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10 Things to Know Before You Write an eBook

July 25th, 2012 . by Peggy

My number one question of all time is, “How do I start writing an eBook?” Here are my top 10 recommendations.

1. Don’t buy any software or services.

Part of the reason I do what I do is to demonstrate to Authors that they really, really can do this all by themselves. As you’ll see as you get to know me, the approach I recommend is actually very simple. Besides, one of the biggest concerns you should have as you build your eBook business is to avoid creating dependencies. In the eBook business, those who build on a foundation of frugality are the ones that win in the long run. The only exceptions are an editor (non-negotiable, in my view), possibly a tech like me, and possibly a graphic designer for your cover. Otherwise, any halfway tech-savvy marketer really can do this from their kitchen table.

2. Start writing in a basic word-processor.

This is not the time to try to learn anything new. Your focus needs to be creating spectacular content. Avoid the distraction of fancy software by using something with which you’re already familiar. For most writers, that’s still MS Word. My fave happens to be OpenOffice, which is – you guessed it – FREE. It looks a lot like MS Word, and in fact, can open, edit, and save files right back to the MS Word .doc format. Just don’t go out and buy a new computer or think that you need to upgrade. Ironically, I actually spend more time for my eBook clients stripping out the hidden codes and back-end gunk from fancy software, than designing the actual eBook itself. I really do. And it’s a pain. Use what you already have and things will turn out much better in the end.

3. Don’t forget to do your research.

Before you move much farther past the beginning of your outline, be sure that you do some basic keyword research. This is how you find out if the book is even worth writing, because if there isn’t a market for it, why write it? Or, can it be tweaked into something that is marketable? Can you discover an opportunity that you didn’t know existed? Is the idea ahead of it’s time? Behind the times? Right at exactly the right time? I find that in about two hours of some basic – and fun – research, I can learn more than I could ten years ago in 6 weeks of work.

4. Don’t lose momentum.

When that muse appears, RIDE HER, ride her HARD, into the sunset. Your family’s opinion of your late-night writing sessions shouldn’t be allowed to phase you. So what if you drink a little more coffee or eat a few popsicles: just get ‘er done. If you’re in the mood to write, drop everything else. Don’t ignore inspriation, or you’ll bore of it quickly, and then it will never get written. (That boredom is the number ONE stumbling block I see in clients.)

5. Involve yourself in the book’s community.

By this I mean that if you’re writing a steampunk novel, by all means, join a steampunk society and go to the meetings. Business books mean getting out to networking meetings, and setting yourself up for speaking gigs. Poker books mean you should be playing daily, as part of some sort of group. Think of yourself as sitting in the center of a massive web. Look for opportunities to expand beyond your local geographic area, such as joining organizations that have expansion chapters, like Rotary clubs. And that’s just the (so-called) “real world”. Be certain that everyone in the online community related to your topic knows who you are. This is where social media comes in, as a way to easily integrate yourself and let people know about you. Very importantly, you should buy an eBook that is grounded in your community, perhaps the most well-known, and read it in the format in which you think you will publish. (Ie., if you’re aiming for a Kindle eBook, buy a Kindle version and read it that way, to familiarize yourself with the format. It’s surprising how many Authors come to me for help, yet they’ve never bought or read an eBook themselves.)

6. Buy the domain name, and secure social media ID’s in the name of your eBook.

If you haven’t hear me say this before, you need to buy the exact domain name of your eBook’s title. If the .com isn’t available, re-title the book. Setup a basic WordPress blog at that location and start making regular entries as you write, to build traffic to your site. Even if you never plan to write a single blog post or post a single tweet, at least buy or reserve the title, and your Author name, so that nobody else gets them, as yes, people will look for you by your Author name, the title of the eBook, and under any pseudonyms you have.

7. Start building an eMail list.

Please do NOT simply add people to your email program’s personal address book. Besides the fact that this doesn’t work, it happens to be illegal. (I’ll shortly have a revised version of my Cheat Sheet about this topic, which will explain all of this in detail.) Instead, use a free or low-cost account at MailChimp, aWeber, 1ShoppingCart, or even to manage this. It not only allows you to build a legal double-opt-in list, but also to offer things like free stuff when people sign up, and have really attractive-looking templates for your content. List-building will become a permanent, ongoing activity in your business. The sooner you start, the better.

