Writing a Bestselling Series, Chapter 14: Choosing my Covers

In 1998 and 1999, I found myself in an odd place.  I had advised one of my publishers to push Harry Potter big, and I was filled with anticipation about that. I was writing little Star Wars game books as fast I could, and I was invited to write a novel based upon an old movie script written by L. Ron Hubbard.  But I was worried about my career.

I had deep concerns about my relationship with my editor, and I wanted to get those worked out and see if I could patch up my relationship.  At about that time, he told me that my publisher was considering whether or not to push my fantasy series as a “super lead” title.  This would have given me a lot more visibility on the shelves and perhaps even a decent promotional budget.  That all sounded great, but it didn’t seem likely to happen.  Part of The problem of course was that my publisher already had a couple of other super-lead authors, and so working in a third one—someone who would get six months of promotion in a year, seemed hard to schedule.  Then of course there was the question of, “Would my editor support me?”

Well, some meetings were held, and after a few months it was decided that the books wouldn’t get that big promotion.  So I had to begin to wonder: How can an author push his works big when the publisher doesn’t seem willing to put any muscle behind a series?

I think that every author should be thinking about this with every series.  Some authors will write a tepid series, do nothing to promote it, and wonder why they aren’t making the big bucks.  I just wanted to figure out how to break in well.  In other words, you ask yourself, “How can I push my books so big that my publisher takes notice?”

Now, I’d written a story that I thought could be translated into other mediums.  At the time, I saw movies and videogames as also being big possibilities.  Before college, I had played some D&D with my little brother and his friends, and I had quickly become interested in developing my own games.  So when I saw a little article in the newspaper about a local company that was producing videogames, I called them, introduced myself to the president, Les Pardew, and asked if I could have an interview with him.

I met with Les and showed him my first novel in the Runelords series, and I asked how I might be able to see about getting a big fantasy role-playing game made.  He read the book, as did several of his employees, and decided to take a shot at it.  But, he said, “I think that before I can sell this to a big company, you need to get a reputation as a videogame designer.”  I asked how to go about that, and he said that perhaps there was a way that I could do it.  He asked if I was any good at writing proposals.  Well, while working as an editor at BYU, I had helped dozens of professors write proposals that had brought in millions of dollars in grants, and I think I’d learned how to do it pretty well.

So the next day or two I worked on a proposal for a game called Starcraft: Brood War.  This wasn’t hard, since I was working with Alan Tew and some other talented game designers and technicians.  Les explained that if the proposal was accepted, he would have me work as co-leader of the design team.  The idea was simple.  The first game in the StarCraft world was very good, but it wasn’t well balanced.  So we proposed to fix it.  We faxed it in to the folks at Blizzard, and they accepted it with neck-breaking speed.  Now, being co-leader on the design team was a pretty easy job.  All that I did was come up with ideas for the game.

For example, in my novel Brotherhood of the Wolf, I had gone into a lot of work designing my reavers.  I had taken some of the inspiration for them from insects, including the ant lion.  My reavers would dig themselves underground, then wait for prey to bumble along, at which point they would leap out from under the dirt and pounce.  So just for kicks, I suggested a similar thing in the game for creatures that we called “Zerg lurkers.”

One of the problems that Starcraft had was that the humans died too easy.  So Les suggested that we develop better armor or heavier guns, but those were the first two ideas that came to mind, so I suggested a third alternative: better medics.

At the time, nothing like the Zerg lurkers or medics had been used in such games, but each of my ideas created a lot of excitement in the industry, and when the game was released in the fall of 1998, it became a wild hit.  For a time, I heard that it was listed as the #3 bestselling game of all time, and even today when I see newsclips about the world championship videogame competitions in China and Korea, where videogame players are virtual rockstars, they’re usually playing my game in the final competition.

So I began doing a little work with the company Saffire, writing proposals, designing, and scripting some videogames on the side.  I have to say, though, that I made a mistake.  When my fellow workers on Starcraft came and asked how I wanted my credits to read on Brood War, I said, “Ah, don’t give me any.  I’m a novelist, not so much into games.”  That was dumb.  The whole purpose of this was to build a rep as a videogame designer, and I didn’t bother taking any credit.  Always remember to take credit on your work.  Particularly in Hollywood, others will try to steal it to you.  In some industries, it’s as good as gold.

