The Great ‘Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn’ Re-Read

Update 12/3/16: Read my second big update on the #MSTReRead here.

I’m rereading one of my favorite fantasy series, Tad Williams’ Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, which is comprised of The Dragonbone ChairThe Stone of FarewellTo Green Angel Tower: Part 1, and To Green Angel Tower: Part 2.  (The original paperback edition of To Green Angel Tower had to be split into two parts due to its length. The forthcoming reprints make the series a proper trilogy again, I believe.)

Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn by Tad Williams

If you’re not familiar with the series, it’s a classic of modern fantasy and which I’ve talked about at some length here before.  George R. R. Martin often cites it as a major inspiration for writing A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series behind HBO’s ubiquitous Game of Thrones.

I’ve read MST many times before, but it’s been a few years since my last re-read.  And since Mr. Williams is releasing five sequels over the next few years, starting with The Heart of What Was Lost (forthcoming in January 2017), to be followed in April by The Witchwood Crown, the first book in the sequel trilogy The Last King of Osten Ard. I thought now was the perfect time for a fresh look at the “four-book trilogy” that in so many ways defined the fantasy genre for me.

You can find more information about Tad Williams and his upcoming Osten Ard novels at TadWilliams.com.  You can also read a lot of great updates and information about Osten Ard and the forthcoming books at The Wertzone.  Larry Ketchersid, an author and contributor at SFSignal, has also written an in-depth reread of MST that’s available both on his website and collected for Kindle for $2.99 (or for free if you’re a Kindle Unlimited member).

Rather than doing a more traditional blog re-read, where I would write regular, fairly lengthy blog posts summarizing each chapter or chapters and discussing them, I’ve decided to tweet it all.  Using Twitter not only gives me a quick and easily accessible way to talk about the books, but the 140 character limit also forces me to speak plainly and minimizes the temptation to ramble.

I’ll collect the tweets periodically in blog posts here, but for live updates follow me on Twitter or follow the hashtag #mstreread.

I’ll discuss the story as I read it, but not necessarily comprehensively and certainly not chapter-by-chapter.  Likely, I’ll jump around, vacillating between the general and the specific, moving forward roughly as the story does.

Here are my thoughts on the first two hundred pages or so (Part I) of The Dragonbone Chair:

I Live. The Writing Moves Forward.

Where have I been, you ask?  Why, braving the skirling autumn seas in search of adventure, grasping the elusive MacGuffin Beast by its shaggy throat and wringing from it the bones of story.  I’ve been ’round the Horn and back again, questing with my small, hearty band of ruffians through the dense jungles of Practicality, our spirits united in yearning for the legendary Sensawunda.

I’ve been working, in other words, doing the necessary stuff, getting shit done, laying down a steady beat of responsibility, being all adult AF.  But here’s what’s happening on the writing front.

I’m finishing up The Doktor’s Spyglass, slowly but steadily, and after that I’ll be moving on, both to give myself time away from it before editing the bastard and to relieve my overtaxed brain by writing something totally stupid.  I’ve got a couple of rollicking tales in mind, one of which is started, the other of which is only an idea, but both promise to be a good time in the writing.  I hope they’ll be good for the reading, too.November is almost upon us, believe it or not, and with it NaNoWriMo, which I’ve never properly participated in.  I won’t be starting this year, not officially, but I’ll be doing something similar–something related.  Due to the aforementioned SERIOUS ADULT SHIT, there’s been a relative dearth of writing here, and I aim to change that.  So for the month of November, I will pledge to write every single day.  I’ll set no specific goals as far as word- or page-count.  Rather, I’ll focus on returning to a daily writing schedule and focus simply on the task of putting some amount of words on the page every single day of the week.  Some days that might be a few hundred, others a few thousand, but the end result is that it all adds up and hopefully by the end of the month (stretch goal), Spyglass will be done and I can move on to newer, fresher things.

Stay tuned.  I’ll be using this blog as a journal, so I hope you enjoy it.

8 Great Resources for Writing Medieval Fantasy

I’ve had an epic fantasy series brewing in the back of my head for over a decade now.  I’ve got about 70,000 of a first draft of the first novel written, and though I’ve put it aside temporarily, I plan on returning to it after I’ve completed a few other projects I’m working on (three current works in progress, and counting).