8. Design the cover.

This might sound premature, but actually, it’s quite important. The sooner you can start talking about your upcoming eBook, the better. You’ll need to put an image of the cover on an information page on your blog, perhaps on your business cards, and of course, on social media. I have also printed out poster-size versions of it and put it on my vision board to inspire me to get it done more quickly. Or to brag.

9. Start looking for an editor.

You may need one of any of a variety of types of editing, from style and content editing, to simple copy editing, which is really mostly grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc. The earlier you can form a relationship with this person, the better. As I said above, it’s a non-negotiable. The book must be edited at some point, and it’s probably a lot less expensive than you think. Objectivity is key – do NOT hire a friend or a family member. Besides ensuring basic writing ability, ignore any degrees on the wall. The most important thing about this editor is that you trust them. If you don’t, find someone else.

10. Write a proper marketing plan.

I don’t mean a series of unrealized ideas, but an actual written plan. I don’t mean a business plan, either, but a very specific marketing plan. And no, this doesn’t need to be more than a page. It must simply be concrete. (Concrete does not mean inflexible, by the way.) I use, which is actually a mind-mapping tool, to create what ends up looking more like an infographic than a marketing plan. This allows me to change it when needed, and I can block out specific tasks that I need to complete in a certain order to make things move along. It also looks pretty darn sexy when printed out and posted on the wall.

While this is obviously not an exhaustive list, I think it covers the most important points. You’ll note that most of this is about setting up marketing tools for down the road, not actually about the writing. This surprises most of my clients that I don’t tell them how to write, or that I don’t start talking about how to use formatting for the manuscript. This is because all of that is secondary to your ability to sell it. Anything in the formatting can be fixed, modified, or more likely, is inconsequential anyway. What I want most for you is to realize the benefit of making these strategic choices up-front.

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When eBook Choices Seem Overwhelming

June 11th, 2012 . by Peggy

Stuck in a revolving door of confusion about eBooks?Stuck in a revolving door of confusion when it comes to various technologies around eBooks? You’re not the only one.

Knowing your options may seem like you’re opening a can of worms, but actually, I find that most of the choices in eBooks really boil down to just a few questions.

The problem is that these few choices have been inflated and repackaged a million ways. When various companies start inventing their own words to use for the same things, nobody knows what the heck is going on.

Once you know what to look for, it’s easy to pigeonhole options when they present themselves, and know if a new choice is something you really need to consider, or if it’s overrated or unneccessary.

Here are the questions I hear about the most in my presentations and workshops.

1) Do I need to create a PDF or an ePub?

This is really the biggie. Everything else falls into place based on this. For more information on each of the platforms, and how to make the choice based on your content type, read this previous blog post from me.

2) Do I need to hire an “eBook Publishing Company”?

This category of company invented itself a couple of years ago. Are they capitalizing on the confusion by charging outrageous prices for stuff that most people can do themselves? In most cases, absolutely. (However, there are some that I’m testing and that I may recommend in future.)  The built-in systems inside Amazon Kindle, for example, enable any non-techie to do it all by themselves. Anybody who can type an MS Word document can publish on Kindle. For more information about how to actually do this stuff yourself, sign up for my mailing list. I’ve got new video classes coming online very soon.

3) Do I need an Editor?

A resounding YES. For me this is not negotiable. In almost 170 eBooks, I’ve met exactly two writers who did not require the services of an editor. Two. Neither you nor I are one of those two. Find someone qualified you can work with, and just make the best deal you can. Try this database of freelance editors to start.

4) Do I need to hire someone to typeset my eBook?

If you are creating something that you want people to buy and read on Amazon Kindle, no, you certainly do not, as that’s not how Kindle works. (If you don’t know this already, it means you need to buy an eBook on Kindle and read it, to familiarize yourself with the platform. You can read an Amazon Kindle eBook for free using your computer, your phone, or your iPad or other tablet – you do not need to buy a Kindle device, or even pay money for an eBook for that matter.)

