Covering Your Assets

All things considered, I much prefer self-publishing to working with a publisher. I like being able to put out books that don’t fit neatly into someone else’s genre pigeon holes. I appreciate not having to fight with an editor, especially about whether the sex I write is too raw or explicit, or whether I can include LGBTQ interactions in what is primarily a heterosexual romance. Given my busy real world schedule, I’m glad I don’t have to write to someone else’s deadlines. That might make me more productive, but at this point, I really don’t need or want the stress. And of course, I’m happy to get a bigger slice of the pie for each book I sell.

For the most part, in my view, self-publishing is a big win. There’s one area, however, where there are pros and cons: the question of covers.

Every book, self-published or not, needs a cover. And both marketing research and personal intuition suggest that the quality of the cover does affect sales. With all the books available, you need a cover that will grab a potential reader’s attention and communicate the essential qualities of your book – all in a fraction of a second before her eyes flit to the next book on the page.

Having a publisher responsible for your covers is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it relieves you of a lot of work and/or expense. On the other, sometimes you have to accept a cover you really don’t like. Most publishers do solicit author input on cover art, but they may have considerations other than the story, related to branding, imprints, series, etc. And I’ve observed (unsurprisingly) that the covers coming out of a particular publisher have some tendency to look alike.

When you self-publish, you have much more control, but you must either purchase a cover (pre-made or custom) or create one yourself. I’ve done both, but I have a pretty limited budget for third-party art. I don’t expect to make a lot of money on my writing (which is more of a beloved avocation than a career), but I don’t want to go into the red. A couple of covers can easily eat up my royalties for a month.

So I’ve been making many of my covers. And I admit, it can be a painful process. I think I have the necessary imagination and artistic perspective, but my practical skills are extremely basic. I also seem to have the devil’s time finding stock photos that satisfy my needs.

Still, I’ve learned a lot in the past few years. Here are a few rules of thumb, based on my observations and experience.

Readability is critical

E-publishing platforms require you to submit a high resolution cover (for instance, 2000×3000 at 300 dpi), but in fact most readers will see your cover as a thumbnail 200 to 300 pixels wide or even smaller. It is essential that they can read the title and the author name, even at this very coarse resolution. It should also be possible to identify the primary images in the cover.

Just for the heck of it, I grabbed the “Trending” covers from the Smashwords home page today.

These thumbnails are only 125 pixels wide (click on the plus at the upper right to see actual size) – and some of the titles are close to illegible. (What’s the title of the middle book? The only really clear words are “in the”! And forget about figuring out who wrote it.)

Readability is influenced by font style, font size, font and background color and contrast. The “busyness” of the cover also has an impact; if there’s too much graphical detail the text can get lost.

You want a cover that’s dramatic, arresting, attention-getting – but readability is more important than any of these. The best way to insure readability is to examine your covers at very low resolution. If you can make out the title and author in an image 200 pixels wide, you’re probably doing okay.

Visually signal genre and story content

Most of us at ERWA write what would be considered “genre fiction”: erotica, erotic romance, romcom, horror, science fiction. Every genre has cover conventions, typical styles and image content used by many books. Chick lit, for instance, tends to use cartoonish drawings in bright colors rather than photo-realistic imagery. This is often true of cozy mysteries as well (though the image content will be different), but not more serious mysteries. Romance covers usually feature photos of the protagonists, often though not always in an embrace. Naked, muscled, headless male torsos are also ubiquitous.

Here’s a quick screen capture from my romance publisher, Totally Bound.

The color schemes often signal the sub-genre, with darker shades for suspense or paranormal. For some reason romance covers also often have a lot of background detail as well. It’s very common to have an image of the setting, whether it’s a city skyline or a windswept prairie, behind the central figures.

Erotica covers, of course, tend to push the envelope, focusing in on seductive body parts as much as on faces. The covers are intended to arouse the reader, hopefully without attracting the scrutiny of the censors.

If you are creating your own covers, you need to decide how closely you will follow the current trends. You want readers to be able to identify what sort of story you’ve written, but you don’t want your cover to blend into the crowd.

This is a tough guideline for me to follow. First, many of my books don’t fit neatly into a single genre. A lot of my work straddles the fuzzy line between erotic romance and erotica. I also work in many secondary genres: sci fi, steam punk, paranormal, and so on. I struggle to create covers that capture the essence of my titles.

Sometimes it may be more important to you to convey the tone of the book than the genre. I recently published a new edition of my M/M paranormal erotic romance Necessary Madness. Although this novel is definitely romance, in the sense that it focuses on a single developing relationship (and even ends with a wedding), its a rather dark book that includes some very intense episodes: horrific visions of disasters, scenes set in a psychiatric hospital, and satanic rituals.

Here is the original cover, from Totally Bound, a very traditional romance cover, without much indication of the paranormal sub-genre. (I should say that I was able to choose the images of the heroes as part of this design.)

Here’s the new cover I created. I’ve focused much more on the paranormal aspect here. There’s even an echo of horror, which in fact is fitting to the story. I don’t even include an image of the second hero.

I don’t know which cover is better, but they definitely send out different signals.

Be distinctive and original – but not too subtle

Those of you who’ve known me for a while are quite familiar with my contrarian tendencies. Hence I’m more likely than not to stray away from the genre norms in choosing or creating my covers. Sometimes, though, it’s possible to be too subtle.

Here’s a cover I adore, for the first edition (2016) of The Gazillionaire and the Virgin, created for me by Willsin Rowe.

This is pure BDSM romance, sweet as well as hot, which turns the Fifty Shades of Grey stereotype on its head. Willsin deliberately designed this to visually echo the original Fifty Shades cover, with the gray necktie.

