Here's a rescue for self-published writers lacking training or talent for book-cover design, but who must design their book covers anyway: Canva.com. I tried it and liked it, re-designing a book cover for an ebook, and it looked much more professional than did the previous cover, which used Kindle's cover tools, and it was easy. Canva.com has fonts and a bank of 1 million images, or you can upload your own. After your cover is finished and downloaded (as a PDF or a zip file) you have 24 hours to return to the site and tweak it.
The free-image bank at Canva.com is lame, and they know it, so there are other images you can purchase for $1. You pay and then they'll let you download your book cover. I spent $3 on a cover design that took me 30 minutes (most of that time looking through the image bank) and is 100 percent better. See the "before" and "after" at right.
Canva.com also has design tutorials and other helpful information.
Self-published books too often have poorly designed covers--not because the author wants it that way, but because the author is an author, and book-cover design, which is a marketing tool, is best done by professional book-cover designers. My one rule for authors designing covers: No amateur images. That means not your daughter's painting, not your snapshot of a barn, not your own photo (a book is not a music CD). Those are death to your book because they're about you. After a book is published it isn't yours anymore. It belongs to the market and the readers.
Julia Gordon-Bramer, poet and prose writer, just published Fixed Stars Govern a Life: Decoding Sylvia Plath (available through Amazon.com), the first of a two-volume study of occult themes in poet Plath’s Ariel. Julia says, “At 16 I read Plath’s novel The Bell Jar,and her poem ‘Mad Girl’s Love Song,’ printed in the back of my edition. I became fascinated. Almost 30 years later in graduate school, I realized her poetry and prose was full of tarot symbolism. That sealed the deal for me as I’ve been reading tarot cards also since I was 16.” Gordon-Bramer is pictured at right working at the Lilly Library, University of Indiana-Bloomington, where Plath's papers are archived.
What do you hope to accomplish with this book?
Show the world that Sylvia Plath was a lot more than her personal drama. Because the world has held her in this very narrow perspective, we’ve been reading her wrong for the last 50-plus years. Beyond that, I strive to show the real magic of literature, Plath’s model of a divine order.
What were your best and worst moments while writing this book?
The best are in the discovery: when it all comes together and a poem is clarified. This is usually followed by sheer overwhelm that no one has seen it to date (often, Plath had made her meanings quite obvious, but again, everyone wants to read her only as autobiography). The worst moments have been the backlash. People feel they own Plath, that they have paid their dues to know her better than me. And who am I?, they say. Just this crazy Tarot-card reader. So they expound publicly and privately about how I am wrong, without having read my book.
How will you respond to scholars who have said there is no written evidence that Plath was an occultist?
It’s just not true. If you read the memoirs, letters (published and unpublished) and interviews of her friends and of Ted Hughes, it is all there. Her high school journals and art projects are full of Hermeticism. Her mother studied Paracelsus, the famous alchemist. As an adult, Sylvia Plath was photographed with her crystal ball. She journaled about needing to learn more astrology and to get better at reading tarot cards. She practiced hypnosis and meditative techniques with Hughes. She used bibliomancy to choose her apartment in London. Her Isis poster was prominent in every one of their British residences, and her journals show she identified with Isis. I have evidence of palmistry. Hughes claims her poem, “Dialogue over a Ouija Board” is basically a transcribed Ouija session between the two of them. Plath had been seen collecting nail clippings, hair samples, and chanting over bonfires. She’d taken friends to visit the village witch. Traditional Christian symbolism pervades the Ariel poems. It goes on and on. Hughes’ work has been widely examined for occult themes, and it is amazing to me that Plath has not. She didn’t advertise any of this stuff, of course. She had a professional reputation and young children to think of.
What if your readers aren't familiar with Tarot or Qabalah?
In Fixed Stars Govern a Life, I explain what Tarot and Qabalah are, how Plath’s work fits on these structures, and how this unlocks all the meaning within her poetry.
Why did occultism not save Plath from her final despair? Do you think she knew her own fate?
Occultism is not religion, and it’s certainly not salvation. It’s a pursuit. In its best form, it's a journey of personal growth and self-actualization. Part of this journey is destruction of the ego, the old corrupt self. There is some evidence that Plath had had too much of the physical world and took this destruction literally. There is also a good deal of poetic evidence that she knew her own fate.
