:You may not be in the market for a book cover, but we're all—surely—in the market for inspiration. You'll find it at the Book Cover Archive, "for the appreciation and categorization of excellence in book cover design."
There, you might marvel at how delightfully disparate design can be:
There's value in a cover that places a book in conversation with its genre: When you pick up a book with "Man in the Fog," you know just the sort of noir you're going to get.
But of course, there's value in arresting design, too.
The cover to Forgetting Things doesn't reveal its origins in Freud's Psychopathology of Everyday Life. But its cover certainly suggests something a bit forbidding, a bit primitive, a bit universal, and a bit fanciful, too.
Ultimately, the best book covers draw a map of a world that readers want to explore.
This post it not a how-to. No primer, no matter how comprehensive, can teach the know-it-when-you-see-it quality that catapults an everyday shelf-piece into the realm of book art.
The Peter Mendelsund-designed Ulysses (as well as Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man), provides a startlingly effective illustration. Here is style and savvy in spades. But here, too, is the kind of entrainment between writer, reader, and designer that channels a book's essence.
In The Wave and the Mind, Ursula Le Guin describes entrainment as the tendency for two wall-mounted clock pendulums to slowly swing in sync. Physicists call this "mutual phase-locking"; Le Guin describes it as the "beautiful economical laziness" by which successful relationships are formed.
It's all a little spectral, but this (2013) Ulysses cover illustrates the certain quiescence by which a design imparts the spirit of a story. What looks like boldly scribbled marginalia interrupts but also completes the title with the "yes" acknowledging the book's last—and now first—word and its (arguably) most famous line: "yes I said yes I will Yes."
While this isn't a how-to, it does offer an injunction: When approaching book cover design, find inspiration in books that illustrate style, savvy, and this kind of economical soul. Then, aim that high.
Back when my readerly tastes were driven by the limited options at my suburb's small, strip mall-located library, I rarely chose my books by their covers. Most of the library books sported dogeared, aggressively stickered covers anyway, so my appreciation for a cover's import remained stunted.
It wasn't until I arrived at college and received a syllabus that included Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea that a book cover swept me up in a passionate embrace. I had read Wide Sargasso Sea before (an excellent companion to Jane Eyre), but my copy was library-bound and looked like this:
The copy I purchased at the university bookstore looked...different:
The newer cover doesn't say "post-colonial prequel" so much as "hot, sexy movie tie-ins!" And it certainly captured my attention. How did my first reading miss all that under-the-waterfall lovemaking?
While the wet, white-hot muscly embrace bears a mostly fantasy-based relationship to the book, the cover makes a potent play for reader's eyeballs. This is the point of all book covers...although some achieve their aims more thoughtfully and cleverly than others.
But what makes for a thoughtful, clever book cover? One that captures readers with style that is inspired by and germane to the story between the covers? There's a lot to consider—we'll cover some of it in a coming post.
While most people benefit from plans, it's often the preparation begotten by planning that matters more than the plan itself. This truism is attributed to Eisenhower, but its commonsense application pre- and postdates his mid-century usage.
First-time nonfiction authors, whether they walk the traditional or self-publication path, benefit from planning when they develop a completion* strategy in the earliest stages of drafting.
In most cases, this strategy begins by simply determining a completion date. The date is strategic not only because it encourages an author to set a realistic time frame in which to produce a book, but also because it invites an author to think ahead, anticipating the best-case timeline for publication and pointing to the larger continuum on which a book’s publication exists (on which completion is not completion but the beginning of the publication strategy).
Many authors are excited to set a completion date in the idea development stage. It’s only later, when faced with inexorable variables that limit progress, that authors feel the pressure of a self-imposed deadline. Of course, this is entirely as it should be. Everything feels possible before we begin—the exhilaration of possibility is the reason that some of us resist planning in the first place. It isn’t until we actually experience limitations (such as the inefficient cooperation of sources or coauthors) that we acutely feel their restrictive influence.
But pressure is often conducive to completion. And the date from which that pressure proceeds can help authors prepare for inevitable challenges, sometimes by helping to force different, more inventive, efforts at countering them.
There is another, less recognized reason for setting a completion date, too: The soft strategy authors develop for completion anticipates and readies them for that later stage of the continuum—the much harder, much more tactical strategy of publication.
*Let us stipulate that after reading Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go, some of us will never be able to use the word "completion" without a sense of despair.
The best books depend on a team effort.
This is not to say that a book idea should be divided up and conquered by a team of writers (although that works, too); it’s to say that generating ideas, finding good and helpful feedback, procuring specialized editing services, designing engaging interiors and exteriors, creating solid marketing plans, and more depend on a team of specialists.
