The Gut Check Guide to Publishing: What Works, What Doesn’t, and Why to Do It Your Way

I always enjoy sharing publishing news, whether it’s mine or someone else’s, and especially when it’s my husband’s. You may have read in this space about Zachary‘s traditionally published books, Playing Saint and The Last Con. You may have read here about his Indie projects through his micro press, Gut Check Press. You might even be a regular listener to the always amusing Gut Check Podcast. (If you’re not, you probably should be.)

Over the years, Zach and his collaborator Ted Kluck have published between them, oh, I’d say thirty books or so. Which is why if you have any publishing aspirations, you’re going to want to get a hold of their latest Gut Check project:

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The Gut Check Guide to Publishing answers most of the questions young or aspiring writers have about which way of publishing is best for them, what to be wary of, how to talk with (and how not to talk to) publishing types, and more. Here’s the marketing copy (written by yours truly) to tell you more…

 

It’s easy to publish a book these days.
It’s also easy to do it really, really badly.

Sure you can go for broke and just learn from your mistakes. But wouldn’t you rather learn from someone else’s? Ted Kluck and Zach Bartels have seen it all. They’ve published with Traditional publishers large and small, started their own Indie micro press, had great success, and watched projects crash and burn. With the wisdom of grizzled old sages and the snark of jaded Gen Xers, they cut through the BS and show you how to

• navigate the world of publishing gatekeepers

• choose when to go Traditional or Indie

• work well with editors, cover designers, and PR wonks

• position your books for success

• learn from failure and rejection

• and much more

Witty, honest, and practical, The Gut Check Guide to Publishing isn’t your ticket to instant fame and fortune. It’s the reality check you have to have before you decide to take the trip at all. It’s what’s going to keep you from looking like an amateur out there. It’s your white knight.

Because if you think writing is hard work, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

 

So basically you get real, practical, been-there-done-that information that can help you make smart decisions about your publishing future, and at the same time it’s actually fun to read. Even the (very helpful) glossary is funny. But personally, my favorite part is the back cover itself:

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Yep, that’s what writing and trying to make a living out of it is really like. It’s not a vintage typewriter on a pristine desk overlooking an inspiring view. It’s a laptop on its last legs, it’s pizza crust, it’s messy — and sometimes, it’s a cinder block wall.

But it’s still worth it.

Celebrating Five Years of Gut Check Press

Recently my husband, author Zachary Bartels, and our good friend (and Zach’s indie publishing business partner) Ted Kluck realized that their micro press, Gut Check Press, was turning five years old. This seemed to call for some intensive reminiscing and, in true Zach fashion, a cheeky video retrospective created in PowerPoint.

The past five years of developing books and white papers (and the new podcast!), eating deep dish pizza and Chinese food, and smoking untold numbers of cigars have been some of the most fun and rewarding years of our lives as Ted, Kristin, Zach, and I grow closer as friends and share nights of the kind of laughter that makes your face hurt and your eyes tear up. And sometimes there’s even wheezing.

Here’s to the next five years of publishing milestones. 😉

How 12 Ordinary Photos Became 12 Eye-Catching Ebook Covers

Over this past year, a few different people have asked me about the covers I’m creating for the short stories I’ve written. Some have wondered how I create them. It occurred to me that it might be fun to show you all the original photos I started with and the finished covers side by side so you can see how I decided what to keep, what to chop, and what to change in order to make a photo into a cover. This is going to end up a pretty long post, but I hope a pretty interesting one as well.

If I had been really smart, I would have tracked all of the changes I made to the photos so I could tell you exactly how to achieve particular effects in Photoshop. Alas, I did not do so. But messing around in Photoshop and seeing what you come up with is half the fun anyway. I didn’t really know what I was doing in several of these, so if I can end up with something compelling, so can you, even if you’re a newbie. (Also, it helps to have a husband who actually does know what he’s doing and can answer all my questions.)

Without further ado…

Beneath the Winter Weeds

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Super simple because I started with a great photo. Crop, sharpen, layer one effect (don’t remember which!), and add text. You’ll see I kept the same fonts on every cover in order to give everything a family look, despite all the different colors and images.

