Making Your Promo Images Sparkle

Okay, so setting a GIF as a featured image on a blog post is a bit over the top. But promo images are all part and parcel in the indie author’s marketing wheelhouse. As writers and not graphic designers, it’s hard to dedicate the time (or money if you’re outsourcing) to pretty pictures when words need to be written. But in a dwindling world of organic visibility, it pays to be on trend when it comes to marketing.

Now I’m no expert when it comes to graphics. I’m just an author muddling along trying to attract some eyeballs, but I have been experimenting with GIFs in preparation for a big promotional push I’m planning later this month.

Because the competition is fierce out there

Those lovely static 3d mockups aren’t quite as impressive now, and social media is increasingly embracing video in feeds. I don’t spend a lot of time on Facebook. But when I scroll? Inevitably I pause at a food prep video and watch people make things I have no intention of ever cooking. Same thing happen to you?

Now when I first looked at ways to animate a promo image, I looked at a blog post from Derek Murphy which mentioned glitterboo.com so I raced straight over. This online tool was pretty nifty, and for a yearly subscription of $8.99 you can add as much bling as you like to pictures you upload.

Here’s the result of one I was planning around with, and it came up pretty well. I could have spent more time on it and added different glittery things, but I set it aside to get some other things done. Now if you only want to invest fifteen minutes and a few dollars, there is nothing wrong with this option. And with what I know now, I could have made this image look a lot cleaner with the book image sitting over the top of the sparkles.

But I wanted… more!

Well actually, I saw an ad on Instagram which caught my attention. I thought I’d give Pixaloop a try, and after spending time sending images back and forth from my phone to laptop (annoying, but more on that later) I ended up with this.

Bling on a big scale. And that hypnotic loop in the background was what I was looking for when I began this venture. And yes, my book will be free in a few weeks time!

So don’t do what I did.

Pixaloop is a mobile app and I imported the promo image and began playing around with the filters. Then I dug out a forgotten stylus to try and get the lines clean around the book image. Then I started grinding my teeth and looked for a PC equivalent. More frustration. I went back to the drawing board and imported just the background image into the app and chose the overlay I liked.

See how dark this is? The overlay brightened it up, but you still want it to be sitting back in terms of focus for the overall image. I used the same background from my book cover and turned down the brightness. I did this in Affinity Designer, but there are other image tools you could use to do this.

So Pixaloop itself is free… with the option to go premium and get extra features. I did not go premium, and the basic elements are pretty decent. There are some tutorials on how to create what effect, moving water, overlays, sparkles etc when you set up the app.

14 Enlight Pixaloop Alternatives & Similar Apps – Top Best ...

Oh hold on, wait a minute, I could only export a video and not a GIF on a basic plan? No problem, ezgif.com had me covered. There’s a surprising suite of features there, all free, to convert video to GIF, compress files, resize, and so forth. All of which were super simple to use.

promo images

So next came the trickier part.

Which may be difficult to achieve without image editing software. But not impossible. If you haven’t checked my post on Affinity Designer, see if this doesn’t sway you to try out their 90 day free trial. What I needed was a transparent overlay to stick over the GIF, also done on ezgif.com.

The 3D book mock up came from diybookcovers.com which is an awesome resource, completely free. The Amazon logo came from a google search (images) and was a transparent file to start with. So the only thing I added was the ‘free on’ (I changed what was pictured below) and saved the image as a transparent png file.

promo image overlay

And now I have a promo image which is a little more pause-worthy!

I’ve had to do more playing around with sizes and am trying to navigate the world of Facebook ads. But that is a whole other topic. You may also want to know how I got them onto my website, particularly as a featured image which doesn’t support GIFs.

So maybe that was a touch of pride. I couldn’t bring myself to write a post on sparkles and have the featured image come up static on my feeds. But it is important to note you can host your GIFs on places like gifyu.com free and use the URL’s to post them on your blog. Using them as a featured image required the Featured Image From URL plugin, and as I said at the start, I think that’s a little over the top. But if it floats your boat, I’m not judging.

