DIY: The Outer Limits

If you’ve written a book and are planning to publish it yourself, you’re well advised to get professional help. Hire an editor; hire a cover designer; for print books, hire an interior book designer; and by all means, hire someone to build you a good-looking website.

I’m hoping to bring out six or seven books during 2017, so I’m in a slightly different position. I kind of don’t want to shell out $10,000 for the privilege, since it’s not too likely I’ll ever see a return on that investment.

Plus, I have a basic level of technical competence in several areas. Having been a professional editor for many years, I have no hesitation in skipping the “hire an editor” step. Designing a book interior is not that difficult; after a few days with the free 7-day trial of Adobe InDesign, I’m confident that I can do the job, so tonight I purchased the one-year subscription to InDesign.

Cover design and website design, though — how far can I push the river? What are the outer limits?

I have been sternly advised by several people in a Facebook writers’ group where I hang out NOT to try to design my own covers. They have good reasons for urging caution! The skills used in writing are quite different from the skills used in graphic design. You can be a whiz at one and a complete dud at the other. In fact, that would be true of most of us.

On the other hand, my father was a professional artist and illustrator, and my mother was a talented amateur. Also, I have some previous experience with Photoshop. So I’m not a complete babe in the woods. I’ve hired someone to do a series of four covers for my four-volume fantasy epic, but I haven’t heard from him for a few days. I honestly don’t know what’s going on. And even when he sends me finished covers, I’ll still have two or three more books to do. Maybe if I hop in the car, drive down to Barnes & Noble, and spend a few hours taking detailed notes about how covers are designed, I can avoid embarrassing myself too badly.

I would never attempt to do an illustration, needless to say. I can draw stick figures if you let me use a ruler; beyond that, I’m hopeless. But many covers are produced using stock photos. Maybe I can produce adequate covers myself.

I’ve been talking to a guy about doing a website design for me, but he made the mistake of mentioning that he wants to use Divi. So I had a look at Divi. It’s a new system for designing WordPress sites. Costs $89 per year — and once you have the site, you don’t even have to keep up your subscription, unlike the Adobe stuff. So that $89 can be the total cost, if you don’t plan to upgrade your site on a regular basis. It really is a slick system, and the documentation is very good.

Hmm — should I pay the guy $1,000 to do a Divi-based site for me, or should I pay less than a tenth of that and do it myself?

Subsidiary questions have arisen about the design of book covers for specific genres. Those are marketing questions. I can certainly understand that a younger person who hopes to have a career as a writer may rightly be concerned about making effective marketing decisions. I’m not in that position. The more I go on, the more I see the process of making books — and, for that matter, websites — as an art. Art and business don’t mix well, except by accident.

I think I’m about to invest in Photoshop too. Of course I’m assigning myself a lot of work! But I’m a retired guy. I have plenty of time, and I’m not frightened of work.

I’ve already discovered one advantage of DIY book production. I wrote a fantasy novel this fall called Woven of Death and Starlight. I thought it was finished, ready to go. But as I started laying it out in InDesign, I started re-reading bits and pieces. The sensation began to creep up on me that, no, it’s not finished at all. What I did this fall was only the first draft. More needs to be done to make the story work.

If I hadn’t tried using InDesign, I might not have discovered that. It’s possible something similar might happen with cover design. In trying to discover the best possible focus, image, and tone for a cover, I might learn something about the story that would prod me to return to the writing stage.

This is called synergy. You don’t get synergy on an assembly line. A cover designer, no matter how professional, would be unlikely to nudge the writer into that sort of revelation. Hell, my fantasy epic is 450,000 words long. No cover designer is ever going to read the silly thing. I’m supposed to come up with ideas, which they will then execute. So really, I’m the cover designer already.

I take refuge in a reminder that I used to have on a 3×5 card that was thumb-tacked to the wall above my synthesizer and tape deck, back in the days when I had a reel-to-reel tape deck: “There are no rules for how to play with the toys.”

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