Before and After: The Cover Story

Hello, I’m Yo, one half of design consultancy VS+YO. I created the cover for Before and After and Shan asked me to tell you the story of how we made it.

Before we get started, a warning, this blog post contains spoilers! If you don’t want to know what happens in the book, go get it from the kindle store before you read this, go!

Shan and I have worked together for over 18 years and I think we have only met in real life four times. I love working with him for multiple reasons [Chief among these being that we only meet in person once every 4.5 years – Shan].

Firstly, he gives me compliments like this:

But more importantly we share the same values when it comes to design and creating.

We also understand that we are both focused on making things better, which is why when we share ideas we are completely honest with each other. And why, when Shan told me that the cover was the most important thing to the success of any book and if his failed to sell it would be all my fault, I laughed. No pressure then!

The process I followed for creating the book cover was the same as I would follow for any design project. At each stage Shan had the opportunity to input and feedback which meant that the project is collaborative and that he thinks that all of the design was his idea.

Step 1 – The brief

We kicked off project with a call where I asked lots of questions to get a clear understanding of what Shan was looking for. Here are my notes of what he told me:

I then asked for a draft of the blurb that would feature with the book so that I could get an idea of what Shan was going to reveal up front and what he wanted to be a surprise. You can read the blurb here.

I had an idea I wanted to put something on the cover that represented one thing when you first saw it and then had another meaning after you have read the book.

Shan had lots of ideas for the cover, including making a hybrid illustration, creating an optical illusion where some people might see a fat man other would see a dog and a design with a fat superhero wearing a cape.

Emma, Shan’s wife, also had an idea which Shan send in a video. This made my day:

I had lots to go on, but before started any design I wanted to experience the book and understand the key themes. I also wanted to see the competition to learn who we were competing with and how they approached standing out in a crowded market place.


Step 2 – Research

I read the book, every word.

Shan asked if I would send feedback, I sent him notes after I had read each chapter. Reading the book really helped me to understand the key themes and get ideas for visuals that would work on the cover. It also gave me an understanding of the experience of the book. I loved it! It made me laugh out loud on multiple occasions and cry once too.

Next, I researched the marketplace and the competition. Looking at the sci fi and post apocalyptic section of the amazon kindle store was overwhelming. There are so many titles! Our cover would definitely need to stand out and the design would have to work at multiple sizes and in greyscale as well as in full colour.

I had a call with Shan to discuss what I had learned. We looked at examples and discussed typography, colours and tone, what he liked and what he didn’t. This helped us to realise that a traditional cover design was not what we were going to create. A lone figure in front of burning buildings was out. Simple illustration was a possibility. We agreed the goal of the design would be to make it stand out and to get a reader curious enough to read the blurb.


Step 3 – Concept

Now I had all of the information I needed to get started, it was time to focus on ideas.

My ideas always start as words. They allow me to get ideas out quickly and not get caught up in how it will look.

To get started, I do a brain dump of everything I can think of in five minutes. From this quick, simple exercise I get a feeling for what excites me and what sparks visual ideas. I pay attention to words that can be connected and try combinations of words for ideas, with the aim of creating something unique and unexpected.

Then I move on to moodboards with photography and type. As a book cover is quite a straightforward design, I also mocked up some covers so that Shan could see the cover name in action and get a feel for how it could work. I showed the covers both large and as small versions in both colour greyscale to replicate how they could be viewed in the kindle store. Check out of the concepts we explored in this gif:

This stage is quick and the moodboards are designed to explore ideas, not necessarily a finished style. That comes after a direction has been agreed.

All concepts were presented to Shan on a video call where I explained the thinking behind each. We discussed each one taking into account how we could create a design that he could completely own without having to pay royalties on images. The presentation was then emailed so that he could think over the options.

The design that we were both really excited about and agreed represented the key themes was the biscuit concept. It nailed it on many levels. It was simple. It stood out. It would appeal to a mass audience. It made you curious, what was this biscuit book about? We both felt this was the right direction, it just needed more development.

We also agreed the book needed a shorter name, something more memorable, and that the biscuit should have a message on it.

Boom! The design became instantly more memorable. And it satisfied my need to create a design that was timeless and that would stand out in the kindle store.
Shan and I were very excited, this was the one to develop to design.


