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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Book Cover Design: An Interview with Sara Stratton of Redwood Digital Publishing

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I’ve worked with Sara Stratton on many books, but each time we chat, I learn something new about her craft: the production of beautiful books. When she agreed to let me interview her, I found I was getting pumped just writing my questions!

First question (appropriately) was…

When should authors begin working on cover design?

Sara advises that authors turn their sights to cover design when they are otherwise comfortable with the manuscript. Writing is done. Editing is to the light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel stage. The author knows his book inside and—well, not quite out. That’s what the cover designer is for!

When authors try to take on cover design at the same time that they are writing or editing their manuscript, they tend to get overwhelmed. When the author is overwhelmed, the cover designer doesn’t have a firm direction to follow.

And what about the title? Does that have to be nailed down?

The title, Emily says, is very important for your cover designer to work on spacing and layout. Try to turn your title in to your designer as soon as possible.

We diverged from my questions for a moment…

To gab about trends in the publishing industry (specifically, the movement of self-publishing from the “loving hands at home” look to the “hyper-professional, indistinguishable from a traditionally published book” look).

Sara opened my mind to this insight: not only is the publishing world changing, the people who work in publishing are changing how they work. Designers aren’t holed up at traditional publishing firms anymore. They’re out in the world, taking on their own clients, becoming their own bosses, and even seating themselves as CEOs of their own specialty businesses.

Then got back on track with this question:

What’s the downside of NOT working with a professional book cover designer?

For starters, you lose the personal connection that designers invest in you and your book. A professional designer is going to talk deeply about your book with you before they start designing, and they are going to be with you through several revisions. On sites like 99Designs, Fiver, and Upwork, the available artists are just looking for a quick, one-shot commission.

Another thing: people who design books are different from people who design other things. Artistic talent or mad Photoshop skill does not qualify you to make a book cover. Book cover designers need to understand fonts, how to make a spine look right, barcodes…

So how can you tell an expert cover designer from an amateur? What should you look for? 

First off, your designer should ask you some questions. What should readers feel when they pick up your book? What ideas need to jump out? What colors do you fancy?

Next (and for Sara, this was a biggie), the designer needs to have the guts to say “hey, that’s not going to work.” A yes-man isn’t doing his job as a designer. He’s letting the author do his job, and that results in a faulty product.

Finally, you should see some evidence that the designer is doing market research. Sara puts together a design brief of covers from similar bestselling novels on Amazon and shows it to her authors. She uses the covers they like and don’t like to guide her own design process.

Is there one last thing authors should know about cover designers?

This was a great one! Sara wanted to let all you authors out there know, “Even on a budget, there’s always a way to work with a real designer.”

That’s what I call a happily ever after!

To get in touch with Sara Stratton, visit her website or shoot her an email at sara@redwooddigitalpublishing.com.




The Money Beets

I subscribe to the Money Beet Theory of writing as defined by Dwight Schrute in The Office.

Put the good stuff up front. What’s in it for the reader? Don’t tell them about you, tell them about themselves. What’s in it for them? Where do your common interests lie? Where can you build a bridge? Put your most compelling reasons/best arguments up front. Hooke them early. Don’t be shy, we all know why we’re here. And for goodness sake, run a comb through your hair.


All I Really Need to Know I Learned Surfing

– Take the first decent wave. The search for the BBD (bigger better deal) means you’re scared or caught up in perfection. Don’t waste your time in the water floating.


– You will wipe out, you will get water up your nose, your hair will look stupid, you will pick the wrong major, rack up credit card debt or marry the wrong person. It’s ok, there’s another wave right behind this one. Paddle back out and try again.


– Someone else will always be better than you and for a long time everyone else will be better than you. That’s ok, surf your own wave.


– Find a good teacher like Mary of Girl in the Curl, learn the basics, then go play. You don’t need an expert at your side all the time. You’ve got this.


– Try every day, even when it’s windy, cold, small, your friends can’t go, you’re tired, it’s crowded, there’s a shark – wait, I take that back. If there’s a shark, take a day off.


