How to Brand A Break-Out Bestseller

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This past month I had the pleasure of working with Lissa Ford an incredibly talented indie author. Lissa writes scorching hot M/M romance, and her prose and storytelling is as skillful as any indie or traditional author I’ve ever read. (And as a cover designer, trust me I’ve read a lot.) Recently I did her cover for her new series Bait, a procedural romantic suspense novel. Getting hot, moody men on the cover was crucial, and readers and Lissa both agree I succeeded. When she contacted me to say that it was time for her paperback, she informed me she was selling far more copies of Bait than she had with any of her previous releases and had hit and stuck a sub-thousand ranking on the Amazon store. After I finished with the paperback, I just had to ask her what her secret was so I could share with you guys!

  Lissa, I have to say I’ve read the look-in-side for your book, and you’re just a terrific writer. I think a lot of people in the indie community focus on the marketing, covers and branding, but it’s clear you got the nuts and bolts of how to craft a compelling story in vivid personality-rich prose. In my opinion this is always the most important thing.  What has your journey as a writer looked like? 

Thank you! I take craft very seriously and I’m always trying to improve. I’ve been rejected for many years by the traditional industry (surprise) but with indie publishing I’m able to write the books that I want to write, and readers seem to be responding.

Branding and marketing can only get you so far. Good writing gives the reader confidence to fall into the story and lose themselves. Sure, there are many examples of badly-written books that inexplicably take off, but I feel an author owes the reader the best work they can possibly write. The reader will then reward with sales and loyalty for your future books. There are no shortcuts when it comes to quality.

Bait, is your break-out novel. You’ve been staying steady in the sub-one thousand range in the kindle store. What factors do you think lead to this one connecting with readers and flying off the virtual shelves? 

I wish I knew! This is part of the “luck” factor that no one can control. BAIT is defying my own expectations, which is really great because I took what in the indie world would be considered a long break between books. It’s so thrilling that it’s connecting with readers.

I do think for a book to catch the eye of the reader and lead them to that initial investigation, having a kick-ass cover and a compelling blurb will get the book past the consideration stage. After that, it’s up to those first few pages to give the reader the assurance that the next few hours they spend in your world will deliver a satisfying read. It’s also undeniable the being in Kindle Unlimited is having a huge impact on rankings in the Amazon store. I’m a relatively new author, so KU makes sense in terms of discoverability. Readers are much more willing to take a chance on a new author in KU, and I’ve had the added benefit of seeing my backlist re-enter the top 100 in my genre, which is also amazing.
What would you say has been your number one marketing strategy to help you sell copies of Bait?

I gave my small (less than 200) e-newsletter subscribers a 24-hour $0.99 first day of release special. But I messed that up because I was terrified Amazon wouldn’t have the book live in time, so I loaded it in KDP the day before, and Amazon released it in a couple of hours instead of 12 hours like they usually take. Therefore, I had a “quiet” launch at $0.99, then my “official” subscriber day launch at $0.99. Both days were enough to vault the book up into the top 20 of the subcategory and appear on the first page. When the book changed over to its current list price, visibility was enough so that there was organic discoverability. I also didn’t offer a preorder, and I think that helped move BAIT up the ranks more quickly.

I had an awesome time designing this cover for you, and I think the end product turned out great! (And it seems readers agree!) My intuition is that getting the dark and brood-y mood, paired with two hot men really helped your book sell and made for an effective cover, but I’m curious to see what you think of the cover? What do you think makes an effective cover in your genre? In general?

I love the cover for BAIT. In my genre (m/m romance), hot guys on the cover are essential and you nailed it, along with the mood and the tone. I also think the BAIT cover is special in that it has artistic flair: one of the MCs is a little hidden behind the lettering, the other in front of it. It also pops in tile format on the Amazon page.

I work with other talented cover artists, too, and my Number 1 criteria is can they evoke the tone of the book (hot guys, romantic suspense) in the cover so the reader understands immediately what kind of book it is? Number 2 is, when in tile format, can the reader see my name and the title clearly? Number 3: does this cover look professional and attractive? When you’re an indie writer, quality presentation helps your book stand out.
Last but not least, I know you said you took a 7 month break between this novel and your last. What’s your opinion on speed vs. multiple rounds of revision on a manuscript and nitpicking chapters in rewrites to get that perfect polish? 

