Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Guest Post by Marcus Sakey

Joe sez: First of all, I'm blown away by how many people have contributed to Tess's War on Alzheimers. You folks have raised over $12,000. As a result, I have over 100 guest posters in the upcoming months/year. 

Many have asked about the scheduling and length of their blog posts. There is no length, and I'll try to accommodate the date you want. Here's how to do it:

1. Email me with the heading TESS GUEST BLOG 7/15 (or any date you want)
2. Attach the blog post in MS Word with all hyperlinks already embedded.
3. Attach the cover art to your book as a jpg.
4. Remind me the day before you want the post to go live by sending all of the above to me a second time.

If there are any overlapping dates, the first one to send me their full blog post as described above gets that date, and I'll inform any other people that date is taken.

Here's the first guest blog for Tess--from my good buddy Marcus Sakey, who is even more talented than he is generous.

Take it away, Marcus...

Marcus: Hi all!

First, a bit of pre-business—Joe let me guest blog because I had an idea I wanted to write about, and he’s a friend.  But because it’s a hell of good cause, and I love the spirit of the thing, I just donated $500 to Tess Gerritsen’s amazing War on Alzheimers.

That means I get five guest blogs, right, Joe? 


Earlier this year I had the good fortune to get the rights back to my first two novels, The Blade Itself and At the City’s Edge.  A frequent question we’re all asked is which of our books is our favorite, and I can honestly say that answer is whichever I just finished.  But Blade was my first, and so it will always have a warm place in my heart.  And City’s Edge came out at a time when I was in the process of switching publishers, and as a result, it got sort of lost in the shuffle—no malice on anyone’s part, just one of those things.

So as you can imagine, I was delighted to get them both back in my hot little hands.  Both are now available on KDP, and for the next few days, The Blade Itself is free—please, go, help yourself.

To reach this point, over the last two months I’ve been working to convert them to e-book format (thanks to 52 Novels. for some great work), proof them (thanks Kristina), and design new covers.  It’s that last part I want to talk about.

Before I was a novelist, I worked in design and advertising for a decade.  For that reason, I’ve always had strong (and if you’ll forgive, well-founded) opinions on how the book covers should look.

Which is where the trouble came into paradise.

Traditionally, cover design has been considered a rarified art form, something handled by talented but invisible people at a publishing house.  While an author might provide some suggestions, they aren’t part of the design process, and pretty much never communicate directly with the artists.  Not only that, but because of the volume of books a publisher puts out, the process tended to be a little simplistic.  It goes something like this:

  1. Give ideas.
  2. Get a design back which may or may not incorporate those ideas.
  3. Do you absolutely hate it?  If so, maybe, maybe, you can go back to step one.
  4. If you don’t hate it, but don’t love it, then maybe you can make a few requests—change the color, swap the font, try a different blurb.
  5. Live with it forever.
This is different than the process I was used to.  Working in graphic design companies, it was understood that for any project, an artist would come up with ten or so sketches, which would be turned into three to five roughs, which would be pored over, reviewed, considered, mashed-up, swapped around, and finally turned into one single polished piece.

In my humble, that’s not how you get a great design.  The bar needs to be set higher than “I don’t hate it.”

To be clear, I’m not running down my old publishers.  They were good folks, all of them, and worked hard.  It was just that the system they used was different from the one I wanted.

So as you can imagine, I had a ball working with designers this time around.

I’ll talk about my second novel first.  As I mentioned, it was released under the title At the City’s Edge.  That was not my choice.  It’s an okay title, but not a great one.  Amongst other things, it seems very earnest, like a gritty social novel that’s going to make you feel bad about yourself, when in fact it’s a straight-ahead thriller that hopefully will keep you up past bedtime.

So my first move was to change the title.  What a liberty!

I renamed it Accelerant, the title I’d always wanted.  It’s a double meaning; in addition to the sense of velocity, it refers to a chemical agent used in an arson, which is one of the threads of the book—there are a rash of fires devastating Chicago.

With that in mind, I wanted the cover image to be suggestive of flame without being too on the nose.  I didn’t want any special effects infernos or buildings exploding; I wanted something that spoke to the larger themes of the book, while still being a grab-you-by-the-retinas image that stood out on an Amazon list.

