A Tale of Four Apps

Hi there! It’s been a while. COVID has done a number on the world and on my plans for this year. My apologies for having neglected this blog. I am trying to keep it going but, as you can imagine, other priorities often take precedence. But, since I’m currently chin-deep in getting a book ready for publication in multiple formats, I thought it might be a good time to go over some of the tools I use and how they compare to each other in terms of what they can do and how easy they are to use. If you’re a DIY fanatic like me, you’re always on the look-out for ways to do things better. It’s with this mindset that I share my thoughts and experiences about these apps.

CANVA

COST: Free or $9.95/month (Pro)
TYPE: Online App
LINK: https://www.canva.com

I’ll be honest, I only recently started using this app, mostly for work. I was highly skeptical at first, but it’s kind of growing on me. However, it does have some limitations…

PROS
Canva is an excellent tool for quick one-offs. They have pre-made templates for anything you can think of, print or digital. Social media posts are sized to the exact specifications of each platform. Flyers and posters have an option for full bleed. You can share your designs directly to your accounts, or export and save them for other uses. An extensive library of free or paid stock images, videos, and music is already built in, and you have an option to upload your own. Multiple options for export file formats. Animated elements, and videos available, so you could potentially create a simple book trailer video right in Canva. AND they have a built-in custom print service for certain things, which is a very nice feature.

All of your designs are automatically saved in your account so you can go back and make changes, or copy a design and update elements to have a full stack of brand-consistent designs. It’s very user friendly and intuitive, which means literally anyone with internet access can use Canva, and learn it quickly. A truly handy tool for your every day promo needs.

CONS
While it has some excellent features, Canva was not built for more complex design work. It’s limited to stacking elements one on top of the other, but much of the nuance gets lost. For example, if you have a text box, you can only apply one font style per paragraph. If you want to mix and match fonts and sizes in one line, you need to create a separate text box for each new style. The snap to alignment feature isn’t as nuanced as I’d like it to be, especially if you have too many elements on one page. Every so often, things shift, too. Despite elements being grouped in a specific arrangement, I’ve had templates look out of alignment when shared with others (Pro account feature) and in an exported PDF, which means I don’t trust it.

You’re limited in what you can do to an image. There are some pre-built filters and color adjustments, but you can only crop to pre-defined shapes. There is no masking option so blending is essentially nonexistent.

While Canva has some great chart/graph features, the color schemes are limited to what Canva provides, which isn’t always ideal. And there is no table option (which I found out the hard way). Text layout is good for small things like social media posts. But when you get into multi-page territory of flowing content, it starts to become more work than I’d like, and nowhere near enough control.

FINAL VERDICT
Canva is great for creating quick little designs, but it wasn’t meant for bigger, more nuanced projects. Use it for your promotional graphics, but if you’re trying to create a book cover, or format any kind of publication (especially for fiction or anything that has a specific look and feel), look elsewhere.

GIMP

COST: Free
TYPE: Desktop App
LINK: https://www.gimp.org

GIMP has been my go-to art/graphic manipulation app for a decade now. It’s an excellent tool for learning and exploring digital art and graphic design because it won’t cost you anything and it’s really fun.

PROS
Have I mentioned it’s free? GIMP is an open source competitor to Photoshop. It has a lot of the same functions, and there are thousands of free brushes and scripts/plugins you can download to make it more robust. In terms of complexity, it has a lot in the toolbox, so it can be a little overwhelming when you first start using it. With that said, I still prefer GIMP to Photoshop. I’m pretty tech-savvy, but after 3 years of having Photoshop, I have barely figured out its most basic functions. GIMP is much more user friendly and intuitive, so the learning curve is smaller. It’s extremely powerful when it comes to creating digital art and manipulating photos, which means it’s excellent for creating your book cover art. It can also create animated GIFs, which is a nice little bonus.

CONS
GIMP is fairly RAM-heavy, so if your computer doesn’t have enough memory, it may run slow, freeze, or crash with complicated projects (think big file with many layers). Also, while it’s comparable to Photoshop, the two are not the same. If GIMP has a “smart object” feature, I haven’t seen it yet. It also doesn’t have editable filters. What I mean by that is, when you apply a filter to a layer, you can no longer change the filter settings. You have to undo it, and reapply with the new settings. This can get frustrating and tedious if you’re used to Photoshop. And, while there are many plugins/scripts available for GIMP, they likely won’t rival the actions and templates available for Photoshop.