However, if you’re creating something that should be printed out and written in, or that contains many illustrations or tables or charts, or that must be seen in colour to make sense, then yes, you may want to consider hiring a designer to lay it out as a PDF for you. This means it’s more likely that you’re going to sell it off your own website, rather than on a platform like Kindle, Kobo, Nook, and etc. (Please, I beg of you, don’t simply type up an MS Word document and use that to create your PDF for download. It looks like crap.)

5) Do I need to hire a cover designer?

Unless you have some reasonable graphic design skills, yes, a professionally-designed eBook cover is totally worth the money. Don’t try to buy software and learn it as you create a homemade-looking cover design – too frustrating. You can certainly get a really attractive cover designed for you for about $200 – $500 USD. There are some great people overseas. (Or, hire me. It doesn’t matter – just be sure it looks slick.) I’ve written about eBook cover design guidelines here. You can share that previous link with your graphic designer.

6) Do I need a website devoted entirely to this eBook?

Perhaps not. What every book does need, however, is a landing page. If you already have a WordPress site, that means just adding another page to your current site, one that is totally devoted to selling your eBook, without distraction, alternative navigation, or outbound links. This page is where you’ll direct web traffic to “land” when they respond to things like your social media links, any ads you have to sell your eBook, or from other websites and blogs.

Let us say that you are a chef, and you’ve written a cookbook. The cookbook is a PDF, which means that it’s loaded with colour photos, lists of ingredients, and indented instructions. You want to sell this off your own website, and use it to build your profile. The best way to accomplish this would be to devote one landing page on your site to just selling the eBook. From that page, create a really HUGE and obvious link in the top right corner that says “Order my copy NOW!”, and make that button go directly into the shopping cart experience.

That sales page does NOT need to be independent of your website. In fact, it will work better if it’s not, as it reduces maintenance for you, as well as being able to easily capture traffic from the rest of your website.

7) How do I start writing? What should I use to type it?

Just use whatever you are most comfortable using. These days, everything can be exported and imported. Most people still write in MS Word, which is just fine, no matter how you plan to ultimately output your eBook. (I happen to prefer the free software Open Office over Microsoft products, but as I say, it doesn’t matter.) It helps a great deal to reduce the amount of formatting you use, and keep it as simple as possible, to avoid having to make adjustments to the manuscript later on. Whether you plan to release it as a PDF or as an ePub, as in, Kindle, etc., MS Word (or Open Office) is still a perfectly good way to start out.
Don’t worry at all at this stage about things like spacing, designing the layout of things on the page, or especially fonts. This seems to get asked all the time, and yet, at the first stage, this is absolutely the wrong thing on which to focus. Instead, worry about your marketing plan, your outline, and finding any images you wish to include, again, no matter which type of eBook you plan to create.

While this is not an exhaustive list, this certainly covers the most common questions I hear. The key is to simply not worry about the details too early in the process. The bigger question of things like your marketing plan and your keyword research are still the most important first steps.

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Designing Your eBook Cover

April 4th, 2012 . by Peggy

Why are there so many eBook covers that just suck? Here’s how to un-suck yours, and design for digital, not print.

It used to be said that you had 6 seconds to sell someone on your printed book in a bookstore. Personally, I think that was an overestimation, and it’s gotten much, much worse in the eBook world. You probably have a negative time frame in which to sell your eBook, as its cover is positioned in a grid of hundreds on your screen. You need to reach out and grab the reader by the nose, not simply wait for their passive eye to drift your way.

Keep this front-of-mind: eBook cover design is not an act of art, it is an act of marketing.

Yeah, harsh, I know. But it’s the truth. I started designing my own covers years ago, and now do them for clients, for a very simple reason: I couldn’t get the graphic designer to do what I wanted. The designer would select heavenly images, take hours choosing fonts, etc., and I would often end up with something that I’d love to frame for my wall, but wouldn’t sell a single copy. Bear in mind that graphic designers are taught things like how to use design software, not necessarily things like classic perspective and proportion. And even if they do know that sort of thing, my experience tells me that graphic designers don’t always make good eBook cover designers, because they get caught up in the artistic points, and lose sight of the marketing.

