Take Your Job %$^&*#@ Seriously
Today’s topic requires some background reading. First, you should probably check out Lousy Book Covers. Hold those thoughts! Now read/skim Nathan Shumate’s blog post on the subject, the Guardian piece (you knew there’d be one, didn’t you?), see some highlighted pieces on FastCompany, (here’s comments on The Passive Voice), and finally, the reaction post on KindleBoards.
It’s probably not too difficult to guess my opinion on this kerfluffle if you know me at all, but bear with me nonetheless.
Classism or Constructive Criticism? “Mean Girls” or Satire?
If you don’t have time to skim anything, here’s the five-second version: cover designer creates Tumblr blog of bad book covers à la Regretsy.com for Amazon publishers. Some featured authors go apeshit, others cry bullying. Most people laugh.
An important point to note is that Nathan Shumate does business in publishing: as stated above, he’s a cover designer by trade. At first, he offered free cover redesigns for authors who didn’t respond poorly to the posts. After two DMCA takedown notices and a strike on his Tumblr blog, however, he rescinded the offer.
Initial reactions from the Writer’s Café crowd were a mixture of “sure glad my covers weren’t on there” to “Shumate shouldn’t profit off of putting other people down.” Which okay, fine. I would definitely prefer that the party who created and updates the blog be a reader or an Amazon fan than someone profiting off the publicity the blog generates, even if he is offering his services for free to the unlucky authors, because that angle makes the whole operation a bit sleazier. Still, the above opinion is about ETHICS, not legality. He’s perfectly within his rights to critique what he dubs bad art for the purpose of commentary, satire, education, or parody. This is clearly satire, and not the nicest I’ve ever seen.
However, he is giving the featured books a lot of free traffic, and I’m sure some of the titles will see a bump in sales, just as craft items featured on Regretsy often sell well after being pilloried there. Some of the authors don’t seem to understand how creator-consumer interaction should work if they want to help their career and invoked the Streisand Effect by demanding Tumblr remove their covers and claiming Shumate violated their copyrights. (Shumate correctly points out that per the minutiae of copyright law in the U.S., he’s not even hosting most of the images, but that’s beyond the purview of this post.)
It appeared this would simply be another case of “Authors Behaving Badly,” a teachable moment on what not to do when someone criticizes your work publicly.
Then came the accusations of bullying.
People on KindleBoards started saying that Shumate’s response to the DMCA takedown requests was unneccessary:
He seems to get a real rise out of embarrassing others, hence the e-mail with the author over copyright. She misunderstood copyright law, and was trying to protect her work from being used as fodder on a slanderous site. He didn’t have to further embarrass her, or mock her.
Actually, it’s standard practice in blogging to mock or expose DMCA takedowns when they are without merit. It’s not only a way to openly assert that you did nothing legally wrong; it’s often about educating other non-involved people about the difference between protecting your copyrights and censoring others’ rights to free speech.
If you’re going to abuse the law and then be embarrassed when it doesn’t work, my advice would be to stop digging.
After a moderator calls the blog “bully behavior,” a bunch of people respond chime in and it becomes an echo chamber. I start to become annoyed.
Why Product Criticism, Whether Mockery or Complaint on Consumerist, Is NOT Bullying
Normally, I avoid starting off an explanation with a dictionary definition, because in social justice discussions, dictionary definitions can be both inaccurate and harmful. However, victims of bullying are not necessarily members of marginalized groups, so I think the standard explanation will work here.
bully (v.) - to use superior strength or influence to intimidate (someone), typically to force him or her to do what one wants
Definition of BULLY:
(transitive verb) 1. to treat abusively 2. to affect by means of force or coercion
(intransitive verb) to use browbeating language or behavior
While transitive verbs can apply to inanimate objects, I highly doubt that most people think it possible to bully one’s toaster or DVD player.
Bullying is an action done towards PEOPLE, NOT THINGS.
Book covers do not have feelings. As far as I know, none of the Tumblr posts expressed any personal animosity towards either the authors, the publishers, the cover designers, or the artists (usually all were probably one and the same).
There’s a difference between outing someone’s closeted sexuality on Facebook to their family and saying a business put out a poor product by visual demonstration. One is bullying. The other is the consumer review process in the digital age.
Authorial Intent Is Dead; Long Live Authorial Intent
This is yet another example of authors being unable to separate themselves from their work. Professional authors should not respond to reviews, and it’s probably not a good idea to respond to satire blogs, either.
Once you put out a product, your intentions are no longer rules that the reader has to follow. What you meant to say or represent may not be what other people see. That’s why writers should put the best product forward that they possibly can.
Wearer of Many Hats, Master of None
It’s also why I was kind of disappointed that so many KB members were worried their covers might be on the blog. Not surprised, but disappointed nonetheless.