Among these specialists, a publicist or PR rep is invaluable.
For some authors, a publicist feels unnecessary: Isn’t the author the person best positioned to sell their book? Aren’t they most capable of speaking (and loudly) to its merits? For other authors, a publicist feels extraneous: Why should an author pay someone else to market a book that’s already great?
But regardless of an author’s intent or a book’s brilliance, selling a book is hard work. It requires a plan for priorities and scope, a deep(ish) list of relevant contacts, and attention to small and large details over the long term.
An author can often meet many of these criterion, but they’re almost always better positioned to do so with the help of a good publicist.
A good publicist will mean different things to different authors. But in general, a good publicist has broad experience in the author’s genre. Because of that, a good publicist also has a list of contacts in relevant media industries and with outlets where their authors will benefit from coverage. A good publicist is familiar with media lead lists and is comfortable engaging in a variety of ways on social media. A good publicist works with authors to ensure authors articulate their goals, are best positioned to meet those goals, and are able to recognize—and celebrate—when those goals are met.
Publicists are an investment, and that, coupled with the sense that they aren’t really necessary for good books, means that they’re often overlooked. But smart authors know they can best sell a book the same way they wrote it: with the help of a team.
Giving a talk, presenting a slide deck, teaching a class, delivering a keynote, conducting an interview, and other performances often provoke uncomfortable anxiety. Whether it's a low-key motivator of a stronger performance or produces a more debilitating flight-or-flight response depends less on the presenter's personality and more on perception and preparation.
Although glossophobia (literally/delightfully, tongue (glosso) fear (phobia)), or speech anxiety, can manifest in uncomfortable ways, anxious performers can rejoice. Why? Because anxiety is mitigated by preparation, and preparation influences perception: When performers perceive themselves as well-prepared, they perform better.
We’ve discussed tools for presentation preparation, but there are also important tools for developing softer, interpersonal skills. For example, learning the efficacy of an artful pause can differentiate a compelling talk, presentation, lecture, speech, or interview from a “meh” one.
Periodically pausing in the midst of a performance opens up space for your audience to respond or ask questions or reflect, and it conveys your comfort with your material, even if the comfort isn’t real. Pausing helps to promote listening and depends on the ability to conclude, whether a thought, a main point, a response, a slide, or a speech.
Listening and concluding can be hard to master in a performance setting, partly because talking too much and too fast is a contextual symptom of anxiety. However, it’s so important to show your audience that you're comfortable inviting their scrutiny (and can withstand it) that preparation is worthwhile. Help yourself by using a word-to-time converter.
The tool’s purpose is straightforward: Input your word count and your talking speed, and converts it to time. Its import is clear for presentations, but the tool can help build response and reflection into any performance.
Presentations and other performances put you on display, suggesting a one-way delivery of information. But excellent and impactful presenters know that the best presentations are a shared experience by which both audience and presenter learn something. If anxiety inhibits your ability to deliver a best-level presentation, tools like words-to-time can help.
I loved Elizabeth Gilbert's Instagram post on the top-ten of effective writing.
Of her successful, audience-tested suggestions, a few merit special attention, especially #1: Tell your story TO someone; #4: Don't worry if it's good, just finish it; and #9: What gets you [to keep going on a writing project] is not pride but mercy.
Although Gilbert's expertise is in memoir and memoir-adjacent genres, every writer I know (including me) can benefit from the reminder that a story is always for someone. If you haven't yet determined their identity, it's you. Sometimes it makes sense to tell yourself your story, but the choice of audience will rigorously shape your delivery, so don't abrogate the power.
Of course, it's easy for a bestselling author to tell us that we shouldn't worry if our work is good. But Gilbert is right: Perfectionism is the enemy of good; the challenger of completion; the rival of fulfillment. Getting the words down on paper is often the hardest thing writers do, but words can be revised, refined, and rarefied. Simply put, if you can't get the words out, you can't make them good. End of story.
Because getting the words out is so hard, writers do well to show themselves and their work mercy. Writers often write in spite of the difficulty and weakness of words, in spite of their inevitably truncated expressions. But writers who learn to view their efforts as temporary rather than permanent failures are better prepared to view revision as a compulsory part of their work. Unlike the writer motivated by pride and tripped up by missteps, a compassionate writer already understands that their words will never be quite good enough: They aim instead to make the words as resonant and meaningful as possible.
Writing is hard, but as Gilbert intimates, it can also be easy: Just pick your story, your listener, and your words...and then keep going until you've reached the end.