I originally imagined it as a fairly straightforward “medieval”-style fantasy–knights on horseback, lords and ladies, etc.  While over the years it evolved into something much more unique (or so I like to think), much of the world’s social and political dynamics are rooted in my understanding of our world’s Middle Ages.

Much of that understanding can be attributed to two distinct but related sources: my wife, who studied the Middle Ages in college, and her substantial library of books on the subject, to which we have both added over the years.

As I’ve often seen writers and aspiring writers seeking guidance online for good research materials on this subject, I thought I’d share some of my own go-to resources.  Here they are, in no particular order.

1.  European Arms & Armour, by Charles Henry Ashdown

IG29969-1New York: Brussel & Brussel, 1967.

Sadly out of print, European Arms & Armour is an excellent survey of the subject of Western armament, ranging from the prehistoric to the advent of gunpowder (and slightly beyond).  It spends most of its time, though, discussing the Middle Ages proper and the weapons and armor that served the fighting men and women of Europe during this often-tumultuous period.  The New York Times, in 1967, called the book a “magnificent volume” with “much of the charge which belongs to historical romances[.]”

I was lucky enough to come across this tome, quite well preserved, in a second-hand book shop in Marblehead, Massachusetts.  It looks and smells like it may have spent the intervening decades between its publication and now in a dry but dusty basement, before falling into the hands of the bookshop owner from whom I happily acquired it.

Ashdown’s discussion of the development of arms and armor is simply and expertly presented, giving the reader a sense of the organic evolution from leather and bronze to mail and plate.  But perhaps most useful are the hundreds of engravings and photographs (black and white, unfortunately), complete with labels and terminology, that litter almost every other page of the book.

You should be able to find it used on Amazon, or perhaps in your local independent bookstore.

2.  The Sword in the Age of Chivalry, Ewart Oakeshott

910q5zw1TNSRochester: Boydell & Brewer, 2009.

Whereas Ashdown attempts to give a history of all European arms and armor, Oakeshott focuses on the most famous and pervasive of medieval weapons: the sword.

Originally published contemporarily with Ashdown in 1964, The Sword in the Age of Chivalry has found new life in digital printing and is still readily available through Amazon.

With photographs and hundreds of detailed illustrations by the author, this is the quintessential reference on the Western sword.  Indeed, Albion Swords uses Oakeshott as their primary reference guide for their functional, museum-quality recreations.  Invaluable for those who love the art of it, and want to make the sword a part of their story.

If you’re wondering what type of sword a person from a particular place and time might have used, this is the book for you.

3.  The Fourth Estate: A History of Women in the Middle Ages, by Shulamith Shahar

0415308518New York: Routledge, 1994.

A thorough and scholarly investigation into a subject much ignored in the study of the period, Shahar’s book is the first to look specifically at the role of women in medieval society.  She does so with a view toward a general and comprehensive discussion of all women, and in fact deliberately avoids discussing the ones that may spring immediately to mind: Joan of Arc, Matilda, etc.

She does so not only because, as she explains in the introduction, much has already been said of these singular and exceptional women, but because her intention was to shed light on women whose lives and positions had not been discussed.

Shahar herself is a professor of Medieval Studies at the University of Tel Aviv.  The book was translated into English by Chaya Galai.  The narrative approaches the subject rigorously, making no assumptions, and as such uncovers a wealth of contributions by, realities of, and life choices for women in the Middle Ages that is rivaled only by the insidiousness of their persecution by the Church as the centuries progressed.

An absolute must for anyone trying to write women in a medieval society (or its fantasy analog).

4.  Charlemagne’s Tablecloth: A Piquant History of Feasting, by Nichola Fletcher

9781466864405New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005.

Nichola Fletcher, a goldsmith, deer farmer, and food writer, bookends her history of feasting with an anecdote about Charlemagne.  He had an asbestos tablecloth, or so the story (almost certainly apocryphal) goes, which he would dramatically throw into the fire at the end of a feast.  The fire would burn off the crumbs, leaving the impervious asbestos intact, a magic trick sure to impress the majesty of the Emperor upon his guests.

