Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

Selling Your eBook Without a Publisher, Part 3: Book Covers

This is the next post in a multi-part series about self-publishing your eBook. Posts include:

1. Selling Your eBook Without a Publisher, Part 1: Introduction 
2. Selling Your eBook Without a Publisher, Part 2: E-book Formatting
3. Selling Your eBook Without a Publisher, Part 3: Book Covers (this post)
4. Selling Your eBook Without a Publisher, Part 4: 
5. Selling Your eBook Without a Publisher, Part 5: Smashwords
6. Selling Your eBook Without a Publisher, Part 6: Scribd
7. Selling Your eBook Without a Publisher, Part 7: Lulu
8. Selling Your eBook Without a Publisher, Part 8: Selling Strategy

Book covers are important, especially in the online world where a potential reader cannot pick up, examine, or thumb through the pages. While studies have shown that a book on a three-for-two table has about one and a half seconds to catch a reader’s eye, I have to wonder if when browsing a list of books on Amazon if a reader doesn't scroll past or click on 'next' in less time than even that. Even when a book is picked up, a reader may only spend "eight seconds looking at the front cover and 15 seconds looking at the back cover" (source: The Wall Street Journal). But, by that time, the book cover has served its purpose: it's caught the reader's eye, and he or she has picked it up.

In summary, that's why a book cover is so important. I'll take that further and say that's why a professional (and accurate) book cover is important.

JA Konrath, who's published a number of books and e-books, identifies five important aspects of book covers:

  1. Branding
  2. Genre
  3. Professional
  4. Reduceable
  5. Eye-catching

In fact, he saw sales increase dramatically when he went from his own home-grown covers to ones designed by a pro.

As a potential self-publisher, I see myself as having three options with regard to book covers:

  1. Don't use one
  2. Create my own
  3. Hire a professional illustrator

Let's discuss each.

1. Don't Use One

IMO, this isn't really an option, but let's at least talk about why not. We all know the old adage don't judge a book by its cover. But what about a book that doesn't have one? Do we judge it at all?

I don't.

Perhaps I'm superficial, but first and foremost I nearly always judge a book by its cover—the quality, the initial impact of the illustration, the colors. They're all important. Even more, the cover should reflect the content of the book, at least in part.

In terms of selling online in, say, the Kindle store, here is what potential readers will see if there is no image associated with your e-book:

imageNow, that makes does not make me want to click-through and read the book's summary.

2. Create my own

It's cheap, it's easy, but not going to win any awards. I have no illustrating or drawing talent whatsoever. But I've found an easy way to create a cover is to start with a photo. It can be your own or someone else's, but make sure if the latter that you have rights to use it.

A few places to find 'resusable media' not requiring licensing or royalties includes Wikimedia Commons, stock.xchng, and morgueFile. Always double-check the licensing on each image just to be sure.

Once you've got a basic image or photo, you'll need to fix it up a bit with the title of your book and your name at the bare minimum. I've learned it's best to keep it simple, though, especially considering that the image will be shrunk down for display on a product page. Make the font as big as possible so that when it is scaled down the words are still visible.

You don't need to buy something expensive like Adobe Photoshop, either. Check out Paint.NET. It's free and does just about everything I've ever needed.

3. Hire a professional illustrator

Seventy-five percent of 300 booksellers surveyed (half from independent bookstores and half from chains) identified the look and design of the book cover as the most important component.

If you think that, too, you might want to look into hiring a professional. JA Konrath saw immediate results when he went from covers he designed himself to ones a professional cooked up for him.

There are a lot of designers and illustrators out there. I'll leave it up to you to search for them least it look like I'm trying to endorse one or another, which I could only do if I had personal experience with that person.


I was a little hesitant about writing this post, mostly because I feel it's a topic that really shouldn't require much convincing. However, here it is. Hopefully I presented my case that a professional book cover is a necessity. Next, we'll move on to the first of the online eRetailers I want to cover,

Further Browsing

Further Reading

Selling Your eBook Without a Publisher, Part 2: E-book Formatting

This is the next post in a multi-part series about self-publishing your eBook. Posts include:

1. Selling Your eBook Without a Publisher, Part 1: Introduction 
2. Selling Your eBook Without a Publisher, Part 2: E-book Formatting (this post)
3. Selling Your eBook Without a Publisher, Part 3: Book Covers
4. Selling Your eBook Without a Publisher, Part 4: 
5. Selling Your eBook Without a Publisher, Part 5: Smashwords
6. Selling Your eBook Without a Publisher, Part 6: Scribd
7. Selling Your eBook Without a Publisher, Part 7: Lulu
8. Selling Your eBook Without a Publisher, Part 8: Selling Strategy

Let's talk about e-book formatting.