Here is a little self-checklist to go through as you design your eBook cover, either by yourself, or with a graphic designer. All of the following sample images are taken from the top 20 sellers on Amazon Kindle, on this date., which might say something about the relationship of good cover design to sales, meaning, that even if your cover isn’t perfect, it will still sell if you do other things right.

1. It must be seen from a distance: nothing tiny or complicated.

Remember that this cover will typically be seen at about an inch, or possibly two inches high. If you can print it out at 6×9, tape it to the wall, step back 20 feet, and it still makes sense to a stranger, you’re on to something.

Text is too tiny and too much detail.

Text is too tiny and too much detail.

2. High contrast text and images only.

Readability is key: your title of your eBook is based on your keyword research, (right?) and you need to be sure that people are able to see it on all sorts of screens, in an eBookstore, etc. Don’t put words over top of images without giving them a glow or drop-shadow to enhance readability. No fuzzy greys.

Nice high-contrast image and easily-read title.

Nice high-contrast image and easily-read title.

3. Use colour wisely: keep to one or two focus colours, then a bold accent as focal point.

Just like dressing oneself, don’t put too much colour or fading of one colour to another in a small space. One or two key colours, perhaps those that relate to some sort of branding around the eBook, and an accent. The accent may very likely be the title of the book, in a bold colour contrasting with your background.

Pretty blues, but lacks readability and focus.

Pretty, but lacks readability and focus.

4. If you use an image, it had better be close-up / zoomed in.
Unless it’s a silhouette, don’t use un-cropped images. Bring the subject in close. Make us feel like we’re right there. Eliminate distracting background to all images, and we’ll focus on what you want us to see.

Readable text, but image is meaningless.

Readable text, but image is meaningless.

5. Don’t use brown. Top sellers all have: black, blue, and red.

This is just personal observation. However, orange and yellow work well. Brown is a passive colour, not mixed from primaries, and it may be that something deep within our brains associates it with muddiness or lack of clarity. However, red means blood or excitement, blue recalls the open sky, and black is depth and mystery. There’s a whole colour theory about this, debated by psychologists, and perhaps you have more time than I.

Nice blue, clear text, leading image.

Nice blue, clear text, leading image.

6. No creepy fonts – can’t see them in small preview images and hard to read on a screen, even if they look OK in print.

Creepy or fonts not designed for titles are so, so wrong. Too cute, too curly, too ridiculous. Unless you are mimicking handwriting, please just stick to highly-readable fonts that are designed for use in titles.

Not bad, but the font just isn't bold enough.

Not bad, but the font just isn't bold enough.

7. Mimic your print book if you have one, but not if it doesn’t work in digital format.

Consistency in branding is important. However, printed book covers rarely migrate well to digital status. It makes perfect sense then, to design for digital first, then adapt for print, changing as little as possible.

8. If you aren’t using an emotive image, use a dramatic, archetypal illustration.

The emotive image is great on a cover. (Emotive image = either the current problem or pain, or the desired corrected outcome or happy result. ie. The couple riding off into the sunset would be the happy ending.) However, if you’re not using a photo that meets the above requirements, and are using an illustration, be sure that it’s archetypal enough to be universally understood. It must have strong contrast and high visual impact.

High-contrast, meaningful image on all in this series.

High-contrast, meaningful image on all in this series.

9. Limit the text to title, author name, and a 22-character tagline, if at all.

If in a series, put the digit number high up in right-corner. Keep it clean. Let the image speak, because that’s what will catch their eye first from a distance.

10. Use consistent imagery throughout your work, and esp. within a series.

It’s important to retain branding, and series eBooks can he highly successful. It’s often said that if you have an eBook that’s not selling well, write a sequel. Then all of them sell well. Readers can’t resist more of the same.

Sparks departs from his signature cover style. Too bad.

Sparks departs from his signature cover style. Too bad.

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Best Practices: Book Cover Design

February 2nd, 2009 . by Peggy

I’ve personally been involved on the design of about 25 book covers now, both ebook and printed books. Here are my 10 top tips for a great book cover.