What I’ve Been Reading in June

So my reading in June wasn’t too patchy, and I have four titles to share with you today. Two are by people who I regularly see around on Twitter, and the others belong to the megaverse, Magic and Mayhem.

what I've been reading in june

Emma and the Minotaur

By Jon Herrera was quite an enchanting tale of a young girl and a sinister forest. As a bit of a daydreamer, the reader keeps guessing for a while about the fantasy elements, but the situation unfolds in a way which the grown ups can’t ignore.

There are some truly beautiful moments for Emma. A budding friendship, the discovery of music inspired magic and a father just trying to protect her. I’m looking forward to seeing where this series takes us as Emma grows into her powers.

what i've been reading in june

Sombre

By S.B. Norton was a mammoth effort in word building. A teen who is trying to get by at school by day and steps into a nighmarish world at night where she is tasked with collecting nightmarers.

The world of Sombre is hellish, with everything out to destroy, and with its macarbe descriptions and a chop shop of tangled limbs it was quite a page turner. When the world of Sombre spills into the waking world an unlikely friendship forms, which was a very appealing part of the story.

what I've been reading in june

Switching Hour

By Robyn Peterman is the first title in the Magic and Mayhem series which has gone on to be it own megaverse. Other authors have hopped into this word to write their own stories by invitation. I believe it is permafree, or at least it is free at the moment, as there has been a coordinated release of twenty new titles.

I doubt I will go on to read the rest of this series… it just didn’t really float my boat. A lot of humor rested on wordplay and quips which was fine, but the story was a little lacking. But hey, it had over 700 reviews on Amazon so don’t let me be the authority on whether its read-worthy!

Cougar on a Hot Tin Roof

By Debra Dunbar is the reason I stepped into the Magic and Mayhem world. I love Debra’s books, and enjoyed this title more than Robyn’s. Only weighing in at 120ish pages, it’s on the light side but included plenty of story and suspects. I probably spent a lot more time considering ‘whodunit’ which is the point of a cozy mystery.

I wasn’t a fan of the instalove element with the warlock at the cafe, but I’m guessing this is a theme across the megaverse. But Debra does funny well. She doesn’t just have her characters say quippy things, she puts them in situations which lends itself to a giggle.

So that’s what I’ve been reading in June! I’ve got a fair few more on my TBR pile so I’m hoping to bring you more titles next month (some of them non-fic… it’s been a while!). Still looking for your next read? Check out last month’s post and see if you can’t find something there that tickles your fancy.

Jitterball – Furious Fiction June

Titled Jitterball because… Well this is my thirteenth entry to Furious Fiction, and I need to stop naming these posts by month! I almost didn’t get this story done, and wasn’t sure at the start of the weekend if I was even going to try, but I just couldn’t break my streak!

Again, I bring you a Gretchen and Nora tale, and I was surprised to learn Nora was a rusted-on fan of the game Jitterball.

This month’s criteria;

  • Each story’s first and last words had to begin with J.
  • Each story had to include a game being played.
  • Each story had to include the phrase MISS/MISSED THE BOAT.

“Jumping jellyfish! Is that even allowed?” Gretchen pitched her voice so Nora could hear her over the roaring crowd.

Nora kept her eyes on the field below where the team of goblins were gaining on the ogres. A particularly squat ogre lay prone on the grass, and Gretchen imagined he would sport a mean headache for the rest of the week.

“He took him on.” Nora held up her arms, clenching her teeth. 

A goblin streaked forward, a leather ball tucked under his armpit, and narrowly avoided a defender before scampering up a tree on their scoring end. As he cleared the dense branches toward the wide nest at the top, the ogres launched smaller balls in the goblin’s direction. Nora clawed Gretchen’s arm and hissed.

“Since when have you been a fan of jitterball, anyhow?” Gretchen winced as one of the smaller balls smacked the goblin’s shoulder. He wavered, and the crowd fell to silence, then he planted the ball into the nest and howled with victory.