From looking at the Amazon Kindle Publishing Guidelines document, you might quickly think you need a masters degree in publishing and a whole lot of designer talent to pull this thing off (I did). Not true at all. My experience thus far has been that getting an e-book ready for publishing is really a pretty painless process. The retailers I'll be talking about in later posts accept a variety of formats, and where the expected format is proprietary (like for the Kindle), tools are provided to do the conversion.

Now, I'm not a designer in any sense of the word. So I'm not going to even try giving that sort of advice. But what I can do is point out some simple tips as well as resources that helped me format my e-book. The latter will be a running list; I'll add to it as I find new resources, and intend to use it as reference information myself.

As far as some basic guidelines, here's a few things I've run across:

1. Keep it simple

Don't go crazy with fonts, font sizes, and the general layout. Keep it simple. You want your e-book to be readable on as many devices as possible. The best first step in guaranteeing that is to not go crazy with styling.

2. Use a book cover

This one is HUGE in my opinion, mainly because I'm one of those people who uses the cover as a gauge of the overall quality of the work. Turns out coming up with a professional looking cover is not that difficult as long as you have some skills of your own or are willing to pay a reasonable amount of money for a professional to work their magic. I'll touch on this subject some more in the next post in this series. For now, though, here's the cover I used for my fantasy novel, The Hall of the Wood:

3. Do have a title page

Keep it basic: the name of the book and the author's name, possibly with some artwork if you have it.

4. Do have an 'other books' page

If you have other books available, why not let your readers know about them? Remember, too, that when you do release new e-books, go back and update your previously published ones with the title of the new book. One of the nice things about electronic publishing is that it is not immutable.

5. Do have a copyright page

Some online publishers/retailers require this. It's best to explicitly declare your copyright and/or licensing. If you're a resident of the United States you're automatically covered under standard U.S. copyright law, but something I'm considering is also releasing my work under a Creative Commons license also, similar to how I protect my blog posts.

6. Do have an attribution page

Use this page to thank anyone who helped you along the way.

7. Do have an acknowledgments page

This one is optional, but if you want to include a paragraph or two thanking various people…

8. Do have a quotations page

Another optional one, but some authors like to include a short quote as a lead-in to their content.

The order of the above pages varies. Right now, I'm reading Boneshaker by Cherie Priest, and the order I see is: praise/quotations, other books by author, title page, copyright, dedication, an acknowledgments page, a map of Priest's vision of Seattle, an excerpt from a fictitious history text, another title page (this one with just the name of the novel), and, finally, the content.

That's it for tips, and that about wraps up this post.

I'll leave you with a short list of styling resources I've discovered:

Smashwords Style Guide
Mark Coker, the founder of Smashwords, wrote this free e-book on how to style your e-book prior to publishing with Smashwords. At twenty pages, it's a fairly quick read, but has some good information in it. While intended as advice for publishing with Smashwords, the information is general enough to apply regardless of where you decide to publish.

Scribd's "Preparing Your Content"
Scribd is another online publisher which I'll be talking more about in this series. This forum entry has some good information about page size, fonts, and a tip I found especially useful regarding using text on your book cover image.

Amazon Kindle Publishing Guidelines
The first so many pages of this document are a worthwhile read, but when it starts to look like Greek it's time to shut'er down and move on. Too much low level detail for me, but some good stuff early on.

Selling Your eBook Without a Publisher, Part 1: Introduction

This is the first post in a multi-part series about self-publishing your eBook. Posts include:

1. Selling Your eBook Without a Publisher, Part 1: Introduction (this post)
2. Selling Your eBook Without a Publisher, Part 2: E-book Formatting
3. Selling Your eBook Without a Publisher, Part 3: Book Covers
4. Selling Your eBook Without a Publisher, Part 4: 
5. Selling Your eBook Without a Publisher, Part 5: Smashwords
6. Selling Your eBook Without a Publisher, Part 6: Scribd
7. Selling Your eBook Without a Publisher, Part 7: Lulu
8. Selling Your eBook Without a Publisher, Part 8: Selling Strategy

One of the thing I've been interested in for some time is selling my book (should be books soon) online. I'd already been doing some research into this, so thought I'd share my findings and investigative work through a new series. The series will likely cover e-book formatting, book covers and why they're important, and, last but certainly not least, the various online retailers that allow you to showcase your work and therefore skip the traditional publishing process entirely.