The Door

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Another one I didn’t change much beyond cropping. You’ll note that in all of these, I selected colors that were in the photo as the colors for the text. That’s one of the simplest ways to create more cohesion in a cover. If you choose colors form a chart, you’re going to get things that aren’t quite matches. Use the eye-dropper tool to select colors that are already in your photo to then color your text. Also, watch out for high contrast photos where it’s hard to find enough room to put a title that will be readable. In this photo, it was hard to find a spot for the already very short title where I could have it all one font color and yet still readable. I think I was pushing it on this one. “The” is very easy to read, while “Door” is a bit harder.

This Elegant Ruin

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I hadn’t planned on putting my model on the cover at all–I only wanted to have the violin in the proper playing position. But Corissa had such an enigmatic look in her eye and I love this girl’s hair. With some adjustments for lighting and a warming filter, the whole cover has a very warm, honey glow to it. I smudged the background to create that rounded light (rather than have the straight windowsill) and created the illusion of movement on the bow using the same tactic. I remember having trouble placing the words, and even changed the title from its original (An Elegant Ruin) to achieve the right balance for the words. I then played with triangles in placement. There are three triangle shapes in this cover. Also, notice how much of the photo I didn’t use. Cropping is absolutely the most basic and effective way to turn a mediocre photo into a good one.

Also, this was one of only two photos I actually took after writing the story, for the purpose of a cover image. All the rest were photos I already had, some of them many years old.

We Shall Sometime Come to Someplace

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I loved this rabbit. Problem was, the rabbit in the story is a wild one, not a gray domestic one. Wild rabbits are brown. This took a LOT of tries to get the right brown for the rabbit and the right brown for the background and those two layers were manipulated separately first, then together. It was hard to keep this from becoming just too dark.

Clean

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Look how dark and crooked that original is! I did so much to this photo, I can’t even begin to tell you how I did it. Lots of strategic lighting adjustments, layer by layer, bit by bit. This was the other cover for which I asked a girl from church to model after I wrote the story. Elise didn’t bat an eye about getting in that dryer in full view of a number of people washing their clothes at the laundromat.

One Endless Summer Day

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I knew I needed a ladybug for this. But she couldn’t be on a rock. I knew I needed a green plant for this. But it couldn’t be boring. So out came the lasso tool and a lot of patience, twisting and turning and shrinking and shadowing so it would look semi-real. I like the way it turned out in the end.

10 Degrees Cooler in the Shade

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This was an image/title pair that preceded the story and I wrote the story to fit it. Not a lot of edits on the image. It was already quite eye-catching.

The Astonishing Moment

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This may be the image that was worked over the most. When you see the original and final side by side it may not even see like the same photo. The cover image was cropped from the left side (see the lighter almost vertical line between the clouds?) and then I used several different artistic filters to make it look more illustrated, which fits with a bit in the story (although I didn’t realize it until I wrote this post). See the Mackinac Bridge in the distance in the original? Don’t let that fool you. The story actually takes place on Lake Superior.

The Beginning and the End

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Cropped, flipped, brightened, and a little fun with the text. Not much more to say, except that this was one of the first images I shot with my macro lens when I got it.

Drive

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This image was obviously cropped and brightened and I upped the color saturation. I also used an artistic effect (perhaps watercolor?). I didn’t have to blur it to make it look like there was movement down the road as I took this from the passenger seat one day when we were driving Up North.

Memory Man

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This photo of the undergirding of a train bridge over the Lansing River Trail also serves as the basis of the background on my husband’s website. I needed something urban looking, but didn’t want the graffiti to compete with the words on the cover, so I rotated the photo 90 degrees and cropped out my cover image from what is really the top of the original photo (note the dark strip of rivets to orient your brain). Then I enhanced the colors, brightened, increased contrast, and added effects to make it less photoreal and more like a painting. I put the words vertical because of all the dark rust and even dropped an article because it didn’t really fit the design (it used to be called The Memory Man). A real graphic designer could have made it work, I’m sure. I also removed distracting dots of rust from beneath the words so that the title and author name can be easily read.

