All posts by Sonja Hakala

I have been a professional writer since 1987. I've written for newspapers, magazines, worked in the book publishing industry, and published novels and non-fiction books. In addition, I've guided numerous authors through the process of independent publishing, and offer workshops in that same vein. I'm the founder of the Parkinson's Comfort Project and over the course of six years, we gathered and gave away over 500 handmade quilts to people with Parkinson's disease.

Judging a Book by Its Cover

Venetia coverSince I’ve started working on the cover for my upcoming novel, The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life, I thought I would spend this week judging other books by their covers.

Take this one, Venetia by Georgette Heyer, a classic (so I’m told) of the romance genre.

Georgette Heyer is, in my opinion, a pretty darn good writer, a penner of thrillers, romances, and historical novels, a total of nearly 60 novels in a career that lasted more than 50 years. She is considered the founder of Regency romances of which this book, Venetia, is an example.

I tripped across Heyer’s work years ago while sorting books for the 5 Colleges Book Sale here in the Upper Valley. One of the woman I was working with at that moment in time recommended the thriller, entitled Penhallow, that I held in my hands. It was pretty good. Heyer’s got more wit than Agatha Christie and her writing is smoother.

That’s why, in spite of this cover, Venetia was on my shelf. Now that I’ve finished it, I can honestly say I’ll stick with Heyer’s thrillers.

The plot of Venetia is predictable—bad boy meets good girl, romance ensues. Heyer’s wit does much to rescue it from the depths of the completely hackneyed but still…

This version of Venetia is a reprint put out by Harlequin, the Canadian purveyor of more romance novels than any other publisher on earth. To my mind, they invented this cover style—blonde woman, dark-haired man, soft focus. The fact that the couple are not in a clinch and her bodice is all in one piece is part of a code that says “here lies chaste romance.”

Without words, this cover conveys the book’s level of overt sexuality through its placement of the two figures, the fact that she’s looking down demurely at a flower, and the choice of golden yellow instead of a blazing hot red for the backdrop.

Take a look at what you have on your own bookshelves. What cover codes speak to you?

Sometimes, It Just Flows

I used index cards for plotting by novels.
I used index cards for plotting by novels.

Every writer I know has to learn the lessons taught by every other writer who comes before. The lessons, like the truest platitudes, are simple and direct. And yet, somehow, every newbie thinks these lessons can be ignored.

Take diligence, for example. I’m talking about the diligence that comes from writing every day. The kind of diligence that gets you to the last page of the book you’re writing. The kind of diligence that moves all the other crud out of the way so that you focus on your work.

At one point in my writing career, I spent time reading interviews with other writers, mostly in the Paris Review of Books (still the best, in my opinion). When asked, every single writer talked about the importance of regular writing habits. Every one of them echoed Carl Sandburg’s dictum that books are written “One word at a time.”

There’s no way around that in any creative endeavor, from making soup to making a quilt, to constructing a building or drawing a picture of your cat. It’s one onion, one seam, one wall or one line at a time.

I’m coming around the corner on a novel. I can feel its publication date on the horizon, like the morning sun at the moment before it crests over the mountains to our east.

Mind, I’ve had to adjust the arc of the story a bit to fit my time frame better, and spent time going back to assess what I’ve learned about my characters. But the writing flows. It’s become a need, an act that I must do like a ritual every morning before I can move onto anything else in my day. Yep, Sandburg was right—one word at a time, daily.

Empty Sentences

Old typewriterYears ago, I was hired by a tech firm that was in the business of teaching personnel recruiters how to filch (yep, steal though that was NEVER the word they used) tech workers from other companies. (In my defense, I didn’t realize that when I was hired.)

It was the tech boom years, and folks who could understand code were thin on the ground, hence the professional theft training.

Well, I was supposed to develop a “class” about international personnel recruiting and my first step was plunging into research mode.

Now, I can write marketing fluff with the best of them so I have a pretty good nose for this stuff. But I have to say that I doffed my metaphoric cap in awe at the total vapidity I found on websites (mostly startups) that were peddling…well…I was never quite sure.

At times, I could be found clutching my forehead and mumbling things like: “What in the hell does that mean?”

I see this sort of eerily empty language again and again and again on the web—corporate-speak, edu-speak, political-speak. When you examine it closely, it always falls apart, amounting to nothing more than the rattle of empty drums that someone wants you to believe are full.

That’s one of the reasons why I am concerned about the current trend to “write more,” “write faster,” and this “write a novel in a month” event that now endows November with more importance than being the carrier of Thanksgiving Day.

Yes, it is true that the single most important rule of writing is writing regularly. Most books die for lack of attention. That’s why you hear so many authors stress the importance of a daily word regimen. If you don’t keep working on a project, you lose enthusiasm and the thread of your story.

But based on the work that gets produced in this throw-it-on-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks method, much of it is not worth reading.

So along comes this article in the book section of my beloved Guardian of London (my favorite online newspaper) and I find that my disquiet over our empty language puts me in the august company of George Orwell and Thomas Merton.


The Paperwork of Publishing (part two)

Copyright symbolThere’s a long discussion about copyright in my guild to independent publishing, Publish Your Book Your Way but here’s the core lesson you need to know—you are not required to register your work with the U.S. Copyright office in order for your rights to be protected.

HOWEVER, if you ever get into a dispute over copyright, the entity who registers it with the U.S. Copyright office has the stronger case.

That’s why we recommend you handle this part of publishing yourself. You can do this online here: U.S. Copyright office.

