Jan 29, 2024 | Business

It is the world’s best marketing technique.

It seduces the rich, and bewitches the poor.

Men want it. And women wan men who have it.

And it doesn’t take a genius to understand it. You can sum up the concept in a single word—a word that doesn’t even need to be spoken. In fact, you shouldn’t speak it. You should merely create the proper conditions for other people to think it. Which they will, as soon as they see it.

Because that’s what the sight of it does. It demands to be named, even silently, the moment it is seen. Which is how I know you’ve already thought it at least three times since starting this article.

The word has a crunch to it, like a firecracker. It sizzles and pops alights as it delights. And if I were selling something to you right now, I would keep on teasing, never allowing all this buildup to release until you clicked the buy button.

But because you are here not as a buyer but as a student, I will tell it to you straight: the word is sparkle.

Don’t forget it.

Sparkle vs. Polish

Writing courses—even the ones directed at teaching students how to write books that will sell—never mention sparkle. And while I would like to decry that as a horrendous oversight, there is a historical reason for this trend: in traditional publishing, sparkle is not something the writer can control. For many years, it had nothing to do with writers.

Instead, writers were instructed to learn about polish.

“Better polish that manuscript before you submit it to a publisher,” came the warning to all writers. And the writers heeded it. Polish was what publishers were looking for, so writers learned how to polish.

And because that one-track philosophy persists among writers, I must make a distinction: polish and sparkle are not the same thing. Neither one even needs the other. Many times, a writer’s polished manuscript has not been given the sparkle treatment by the publisher. And, while rare, at times a publisher will take an absolute turd of a manuscript and still wrap it in a veneer of sparkle, like an ugly caddis fly larva in a cocoon of gold dust.

Putting it in the simplest possible terms, polish is a book’s inner beauty and sparkle is a book’s outer beauty. A polished book has tightly worded prose, tightly paced story, organically grown characters, and a gripping storyline.

A sparkly book has excellent typesetting, gorgeous artwork, high-quality paper and binding, and a cover to die for.

And while both types of beauty are important for book sales, only one of them can be responsible for the failure of something that deserved to be a bestseller.

Because a book’s inner beauty will never be considered until its outer beauty becomes apparent.

Putting Sparkle on a Book

For a traditionally published author, the amount of sparkle their book will receive is decided by the publisher. Every level of sparkle comes with a cost, and the publisher may decide that certain levels are not worth the investment. A publisher may even pay extra money to remove layers of sparkle from a book if they think it will cause a book to sell too well.

Does that sound insane to you? Then consider the following situation: a publisher is going to launch your book in the next fiscal quarter. During that same fiscal quarter, one of the publisher’s flagship authors will be launching a flagship title. And, though the publisher has already invested a large amount of money in giving sparkle to your book, they can’t help but notice that your book is kind of in the same genre as their flagship title—the title they need to sell gangbusters of to make their balance sheet look good to the higher ups, and whose sales could potentially suffer if that book had a direct competitor, even if that competitor comes from the same publisher.

A meeting gets called. A “thou shalt” gets handed down. And your book gets redesigned to become less attractive.

It has happened. Not just once or twice. The graveyard of tradpub is full of authors whose wings got clipped at the last minute.

And while traditional publishing comes with many disadvantages, this one is the biggest: the author—unless they are a flagship author with numerous bestsellers—has no say in how much sparkle their book gets.

But in fairness to traditional publishing, most self-published authors have little to contribute to their books’ sparkle, too.

Because sparkle, as I stated before, is expensive. And most indie authors don’t have the money to obtain it. Which is a shame because without sparkle a book has no realistic chance of competing in the marketplace.

Yeah, saying that makes me the bad guy. So what? It’s the truth. I wrote a whole blog post two weeks ago linking the generations-long decline in adult readership to the disappearance of illustrations from adult literature, and you nodded along in agreement to every line of that.

But it’s not just illustrations. A book cover needs to be vibrant, inviting, and, yes, expensive looking. For years, the market has been flooded with covers built by people on Fiverr who use the first stock footage they can find. And right now the AI-generated covers are starting to appear—created by people who don’t know how to make AI art look good.

And the books (unsurprisingly) go nowhere. Without sparkle, the war is already lost. With a small amount of sparkle, you’ve got a fighting chance. And with top-level sparkle, you’re a contender.

So how do you give your book sparkle? There are two ways.

Interior Sparkle

I did say sparkle served as the book’s outer beauty.

Allow me to muddy the waters now by describing how to add sparkle to a book’s interior.

The visual beauty of a book’s interior still counts as sparkle. Even without reading the words or understanding what the book’s about, the elegance of the typeface and design of the interior should give the reader (and potential buyer) a taste of the book’s professionalism. And there are several things you can do to achieve this.

First, and most important, is typesetting. No matter how well the book’s wording is constructed, horrible typesetting will make a book unreadable. It will make the reader’s eyes slide off the page, unable to progress through the text, until they throw up their hands and set the book down forever.

This is a tough pill to swallow for many authors. In their many years of reading, they had never considered how important typesetting is. But that’s only because good typesetting is invisible. When reading a book with excellent typesetting, the reader doesn’t even realize he’s reading. That magic moment when you’ve finished a block of pages and can’t remember the words printed on them but you know everything that happened in the story during that span because you lived it inside your mind—that is the result of great typesetting.

A number of other creative design choices can affect a book’s interior sparkle—illustrations being the big one. But other artwork—decorations for the chapter headings, footnotes and marginal artwork, custom symbols, page headers—all contribute to a book’s design and overall look.

But even when it is doing something creative, original, or groundbreaking, the text should still be readable, with wide enough margins and narrow enough paragraphs to allow the reader to glide through the text at an easy pace.

Typesetters, illustrators, and other interior artists are expensive, but their sparkle is real, and readers pay attention.

Exterior Sparkle

The two big ones here are cover art and cover design.

And no, those are not the same thing.

Cover art is an actual painting, photograph, or digital collage of effects to create a single image. Cover design includes the cover art and the title and additional text and the book’s spine and the book’s back cover, with its attendant text and images, as well.

Starting with great art is an advantage, but then you add custom title lettering, and embossing, and foiling, and gilded edges, and bookmark ribbons, and a built-in music box that plays whenever the book is opened, and perfumed pages, and bedazzling, and…and…

Okay, so it’s possible to go overboard. And then you just look like a psycho.

Nevertheless, most published books—traditional or otherwise—suffer from not having enough sparkle. Though, naturally, you don’t want to spell it out for the customer. You’re trying to make them think the words “pretty, shiny, sparkly” before you can utter a word. That is the point of all this.

And once you’ve done that, you don’t need to say anything at all.

A New Sparkle Approaches

My upcoming book—codenamed Project S²—has passed its final draft and is now at the stage where I start putting together its interior design. Illustrators have been hired. Audiobook narrators are recording. The final book is taking form.

And my one objective with this entire process is to give Project S² a level of shine which Advent 9 did not enjoy. That earlier book had a better presentation than most independently published works, made to the best of my novice ability at that time. Yet I was acutely aware that more could be done, though I didn’t have the expertise to do anything about it at the time.

This has led me to take more risks with Project S², and I can tell you right now that the results are going to sparkle. I hope you will stick around long enough to see it.

You may find yourself losing track of time as you look at it.

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