Critical Questions

Inspired packaging tells a Story

Inspired packaging tells a Story

[To read more of Shawn’s stuff, check out]

How can you best package your work?

That is, how do you come up with a great title, follow it up with a dynamic idea for a book jacket, and extend the gestalt of the exterior design of the cover into the page-by-page interior design?

And even more importantly, how do you execute the entire vision?

Are there different philosophies when contemplating how to package a hardcover book versus a paperback?

Why? How did they evolve?

Is all of this really that important? If the book is great, no one will care about how it looks, right?

As a publishing nerd with twenty-five years worth of merit (and de-merit) badges to my honor, I’m here to categorically tell you that an inaccurate and misleading package will undermine all of the blood, sweat and tears you’ve put into creating your final draft.

Just as a sloppy suit, unkempt hair and poor personal hygiene will undermine any attempt one makes to gain entrée to the black tied Pen Awards ceremony at Lincoln Center, a poor package for your book will turn away discerning fans of your particular genre.

Remember that fans of your genre are your first readers. And turning them off before they even crack the spine, means no second readers attracted by word of mouth. You’ll never know if what you’ve written has what it takes to become an evergreen bestselling classic in its genre. No one (forget the magic 10,000 number) will give your book a chance. Simply because it doesn’t look authentic…something’s just not quite “right” about it.

It looks like a book someone who has no understanding of its genre cynically designed it in order to trick the widest net of fans possible into believing that it will satisfy them. That “going broad” strategy never works. At least it never has in my experience. You need to package with as much specificity as your write.

If you’re written a steamy romance novel and package it like a crime thriller…you’re in for a world of pain. Crime fans will hate it and steamy romance readers won’t have any idea it even exists.

I suspect the whole packaging problem is what motivates quite a number of writers capable of building their very own profitable publishing businesses from ever even thinking about privately publishing their work.

Do Stephen King or J.K. Rowling need “publishers” to get people to read their work?

Not really. They are already known and reliable brands.

But having publishers allows these titans to concentrate on the words without having to fret over packaging, distribution, etc.

That’s no small relief.

If you already have enough dough in the bank and don’t have to worry about making next months rent, paying a premium to have a traditional publisher take away all of the packaging and publishing hassle can make a lot of sense. But make no mistake.   It’s a huge premium. Read this to see just how big.

But what about the rest of us who choose to strike out on our own via Print of Demand technology and eBook distribution? What dangers surround the energy required to package a book properly without a big time publisher’s office and the attendant marketing and art departments to rely on?

What I’ve observed is that for the independent minded, packaging is a process that Resistance exploits to get us to at last break down and succumb to self-sabotage. It couldn’t get us when we were doing the writing, so packaging is its last chance…

Having put the words to the book to bed, packaging is a dangerous gauntlet where the writer/publisher can easily fall prey to Resistance’s final wallop. Utterly exhausted after letting go of our tens of thousands of hard won words, we can find ourselves letting down our guard, half-assing a cover concept, hiring the first graphic designer we can find for the cheapest price possible and agreeing to what they think is “good-enough” treatment.

Just to get the damn thing on sale and out of our lives!

And then when the book doesn’t perform like we had hoped, the writer/publisher puts on the old hair shirt and beats themselves up for writing a bad book. That’s why no one’s buying it, right? Because the ideas and Storytelling are bad.

(Here’s a not so secret, secret…laser focused packaging Trumps bad content.  And yes, I intentionally capitalized that verb. So if you have such low self-esteem as to think you’ve written a bunch of dreck or such high self-esteem as to think that your content doesn’t matter as much as your personality…do yourself a favor and double-down on the packaging. It’s working great for the Donald.)

The truth though is that the book could very well be great, but the cover and interior are completely unremarkable or worse, absolutely sending the wrong message. A work that could change people or give them a great deal of joy ends up as land fill or languishes as non-downloaded zeros and ones in some forlorn Amazon server farm in Uzbekistan.

What to do?

Over the next couple of posts, I’ll lay out my idiosyncratic (but I think logical and sound) book packaging philosophy. With greater and greater numbers of writers self-publishing, it just makes sense to share my hard won list of dos and don’ts for making a book as appealing as possible to its target audience.