Step 4 – Design

We wanted an original photo to work with so that we owned the rights and wouldn’t have to pay for a licence or royalties to use it. I’m not a photographer but as the book was digital and we were working to a budget I took the photos myself with my smartphone. I went on a search for the perfect bourbon (Waitrose essentials turned out to look the most like a bourbon and work the best. Fox’s bourbons in comparison looked like dog biscuits which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for this book).

My hubby, Tom, helped with the photography (and eating the bisuits). He noticed that one was broken and said it could be cool even though he had no idea why we were taking photos of biscuits.

I loved it! The idea of the biscuit being imperfect was like the main character Ben with his flaws, as if he had nibbled a little bit off hoping no-one would notice. The piece missing could also represent the part of his leg he has to remove. This was the one!
[I never mentioned this before but one of the things I got from that is that there’s an old joke about the fact that broken biscuits have no calories, so it’s even smarter than you thought! – Shan]

As the cover image was going to appear as if it was out of context in the kindle store I felt it needed a line to explain what the book was about. I wrote one and added to the top. Then I experimented with the layout, see some of the versions in this gif:

Shan loved the big biscuit with the book title on it and the additional line. He is feeling confident and decided to ask a small trusted group to feedback on the cover.

Usually when working on a project, I ask that all decision makers are present for the first stages. It helps to get everyone on the same page.

When new people are brought into the process cold and haven’t seen the work behind a design there can be a tendency for things to get off track and this can add time and cost to the project.

We shared the design process to date and we had a winner! The feedback was to tweak to the type and I needed to have the title properly photoshopped on to the biscuit and we would be good to go.

Until Shan posted the cover in a facebook group and asked over 9.1k people for their feedback. [Sorry. – Shan]

There was a lot feedback!
A lot of positives and some negatives too.

  • It didn’t look like fiction.
  • American’s didn’t recognise the biscuit.
  • It didn’t look like it fitted in the post-apocalyptic genre.

When dealing with feedback from with multiple individuals I aim to focus on the problem we are solving and keep bringing it back to what is important. Shan is very good at filtering out the noise and focusing on what is important.

Shan and I discussed the feedback in detail. Did these things matter? What was most important to us and to the viewer? What emotional reaction were we looking for?

We decided to give the cover design one final push to see if adding a post apocalyptic element to our biscuit cover would work.

I created some quick mock-ups, I tried adding biscuit crumbs coloured red so that at a glance it looked like blood splatter.
I added a target to communicate weight loss but that would also look like a scope, which also features in the book. At the request of Shan, I experimented with adding a mad sci-fi colour even though we knew the cover would often appear in greyscale.
I even tried adding a background of burning buildings, the cliche we originally agreed to avoid.

Sometimes, you have to try things to see them to confirm they don’t work.

These quick mock-ups proved that combining an extra element with the biscuit concept would require a lot more time and budget to get it right. And we would likely need to pay for photography or involve an illustrator.

We had two options, either to stick to our gut and go for the biscuit or continue to develop.

We realised something important.
We didn’t care that it didn’t look like traditional fiction.
We didn’t want it to look like it fitted in the post-apocalyptic genre.

We both loved the cover as it was.

We went back to the original with some final typographic tweaks to make the cover line and author name bigger as per the facebook feedback.

The cover now ticked all of the boxes we set out to:

  • It stands out
  • It is memorable
  • It makes you feel something
    • curious, what’s a book like that doing here?
    • hungry, mmm… biscuits
    • nostalgic, I haven’t had a bourbon in ages
  • And it motivates you to click to find out more.

Whether you love or hate the cover, the book is awesome. It’s not just for those who love end of the world, sci-fi. It’s for people who love an adventure, root for the underdog and like biscuits.


Go to the kindle store and download the book to discover why the bourbon biscuit is on the cover.

OK, Sminsel – a story about a story that I wrote for you as a Christmas gift

You know when they say that it’s the thought that counts? Yeah, well, I had a thought about writing y’all a short story to wish you Happy Christmas. I discussed it with one of my story advisors (Frank, aged 9) and he liked it well enough, so yesterday I powered through it and churned that sucker out. 2,400 words.

OH. HOLY. NIGHT. IT. SUCKED.