The design of your book cover is extremely important, no matter how you plan to distribute it. Marketing rumour (I won’t say research, because I can find no quotable sources on this) tells us that from the moment a person picks up your book, you have about 6 seconds to convince them to buy it. This includes the time they take to look at the back cover and the spine.

You may think that an ebook is somehow less worthy of time taken on a quality cover design, but I strongly disagree: if anything, it is more important that your ebook have a quality cover design, as the ebook market is currently in a growth stage. It’s important to put your ebook into the next category up from some of the (let’s be frank here) garbage that has been distributed this way in the past.

These are in not in order of importance, and perhaps some of these don’t apply to your project.

1. The cover and typesetting should really be done by the same person, at the same time.

This wholistic approach unifies the design and gives it greater impact. A good recent example is the design of Jeri-Lyn McCrea’s Words in Action, which continued the floating words on the cover into the end papers, where the user can write a goal for the year inside the cover. All of this gives your content greater credibility.

2. Keep the design clean.

Avoid a cluttered look, make use of white space, and follow the fashionable rule: two main colours, plus an accent. (Think black skirt, red sweater, and the shoes and the belt should match either the skirt or the sweater – not a third colour.) Don’t give them too much to look at: strip it down to the basics. Too much stuff can threaten, confuse, and frustrate readers. Keep fonts clean and easy to read, and keep text from looking squished together. Use the back to flesh things out if you must, but keep the front of the cover cool and simple.

3. Use a focal point to orient the user.

The idea is to give them something that instantly tells the reader what your book will give them. This focal point must be meaningful to just about anybody, so test it out on a few people before you fly with it. This focal point could be a photo (my favourite) or something else that communicates clearly what your book is about, such as a single word in bold letters, etc. Your book cover is a promise of what’s inside. Grab their attention with a symbol or single word that will focus their attention.

4. Be sure they can read it without glasses.

Even as I typed that, it sounded stupid, but it’s true. Many people need reading glasses, but they don’t wear them while walking around a store or while using a computer. If they can’t read the cover because the print’s too tiny, you’ve lost your opportunity.

5. Use the spine properly.

The trend of creating spiral-bound self-published books makes me shudder. Not only does it look terrible, but you can’t use the spine to attract attention for your book on a shelf. Libraries won’t buy them, either. If you need people to be able to lay the book flat for some reason, there are much better alternatives than something that looks like it was done in your basement. The spine is very valuable real estate, and anything you can do to make the text there really *POP* is great. Keep the content restricted to the title and author’s name, as if you’ve titled your book properly, you can leave the sub-title for display on the front only.

6. Include a photo of the author.

A photo tells the reader who is doing the talking, and establishes instant trust. The photo does not have to be huge, but it should be included. If you are super-shy about having your photo taken, get a nice headshot done by a good photographer, and have it re-touched until you’re happy with it. Dress appropriately to your subject matter, and make it a cropped closeup of your face. (See a future article on what makes a good author headshot.)

7. Leave appropriate space for the technical gunk.

Freshman FlyFisher's Insect Guide - Back CoverCheck out the image here of the back of a book cover I recently designed. This book is rather small, only 4 inches wide x 6 inches high. Even taking that into account, we’ve left the scan codes at full size. This ensures that they will scan appropriately no matter what sort of equipment is being used. The ISBN number is clearly displayed, and one of the author’s websites is visible somewhere. The appropriate category is in the top left corner, which helps bookstores and libraries place the book to best selling advantage. The price is also given in both Canadian and US dollars. The ISBN-13 scan code includes a separate price bar code, and a separate UPC code allows the book to be sold in virtually any retail venue – not just bookstores.

8. Use appropriate information hierarchy.

Again, refering to the photo, pay special attention to the font sizes. The largest font size is used on the information that is most important – the book’s description. The smaller the font gets, the less important the information. Even subtle changes of a point or less can be detected. This leads the reader down a logical path of what order we want them to read in.

9. Make the design match the content.

I don’t understand why we continue to see child-like colourful designs with hand-drawn illustrations for business books. If you wouldn’t attend a business meeting wearing that cover, why should you ask your book to wear it? If the content is business, make the cover business-like. If the content is self-help, make the cover uplifting and beautiful. Good style is good business.

