The Book Killers: Amateur Covers

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

In book selling basics, the author attracts the reader and the first page sells the book, but nothing allows a potential reader to disregard a book like an unprofessional cover. The US Review encounters poor book covers on a regular basis: drab, confusing, amateurish designs or some combination of the three. So let’s take a look at book cover basics.

1) The main title should be visible from twenty feet away. This is accomplished through a combination of font, size, and color contrast. A title that is viewable from a distance in a bookstore is as easily read when reduced in size for on-line sales.

2) Title visibility applies to the spine as well. For most of its commercial shelf life, a book will be placed spine out. The title should be as large and as high contrast as possible.

3) Make the subtitle informative. While I’m not a fan of employing subtitles, except for nonfiction, book series, or very short main titles, the subtitle should be essential to the book’s message. Overall, the title and subtitle combination should not be overlong. The best titles are brief—something a typical person can remember and tell another.

4) Don’t forget the back matter. The back of the book is where business takes place. Most retailers won’t sell your book without a standard bar code in the lower right corner or a clearly visible price and genre designation.

5) Keep the book summary to 100 words or less. It’s true. A book can be explained in one short sentence. The New York Times Bestseller List bestseller list has been doing this for decades. Avoid putting a book on the back of a book. (FYI, the author bio is not a back cover essential. While it must be included in the book, it’s easily located on either the last page, inside flap, or back cover.)

6) Gather authoritative endorsements. People want to read quotes regarding the book, but not from the author, publisher, or author’s friends. Build authority for the book with commentary from recognizable experts (i.e. known authors, celebrities, or subject-related practitioners), as well as feedback from professional book review publications.

7) Employ thematic artwork. Artwork that definitively relates to the content describes the book in advance. There is a reason why romances feature a rapturous women and science fiction titles present glossy hi-tech images on their covers. The correct audience is subconsciously drawn to it. Furthermore, the color palette used evokes different emotions. Horror titles make good use of black and red. Young adult romances paint the cover in virginal white and pink. Also, men and women are attracted to different colors for different genres. The psychology of color is an advanced science, which leads us to the final element of cover design.

8) Hire a professional. Most authors are not visual artists, but a professional book designer or even a talented artist should have an innate or trained sense of image and color. Book designers can be contacted through the Internet. At the very least, struggling artists can be found locally. Check their portfolios to see if their work matches the sensibilities of the prospective book. Fees will range from nominal to pricey, but a good cover is worth it. Photoshop’ed self-made covers constructed on the cheap (and often like kindergarten artwork) are easier to spot than a title from twenty feet away, and they will debase the entire book.

The much-used aphorism “You can’t judge a book by its cover” is philosophically correct, but in reality, more people do this than don’t. A great cover sells the book as well as the author sells the book. When considering a cover design, visit a bookstore for trends and ideas within the genre. Taking the time, as well as hiring a professional, gives a book that likely took months if not years to write the jacket and marketing potential it deserves.

Next in The Book Killers series: Inferior Word Choice

Previously in The Book Killers series: Poor Structure

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The Book Killers: Bad Grammar

In this ongoing series, Christopher Klim, author and senior editor of the US Review of Books, takes a look at common errors that undermine books.

The first mistake that sells out a new writer is bad grammar. Misspelled and misconjugated words, incomplete and malformed sentences, and confusing syntax are the hallmarks of poor editing. The book could be a great concept, but will be considered a fumbling error. For example, a common mistake is to label the foreword section as “Forward” in the heading. An even bigger mistake is to not work with an editor.

Technically speaking, grammar is a set of rules that governs the composition of words and phrases in a language, but, linguistically speaking, proper grammar and its related syntax allow the reader to understand the words on the page. Many emerging writers bend grammar to their own cadence of thought. This is fine for draft work, but it’s a rookie mistake to expect a reader to decode the writer’s thought process. The whole point of reading is to reproduce the writer’s information, imagery, and energy inside the reader’s mind with some semblance of the original thought. The shared rules of grammar and style facilitate this for the widest possible audience. When the reader is forced to decipher the language—most often demonstrated by having to recycle over words and phrases—the reader will likely close the book and move on. A good editor brings another pair of eyes that will identify these deadly mistakes.

