstore, and you start thumbing through covers to see what you like and what you don’t like … and you start noticing a pattern.  The self-published books on the shelf are, for one thing, pretty thin on the ground, and they’re also often less … attractive.  What’s going on here?  And how can you prevent your own book cover and jacket from fading into the background?  Here are five tips to designing a standout, quality book cover or jacket.

[ Right now, I’m just going to deal with the outside of your book––and I’ll save the design components of the inside for next week. ]

1. Design with an awareness of genre.

Some of your greatest assets––and, potentially, stumbling blocks––as a book designer are the legacies of bygone books and the expectations of current readers.  Designing a book specifically to fit in may not be the wisest move––it may remain undiscovered by blending in too well––but there are enormous benefits to paying attention to the visual brand of your book’s genre.  Just think about it!  We know in a flash––in less than a tenth of a second––and with great accuracy whether A, B, and C are all of a set in those popular web-based IQ tests.  We will absolutely know if a book “fits” with its shelf-mates in the bookstore, because we can pause and linger and physically pick up the books involved.

Bold and blocky typefaced titles that occupy almost the whole of a book cover scream crime fiction; slim and minimal sans-serif fonts speak of literary nonfiction; distressing alludes to zombies and post apocalyptic literature; and a hand-lettered style hints at popular romance or young adult novels.  (John Green, I’m looking at you.)  There are, of course, a great many exceptions across all genres, but the clues are there: aside from title fonts and their size and placement, every genre has a long legacy of embedded symbols, imagery, and dynamic organization.  Silhouettes, guns, and blood splashes are easy to place in the crime genre, but do you notice the color balance in a Nora Roberts book cover?  How about the placement of carefully curated quotes on a nonfiction book, above or below the title?  Or the fact that nature guides will often crowd out the author’s name altogether in favor of a full-page still shot of a bluejay, or a slice of Sydney Harbour?  Before you settle, browse the aisles––and the Kindle store.  If you’re going to depart from your genre’s expectations, then do so knowingly, with every keystroke.  You may be setting your book up to stand out, but you may also be removing it from the visual radar of every reader who’s looking for a book in your genre.

2. Design with an awareness of spatial dimensions.

No, I don’t mean the astral plane, or the multiverse.  I mean you should examine the balance between text and image, busy and clean, light and dark.  Often a book cover will look radically different at different dimensions––say, as a physical book and as a thumbnail on the Kindle store––and seemingly small design choices can make your book look either extraordinary or extraordinarily terrible when the size of the image changes.  Keeping your book cover design free of unnecessary clutter––shapes and colors and forms that you don’t need to convey important information––is essential.  I can guarantee you that the titles leaping out at you as you’re scrolling through Amazon are the ones keeping their design simple enough––and uncluttered enough––that they appear beautiful, even as a tiny, 60 x 90 pixel thumbnail.  Again, browsing what’s out there is your best guide to designing a great book cover yourself.

3. Design with an awareness of industry requirements.

By this I mean, particularly, to watch your back cover.  You need to display your book’s EAN barcode somewhere on the cover, preferably without squashing or crowding the design.  You’ll need to include an author photo and biographical snippet (“John Doe works as a marine biologist at Eckard College.  He lives in Tampa with thirty mollusks and one delightful parakeet”).  You should also include the book’s genre or category, a readable price, and contact information.  The category may prove problematic, if your book is indeed cross-genre, but keep in mind this isn’t about smashing your book into a preconceived category, but about making your book findable for your readers.  If you’ve ever heard of a keyword search, your book’s category performs many of the same functions.

4. Keep it legal.

“Don’t steal other people’s artwork” sounds a bit strong, but this is essentially what you’re doing if you utilize an image on your book cover or jacket that you don’t have permissions for.  As you design your book, you absolutely must ensure you use only your own images, images you obtain by payment or permission, or images under the Creative Commons license.  Creative Commons can become complicated to work out after the fact, if you just pluck something off of a Google image search, but there are many fine websites out there that are dedicated to providing nothing but Creative Commons photographs.  Take a look at Stock.xchang (now FreeImages.com), Wikimedia Commons, Free Pixels, Fotolia, Image Base, Abstract Influence, and Flickr’s Creative Commons page (easy to find by clicking “Learn More” on their website).  Basically, there’s no excuse for taking someone else’s image if it’s not on a Creative Commons license … there are so many legitimate options to choose from!  (And if you really want, well, that image, then you should go to the necessary lengths to ensure you have the artist’s permission anyway, right?)

5. Make it yours.

One of the most commonly-heard questions in the self-published community is: “Should I pay someone else to design my cover, if it’s really so much work?”  Ultimately, the answer is up to you.  Will it significantly improve your quality of life by reducing the stress of learning new technologies and softwares and managing a writer’s life on top of all of that?  Possibly.  Never underestimate the power of a professionally-designed cover, especially in a world saturated with marginally acceptable self-published covers. 

