Updated: Jan 12
Imagine this: it’s the first day of school, and your child is just starting first grade at a brand-new school. The stakes are high; this is the beginning of their school career, and you want them to get off on the right foot in every way possible.
So you do what any good parent would: you send your kid off to first grade wearing a clown costume.
Your kid has a terrible day. They get teased about the clown outfit. Someone trips them in the hallway. The other kids call them Bozo and Joker. When your kid comes home, they’re in tears.
So, you give them another clown outfit and send them out the door the following day. This time, though, it starts to reflect poorly on you. Not only are the other kids picking on your child, but you’re starting to get some pretty weird glances at Walmart from those other kids’ parents.
What kind of parent sends their kid to school dressed like a clown?
I’m not here to give parenting advice—I don’t even have kids. But I’m also pretty sure everyone reading my blog would call this child abuse. No one—hopefully—would actually do this.
But here’s the thing: I am here to give writing advice, and I can tell you that many authors are sending their books—projects they’ve worked hard on and slaved over and are excited to share with readers—out in the world wearing clown outfits.
I’m going to be super honest here: I get really upset when I see badly-designed or poorly-formatted self-published books. I’m sure there’s great writing in them, but often, the cover has so many problems that it’s hard for me to see past the defects to something I might want to read.
A bookstore is the only place where “Don’t judge a book by its cover” doesn’t hold up.
It’s not just that a good story is in that book somewhere that upsets me. It’s that badly-designed books are a big part of the stigma surrounding self-publishing. I hear a lot of people say that they don’t want to independently publish because they’re afraid it will make them look bad.
Guess what? You have control over that.
This isn’t a post about whether you should independently publish or query some established publishers. There are a million posts about that on the internet.
What I’m talking about is how to ensure that when someone picks up your book, they’re surprised to find out that you did it yourself because it looks on par with something created by a traditional publisher.
So, if you are curious about indie publishing and want to release a book this year, let me enlighten you on four things I constantly see in self-published books that, if addressed, can keep your book from looking like a child sent to first grade in a clown costume*:
1. Don’t use Amazon Cover Creator
“But it’s free!” you may be thinking. I get that. But if you really want to take your cover to the next level, you need to go beyond this.
Here’s the problem with Amazon Cover Creator: because you choose from various templates, your book will not be totally unique. There will always be another book out there with the text in the same place and perhaps even with the same font.
That means that the cover of your book—its most critical element, the thing everyone will see and associate with your work—will never entirely be your own.
This is compounded by the fact that because so many people have self-published books, books with these templates are everywhere, which means discerning readers will be able to recognize that you went through Amazon.
I’m going to give you some tough love here: if you are honestly okay with using a basic cover template that has been stamped on thousands of other books, you shouldn’t be publishing your book.
Becoming a published author isn’t about just being able to say you have a book out. It’s about saying that you have released something that is all your own, that you created. It’s not something you can rush or do halfway.
And if multiple authors all have the same brand for their cover, it cannot really be yours.
Which brings me to my second point . . .
2. Create your own author brand
Do me a favor right now and look at your bookshelf (I’d venture that 99.9 percent of my readers are sitting in front of one). Pick an author and look at the colors, fonts, and graphics on the spines of their books. More than likely, there are elements on all their books that are the same, that designate the books as being by that particular author.
The Harry Potter books all have that recognizable Harry Potter font. Nicholas Sparks has his name in the same font on all his books. Even some publications of The Lord of the Rings books have a similar design.
Professional authors have brands, and branding is about integrity. Whenever people see your name on books, they should know that it stands for particular elements of your genre and style. It should be something that is uniquely yours.
Think about it this way. What if you went to McDonald’s and saw a giant hamburger on the sign instead of the Golden Arches? What if you visited Starbucks and the green logo on the cup was puke-colored instead of green?
You’re not just publishing a book. You’re building a brand—an identity that will follow you throughout the promotional life of what you’ve created.
Here’s a brief list of visual elements you need to build a personal book brand:
· Fonts: You should have a minimum of three—one for the book’s primary title, one for the author’s name and any subtitles, and a final one for the text on the back of your book (more on this later). The fonts should be unique (PLEASE do not use Calibri or Arial), easy to read, and related to the book's genre, tone, and style.
· Colors: You need a palette with a minimum of three colors that look good together and reflect the book's genre, tone, and style. Coolors.co features an automatic palette generation tool that can help you get started if you are a total beginner and need to learn about picking colors.
· You also need to take note of the HEX codes that accompany each color. Those exact shades will need to be used on the cover and all social media and promotional materials. For example, you can’t use one shade of pink in one place and another elsewhere. Brand integrity is about consistency.
3. Think critically about your cover and your audience
When you look at your cover, what is the first image readers will notice? If you’ve done your job right, it should convey the book's genre, tone, and style (are you seeing a pattern here) in a manner that appropriately captures the reader’s attention.
A few weeks ago, a person in a group I follow on Facebook posted a picture of his cover for critique. The book, a work of fiction, involves a very bloody historical event and is about how his characters survive it. It’s a story of hope and redemption.
The bloody historical event was depicted in great detail on the cover.
I’m sorry . . . but no one in the redemptive story market is going to want to read this book.
Please consider what your audience would want to see on the cover, how you might entice them to read the book, and whether the images you’ve chosen might be considered offensive or in poor taste.
4. Put stuff on the back of your book
I wish I didn’t need to say this. But a disturbing number of people think publishing a book with a blank back cover should be a thing.
You need a synopsis of the book. People need to know what it’s about.
You need an author bio (even a brief one—a longer one can appear at the end of the book). People need to know who you are.
If at all possible, you need some kind of social proof—a review or endorsement.
Do not do a blank back cover. It doesn’t look mysterious. It just looks lazy.
Thinking about independently publishing? Want to make sure this stuff doesn’t happen to you?
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*DISCLAIMER: I have learned a lot since I published The Goodbye-Love Generation almost three years ago. There are PLENTY of things wrong with it design-wise, and I’m sure that if I were to publish it today with all the knowledge about the industry that I’ve acquired, it would be a whole different ballgame. That said, my own work isn’t perfect either. I know I can do better.