In nearly the first paragraph the concept fell apart. The characters were loathsome. It became ideologically perilous. The sentences themselves were fraught with rusty jagged edges that caught your jumper as you walked past them.

It stank.

I’m currently in the phase of processing this that therapists call “dangerously raw”. I splurged out the details on Twitter, so I’m going to link the tweets in here. This is solely so I don’t have to write the suckiness out again. Anyway, Happy Christmas readers.

https://twitter.com/nervouscrying/status/1206811316612206593

A footnote because these things gnaw at me. I thought reticulated meant when a creature is segmented like a worm or snake and it can move through a wave like process of shuffling each segment. I was wrong, I’m not sure that has a name – please let me know if I’m wrong here too. Reticulated is the name of a pattern where a network is created by lines. Think of a python or squinting at the motorway network map. As you were.

Three Weeks To Publication. Emphasis on eeks.

In my journey towards publishing Before and After, I’ve been learning a lot about the self-publishing process, with the help of the rather impressive guys over at a company called Socciones. They support Indie Authors to get their books onto Amazon. Indie Authors is the sexy, preferred term rather than self-published authors, because that has too much baggage and suggests a Chartered Accountant wondering why no one will publish his memoirs about spreadsheets.

I’m sure they wouldn’t object to my saying that it’s not actually impossible to do the work yourself, but there was quite a lot to do in a short space of time so I thought I’d recruit some help. They were friendly and helpful to me on Twitter and so I thought I’d go with them. So far, so excellent.

The stuff that they’re doing is mostly around the admin of the book. There’s typesetting the manuscript. This is where you take the Word document and change it into a file that Kindle readers know how it should be displayed. There are some basic formatting choices but this is more for the print-on-demand paperback than for the Kindle version, as readers can obviously change font size and line spacing themselves. I tend to have my Kindle on settings so large that you could read over my shoulder from a different county, so as ever with design stuff I will defer to the opinions of others.

They are also setting up an Amazon ads page so that I can play with that and see if I can get a reasonable return on putting out little ads on Amazon.

The idea is that if I can figure out what sort of keywords my readers would be typing in then I can pay X pence per click and have my book appear at the top of their search results. I’ve been researching and it seems to me that possible keywords are:

  • Type 2 Diabetes
  • Morbid obesity
  • Dog ownership
  • Living like a hermit
  • Rage
  • Drones
  • Violent post-apocalyptic hellscape

Best-seller charts here we come!

I’m also working with my good friend Iven Gilmore to make a short book trailer for Before and After. I made the cardinal sin of briefing quite a complex and involved trailer, which Iven then dutifully went and started to make only for me to realise that it wouldn’t work, thus undoing all of his good work. Bad Shanahan, sorry Iven.

Other than that the book has now gone out to the ARC team. This handy little initialism stands for Advanced Reader Copy. This is where you hone, buff and polish your manuscript and send it out to very kind people who agree to read it and give you feedback on it. Their role isn’t to spot typos and spelling errors, although depressingly it seems they often do that too. Ideally, when the book comes out they’ll be in a position to review it, so that people wondering if they should buy the book will have an idea of what people think.

It’s three weeks today that the book is launched. That seems surreal. I’m in a weird space with it now. I feel sickened by it, but also there’s a deep connection of love to it. It’s like those awful marriages that end up with husband and wife stepping pointedly around each other in the kitchen, one waiting to get to the cutlery drawer, while the other waits for their toast to pop up. No, carry on. No, I’ll move. It’s fine. For clarity, our toaster is next to the cutlery drawer but Em would just push me out of the way in the above scenario.

I’m not saying I hate the book – I really don’t. I think it’s just part of this weird relationship you have with an idea, where it first blows your socks off and unrolls the turn-ups from your trousers. Over time, that novelty necessarily wears off because you spend so long shaping the idea and working with the characters. By the end you’re not best-placed to have any sense of the thing’s innate value because it seems old and all you spot are the scratches. Man, that’s depressing, no wonder arty types drink so much. Does make you wonder if Donatello spent a few hours after knocking David out thinking, “I reckon I could have done his knob better. Oh well, fuck it.”

The pre-sale page of the book on Amazon should go up hopefully by Wednesday and I’ve got some PR going out this week too. Not sure what will come of it but it’s nice to be working on something concrete. Well, that and starting to wonder what the next book will be…

Three weeks. Cripes.