What this book does quite well, with a joyful, engaged tone, is describe the food and festivities involved in history’s most extravagant and legendary meals.  The “golden age” of feasting, as she calls it, is of course the Middle Ages, and Fletcher’s description of dishes and entertainments from this age would make even George R. R. Martin blush.  Great fodder for descriptive passages and general scene setting.

5.  The Perfect Heresy: The Revolutionary Life and Death of the Medieval Cathars, by Stephen O’Shea

314653New York: Walker & Company, 2000.

The history of the Middle Ages is, in many ways, a history of Christian heresies, the greatest of which was the Cathar heresy, which led to a series of crusades called by Pope Innocent III.

The Cathars were an ascetic heretical sect most active in Northern Italy and Southern France.  They were dualists and Gnostic revivalists, believing in a binary godhead with good and evil gods.  The good god, the god of the New Testament, created the spiritual realm, while the evil god of the Old Testament created the physical.  Hence, physical was bad.  Hence ascetism.  The Catholic Church didn’t like this, so much, particularly the part about the evil force–who they interpreted as Satan–being equal in power to God.  You can guess where this is going.

O’Shea makes it riveting, however, and by focusing on this central conflict within Christendom, identifies a defining theme of the Middle Ages: dogmatic strife.

6.  The First Crusade: A New History, by Thomas Asbridge

81YzsRePgnLNew York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

No conflict–perhaps no event–encapsulates the medieval mind so well as the First Crusade.  Those who took up the cross, a diverse and only tentatively allied force led by five great princes, did so in response to a call by Urban II that stood in the face of a thousand years of Christian dogma: to launch an unprovoked war to reclaim the Holy Land by blood.

The First Crusade has always been the most interesting to me, and I particularly enjoy Asbridge’s discussion of the philosophies and cultural and religious values that led to what amounted to a craze among the nobility of Europe: to take penitent vows and seek their fortune in the foreign east.

Combining a loose interpretation of Augustine’s Just War theory and the incitement of racial and religious hatred of Muslims who held the Holy City of Jerusalem in their “unclean” hands, Urban ushered in an era of Church-sanctified violence that would not end for centuries.  This book is a fascinating exploration of medieval thought and the desperation with which the Latins pursued their salvation–both physical and spiritual.

7.  The Inheritance of Rome, by Chris Wickham

a1eobexixl-_sl1500_New York: Viking Penguin, 2009.

The subtitle says it all: illuminating the dark ages.

Referring to the years between the fall of Rome and the rise of Charlemagne as the “dark ages” has long been frowned upon by medieval scholars, and Wickham’s thesis runs with that idea.  Rather than a long period of barbarity and intellectual darkness, the early middle ages were “critical to the formation of the European identity.”

This one is a particularly relevant read for fantasy authors, I think, because it deals with the real world history behind one of the more common fantasy tropes: life in the aftermath of empire; people living in the ruins, physical and societal, of a greater, more accomplished civilization.

Wickham’s thesis goes a long way toward demonstrating that rather than the abrupt, dramatic cataclysm that exists in the public imagination, the fall of the Western Empire and the underrated survival of Byzantium were in fact part of a more gradual shift from a purely Roman identity to the beginnings of what would eventually become modern Europe.

8.  The Medieval Wordbook, by Madeleine Pelner Cosman

9780816030217-usNew York: Fall River Press, 2007.

This is a fun one: a glossary of words of medieval origin and/or importance.  Etymology nerds won’t be pleased by the lack of sources or derivation, but given that Ms. Cosman was a professor and director of the Institute for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at City College of New York, I think we can trust her.

I’ve found this one useful for general inspiration and worldbuilding.  A great coffee table book just to pick up and read at random, the subjects range from the quotidian to the serious to the downright lascivious.

Here are a few favorites (with cross-references in small caps):

fabliaux
Lewd tales depicting ebullient philanderers, bed-hopping with exuberance.  Stock characters in dramatic situations include the senex amans (old lover) cuckolded by his lusty young wife and her sexually athletic lover; the miles gloriosus (braggart soldier) whose boasting undoes him; lascivious clerical lovers with willing women congregants; and bold bawdy wives of sexually senescent men. fabliaux women oppose the idealized domna of the eva-ave antithesis.

stew
A fishpond, bath, spa, or whorehouse.  “The Stews” was a name for fourteenth-century London’s red light district, coexisting with the title cock’s lane.

yale
A mythic heraldic beast, gracing the coat of arms of England and many a bestiary.  An animal the size of a horse with an elephant’s tail and a boar’s jowls, each of the yale’s extravagantly long horns can adjust as battle requires; at need, one horn can point forward, the other behind.