– If you show up in a sailor hat or mohawk, you better be good. When you call that much attention to yourself, be sure there’s something there to back it up.


– Share your waves. Every wave can be a party wave. There’s always room for one more. If you don’t share, people will give you unflattering nicknames and hate you forever.


– If Miniature George Hamilton is a total jerk, flip him off in your mind and move on. Do not under any circumstances say the F-word in front of your children because they will ask you every single day for the rest of your life if you’re going to stay it again.


– Do hard things. Surf big waves. Surf with people better than you and someday you’ll be those people.


– Wear flip-flops and get a pedicure even if you have man feet. Wear sunscreen to avoid matching your man feet with a face like a leather satchel.


– Carry waterproof paper and a pen in your wetsuit because all your best ideas will happen on the water.


– Find mentors in the water and watch them. Watch where they line up, watch which waves they take and which ones they pass. Watch how they ride the wave and how they end it. Hint: they are Hawaiian and never wearing a sailor hat.


– A sunset on the water will cure almost anything.


Build with word and trucks

How a Book Builds Your Personal Brand and Business

We’ve seen it happen so we know it’s true, but sometimes it can be tough to put your finger on a book’s ROI.

  • A book puts you head and shoulders above your contemporaries—you’ve done something impressive and, most importantly, tangible.
  • The act of putting together the direction and content shows you have something unique to say–you’re not just a garden variety consultant, financial planner, CPA, entrepreneur, wellness professional, coach, blogger, podcaster, etc.
  • Everyone understand the expertise a book demonstrates unlike another in the string of alphabet soup of designations following your name.
  • The cache of being an author in your field opens doors allowing you to increase the visibility of the stages you speak from, up level your clients, and raise your fees.
  • You’re now a media expert in your field, an author on that specific subject.
  • Authoring a book raises your profile among colleagues and complementary businesses opening opportunities not offered to others.
  • You own a spot in the office of everyone who bought or was given your book. Books don’t get thrown away. Your contact information is always easily found on the bookshelf.
  • Books serve as the jumping off point for seminars, workshops, courses, and retreats. The time and brain power serves as a base for a myriad of other revenue generating products and services.
  • You are now introduced as an author, not just another consultant, financial planner, CPA, entrepreneur, wellness professional, coach, blogger, podcaster, etc.


A book does all this for decades, literal decades. If the cover ages the book, update it and keep trucking. If you’re ready for some professional help becoming an author, contact us at 949 940-6832.


Book Coaching v. Ghostwriting on The Saas Business Podcast


I had a great time swapping thoughts with the insightful Ron Gaver, from SAAS Business Podcast. After talking through my journey from lawyer to ghostwriter with Ron, our conversation flowered into a more general discussion of the ghostwriting business and how to succeed as a writer.

Always one with the tough questions,  Ron asked what made me qualified to be a ghostwriter. My background is a little unique in the writing field; I have a degree in law, but I have found that the skills I learned in law school dovetail neatly into ghostwriting. I was trained to bring light to relevant details and focus on a single storyline that connected the salient information to the result I advocated–just like I do with books.

Ron also asked dove into the difference between book coaching and ghost writing. As a book coach, I help authors set goals for their books, outline the chapters, power through the writing deadlines, and review the finished product. As a ghostwriter, I spend some time talking with my authors, soaking up their experiences, ideas, and voice and then pen to paper and actually write the book.

Of course the discussion turned to publishing, the $10 million dollar question. Here’s a little primer on self-publishing, traditional publishing, and the ambiguous “hybrid” publishing.

Self-publishing is great for writers who want to use their book to network or create an image of expertise. The stigma against self-publishing is fading. It’s not the redheaded stepchild in the corner anymore. If done well, a self-published book is indistinguishable from a book that rolled right off the Penguin press.

Traditional publishing is ideal for writers who want to be on the NY Times bestseller list. Traditional publishers still dominate access to the big, brick-and-mortar distributors. They also have more marketing power.