Writing This Final Draft Makes Me Think Of Gareth Southgate

Yikes. This is all getting alarmingly real. I’m currently writing the third and final draft of the book and so far it’s been three days of weeping, gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. The key to the difficulty is in that terrifying word: final.

FINAL.

FINAL.

Decades of following English international sporting teams has conditioned me so that I come out in a rash at the mere mention of the word final. Finals are hopes dashed. Finals are repeating the words “but we could have had it all!” endlessly into the froth of a pint of lager. As each chapter gets done I have to essentially declare: yes, this is perfect and precisely how I’d like the reader to receive these words. How do you do that? I suppose the alternative is that you find yourself two years down the line starting your 48th draft and realise that you’ve whittled your stick down to a match, but, boy, what a match!

Sure it’s great, but WHY?

Em said I had to push on through so that’s what I’m doing, wise wifely counsel. I’m also keeping myself busy by working with Yo on the cover design. I say working with, but really she does all the work and I just nod and say things like, “Can that font run right to left?” or “Would it work in mauve?” Yo smiles politely down the phone and gets on with the vital business of ignoring me.

I’m actually going to let Yo write a post about how the cover is decided because frankly she’s the one who knows what’s what, but I thought you might like an image that she made which shows an array of covers that are also nominally in the same category (the jolly post-apocalypse category, although Before and After is perhaps the first ever post-apocalyptic weight loss book – how’s that for a niche?)

Do you have a favourite from these? I’m an Atwood guy all the way.

Please help me pick a tagline for my book

So…I re-read the book while we were away at half-term and it turns out that I’m actually pretty proud of it. I don’t know if it has artistic merit exactly, but it talks about some things that matter to me, I think it’s a fun read and I’d like to share it with people. I’ve also had the early beta reader feedback which has been encouraging and given me lots to work on next. So, full steam ahead!

That means that in the coming weeks I’ll probably be asking you your opinion on various aspects of the book, from the cover to the inevitably horrible author photograph (still think I might go with this one…)

The first thing I’d like to get your thoughts on is the tagline which designer Yo is thinking about adding to the front cover. Now, I know you probably haven’t read the book at the moment (more on that coming in a later post) but which of these taglines would tempt you to read a book by a random author with a publicity headshot like that?

Vote now or forever hold your peace!

Before and After: The Publishing vs Self-Publishing Debate

I’ve been having the conversation around publishing vs self-publishing with a lot of different people recently. To those who aren’t au fait with the publishing world there’s often real surprise, especially around the earnings details, so I thought I’d put together a post about my current thinking in case it helps anyone else and to explain my current quandary.

First a bit of background. In total, so far, I’ve published three books. Two of those – the Not Going to Uni Guide and the MAN v FAT Weight Loss Manual were published in conventional ways i.e. with a publisher (Pearson and then Headline) who paid me an advance to write the book and then I negotiated a percentage of future book royalties for when I’d “earned out” my advance. So in theory when you’ve earned beyond your advance you start receiving a percentage of the retail price per book. Typically, this can be anywhere from 5%-15% depending on the skills of your agent and how much clout you have at the negotiation phase. The publisher receives the rest.

The other book that I did was the Staggered Groom Guide. That was self-published. We paid to have about 5,000 copies printed (which cost around £3k) and then listed them on Amazon, through the I Am Staggered site and via affiliates. We held all the stock and then posted them out whenever an order came through. The finances for that were simpler, we had production costs (design, copy, printing, postage) and anything that was left over from the retail price was revenue. I think typically it ended up being about a fiver per book. In the end I think we had a box or two left, so we more or less sold out. We considered doing a second print run but by that point we’d started to think about selling Staggered so it wasn’t really on the cards.

On the plus side of working with a publisher there is undoubtedly the consideration of ego. Being published, getting an advance, working with an agent all sounds incredible, especially to anyone who has always dreamed of being a writer – it’s the way it’s supposed to happen. Plus, saying “I’ve got a meeting with my publisher on Monday” is never not going to sound cool. Conversely, you mention self-publishing and your mind drifts towards people writing endless fantasy epics that merge the worlds of Harry Potter and 50 Shades of Grey. There has been some improvement in recent years with the breakout success of self-published efforts like The Martian, but it still has the stigma of vanity project to it.