Why are there so many avid Plath fans?
She was a contemporary American girl. She wrote from her heart. She was wildly ambitious, pretty, artistic, and incredibly brilliant. She lived for boys, beauty, good food, and lying in the sun as much as she did for literature and truth. We can’t help but love her.
What else would you like to say?
Volume Two is about three-fourths of the way complete. My narrative introduction became its own book, The Magician’s Girl, a biography of Plath and Hughes’ mysticism, complete, and I’m seeking a publisher now. I applied my qabalistic decoding to Plath's early work, and that became another book: Plath’s Early Poems. I published an excerpt of these reinterpretations in Plath Profiles. Their editor told me it was the most exciting thing he’d read on Plath in 30 years. Early Poems is also nearly finished. I have had a very busy seven years of work. To keep up on my projects, please visit www.fixedstarsgovernalife.com. I am the most fortunate person on the planet to have been given all the keys to her kingdom. I really believe that.
A true-crime author and historian sent examples of how strangers, via email, feel free to claim his time and work:
“Hi there, I manage the X restaurant in Madison, Wisconsin. Our original owners were gangsters from Chicago. I know you write books about gangsters. Any information you can send us would be appreciated.”
“I’m writing a book about gangsters and cited your work in several chapters. I hope that's okay. Would it be possible to ask you some questions via email?”
"Please send me two free copies of your book."
He simply doesn't answer such requests. It's a sign of maturity if authors can say to themselves, "I don't owe this," if they think they don't. Authors are writers who have successfully protected their time.
I looked up ways other prominent authors and experts handled the availability issue. Some websites claim the author "has no personal email address." Some post an email address whose mail they might open occasionally; others have email addresses for queries related to specific books. Some have message boards or forums for postings, or blogs or Twitter accounts that make them appear more interactive and accessible than they are. There are many ways to handle unwanted requests, if that happens to be a problem.
Eagerly I went to the workshop meeting with the first five pages of my novel, which nobody has read and I haven't talked or written about. The readers had five minutes to read their first pages--those make-or-break pages--and then got a five-minute critique from the audience. I was eighth on the list. Nerves crept up on me. I told myself, "Fear is not real. Fear is all in the mind. Don't buckle. Don't let it win."
As the writers took their turns I saw that each criticism had validity and value. Ergo, that'd be true of the critiques of my work. And I grew nervous again, not for myself but for the transition about to take place: My story and characters have been so much fun to write, but the finished book is not mine anymore. It belongs to readers, and has a whole new face.
There's a myth that writing a novel is very easy. In Peanuts we saw a dog writing a genre novel. Erase that idea; you are now in the Sanity Bubble. It's novelists, the long-distance runners, who most need education in the craft and the business.
I notice that many authors bail out, or want to, when their books are 95 percent of their way into reality. It's not writer's block; it's a more insidious self-subversion rooted in stress and exhaustion, like that of a mother who feels she can't summon the strength for one last big push to bring her baby into the world. True-life examples:
At a recent reading I met Ben Moeller-Gaa, well-published poet who writes only haiku. I had to ask what that was like.
-Tell us about your interesting last name.
My wife is a Moeller and I am a Gaa and when we got married we decided to join our names. The name Gaa is German, and it’s really that short. My family comes from the town of Hockenheim, where there are still Gaas today. I have no idea what the name means. It is a historical question mark.
Writer Carol Bly had a trick for improving and tightening dialogue in fiction and nonfiction. Take a page of dialogue from your manuscript, lay a one-inch-wide ruler on the left margin of your writing, and pencil a line down the ruler’s right side. Everything in front of the penciled line must go.
It is normal for writers to hate their publishers: They don’t promptly return emails or calls. The book, they said, would be out in May but now they say August. You tear out your hair. They choose the typeface and cover, the fun stuff, while you collect copyright permissions and back-of-the-book blurbs (isn’t that their job?), and they demand that you have an author platform and a marketing plan. They want images at 300 dpi. Awful. This is as true of self-publishers as it is of commercial publishers.