FINAL VERDICT
GIMP is a fantastic tool for beginning graphic artists, or those who can’t afford Adobe’s products. If you have never used Photoshop, you won’t miss it. Learning GIMP is, in my opinion, much easier, and you’ll be creating beautiful works of art in no time. If you’re a long time Photoshop user, I wouldn’t recommend GIMP. You’ll hate the limitations and the foreign UI layout. I’d call this an intermediate tool between Canva and Photoshop. Like any tool, it’s only as good as your use of it, though. I firmly believe it can create graphics to Photoshop’s quality level. It’s just not always a straight/easy process.

PHOTOSHOP

COST: $20.99/month (standard license)
TYPE: Desktop App
LINK: https://www.adobe.com/products/photoshop.html

And that brings us to the graphic design standard-setter, Photoshop. I’ll be honest, I still get lost/confused using this app. I’m more comfortable with GIMP so I  only use Photoshop for things I can’t do in GIMP. But I will admit, it has some really nifty features…

PROS
This is as robust a tool as you can get. If you can think it, Photoshop can probably do it. And if it doesn’t have a ready-made action pre-installed, you can probably find one online. It’s honestly overwhelming in everything it can do. Smart objects are my favorite, and I use them a lot. If you have a template of a 3D rendering of a book, for example, the cover will be a smart object. You paste your cover art into it, and Photoshop will apply it to the 3D model and make it look seamless. Layer effects can be applied to text without losing editability of the text (something GIMP can’t do). Not to mention tons of online resources, guides, tutorials, etc. It’s the work of millions of professionals over decades, and it shows.

CONS
Massive learning curve with this one. The simplest of tasks can seem impossible at first because just looking at the UI is overwhelming. There are so many menus, settings, options, and tools, it really does take an intensive course to learn it all, and even then it’ll probably be just the most common functions. It’s also very pricey. Adobe switched their platform to a subscription model some time back, so you have to pay a monthly fee just to have access to the app. Gone are the days of one-time license costs that could last you a decade if you were cheap. If you want to use Adobe products now, ya gotta pay through the nose for the privilege.

FINAL VERDICT
Photoshop may be the golden standard, but not every project needs that. If you do graphic art and design on a daily basis, then you absolutely need this tool. It helps you create magic, pure and simple. But if you just want to do some quick things here and there, it’s not worth the time or money. You’re better off trying your hand at Canva or GIMP, or paying a professional to create it for you. It’ll be cheaper and less painful in the long run.

INDESIGN

COST: $20.99/month (standard license)
TYPE: Desktop App
LINK: https://www.adobe.com/products/indesign.html

GIMP and Photoshop are purely graphic design tools that don’t deal with print layout. Canva straddles both areas relatively okay. InDesign was built for publication formatting. It’s in a league of its own, but kind of dips its toes here and there, too.

PROS
There is no better tool for creating professional publications. Lots of different options for specific things here and there, but nothing that is as all-encompassing as InDesign. It gives you complete control over every single element in your document, down to the pixel. Text controls, fonts, alignment, all of it is leagues above and beyond what MS Word or Publisher can do. If you’re formatting the interior of your book or magazine, you will want InDesign to do it. Things like paragraph styles, standardized headers and footers, page numbering, bleed, and gutters are a breeze. I was iffy about diving in, thinking I could do what I needed with MS Word. Now it’s all I use, and I’d never go back. It’s just too good at what it does. And it’s not just limited to print publications. It has an EPUB export function. You can create social media graphics, flyers, posters, banners, business cards, brochures, booklets… the list goes on and on.

CONS
Back to the cost and learning curve again. I think in this instance, the cost is a bigger con than the learning curve, because InDesign lets you create templates. So, while it might take you a week to create a template for a paperback book, for example, once you have it, creating another book from it is the work of 2-3 hours. I say this from personal experience. But, as with Photoshop, it may not be worth the cost for one or two projects.