Nora flew out of her seat with a screech. When she sat down with a wide grin, she turned to Gretchen as the field rearranged themselves to prepare for the new ball. “You should have seen me back in my heyday. I had plans on making it to the major league.”

Gretchen snorted. “Well, I think you missed the boat on that one.”

From their vantage in the nosebleeds, Gretchen watched the spectators grumble and shuffle in their seats. The odds were on the ogres, and she figured Nora was the only person who’d placed a wager on the goblins. Although knowing nothing about jitterball, Gretchen had seen goblins climb trees, and thought the bookkeepers daft for favouring the stockier species.

The referee blew his horn, then things happened too quickly for Gretchen to keep up. Ogres tackled goblins to the ground, the ball lying forgotten on the turf. They herded the battered goblins toward the middle and piled them into a mass of writhing limbs. One ogre meandered to the ball. 

Nora growled, but Gretchen didn’t write the green guys off. She waited, watching even as the others screeched at the ogres to pick up the pace, until the goblins broke free and swarmed ahead. Their speed caught the ogres off guard, and one goblin snatched the ball while the others ran interference, running every which way, their elbows out like they each had the ball. By the time it became clear which of them held the real deal, he was already halfway up the tree. 

The goblins on the ground joined the fray and pelted the ogres with smaller balls. Gretchen thought the outcome was a forgone conclusion when a chorus of drums sounded behind them. Nora spun with a murderous glare, and the sound of the horn on the field announced the end of the match just as the goblin emerged at the top of the tree.

The referee held his arm toward the victorious ogres and bellowed, “Jitterball!”

Well there you have it.

I may have to include a game of Jitterball in the series. For those who’d like more information on the (free) Furious Fiction short story competition, check out the Australian Writers Centre and sign up to get your prompts delivered each month.

Or take a look at my Short Stories page where I keep all my entries cataloged.

Keeping Early Literacy a Journey of Discovery

I have a four year old daughter with an awesome imagination. Perhaps she will grow up and want to write stories of her own. But she’s the kind of gal who has ants in her pants, and I can’t quite picture her hammering away at the keyboard for hours on end.

I’m not a perfect mum. Find me one who is. I may have a diploma in children’s services, but that doesn’t mean that I always keep up with the recommendations for reading with pre-schoolers. The fact is, my daughters favorite books are ones on a smaller scale to Where’s Wally, and we almost always get too distracted to read the words.

But literacy and learning to love the world of words does not have to happen solely on the pages of picture books. And a little bit of something every day can soon amount to something amazing.

Every night when I put my daughter to bed, we tell each other stories. It’s been like that for years. It usually begins with ‘once upon a time’ and inevitably features a little girl. The rest, though, is up to our imaginations.

We have a new routine though, and it has permeated the rest of her little world. And it all started with phonics. Each night we decide which animals ‘letters’ we will do and I give her the sound of each letter one by one.

This wasn’t something I introduced.

She was interested in letters and it just evolved. And I ran with it.

There were some (crankier) nights when she would get frustrated. She still stumbles over G and I gently ask her what’s after F. I’m starting to struggle thinking up with animals we haven’t done yet.

But she has a handle now on what each letter sounds like and can breeze through most of the alphabet. We found a good (and yes, cheesy ) clip on YouTube by Jack Hartman which was very popular for a while, and a good introduction to the concept.

And now? She comes up to me several times a day with things like ‘B is for baby’. Sometimes these aren’t quite right, and we talk through the sounds, but she has organic interest in the makeup of words without the struggle to get her to sit still for five minutes.

I still remember having a conversation years ago with a parent who told me he was teaching his 3yo twins to read. He spent a lot of time reading The Lord of the Rings to them, and was convinced they were starting to learn to read the words. And sometimes this can be ‘true’. If you show a child a word and tell them what is is enough, they will be able to identify it. But they won’t understand why.

Which is literacy at its core.