Water & Light

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Lastly, another very simple one. Just a matter of cropping, brightening, and placing text. This one I haven’t written yet, haven’t started at all, and have barely thought about. It may or may not end up with some subtle tie to Christmas since it will be coming out in December. The title simply came from the building that is featured in the photo (and may or may not have anything to do with the eventual story), which is the Lansing Board of Water and Light building downtown. Built in the 1930s, it is a gorgeous place with Art Deco lines and stirring murals on the lobby walls. Modern public buildings just don’t compare. Anyway, we’ll see what story I can come up with to fit the cover and title.

And that makes twelve. Twelve photos, twelve covers, twelve stories. I’m busy working on Memory Man right now. This has been such a fun year-long experiment. I highly recommend you try it if you’re struggling with consistent writing. As you write you will hone your skills and short stories are far easier to finish than novels, thus giving you that satisfying feeling of typing out the last sentence far more often. We’re getting close to the end of the year. It may be time to start thinking up some writing goals for 2014…

New Short Story Release + Something for Free

I’m happy to tell you that February’s short story, The Door, is now available on Amazon. Click here to preview and purchase this slipstream story for Kindle. Just $0.99.

The Door
As before, here is a very short excerpt to give you a flavor of the writing.

Wesley laid the canvas aside, sat on his stool, and stared blankly at the wall for a long time. As he sat, the weak February light moved slowly through the room as the day progressed until finally it rested upon the wall in such a way as to suggest a door where there was none. Something in Wesley clicked.

And why not? Why not a door?

In addition, for one day only I will be putting Beneath the Winter Weeds on sale. On Valentine’s Day (February 14th starting at 12 AM Pacific Standard Time for all you lovely international readers who may not celebrate this silly holiday) you can click here and download January’s short story absolutely free! It will only be free for 24 hours, so snap it up while the getting is good.

New Release: Beneath the Winter Weeds Now Available!

It gives me great pleasure to announce that today is the day! You can now buy the first short story of 2013, Beneath the Winter Weeds, for your Kindle. It’s just $0.99 and you can download it here. I believe non-US Kindle users may have to wait a day or so more before it is available for purchase in other territories.

Beneath the Winter Weeds Final Cover

I would like to ask those of you who read it to post a review on Amazon. I’d appreciate it so very much. If you’re a non-US reader, I’d love it if you could let me know when it is available to you. And if you run into any formatting problems on Kindle, please let me know in the comments here so I can address them. Thanks, everyone!

To give you a flavor of the writing, here is a short excerpt…

Instinct drove her on from one end. Knowing what lay beyond the ravine, somewhere beneath the ground, drew her ever closer from the other. Like a drop of rain upon a long blade of wild grass, she was inching ever closer to the root of it all. And when she at last came to the ravine and began a careful descent on the frozen ground, she had a palpable sense of acceleration, of reaching the point of no return.

And what’s coming down the line in February? A story about a painter and one very curious painting…

Introducing Understory Press

I realized as I was formatting Beneath the Winter Weeds for Kindle that I really ought to have a publishing imprint of my own to put on the title page and the back cover of the whole collection at the end of the year (as well as my novel) because I plan on making those longer books available in paperback as well.

After a quite a bit of thought on Saturday morning, I decided to call it Understory Press.

Understory Press

The logo is my own concept and design (largely drawn at the mall bounce house on Saturday while my son ran wild with about 100 other children). Wondering about the name? Here’s my explanation…

Most of the trees that make up a forest are towering giants that form the canopy. But beneath those behemoths is the understory. Slender and subtle, these graceful trees use fewer resources, but they also put forth spectacular shows of spring blossoms and provide fruit for wildlife in the fall.

Understory Press is like one of those trees. We’re small in size, committed to subtle and compelling storytelling, and occasionally we may surprise you with something spectacular.

As I was developing the logo and the name, I was reminded that Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf were self-published authors. They both wrote, revised, and edited their work, then Leonard set the type and printed the pages with Virginia’s help (and later with the help of some employees) at their Hogarth Press. Virginia’s sister Vanessa designed Virginia’s book covers. And this was not strange to people at the time.

It got me thinking about how self-publishing used to be respectable, then it was derided as what people do when they aren’t talented enough for “real” publishing, and now it’s coming back around. I’m really excited to start down this self-publishing road and I hope you will enjoy my creative endeavors as well. Understory Press is strictly a vanity press at the moment, but who knows what the future may bring…