I was really worried about the length of time between my last book and the release of BAIT. My mother had passed away, and I’d gone quiet for a number of months. I also broke another indie “rule” in that I didn’t follow what had been my bestselling series with book 3. Instead, I thought I’d write a fluffy “in between” book while I prepped for my next-in-series book. But BAIT wanted to be bigger, darker, and more complex. Plus I AM I nitpicker, and I’m always tinkering with dialogue, etc.

This is just my opinion, but the rush to market, the “publish every three months or die” philosophy has resulted in traumatized writers suffering burnout, and it shows in their work. Don’t get me wrong, I wish I was a fast writer and I could pump out books quickly, but that’s not me, and I’ve accepted it. Every time I try to write fast, I’ve had to rewrite pages of dreck, which is frustrating and a waste of time. Now, I’d rather write more intentionally and enjoy the wordsmithing process instead of having it become a chore. I hope to write lots more books and keep entertaining readers, but it would really suck if I started to hate the one thing I really love to do: write stories. Life is too short.

If you want to learn more about Lissa’s publishing experiences or her books find her here: 

Website: http://lissafordwrites.blogspot.com/

Twitter: @Lissafordbooks

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Lissa-Ford-1526794810907708/

Crucial Statistics About Paranormal Romance Book Covers

 

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As a book cover designer and author, I spend a lot of time thinking about those pixels of real estate known as an “ebook cover”. One day while cruising the best-seller lists for inspiration, I realized that when it comes to knowing what makes a marketable ebook cover, I had been relying only on my observation and the wisdom of others. That’s good, but in the data-driven world of today, it’s not good enough.

So I went through the top 100 of Amazon’s best-selling e-books by category with the mission of discovering what best-selling ebook covers have in common. Because I write paranormal romance, I started there.

Before we plunge into what I found, a few notes. First, this data was taken on a single day. Second, this data set encompasses only 100 covers, not a large enough sample size to say anything with 100% certainty. And third, this data was taken from Amazon — so it may not be as applicable to other vendors. For those curious, the full data set can be found here.

Alrighty, let’s get to the goodies!

I started my journey by investigating PNR  book covers in the top 100.

To no one’s surprise, the most frequent subjects of paranormal romance book covers are hot dudes. However, testosterone doesn’t have sole dominion over romance book jackets. Over a quarter of book covers featured a couple and 12% a woman. Scenery and typography heavy design came in last place at only 5%.

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As a designer, this means I’ll be encouraging my PNR clients to feature a man on their covers and steering them away from plain scenery without a human element. If you think about it, romance is a genre driven by relationships. It’s hard to have a compelling love affair with an inanimate object.

(The noted exception to this is of course erotica like Fifty Shades of Grey. For truly risqué books, often covers will show little to nothing sexual so as to keep non-readers from guessing the true nature the reading material. However, in the world of e-readers, most people can’t tell what you’re reading. In this case, the only person the book cover needs to appeal to is the target reader and it can be as unsubtle as it likes. Thus, the man-boob was born!)

Next, I tackled everyone’s favorite question — do you need to have a shirtless man on your cover?

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On its face the answer seems to be yes. 68% of men on top 100 Amazon PNR covers were shirtless. But it’s important to remember that only 57% of covers had men on them at all, which brings the number of shirtless men on covers to only around 38.7%.

Is your head spinning yet with all these numbers? I know mine is. It can be easy to get lost in all the tiny details of book cover design and miss the bigger questions, like: How sexual on average are best-selling paranormal romance covers?

I broke down the book covers into four categories. 0 being non-sexual (see Nora Roberts), 1 being romantic (see Bella Forrest’s A Shade of Vampire covers), 2 being sexy, i.e a shirtless man with his abs covered, or a clothed couple kissing, 3 being  flamin’ hot, i.e a shirtless man with abs or underwear visible or a partially nude couple kissing.  T he average worked out to about 2.4. Which means paranormal romance covers, on the whole, are pretty darn sexual. If you think about the way the e-reader market works (no one else needs to see the book cover but you) and the fact that steamier books tend to sell better, this trend makes sense.

