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Titles, covers & blurbs
How to make your book stand out
If you’re self-publishing in any form, including as an online serial, there are three things you’re going to need to consider which always give me a massive headache:
Even if you’re publishing somewhere like Substack, as I’m doing with Tales from the Triverse, you need a good title, a good promotional image and a description of what the book is.
The best way to think of an appropriate title for a book is to write the book first. Then you’ll know what the book is, and be appropriately inspired. Unfortunately, if you’re simultaneously writing-and-publishing a serial you don’t get that luxury, as you’re going to have to figure out a title before you’ve finished writing. You can theoretically change the title part way through a story’s serialisation but that’s going to cause reader confusion.
(side note: I actually did this with my second serialised novel. It was originally launched under the title Evinden, which I later changed to The Mechanical Crown. Not ideal, but six weeks into the project I realised that Evinden is a meaningless nothing-title, so figured the change up was necessary and justified.
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Your serial’s title has to be intriguing and engaging, it has to anchor it within whatever genre and audience you’re going for, and it has to signpost to potential readers what this thing is. It’s an almost impossible task, but try to hit at least a couple of them. Ultimately, your story will grow into its title and vice versa, until you can’t imagine it having another name. At the very least come up with something that you like, because you’re going to be writing it a lot, every single week.
The book I’m currently serialising right here is called Tales from the Triverse, but it didn’t start out that way. The working title for about six months leading up to the start of publication was Multiverse Mysteries. I still kinda love the pulpiness of that title, but it doesn’t fit the tone of the story at all. I have a very long list of alternate titles, which I spewed out in something of a stream of consciousness, until I finally arrived at Tales from the Triverse.
When it comes to creating covers you have three options:
1. Do it yourself if you have the skills.
2. Hire someone to do it who has the skills.
3. Use stock footage and a design assist like Canva.
You’ll need a cover if you’re publishing on a platform such as Wattpad. Even if you’re going your own way via something like Substack you’ll still find that a ‘book cover’ will help to attract readers. It’s a calling card, to get people’s attention so that they read further.
The main thing is to be honest with yourself about your design skills. A bad cover will kill your story’s chances of being read. Doesn’t matter how good your words are, because nobody will get that far. A couple of things to watch out for and avoid:
- Don’t mess up your typography. Stretched or warped text, inappropriate font choice, lazy drop shadows and weird colours will immediately make your cover look amateur.
- If you’re using stock images, make sure you’re not using an image that’s already been used by a million blogs. This is especially the case if you’re using free stock from places like Unsplash. Don’t just use a stock image as-is - make sure you adapt it into a new form.1
In terms of hiring, the cost varies massively. You might know talented friends who will do it for free. Or you could spend several hundred pounds commissioning a piece from a professional freelancer. Or you could spend a dubiously small amount to commission through an online networking system like fiverr. I commissioned someone on Wattpad for The Mechanical Crown’s cover, which I was extremely pleased with.
Do take your time, though. Your cover is also something you can tweak over time, either to make improvements or to adapt it to your changing serial storyline. During the initial serial run of A Day of Faces I changed the cover (a shattered portrait of a mannequin) with each arc of the story, altering its colour and the severity of its disintegration. It’s a bit like when a TV show varies its intro sequence through the years.
Possibly the most evil of the three is the blurb. The bit that would go on the back cover if you were publishing a print book. There might not be a physical back cover with an online serial, but you’re still going to need a single sentence and a single paragraph that perfectly summarise your story. This is remarkably difficult, and I often suspect it is hardest for the creator of the work. We’re too close to our own stories, and know all of their intricacies, to the point where it’s infuriatingly difficult to reduce and simplify.
William Ryan has some excellent advice on writing a synopsis (which is kind of a longer version of a blurb) in his nuts-and-bolts Guide To How To Write. Worth checking out, and I interviewed William on The Writing Life podcast where he goes into it:
Once somebody has been reeled in by your cover and title, the blurb is the next thing they’ll encounter. Normally you want your blurb to introduce the setting, a lead character and some kind of crisis or challenge. Avoid listing every single character or getting bogged down in sub-plots and unnecessary detail. You can also give a sense of what sets it apart from other books, or which books it is similar to. All within a very small character count.
If you’ve already done some of that hard work on the plot, characters and themes of the story you’ll be in a pretty good place to work out your blurb. It’s definitely worth running your blurb (and your title and cover) by other people who are not invested in the project. Do some beta testing, get some feedback. As long as it’s before you start the actual serial run you can still make changes without any complications. Get as much in place as possible before those chapters start flying out the door.
A day late with this one due to an unpleasant two-day migraine. Sorry about that.
Hope you’re all doing well, and I’ll be back end of the week with new Triverse chapters.
Unsplash is amazing, don’t get me wrong. But it’s heavily used, so your chosen image is unlikely to be unique to you.