FINAL VERDICT
InDesign is an absolute MUST if you’re going to be formatting your own print publications. Its versatility also makes it useful for various digital projects, too. But, again, if you’re only going to be using it once a month, it’s not worth the cost. This is one tool for which I don’t have a suitable, cheaper alternative, and that is because there is so much precision work that goes into formatting for print that the alternatives I have come across either fall way short, or they’re Apple-only products that don’t have a PC alternative. Therefore, if you want it done right, and can’t afford InDesign, I recommend hiring a pro.

ADOBE FINE PRINT

I want to add a few words about Adobe, because they have so much going on that, if you need multiple tools, it can actually be worth while. I personally have found reasons to use at least three: InDesign (most often), Photoshop (sometimes), Illustrator (rare instances, but very helpful). And if my computer wasn’t 4 years old and lacking a proper graphics card, I’d be using Premier Pro, too. Things I use these tools for:

  • Print layout for novels
  • Graphic work for promotional  media
  • Logos/scalable elements
  • (potentially) Book trailers

I say it’s potentially worth it because, while one app will cost you $20.99/month, if you want/need access to their entire suite of 24 apps, it will only cost $52.99/month. And whichever plan you choose, you will also gain access to Adobe Fonts, which is just awesome. I think this is why so many creative professionals swear by these apps. But there’s probably also an element of commitment cost involved. If you have put in so much time and money to master these tools, you’ll be less inclined to stray.

I hope you found this post helpful. Is there another tool you use for your projects? Share in the comments below! I’m always looking for fresh ideas. 🙂

Until next time!

Continue Reading A Tale of Four Apps

Opinion: Revisiting the Concept of FREE

Boy, 2020 is turning out to be some kind of year, huh? Not surprisingly, everything going on with the world at large has had a massive impact on every part of my life, from my day job, to my home life, to my writing. As you have noticed, it’s basically put my blogging on hold. To be honest, I debated for days about whether to even write this one, given the circumstances. I decided to go ahead, because it might be even more relevant now.

I want to be sensitive to what’s happening, and what everyone is going through (some way more than others), so right off the bat I want to acknowledge two important truths:

  1. People all around the world are struggling right now.
  2. Authors are people.

I also want to acknowledge that what I have to share comes from my personal experience and may not be the case for others. Therefore, I present it all as an opinion piece, and not gospel truth. Use what I have observed as a factor in your decisions, but try it out yourself and make up your own mind.

Part 1 – How I got suckered into a tired old chorus of FREE (again)

When the pandemic first hit, everyone got on the PR bandwagon and started their CRM engines full blast. You may have received dozens of emails from “concerned” businesses assuring you they were there for you, working together to stay safe and healthy in these uncertain times. Seriously, it was so bad someone wrote a poem of the most overused phrases in those emails. It got tired very fast.

But one email caught my attention. Smashwords sent out a notice that, in an effort to help everyone struggling financially because of COVID-19, they would be doing a special sale and authors were invited to participate by discounting their eBooks as much or as little as they wanted. The email advised to be sensitive when marketing this sale, to come from a place of caring.

So there I went, discounting my 3-book erotic romance series all the way to free for the duration of the sale. Because yeah, the situation sucks big time, and if I can help brighten someone’s day with a steamy read, why wouldn’t I? My more mercenary hope was that if it didn’t get me more royalties from sales of non-free books, at least it would get me some readers, and maybe a few reviews.

I didn’t push the sale very much. I posted once or twice on Facebook, and then let it run.

The result, shockingly (but not surprisingly) was 217 freebie downloads in 20 days. Not one single sale, or review.

Part 2 – Okay, I messed up. Let’s fix it.

You know how they say free books supposedly lead to sales for related books in the series? Yeah, I set the entire series as free. Didn’t quite work as advertised. So when Smashwords sent another email saying they had such an amazing response to the sale they decided to extend it for another month, I decided to do things right. I kept the first book of the series as free, and discounted the other two by 50%.

I figured, hey, the response was pretty good for the first freebie run. Clearly people out there are liking what they see. I was watching those downloads. Some people got the whole series in one go, but far more of them got one, then came back for the others. That tells me the books were judged to be worth checking out. And if they’re worth reading, they should be worth paying for, right?