I thought this idea was brilliant. However, in retrospect, I doubt anyone else noticed.

In contrast, here’s the cover I did for the second edition, which was released on Valentine’s Day.

This cover screams erotic romance (at least to me). Furthermore, even though there’s not a handcuff or riding crop to be seen, I think (or at least hope) that the positions of the man and woman, and their expressions, suggest a power exchange relationship.

Series covers need a visual theme

For most of my writing career, I wrote standalone titles. I honestly couldn’t imagine writing a series; when I finished a story, it felt complete and I didn’t have any ideas for follow-on books.

A few years ago, that somehow changed. I found myself typing “The End”, then almost immediately starting to dream up new situations and characters in the same fictional world. My longest series so far, Vegas Babes, includes five books (and I have some rough ideas for a sixth, if I can ever find the time to write it).

If possible, the covers in a series should have some similar elements, to communicate the fact that this is somehow a connected set of titles. However, when I wrote the first Vegas Babes book, Hot Brides in Vegas, I didn’t realize this would be a series. Hence I had to adapt the later covers to the mood and visual theme of the first book cover: mostly blank background, beautiful women, and a specific set of fonts.

Of course, one advantage of self-publishing is that you’re never stuck with a particular cover. It’s fast and easy to change the cover on Amazon or Smashwords. (Good thing, too, because sometimes the censors will force you to make a switch!) Still, retrofitting a cover to match a series theme isn’t a trivial effort.

When I started The Toymakers Guild, I had a three-book series in mind. Here are the first two covers. Much more similar than the Vegas Babes, but I’ve actually had considerable difficulty finding appropriate foreground figures. I still haven’t located a woman for the third cover (though that won’t be an issue for a while!)

For erotica, expression is more important than bodies

Since most of you write erotica, I’ll end with this guideline. This is purely a personal belief. I do not have any evidence to support it. However, for me, sexy bodies or poses do nothing to excite my interest unless they’re accompanied by a genuinely provocative or aroused expression on the part of the models.

Here are a couple of my favorite covers by other members of ERWA.

I love both of these because of the emotions I read in the women’s faces. In the Hired Help cover, the woman is believably transported by lust. At the same time, there’s an aloofness that matches the character in the story.

The main character in the Nina cover has a more ambiguous look. She’s not sure what she’s getting into – but she thinks she likes it!

In my view, if your cover characters look aroused, your readers will be, too.


Help An Editor: Follow The Guidelines

So you have written the Great American Short Story or Novel and you want to submit it to a publisher. The next step is to find the right publisher for your work. This post isn’t about finding an ideal publisher. It’s about an equally important item –  the writer’s guidelines.

I’ve been told by quite a few publishers that writers don’t necessarily follow the guidelines when submitting a work. I’m sometimes surprised by the number of writers who don’t follow a publisher’s submission guidelines. I’m not sure why some writers screw up this step, but plenty of them do.

First, find the guidelines on the publisher’s web site. They should be easy enough to find. While each publisher’s guidelines will be different, there are some things that are common to most guidelines.

Make sure your manuscript is formatted properly. The most common font and size for a manuscript are 12 point Times New Roman. Some publishers want a different font. If that’s the case in your submission, duplicate your manuscript and convert it to the proper font. No, you can’t submit in Comic Sans because you like that particular font or you think you’re being clever. Doing such a thing guarantees your manuscript will go into the “trash” file. Follow the guidelines and submit according to the publisher’s specifications.

Another big one on the list of no-nos is using spaces or tabs to indent your paragraphs. This is the one that surprises me the most since many publishers I’ve talked to over the years have brought it up. Your manuscript should default to double spaced and a one inch indent. On the Mac at least, Word has a Format tab and you go to Paragraph to set this up.

Keep an eye on headers and footers and page numbers. Some publishers want page numbers and some don’t. Some want you to put your contact information in a header and some don’t. Most often in my experience, the publisher wants your contact information at the top left of the manuscript without making it a header. It’s important to have your contact info at the top of the page, otherwise, the publisher won’t know who wrote the piece or how to reach you. Most publishers I’ve run into want your contact info both on the manuscript and in the body of your submission email, but as I’ve stated earlier, each publisher is different.

Pay attention to word counts. If the anthology submission calls for works no longer than 5,000 words, don’t send something that is 7,000 words long. Your story may be a work of genius (most likely not), but editors have a limited number of pages to work with. If you are able to whittle down your story to 5,000 words, do it. Otherwise, look for submission calls that allow for longer works. The opposite end is also true. Some publishers include a lower end word count limit, such as no shorter than 3,000 words. Don’t send flash fiction if the publisher didn’t request it. Keep to the guidelines.

If the publisher asks for a photo and bio in the body of your email, make sure you send them. Don’t forget. It can be a bit overwhelming to follow detailed guidelines, but take it step by step and you’ll be fine.

Pay attention if the publisher wants no reprints or simultaneous submissions. If the publisher does allow simultaneous submissions, make sure you notify that publisher as quickly as possible if your work is accepted elsewhere. It’s only polite.

When you follow the guidelines properly, you’re on your way to your work getting a look-see. Publishers will put your submission in the trash if it doesn’t follow the guidelines properly because, in not following the guidelines, you’ve give the publisher more work to do. Don’t do that. The first step in a successful submission is to do it properly. You may also write to the publisher if something in the guidelines isn’t clear. When you hit “send”, that euphoria you feel is in part due to following the instructions properly. When you do that, the publisher knows you’ve taken the time to read and submit in the best way possible. Best wishes for an acceptance!

Hot Chilli Erotica

Hot Chilli Erotica


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