Tag Archives: book publishing

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?

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 Blurb.com, Lulu.com, Create Space.com and Kindle.com 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?

Publishing Without Borders

Landscape in snow for web
The complexity of the currently publishing landscape comes home to me again and again as fellow writers turn to Full Circle Press for guidance for their books.

I had one such interaction this morning, via email, with a man who attended one of my What Would William Shakespeare Do? workshops. He’s a photographer for passion and a landscaper by profession, something that’s very difficult to do in Vermont in winter.

In other words, money is an issue and he’s struggling to cling to his passion in the face of his financial reality. Should he give it up?

As much as the trolls bemoan the now universal access writers have to publishing outlets, here at Full Circle Press, we revel in it because everyone has a story to tell.

And now that we are freed from the gatekeeping constraints of traditional publishing, we have a multitude of ways to tell our stories to one another. In fact, we encourage new authors to try the low or no-cost avenues so they get a feel for the business. Then, if/when they decide to get more serious, they know how the process works and how to recognize quality book production services when they see them.

You can publish your book-on-paper for free through Amazon’s Create Space program if you are willing to take the time to make your book cover with their tools, and follow their instructions for how to manage your book’s interior.

You can upload your book electronically for free through Kindle and Smashwords and sell it around the world. Make sure you follow their very detailed instructions on how to do this right using Microsoft Word.

You can construct a book with pictures and text using free software through sites such as Lulu.com, Blurb.com, iBook.com (using Apple’s iPhoto software), and MyPublisher.com. You have to pay for the finished books (these sites make their money on printing) but you can create your books for free.

You do understand that unless you’re familiar with this type of work, the results may look less than professional.

But you will be published. And you’ll learn A LOT.

What Is a Book?

Rolloff pile for web
Sonja Hakala’s Your Book, Your Way is being revised and renamed. You can read sections of What Would William Shakespeare Do? in real time right here. If you want to start at the beginning, you can by clicking here.

How would you answer to the following questions:

  • If you write the first draft of your fiction by hand in composition books, do they constitute a book?
  • If you slide a CD into the player in your car to listen to a P.G. Wodehouse story, is that CD a book?
  • If you write the first draft of your work on a laptop computer, does the word processing file you produce constitute a book?
  • What if you use one of the cloud-based softwares to pen your great American novel? Is that a book?
  • What about the biography you read on your Kindle or iPad? Is the ebook on your reading device a book?
  • What about a PDF that you send to to printer to make chapbooks of your poetry? Is that a book?
  • If you draw pictures to illustrate a story that’s written on the same pieces of paper, and then bring that pile of pages to a copy shop, which one of those items would you call a book—the pile of original pages or the copies?

Believe it or not, the way you define the word “book” may not be the same as the way a self-publishing or traditional publishing company or distribution company defines “book,” and knowing the difference is critical for contemporary authors.

For the purposes of your understanding while you’re in the pages of What Would William Shakespeare Do?, here is the definition of book that we are going to use: A book is the original source from which an author’s work is made manifest to its end consumer.

Sounds like it was written by a lawyer, doesn’t it?

To make this clear, let’s take the list of questions at the beginning of this chapter and go through them one at a time to figure out what’s a book and what isn’t.

  • If you write the first draft of your fiction by hand in composition books, do they constitute a book?
    Yes, though you probably wouldn’t want anyone to read it. First drafts are meant to be ugly beasts. But you could make copies of it for others. The composition books are an original source from which an author can make duplicates to share with consumers, readers in this case.
  • If you slide a CD into the player in your car to listen to a P.G. Wodehouse story, is that CD a book?
    No. In this case, the CD is a copy of an original audio file made by a voice artist. The audio file is the original source, the “book.” The CDs are the way that that original source material can be shared with consumers or listeners in this case.
  • If you write the first draft of your work on a laptop computer, does the word processing file you produce constitute a book?
    Yes. Your word processing file is an original source. Like the composition books or audio files discussed above, your word processing document can be used to make a work available to readers.
  • What if you use one of the cloud-based softwares to pen your great American novel? Is that a book?
    This one is tricky because the answer is “Yes…but.” Yes, your first draft on cloud-based software can be distributed to readers so in that context, it’s a “book.”
    But there’s another question to ask in this case—who or what controls that file? Can you do anything you want with it? Print it out on your home printer? Convert it into an ebook file that you can use however you want?
    If the answer is no, then this does not fit our definition of “book.”
  • What about the biography you’re reading on your Kindle or iPad? Is the ebook on your reading device a book?
    No. An ebook file on your reading device is in the same category as the CD of an audiobook. The original ebook file—either an ePub or a Mobipocket (which we’ll get to in the ebook section)—is the original source material. In other words, the original ebook file is the “book.”
  • What about a PDF that you send to to printer to make chapbooks of your poetry? Is that a book?
    Yes. In contemporary printing, PDFs are the original source material from which all copies of books-on-paper are made no matter what printing method—offset or digital—you use.
  • If you draw pictures to illustrate a story that’s written on the same pieces of paper, and then you bring that pile of pages to a copy shop, which one of those items would you call a book—the pile of original pages or the copies?
    The original pages.

Why does this matter so much?

Well, there aren’t too many hard and fast rules in contemporary publishing but here is one—Whoever or whatever controls the original source material for an author’s work controls the means by which that work gets to readers.

That is why it’s important for authors to understand what the word “book” means. Before you sign any contracts or hire a company to produce your work for readers or listeners, you need to be sure that their definition of book matches yours.

Control of original source material is NOT the same thing as controlling copyright. Both are important to understand but they are not equivalent, and informed authors need to understand the difference.