What? You don’t have a target audience? You better identify one pronto!

Book packaging can be a lot of fun. And it can be extremely painful. Here’s hoping I can increase the frequency of the former and decrease the latter.

In my next post, I’ll cover how I approach the crucial decision that drives all packaging…

What’s the title?

[To read more of Shawn’s stuff, check out]

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  1. Mary Doyle on March 4, 2016 at 5:37 am

    Thanks for this Shawn! A woman I know published a non-fiction book last year for a very targeted audience via print-on-demand. I bought a copy to support her, but had I not known her, the cover would have turned me away. The concept her graphic designer came up with (and she agreed to) was completely off the mark and the book did not resonate with the target audience despite being well-written. I learned a valuable lesson there and I appreciate this post as a reminder.

  2. Jake Parent on March 4, 2016 at 6:22 am

    Great stuff. Looking forward to the next post!

  3. Joel D Canfield on March 4, 2016 at 7:34 am

    Much as I love Story Grid specific stuff, I suspect this is going to be my favorite group of posts from you, Shawn. Bated breath, and all that.

  4. Beth Barany on March 4, 2016 at 10:53 am

    Most indie/self-pupbed authors I know, myself included, need all the help we can get on this topic, especially identifying one’s target audience. Looking forward to your posts on this topic, Shawn. (Love them all, btw, and am always recommending your content, and Pressfield’s to all my students and clients.)

  5. Michael Beverly on March 4, 2016 at 3:56 pm

    Awesome subject to get into Shawn.

    Thank you.

    And…anyone that’s willing to throw an opinion out there, I wonder what you all think of my cover and title?
    Does sell “correctly?” I hope so.
    I hired the guy that does Joe Konrath’s covers (and it wasn’t cheap).
    Now that I’m broke and homeless and unemployed, the temptation to start seeking an agent is huge. Like it calls to me…

    But I’m a devoted Hugh Howey fan and I’m sticking to the truth of being my own brand with my own decisions and seeing this in a long tail way.

    Oh, and I’m still advocating the “spec editor” model, because, frankly, at the rate I write words, I am simply going to get bottlenecked with editing…
    I’m not sure why there is such resistance to this model…

    Maybe I do want a publisher after all?

    I don’t know.

    I’m going to go beat my head against a wall for awhile.

    I’ll be back.

    • Doug Keeler on March 5, 2016 at 2:11 pm

      Michael Beverly,

      What is the title of your book?

  6. David McWilliams on March 4, 2016 at 8:00 pm

    Man, I’m super excited for this series! I have a finished manuscript, but it’s not a “book” yet, and I’ve been procrastinating on it for six months (using the next manuscript as an excuse). This series is exactly what I was looking for.

  7. Veleka on March 5, 2016 at 2:32 am

    Shawn, I am thrilled you’re going to be sharing these secrets about packaging with us! Just today I was trying to think of what images would best serve my non-fiction book on acting. In homage to “The War of Art” since I’m writing this book because of Monsieur Pressfield, I am building a warrior theme into it and trying to choose the right look.

    Eagerly awaiting your words of wisdom….

  8. David Healey on March 5, 2016 at 7:19 am

    Shawn, I guess it’s the old newspaper editor in me, from the days when I worried so much about visual design, but I’ve always enjoyed moving from writing to designing as a kind of break from writing and editing. There are several good cover designers out there who can develop a design that works for your book and genre. Of course, it is something of an investment.

    I don’t know what others think about this, but I have changed my covers over time for self pubbed books, and books where the rights have reverted back to me. Tastes change over time, so books should be updated accordingly. For example, I am giving a talk to some middle school kids next week and am bringing along a copy of Gary Paulsen’s “Hatchet.” It’s an awesome story, but the cover is straight out of the 1970s. Time for an update!

  9. Doug Keeler on March 5, 2016 at 2:00 pm

    Like several other people who have commented here, I self pubbed my first novel Savannah Gone last April. Shawn, I’m curious what your thoughts are on the value of reader reviews. Do they drive sales?

    A thousand thanks for all you do!

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