A tremendous graphic artist named David Drummond brought it all together for me.  I love this cover: it’s evocative, sophisticated, and thrilling.  It plays to the essence of the story without trying to recreate it.  

But the cover for The Blade Itself is the one that inspired this article. 

My debut novel is the story of two men, once best friends and accomplished thieves, now rivals.  One of them has built a new life for himself; the other, newly released from prison, is willing to do anything to make a score of his own.  It’s about the way our sins not only follow, but form us; how we can be both tortured and tempted by the worst in our natures.  More than that, it’s about how very vulnerable we all are, how our neat little lives can easily be taken apart by anyone who has the will.

I wanted the cover to convey that mood: a sense of things out of balance, of the world going very wrong.  I wanted an almost vertiginous feeling to it, so that looking at it made you uncomfortable.

For this one, I worked with a designer named Mark Ecob.  After a few rounds, we had narrowed it down to three possibilities:

All three are strong.  The second is probably the most direct a representation of what I had asked for.  And it’s a grabber, with a nice polish and sophistication.

But I was heels-over-head about the first one.

Thing is, it’s kind of crazy.  First of all, it’s a definitely uncomfortable, maybe too much so.  Sure, I love it, but I’m a bit strange—would regular folks be put off by it?  More than that, in case you didn’t notice, it’s missing a few things. 

Like the title, and my name.

Of course, because I’m publishing this through KDP, I knew that both of them would be right beside it.  And my bet was that other people looked at Amazon the same way I do—the cover grabs your attention, the words seal the deal.

Still, it seemed like an enormous risk.  But here’s where the new dynamic of publishing offers some incredible opportunities.  Instead of being given one cover I had to live with, I had three dynamite options.  And since this is a brave new world, I decided not to make the call myself. 

I put all three up on Facebook, and I let my readers decide.

I’ll admit, it was scary.  I knew which I wanted.  I was confident that it was more important to have a really strong image that leapt off the page than it was to have my name and the title on it.  In fact, my bet was that by skipping them both, I would be lending more intrigue: that delicious, “what the hell?” feeling that makes someone click.

In the past, I had begged my publishers to let readers weigh in on what they did or didn’t like.  And they had always refused, mostly, I think, because they shared the fear I just enunciated.  What if the readers chose wrong?

But here’s the thing.  The readers can’t choose wrong.  If your point is to make something appealing to people, then whatever it is that’s appealing to them is, de facto, right. 

Not only that, but people are smart.  They have taste and style and opinions.  Especially book people.

To my great delight, the experiment worked.  While all three images had supporters, the first was the winner by far, not only in the number of votes, but in the intensity of response. 

People who voted for the second wrote, “Number two, I like it.”

People who voted for the first wrote, “Holy shit!  Number one!”

If there’s a lesson to be drawn from this, I think it’s that.  Yes, put in a lot of work and thought up front.  Don’t settle for the first thing that comes your way.  But more than anything, remember that the people you’re trying to appeal to are your greatest resource when it comes to knowing what will appeal to them.

Seems simple when you say it that way, huh?

Both books are now available on Amazon.  Accelerant is $4.99.  And through Saturday, June 22nd, The Blade Itself is free for the taking. 

I hope you will. 

And I’d love to hear your thoughts one the cover design process—what grabs you?  What kind of a cover just makes you click on it?

Joe sez: First of all, pick up both of Marcus's books. Thrillers don't get any better (his thriller Good People is currently being made into a movie with James Franco and Kate Hudson--how Franco got the part over me is unclear...)

Second of all, Marcus and I had the same frustration with our covers. IMO, the original Jack Daniels covers that my publishers used--while striking and well done--were Janet Evanovich-alikes, leading readers to think these books were funny cozies. The books are funny, but also scary and dark--themes not portrayed on the cover. They didn't scream thriller that will rattle your nerves. I've always believed my sales suffered as a result, as a lot of people who would have enjoyed them saw the covers and avoided them thinking they were silly fluff, and a lot of readers expecting silly fluff got serial killer mayhem that turned them off.

So when I got my rights back, I was thrilled to be able to change the cover to what I originally envisioned--something darker that says this is a thriller while still conveying the playfulness in the book.

When I signed with Amazon Publishing, they did something so outrageously original that it blew my mind:

They actually test marketed their cover art.