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You will notice that the bigger names like Nora Roberts or Bella Forrest tend to have less sexual covers than the greener authors. The more established your brand, the less sexual you have to be to grab readers.  

Phew, okay. If you’re like me, by this point you’d be happy to never see another underwear model and you’re probably wondering “What about the paranormal in the paranormal romance, Sylvia?” Good question. One of the hottest categories of paranormal romance right now are shifters. Werewolves, werebears, werecats, werehawks, you name it. Most shifter books feature the title animals on their covers, so I decided to break down which animals are the most popular. I discovered what we all knew, that bears are particularly beloved at the moment. But I was also surprised to note that wolves still held the top spot. Bears, bobcats and even gorillas may come and go, but the werewolf seems to be here to stay. Drilling down to look at some of the more exotic cover critters, I found cats to be popular in cozy mysteries. The lone gorilla shifter on the list can be explained by publishing powerhouse T.S Joyce expanding her series in new directions.

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The last variable I played with was one of my favorites as a designer: color. For me as a cover designer, this was probably the most useful piece of data I gathered. While I knew that the blue/orange combination is a favorite among graphic designers of all stripes, I had no idea how prevalent it was exactly. In fact, blue as the primary cover of PNR books is almost as common as shirtless men!

My Top Five Self-Publishing Advantages

My Top Five Self-Publishing Advantages

Self-published authors often feel like the younger siblings of the publishing world. As the younger sibling we may make tons of money, tell great stories. But to our insecurity none of that matters.

All too often indie authors, especially new ones, still want nothing more than to be like their older brothers and sisters at the big five. I know this because the one request I hear from new authors more than almost anything else.

“I want my book to look like a best-selling novel put out by a real publisher.”

First, if you’re going to jump on the treadmill of indie publishing you are a real publisher. Success won’t come easy. You’ll have to find an editor, a cover designer and reviewers. If you don’t behave like a publisher success won’t come at all.

Second, and more importantly, you’re not your older brother. An indie publisher releases books in a different way, to different audiences than traditional publishers. It doesn’t matter how much time you spend trying to emulate the big five. You’ll never be as good as them.

 You can only be as good as you.

That can be pretty darn spectacular.

But it’s also different. And every moment that you waste trying to emulate traditional publishers instead of trying to follow self-publishing best practices is a lost sale.

So here are my top five ways you want your book to be different than one that was traditionally published.

1.)  Your book can go directly to readers. First.

“We don’t need gatekeepers,” has become a battle cry for indies. And with good reason. Unlike traditional publishers self-published authors don’t have to market to book-sellers. We can find our audience and market directly to them. In my opinion, this means a new author’s shouldn’t seek out high-profile general review sites targeted to book-sellers like Kirkus, but focus on niche-specific influential bloggers and cultivated their social media presence.

2.) Your covers can be optimized for ebook sales.

Most self-published authors make the bulk of their sales through ebooks. Conventional wisdom asserts that this means your title and author name must be visible in thumbnail size. This actually isn’t so important. (Anytime Amazon displays your book right below it will be the title and author name.) What it does mean is that your book’s imagery should be compelling at thumbnail size. A super muddy, detailed painting of a tiny dragon – maybe not the best idea. A giant dragon’s eye – more effective.

3.) You want to write what’s hot, now.

Publishers acquire manuscripts years in advance of publishing them. So they’re always trying to predict what will be hot, instead of scooping up books that are. As an indie publisher you can ask your readers what they want now and give it to them

4.) You can publish fast.

Speaking of turn around, as an indie author your publishing schedule is dictated only by your writing speed and how fast your publishing team works. With freelance editors and cover design artists that can be very fast indeed. An indie author can a whole series completed, before a traditionally published author has even released their second book.

5.)  You can build your own team.

When you work with a traditional publisher you get a built in team. Editor, marketers, cover designer, all of that is picked for you. This can make your life simpler. But if you don’t like a member of your team, there’s often little you can do about it. As self-publishers we get to pick our support staff.

How awesome is it that you get to craft your own group of talented individuals that is right for your personal brand?