The cover design is no longer a writer’s issue. It’s a publisher’s issue. When you type the final word of the manuscript, it’s time to take off your writer’s hat and put on the publisher’s hat.
This is a reality check. There are no ‘just writers’ in self-publishing. If you are running the show, you are a small business owner.
As a publisher who is trying to be a professional and, you know, actually run a business, you should be contemplating three options if you are neither well-funded enough to spare $30 on a pre-made cover nor skilled enough in design to make one on par with other professional designers. You can either:
a) save up some money until you can afford the cover your book deserves — skipping 6 to 8 venti Starbucks drinks should more than cover it, OR
b) barter services for the ones you can’t do professionally yourself (ask around for links to writer’s groups and see if you can beta read or ghost-write or proofread or do something for someone entirely unrelated to writing, just trade SOMETHING …besides sex), OR
c) learn to do graphic design the way you learned to write: through lots of study and hard work.
Notice there is no option where you do a disservice to your book and insult your potential customers by slapping a cover on that resembles a fifth-grader’s binder sketches on crack.
Honestly? We’re not talking about $600 for a block of ISBNs here. Self-publishers are often micro-entrepreneurs, working on shoestring budgets. But shoestring budget does not mean “no budget.”
Lots of beginning actors work two or three jobs in an expensive city for months just to afford good headshots, because they know that showing up with a professional-looking résumé means having professional photos. The ones who can’t wait to save up trade modeling work for a free portfolio with a photographer. Again, you only give what you get.
I would venture a guess that anyone unwilling to sacrifice, save, or task a risk on themselves by investing at least $100 in any business venture is not serious about making that venture into a real job. Ask any successful businessperson if they disagree with that statement.
But But But… What If Those People Don’t Care About Making Money / Just Want to Share Their Stories with Their Friends and Family?
[These publishers] are most likely people who like writing, cannot find a publisher, and just wanted to publish their novel so they could share it with others –
They probably told their friends and family they wrote a novel you could find on Amazon, and were proud of that little joy they had –until everyone else started making fun of them.
Setting aside (AGAIN) the debunked fallacy that the blog mocks writers and not merely bad cover art…
There’s a place for them to display their works, usually for free. There are many places, actually. Wattpad. Scribd. File-sharing sites. Clones of the aforementioned places. Their own blogs or websites. Depending on the presentation, YouTube, Facebook. or Flickr. Heck, you can make Lulu books semi-private if you want to. Why didn’t they just email or snail mail copies out?
These publishers choose not to do so. Why? I suspect it’s because they wanted the prestige of having their books on sale next to NYT bestsellers and self-publishers who take their work seriously without having to invest the time, skills, money, or hard work to sell at that level. That’s disrespectful.
Other “Mean” Websites Are Okay Because They Only Mock Out of Print or Traditionally Published Books!
There are plenty of sites on the internet mocking unfortunate cover art. Good show, sir was already mentioned, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books sometimes does it as well. The big difference there is that those sites mostly take on trad covers, often for books that are already several years or even decades old.
Question: do indies WANT to be seen as total flaming hypocrites?
Self-publishing is now finally a viable, well-known, and widely accepted way to make a living as a writer. The whole point is for our books to be indistinguishable from traditionally published books, in both appearance and quality. Yet we expect to be coddled while everyone else is held to a higher standard?
NO. Just no. The idea is so ridiculous… I can’t even.
Seriously, people? Seriously?
Graphic Design Is a Skilled Profession
JYFI to people who don’t think graphic design is a professional skill:
The reason some writers can pound out an award-winning short story in a day is the same reason why some graphic artists can design an award-winning wrap-around cover in a weekend. Those achievements are possible because of all the hours of training that went into all of the work that came before. Do you think anyone can just wake up one day and write like Stephen King? What makes you think you can sit down at a desk one day and design like Shepard Fairey?
Here’s what I said in the comment thread at KB about this:
The book covers in question are not bad by a matter of “taste.” Me thinking that the Wheel of Time books have terrible cover art is a matter of taste, as is disliking ‘man titty’ on PNR novels (tramp stamp or not, I prefer women on PNR covers). But you know what? If the only successful PNR books were the ones that featured headless, limbless torsos of well-oiled male flesh, you can bet the farm that I would be slapping Fabio wannabes on every PNR title I published, because it does NO good to design my covers to my tastes if no one else buys them.
Design, like writing, requires that one know the rules before attempting to break them.
In Summary: Respect Your Work, Your Customers, and Yourself
I don’t know what reaction people think I or others had when seeing those covers. I didn’t laugh, because I didn’t think they were funny.
I cringed. I was sad. I was frustrated. I didn’t laugh. Because ensuring people won’t take your products seriously isn’t funny. It’s a shame.