Fiction writers are given some elbowroom to stretch the language, but this is best done, and most powerfully so, as an exception to the rule. Nonfiction writers have less leeway. Not only must they write to strict grammar conventions, they must write to the style of the publication, which is a discussion for another time. The US Review of Books, like most publishers of books and articles, uses The Chicago Manual of Style as its standard. The AP Stylebook is used exclusively for article writing, although it is mostly a subset of Chicago. Professional writers have both and use them often. (Tip: The previous edition of both style guides can be purchased at a fraction of the current edition’s cost.) Don’t rely on your editor to catch every detail. The cleaner the manuscript, the more an editor can focus on bigger issues like structure, tone, and overall content.

Self-awareness is a bridge a writer crosses on the way to success. At some point, a writer recognizes his or her flaws and strengths without the prompting of a mentor. Successful writers revise in cycles, ending the process with a close examination of the actual words and phrases, as well as focusing on habitual errors. We are the sum of our vices. It seems that when we conquer one bad habit in our prose, another emerges to take its place. This can change from year to year, book to book, and even article to article. While writing, build a checklist for editing, and end revisions with a review of this list.

With so many books being published each year (i.e. approximately one million annually in the U.S. alone), it’s difficult to bring attention to a single book. Bad grammar is the great crippler at the starting gate for many self-published and first-time authors. Remember to learn the rules of grammar, have a reference guide at the ready, be wary of bad habits, work with an experienced editor, and give your manuscript one last review.

Next in The Book Killers series: Poor Structure

The Eric Hoffer Book Award: Righting the Wrongs

Years ago, I was at a dinner with publishing professionals, where I heard the story of a powerful editor, and chair of a national book award, who nominated her own author for this prestigious award. I’d already heard this story from another reliable industry source, but overall I wasn’t surprised. Years earlier, I’d worked in the space program and, during the Challenger disaster, was shocked to learn that internal corruption had contributed to the deaths of the astronauts. If you ever read Dickens, you realize that suspect dealings have been part of the human equation since the dawn of business.

As the story went, the nominated book was summarily ignored by the award committee. So what was this editor trying to accomplish? The mere nomination, especially word of it throughout the industry, multiplied sales of the book many times over. The nomination alone had created legitimacy for the book. Powerful.

My first book had just been published and was doing well—for a small press book. That meant regional acceptance in parts of the world, whenever the local media shined its favor or a I visited in person. Otherwise there seemed no legitimate outlets for book promotion and definitely no benefactors in the inner circles of national book awards. Small, academic, and self-published books were virtually barred from the public discourse. The Eric Hoffer Book Award did not yet exist.

A quick survey revealed that, outside of the Pushcart Prize, the landscape was dotted with cottage indie book awards that carried exorbitant entry fees and questionable results. It appeared that each tried to pick “the best” books that came their way, but they did little to get the word out after the winners were selected. In fact, few writers had ever heard of most of these awards.

As the editor of a literary magazine, as well as a healthy writer’s blog, I had access to talented writers and authors. On a whim, the Eric Hoffer Book Award, named after the great American philosopher and freethinker, was created. I had a small publicity machine going for my first novel and planned to “promote the hell out of” the winners. I sought impartial judges—editors, agents, and industry-specific experts. The entrance fee needed to be affordable, yet cover expenses. Finally, I planned to do the unthinkable—exclude the major presses. Without malice, I believed that the independent author needed to be sheltered within the award. Mostly I wanted the kind of award to which I’d send my own book for consideration. Ironically as its creator, I could not.

At the time, a wonderful tool was blooming. The Internet was the wild west of publicity and mostly free of corporate control. Once word of the Hoffer Award hit the blogs, chat rooms, and e-mail streams, three hundred books arrived from small, academic, and independent publishers, as well as something they called a “micro” press, which involved a working press (multiple authors, not self-published) that produced less than twenty-four books per year. About half the entries were, and continue to be, from self-published authors. These latter entries ran the gamut from finely produced books to sloppy offerings with horrific copyediting. One book was handmade with calligraphed pages and covers painted on the back of soapbox cardboard. (By the way, this book won an award.) Many of these books rivaled, in quality and content, anything Manhattan was currently offering. A secret world of books existed that wasn’t getting its due, and, in this void, the Hoffer Award took on a life of its own.

