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Archive for publishing

How long should your memoir be?

Authors ask me if their memoir is long enough. Actually, they usually ask if it’s the right length. How long should your memoir be? There’s a wide range of answers, and one of them is the right answer for you. The skill you will need from an editor of your memoir is knowing which length is best.

It’s not enough to say it depends, when I hear the question of how long should your memoir be. I usually ask questions like how much time does your story cover? Years, or months, or weeks? Some memoirs, only a few, can cover a handful of days. The shorter the time span, the more likely it is you have a good sense of how long your memoir should be.

You want to locate the turning point in the story. It might be after your wife died and you found your path onto schooling, leading to an advanced degree. In one book where I’ve helped out, that degree showed the author had healed his pain over the troubled marriage. Memoirs demand focus for writers, to keep readers engaged. That’s one reason they run best at about 65-75,000 words.

Make the story fit

It can be a real challenge to get a story that you’ve lived all your life to fit into a container of that size. Jeanette Walls has a memoir, The Glass Castle, that memoirists everywhere like to reference. Yes, it’s been a movie, it’s that popular. It’s super-long at 100,000 words. And Wild has been an astounding success at 130,000 words. Again, movie-worthy, and it’s important to note that the finished screenplay was about 150 pages. They winnowed on Cheryl Strayed’s winnowing. But Joan Didion wrote The Year of Magical Thinking, about losing her husband and her daughter in the same year, in just 50,000 words.

Glass Castle runs from the author’s little girlhood to her entry into college. Wild covers just the weeks of a long trek across the Pacific Crest Trail, plus many flashbacks into the author’s girlhood and addictions. The Year of Magical Thinking covers a year. Each of these stories has a container in time. Without a container, the meaning of the book drifts. Everything we live through is vital and searing to us. It has less potential for such sharp meaning to our readers, though. We pick our storytelling spots and work on making them sparkle.

A subset or a slice of life

As a development editor, I tell my authors we may look at a manuscript and come to a decision that it’s going to need a refocus, a winnowing of the many stories into a one subset of a life. That’s memoir’s mission: to help both the author and readers see how one chunk of a life changed things for the better.

No matter who you talk with about editing, everyone should be recommending Beth Kephart’s memoir book Handling the Truth and the one by Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir. Refer to them in that order; Karr has a more poetic approach. They both have memoir reading lists for your reference. Since you want to get published, rather than publish yourself, you’ll be in the race with books that follow those books’ guidelines. Knowing what else has been commercially successful is important.

Memoir editing can be a big journey. Sometimes there’s that moment when your editor says, after reading your pages, “How about more on that topic?” Memoir demands emotionally difficult material, usually, when you’re asked to add something. The hardest stories can come out last. My father’s suicide was the portion of my memoir Stealing Home that my editor asked me to write.

You’ve spent many years living and remembering your story. Giving it the best chance it can get will be worthwhile. It will also give your writing a better chance of a publishing contract.

Self-publishing, self book marketing: How to tips

So you’ve finished your book! Good news, if you’ve already invested in editing and purchased a pro cover. Now is the time to shoulder the wheel of marketing and distribution. Self-publishing is not real publishing until it includes self book marketing. My concise list gives you tasks to accomplish.

You need to write sales copy. That’s the brief and enticing copy you will find on every book’s page at Amazon. You will also use this copy in a fact sheet (sometimes called a tip sheet in traditional publishing). It’s not all words in a fact sheet. A photo of yourself is essential in one. You send the fact sheet out to reviewers and bloggers you’d like to cover your book. You send the sales copy to Amazon and any other retail outlet you’re using. For example, IngramSpark needs this copy. So does Bowker, where you registered your ISBN numbers for the book.

Try out promoting at Goodreads. You set up an author account there (mostly by “claiming” your book as your own.) Once you have an author status, Goodreads promo tools like giveaways and book feeds (think Facebook-style) will be in your grasp. In the meantime, tell your tribe to review your book on Goodreads. They can put it on their to-read lists, too. Goodreads is the best place to encourage your fans to post their reviews. Of course, if they’re buying from an outlet with a website, a review is good there, too.