These are only a few of the books my wife and I have on our Middle Ages shelves, and for everyone I selected to talk about here there were three I considered in its stead.  But these eight are books that have proved helpful and enlightening to me.  I hope you find them so.


TDS New 3My current novel, The Doktor’s Spyglass, is a fantasy noir adventure being serialized for free on Wattpad.  Check it out and vote if you like what you read!

The #SPFBO Has Returned!

spfbo covers

Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, in which my book Exile: The Book of Ever was a semi-finalist, was a great success.  It yielded exposure for a number of excellent self-published novels and created an engaging forum for writers, readers, and reviewers to discuss the changing industry of publishing.

As such, Mr. Lawrence has just announced that the SPFBO will continue, and submissions are now open for SPFBO2:

The question now is whether there is enough action/interest in the self-publishing world to make this something that happens every year, or if it was a one-off that relied on a build up of manuscripts for consideration.

I’m going to open the gates for SPFBO2.

If we get 250+ entries I’ll go ahead with proceedings. If we don’t … I won’t. It rather depends whether the self-publishers out there that can be reached have 250+ qualify manuscripts to hand. Submissions will be open for all of April.

He posted this announcement today and he’s already got 12 entries, so it doesn’t look like there will be a problem filling out that 250 book minimum.  That said, you’ve got a month to submit your self-published novel, so if you missed out the first time, now’s your chance.  The rules are simple:

i) No book that was entered in SPFBO1 can be entered into SPFBO2

ii) The book must be #1 in a series or a stand-alone.

iii) The book must actually be self-published, not something you’re considering self-publishing in future.

iv) It must be a fantasy book.

Mark goes on to explain the contest in more detail, which you can read about here.

I’m thrilled to see that the contest will continue.  It doesn’t look like I’ll have an eligible entry ready by the end of April, but if you’ve self-published a fantasy novel this is an incredible opportunity that you shouldn’t pass up.

Ros Barber Waxes Blithe on Self-Publishing in The Guardian

ros-barber_bw_19Novelist Ros Barber wrote a piece for The Guardian’s Books blog last week that tacitly pans self-publishing in favor of traditional publication.*  Entitled “For me, traditional publishing means poverty. But self-publish? No way,” the article is a list of points explaining why Ms. Barber won’t self-publish, and why you shouldn’t either.  Here’s my point by point rebuttal.

“You have to forget writing for a living.”

“If you self-publish your book, you are not going to be writing for a living. You are going to be marketing for a living. Self-published authors should expect to spend only 10% of their time writing and 90% of their time marketing.”

Barber’s first assertion, like all those that follow, is anecdotal at best and a blind assertion without any evidentiary support at worst.  The only explanation for the 90/10 percent ratio she cites is that a single self-published author who commented on her blog put the percentage of time he actually spent writing in the single digits.

This breakdown is contrary to my own experience and that of pretty much every self-published writer I’ve talked to, but, more importantly, it also ignores a fundamental truth of publishing in 2016: every author is also a marketer.

Ms. Barber’s article is very quaint, in that it makes references and draws allusions to a type of writing life that simply does not exist anymore, except perhaps for a very select few.  She impliedly invokes the image of a writer who focuses all of his time on the craft itself, “reveling” in the language of his creation, likely hunched over an Underwood putting words to the page with equal parts passion and torment.   The type of writer whose only obligation is the writing–the craft, oh, don’t we love to call it the Craft; the words, my friend!  Hemingway and Joyce!–who doesn’t have to leave his desk until his editor tells him its time to accept his Man Booker prize.

Continue reading

Should An Ebook Ever Cost More Than A Print Book?

