A self-publishing journey: book covers and current “conventional” wisdom and more

A self-publishing journey: book covers and current “conventional” wisdom

After quite a long gap, I’ve decided to self-publish a few books. I thought it might be interesting to write up my journey, because perhaps the research I undertake will be beneficial to others.

I know, both from my own experience as a book buyer, and from reading many experts’ writing about this, that the cover of your book matters a lot. At least, I think I know that.

I wouldn’t presume to know enough about all this to doubt the views of all these experts, but I do have some doubts. The reason is that my field is non-fiction. Specifically, education. And within that my field is bout teaching and using technology. So my doubt arises from the following thought: if I write a book called, say, “How to use widgets with primary school children”, that is a pretty specific title, and only primary teachers who want to know how to use widgets with their classes are likely to be interested in buying it. In fact, to come across it in the first place, they would probably have had to search for it. In that case, would the cover make that much difference? Perhaps it would. Maybe, if my cover looked boring, amateurish or just plain “wrong”, potential readers would buy the rival book with the better cover? I genuinely don’t know.

I have another problem with covers, although it’s actually the same problem in another guise. I have looked at scores, if not hundreds, of covers, and most of them look the same. I think that must be because the current “conventional wisdom” in graphic design school is that book covers have to have particular styles of typography, certain kinds of illustrations and (above all) particular proportions.

I need someone to come up with a really bright idea

The only cover designs I did like were not really cover designs at all, but templates that you could adapt in Photoshop. Unfortunately, I’m not a Photoshop user. In any case, I suspect that if I were to use one of these templates my book cover would look exactly the same as a hundred other ones that are based on the same template.

What I am looking for, and so far I have been singularly unsuccessful, is a book cover designer that is a maverick. If there were a Facebook group for people who had been thrown out of graphic design school for being unteachable or “off message” or something, I’d look right there for someone to hire.

This phenomenon of what I’ve called “current ‘conventional’ wisdom” crops up time and time again. For instance, I have already written, in The get-rich-quick itch, about the predilection of some writing experts to insist on writing short sentences.I was delighted to come across LONG SENTENCES and why you should use them by Emma Darwin, whom I met at a Society of Authors workshop; do check out her website and blog, This Itch of Writing.)

Another example is in story-telling, where almost everyone I read or hear telling a story does so in the present tense. After two or three sentences, I find this excruciatingly boring.

But back to book covers. I need a book cover designer. I am not looking for one who thinks outside the box; I am looking for someone who doesn’t even recognise the existence of a box!

Oh well, back to the search engine.


Antivirus Blues

One of the things I’ve learnt over the years is that if my antivirus program tells me there is a new version that I need to install, I always create a system restore point (I’m using a PC). Why? Because on almost every occasion something doesn’t work afterwards.

Sometimes, it won’t allow me to connect to the internet. Other times, like this morning, it won’t let me download my email.

Metaphorically speaking, this is what my antivirus program did when I tried to access my email

In my experience, technical support is useless. If you’re lucky, you may get a response a day later. Or you may even have to pay. I tend to use two solutions.

One, I try to find a workaround until I have time to figure out what’s wrong. If it won’t let me connect to the internet, I use my phone instead. Then, when I have time, I check the firewall settings. It’s usually blocking access because it has decided to apply the strictest rules available. That would be fine if I were in a cafe or an airport lounge, but not in the comfort of my own home. I usually find that adjusting the settings to a less strict setting does the trick.

Two, when my email goes on strike, like it did this morning, if I have to get on with work I access my email directly from the web. Then I search the web for a solution I can understand.

This morning, I found three solutions. Two of them were indecipherable. But one seemed pretty straightforward. It involved going into Settings, then clearing all the allowed ports under “Email”. As I didn’t want to open the floodgates to even more spam, or close every gate in existence on my system, I took a screenshot of the settings first.

I did this by pressing PrtSc (Print Screen), then pasting that into a graphics program called Paint.net. There I cropped the picture so I could see the settings clearly.

Having taken that precaution, I followed the instructions, and they worked!