Make your website your hub

Double down on your author website. Bare minimums: a fun About Me page (tell a story or two about how you came to create your book, how you decided to be a writer) and links to the places your book is on sale. A blog is super useful to create writing you will offer for free to interested readers. Have links on your website for the social media accounts you will be feeding with delicious snippets. One big plus is a way to take orders for your book from your website. There’s an easy way to take these kinds of orders using Aerio, a service run by IngramSpark. They print your books on demand and fulfill orders. You can also hand-ship signed copies to your greatest fans if they order through your website.

Not only do you make more money per sale by moving books through your website, you also connect to readers (more on that in a minute). Amazon will never tell you anything about who reads a book you’ve written.

Create Advanced Reader Copy files (called ARCs) to send out to reviewers and allies of the book. Digital files should be in PDF, EPUB, and Kindle (MOBI) formats. Have your cover designer help out. You need these copies to help you land some endorsements of the book. Those are sometimes called blurbs. They give your book some validation, and praise, if you’re lucky. Don’t leave home without a few blurbs and endorsements.

Get those ARC files into the world for automatic download. Bookfunnel is a good and inexpensive service to use for this process. In some cases, places like Bookfunnel can even round up a few reviewers. Bookfunnel is like NetGalley but less costly. They both have promotional offers.

Make your outreach

Create and feed an author newsletter. This can be an email with just three links to interesting webpages where something happened that relates to your book. It’s much better if you write a snippet about your writing life and an aspect of your story. It’s best of all if it links to your blog. You create an emailing list of your own to send this newsletter to. Simple ways to build email lists are to swap with other authors in your field or genre. You will be doing a lot of asking with humility while you market. It’s not so bad once you’re used to it

Your author newsletter connects you to fans and readers of your books. Again, Amazon will never do this so you can see who your fans are.

Build a reader magnet to build your mailing list. You might have had good stuff from your book that just didn’t make it into the final cut. Revive it. Write histories of your characters. Write an author’s guide to the best books from your genre. If you’re unsure what a good reader magnet looks like, seek out authors like you who are creating this bonus content. Look over what they’re doing.

Develop posts for social media. People use various kinds, but you’re never far away from connecting to readers and potential fans when you use Instagram and Facebook. Create a Facebook account for your author life, not just your personal Facebook account. Your book is represented by a Page, which lets you attract Likes. Those Likes are a way of pushing your news into the Facebook Feeds of your readers. Instagram works differently — hashtags and listing the accounts of others gets you into feeds.

There is more, always more

Some of the rest will cost you more. Contest entries are the least expensive. Paid reviews will be more, and some people don’t think they’re that important. There is advertising at Amazon and at Facebook you can purchase. Take great care with that, and measure and test as you go. For more connection, you can use YouTube or Facebook for chats with fans: tell them when you’ll be live by putting the date and time in your newsletter. You can even record a little video for use on Instagram, or post one on your YouTube channel.

What, you don’t have a channel yet? It’s easy to set up. Use it to get the word out. Buy a ring light to illuminate your smile for the camera. Tell the world about your book. Then you can revel in the life of a self-published author who is doing their self book marketing.

Photo by Charisse Kenion on Unsplash

Put proofreading into books after copyedits

Ah proofreading, the finish carpentry of editing. Many authors who create their own books think they can skip it, leaving the proofreading work to a copy editor.

Pro publishers do not do it this way.

These are the kinds of things I never thought I’d care about while I was traffic director at Graphics Express in Austin in 1984. Inside that typesetting shop, though, we had a dedicated proofreader who read every bit of type that was set. The mission was, and always is, to find typos.

I have a funny story about proofreading. In a bit of maximum irony, it comes from a writing coach. In a PDF handout, the coach writes this…

“Wikipedia says copy editing is ‘the process of reviewing and correcting written material to improve accuracy, readability, and fitness for its purpose, and to ensure that it is free of error, omission, inconsistency, and repetition.’ ”

Then she adds, “There is a great deal of overlap between this kind editing and proofreading. It would be unusual for a writer to have both a copyedit and a proofread of the same manuscript.”