I also decided to look into film production.  I lived very close to where the Sundance film festival was held, and I began attending, meeting up with other writers, directors, and producers.  I found that they were a fun and energetic group of people, very much like my nerdy writer friends, except that they were involved with a collaborative art.

One thing that I decided to try was artwork.  A few works earlier, I’d had dinner with Ian Ballantine, who had founded Ballantine books.  He was the publisher of, among other fine books, The Lord of the Rings.  So at the dinner I asked “What is the one most valuable thing that you have ever done to promote a book?”  He raised his hands for silence and said, “Finally, after 40 years, someone asks an intelligent question.”  Then he said, “Back in the mid-60s, there were a lot of college student giving Lord of the Rings a lot of word-of-mouth advertising, but then sales slacked off by the 1970s.  So I started that Lord of the Rings art contest, creating calendars based on the series.  Now, I didn’t sell a lot of calendars. They would come back to me all beat up, and I might sell 10,000 of them a year.” (Note, I was one of those 10,000 buyers.) “But I would sell an extra hundred thousand books.  You see, each of those illustrations acted as a new cover, selling the book, sometimes to a person who had bought an earlier edition two or three times before.”

Well, I wasn’t about to argue with Ian, so I hired some of the graphic artists at the videogame company to begin creating some illos for a Runelords calendar.  Now, my goal here wasn’t necessarily to get a calendar made: I wanted to have illustrations that could be used to sell a game, or to go with a movie proposal, or to go with a calendar.  Basically, I was paying for eye candy.

I sent in some of the first illos to my publisher to show them what I was up to.  This was pretty early on, and to my surprise they used one of the illos as an end-paper in the first hardcover in the series, and many people liked it so much, they thought that it would have made a better cover.

Now, my cover artist was Darrell Sweet, the same artist who was illustrating for Terry Brooks, Piers Anthony, and Robert Jordan.  I’d noticed that with my first two novels, that Darrell had picked a couple of spots that I’d rather hoped he would choose to illustrate.  Darrell isn’t like some painters.  Many of them will ask for a descriptive paragraph or two to illustrate.  But Darrell liked to read the whole book and choose his own image.

So I got to wondering: Could I spend a little extra time describing a scene, thus telegraphing what I want him to illustrate?  I recalled him talking about how sales just exploded when he illustrated the cover for Piers Anthony’s book Ogre, Ogre.  It featured a young man looking up at a giant.  I thought, well, let’s see if we can do it again.  So I created a scene where my character Gaborn has an uneasy exchange with a giant, and gave it a little extra TLC.

I have to stop and say here that with Wizardborn, I really did have a lot of fun.  I spent time creating my reavers, developing my magic system in depth, dealing with politics and moral issues, and I really felt that the book came together nicely.

So I finished the book and turned it in, and got one of my favorite reviews of all time.  Publishers Weekly said that “David Farland is a wizard at storytelling, and this book is sure to summon readers back to the store for further installments.”

My attempt at psychically willing my cover artist to choose an illustration worked just fine, and when the book came out, it did great.  My first two novels had been solid bestsellers, but this third one was the first to hit on the New York Times bestseller list.

Oh, yeah, and when Harry Potter came out and got its big push from Scholastic, it did well, too.  In fact, it totally overshadowed me.

So what do I want you to learn from this installment:

  1. You’re in charge of marketing your own series.  Come up with your own plans for pushing yourself big, independently of your publisher.
  2. Always take the credit (or blame) that you’ve earned on projects.
  3. Remember that great artwork is your best asset in selling your novel.  You may be able to ask your art director at a major publisher to provide a list of artists that they frequently use.  You may be able to help direct the illustrator either by providing several possible scenes for them to consider, or by being sneaky and just writing some of those key scenes exceptionally well.



My friend Gary Darby has a new novel up on Amazon, If A Dragon Cries. Make sure to check it out.

Ali Cross was part of a music video put together by Future Publishing House. The video is part of a campaign to bring awareness to the challenges facing childhood literacy and to provide a solution to them. There are a lot of great writers in it. You can watch it on Youtube, and please help share it.

This year’s Writers of the Future anthology is up for only $.99 cents. You can pick up a copy here.

As always, don’t forget about my live writing workshops coming up this fall.

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