Before they chose a cover for my German edition of Shaken (called Mr. K), they actually created several covers and got a focus group to comment on which they liked best.

This, of course, has been done in other businesses for decades. Harold Lloyd did the first Hollywood test screening in 1928. Asking customer opinion is an invaluable tool of marketing, and can help make the final product more successful.

Leave it to Marcus (who, besides being a TV host and writer, also ran his own company in a previous career and knows a ton about marketing) to make Facebook his focus group. A brilliant idea.

When he asked my opinion, I immediately picked his favorite choice. In fact, I told him if he didn't use it, I would.

I also told him he didn't need to limit himself to one cover. I've changed covers as many as four times for a single title. If one doesn't work, try another and see if it boosts sales. 

One of the biggest advantages of being self-published is our ability to change something instantly. And this sort of experimentation leads to understanding what sells.

More writers should be doing what Marcus did here. I've seen a lot of newbies with--to be blunt--mediocre covers that they love and insist are awesome.

Maybe your cover really is awesome. But until you ask the opinions of the masses (not your Mom or best friend) you won't ever truly know. And if your sales are stalled, it may be because a cover that looks awesome to you looks to others like someone with mental challenges and impaired vision accidentally discovered Photoshop while drunk.

Get a second opinion who isn't emotionally invested in you. That's the only way it will be honest.

In conclusion: buy Sakey's books, and learn from his very valuable lesson. 

If all of my guest blogs are this good, the Newbie's Guide to Publishing will become a treasure trove of must-read info for writers.

Well, moreso than it already is... ;)

Marcus set the bar high with this blog. I can't wait to see what you other folks can do. 


Jude Hardin said...

I think I voted for #2 in the Facebook poll, but kudos for going with your gut and experimenting with #1.

And congrats on getting the rights back to your first novel. Wish I could.

I still have my signed copy of The Blade Itself that I won in your blog contest a long time ago. Great book! Best of luck finding a brand new audience for it!

Joshua James said...

I loved THE BLADE ITSELF, great book, fantastic writing... glad you got the rights back...

And yeah, that first cover, that's the one.

My question is, if you release a POD paperback on your own, will you put title and name on it?

Ann Voss Peterson said...

That is one disturbing cover.

I mean that in a good way, of course. :) Great discussion on cover design. I like the second cover, but I respond viscerally to the first. That image is not an easy one to pass by without finding out more.

I love Marcus's books and have them all in hardcover, but now I will also have them on my Kindle. Congrats on getting the rights back to the first two, Marcus!

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Thanks for the freebie, and I agree with both your cover choices. Great post. Best of luck!

Jill James said...

Great blog on the thought process for covers. #1 there will look good in any size. Kudos!

Merrill Heath said...

A few months ago I asked my wife what caught her attention when she looked at book covers. She said, "An interesting photo." When I asked her about the text and position for the title and author's name, she said, "I don't care. In fact, why bother to put them on the cover?"

Go figure.

Marcus Sakey said...

To be clear, I really like the second cover too. The great thing is that to Joe's point, if I find that this cover isn't working as well as I'd hope, I'll give that one a go. I love living in the future.

Merrill, it sounds like your wife is a smart woman. ;)

Joshua, yes and no. I'm putting them on the spine; the cover will still be clean. Frankly, I think it might be even more arresting as a physical book.

And thanks, Ann! Always a pleasure to disturb you.

Unknown said...

Great post Marcus. I haven't read any of your stuff so far, but I look forward to it.

My favorite part in this is when Joe says:

I've seen a lot of newbies with--to be blunt--mediocre covers that they love and insist are awesome.

Maybe your cover really is awesome. But until you ask the opinions of the masses (not your Mom or best friend) you won't ever truly know. And if your sales are stalled, it may be because a cover that looks awesome to you looks to others like someone with mental challenges and impaired vision accidentally discovered Photoshop while drunk.

Couldn't agree more. I wrote an article on my site about how a crap cover can KILL your book. I suspect it's one of those things that gets read and everyone shakes their head and says "glad that's not me".

And that's not just newbies. So many people are unwilling to take criticism and unwilling to change course.

Isn't it ironic that when 100 people get feedback and refuse to change and refuse to improve and refuse to listen, the 1 person who listens and chooses to do something about it is also the 1 out of 100 who ends up successful?