I’m going to tell you there’s a typo in the coach’s advice, and let you have a little sport in finding it. Hint: it’s only two letters long and is a missing word.

Just to be thorough, that coach’s advice from that PDF uses two different styles of copyedit. The Chicago Manual of Style recognizes only the verb without a space between copy and edit. So copyedit, not copy edit.

And the person doing the work? They can be a copy editor, or a copyeditor, according to the Third Edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary and the British Oxford Dictionary of English. (These are the flesh and bone of Apple’s Dictionary app.)

So clearly, any advice that you don’t need to get an MS both a copyedit and a proofread depends on who’s doing the proofing. It’s safe to assume the coach had her writing copyedited. Not so much for the proofreading.

With all credit to the Chicago Manual of Style, here’s what the CMOS says about proofreading:

“Proofreading here … applies to the review of the manuscript after it has been converted to a format for publication but before it is published. Usually, this format consists of the typeset and paginated pages of a book or journal article (referred to as proofs or proof and read either on paper or as PDF) or the full text of a book or journal article intended for publication in one or more electronic formats other than PDF.”

Go the extra step and get your book looking professional. Even if its only format will be digital. Pro advice: have proofreading follow your copyediting. Try to get two pros here — or if you love your copy editor, give the copy a week or two to rest before that person gives you a proofread.

Image by Lorenzo Cafaro from Pixabay

Agent intelligence flows from Writer’s League

I took a deep class this month on attracting a literary agent. Offered by the Writers’ League of Texas, it was provided good intelligence on getting books considered for representation. It might have been the single best $52 I’ve spent as an author and coach. For example, I learned that some agent businesses are a “solo shingle.” That’s a single agent, successful at a larger company, who starts their own business and finds books to sell to publishers.

In another example, the instructor Becka Oliver (director of WLT, she worked at William Morris as an agent) had advice about writing the Compel section of a query letter. Despite all the other options of contacting agents, the query letter remains the lingua franca of agent pitching. By crafting your Compel paragraph, you try to lure the agent into requesting pages they might agree to represent.

Some agencies permit the submission of sample pages with your initial outreach. The agencies nearly always request a “cover letter.” No surprise, that’s your query letter. In order of materials requested for fiction, the readers at an agency dig into the query letter, then the writing sample. If they request a synopsis, Oliver said that agents are likely to look at it only if they’re well along in the book and need a map to see where the story’s headed. Nothing is absolute about this process, of course.

In another example, a query’s Context paragraph is the best way to assure an agent you know where your book should live on the shelves. One phrase that I’ve used in query letters is, “This book is for readers of [commercially successful book like yours] and [critically successful book like yours].” Both these kinds of books like yours help the agent place your book prospects.

There was plenty to learn. Oliver drew out maps of the Big 5 publishing empires, plus independent presses like Coffee House and Dzanc. Both of the latter group will consider non-agented projects. They do prefer agented submissions, though. Lots of authors don’t remember to check up on the indies while querying. Those kinds of queries to the indie presses can go straight to publishers. The Big 5 imprints — and there are so very many of them — demand agented material.

Query letter advice was only a part of the WLT class. What to expect to hear when you get a call from an agent. What questions to ask an agent when you’re offered representation. Ask them what they specifically love about your book, for example, just to see if they really read it. How to follow up: Wait for something significant to happen — a contest, a publication of a short story. You want more good news to add to the submission.

You also will wait “as long as it takes” to hear from an agent. After a matter of months, it can be permissible to send a little email saying, “I know you might be just getting ready to read, and…” The submission of your book for consideration is a humbling affair. But agents, acting as gatekeepers, are a very good means to get a professional publishing contract.

How to use Amazon KDP Select, or skip it

Amazon throws its weight around. They have books to sell that are exclusive. They also sell other ebooks like everybody else does: book distribution can happen simultaneously with other retailers and reading services. Kindle books can be sold only at Amazon when authors use Kindle’s KDP Select. It’s an exclusive sales channel.