In theory, publishers also have a PR network going for them that will boost the sales of your book and give you insights into getting the biggest readership for your book. There’s also the simple fact that they’re taking the risk. If your book doesn’t sell then you’re sat on the advance and the publisher is out of pocket.

On the negative side of working with a publisher is pretty much everything else. I was surprised on both occasions just how little the publisher actually did compared to my expectations. Once the book was agreed it pretty much came back to being my responsibility. Because they want as much time as possible to look at marketing the book, they want the finished manuscript as soon as possible. I think I had four weeks for the Not Going To Uni book (around 50k words) and 7 weeks for the MAN v FAT book (60k words). I’m not sure why but I always thought that the actual process of completing the book would be more of a collaborative process where I would bring ideas/chapters/suggestions and the publisher would use their experience to help shape things. As it was, more or less everything was left to me. That’s great in one way, but I’d expected more.

The other real surprise was my misconception that the publishers would take the lead on the marketing of the books. Not so. You’ll notice that the majority of books published these days are connected to authors or organisations who have a significant online following, whether it’s Mrs Hinch, A.N. Other YouTuber or MAN v FAT – publishers essentially bank on you being able to sell your book to your existing readership. They use that as the break-even audience and if your book expands beyond that, then great. If not, then they’ve not risked too much. To be fair, that makes sense. As stated, they’re taking the risk by putting up the advance, so naturally they want to ameliorate that risk by going for someone with an existing readership.

Since I self-published the Staggered Groom Guide by printing it and posting them out to purchasers another player has entered the arena: Kindle Direct Publishing. Essentially, self-publishing onto KDP means that your book can be on Amazon and available as a print-on-demand product (i.e. they don’t print a load of books, they just print a physical copy every time someone orders one) for free. Yep, free.

The real eye-opener with KDP is that depending on what the price of your book is then you would make around 70% of the retail price. A typical Kindle book price would be around £3, which means you’d take just over £2 of that. The book also lists on Amazon and makes it easy for anyone around the world to buy your book. Of course, it does potentially lock out anyone who reads on other e-readers (kobo, etc), but there are options within KDP where you can also sell via your own site and through other e-tailers. I’ll hold my hands up here and say that’s something I need to look into a bit more.

I think the crux of the question is that if the majority of work falls on your shoulders when working with a traditional publisher, and you receive a commensurately smaller slice of the pie – why would you bother? Does my fragile ego really need that much underpinning? I should issue a hearty disclaimer here and say that that your mileage may vary with a publisher. It could be that I should have been better informed of the expectations with previous books. Or it could be that publishers do a lot more work with other authors, I don’t know. However, that’s my experience in a nutshell.

So for now, the quandary I have is whether I should even bother to approach publishers at all for Before and After? After a lot of reflection I think I’m going to ignore them entirely and just focus on self-publishing. Hopefully, I’m going to be writing a lot more books in the future and I think the joy of getting a book out to readers in the way that I want to, marketed in the way I think it should be is just too tempting. I have a real advantage in that I already have a brilliant team to work with who can help me design and create the best possible version of this book that I can. Plus, if I can retain a greater percentage of the retail price then over time it makes more business sense.

The clincher is the fact that if the book’s out there and gets a good reception then there’s nothing to stop me approaching a traditional publisher (shortly after amending this blog post to say how much I love working with publishers) and seeing if I can get a deal on the basis of the success of the self-publishing. So, onwards, to researching how to make self-publishing work!

Deadlines and red lines

Think of all the mediocre fiction that Twitter has saved us from. As a writer I find that I’m able to justify spending hours on the microblogging site where WAGS and Trumps go to war. It’s an addiction, especially when I can get away with farting out crap like this:

If you multiply the hours of procrastination by the number of writers then you’re probably talking about a million titles per year that Twitter saves us from. Let us be thankful. For me Twitter is just a way of plugging myself directly into the unfolding insanity of Brexit with its deadlines and red lines. Again, that’s an addiction. How I yearn for the days when news was tremendously boring, but in reality I know that it has always been this scintillating, it’s just never been done in full view of the public before.