Selling without a publisher (i.e., self-publishing) is nothing new, but it seems only recently with the advent of popular e-readers that the possibility for e-books has really opened up. We're very possibly at the beginning of a new, mainstream medium for consuming literature, and there's no doubt the publishing game is changing. But going it alone sans agent or publisher isn't easy. Fortunately, there are online partners with whom we can collaborate: while you provide the content, they provide the showcase by which you can present your work. They, of course, take a percentage of your sales in exchange for this service.

Whether that is a fair trade or not is a matter of opinion (rates vary by partner site), but I think it helps to look at what these sites provide you. I mean, we all have web sites or blogs upon which to host the electronic versions of our books. So what are they providing that merits sharing the profit from a sale?

1.) Eyeballs

This one can't be stressed enough. As writers, we work in obscurity until we find representation or a big name publisher, or we work our way up through lesser known channels until we've built a following. Either way, we all start small, which means we probably aren't getting all that much traffic to our web sites. Online retail sites, like Amazon, for example, give us the opportunity to put our work in front of a lot of people who otherwise might never know it existed.

2.) Ratings

They also provide (in most cases) a means by which readers can rate our work. While this can be a two-edged sword in its own right, what we gain is essentially a third-party that removes the suspicion of impropriety were we to host such a facility on our own site.

3.) Community

Some online retailers create a community atmosphere around their product offerings. Scribd Community is one. Amazon Communities is another. You can gain support from others also trying to do well with this avenue, build a following, and connect with readers.

4.) They handle the transaction

They collect the dough, then send you your cut either at set intervals or, more likely, when a certain threshold is surpassed. The exact threshold varies by partner site. This has the nice benefit that you do not have to deal with providing a secure site in which to collect payment information, worry about storing such information for return visits, deal with the case where merchandise is returned (can you return an e-book?), etc.

Those all seem like good reasons to me, and well worth sharing the proceeds of a sale.

With that, I'll leave you with this introductory post for now. Look for Part 2 sometime soon.

The nook: More competition for Amazon's Kindle

10533_188131055019_9122810019_4293351_2828455_n Barnes & Noble has released for pre-order their Kindle-killer: the nook (lowercase 'n' on purpose).

'Kindle-killer' is perhaps a bit of an overstatement given that the Kindle owns the e-book reader market right now. But the Nook's imminent arrival is what caused Amazon to preemptively drop the price of the Kindle, so its impact has already been felt.

And make no mistake: e-book reading devices are important not only to Amazon and Barnes & Noble, but especially to book/e-book publishers.


Because, since the arrival of Kindle and the Sony Reader, reading is up:

Amazon […] says that people with Kindles now buy 3.1 times as many books as they did before owning the device. That factor is up from 2.7 in December 2008. So a reader who had previously bought eight books from Amazon would now purchase, on average, 24.8 books, a rise from 21.6 books.

Sony adds this:

Sony […] says that its e-book customers, on average, download about eight books a month from its online library. That is far more than the approximately 6.7 books than the average American book buyer purchased for the entire year in 2008, according to Bowker, a publishing industry tracking firm.

More reading by consumers means more profit for the publishers. With a price war being waged between Amazon and Wal Mart (and now Target), there is real concern by the publishers over margins and profit.

There will no doubt be an exhaustive series of technical articles detailing the differences between the nook and the Kindle (here's one, from B&N's perspective). For now, though, we can take a look at this feature set from Barnes & Noble's eReading Blog:

  • Download eBooks, magazines and newspapers in seconds flat
  • Enjoy eBooks on an incredibly readable E Ink® reading screen
  • Navigate your eBooks and other content on a color touchscreen
  • Sync your eBooks to your iPhone, iPod Touch, BlackBerry, Mac or PC
  • Share eBooks with friends using one of our eReader clients
  • Read any eBook for free in a Barnes & Noble store
  • Get special content and promotions in any Barnes & Noble store

The one thing I really like about Barnes & Noble selling an e-reader is that I expect I'll be able to visit my local store and demo the reader. That's something you can't do with the Kindle. I would keep in mind, though, that the nook is a first generation product. Even the Kindle has gone through one iteration now, and I think in many cases people who bought the initial model wished they had waited. This may or may not be the case with the nook.