As we go on, we’ll talk about how some book companies—particularly those that call themselves self-publishers—exploit this disparity for their gain and authors’ loss.

The Bedrock of All Publishing—Copyright

FreePile for web

Sonja Hakala’s Your Book, Your Way is being revised and renamed. You can read sections of What Would William Shakespeare Do? in real time right here. If you want to start at the beginning, you can by clicking here.

As a description, the term “traditional publishing” is rather new. Before the year 2000 or so, you didn’t need to distinguish this form of publishing from any other. It was just “publishing.”

We’re in a brave new world now but the norms and standards of traditional publishing still dictate how the whole world of books thinks and operates.

You don’t need to understand every detail and byway of the book biz but there are some big concepts you ought to know, and COPYRIGHT is the fundamental concept that underpins all of book publishing.

The basic agreement between traditional publishers and writers is this—publishers agree to underwrite the cost of producing, distributing, marketing and selling an author’s work in exchange for a portion of its sales revenue and the right to be that work’s only publisher.

Before digital technology changed book publishing forever, copyright was a singular noun, and it meant that authors sold the rights to print and distribute their works on paper to individual publishers.

But consider how many forms a book can take now—electronic, audio, as the basis of a film or television show, in a serial, in an anthology, in a multitude of foreign languages, and on the web as well as on paper.

Each of these forms represents a right that an author owns as soon as she or he makes a work manifest in some way—on paper, on a computer, in a recording, on video. And authors own these rights for their lifetime plus 70 years. This is the bedrock of copyright law.

In the United States, there is no legal requirement that a work be registered with the federal copyright office in order for an author’s copyright to exist.

Is it a good idea to register your work on Copyright.gov? Yes, in most cases.

But it is NOT a legal requirement.

Publishers have responded to the multiplicity of copyrights by crafting contracts that often take all the publishing rights to a book—in perpetuity.

This is as true for traditional publishers as it is for self-publishing companies.

Unfortunately, too many authors realize that they’ve lost the rights to their works long after the ink is dry on their contracts. To counter this, our standing advice is twofold.

  • If you decide to pursue publishing with a traditional company, do so with the guidance and advice of a copyright attorney or a reputable agent.
  • Don’t go anywhere near companies that market themselves as self-publishers.

There’s a lot to be said about copyright, and it is important that authors understand their rights before venturing out on any publishing path. There is no room for sentiment here. Copyright is all about business so you really need to wear your hard hats.

There’s always more to learn about copyright, and you can start by reading here, here, here and here.




Where Are You Going?

Riprap path for web

Sonja Hakala’s Your Book, Your Way is being revised and renamed. You can enjoy reading sections of What Would William Shakespeare Do? in real time right here. If you want to start at the beginning, you can by clicking here.

Before you venture down any publishing path, you need to have some idea which one will best serve your needs. In order to do that, I need to ask you some questions.

Let’s begin with an exercise in imagination. Picture a finished book in your hands. It’s your book, and you can see your name on its front cover.

You’re not keeping this book. You are going to do something with it. The question is what.

Got the picture? OK, here is the first question I’d like you to answer.

What do you intend to do with your published book?

  • Do you want to sell it to the public?
  • Do you intend to give it away? If it is your intention to give away—not sell—copies of your book, this is called private publishing, and there’s a whole section of What Would William Shakespeare Do? devoted to this type of activity.
  • Will you send it to reviewers?
  • Will it be used as a fundraiser for a nonprofit organization?
  • Do you intend to sell it at conferences where you speak?
  • Will you use it as the text in a class you’re teaching?
  • Is it a portfolio of your creative work?

If you intend to sell copies of your book, this is called open publishing, and the bulk of What Would William Shakespeare Do? is dedicated to ways in which you can make this happen.

If you intend to sell copies of your book, you need to know something about where you’d like to do that in order to pinpoint your best distribution option. Here are a few questions to get you thinking about your approach to that subject.

  • Do you want to sell your book only on Amazon.com?
  • Do you want to sell your book in bookstores and libraries as well as on Amazon?
  • Do you want your book to be available in specialty stores such as those devoted to home improvement or crafts or in museums?
  • Do you want to sell your book at conferences or at workshops where you speak or teach?
  • Do you want to be the only one selling copies of your book?
  • Do you intend to sell your book only in an electronic version?

You may answer no to this question of sales to the public and that’s perfectly legitimate. A large number of books are published for private audiences. These include: memoirs or family histories intended strictly for family members, picture books for an author’s children or grandchildren, commemorations of a significant event or giveaways in a marketing or sales campaign.

Here is the second question you need to answer.

What does your book look like? (Bear in mind that the answer to this question probably will change as you explore all the publishing options open to you.)

  • Is it in full color or black and white?
  • Is it a small chapbook for your poetry or a full-sized novel or a coffee-table book?
  • Is it full of imagery such as photographs, illustrations, maps, etc. or is it all text?
  • Is it a hardcover book with a dust jacket or a paperback book? Is it spiral bound?
  • Is it electronic only, on paper only or both?

Here is the third and last question you need to answer.
How much money are you prepared to spend to get your book published?

You don’t need an exact figure but think about this for a while. What is your budget for this venture? Zero is a legitimate answer, one with built-in limitations to be sure, but legitimate all the same.

As you answer these questions, you are developing a description of your personal publishing goal. Use this goal as your guide to determine what avenue or avenues are right for your work as you go forward.

Whatever your publishing goals, I urge you to explore all of the options covered in What Would William Shakespeare Do? before making a final decision. You may discover a scenario that fits your goals better than what you originally planned while avoiding some of the very real pitfalls (not to mention scams) in the process.