Self-publishing: Designing the Frame

Self-publishing has forever changed how authors connect with readers. While we often hear about this opening the floodgates to bad fiction and lousy quality, the opposite is also true—self-publishing enables the writer-as-artist to uniquely present their work in ways never before open to them.

Jake Kerr
Jake Kerr
Nov 4, 2014 · 5 min read

In 1828, the artist Sir Thomas Lawrence sent a letter to his patron Mrs. Benjamin Gott, outlining the importance of the proper frame for his paintings:

The finest picture, seen without an appropriate Frame, loses a great advantage; as on the other hand it sustains material injury from a Frame injudiciously selected.

The idea that the frame creates a better viewing experience for a painting is mirrored in practically every other artistic endeavor. In the publishing world, Powells Books understands this, especially in a digital world of limited formatting options, and created an entire subscription model around novels created in high quality packages. Called Indiespensables, these books are shipped in what can only be described as an experience. Powells even includes blog entries outlining how they lovingly created the packages that are mailed out.

Powells Indiespensables are a great example of how quality and attention-to-detail can, as Sir Thomas Lawrence described, frame a work to its advantage. For publishing in general, this attention to detail and quality has been one of the defining features of books published in New York or London. When you buy a book from Simon & Schuster, for example, the expectation is that it will be well-edited, the cover will be striking, and the text will be laid out in a way that is pleasing to the eye.

There is an interesting nuance to this publishing environment, however: The writer is only tangentially involved in the creation of the “frame.” He or she has input on editing changes, and is perhaps allowed to provide an opinion on the cover, but for the most part he or she is removed from the process of packaging the art that is being presented.

Make no mistake, this has always been the case and is no surprise. Even a prose artist as highly regarded as Ted Chiang faced this reality when his collection of award-winning stories was published by Tor. Chiang had definite opinions on the cover, which he saw—not unlike Sir Thomas Lawrence—as being important in relation to the work inside. He said this to Seattle’s City Paper:

I like the idea of having the art reflect the story without being a literal illustration of the story, so that the art would act as a parallel storytelling medium.

He hated the cover Tor chose, and this led to an acrimonious parting. To be fair to Tor, they wanted to sell books, and they presumably saw the packaging as not only relevant to the collection of stories but a better draw for readers in bookstores. You don’t allow the writer to control marketing (and cover design is undeniably part of marketing). That’s what marketers do.

While this can often lead to author disappointment and ill will, it sometimes works for everyone.

I recently read Constable & Toop by Gareth P. Jones. It’s an excellent book about ghosts in London and a young boy who helps them solve a mystery. One of the things I enjoyed about the book was that it was so lovingly put together: the typography, the cover, the margins, the chapter ornamentation — everything. Reading the book was so much more than just reading words on a page.

I noted that in a tweet, and Jones tweeted this back:

I wish I could take more/any credit for that.

Jones’ pride is tangible, and this is, really, the ideal scenario for a writer: Your book is gorgeous, and you are proud of what’s inside and out. While ideal, the writer cannot avoid the reality that the overall presentation is, at best, a collaboration. While you hope for a good result, you cannot take the blame or credit for the final product.

And this brings us to self-publishing. When the artist is the marketer, what kind of things happen? Well, certainly you see sentiments that are common everywhere: All that matters is the work. So spending attention on things like cover art, typography, and paper stock is attention poorly utilized.

And, truth be told, there is a lot of truth to this belief. The number of authors making a nice living while having poorly edited, designed, or conceived packages is significant. Truly, the work is meant to stand on its own.

It should be noted that we see a similar trend at major publishing houses. Overworked editors and cost-saving paper and typography choices create unremarkable packaging.

Ah, but what about those artists who care about the frame? What about those writers who, like Ted Chiang, see the package as a parallel to the storytelling? For those authors, you only have one real option: Self-publishing.

That this is a surprise to many is due to the fact that the attention on self-publishing rarely focuses on the control and independence it gives authors. The stories about self-publishing focus on the “shit volcano” or more specifically about shoddy editing, amateurish covers, and countless other criticisms. What we don’t read about is the fact that if an author truly wants to present a book in the way that they want—if they want to pick the frame—they need to work outside of traditional publishing.

My debut novel is an action/adventure book for kids and young adults. A perfectly acceptable approach would have been to lay it out in Microsoft Word, use stock art for the cover, and just get it out there in the world, with the work standing for itself.

I couldn’t do that.

I wanted a specific cover. I wanted a trade paperback edition with drop caps and chapter ornamentation. Heck, I wanted specific typography in the book. In short, I wanted the whole package to create an experience. This process was incredibly time-consuming, expensive, difficult, and often frustrating. But in the end the book I produced is one that I feel is an artistic whole.

I chose the cover artist and provided the guidance for what I wanted. I spent extra money for a chapter illustration. I spent hours and hours going over every page eliminating bad hyphenation and widows and orphans. I made sure that every chapter started on a recto page. I designed the chapter openings to look special. Heck, I even chose a typeface designed in 1938 solely because the book was set in 1938. Which writer does that? Self-publishers with attention to detail, that’s who.

Was this worth the money? Probably not, but that’s not the point. I had a vision, and that vision included not just the work but the frame, as well.

Today, you can find gorgeous books produced by publishers all over the world. The idea that the author needs to be involved in the packaging of their work is, of course, untrue. However, if you are a writer that wants to be actively involved in that process, you only have one option: Self-publishing.

    Jake Kerr

    Written by

    Jake Kerr

    Kerr’s fiction has been nominated for the Nebula Award and shortlisted for the StorySouth Million Writers and Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Awards.