As far as e-book formats go, the nook supports EPUB, the open e-book format. This is huge. Most of the new readers post-Kindle support this format. Kindle, by comparison, only supports their own proprietary format (the DX model also supports PDF). People do not want to be locked into proprietary formats. They want open formats, which allows them to view any content on any device. Kindle-formatted e-books are viewable only on the Kindle and it's associated applications (like the iPhone Kindle app).

I'll leave you with possibly one of the most tantalizing features of the nook:

The Nook also has software that will detect when a consumer walks into a store so that it can push out coupons and other promotions like excerpts from forthcoming books or suggestions for new reading. While in stores, Nook owners will be able to read any e-book through streaming software.

In my opinion, it's this sort of interactivity which eventually will lead to the demise of the printed book.

The nook is available now for pre-order, will be available for purchase Nov. 30, and be in stores Nov. 28.

Some thoughts on traditional vs electronic publishing

You may have noticed a recent slant in my posting topics towards e-books and electronic publishing. This is not without purpose. For a while now I've been considering foregoing the traditional publishing route in favor of the electronic, self-publishing one. The reasons for this are many. For one, it's disheartening (yet encouraging at the same time) when established writers divulge sales information that poignantly dismisses the traditional route.

Second, this writing thing is not my only thing. It's something I thoroughly enjoy, yet I don't expect to make a living from it. I'm not saying I wouldn't want to make a living from it, but the realities are that my day job will likely always pay more, and I'm at the point in my life where I'm not willing to downsize or give-up my lifestyle (such as it is). Perhaps going the traditional route is a game for the young. Or perhaps it just isn't the route to take at all anymore, at any age, because the direction of things has changed.

Traditional vs. Electronic Publishing

Currently, I don't have a publisher. Nor do I have an agent. In truth, I wonder sometimes if I really need either. You see, the rules themselves have been altered. No longer do writers need to rely solely on publishers for exposure and distribution. Sure, publishers can give your career a boost out of the starting gate. But so much of it relies on the author taking it from there that the publisher/agent model soon becomes a hindrance and, in some cases, a detriment: while said writer is engaging in all the work, guess who's siphoning off the majority of the profit?

However, there's no doubt publishers have the potential to raise the bar in terms of quality. I'll be the first to admit that you have to wade through a lot of junk on the Kindle store, for example, before you find quality in the "self-published bin" (there's not really a "self-published bin", by the way). Publishers therefore have the potential to act as gatekeepers, holding back the stuff that probably shouldn't be seen by readers until it's been polished a bit more.

While I admire and envy those who have found success via the traditional publishing route, I'm seriously considering that it might not be right for me. I already have a day job; the reality of the situation is that I'll always be more self-sustaining doing that than writing. But I love putting words to paper, and especially concocting fantastic stories and the characters that populate them. Fortunately, there is hope for people like myself, and it is e-books.


E-books and the proliferation of high-quality e-reading devices are becoming the new medium for reading. Paper books will no doubt have their place for years to come, but it is a dying model. The world has gone green, and convenience coupled with instant gratification is a powerful driving force. Amazon, for example, touts their Kindle reading device with 3G wireless with this line: "...think of a book and you'll be reading it in less than 60 seconds". Competition in the e-reader space is growing every day. This, in turn, will continue to drive prices down. With many e-books already selling for $0.99, and price battles going on between the major players, this becomes a win-win for consumers.

But it's also a win for writers. Amazon, Scribd, even our own web sites become our distribution warehouses and provide the exposure we might not otherwise obtain. The middle-men—namely publishers and agents—are taken out of the equation. With more hands removed from the pot, the shares of those remaining gets bigger.


Going electronic is not for everyone. For one, it's unlikely you can make a living off it (yet). But then everyone's definition of 'living' is a bit different, so a decision of this nature really becomes a personal one.

It's not an easy decision to make, either. I wonder in that you don't risk alienating yourself from ever breaking into the traditional model by jumping into the electronic one. Maybe that doesn't matter.

Of course, what I'm really talking about here is self-publishing, which has been around for a long time. Some authors (Paolini comes to mind) self-published, only to find great success under the traditional model after the fact. Is electronic publishing therefore any different?

[ Advertisement: SF/F Shorts by Amazon ]

[ Follow me on Twitter ]