Amazon calls it Kindle Unlimited for the readers; the authors know it as KDP Select.

The Kindle books which are not set up for the Select program do not need to be exclusive. It’s a choice that the author-publisher gets to make. And change back and forth, if they want. When an author chooses to use KDP Select, Amazon makes the author commit to a 90-day exclusive term. (Authors are warning each other that the exclusive term rolls over automatically — unless you turn it off.)

Self-publishers make up a big share of these Amazon-exclusive booksellers. I’m not sure why, but if after awhile you haven’t sold many copies by the book, you probably believe your book can do better if you sell by the page.

It often does not.

What KDP Select costs the author

There’s a downside to KDP Select: You’re only paid per page read. Readers only pay $10 a month to Amazon and can read as many Select books as they want.

It’s a sales model that encourages browsing, instead of reading a lot of pages inside one book. When you stand at a buffet, you usually don’t load up your whole plate with roast beef only.

Amazon puts an Unlimited book into a higher rotation when readers are searching for books. An author still has to stand in line, though, behind the books that are advertised on Amazon. If you type “viral pandemic novel” in the Amazon search box, you don’t see my Viral Times. Well, you don’t see it after eight pages of search results.

If an author wants to use Kindle Select, it’s easier as a first move. You launch the book at Amazon. You don’t have to list it anywhere else, because it’s brand-new and exclusive.

If you go Select as your second strategy, it can be hard to pull a book out of distribution at all the other sales outlets. It’s especially hard if you have hired an aggregator to get your book into all those online stores. Aggregators are popular. For a lot of self-published authors, if they’re being sold anywhere else, managing all those other outlets manually can be time-consuming. Leaving the management up to the aggregator can mean it’ll take weeks to get your book off the non-Amazon sites.

Here’s an article on the struggle to get a book off of non-Amazon outets.

You sometimes have to fight to get your book out of a non-Amazon store — which is required if the book will become Amazon-exclusive. Smashwords used to distribute author books to a store in India, Flipkart. Authors learned that Flipkart never pulls books off of its lists. Amazon refused to let those authors get into Select, because their books were locked onto Flipkart.

The only way to fix the Smashwords problem? Smashwords had to quit Flipkart completely.

You can never tell how an online retailer will behave until they have to do something out of the ordinary. That’s the problem with using an aggregator like PublishDrive or Draft2Digital or Smashwords. They are your managers of the relationships with dozens of platforms.

What being Amazon exclusive gets an author

I have an author friend who did well with her romance in Select. She had a publisher and invested in ads. She wrote in a popular genre, one where reading many books cover to cover is a habit.

Kindle’s books can move in and out of Select status, but as I say above, it can be complicated to move them. I have client who’s in the Select program, so his book can be read in Kindle Unlimited. He’s not doing any better being exclusive to Amazon than selling direct. He hasn’t pulled his books out of Unlimited/Select, though.

I never took Viral Times into Select, and I have stayed away from Select for my memoir Stealing Home, too. It’s just that I want control — which shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows me, a fellow who’s an editor and gatekeeper at heart. My views on listing a book as a Select title might change, but I’ll need better evidence that Select/Unlimited makes a difference.

Sales strategies come and go, after all. Books can return for sale on an online app like Rathe. Maybe that’s after an author has tried the exclusive KDP Select — and learned there’s still no substitute for advertising a book on Amazon.

Whenever you refuse Amazon’s exclusivity in KDP Select, you’re “going wide.” The same thing occurs in audiobooks, where you can publish through (Amazon’s) Audible exclusively. An author makes more per sale at Audible that way. You can’t buy the ebook or the audiobook anywhere else, though.

Just like selling ebooks, Audible commands a much larger share than other audiobook sellers. Amazon’s lead is not as big in the books market, though. Not everybody is reading from Amazon. Amazon certainly doesn’t know a thing about apps compensating authors by the episode consumed in the micro-reading of books.