The great website I found for the solution is called Warrior Forum, but probably even more important is the search term I used. I first tried searching for the error message I received in Outlook, which was:

Receiving' reported error (0x800CCC0F) : 'The connection to the server was interrupted. If this problem continues, contact your server administrator or Internet service provider (ISP). The server responded: -ERR Cannot establish SSL with POP server, SSL_connect error 1:error:14077410:SSL routines:SSL23_GET_SERVER_HELLO:sslv3 alert handshake failure'

Result? Zilch.

Then I tried searching for “error (0x800CCC0F)” and was presented with stuff that was even less comprehendible than that!

Finally, I searched for “antivirus program blocking email”, and found the solution immediately.

I hope this is useful for you. Obviously, I need to point out that if you follow what I did and clear all your settings and your whole system freezes up, on your own head be it. I’m not responsible, and this is not technical advice. I am simply sharing a few things I tried and which worked for me. Good luck!


A Self-publishing journey: Is Digital Rights Management effective against piracy?

After quite a long gap, I’ve decided to self-publish a few books. I thought it might be interesting to write up my journey, because perhaps the research I undertake will be beneficial to others.

Today I’m looking at whether or not you should choose Digital Rights Management, or DRM, as a way of preventing your ebooks being illegally copied.

"caught in the act", by *sax https://www.flickr.com/photos/saxonmoseley/

DRM is a form of encryption that prevents your work being copied. Therefore, both intuitively and as a matter of principle, you may think that choosing to implement DRM where you have a choice (such as on the Kindle Direct Publishing platform in Amazon) is a no-brainer. Intuitive, because nobody likes to have their books pirated because that ought to reduce their income stream. On principle, because that’s a way of saying to the world, “This stuff is my copyright, so please respect it.”

According to the Author Earnings Report of July 2014, the biggest publishers opt for DRM, as you’d probably expect, while around only half of independently self-published titles have DRM activated.

What effect did DRM have on sales? The sales figures suggest it harmed sales, because 50% of non-DRM ebooks accounted for 64% of sales. The report also observes that self-published titles without DRM sell, on average, twice as many as those with DRM. The report goes on to say:

What our data strongly suggests is that DRM harms ebook sales at any price point.

What might account for this counter-intuitive finding?

From my research, looking at presentations by Andrea D’Orta of Elsevier, Rebecca Smart of the Osprey Group, and David Gaughran, author of Let’s Get Digital, which is part of the Indie Author Powerpack I described in Current reading: Books for Authors, the following factors appear to be key:

  • DRM may prevent a legitimate buyer from using it on another device, eg if they switch from a Kindle to a Kobo. That means they face the choice of either purchasing their entire e-library again, or getting hold of illegal copies from file-sharing websites. As Gaughran points out, implementing DRM inadvertently encourages people to become pirates.
  • Another unwanted side effect is that it would obviously annoy anyone who had already paid for the ebook to have to purchase it again.
  • There is some evidence that some people will not buy any DRM-enabled ebooks on principle.
  • As if all this wasn’t bad enough, apparently the DRM encryption is dead easy to crack if you know what you’re doing. In other words, it doesn’t effectively prevent piracy from the real criminals anyway.
  • A more effective defence against piracy is to make your ebook so accessible (available for all ebook readers) and so inexpensive, that downloading pirated copies is not worth the risk of getting caught, or the time and effort involved, for most people.
  • Many authors would argue that obscurity is worse than losing sales.
  • Anecdotal evidence as well as hard data suggests that on balance sales are higher without DRM than with it. The argument seems to be that pirates would not have paid for a copy anyway. I’ve also heard that people, having acquired a copy without paying for it, will often then buy a copy in order to do the right thing by the author. Perhaps even if they don’t do that, they may buy other books by the same author.

I’ve had some experience of DRM vs non-DRM. When I was selling my non-DRM ebooks on e-Junkie, sales were consistently higher than my DRM-enabled ebooks on Lulu. However, I am not sure how much one can infer from this given that I tended not to draw too much attention to the Lulu ebooks. Also, one of the formats available in Lulu was Apple, which accounts for just 9% of the UK’s ebook market.