Fortunately, when it comes to my own deadlines I’m a pro. Never missed one yet and I never intend to. There’s just something in me that won’t let me even contemplate missing one. I get a really curious line of sweat on my neck when the thought occurs. My only greater fear is if I was on a stage without knowing my lines. Consequently, when I swore blind that the second draft of the book would be done by the end of September I disappeared off to Devon for a week (sorry Em:) and pulled a series of 14 hour days to get it done.

It’s actually turning into something I quite like. It finally has a name… Before and After: the Shut In at the End of the World. I keep changing the capitalisation every time I write it, so I should probably decide on one version and stick to it. The book is currently with a number of beta readers who have very kindly said they’d read it and give me feedback. It’s a nervy wait. The feeling of exposure reminds me of the time when I stood naked in the front window of the house spread out like a starfish stuck to the glass. I stayed there until our neighbour saw me and ran to tell his mum. I was 35*.

One other piece of news: I’ve written a short script for 2000AD’s Future Shocks which draws heavily from the horror of HP Lovecraft. If it gets knocked back I’ll stick the script on here for you to enjoy.

Finally – if you haven’t heard Ghosteen by Nick Cave yet, then give it a listen as it’s amazing. Also, I’m really, really enjoying Quarehawk by Michael Walsh, which also features the Mancunian poet Mike Garry – here’s The Visitor, which is lovely.

Naturally, I had to find him on Twitter…

*That’s a true story but I was actually 6. Don’t ask me why I did it, I was fucking odd.

Vic Is Not Having A Good September – A Short Story

Whaaaaat? Where’s this free short story you promised me? Well, I’m sorry to say that it’s had to be hidden as it has been entered as part of the MMU Short Story Competition. So until that’s done I’m not allowed to have it on the web. Sorry. There’s plenty of short fiction around the site to read and if that doesn’t satisfy, you could always follow me on Twitter and berate me there.

Starter for Ten – 25/07/19

Starter for Ten is a daily writing exercise where the aim is simply to write for a full 10 minutes. No editing or revision is allowed after the 10 minutes is up. The aim is to try new things, experiment with voices and styles and be bold. Suckage often occurs.

**********

When they built the railroads in Australia they didn’t account for the fact that the country was federalised. In part due to the massive size of the country each state functioned almost independently of the others. Consequently, no one had bothered to ask what gauge track each state was using and, naturally, they all chose differently. After the tracks were laid it was too expensive to standardise and so trains would cross a state and then at the border they would have to be lifted by a crane and placed on the rails of the next state’s tracks. It could then continue until it hit the next border.

When JFK stood and delivered his rousing anti-communism speech in West Berlin, one of the most well-remembered lines is when he pronounced “Ich bin ein berliner”. The reason it’s well-remembered is that it was a mistake and rather than allying himself with his host city, by leaving the “ein” in Kennedy was actually declaring that he was “a Berliner” which was colloquially taken to mean a donut. The miscommunication though wasn’t Kennedy’s but history’s. It’s perfectly acceptable to use such a phrase and was understood in the manner which Kennedy meant it – the audience even cheered the comment, both times that Kennedy said it. Now though the berliner/donut lie has perpetuated to the extent that it’s taken as truth.

If fake news is destined to be the dividing line of our times then we must own our miscommunications.

The End

Wow.

I’ve been writing this book since the 24th of June and today on the 24th July I got the excitement of writing those two little words that writers both love and fear…

I’m a pretty fast writer once I’ve got a plan that I’m happy with, but 60,919 words in a month is a decent return, even if I need around 20k more to really make it a real piece of work. The thing that really got me through it without too many speedbumps was being able to focus exclusively on this as a project. Sheer enjoyment also played a big role. Whatever happens to the finished book I emphatically loved my time writing. At times the book fell out of my fingers. Characters sometimes did things that I had expressly asked them not to do. I made myself laugh out loud several times. I think as long as I had paper and pen (or preferably a laptop) then solitary confinement would be fine by me.

Some disclaimers: this is only a first draft. There are many, many moments where the writing is laughably bad. Plot points that don’t make sense. Jokes that I will definitely edit out. Characters that will be set on fire and then cast into the sun to ensure they never darken a page again.

But that’s ok.

Because the mantra of the first draft is – everyone altogether – don’t get it right, get it written.

Time for a glass of wine.