In sum, when writers tell me that they want to be just as good as traditional publishers I tell them, “How about instead you be the best version of self-publishing you.” Because it’s so much easier to kick-butt as yourself then as somebody else.

 

 

 

 

 

Three Book Cover Typography Tips

As a cover designer and author, I get the pleasure of meeting many different kinds of writers. Some are just starting out on their publishing journey, others are seasoned professionals who can and do often write entire novels in a month. And those same novels go on to become New York Times best sellers. Really. Besides their packed production schedules and polished prose, what sets apart the newbies from the pros? I’ve found it to be really only one thing: branding.

One of the easiest and most important ways to brand your book is through typography. For those who don’t know, typography is basically the formatting of any type on your cover.

Here are the three C’s of using great book cover typography to brand your books and yourself.

Consistency

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Your fonts should be as close to identical as possible throughout your series or catalogue. If you picked Times New Roman for your author name on Book 1, you should have Times New Roman for your author name on Book 2 and 3 as well.

This isn’t to say that all of your font choices should be uniform. I recommend anywhere from 1 to 3 different fonts per cover. However, whatever choices you make on cover 1 should remain the same throughout the series. This includes any flourishes you make to the title itself. For example, you’ll notice in my Moonbound covers I used the moon instead of the “o” on all three of my covers.

This consistency should extend to every facet of your online presence. You should strive for the same font choices in your mailer graphics, social media & website as you have on your cover. I recommend you receive all of your design work from one designer so that you can have a professional, seamless visual experience for your readers.

I find that it’s lack of consistency more than anything else is that is the hallmark of less than professional author brand. If you can’t afford to hire out all of your design work, or if you just are a DIY-er who wants to take over making Facebook & Twitter ads yourself. I strongly recommend a basic familiarity with Photoshop. Once you know your way around the layers and text panels, you can purchase all relevant PSD files and font assets from your cover designer. Then you should use those same assets by dragging and dropping them into your new social media graphics so that your title font looks the same on your website as it does on your book cover. Do keep in mind that I and many other designers charge additional fees to access the PSDS and unless you’re a Photoshop guru it may be cheaper to simply hire your designer to make all of your branding assets instead of trying to do it yourself with the PSD files.

 

Clarity

Book Cover Typography -- Don't Cry    Book Cover Typography -- Don't Cry

First and foremost, all of your typographic choices should be legible. Things like script fonts for author names or body text should generally be avoided. Overly decorative fonts that are hard or impossible to read at thumbnail size should be used sparingly.

Second, and this is a point that is often overlooked, all font choices should support and enhance your brand. A big blocky font may be very legible at thumbnail size, but it’s not appropriate for a YA fantasy novel. Type can also be a great way to clarify genre when you have a cover that may not be entirely obvious on its own.

In contrast, if you’re writing a thriller, scriptina might not be the best font choice and vice versa. Make sure that whatever font you or your designer picks screams your genre and brand.

 

Creativity

And here comes the rule that thumbs its nose at the two rules that came before it, but this may be the most important rule of all, because of the very nature of what a brand is.

A brand is an identity that is, ideally, yours alone. The whole reason brands were invented was a way to rise above the noise of the thousands of other products. So if your brand looks just like everyone’s brand already out there, you may as well not have a brand at all. This doesn’t mean that you have to throw out conventions entirely. A shirtless man with a wolf is still probably one of the best ways to sell a paranormal romance book. But it does mean that you should try if possible to add some flourish to your type or some distinguishing feature or style that looks slightly different from the crowd. For example, the “photograph” on a cover is a popular convention in everything from Romance to Historical fiction. But for the covers I did for Carol Davis  showcasing her collection of short sweet gay romances, I updated the concept by having each photo be part of the larger whole. Elements such as the heart were carried through the series design. (Okay I’m cheating that’s not technically a typographic feature, but it’s important all the same!) 

 Book Cover Typography-- He's the One, Carol Davis Book Cover Typography-- He's the One, Carol Davis Book Cover Typography-- He's the One, Carol Davis
So there’s your bite sized chunk about my thoughts on Typography in book covers and branding. Please if you have any questions, leave me a comment!