Hybrid publishing is good for writers who want (and can subsidize) the best of both worlds. For the right price, a writer can get “traditional” treatment through a hybrid publisher, hit the best seller list, and keep much of the margin while selling the book.

Cheating Passing Notes Pic

Is Ghostwriting Cheating?

Nope. If I have an idea for a business venture and enlist the help of a coach, contractor, branding expert, web designer and even my kiddo to lick envelopes, it’s still my business –  my concept, my drive, my execution and my final product with my name on it.

In the same way you’re not a cheater when you enlist the help of an editor, cover designer, PR person, a publicist, or Bob the shipping guy down at FedEx, a writing partner is just part of your execution team. You dreamed up this book. It’s in your voice, full of your wisdom and experience, and tied directly to your brand. It’s your book no matter who picked up the pen.

All creation is co-creation. Lone wolves are just that, wolves. The rest of us do our best work in community.


We’re Hiring!

Work from Home Sales Professional—Must Love Books!

We conceive, write, design and publish books—it’s really fun stuff. We are looking for a sales professional who can help reach out to specific industries/market segments and help them see how a book can fit into their vision.


You: love books, love to talk about books, are comfortable making cold calls to talk to about books, and like to interact with people in varying industries like professionals, speakers, and directors of non-profits. You also bring your innovative ideas to the table.


We: have a great product, a system for outreach, and a solid list. Love innovative ideas and run with them.


You’ll need a computer, internet and a phone—and some quiet.


Compensation based on experience.


Apply by sending a short voice recording about why this position is interesting to you to Emily (at) ChaseSmithPress.com. Talk about books, your favorite books, and your history of selling.  Don’t bother with a resume, we want to know you.


Let It Be Junk

I was talking with a friend the other day. He’s an incredibly insightful life coach with a fascinating backstory who’s been attempting to write his book for over a year. He mentioned he’s tried to start 3 times, but he just gets stuck. He doesn’t know where to start. He spends 45 minutes and only comes out with a sentence.


We set aside the book talk and just chatted. He in the middle of a story about how he moved from his day job, which would be a dream job to most, into being a coach and the period of intense dissatisfaction he felt he stopped and said, “That’s the start of my book!”


While he was talking about the things that mattered to him, a turning point in his life, he knew. Why couldn’t he get there on his own – it was his story after all.


It turns out his mother was an English teacher. Every time he sat down to write he heard her in his head. “Don’t start a sentence with but or because. Is a lot one word or two? Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.”


I asked him if he gave himself permission to suck. The answer was no. I told him that I had a secret fear that one of my ghostwriting clients would see a first draft I’d written and promptly fire me – that’s how bad it is.


Every work of art starts with pencil lines. Every book worth publishing is gravely embarrassing in its first iteration. Give yourself a break and just vomit on the page. Stephen King says a second draft is a first draft less 10%. Get a lot out on the page and clean it up later. This is practice, not the World Series. Allow yourself to suck.


Red Harley Sportster Pic

Taking My Place at the Bottom of the Food Chain

Visions of Vespas and front row parking danced in my head as I signed up for a motorcycle class at the local community college. The vintage green scooter with the surf rack must have obscured my better judgment when I picked a weekend in August, in California, on asphalt, and in boots, jeans, gloves and a long sleeved shirt. I blame everything that happened next on my heat stroke addled brain.


The first evening of the class was held in a comfortably air conditioned room and started innocuously with introductions. Reasons for taking the course ranged from learning to ride on the freeway to clearing a violation for not having a motorcycle license. Our teacher, Doc, spent three hours teaching us motorcycle safety, but all I heard is 257 ways to get killed riding a motorcycle. Doc’s gems included, “whether the ball hits the window or the window hits the ball, the window pays the price” and “humans are at the top of the food chain, and bikers are at the bottom.”