I think for me the biggest issue is not the money, but not upsetting my customers. I believe that most people are honest, and it seems wrong to inconvenience everybody because of just a few people. In all the years I was selling my ebooks on e-Junkie, I was only ripped off twice, when after the ebooks had been downloaded, payment failed, and several emails to the people concerned were ignored. My view was that if people value their reputation at less than $10, they have some serious issues.


A Self-publishing journey: Why self-publishing?

After quite a long gap, I’ve decided to self-publish a few books. I thought it might be interesting to write up my journey, because perhaps the research I undertake will be beneficial to others.

Today I’m looking at why have I chosen self-publishing rather than traditional publishing.

Actually, to some extent I haven’t. I’ve submitted a synopsis of a book proposal to a traditional publisher, and awaiting their decision. In other words, I don’t see this completely as an either/or issue. Each approach has its advantages and disadvantages. Having been published in the standard way, and self-published, here’s what I think are the pros and cons of each.

Traditional publishing


I think it is still the case, though less so than in the past, that having a book published by a “real” publisher is a mark of quality in many people’s minds.

The reason is twofold. First, publishers act as gatekeepers, and won’t publish any old thing. Second, they have a team of editors and proofreaders who can ensure that the text and formatting are as good as they can be. They also have book cover designers to make the book look good, “blurb” writers, and marketers.

In other words, publishers have the means by which they can make your book look good, tell everyone it is good, and can point to the fact that they publish only a small proportion of the submissions they receive as an indication of their insistence on quality.


In theory, traditional publishers have the people and money to carry out marketing campaigns and generate publicity.


In my opinion, these positives don’t completely stand up to scrutiny.

First, publishers don’t necessarily take on projects based solely on their quality and contribution to the sum of human knowledge. They take on things they think they can sell.

Second, in my experience I have been better at marketing my books than my publishers have. I’m willing to be surprised. I’m even prepared to accept that maybe I have been extremely unlucky (although whenever the subject comes up at Society of Authors events, lots of people make the same observation).

I can understand this. After all, my book is only one of several that the publisher has to promote. I think too that it is a matter of expectations. Over the years I have come to believe that whether an author self-publishes or goes down the traditional route, he or she has to do a lot of marketing.

Third, a big minus point of traditional publishing is the length of time it takes for a book to get from manuscript to something you can see on the shelves of your local bookshop. Never less than a year, unless you happen to be a big name author writing a biography of a celebrity that just died in a car crash. Those books seem to come out in about a month.

I suspect they have already been written. Obituaries, for example, are written long before the subject has died. They are just updated from time to time. This situation led the writer Gay Talese to observe an unsavoury fact about obit writers:

Furthermore, he admits that, after having written a fine advance obituary, his pride of authorship is such that he can barely wait for that person to drop dead so that he may see his masterpiece in print.

(See Mr Bad News)

The long time lag may result in a book to be proud of, but in some fields (my own, for instance), it could sound the death knell of the book. For example, imagine writing the definitive guide to teaching X, only for it to have been published just before the Government declares that X no longer has to be taught.


The pros and cons of self-publishing, by which I mean doing it all yourself (as I explained in A self-publishing journey: what IS self-publishing?), are pretty much the converse of all the above, namely:

  • You can publish what you like: there are no gatekeepers.
  • You have to do or organise everything yourself: editor, proofreader, book cover designer etc.
  • Despite that, you can publish incredibly quickly: within a couple of hours of your book being ready, in fact.
  • That means that if you work in a rapidly-changing area, like technology, there is much less danger of your book being out of date even before it sees the light of day.
  • You have to be your own marketing department (which I believe you have to be anyway).

Well that’s it for now. In future posts I’ll share what I’ve found out about, and what I think about, digital rights management, and how to make the books available to potential buyers, plus anything else I manage to glean on this self-publishing journey.

I know it’s a bit risky to announce this, in case nothing comes of it (eg I might get run over by a bus), but I'm hoping to write and self-publish a few books. If you'd like to be kept informed of new titles, please sign up to Terry's Books Bulletin by clicking the button below. Thank you.