On the other hand, will releasing the design process into someone else’s hands also take creative control out of your own hands?  Often, yes, it will.  Always remember where you draw your line in the sand––at which point you’re comfortable surrendering the artistic direction of your book.  If you want or need a designer, that’s great!  Just make sure to do a little research, and to make sure you choose someone who chooses you back––and chooses to get on board with your vision for your book.  That way, no matter who is out there shaping your visual brand, you can be confident that it will reflect … you!

[ NOTE: If you’re looking for the first blog in this post, a general overview of merchandising for self-published authors, you’ll want to look here.  If you’re interested in reading up on extras and special editions, take a look at my second post in this series. ]

I’m realistic, or I like to think I am.  This topic is bigger than just me and my own thoughts.  I’d like to open the floor to you, dear reader.  If you have any thoughts to share on the topic of merchandising, or questions you’d like answered, send them my way via the comments box below!  I want to hear from you, and I love nothing more than a good excuse to do a little research if I don’t know something off of the top of my head.  Jump on in!

ABOUT KELLY SCHUKNECHT: Kelly Schuknecht is the Executive Vice President of Outskirts Press. In addition to her contributions to the Outskirts Press blog at blog.outskirtspress.com, Kelly and a group of talented marketing experts offer book marketing services, support, and products to not only published Outskirts Press authors, but to all authors and professionals who are interested in marketing their books and/or careers. Learn more about Kelly on her blog athttp://kellyschuknecht.com.

Self-Publishing & Merchandising : Extras & Special Editions

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Last week, I launched a new blog series on the ins and outs of merchandising with a quick definition.  (“Simply put, merchandising is any and all practices and methods which boost product sales in a retail environment.”)  And definitions are great and all, but we’re here to talk shop.  To get under the skin of merchandising, to inhabit the world of successful merchandisers, we have to tackle each and every aspect of the process–in depth.  This week, we’ll be taking a closer look at two of these aspects: “extras,” and special edition releases of your books.

What are “extras”?

“Extras” are anything you send out into the world related to your work that is not (quite) your book.  Or at least, it’s not your book as most people know it.  They’re the fiddly bits, the sweeteners, the “guess what I got this week?” element of book marketing.  The no-frills approach to book sales is to put your book, and only your book, into the hands of your ideal readers.  But we all know the process is more complicated than that, if we want to make profitable sales.

Identifying our ideal readers is one complicated conglomerate of issues unto itself, and connecting the dots between book and reader yet another (seemingly) hopeless tangle, and transforming the market so that more readers become ideal readers is … well, you get the picture.  The creation, distribution, and controlled availability of “extras” is one highly effective way to unpick some of these knots.  Why?  Because they make your ideal readers feel privileged and affirmed in their good taste, while also serving as a siren call to new readers–a declaration that you, the author, are willing to go the extra mile to bring others alongside you, into the world of your book.  And I’m not just talking about fictional worlds, here: every good book is a world unto itself, a universe even, that enwraps its readers in a shared sense of wonder, urgency, or belief.

“Extras” come in every possible form we can imagine, and sometimes figuring out what “extras” suit our books and our needs best is the larger task.  But simply identifying them can be a challenge, too, so here is a short list of some of the more effective extras that leap to my mind:

  • creating swag, like bookmarks or postcards or tee-shirts, etc, to give away or raffle off at book readings and signings;
  • putting together a regular newsletter, physical or digital, to distribute to eager readers;
  • orchestrating giveaways, scavenger hunts, and other participatory contests to boost interest;
  • offering limited-offer “buy a physical book and unlock free digital content” sorts of specials;
  • publishing select chapters online for free, using interactive services such as WattPad; and
  • hosting quizzes, ask-and-answer sessions, or other author-centric material online using social media networks such as Tumblr.

(This is just to name a few.)  As you can see, many of these “extras” fall into two loose categories: the physical fiddly bits, and the digital fiddly bits.  It’s worth noting that, while focusing our talents into bundles that seem all of a kind–say, pairing a digital “extra” with an ebook release, or a physical “extra” with a physical book launch–may be an effective use of our time, it may not be the sole best way to boost our sales.  Many readers who are highly engaged on social media will treasure a physical book or a physical “extra,” while many readers who hold fast to their physical libraries are ready and willing to branch out and experiment, if they’re invested in you, the author, and your vision of your world.  Strategic cross-fertilization may be the best approach, so make sure you’re providing “extras” on both sides of the digital/physical divide–if possible.

Oh, right, I mentioned special editions too.

That’s right–I haven’t forgotten.  The reason I save this second aspect of merchandising for after my discussion of “extras” is simple: many of the same rules apply.  We’ve written about releasing special editions, whether ebook editions or other kinds of editions as a kind of promotional venture, before.  We’ve even written about releasing special editions for holidays and for Kindles, respectively.  The simple distillation of all of these prior posts might be to say: “The more editions we put out there, the more accessible our books, the more people who will hear of our books, and the more books we will sell.”  The parallels between special editions and “extras” are fairly clear–just substitute “extras” for “editions.”