Since the start, Hoffer entrants have been evaluated in one of its all-encompassing categories. It even has a fiction and nonfiction legacy category for books older than two years old. From within each category, books are promoted for the grand prize: The Eric Hoffer Award for Books. Through the years, it has added the Montaigne Medal for the most thought-provoking book, the da Vinci Eye for the best cover art, and the First Horizon Award for first-time authors. The industry has changed, and the Hoffer has expanded to e-books, which is the frontier for indie authors. Each of these distinctions carries its own weight within the industry.

A key of the Hoffer is that it experiments with ways to promote the winning titles. In addition to its media campaign, its relationship with the US Review of Books, which posts the annual judging results, has been a terrific benefit for the winners, runners-up, honorable mentions, and award finalists. Each year, the award honorees return e-mails and letters about how their association with the Hoffer has raised the visibility of their titles.

A decade later, the Eric Hoffer Book Award accepts over one thousand books annually and has grown in leaps and bounds each year. It remains one of the least expensive and most well-known independent book awards in the world. Its small registration fee covers the $2,000 grand prize, the increasingly expensive rates for shipping books around the country, and a small honorarium for each judge who spends hours reading and evaluating the entries. They love a good read and get excited when they discover a book that they feel the industry has overlooked.

Thanks to that infamous editor in Manhattan, a fully independent book award has grown. In the years to come, let’s hope the Hoffer keeps elevating titles that deserve recognition.

Christopher Klim is the author of several books including the novel, Idiot!, and the short collection, True Surrealism. He is currently working on a novel trilogy about the space program past, present, and future.

Who Pays for Book Reviews?

The short answer is everyone, although it might not be evident at first. National publishing trade magazines present the illusion that they are fair and balanced—a familiar phrase—in their review coverage, but given a closer look, these publications thrive on the sales of expensive advertising space, including their front and back covers. Other national trades don’t even hide the fact that they charge hundreds of dollars per review. You’ll notice that very few small publishers are mentioned in their pages. The presses that cannot afford ad space and review fees coincidentally go unmentioned, and all independent presses (i.e. micro presses and self-publishers) are typically barred from book review consideration.

Consider that advertising fees are built into the budgets of large press books, and when you purchase one, you are in effect paying for their media coverage somewhere along the line. There is simply no justification for highlighting or featuring the next murder-mystery redux novel in any of the media outlets, other than it is big business for the monolithic presses and they have the dollars to push their product. We are a capitalist society, and profit drives many editorial decisions. Any author who manages his/her own marketing has run into a media outlet (print, radio, etc.) that has promised increased coverage with the purchase of advertising space or time. While many local newspapers still hold an air of integrity, these venues are drying up faster than the rapidly fading printed news industry.

This state of affairs casts a long shadow over literature. One byproduct is that the large commercial presses, by virtue of supplying the economic lifeblood to the publishing media, control what reaches the reading public. Due to either politics or economics, certain genres and ideas are not desirable to large presses, and therefore, vital topics are kept from the public discourse, while excellent independent press authors go unnoticed. In the end, they turn to the Internet for help.

A survey of the web reveals hundreds of review outlets—some specialized, others general. Many of these reviewers write for free, and their coverage is professionally uneven. These are hobby sites. Meanwhile the Internet has killed the three-headed monster of publishing: paper, ink, and distribution. Through the years, paper and ink became increasingly expensive, and most recently rising gas prices (i.e. a distribution cost) was the death knell for most brick and mortar publications, but in the digital age, the Internet can more than fill the need while providing work for dedicated journalists.

In late 2009, the US Review of Books was created for two reasons: first, to provide inexpensive access to professional book reviewers for all authors and, second, to pay the writers a fair wage for their work. In eight years, the US Review has employed dozens of reviewers and written nearly ten thousand reviews to mostly happy authors. They are mostly happy, because the USR’s reviewers are honest and thoughtful. If a book is hackneyed or wasn’t properly edited, perhaps for style and spelling, the review is going to mention these facts. Luckily that isn’t the norm, and the large presses are starting to notice and quietly submit their books for value media coverage. Seeing the future, publicity agents and author services companies are also integrating the US Review into their marketing plans. Good books deserve serious consideration and discussion, regardless of where and how the book is published.

As the millennials—sometimes called the Digital Generation—assumes authority, the Internet and all modes of digital transfer will take control. It makes sense; it’s convenient and mostly green technology. Outlets like the US Review of Books will continue to expand in order to fill authors’ marketing needs while providing employment opportunities to the writing/journalist force.

