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!

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Novel Writing: The Go Broke Quick Scheme

Every once in a while, I still come across writers who operate within the fantasy that all they have to do is put a book out there and the money will start pouring in on its own. It’s a fantasy perpetuated by a long, long tradition of putting best selling authors on a mile high pedestal and poking fun at the average Joes and Janes by painting them as talentless losers. Authors make it all look so easy by design, because we all want to celebrate our successes. Admitting our struggles and failures is something we keep for our closest circle of friends and colleagues who understand exactly what we mean when we say, “My sales are going nowhere. I think my career is over.” They understand because they have been there, or are right there with us.

But there are still those who are either unaware, or intentionally dismissive of how the world works. A while back, I saw someone post a complaint about how they published a book on Smashwords a year ago and it never sold anything. The writer was very bitter over this, and blamed Smashwords for hyping up Indie authors and not delivering on those grand promises. In response to that, here is where I completely shatter the delusion that getting a book out into the world is a get rich quick scheme.

Continue Reading Novel Writing: The Go Broke Quick Scheme

Q: Should I put my books in KDP Select?

This is a question traditionally published authors never have to think about–because they don’t usually get the option. But it’s one that keeps Indie authors up at night. For a lot of them, it translates to, “Should I go all in?” Because that is what it means. For those who aren’t familiar, Amazon’s KDP platform has an option for KDP Select. It’s a voluntary commitment to enter your book into an exclusive distribution though Amazon for a minimum of 3 months, during which time you have certain advantages over non-Select books:

  • You can run limited time promotions
  • Amazon’s algorithms give your book preferential treatment
  • You get to earn money on pages read, which can add up to a significant chunk of change

The drawback, of course, being that every book entered into KDP Select must be pulled from every other retailer world wide. Even with Amazon having the largest reach and largest market share for eBooks, that still cuts you off from a large potential readership. And there are other issues, as well:

  • Royalties paid out of a shared pool, which cuts your earnings per book read (relative to standard per-unit pricing)
  • Technical issues
  • Fraudulent activity from unscrupulous authors

Still, the earning potential is large enough to keep enticing authors. As an Indie author myself, KDP Select has never held any appeal, precisely because of the exclusivity catch. But I would be lying if I didn’t admit that in the last two years, as sales across the industry as a whole have taken a huge dip, and as I have watched my own sales take a suicidal nose dive, I have considered whether it might not be worth a try. This year, especially, has been hard for me for many reasons, most of which have nothing to do with my books. Usually, at my low times, I escape into my books: reading, writing, taking pride in what I’ve accomplished and how I’m still hanging in there, despite everything.

That’s a little difficult to do when you can’t see the returns on all the effort you have put into a project. And that’s why KDP Select sounded like a promising solution–for about a minute. I thought, “I could make it work. I could sell my soul. Or maybe just loan it out for 3 months to make some extra cash, just to get my confidence back.” But my own immediate reaction to that was such a powerful rejection of the idea that I ended up discarding it again. For one very important reason: Nothing I have read and heard about the program so far has inspired any confidence in me that it wouldn’t irreparably hurt me in the end.

For me, the question of, “Should I go Amazon exclusive?” isn’t about How much can I make? but How much am I willing to give up to make that much? Am I willing to alienate the eBook world outside of Amazon? Am I willing to give up a much larger chunk of my profits to Amazon and thieves? Am I willing to go on faith that Amazon will report my page reads accurately and pay my royalties honestly? Am I willing to set aside all of my principles to make a buck, and feed the monster I personally believe is destroying the democracy of eBook publishing? Okay, that last one is a bit dramatic, but it’s how I feel. And when I put it that way, my answer is no.

It’s a very personal choice, and I’m well aware that not everyone shares it. There are plenty of writers who are quite happy in KDP Select, making enough money to be comfortable, and not at all concerned about any drawbacks. That’s great for them, and I’m happy for them. It’s just not the right path for me.

This morning, a friend of mine shared an article in a Facebook group (I’m fairly active on Facebook, in case you haven’t noticed 😉 ): Business Musings: Your Basket Is Leaking. The writer, an Indie author herself, makes a comparison between Sears and Amazon, in terms of their business life cycle. She also points out some uncomfortable truths about the way Amazon does business (which didn’t surprise me, to be honest) and paints a bleak picture for Amazon, predicting its downfall, and pointing out how staunch KDP Select supporters are now waking up to its issues and quietly pulling back to publish wide. It’s well worth reading. It’s well worth reading anything on any company you’re in business with.

So back to the original question: Should an author put his/her books in KDP Select?

My answer would be: Depends on your business model.

Do you have a massive backlist of titles to experiment with? If so, go for it! See what works and what doesn’t. Maybe putting one or two books into exclusivity will open doors for new readers to find you. Be aware, however, that it opens you up to a lot of resentment from readers who will want to read the rest of your books but only if they’re in KDP Select. And that resentment can be quite vicious, just so you know.

Is it a good idea to put all of your books into the KDP Select basket?  I still say no. Only because it’s never a good business decision to rely on one single point of sale. For one thing, you’re cutting yourself off from a wide world of readers who, for whatever reason, don’t shop for eBooks on Amazon. For another, you will be making yourself 100% dependent on Amazon’s integrity and longevity. Whatever issues Amazon might have, you will be locked in to endure them for at least 3 months. And if Amazon does suddenly shut down KDP Select, you’ll lose the bulk of your income. Not all, unless Amazon itself folds, but just make sure you have put enough money away to survive until you rebuild your readership across other platforms and get your sales back up. Which will take time.

As for me, I can say with 100% certainty that any titles I have published will never go exclusive anywhere. Beyond that, the project I had briefly considered trying for KDP Select is now on hold. I might revive it at some point in the future, but as long as I keep coming back to my original arguments against Amazon’s exclusive program, I don’t think it’ll ever happen. And the fact that I keep randomly coming across these types of articles and opinion pieces reinforces my belief that I am doing the right thing for me.

If this should be my last blog post for 2018, I wish you all a beautiful Holiday Season and nothing but the best for 2019. May you find everything you’re looking for, may you always have everything you need, and may good luck stick to your heels like melted chewing gum. 🙂

Until next time!

Continue Reading Q: Should I put my books in KDP Select?