The key to successful merchandising for the self-published author is to make our readers feel special!  We can make this happen with strategic bundles of “extras,” or by releasing new editions of previously published books.  Both of these merchandising methods are built upon creating and distributing new access points to our works.  Generating special offers that are limited in some way–in respect to time or quantity–whether on swag or giveaways or special editions–heightens the competitive edge to what we’re offering, and makes our books a topic of conversation.  We want to balance ubiquity of our works–making it is available to as many people as possible–with an urgency to acquire it in certain incarnations or circumstances.

Next week, I’ll be examining merchandising through book and jacket design.  I’d like to open the floor to you, dear reader.  If you have any thoughts to share on the topic of merchandising, or questions you’d like answered, send them my way via the comments box below!  I want to hear from you, and I love nothing more than a good excuse to do a little research if I don’t know something off of the top of my head.  Jump on in!

ABOUT KELLY SCHUKNECHT: Kelly Schuknecht is the Executive Vice President of Outskirts Press. In addition to her contributions to the Outskirts Press blog at blog.outskirtspress.com, Kelly and a group of talented marketing experts offer book marketing services, support, and products to not only published Outskirts Press authors, but to all authors and professionals who are interested in marketing their books and/or careers. Learn more about Kelly on her blog at http://kellyschuknecht.com.

On Self-Publishing and Merchandising

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You are a self-published author.  Fantastic!  And you’re a self-published author looking to boost your book sales through strategic self-promotion, and by diving into the ofttimes terrifying world of … merchandising.  You’ve written your book, which everyone told you was the hardest part of the whole writing-and-publishing process, and you’ve plugged it into a self-publishing engine like Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, or BookSurge, or Xlibris, or Outskirts Press, or any one of a dozen other self- or hybrid publishing websites.  But what comes next?  For most writers, it’s not automatic instant success.  For most writers, what comes next involves a lot of hard work, and finesse.  Because for most writers, what comes next will involve merchandising.

So what is merchandising?

Simply put, merchandising is any and all practices and methods which boost product sales in a retail environment.  Once you get used to thinking of and treating your book as a retail product–which is harder than it may seem, in personal experience–the process of selling and marketing your book becomes infinitely easier.  Why is this?  Since books are more than just a piece of wood pulp and ink–because books are ideas and stories and occasionally, magnificent works of art–we understandably think about them as these things, these intangible things.  And it can seem, well, rather low-brow to treat an idea the same way that I treat a sandal or a bottle of shampoo.  Low-brow, and possibly even vulgar.  But the fact of the matter is, we want our books to sell, not just to sit all neat and pretty on our own private bookshelves awaiting discovery after we pass on.  We want–no, need–our books to sell for all sorts of reasons: the dissemination of ideas, the collection of profits, and so on.  We need to sell our books, and merchandising helps sell books.

Unfortunately, self-published authors often find themselves daunted by the notion of self-promotion via merchandising.  Authors who survive the knuckle-bruising process of traditional publication have an entire company to help them navigate merchandising, if not take it on entirely.  Self-published authors face the same fears, the same doubts, the same tangle of fine print–only, without the clout and muscle and well-fleshed-out personnel of a publishing firm at their back.  And it’s virtually impossible to know where to begin.  Do you begin with mugs and notepads and tee shirts?  Do you begin with book design or haggling with local retailers?  You may not have a publishing firm’s PR department on hand, but you do have us.  (Not to mention, your legions of fans.)  You have us, your loyal digital cheer squad and sounding board for ideas.  We’re here to help.

Over the coming weeks, I’m going to unwind a few key strategies for merchandising success, specifically in regards to self-published authors seeking entry into the world of merchandising that the privileged traditionally-published author never has to think twice about.  A few of these strategies will include:

  1. Extras & special edition releases
  2. Book & jacket design
  3. Blurbs, reviews, and blog reviews
  4. Dealing with Amazon, CreateSpace, and others
  5. (And yes, we’ll deal with mugs and notepads and tee shirts, too.)

Suffice it to say, this is a big topic.  Epically, profoundly, unmentionably big.  (Which is exactly why we’re here, reading this blog, isn’t it?)  It will take us a while to step through all of the angles, so plan on checking this space every Wednesday morning as we dive in!

I’m realistic, or I like to think I am.  This topic is bigger than just me and my own thoughts.  I’d like to open the floor to you, dear reader.  If you have any thoughts to share on the topic of merchandising, or questions you’d like answered, send them my way via the comments box below!  I want to hear from you, and I love nothing more than a good excuse to do a little research if I don’t know something off of the top of my head.  Jump on in!

ABOUT KELLY SCHUKNECHT: Kelly Schuknecht is the Executive Vice President of Outskirts Press. In addition to her contributions to the Outskirts Press blog at blog.outskirtspress.com, Kelly and a group of talented marketing experts offer book marketing services, support, and products to not only published Outskirts Press authors, but to all authors and professionals who are interested in marketing their books and/or careers. Learn more about Kelly on her blog at http://kellyschuknecht.com.

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