Remember, authors are people, too, and royalty income is money that puts food on the table. As much as we want to be supportive and helpful in a time of crisis, we need some support and help ourselves, too. The news all over the web was that eBook sales have spiked with people stuck at home with nothing to do. I have not observed that to be the case. And, before someone feels it necessary to set me straight, I am fully aware that there are a lot of other factors affecting this trend, including (but not limited to) the fact that I haven’t had a book release in a couple of years, I don’t promote my books as much as I should, I am Indie published and therefore pre-judged to be trash, etc, etc…

But anyway, if the “rock solid” advice “proven time and again by bestsellers all over the world” was really true, then my freebie book 1 should definitely have led to sales of books 2 and 3, especially if they, too, were discounted. Stands to reason…

The actual result after a month of this madness was 6 freebie downloads. Not one single sale, or review.

Part 3 – What the f*&%, yo?

So here’s what no one tells you: Freebies do actually work to gain more sales. Not as much for the author who discounts to free, though. Mostly for the platform doing the sales. Because they can offset those freebies against sales of their bestsellers, who sell even more as a result of the platform shoving them into reader’s faces with increased intensity to cash in on the sure thing. And you sell what you promote. So the more they promote bestsellers, the more those bestseller sell, and the more invisible every other book becomes. It’s a full circle that way. A closed one.

Freebies don’t work on their own (in my experience) because of one reason: People who download freebies generally do it out of an impulse to possess, not to read. That freebie will sit on someone’s device for years before it’s opened, if it ever is. Readers prioritize books they want to read more than anything in the world. So they will read their favorites first. Most likely those they went to the trouble of paying for.

Adding to the frustration is how invisible books can be on the device itself. It’s not like looking at a bookshelf of spines where you see 50 of them at the same time and your eye picks out the most interesting one. You see titles. Maybe 6-9 front covers in thumbnail. Scroll through a hundred titles and try to remember what they were about… not likely to happen. That’s why covers are so important to make a good, lasting impression.

But I digress. Basically, the whole thing is a two-fold effect. First, if readers want to read a book, they’ll be willing to pay for it. Second, if they paid for it, they’ll feel obligated to read it to get their money’s worth. It’s a full circle that way. A closed one that tends to exclude freebies.

Part 4 – So what now?

Since “common wisdom” failed me, I decided to fall back on what I knew worked. Word of mouth. In social media form. What I did was open every book-related Facebook group I am a member of (about 50 of them) and started posting promos. Images and videos with links to the book’s page on my website.

With FB’s new restrictions, you can’t post the same thing into different groups too many times or they block you for 24 hours. Luckily, I have folders full of promo graphics that I’m able to cycle so I can post in all groups and promote all my books in a relatively short amount of time. Took me about an hour to hit all 50 groups.

I did that twice in about 3 weeks. It really should be done more often to have a proper effect. I used to do this on a regular basis a few years ago and it got me steady sales. Now, it’s too much time I don’t have, and there’s no way to automate it so it’s gone neglected for years. Another factor of low sales recently.

I also shared choice reviews on my own page. That seems to have stronger impact than any promo graphic I could make, because it’s one reader speaking to another. Word of mouth is what gets readers interested. Personal recommendations, or at least ones that feel personal.

The result was about 5 sales (that I was able to track) over the next two weeks or so. I admit, it’s not much, but it’s more than the freebie sale got me. And the sales (again, those I could track) weren’t from just one retailer. I got sales from Amazon, Apple Books, and Barnes & Noble. Audiobook sales reports lag a month or two, so hard to tell yet what impact it had there. Same with print titles through IngramSpark.

Part 5 – The bottom line is this:

You sell what you promote. If I learned anything over the last decade of being published (holy crap, time flies!), it’s this. If all you promote are your Amazon links and then you get upset that all the other outlets aren’t selling, you only have yourself to blame. If you go too long without promoting and you get upset because your sales have dropped, you only have yourself to blame.

If you keep pushing freebies in hopes that people will notice your other, full-priced or discounted books next to them, I hate to tell you, but it doesn’t seem to work that way.

