On July 8, in the morning session, Joel Friedlander will present We All Judge Books By Their Covers — How to Create Book Covers That Work; for the afternoon session, he’ll be part of a panel doing live critiques of BAIPA authors’ book covers.
Earlier this week, I interviewed him over the phone about how he became an expert on cover design, self-publishing, and creativity.
Q: You’ve become the go-to person for book designing, self-publishing, and more. Tell me about your journey to becoming the expert you are today.
A: I grew up in the printing industry. My father was a compositor, worked his way up through the printing business. I worked in graphic design. Opened my own business. Had my own publishing company in the 1990s. Traditional publishing. I’ve experienced every side of publishing — as an author, a publisher, now as a blogger and pundit. I self-published my first book in 1986, Body Types. I was working in the publishing industry and I knew no publisher would publish it. Back then, you had to get your ISBNs in the mail.
The tools have changed, but the principles of graphic design have not. I spent a lot of years using the old tools — I had a typesetting system, T-square, rubber cement. Everything has changed for the better. I love all of it.
Q: Many authors struggle to get visitors to their site, but your site — thebookdesigner.com — is heavily trafficked. I stumbled on you when I was searching for self-publishing advice. How did you make that happen?
A: That’s been the confluence of two things. I needed business. I needed clients. That was the drive. And I also discovered I have a talent for blogging. I had just come from two years of free-writing. More based on free expression than any particular end product. Freeing up your creative flow. Like warmups.
There could not be any better preparation for blogging than this free writing I’d been doing. I couldn’t do all these blog posts if I could not write as fast as I do.
The other thing: I was in a good position — at that time, no one online was writing about how to put a book together. I was looking at a lot of self-published books that were not good. They needed guidance, and pretty soon I was providing that guidance.
I also work very extensively at marketing my blog.
A: When I started blogging, I took a course in blogging. I was hesitant. I took this course from a young Australian. How to write foundation content. How to write good headlines. How to market your blog. These days, I don’t do as much. You get to a certain point where the traffic alone drives the site.
If I have 5,000 people on my site, some percentage of those visitors are going to amplify the site for me. I used to go to the BAIPA meetings every month and write down all the questions people asked in the Q & A session. That told me what people wanted to know, needed to know, about printing on demand, ebooks, marketing. What they were stuck on.
Q: Where do people get stuck the most?
A: They don’t understand the process of how a book gets produced, marketed, sold. Very few people actually understand all the elements involved in production and the marketing. They may not have those skills.
Q: Can you give me an example?
A: I was helping someone who wanted to do a paperback, but his word count was 125,000. With print on demand, you’re paying by the page. People are buying your book for entertainment — you do the right kind of how-to book, you can charge whatever, but for entertainment, you have to price competitively, and you get to the point where you have no profit.
Q: You’ve seen a lot of self-published books. What would you say are the most common weaknesses?
A: Their covers. I started a competition on my blog around 2011. People submit their covers. I critique them, give some gold stars for the best ones. I see maybe 120 per month. I evaluate each cover. Part of the fun of the presentation I’ll be doing at BAIPA is that I’m going to explain the analytical tools I use for critiques. Self-published book covers suffer mostly by being done by the author. There are some authors who have produced brilliant book covers. But the biggest mistake many self-publishers make is not evaluating their own skill. Having a professional book cover is as important as anything.
That’s not to say that every traditional book publisher creates great covers. But authors these days can pick and choose the designer they want to work with, someone familiar with the audience you’re trying to sell to. The issue is not whether the design looks good. We have to design covers for buyers. That is the single biggest mistake authors make — they’re not thinking about the buyers.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had authors tell me they have a photo on their refrigerator they want for the cover. If we want to sell books, first and foremost we have to think about who are the most likely prospects to buy your book and design the cover to appeal to them.
If you’re writing historical romances, look at the top 100 sellers. See the themes that repeat over and over again. No romances would use Helvetica for their title. To design a cover for fiction, you usually have to read part of the book. You have to understand the author’s voice. The cover has to give the reader clues as to what kind of story it is, translate the author’s voice into design.
Too often, I see covers that are assembled more than designed. You take this photo and add this type. There’s a skill to design. An art.
Q: Some people do a lot of things right, yet still have a hard time getting visibility, getting sales. How does one break out of the pack?
A: Your cover design is a big part of that. Not everyone has all these skills to do all the pieces involved. The authors who are successful are either brilliant writers who rise via word of mouth — and there are very few slots for that career journey — or people who are good at interacting with others on social media. If you have tens of thousands of followers or you’ve grown a huge email list, that can get you a long way.
People have to get a platform together. You can do it with speaking, blogging. I wrote for others. Your market is aggregated around all the activities you do.
Q: Where is independent publishing going? It almost seems we’re headed toward a time when everyone is publishing their own book.
A: I do think the tools will get easier to use. You’ll be able to walk up to a machine and put a USB drive in and a book will pop out. But the retail element and the understanding of how books are sold — that business will still be a business and require entrepreneurial skills. I predicted in past interviews that successful self-publishers were going to become small presses and regular publishers. Lo and behold, that’s happening.
The people who discover they can produce a book for profit will look for other authors to publish. They can’t possibly write enough of their own books. If I know Sally is writing stuff my readers will love, but she doesn’t have a clue about publishing, I can publish her book.
There are going to be more tools to sell direct on the web. You can already set up widgets on social media to sell books without having to leave the site.
The other thing — I know this sounds retro — but people are discovering offset printing, which is how 99 percent of books sold in bookstores are printed. Once you’ve established a market, you’ve broken out, you can get better quality and better prices with offset printing.
Q: You wear a lot of different hats. What do you enjoy doing the most?
A: I’m publishing a book now about creativity. Not about book publishing. Eighteen Ways to Think about Creativity. I interviewed myself. Over the years, I’ve learned a few things — from mentors, from my dad. Plus I’ve written a million words on my blog. It’s my personal vision of creativity.
Hope to see you at the July 8 BAIPA meeting on cover design. Register here.