Funny how that works.

Great post.

Jude Hardin said...

Marcus, I'm curious as to why you went with free for your BookBub campaign rather than, say, $.99. It seems free just isn't having the same post-giveaway impact as it used to.



Andrea said...

Jude - my free eBook promos still do really well. My one $0.99 promo didn't do as fantastically. But it's all a crap shoot anyway. :-)

Joe - can we send you an email to reserve the date we want without attaching our blog post? I'd like to wait a bit before writing mine (see what others have to say, first), but want to make sure I get the date that'll go well with the release of my seventh book.


Unknown said...

That Whiskey Sour cover is just fantastic! Love it!

Someone should do a post on 'How to Create a Bad Book Cover'

Now that will be interesting.

Jude Hardin said...

But it's all a crap shoot anyway.

Lately, with BookBub campaigns, I've noticed that the $.99 titles are usually ranked better after the sale days than the ones that had been listed for free. It's no secret that Amazon is trying to discourage free giveaways, so I imagine they've adjusted their algorithms accordingly.

Michael Alan Peck said...

Great post. If this is the level of guesting we can expect from this donation campaign, we're in for a very informative run here.

Anonymous said...

"Jude Hardin said...
It's no secret that Amazon is trying to discourage free giveaways..."

So much for Amazon wanting their books to succeed.

If free give aways builds a fan base over time, but sales provide immediate revenue--looks like the short term gains are more important than helping authors build a fan base inthe long run.

Maybe Amazon can be the new "number Six" and make the "Big Five" the "Big Six" again.

Hollis Shiloh said...

Wow. That was an interesting post! I feel like I learned a lot. I probably didn't. But I feel like I did.

One thing that interests me about the chosen cover of the three...I didn't notice the lack of title and name. At all.

I have such a strong habit of glancing at the cover for the picture and then to the right for the title that I never noticed it.

And this is also from when it ran in my BookBub advert! I didn't notice it lacked a name then, and I didn't notice it in this blog post until you said it didn't have a title and author on it. Then I looked and, wow, it didn't!

Either I'm singularly unobservant (certainly a possibility), or this cover thing could use some major rethinking. How do people look at covers, truly? And do any of them, like me, just not pay much attention to the title as written on the cover?

Anonymous said...

Marcus, both the link from this article and the Bookbub newsletter link take me to the Amazon page for The Blade Itself, but on my side, it's not free - it has a "this title is not currently available for purchase" message.

There is a link to another kindle version for $9.31, but I'd rather have the free option, oddly enough. Is this because I'm not in the US but on the Southern tip of Africa? And can you do anything about it?

As to the covers, I love the one you chose and also didn't even notice the missing title/author until it was pointed out.

Good luck!

Unknown said...

> If all of my guest blogs are this good, the Newbie's Guide to Publishing will become a treasure trove of must-read info for writers.

I couldn't have said it better myself.

I quite enjoyed the discussions about creating and choosing covers. Naturally, we've been giving this a lot of thought at Nepo Press.

I think we've come up with an even better way of choosing the best of several covers, but I can't think of any way to do it without Amazon's assistance.

It works like this: you create your two or three covers and publish with *all* of them at the same time. Amazon would show only one of them, chosen randomly, to any one book browser, and keep careful count of how many purchases, sample downloads, look insides, and clicks from the "people of viewed/purchased". Just think, anywhere from several thousand to a million presentations of each of the competing covers and *count*, not what people *say* they like, put what in fact spurs them to *action*. (Forgive my excitement, I love this idea.)


Unknown said...

> Isn't it ironic that when 100 people get feedback and refuse to change and refuse to improve and refuse to listen, the 1 person who listens and chooses to do something about it is also the 1 out of 100 who ends up successful?

While I'm on the subject of statistics, I'd just like to remind the above commenter that 78.32 percent of all statistics are simply plucked out of thin air.


Kit Grant said...

But what if you agree 100% but don't have a fanbase yet and are about to release your first book?

My YA fantasy will be released early 2014 and since I work in design I've already come up with a bunch of different cover treatments. But since I have no fanbase, and no friends who are raving YA Fantasy fans (my friends might like Epic Fantasy or Paranormal Romance, neither of which is the correct genre) I'm not sure where to turn for opinions on which covers readers in the genre would prefer.

