Friday, June 22, 2018

Every cover tells a story – world’s worst cover art & more

Because we really do judge books by their covers, author Russell C. Connor’s “Cover to Cover” workshop at this year's DFW Writers Conference  – make that, show and tell for indie published-authors promised to reveal “the worst book cover . . . in the world!” But fear not, he learned better. Maybe a million times better.

“One million – that’s the number of books published in a year in the U.S. More than half are self-published. Four – that the number of books the average person reads in a year. You have to be sure your book is one of those four!

“How to do that? I don’t know. But I can tell you from experience what doesn’t work, and that’s a bad book cover!”
Connor admittedly picked a difficult kind of book to sell – horror. But things started to look up when he got an offer from a small publisher. “They gave me two covers to choose from.” 
The one on the left in the illustration for today’s post was his choice. Although the less awful of the two offered by the publisher, he still hated it. 
“It took me a long time to realize why I disliked it: it doesn’t tell a story.” 
(The illustration on the right represents his own attempt at cover art after regaining rights from the original publisher. Better, but see his page at amazon.com for the final, knock it out of the ballpark version.)
World's worst cover -- but improving
However, he learned the ropes of publishing from his small press experience and decided to try it on his own. Which mean starting totally fresh with cover art – from talking a friend into designing covers (and inadvertently choosing “the most overused font in the world”), he talked his boss at his day job into letting him take classes in Photoshop and End Design and took a shot at cover design on his own. (Something he now says authors should never do.)
He kept his publishing business afloat by producing books for other authors, but several self-published books into his career, he finally decided to hire a professional artist. It increased his publishing costs by 400 percent, “but, it started to get interest.”
He also continued to refine the font he used. At last with a sympathetic cover artist, he has persuaded increasing numbers of readers to give his words a look, garnering awards as readers’ favorites and from the Independent Book Publishers Association. 
“Take those covers really seriously!” 
***
It didn’t feel like a good day to pitch a novel to agent Kristin Nelson. An unforeseen family obligation had already forced me to miss the first half of her two-day master class, “Write the Perfect Query Letter for Your Novel” at this year's DFW Writers Conference. More unforeseen circumstances, this time at the conference’s end moved my pitch session from mid-morning to early morning. And after carefully plotting the route from my house to the conference venue in a neighboring city, I found the highway closed for construction.
Kristen recognized flustration when she saw it and coached me through the pitch. “You’ve got the character, the setting, the goal,” she said. Then, before I could beam, she asked, “but what are the stakes?”
Stakes. The terrible stuff that will happen if the character doesn’t achieve her goal. If she can’t find a way through the unexpected construction in time to make her appointed meeting with a literary agent. Or fails to impress said agent because leaving out a story’s stakes is like getting dolled-up for a red-carpet event but forgetting your shoes.
And no, it’s not obvious to an agent – or readers – that the character will die a painful death if she fails in her goal. As far as they know, Ms. Character will say, “stakes, shmakes,” saunter over to the hotel restaurant and happily chow down an order of blueberry pancakes. 
This time, though, Kristen gave me her card and asked for the first 30 pages of my manuscript. Which I silently vowed not to send until I had thoroughly revised my query. And attended the second half of Kristen’s master class on query letters that afternoon. 
Helpfully, she did a quick recap. Her preferred format (but check individual agents for their preference) is for a subject line that includes QUERY: Title; an opening paragraph on how you know/know about her; the genre and word count and the pitch. 
As Kristen read a random dozen or so sample queries – written after the previous day’s workshop – it was a relief (or not) to hear that some of my mistakes had been repeated. 
“Get to your inciting incident quick! Your real estate is expensive, so don’t waste it.” And of course, “What is at stake? Make it personal.”
As with all writing, Kristen advocates reading the query letter aloud. She needs for the story to show up in the query (major plot elements only – her recommendation is nine sentences at most). 
“Don’t get so enthralled with the fabulousness of your world that you (miss) the story.”
Given that she gets 100-200 queries daily, “if I can’t figure out where the story is going, it’ll get a pass.”
***
Malaga Baldi opened her workshop on “How to Land a Literary Agent” with the disclaimer that as a New Yorker being depressed is her default mode. Lucky for her, her sidekick was the irrepressible North Texas writer A. Lee Martinez, who if he is ever depressed at least hides it behind hilarity. 
“For me, the query letter is very important. I probably get one really wonderful query letter maybe every 11 months that makes me want to stop everything and ask for the manuscript,” Baldi said. Before audience members could faint, she added, “I get other queries that I respond to.”
In fact, despite being “really important, “the query is only 10 percent of the total. . . most important is writing a really good manuscript, clean, lean and mean! Workshop it. But if your mother says it’s great, forget it!”
What’s less important to her? Titles. Do you want to see the book’s title, an audience member asked.
“Yes. It has an immediate impact but prepare not to be wedded to it. And if you don’t have a title in mind, that will work out. If I sell it, the title will change for marketing anyway.”
How about length, another audience member asked. “When I mention 200,000 words, I hear deafening silence. Is that a death knell?”
“Not necessarily,” Baldi said. “I sold a 300,000-word novel for a person who was able to cut 40,000 (words). It only sold for $2,000, but it won a best book award.”
What does she really look for in a query? “Voice. The voice that makes me empathize, that really speaks to me. (Also) enough foreshadowing in your letter to provoke me.”