The Story of “Exceptional”: Part 3

You can read Part 1 and Part 2 at these links.

PART 3: HOME STRAIGHT

I had a few bottom lines that I wanted for my book: I wanted hard copies as well as eBooks, because in my experience with Watched, most people wanted hard copies (plus I personally wanted the physical feel of my book in my own hands); I wanted a cover that wasn’t too expensive but obviously not low quality either; and I wanted my Aotearoa audience to be my priority rather than overseas readers.

I boiled down all the options J.C. Hart had given me to a couple:

  • A print-on-demand service like Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) or Lulu, where I would simply upload my book and they would print a copy every time someone ordered it; or
  • Using a New Zealand-based printer to print the book for me, which I would then either distribute to stores or sell myself.

Now that I had options for self-publishing, I actually needed to get the book ready to be published, whichever way I went. Two key things needed to happen: I needed a cover, and I needed the book to be edited.

I spent a lot of time trying to work out how I was going to get a cover done for a price I could afford. One of the options suggested to me was Vivid Covers, an American company that specifically illustrates and designs covers. They provide different packages of options, ranging from templates where you pick from a selection of images they already have, to a fully original illustration and custom design. The latter did appeal to me due to the cost compared to other original illustrators (which I’ll get to in a minute), but I was quite wary – I had found a couple of Facebook pages dedicated to seeking feedback on covers by self-published writers and, to be frank, I found many of them quite awful. None of those terrible ones were ever produced by Vivid Covers, but the sheer number of bad covers floating around gave me an anxiety about self-published covers in general.

I checked out a list of similar providers but they either seemed expensive to me, or their work seemed lower quality than what I wanted. So I then turned to independent artists. My first thought was of the artist who did the cover illustration for Watched, but I was unable to find his contact details. I got in touch with the artist who illustrated my short story “Children of the Mist”, Eugene Smith (you can find his work here). Eugene told me he had never illustrated a novel cover before, but was keen to give it a crack. I loved his illustration for “Children of the Mist” and had no doubt he would produce something awesome for my book, but I told him I would keep looking at all my other options and come back to him.

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Eugene Smith’s illustration for my short story “Children of the Mist”

Through some friends and their networks, I also had access to a few more illustrators, but the other issue that began to arise was the need for a graphic designer as well. It was one thing to have a great illustration, yet another to ensure that illustration works on a book cover, that the colours are appealing, and that the text for the title is the right size, shade, and location in relation to everything else. As I began to receive a few quotes for all this work, I began to realise how much it could all be adding up to. I never had the expectation of actually making money off my book, but I did want to try and recover the costs of production if I could. What I was looking at – manuscript assessment, book cover illustration and design, editing, and printing – was beginning to seem a bit daunting.

After a lot of deliberation, I decided to go with Vivid Covers. Comparatively, they were simply more affordable for me, especially because they did both the illustration and design. This was counter to quite a lot of advice from whānau and friends, who I think shared some of my earlier scepticism, but I was clear in my decision at this point and just honestly felt like it was the right thing to do.

And it clearly was. After paying the first half of the cost to Vivid Covers and sending them all the information and ideas I could, I received two concepts for Jason’s position on the cover; one based almost exactly on my original design; the other a slight variation. I knew immediately that the second option was what I wanted – it gripped me instantly. The slight turn in Jason’s body seemed defensive, or vulnerable, fitting some of the overall themes of Exceptional really well.

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A cover concept I sketched on a notepad at work way back in 2015

What followed was an iterative process where Vivid Covers sent me the design as it formed, and I gave whatever feedback I felt was needed. In truth, there wasn’t a lot; the initial design had Jason looking a lot more armoured, and while it was awesome, I felt I needed to tone down the armour to be more in line with the Cuirasses that Jason and his friends are made to wear in Exceptional. Perhaps the thing I am most stoked about with Jason’s design are the yellow lights on the spine; as in my sketch, I had envisioned the Cuirasses having a single strip of neon yellow along the spine, but when I suggested this to Vivid Covers they came back with the multiple lights you see on the final cover, and I thought that was perfect.