The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea

by Bandi
Grove Press

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“Though it was close to midnight, Gyeong-hee sensed hundreds of figures hovering at those windows, peering out like rabbits from their burrows, eyes narrowed in accusation.”

Starvation, terror, death—this is the world of people trapped north of the Korean DMZ in a country led beneath the auspices of a single man who will do anything to preserve his fiefdom. And these conditions exist only in the best of favors. For many people, a minor offense, or perceived offense, results in banishment, generational curses, or hard labor—a sentence of sunup to sundown toil, torture, and thirst until a person is literally worked to death. The latter is what one expects from life under a socialist monarch, but it is the former, the everyday grueling aspects of ordinary life, that are captured within this insightful and harrowing collection of stories written about life in North Korea.

The author, who remains in North Korea, employs the pseudonym, Bandi, to protect his identity. He writes tales of people paying for the sins of their forefathers, sins that would be considered inconsequential in a free land, and sins they fear that they might commit in the future. Fear is the most powerful tool of a totalitarian regime. The cost is not only the theft individual liberty, but the draining away of the soul. Those who will not conform to fear, who will not be reformed by it, are simply eliminated—removed from society, cities, or the ranks of the living if necessary.

“City of Specters” is one of the most haunting in the collection—not because of physical brutality, but because of the way authoritarian control pervades the human spirit. At the outset, Han Gyeong-hee fights the crowds assembling in Pyongyang for an annual celebration honoring the supreme leader. She is strong and independent, contemptuous of her husband’s flaws, while struggling with the night terrors of her young son. Her son is frightened by the oversized images of Kim Jong-il posted throughout town. One in particular can be seen through their apartment window, reminding him of a legendary beast who punishes misbehaving children. Here, the normal trials of parenting collide with the pervasive demands to conform to society. After Gyeong-hee repeatedly draws her curtains to salve her son’s episodes from the public, she is reprimanded and warned for not keeping her window presentation in unison with the rest of the building. The overarching aspects of everyday life in a terrorist regime are on full display. Like an x-ray examining her thoughts, the government plumbs her business and plies it against her at will. It’s a slow burn that crushes her soul. Again and again, the party informers threaten Gyeong-hee, until her family is banished from the capital city, and a woman who seemed strong enough to persevere anything is psychologically broken.

Some intellects of free nations overemphasize their country’s imperfections, demanding greater control of a centralized government as a curative measure. This is a fear-driven philosophy that, as Bandi so aptly documents, results in fear throughout the land. Each of these misguided intellects either misinterprets or purposely skirts the central debate of individual liberty vs. authoritarian control, ignoring the endgame. Suppressing independent thought and action, so that the least equipped among us are safer, historically leads to diminished rights, self-expression, and prosperity. It in fact reverses the progress of civilization, not enhances it as some might claim. It does, however, empower and enrich the ruling class—albeit a military dictatorship, a communist regime, or an elected hierarchy that has become a corrupt and isolated faction apart from the people. As Benjamin Franklin once said, “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Liberty brings potentially dangerous paths en route to creativity, success, and fulfillment. Authoritarianism delivers a stifling cocoon and a guaranteed dead end of personal misery. Bandi approaches this result in each of his stories. Acts that we take for granted in a free society will place his characters in peril.

Man’s inhumanity against man has been the overarching sin of the centuries, and Bandi reveals this abomination, resulting when one small group dominates the masses. Handwritten between 1989 and 1995 in native hangul, his stories are delivered in a simple style, but neither time nor translation lessen their impact. Although a brief afterword sketches the genesis of this book, one can only imagine what it took to both compose these stories and then smuggle them outside the country. Bandi has no doubt risked his life many times in the process. Let’s hope he’s still alive and continues to shed light on the many sins that his country’s tormentor badly wishes to hide.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

Beauty is a Wound

by Eka Kurniawan
New Directions Publishing

reviewed by Christopher Klim

“One afternoon on a weekend in March, Dewi Ayu rose from her grave after being dead twenty-one years.”

Kurniawan’s poignant and at times rollicking novel covers a century of Indonesian history from the death throes of Dutch rule, through the Japanese invasion during World War II, and into the nation’s late-century struggle for independence. Centering on the fictional shore town of Halimunda, the story covers the exploits and trials of Dewi Ayu and her four daughters, each sired by a different father during critical points of her life. These are strong if not capricious women who are self-determined and at times reckless in their path through time. They form unique characters who are ultimately metaphors for the primary facets of modern Indonesian history and its struggle to enter the twenty-first century.