I’m in the middle of reading the final volume in Lev Grossman’s excellent Magicians Trilogy, The Magician’s Land.  I love it.  The trilogy as a whole has been enjoyable from start to finish, so much so that I wanted to share it with others.  I was in the midst of getting the Amazon link to the first book to share it with a Facebook group I run when I noticed this:

Screen Shot 2016-02-26 at 6.52.27 PM

 

Yes, you read that right: the ebook is over two dollars more expensive than the paperback version.

Now, there’s been a lot of discussion about the price of ebooks: how much they should be, what the basis of said pricing scheme is, and whether publishers were justified in charging as much as a print book.  Just google “ebook pricing” and you’ll see what I’m talking about.  It’s pretty much the hot-button issue in the publishing industry right now.

I follow this stuff fairly closely, and I also buy a lot of ebooks.  I’m more than familiar with the complaints most readers have about publishers pricing ebooks too high.  Being a reader myself, I too question the motives and business acumen of publishers who often seem engaged in an experiment to see how much money readers will pay for an electronic book.

It’s obviously been a while since I’ve purchased a paper book, because after seeing the above I did a little searching around Amazon and discovered that it’s a fairly common practice, particularly when mass market paperbacks are involved.  James Patterson and Stephen King, for instance, both have multiple paperbacks on Amazon selling for less than their ebook equivalents.

Traditionally, a large publisher would release at least two main editions of a selling book: the first edition hardcover, which they would price at a premium and push for a year or so, before reprinting the book as a mass market paperback (the roughly pocket-sized, softcover books that take up most of the shelf space at your average Barnes and Noble).  Mass market paperbacks are smaller, printed on much cheaper paper (it’s not far off from newsprint), and bound with glue and cardstock.  They’re basically designed to be disposable, which is why they fall apart if you love them too hard.

This is no secret.  It’s also no secret that ebook prices have risen in step with the medium’s popularity.  But this is the first time I ever noticed an ebook priced higher than a print book.

What I find strangest about this phenomenon is the seeming inconsistency of it: traditionally, mass market paperbacks were priced lower because the cost to produce them was much lower.  The cost to produce ebooks being lower still, how and why is this happening?

The debate about the cost analysis of ebook pricing is ongoing.  Readers and skeptics argue that the production of an ebook involves far less overhead than printing a physical book, and thus publishers are unjustified in charging as much (or more) for them.  Publishers respond by claiming that ebook costs are non-trivial, and (essentially), that they’re trying to turn a profit and get off their backs already: Daddy’s gotta make that paper (pun intended).

In this context, it seems somewhat brazen for publishers to price ebooks higher than mass market paperbacks–almost as if they’re rubbing it in readers’ faces.  You wanna see overhead?  We’ll show you overhead.  Better just buy that paperback.

I’m sure that some of the pricing margin in these cases, on Amazon at least, has to do with Amazon’s discounting system and the fact that they make more from selling a Kindle ebook than a paperback they didn’t print.

But even so, it seems to me that if you’re releasing a cheap paperback version, it’s time to drop the ebook price down to at least match it.  Even for someone who reads almost entirely digitally these days, paying more for an intangible digital file than for an actual physical object containing the exact same information seems illogical.

But what do you think?  Do you agree, disagree?  What am I missing?

Snowy Treefingers

I put on the Barbour and the Bean Boots this morning* and took the family on a ride through Hamilton and Wenham, two quaint, rural towns nearby our house, stopping to get out from time to time to snap photos.

Hamilton-Wenham is full of colonial houses and small farms–it’s the epitome of quaint New England countryside, in other words, but you can see it without driving all the way to Vermont.  Most of the property is privately owned, but there are several farms open to the public and a few trailheads if you know where to look.

One of my wife’s books is set in Hamilton (you can read it for free on Wattpad).  We went with the intention of photographing the area as inspiration for the next book in the series as well as to capture some of the historic homes for a friend.  I mostly ended up taking landscapes, however: yesterday’s snowstorm clung to the trees quite beautifully.

* I realize this sentence makes me sound like an ass.  Nonetheless, I love that damn jacket, and the boots have lasted me a decade already with no sign of needing replacement.

‘Exile: The Book of Ever’ Is Coming To Wattpad

Exile AMZN-EPUB

Starting Friday, January 29, 2016, I will begin posting my first novel, Exile: The Book of Ever (#1) to Wattpad.  Over the course of about a month, I will post a chapter every day.  This means you can either follow along serially or wait a month and read the whole thing all at once.