Libraries and the future

Like everybody, I’m looking over my shoulder at library borrowing. It’s completely free for a reader, and great books are available there. Bestsellers. Also self-published books like Viral Times, or the audiobook for Stealing Home. (There’s a trick to getting those books through most libraries. You must have a free Hoopla account that ties to your library account. You get four borrows per month.)

Hoopla used to be Midwest Tape, a service that made books on tape available to libraries. A library has to purchase a copy of my memoir to offer it in their collection. It’s either got a one-copy-at-a-time license, or it uses a pay-by-the-reader license. Those second licenses are a lot more expensive for a library, so they usually buy a limited number of the single-reader books.

My ebook for Stealing Home is in these libraries. A library catalog called WorldCat has it listed at libraries in Dallas, North Dakota, and Alaska. Because Kobo distributes my memoir, it goes to OverDrive. And so my memoir can be checked out. You can also get it from your library by using Hoopla, another app that ties to your library account.

Viral Times has got a very special place at Rathe, an app that lets you read books 650 words at a time. The platform is the only other place besides Amazon where you can buy my book. I’m not in the Kindle Select program. At Amazon, I sell by the book, and I can sell elsewhere, too. The paperback hasn’t sold in a very long time. Maybe that will change — I just got my first Amazon order for a paperback sale in more than five years.

There’s a catch, of course, when you sell a paperback like I chose to do with Viral Times.

Viral Times isn’t print on demand. I have a couple of boxes here at the house that I got printed in 2012. There was no print on demand in 2012. I wrap a book and send it through FedEx Ground to get it to an Amazon warehouse. Amazon pays me $4 for this book. You can guess how much it costs to send it through FedEx, or even USPS. It’s more than $4. You need a tracking number, or Amazon can claim they’ve lost it.

Distribution — which amounts to outlets for sales, and sometimes the selling, too — is the trickiest part of the publishing adventure. Listing a book on a website is only wholesaling; there’s little effort to drive sales to the site, unless your email practices are strong.

Discovery by a reader while they’re already at Amazon is different today. Amazon has tilted the tables toward vendors and authors who advertise. Amazon used to let authors believe in organic discovery. Then Amazon started to sell ads, then made up Unlimited, and now there’s no substitute for buying ads for a book that’s in Unlimited at Amazon. Even that doesn’t work so well. Ad purchases can amount to big fees for clicks onto a book’s listing, but few sales.

The options to make ebook sales have their limits. It’s better if you know them coming in. A good article on the website Just Publishing Advice lays out the pros and cons of Select versus regular sales of Kindle books.

Let’s get real about self-publishing

I used to be an ardent fan of self publishing. I thought that the extra money you’d get out of making your own business choices, along with bigger royalties, would offset the extra work of publishing yourself. You could be rewarded with sales because no one cares as often about your book (every day) or as much as you do.

Then I self-published nonfiction. Books like my Stealing Home can be easier to sell than fiction, especially since mine’s about Little League baseball and fatherhood. But mine also has an art component. Out of all of the nonfiction created, memoirs have the greatest amount of art. My nonfiction book has plenty of dramatic scenes. Good memoirs can get away with that level of entertainment.

Self-publishing meant more than just hiring good editors and coaches, or getting a great cover on the front of a book that has no typos inside. It meant getting good reviews, then finding a way to get publicity for the book. Making choices about contests to enter (not free) and the shows to exhibit at (ditto). It meant discovering that bookstores are a lot less likely to stock your book for sale if you have only yourself and your plans to market it. They want customers coming into the store who have heard about your book before they discover it on the shelves. Two kinds of bookstore customers: those who come to discover and those seeking a particular book. The latter will buy more often, so long as the book is for sale on the shelves.

Bookstores might only represent one-third of all books sold by now. When was the last time you bought a book inside a store? Bookstore sales have prestige, but that prestige will not get your books sold. Once you’re for sale in a store, your results are tracked by Bookscan. That’s a grade card, the kind of measure that will keep publishers from investing extra money after your release as well as following through on promises to market more. It can prevent booksellers from re-ordering, too, or hanging on to your books for months instead of weeks.