My favorite question came from the Jersey boy, Jared, in the row behind me sporting a gold necklace and two diamond earrings. He asked, “what if I’m just running up to the store to get a pack of cigarettes in the middle of the night? Do I need to wear boots?”  Leave it to Jared put the old axiom ‘there is no stupid question’ to bed for all time.  To his credit, Doc fielded the question like a pro. The rule is, “all the gear all the time or take the car.” He went on to paint a picture of Jared hopping on his motorcycle in the middle of the night to get his fix wearing flip-flops. Going 40 miles an hour, Jared hits a rock and lays over his bike. The result is a meat sandwich – the asphalt and bike are the bread and Jared’s ankle is the smoked turkey. A compelling visual. I felt like we should also break out the slides of cancerous lungs, but one step at a time.


Among other protective riding gear Doc talked about armor – pieces of metal placed at strategic bony points on the body like knees, ankles and knuckles. Doc told a story of getting the freeway and the car in front of him kicking up a rock that hit him on his index finger knuckle. It felt like a shot and if Doc had not been wearing armored gloves, he was sure his finger would’ve been taken off. It was about this time that I began to seriously reconsider my Vespa decision. Even the lure of endless parking may not be enough.


We then went out to the lava pit for the riding portion – ten hours on pavement so hot it melted the glue in my classmate’s boots – not Jared’s of course because he didn’t show up. The fancy hand and footwork required to ride a motorcycle includes a clutch, gearshift, throttle, front and rear brakes and is a lot like dancing the samba with a robot. We didn’t have to deal with mirrors – all the previous crashes took them all off.


We spend hours weaving through cones, practicing swerves and fast stops. For a beginner like me who was still trying to figure out how to stay upright, it was fantastic and when we hit 15 MPH it required my full concentration.

We spent 10 total hours at speeds approaching 20 MHP riding in circles, shifting, stalling, and turning and not one person – even the total newbies dropped their bike. We did, however, spend a lot of time honking at each other while trying to signal a left-hand turn. Those buttons are really close together.


Then the clipboards came out and we took our driver’s test. I passed with non-failing colors after wiping out a few cones that apparently didn’t represent pedestrians. The whole class passed and celebrated with an ice cold water under a pop-up tent. At the graduation ceremony the instructor, Dan, said something that changed my life forever. “These are perishable skills. If you don’t practice them, you’ll lose them.”


The next day I swung by the Harley dealership and made it official. I bought at red Sportster and enough gear to break up a prison riot. But I had tell my mother about it via text because I’m not THAT brave.






Maybe I Should Have Started Freebasing Heroin Instead

The kids and 10,000 YouTube videos wore me down and made promises my carpet wouldn’t see kept. We got a puppy. It’s surprisingly difficult to actually get your hands on an actual puppy in Southern California. The shelter waiting period is longer than one for a handgun—they clearly think you’re starting a dog fighting ring. In the end, we found an ad in the furniture section of Craigslist that was entirely in Spanish except for the word “beagle,” and our fate was sealed.


I sent an email in Spanish to which the family responded by having their English-speaking father call me. Clearly, I can’t pass for a Spanish speaker even in writing.


Here are the good things about having a puppy:

  • Extreme cuteness
  • Shiny black nose
  • Saintly sleeping


Here are the bad things about having a puppy:

  • Every other thing on the face of the earth


You know when you buy a 1982 Mitsubishi Eclipse and add the $500 rims and now you need an LED underbody kit and a horn that plays “La Bamba”? No? Me neither, but when you get a puppy, now you need a collar, tag, shots, deworming, crate, playpen, and a horn that plays “La Bamba.” A dog picked up full of fleas and worms from inner- city Oakland racks up enough expense to outfit an Eclipse pretty quickly. It’s like a baby without the shower gifts.


I work at home, so now I have a companion. She’s like every annoying office colleague I’ve ever had rolled into one. Ashley who eats your yogurt—the puppy eats your furniture. Melissa who won’t stop talking—puppies have seventy-five different ways of getting your attention, all of which include copious quantities of noise. And Elaine’s messy files have nothing on a pile of crap under the dining room table.


Like babies, God tricks you into a puppy with cuteness and takes away your better judgment with sleep deprivation or the streets would be filled with Moses in the bulrushes baskets of puppies. Take the dog and the money’s yours. You can even resell them on Craigslist, but try the pet section this time.