I have considered asking some book bloggers who blog in the genre who already do 'cover reveals/opnions' if they would let me guest post and ask their readership, but not sure if they'd even be willing to do such a thing for an unknown newbie. I'm also thinking of finding some fan-groups or looking into Wattpad.

My target group is the reader who reads YA Fantasy, and enjoys series such as Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Abhorsen in writing style. Now just need to find some willing to talk to me about covers...

Mark Edward Hall said...

If Amazon is truly trying to discourage free books and are adjusting their algorithms accordingly, then what's the point in going exclusive with them?
Wasn't free the dangling carrot that persuaded so many authors to go exclusive? If I'm going to run a .99 promo I'd rather run it across all platforms.

Marcus Sakey said...

Jude: This is my first BookBub, and for me, the benefit was in broad exposure, reading a large number of readers I haven't before. I've got a backlist, and I'm confident enough in my work to believe that if someone reads it, they will like it, and buy others.

So my goal here was to get as many free copies out as possible. Do I hope that translates into a sales spike when the promotion ends? Most definitely. But even if it doesn't, I have faith in the long tail nature of the process.

Hollis: I'm delighted to hear that! And you're not alone. I think this is a good example of an occasion when the established wisdom isn't the only way to do things.

Anon: Sorry about the pricing in Africa; I'm afraid I can't do anything about that. To be honest, I'm surprised it's even for sale there; I only allowed KDP North American rights, because I've still got deals in some other countries.

Frank: I love that idea. Be great if Amazon would implement it as a feature, even if it came at a nominal cost.

Kit: Sure, I've got an idea--give $100 to Tess's campaign, and use your guest blog here to focus group your cover designs.

Julie Kramer said...

How complicated was it to get your rights back, Marcus?

Kriley said...

You're advice is great, but unfortunately "...until you ask the opinions of the masses (not your Mom or best friend) you won't ever truly know" can be deceiving. My book cover seems to really divide people. Either they love it or feel it doesn't do anything for them. No one has ever hated it though, so I'm happy about that.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kevin -
At the risk of taking the discussion off topic, I have 2 suggestions.

- the title could be bolder and contrasting

- the blurb and cover don't speak of "fantasy". i had to scroll to the bottom to know what genre the book was. maybe more of a "grabber" - with some fantasy element.

The Masses

Anonymous said...

I don't really like any of the three covers, but if I had to pick one I would pick the second cover.

I think a better question to ask is not "Which cover do you like?", but "Which cover would make you read the product description?"

D. C.Chester said...

I wwant to change the cover and title of an ebook available on Kindle. Is there a "proper" methond for alerting readers that it's not a new novel?


William J. Thomas said...

D.C., I'll answer your question - Check out any of Barry Eisler's John Rain ebooks on Amazon. This is a great way to do it in my humble opinion - putting 'previously published as...' on both the book cover and next to the Amazon book title to the right of the cover.

No confusion there!

Anonymous said...

Was 'The Blade Itself' only available free to people in USA?

Anonymous said...

"The blade itself incites to violence." - Homer

Does the blade itself actually incite?

I don't read thrillers, but a question like that could possibly (not always) make me read more to find out.

Picks by Pat said...

Hi Marcus,

The Blade Itself is a personal favorite of mine. But I love the cover for Accelerant! Hope the book does well.

I didn't have much input for my first cover, but I was happy with the results, so it was a mute point. I figure, I'm a writer, not an artist. Let the artists do their thing, and I'll do mine. If I had the rights back, I'd probably try something different, though.

Sean Murphy said...

I had no idea that Whiskey Sour wasn't silly fluff! I've read Origin and The List and really enjoyed them. But I had no plans to read any of the Jack Daniels series because I wasn't interested in more Janet E. books (I read the first one and it was just okay).

I'll try Whiskey Sour now that I know it has an edge like your other works.

Anonymous said...

Like The Blade Itself #1 cover. Makes me wonder "what the hell is this"? Title and Author's name not needed unless title "provokes" (pick up & look inside) action.

Author's name means little to prospective readers if you are a Newbie. (Ego deflates!)

Tried to download FREE copy Sat, 6/22. Said $3.99. Does that happen often? How do you correct it for the people who think "bait and switch"?

Or has Obama tossed Texas out of the USA and I have not been informed?


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