Now when authors ask me about self-publishing, I reply, “How much do you like marketing and publicity?” By publishing yourself, you sign up for all of that work. If you’re a good writer but have not done marketing before, you need to polish a new voice.

I advise the authors to have a publicist lined up for their book release. It’s a major cost with a questionable return. That’s earned media. Paid media is advertising. The ads for Amazon are a huge gamble. You bid for a keyword and Amazon charges you Per Click. Not Per Sale. You only win the bid with a higher figure. Facebook can drive readers to your website, or to the Amazon page. The latter destination offers the readers 8-20 other things to buy at the same time they’re judging your product.

There are no perfect answers out there for the dilemma of getting a book noticed, discovered, read, and recommended. The publishers do their best, but they often approach the task with too few resources to well-support every author in their list. Us writers and teachers approach our work as communicators and storytellers. The extra layer we hope to reach is commercial success. It’s a different and difficult victory to win the sale. We keep creating and invest in professional help, just like the publishers do.

Mike Shatzkin, who’s a genius at understanding publishing, wrote a column about how most publishing these days is produced by freelancers. If you know what you’re doing, you can hire these pros, too. Right down the line, until you make your way to the distribution (sales) gateway. If your pros have done the needed work, you’ll pass through. At that point, you’re more traditionally published than self-published. Self-publishing gives you more control — and puts the commercial risks in your hands, too.

Traditional deals mean genuine distribution

Debut authors have many choices to make, from selecting an agent if needed, to choosing self publishing versus small press or hybrid publishers. That last category can differ quite a bit between providers. One marker to watch is distribution: the channel that gets sales for a book.

Many hybrid publishers—who by definition require authors to pay for services in exchange for a greater royalty share—have slim distribution options. No traditional distribution is a common situation for a hybrid. They can make a book wholesale distributed using IngramSpark. This wholesaling doesn’t drive placement in bookstores. Wholesaling makes your book orderable. It doesn’t drive sales without your personal investment in marketing.

More importantly, the lack of distribution can keep a book out of consideration for reviews and publicity coverage. It’s not an automatic exclusion, but library and trade book resources like Booklist and Library Journal do not make many coverage slots available for books without distribution. The feeling, perhaps rightly so from the trade’s perspective, is that a review of a book without a sales force sacrifices a spot Booklist could give to a better-distributed book.

Distribution is crucial for the brick and mortar selling that goes beyond consignment sales. Booksellers tend to order from their regular sources: direct from some select presses, then through distributors like IPG. It’s much harder to get a direct order from a bookseller if you only have print on demand (POD) wholesale distribution. Consignment sales can get your POD book into shops, but usually only for a limited run. If the book is selling, the shop will restock.

Return capability, when a book stops selling, is another crucial piece in getting your book into stores. POD through Ingram Spark does offer a return capability similar to regular distribution.

Generating that initial bookseller order is the biggest hurdle. It’s very hard to sell a book onto a bookseller’s shelves without the ability to return it unsold. The window on those returns is usually in excess of eight months by now. This is why publishers withhold royalties for six months or more. They’re waiting on their distributors to accept copies returned as unsold.

A traditional publishing deal can be worth more than selling your book yourself in some way. Either direct to a press, or via an agent to a larger press, you can move more books to the register and earn royalties.

You could start your own press. With enough money.

Last year, an entity called Skin Horse Press grew up in my office here in Austin. I chose the name of this independent imprint based on a favorite book, The Velveteen Rabbit, as well as a nod toward my spot in a writing career. I’m 40 years in on my professional writing and editing, so that means I’m past 60. In the book, the Skin Horse is old and wise and tells the Rabbit that you become Real when you’re old.

I’d like to believe I’m becoming Real at my age. Skin Horse Press, though, is not a real press yet. It takes a lot more than 40 years of publishing experience and unbridled ambition to start a press. It takes the talent and drive of other pros, as well as money.

The more of these you have, the better chance your ambition grows into a press. You only have to self-publish a book professionally to see how a press gives a book a wider audience.