The internet can be wild and wonderful marketplace, but it can be wily and—let’s get real—wretched, especially for an emptor who is not expert at cavere. Evidently, scams flourish in a personless exchange.
Most prospective self-published authors know to exercise caution when vetting publishing, marketing, or promotional schemes. But most will (and should) spend relatively significant sums on hiring help to write, edit, design, format, convert, print, market, promote, and distribute a book.
According to a recent NetGalley Insights post, reporting on a joint NetGalley and Independent Book Publishers Association survey of author-publishers, “the majority of authors spent between $1,000 and $6,000 on their books”:
Self-published authors may expect a front-end expense to actualize their ideas as books, but traditionally published authors can (and should) allocate funds for their books, too.
Traditionally published authors will receive an advance and/or royalties for their work, and these are more likely when an author has a finished (and excellent) manuscript in hand. Of course, completion takes time, and time, as discussed in a prior post, is discrete and therefore valuable.
While the advance (and/or royalties) can offset costs, it rarely compensates for time already spent, much less extras such as marketing and promotion beyond that offered by a traditional publishing house. That’s why traditional authors can benefit from building in a line item for marketing and promotion expenses, too.
Not all traditional authors will need or even want to spend money on a PR or other promotional plan, but quantifying the expense in a book budget can help make good on the time already invested.
Whether you subscribe to the manager’s lament that time is money or consider the matter more poetically, writing a book requires a budget—in terms of cash and commitment.
Most people know that writing a book takes a lot of time, but—ironically—foreknowledge doesn’t make reality less surprising. This is particularly true for authors who have been mulling over their ideas for years, have reached the now-or-never precipice of action, and are ready to work.
In the case of a book, the "work" is often slow and circuitous. It can take a long time to think of and test out ideas, outline and draft and revise and outline and draft and revise again, solicit readers and reviewers and editors, and efficiently integrate the best and most applicable feedback.
That's why our nonfiction authors take nine months to two years to develop an idea into a book that can be pitched to and secured by a traditional publishing contract. On average, our nonfiction authors who begin with an idea but not a draft work sixteen months before they are ready to approach publishers.
For memoir writers, the timeline can be longer. This might be because memoir writers, although they frequently arrive with a draft in hand, must do strategic work to identify and understand their audience. Further, unlike argument-based nonfiction, the parameters of memoir writing are nowhere near fixed. An author must decide which of the almost infinite moments that make up a life will meaningfully move readers.
The point of this post is not a reality check, though, I swear! Whether or not authors keep their expectations realistic is a moot point: The difficulty of finding time to write and then actually writing makes reality almost impossible to avoid.
The point of the post is to develop your book with a plan that budgets not just money (which I’ll discuss next) but hours, days, weeks, maybe months, possibly years. When you enter a line item for time, you make a wise investment.
In The Moves that Matter: A Chess Grandmaster on the Game of Life (slated for November release), Jonathan Rowson calls chess a meta-metaphor. He means that chess—in its constrained freedom, broad competition, and negotiated relationships—provides a library of comparisons to help us think deeply about life. But Rowson also claims that there’s a sense in which the metaphor of chess “has greater reality and resonance than the game itself” (13).
Rowson’s point deserves unpacking, which he capably does in his book, but it’s his identification of a metaphor’s practical power that matters here.
In etymological terms, metaphor breaks apart into meta-, for change, and phor, for carrying. It’s typically consigned to the literary, but it’s used powerfully (also pitiably) in public and political discourses—think of Trump’s expedient invocation of a “witch hunt” or his specious claim to “drain the swamp.”
While politicians know that well-chosen metaphors influence people’s opinions, research confirms that metaphors change behaviors, too. In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers present a study focused on the continuation of preferred behaviors after goal completion. What, for example, helps people continue eating healthfully after completing a diet program? Or, what helps college students keep at their study habits after they've aced the test?
What did researchers find? The metaphor matters. Participants who considered their attainment of a goal as part of "journey" were more likely to continue the behaviors that brought about achievement. The two other participant groups—one of which considered goal attainment a "destination," and one of which applied no metaphor at all —demonstrated no such likelihood of continuing preferred behaviors.
While metaphors will almost always add panache to your work—be it a speech, an article, or a book—it turns out that they also help us reflect on our lives and, according to recent research, live better ones.
English PhD, former arts administrator, obsessive cook, native East Coaster, mom to two rabblerousers.
English PhD, former high school teacher, obsessive organizer, native Midwesterner, mom to three troublemakers.