Exile will still be for sale as an ebook and a paperback in the same places you’ve always been able to find it, but this means it will also be entirely free to read for those who want to.

Why am I doing this?  Two reasons.  First and foremost, Exile is a YA novel, and Wattpad has a lot of young readers.  Second, and relatedly, I want to see if I can develop a wider audience.  Exile has been well reviewed, but hasn’t seen as much commercial success as I’d like: I’m hoping bringing it to Wattpad will get it into the hands of readers who might otherwise not find it.

Exile is a post-apocalyptic fantasy with dystopian and sci-fi elements.  I’ve often described it (and heard it described) as X-Men meets The Walking Dead.  Here’s the blurb:

Centuries after the Fall, the United States has been wiped away. The crumbling remains of the great American empire are home now only to savage, lawless tribes and packs of ravening Damned—the twisted children of the apocalypse. Most of those few who survived humanity’s destruction spend their short lives in a violent struggle for survival. But some light still flickers in the darkness: the Blessed of Bountiful live in seclusion, relying on walls both physical and spiritual to protect them from the Desolation that their world has become. Among them are the Saints, those few men and women born with superhuman abilities that the Blessed see as gifts from God.

The violent apostate tribes of the Northeast Kingdom have always been a danger, but up until recently its small size and the vigilance of its people have made Bountiful an unappealing target. As attacks on the community grow harsher and more frequent, however, even the steadfast Blessed are forced to start preparing for the worst.

With her home’s very existence threatened, seventeen year old Ever Oaks, a Saint with the power to heal, is forced to make a difficult choice, one that may come to define her people’s future…

I have high hopes for Exile over the long term.  It’s a gripping, entertaining story, but one that also challenges the reader in unexpected ways.  And it’s got a kickass female protagonist who I think young women might like.  If you haven’t taken a look yet, you’ll have the chance to read along on January 29th.  Mark your calendars!

If We Can Sparkle He May Land Tonight

david-bowie-blackstar

In the late 1980s I became obsessed with a movie called Labyrinth starring a man named David Bowie.  My parents appeared to recognize him as some kind of celebrity, but to me, at the time, he was only Jareth, The Goblin King.  Labyrinth was one of a number of 1980s films that augmented my nascent love of fantasy and cemented it as a foundational part of who I am.  It was only later that I realized that I had been watching a rock legend dance around in a movie aimed at children.

Last night, I played Starman for my son, who is three years old.  We danced to it in front of my laptop.  I had recently downloaded David Bowie’s newest album, an eerie, atonal, masterpiece of symphonic jazz.  Like so many other people, I had no idea he was even sick.

My wife woke me up this morning to tell me he had died.  The irony was not lost.

I was a Bowie fan long before I even knew I was a Bowie fan.  When it came to music and art, he was always a central figure for me, looming in the background like a quiet alien.  First as Jareth, then as a musician, and later as a symbol of what it means to be an artist.

We all thought he was immortal.  Yes, he lives on through his music, but, appropriately, there’s something more to be said about that.

Listening to him on satellite radio this morning, it occurred to me that Bowie has been broadcast into outer space by radio and now satellite for over four decades.  His voice has been traveling through space at the speed of light (or the speed of life?) since at least 1969, when Space Oddity was released as a single.  That means that Space Oddity has traveled approximately 47 lightyears into outer space.

The nearest star to our sun is Proxima Centauri, which is approximately 4.24 lightyears away.  The first transmission of Space Oddity has traveled over ten times that distance.  What does that mean?

David Bowie is literally a starman.

Why I Design My Own Book Covers

TDS New 3I design a lot of book covers, for someone who doesn’t do it full-time.  Being responsible for the design of your books, inside and out, is part and parcel of being a self-published author.  That responsibility usually amounts to a choice between designing the books yourself, or contracting the work out to a freelance designer.