Another piece of ancient wisdom used to be that when you promote your book on social media, you should share a direct link to a storefront where people can buy it when they click. For better or worse, I have bucked that trend from the start. Why? Because I can’t control or monitor what people do in someone else’s kingdom. I could share a link to Amazon, but if the person who clicks it is a Nook reader, it won’t do me or them much good. And even if they do shop where I send them, that store will bombard them with paid ads and suggestions for a whole lot of other books to distract them from mine.

When I share, I share a link to the book on my website. This accomplishes a few things.

  1. I control how the page looks
  2. I can provide direct buy links to as many stores as I want on that page
  3. I can display related books and content that will keep readers in my universe, exploring my books, not someone else’s
  4. I can look at the stats and see how long people stayed, what they clicked on, and can extrapolate what’s popular, what works, and what needs to change or update

But I think I’ve rambled on long enough now, so I’ll stop there. You get the idea. 🙂

I sincerely hope everyone reading this blog is healthy, safe, and doing well (or as well as can be expected). Here’s hoping there’s a light at the end of this long, crazy, dark tunnel, and that it isn’t another train.

Much love to you all, my friends. <3 Until next time!

Continue Reading Opinion: Revisiting the Concept of FREE

August #AuthorTip: Plan Out Your Book Releases

Continuing this post series with a tip for making sure your new book makes the proper splash:


The biggest reason new book releases flop: No one knows about them. The absolute worst mistake you can make with your new book is to hit publish out of the blue and hope for the best. A proper book release takes planning, forethought, and a detailed strategy.

Things you should consider before you come anywhere close to uploading your book to a platform:

  1. REVIEWS: Have you sent out ARCs? Do you have eager fans ready and willing to flood your book listing with lots of enthusiastic reviews? Do you have a blog tour planned? Blogger reviews waiting in the wings? You should.
  2. SOCIAL MEDIA POSTS: You’ll want to let people know about your book early and often. The best way to do this is to utilize platforms like Hootsuite to schedule your posts ahead of time so you have continuous coverage leading up to and following your book release. You want to keep people aware without beating them over the head with it.
  3. ADVERTISING: If you can afford it, you should plan out at least two or three ad campaigns on different platforms to get more exposure. These should always link directly to where people can pre-order or buy your book, and you should monitor the statistic carefully to make sure you’re not wasting your money. Read up on how to do this before you plunge in. It’s an expensive venture to go into without preparation.
  4. GUEST APPEARANCES: Whether they’re in-person or online, you’ll want to get in front of people to talk about your book somehow. This can mean author readings in libraries, group takeovers on Facebook, live podcast interviews, panel discussions, newsletter swaps, etc.

Your promotional campaign should start several months before your release date. It should ramp up about 1-2 weeks prior to release to get people excited, and carry through 1-2 weeks after the release to keep your book visible. Those first two weeks after release will be crucial. This will be the time that will count the most toward bestseller rankings and future sales. Those early reader converts will help you spread the word going forward so you don’t want to miss out on capturing them.

Continue Reading August #AuthorTip: Plan Out Your Book Releases

August #AuthorTip: Release Dates

Continuing this post series with a tip for book releases:


Start setting a release date toward the end of the editing process and set it well in the future.

Pre-orders can really help your first week sales on certain platforms, so the longer you have there, the better for you. It is recommended you put your book up for pre-order at least 4-6 weeks ahead of the official release date. That gives you plenty of time to promote and rack up sales. Beware setting a date so far in the future that your readers forget all about it. As soon as it’s out there, you have something to promote, so promote regularly to keep your book visible.

Another reason to give yourself plenty of time is to give yourself plenty of time. I know, that sounds weird, but hear me out. Things happen. Editors get overwhelmed, or go on vacation. Emergencies happen and delay progress on your book. The more people who are involved in the process, the more time you need to allow for them to finish that work, and leave a healthy margin of error. That’s why waiting until the end of editing is a reasonable benchmark. By then, the most time-consuming tasks are completed, and you have plenty of time to finish the rest.

It’s always better and more professional to point to a date farther in the future, than to set one you can’t keep. Believe me, that causes more problems and disappointments, and stress than it’s worth.

Continue Reading August #AuthorTip: Release Dates