Distribution and wholesaling are the steepest parts of the publishing ladder. A publisher trusts other companies to sell the books that are published. Not list them, like Amazon and a raft of other places do. Not stock them, like a bookstore may do if you get a consignment space. Distributors sell your book by getting book buyers in retail stores to pay attention to the book’s goodness.

The buyers look for a press, a catalog, and finally a familiar voice that assures them they won’t be wasting their shelf space. The need for retailing space is being debated now, but even Amazon prefers books from real presses. The presses get real with advertising and marketing plans, plus budget to back them up.

There’s a need for more presses. This month a Big Book got in trouble because an Anglo author wrote the experience of a Latina in a novel. The Latino community, amplified by other hovering social media readers, cried foul. That Big Book, Dirt, got a big advance for its author. The big advances come from the big presses, known as the Big Five. They’re all headquartered in New York and they’re not much good at taking chances on under-represented authors.

They try, but then an Anglo author gets a big advance for a Latino story in Mexico and people cry foul. To be accurate, the author of Dirt is part Latina, and so it gets more complicated from there.

So why not start a press to help correct this? This morning I read a letter from a Midwest publisher, far outside the New York orbit.  She said, “Want to have more diverse voices included in books, and tilt publishing away from NYC, which is too expensive to live in anyway? You could… start your own press! To amplify overlooked voices! It’s been done ;)”

Yes, indeed, presses have been started for such noble and needed reasons. Just be aware, if you have such a dream, what goes into creating a press. It’s an entity that has several masters to serve at once. The authors, who create the magic. The readers, who supply the revenue. The founders, who need to be paid, and to pay their talent at the press.

The best list of what goes into a fine press — although it’s a long study, with too much detail — is the latest book from Microcosm Press. Joe Biel founded that indie press and has written The People’s Guide to Publishing. From Title Development to Money, the 14 sections of the book cover everything a publisher must consider. There’s much more under the surface of book publishing than might be apparent to an author. Some editors know how much, and every agent knows the pieces, too.

A press is a business. Nobody has to explain that businesses require talent and money to succeed. The drive and mission is important, too. Those first two very real elements determine which press is going to sell books, and which ones will only create them.

I want a great cover. What is that, anyway?

Everybody wants a great cover on their book. That’s a few things at once, the greatness.

Sales.

Storytelling.

Beauty.

Creating a cover concept meets one or more of those needs. If the cover does none of those things well, you won’t know until the book goes on sale, or when your novel is considered for review coverage, or when it gets its shot to be stocked in a retail store, or selected for the email promotion you’ve applied for. (Yes, the best promotions have a waiting list.)

See all the things a cover does? It’s even more complex when you factor in your writing style, genre, and subject. What you don’t want to do while building a cover, though, is to mistake whatever you’ve written for the cover your book needs and deserves. Your writing might be powerful, but your writing doesn’t have to capture a reader in five seconds. A good cover must do that.

Your publisher — whether it’s you, or a company that’s paying you to publish your book — will be constrained by cover budget. Good covers start around $450. Great covers can be as expensive as $2,500. Covers come from cover designers, people who can Do This All Day, this cover magic. Cover designers won’t say, “Well, that’s good enough, isn’t it?”

It’s not difficult to see the difference, side by side.

Both books won notable awards for literary fiction. One had an independent self-publisher. The other was built for the Literary Industrial Complex, where sales and buzz matter most.

Book covers are a matter of taste, and they’re also something that calls authors to the ramparts to battle over. Not That Cover is an argument often made by an author. “It misrepresents my story,” the author might say. The publishing pros can retort, “Yes, you think it does. But it also makes readers stop and consider it. It’s beautiful. And it doesn’t make the mistake of being so abstract it can’t tell any story, or so specific that it acts like a table of contents or a synopsis.”

Those are not the things a great cover is supposed to do. Essence is the element you want to capture. Worst of all might be the kind of cover that does that abstraction mistake, plus telling a story in so much detail it’s mysterious.

My own, self-designed cover from my debut novel Viral Times did that.