Dewi Ayu, who is part Dutch by blood, sees her status fall as the Europeans evacuate during World War II. After enduring Japanese imprisonment, she is pressed into service as a comfort women—a crime against humanity that the Japanese remain unapologetic for. Ironically she reverses this fortune by becoming the most famous and sought-after prostitute in all the land.

In time, Dewi Ayu’s oldest three daughters marry a head of the military, the most feared criminal in town, and a leading socialist activist respectively. As much as they must witness their husbands’ wrath on Halimunda, each daughter, like their mother, experiences unimaginable cruelty, as well as a unique reconciliation with love. For these women, beauty is both a weapon and a burden that costs them more than they deserve. The suffering of these exotic, compelling mixed-blood women summons their ability to overcome extreme circumstance in a way that only a woman can.

Turning the tables on the exploitation of what we hold dear in our eyes, Dewi Ayu’s youngest daughter forms a hideous sight by any standard. She is shunned by her community and mockingly named Beauty by her own mother who abandons her by dying shortly after her birth. Through the girl Beauty and the events to which all the women are exposed, author Kurniawan indicts the inhumanity against man brought by foreign occupation and the ensuing fight for independence. Here, there is scarcely anyone either not guilty or a victim of violence and a lust for power. Too often, less developed nations are dragged into the future by the worst men have to offer.

Like the intergenerational curse that lords over the family, much of this tale is tragic. However, it gains momentum and entertainment in its use of folklore, verisimilitude of setting, and spectacular storytelling that harkens the classic novel form. A hint of contemporary verbiage exists that may or may not have been introduced by Annie Tucker’s clean and consistent translation. The writing is markedly mature by achieving both broad palette concepts and distinct character details at the same time. This is a large novel about a country and a handful of interesting people delivered by an interesting new author on the English-speaking scene.

When Writing, Know Your Control System

Like the cockpit of the space shuttle or even the thermostat in your residence, a written piece has specific parameters to guide it successfully. If a cockpit needs airspeed and attitude controls to maintain flight, then a written piece requires unique methodology to garner truth. Not only does the terminology need to be established, it also needs to be consistent and replete throughout the piece. Careless, mixed, or wandering terminology undermines the entire work.

The concept of a control system in writing inevitably drills down to word choice. A writer must be aware of the words, phrasing, and cadence associated with a specific passage, as well as the entire piece. If the passage involves quick action or comedy, the sentence structure tends to be short, even blunt. If the scene takes place inside a military installation, acronyms will flow through both the dialogue and exposition. If the scene takes place in history, the words selected will match the time period.

Consider the following passage from a prehistoric age genre novel: The clan leader leapt from the bushes and came down upon the beast like a bus at rush hour. This type of metaphor happens more often than one might imagine and in subtle, less obvious ways. When digesting the aforementioned sentence, the reader understands that the clan leader was moving quickly and heavily upon the beast, but the reader is also jarred from the time period by the writer’s unfortunate out-of-time-period metaphor. If the clan leader were waiting for a bus at rush hour, he’d be waiting a very long time.

The control system selected for a piece will be pervasive, extending beyond the obvious passages. One of the joys of reading is to enter the mind of the characters on the page. If that character is a professional diver, his/her actions and viewpoint on life will be reflective of the sea and perhaps the constant dangers he’s exposed to. Even in relationships with others, that character will measure people against what he knows—brooding dark waters, a relentless shark, or the fanciful circus of a coral reef—otherwise that character will be acting out of his/her own control system. Even if that character is a mad, unpredictable genius, he will be guided, and therefore described, by a specific set of parameters using the precise words to delineate his actions or speech. And all of this will be moderated by the overarching terminology of the entire work.

Establishing and employing the proper control system establishes both authenticity and confidence in writing, and it requires a level of detail that many journeyman writers either overlook or fail to do the research and editing required. Study any master writer—a real master writer, not a self-proclaimed master bestseller on the Internet—and uncover the details of the control system established for a specific work. Once you’ve put in the effort, you’ll find yourself reaching for the correct dialogue and descriptions that fit the piece.

Christopher Klim is the author of several books including the novel, Idiot!, and the short collection, True Surrealism. He is currently working on a novel trilogy about the space program past, present, and future—and his control system for each will be firmly established.