Now, traditional publishers generally do this for their authors, and under these circumstances, it’s legit as long as you understand that you’ll never have complete control over your own work again. This is how traditional publishing works—they pay you money, you relinquish rights in return.

If you’re publishing your work independently, then please register your own copyright. It’s $35 if you do it online, $65 if you do it through the mail. The copyright form is pretty straightforward. Just remember to send them two copies of your book when it’s published.

The real rub over copyright comes in the self-publishing realm. Every self-publishing company brags about the fact that “you retain your copyright” to your work. And it’s true that some of them will register your work in your name with the U.S. Copyright office.

But there’s a significant percentage of self-publishing companies who will register your work under their name. In essence, they are stealing (yep, let’s call it what it is) the rights to your work.

Our advice from here is simple—buy your own ISBNs and register your own copyright with the U.S. Copyright office. That way, there’s no question who’s in control of your work.

The Paperwork of Publishing (part one)

ISBN scanIf you want to maintain full control of your work, there are four criteria that are absolute.

  1. You purchase and use your own ISBN numbers.
  2. You register your work with the U.S. Copyright office.
  3. You maintain total control of the digital files that create books for your readers.
  4. You direct all the proceeds from sales to your own financial coffers.

Let’s start with a quick lesson on ISBNs, International Standard Book Numbers.

These are the 13-digit numbers you find printed at the top of the bar code on a book’s back cover. In this country, the ONLY place to buy legal ISBNs (the ones recognized by the entire industry) is the R.R. Bowker Company, our friends who are responsible for Books-in-Print. Here’s the correct website: ISBN.

Why is this so important? A book’s ISBN (and this is true for ebooks, audiobooks, and books-on-paper) functions like its Social Security number. No matter where you work in the U.S., the money you earn for Social Security goes into your account. If your book has a legitimate ISBN, no matter where it’s sold, the proceeds of the sale are yours.

There are some circumstances when using another company’s ISBN is OK. At the moment, those circumstances include: publishing with,, Create and because so far, these companies have not tried to control books bearing their ISBNs. If you’re just starting out in the publishing business and you don’t want to spend a lot of money, using an ISBN from these companies just to gain the experience of publishing is OK.

But once you get serious, purchase and use your own ISBNs. They cost $125 for one but buy ten because it’s $250. There’s no expiration date. They are unique to you or your publishing company if you decide to give yourself a name. No one else but you can use them. Don’t bother purchasing bar codes because the major digital book printers will supply them.

When it’s your ISBN, it’s very, very clear who controls the money earned by your book.

On the dark side of this coin, run as fast as you can away from any company that will not agree to let you use your own ISBN (unless you’re dealing with a reputable traditional publisher). In the self-publishing world, owning a book’s ISBN is analogous to owning the rights to a book, and it’s a sure sign of a company with less than stellar ethics.

Who Controls Your Book?

In this age of audio, electronic, web-ready and paper books, how do authors control their work?
iUniverse crossed out
The most direct answer is this: The one who controls the master file that makes a book manifest controls the book.

So what in the heck does that mean?

Let’s start with a familiar example to help explain this important concept. All books-on-paper are now printed from digital files (PDFs) that function just like the digital files you have on your computer. Chances are that you’re using word processing software of some sort to write your book. When you do that, you are creating a digital file that makes your book manifest (real).

This is an important concept in copyright law as well.

As long as your work is on your computer and your computer alone, there’s no question about control. It’s yours. You control it.

But what happens if you take that word processing document and send it to a self-publishing company such as iUniverse so that they can turn it into a “real book”?

If you go this route (and we sincerely hope you do not), you will send a sizable check to iUniverse for their work, and they will create a PDF of your book’s interior and a PDF of its cover.

Let’s be clear about this—if you choose this path to publishing, you will be paying a company to make your Word doc into a hold-it-in-your-hands book-on-paper. So the digital file that gets used to print your book should be yours to control, right? In other words, you’ve paid for this work so the result should be controlled by you. Right?

Nope. Not even close.

Every self-publishing company touts the fact that authors who use them always own the rights to their work. Theoretically, that’s true (in most cases). What you don’t own are the digital master files—that you’ve paid for—that are used to make copies of your book.

So what if you’re unhappy with sales on the iUniverse website and want to print your book somewhere else? iUniverse will give you those files—for an additional fee—IF IF IF your contract allows for that.

Or you could be stuck…forever.

This is standard procedure in the self-publishing industry—you pay to create your work but you don’t really own the results.

There’s gotta be a better way, right?

What Do Indie Authors Really Want?

TOF-front cover onlyOne of the great attractions of a good travel website or book are the ratings for accommodations, places to eat and places to visit. Let’s face it, we all notice a one-star vs. a five-star rating.

But how do we rate book distribution agreements for independent authors? What are our criteria?

Recently, the website Digital Book World did an interesting survey of indie authors about why we do what we do. Going into the survey, most folks thought that the number one reason to indie publish would be higher royalty rates.

That was number two, as it turned out.

The number one reason why indie authors publish their own work is—creative control. (It’s certainly my number one reason to independently publish my own books.)
TRU-2015 front cover only
Now most folks would define creative control to mean that indie authors choose their own book covers, titles, and how the insides of their books look.

But in indie publishing, creative control means far more than that. The creative control exerted by an independently publishing author extends into the very heart and soul of the business of publishing. Within the traditional industry, that heart and soul is called distribution—the control of pricing, control of the stream of financial information, where and how to sell a book, and control of the printing process.