“See, the icon at the bottom indicates the SexNet, where the virtual hook-ups happen. The icon on the top right is the virus that gets transmitted over that network. The green area represents health using natural cures for virus infections. The orange represents the toxic nature of the Mighty Hand virus.”

Or something like that. You don’t get to explain your cover. It’s supposed to captivate and express emotion.

My re-do (circa 2015) is still a DIY, even though I designed for print for more than 30 years. It’s got its problems, the biggest one being that it relies on a photo image. Photos are not in vogue today.

At least you can see a person in some danger there. I’m letting the title do all the rest of the work. Still, not a pro cover. I hired out for the next book’s cover and got a great job for good value. It’s nonfiction, though, and it behaves by different rules. You must still be subtle in a nonfiction book. Sometimes you get lucky and there’s a story theme that makes itself obvious to everyone. At other times, the visual theme is the star itself.

I’m proud of the Stealing Home memoir cover that I hired Asya Blue to create. I got comps (different ideas to consider) from her — plus so much input on her tuning of the art.  Yes, it’s art, to build a cover. Because I self-published, I was the ultimate decision-maker. I needed that, but you may not. Whatever that cover does is ultimately my call. Or as generous artists sometimes say after a collaboration, “Whatever’s not working is my fault. The best stuff came from the others.”

Hire a pro and set your cover expectations higher. Engage with someone who can Do This All Day, because they have, and for years.

Buy books if you read. Pay authors, to be fair

Some studies show that only 35 percent of Americans read a book last year. Out of that modest number, there might be the same percentage who read paperback editions. The paperbacks which pay authors are purchased new. Those paperbacks are available at bookstores, at spots like Amazon, even from the authors themselves.

Authors get paid when sales take place in those places. That’s fair, because to most authors, their compensation is under $2 a book. One habit drags down their livelihoods. Used books cut authors out of the equation.

The roughest part? In one misguided column, a writer for BookRiot is promoting “only buy used books.”

If you don’t know BookRiot, it’s a tremendous website that writes about books and literature. Millions of viewers and thousands of dollars in ad money taken. Money from authors and their publishers. I see a big problem there: authors pay people like the website columnist Anna Gooding-Call. Her column Buy Used Books. Here’s Why tells us that reusing a paper book is good for the environment — and you’ll find great things to read, too.

Used books also help ensure there are fewer books to read, if the only thing you do is, as she suggests, “reserve purchases of new paper books for special occasions.” If authors only wrote for such special occasions, the world might read only authors like George R.R. Martin, or Donna Tartt. Great to have their books around. Genius there, those novels. Readers waited 10 years for Tartt’s second book. Martin is still holding out on his many Game of Thrones readers. They published on the timeline of “special occasion.”

Shelves of free books

Our columnist has her viewpoint, so her home is probably full of used books. Since she writes for BookRiot, though, her shelves might be full of books that were sent to her for review. Or passed along by reviewer friends, all in the name of saving the planet and maybe gaining a fan. I hope she’s not carrying the free books to any place but a library or a charity.

If you’re truly into saving the planet, ebooks do that job well. Any kind of paperback, used or new, sticks a fly into that environmental oatmeal. Selling a paperback a second time flies in the face of pure environmental concern. Also a plus: an ebook is a one-time sale on behalf of an author. Most ebooks can’t be resold.

This isn’t theoretical for me. My latest book, the memoir Stealing Home, was released in August. A used copy already has a permanent spot in Amazon as the book’s most affordable purchase. You get this sales treatment as an author, and it’s customary for the book business. The good news is that that used copy helps homeless people in New York, where any profits from the sale go to a charity.

So hey, remember that if you fill your bookshelves only with used paper, you cut out the creators of the work that you admire and enjoy. Pay your tribute to an author you admire: buy a paperback from them directly if you can. Author website sales help us keep writing. Bookstores selling paper help everyone discover new voices. You can help yourself to used books, but keep your purchases spread across the whole ecosystem of reading. There’s a creative environment there to preserve, right alongside the climate of the planet.