(If you already subscribe to Digital Education, which is designed for people who work in education, all you have to do is click on the text in the footer of a recent newsletter, the bit that says “Change email address etc”, and you’ll be presented with a form on which you can select the Books Bulletin.)


A self-publishing journey: what IS self-publishing?

After quite a long gap, I’ve decided to self-publish a few books. I thought it might be interesting to write up my journey, because perhaps the research I undertake will be beneficial to others.

Today, I’m clarifying what the term self-publishing means because, unfortunately, it’s not as obvious as you might think.

There are several variants of self-publishing. Here’s how I think of them.

Vanity publishing

This has been around for a very long time. This is where, traditionally, you pay a publisher to publish your books, or at least make a sizeable contribution to costs. In return for a payment of several thousand pounds or dollars you receive five or six lavishly produced books. You are unlikely to make any money at all from this venture, not least because, having already received payment, the publishing company has no incentive to try to sell anything.

In the days before self-publishing became viable for everyone, the only reasons I could see for anyone choosing the vanity publishing route were either to see their work in print, knowing that no real publisher would touch it, or because they wanted to produce something like a family history or memoir that would be of no interest to anyone outside the family, but tremendously important to its members.

You can tell who the Vanity publishers are. They tend to advertise that they are seeking manuscripts, whereas real publishers are usually inundated with the things.

Then when they receive your manuscript, they tell you it’s wonderful -- before asking you for a “contribution” towards costs.

Self-publishing companies

It all gets a bit confusing when you realise that there are self-publishing companies that will help you get your book into print, in exchange for money.

I think where these differ from vanity publishers however is that they tend to offer a range of services and, crucially, they usually make it pretty clear that you will have to do much of the marketing yourself.

I have never used either vanity publishers or the kind of self-publishing companies I’ve just talked about, but the way I see it is as follows.

A self-publishing company can be useful as a kind of one-stop shop. They will, or can, provide the services of an editor, a proof-reader and a cover designer. They will also sort out ISBN numbers, send copies to the various Book Deposit libraries, and ensure your book is for sale on all the major platforms.

That’s all good, though it can still take a while for your book to materialise. You should also realise that placing your book in all the major platforms is neither difficult (just time-consuming), nor marketing as such.

Prices vary enormously and, as with traditional publishers, you have to have the contract gone over with a fine toothcomb. (If you want to read some real horror stories about contracts that tie “independent” authors in for years see the Writer Beware blog.)


What makes this whole area even more confusing these days is the following:

  • Some traditional publishers have also introduced a self-publishing option.

  • Some agents have also decided to go into publishing.

  • Some so-called “self-publishing” companies are basically short-run printers.

Do-it-yourself self-publishing

In this model, the author is responsible for every aspect of the publishing process. That is not to say he or she does everything. In fact, it makes a lot of sense to outsource some aspects, like editing or cover design. Joanna Penn, in Business for Authors (which I reviewed here: Review of Business for Authors: How to be an author entrepreneur, by Joanna Penn) talks about creating a virtual team, which I think describes it pretty well.

Also though this involves a lot more work, and there’s every chance that the finished product won’t look as good as it could do if you cut corners, what appeals to me about it is that you are completely in the driving seat. You don’t have a contract, and you are not dependent on someone else deciding whether your work is good enough or not.

So, having had experience of being traditionally published, and of self-publishing in the independent sense I’ve just described, and having researched many different self-publishing company models, I have decided that my preferred way forward for most of my books is the do-it-yourself self-publishing route. Why? That’s what I’ll cover in my next post.

I know it’s a bit risky to announce this, in case nothing comes of it (eg I might get run over by a bus), but I'm hoping to write and self-publish a few books. If you'd like to be kept informed of new titles, please sign up to Terry's Books Bulletin by clicking the button below. Thank you.

(If you already subscribe to Digital Education, which is designed for people who work in education, all you have to do is click on the text in the footer of a recent newsletter, the bit that says “Change email address etc”, and you’ll be presented with a form on which you can select the Books Bulletin.)


More Recent Articles

Click here to safely unsubscribe from Writers' Know-How. Click here to view mailing archives, here to change your preferences, or here to subscribePrivacy