10. Don’t waste real estate.

A book cover is actually 7 locations: the front, the spine, the back, and don’t forget the inside of the front, and the inside of the back, plus the first right-side paper in the front and the last left-side paper in the back, which can be special sheets called endpapers. If you are publishing a hardcover, you can print the endpapers in one solid piece, and if you’ve gone softcover, you can print directly on the inside cover and the first “page” of the content. I’d love to see every author to ever publish put an order form there to order more books off their website. The cost is pennies per book, and the rewards can be great.

Remember: good design is good business.

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Dealing with Graphic Designers

December 16th, 2008 . by Peggy

I recently had a question posed to me by a self-publishing author about how to choose and negotiate with a graphic designer.

She asks, “…Pay per job, per hour or a combo of paying for the job plus a percentage of the first set # of books sold. Any opinions?”

Most graphic designers, if they are experienced enough to be worthy of doing your project, will know enough about the tasks ahead of them to quote by the job. Some designers do enough print work that they can speed up the process by templating certain technical, unseen parts of the process, much like an editor or writer has a specific methodology that they follow based on successful experience. Templating is not meant to imply that anything they create for you will look like anything else they’ve ever created – I’m talking about codes and document settings, etc.

Most experienced print designers will not accept a royalty, unless it is part of a payment package. If your project is very graphic, such as a profile of a painter or other artist, and the product of the designers work will be considered a work of art in itself, or if perhaps you’re sharing major credit with the graphic designer, a base payment plus royalty may be considered. But as most graphic designers are freelancers, I’ve found that many of them just prefer to keep things simple, and get paid right away.

Paying by the hour may be requested if a designer is working with you for the first time, if they are looking to do some “test” work to see if they like working with you, if they’re new to freelancing (which doesn’t necessarily mean new to design) or if you are hiring them on a number-of-hours-per-week situation to work on a variety of projects that you have on the go.

If a designer pushes you to pay by the hour for a single pre-determined project, first check to see if you’ve been clear about the job specs. With proper direction from you, designers usually know how long a job will take them, and this provides you with better cost predictability.

That being said, most designers will include an hourly rate that they will charge for anything outside the original spec. If you find yourself in a position where you need to make changes, approach the designer and ask them if what you’re asking is minor or major work. If it’s major, either pass or learn for next time.

The most important thing to consider when working with any contractor*, especially in the case of a graphic designer, is a clearly-written spec doc. I usually type up a couple of pages that are as clear a set of instructions for the job as I can make it. Include anything you think might be helpful, such as pencil sketches, colour swatches, charts, diagrams, examples of work you like from other designers, etc. The document should definitely include things like the time frame for completion, exactly how many images you need created and what size / resolution, and a technical description of how the final product will be used. Output specs from the printer are essential for designers, so that they know they will be able to accept certain file types, etc.

As with many things in a large project, communication is the key. If a designer feels that you’re ready to give them all they need to free their creativity, they will do the same for you.

[* Don't forget to have them sign a non-disclosure agreement! Other tips for dealing with designers and contractors will be offered here in a future post.]

I eagerly invite comments and constructive criticism from any graphic designers who read this post. What can we do to make doing business with you easier?

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Your First Instinct Is Usually Right

June 11th, 2008 . by Peggy

Even if not all of us are writers, we are all listeners. Communication that works is usually simple and plain. If it’s obvious, it’s often right.

Check out this elegant video about graphic designer Paula Scher, the creator of the CitiBank umbrella logo, and various famous signage and design work in New York City and other locations.

Paula points out that clients (let’s call them readers here) usually like to think there’s a lot of process behind what they’re reading, and that the work required to create the product should be plentiful. If it’s too easy for the writer or creator to create, it can’t be that worthy. Paula points out that people think if it’s too easy to create, they are not getting their money’s worth. “But it IS done in a second!” She exclaims, knowing that what we see as obvious is usually right.

At 6:30 into this video, Paula makes a beautiful closing statement about the moment when one “gets it”, and never losing that feeling. It is what makes all of us better writers, because we’re constantly looking for that feeling again and again and again.

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