Deciding whether to do something yourself or outsource it is a decision that will be familiar to anyone who has run a small business.  When I worked as a private attorney, I faced this question everyday.  Do I pay for someone to design my website, or do it myself, since I have that skillset?  Do I do all the bookkeeping, or hire someone to man Quickbooks for me?  The only way to make these choices is to apply a cost-benefit analysis.  First and foremost, do you have the ability to do this task yourself?  If  yes, what’s more valuable to you, your time or your money?  If no, is it something you can learn?  And if you spend time learning how to do accomplish an ancillary task, are you spending your time wisely?

When you sit down to take care of the myriad tasks that make up the logistical and business side of being a full-time writer, you always have to ask yourself whether you’d be better off skipping this part and just doing some writing.  Usually, the answer is yes.  You should probably be writing.  Sometimes, the answer is an uncomfortable no: getting this shit accomplished is vital to the success of your career.  Other times, and these are the times I’m getting at here, the answer is a confident no: this is important, and it’s okay that I’m focusing on this for the moment instead of doing what I actually do, which is write fiction.

Exile AMZN-EPUBWhen my wife and I started Evil Toad Press, the imprint under which we publish our books, one thing we decided very quickly was that we would outsource all of our interior formatting/typesetting.  Neither of us had any significant experience doing this kind of work, and a day or two spent reading distributors’ formatting requirements and fooling around with Calibre and Adobe InDesign was enough to make up my mind.  I was confident that I could format the text of my book by myself if I had to, but it would require a significant investment of time and effort that I felt would be better put toward writing the actual books.  Most importantly, I figured out relatively quickly that I had no desire to do that work: it didn’t speak to me.  It felt dry and repetitive and boring.  I wanted to pay someone to do it for me, so I did.  We’ve never looked back.

On the other hand, I did have some experience with graphic design.  I’ve got some background in art and web design, and I’ve spent more hours than I care to admit teaching myself Adobe Photoshop.  I felt confident that I could at least take a crack at designing a few book covers, and to my surprise I found that not only did I have something of a knack for it, I really enjoyed doing it.

BOS CoverTo date, I’ve designed the cover for every book released by Evil Toad Press.  Even if you factor in the (small) cost of the tools required–subscriptions to Adobe Creative Cloud and Shutterstock, the odd font license–as well as a reasonable rate for the man-hours I put in designing them, we’ve certainly saved money doing it this way.  Even “pre-made” book covers, which are predesigned templates with your name and book title added, usually run anywhere from seventy-five to several hundred dollars.  If you want a completely custom design by a professional designer or illustrator, the cost may run into the thousands.

But more important, for me, was the unexpected thrill I got designing covers for books I cared about personally.  The challenge of capturing a book’s essence, genre, and tone and expressing them visually was exciting.  It was, and still is, a learning process, to be sure.  It requires a fusion of skillsets, including graphic design, typography, illustration, painting, geometry, and more.  But seeing a book cover come to life and being happy with the end result is incredibly satisfying.

TDODR Cover AMZN-EPUBI’m no professional designer.  I didn’t go to school for this.  I know I’ve got a lot to learn–sometimes it feels like I learn something new with every cover I design.  And not every cover is an immediate hit: some need several mock-ups before I get the concept right, others need to be redesigned entirely.  Sometimes I have to design several alternate covers simultaneously, to see which works the best.  Sometimes it turns out that a book needs a new cover somewhere down the line, because the first version isn’t selling as well as it could.

Some of my covers, to be brutally honest, are better than others.  As I said, it’s a learning process, and sometimes the magic just comes together better than others.

But the point I’m trying, and perhaps failing, to make is that designing book covers adds to my enjoyment of being a writer.  It doesn’t detract from it.  The moment it stops being fun, the moment it starts being a drag that I just want to put behind me, I’ll start paying someone else.  There’s no shortage of ways to buy a book cover.

So what’s the lesson, here?  I know.  You’re waiting for the sappy moral.  Well here’s a go at it.

TPS Omnibus CoverAn accountant once cautioned me not to let logistics get in the way my actual business.  At the time, his advice was specific: don’t try to do payroll by yourself, even if you’ve only got one employee.  Pay someone else to do that for you.  “You do what you do,” he said.  At the time, that meant that I should worry less about payroll and more about actually practicing law, so as to make the money that would support said payroll.  But it’s good advice for any business.  And writing, my friends, is a business like any other.

So do what you do: write.  Pay somebody else to worry about the rest.