The final major change was the background; Vivid Covers suggested a white background to provide the best contrast with Jason, but I had always envisioned a grey background. Watched’s cover had a basic colour scheme of white, black, and red, and I wanted Exceptional to have a similarly simple scheme. In my head, that scheme consisted of grey, black, and yellow, but the problem was I didn’t really know what the grey should be; whether that just be a plain grey background or something more textured. Again, Vivid Covers took what was probably a vague idea and came back with something brilliant; three options with grey, textured backgrounds. My first pick was actually a different background to the one in the final cover – more intense like scratched concrete – but I soon decided it was a bit too busy. The background I ended up choosing was more subtle, evoking the isolating feeling of AEGIS’s cold, blood-stained walls.

And then my cover was complete. It was better than I could ever have imagined it. Simple, like the cover to Watched – and inspired by my own sketches and colour ideas.  Having had no files or measurements from Watched to base Exceptional’s cover on, I felt like they couldn’t be much closer in style.

Now that the image was complete, though, in order to make the cover print-ready, Vivid Covers needed to know a few details such as the page count, the trim size, and any bleed margins – these would determine the size of the spine. I hadn’t yet edited nor formatted the book, and I figured the details Vivid Covers needed would be something I would need to determine with the printer. I mentioned this to Vivid Covers, who pointed out that they didn’t normally produce covers for independently printed books; they could do it, but for them things were a lot simpler if I went with a print-on-demand service such as Amazon’s KDP. But the choice was up to me, and they would simply wait until I decided what I wanted to do (and paid the second half of the cost due to them).

This raised the question once again of how exactly I would print the book. I liked the idea of using a local business, and having complete control over the distribution and, potentially, sales of the book. But cost was another factor I had to consider, and the more I looked into how to facilitate sales myself, the higher those costs went. For example, I looked at how to add a “Buy Now” button to my Facebook page or blog. While those sites can easily provide that function, it needs to link to somewhere else that can actually facilitate the sale. That meant I needed to set up somewhere that hosts that transaction and, to no surprise, that would cost me.

I decided I would wait until I had edited the book to decide how to proceed with printing. The choice of editor was easy; Daisy Coles from Coles & Lopez again, who carried out the initial manuscript assessment. Thankfully, Daisy’s schedule was fairly light over the summer, so she was able to turn around her edits in about a week.

I was pleasantly surprised when Daisy let me know she hadn’t been able to find a single typo. It was validation, I guess, of the amount of care I had taken in producing this book. That didn’t mean Daisy didn’t have suggestions, though; the focus of editing is language rather than spelling after all. So, for example, the edits picked up areas where I had described something clunkily, or they suggested ways I could get a message across more effectively. There were a few scenes where the choreography didn’t make sense; a character might have started the scene standing but ended it on the ground, and I may not have communicated that transition well enough.

So, as usual, Daisy’s work was invaluable. Incorporating her edits was mostly a process of clicking “Accept” in Microsoft Word over and over again, but there was the odd suggestion I didn’t go with, or even places where I took her advice a step further and elaborated on something. By the time I was finished working through the edits, Exceptional truly felt exceptional to me.

But the challenge ahead of me now was that same troublesome decision: did I print copies of the book myself and find a way to sell and distribute them on my own; or would I use KDP to take care of the printing for me?

I had created an account and toyed around with KDP’s dashboard during my earlier research into options, but I decided now to explore it in depth. The website provided detailed yet clear instructions on every single step of the self-publication process, including videos and templates to assist. Reading through these steps I finally began to appreciate how simple self-publishing could be – or at least how simple these final steps of actually putting it all together could be. The selling point of KDP was that it would cost me nothing further than what I had already spent; the printing costs would come out of my royalties (which are much higher than the royalties I receive from traditionally-published books).

The only downside I saw to the KDP option was that it didn’t quite hit my bottom line of the book being accessible to New Zealanders. There are only limited Amazon marketplaces that provide the print-on-demand service, which means New Zealanders have to buy the book in foreign currency, and then pay (and wait) for the shipping. But I figured I could relax on this sticking point knowing that one of the benefits of going with KDP is that I could set my own price, and I would make sure to keep it at an affordable level for New Zealanders.

At long last I finally felt like I knew exactly what I needed to do. I only had one last hurdle to clear, and I had everything I needed to do it. My second book was about to be published.

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