Understanding how and why a word is put together. And it starts with phonics. We all know the English language can be infuriatingly confounding, but there are baseline rules around sound and words that form the foundation of understanding.

The hard part is keeping them interested.

And inevitably, if a parent tries too hard to push something, they’ve sucked the fun out of it. And the child will learn less from the experience. I do subscribe to the Montessori philosophy of learning. Children should be able to move through their environment and learn as a process of discovery.

Which is why I won’t beat myself up for not meeting my picture book quota. I’m not trying to fob them off as unimportant. But getting hung up on one way to achieve good literacy skills isn’t helpful. For parent or child.

Affinity Designer: A Lightweight Photoshop

I’m not sure calling Affinity Designer lightweight is entirely fair, but in terms of price, it’s a fraction of the cost of a Photoshop subscription. As a self-published author, having access to software capable of producing decent graphics, whether it be for blogs, book covers, or simply social media promo images is critical.

And having the right tools for the job makes life a lot easier.

When I set out using free options, I was forever asking Google questions about where I could do something specific to an image. Even something as simple as how to save a round image was a saga and took me away from writing for too long. And then there’s all those times I went to Fiverr to get some work done. The header on gretchensmisadventures.com was done by a graphic designer, and I changed it a few times, each costing $15AU or so.

For that price, I could have brought Affinity Designer and done it myself.

But live and learn. I have the software now, and I had to share it because it’s an amazing tool at a fantastic price. I was close to taking the plunge and getting the 7 day trial of Adobe Cloud, the subscription service for Photoshop, but at $10 per month (US), I couldn’t justify the price tag against the other very real costs of running a self-published author biz. Not for pretty pictures. And I’m not a fan of the subscription model.

So I went back to Google and asked them another question…

The best alternatives to Photoshop. And an article by Digital Trends had me covered. Now in the article it weighs up the pros and cons of various software, with some of the language incomprehensible to those not versed in graphic design. But Affinity Photo came up as a clear winner. Now you’ll notice that I’m talking about Affinity Designer. These are two different programs. As I understand it, Affinity Photo has more bells and whistles in terms of the photo stuff, but Affinity Designer is a more complete design software.

I headed over to their website and signed up for a 90 day free trial. Much better than the 7 on offer from Adobe. The article on Digital Trends talks about the software costing $80 to buy outright, I assumed in US, and I was prepared to cough up the money if I really liked the product.

But lo and behold, after playing around for a week or so, I clicked in through the software when it brought up a ‘buy now’ box, and it offered a 50% discount. Wow. $40, assuming in US, for an alternative to Photoshop that I own forever. Wait up. At checkout… it came up as $39AU.

To put that in context I think the AU dollar is 65ish cents on US, so I was expecting something closer to $60. The Adobe subscription would undoubtedly been in US currency, so I have a Photoshop quality software for the price of a three month subscription with Adobe.

It even beats the likes of Canva!

I use Canva a lot. It’s great for knocking stuff together, and I’ll likely keep using it for some social media images. The ‘free’ option has less images on offer (with the option to buy premium at $1 per piece) but you can’t do much more than drag and drop stuff. Their paid version only offers so much more in tools (background removal, premium images etc) and I’m pretty sure that’s $17US per month. I just don’t use enough images to justify the spend.

And no more creating books covers in Word!

Which is totally doable, and Derek Murphy covers this in a YouTube series here. Derek is awesome, and I’ve made plenty of covers on Word. But after putting more than two covers in one doc, my computer tends to have a tantrum, and everything is a lot slower and more painful. Needless to say, it also does less in terms of features.

After downloading Affinity Designer, don’t be daunted by all the buttons…

Affinity designer

I don’t know what most of them do either. But I know enough to see me through. And when I don’t? There are bucket loads of clips of YouTube which can show you around the software, and how to do specific things in a step by step format. Which was one of my worries, how much support this software would have vs Photoshop. But there is plenty out there, and thriving forums which answer most of my questions when I ask Google ‘how do I…’.

A top tip though, is to ask Google for free ‘styles’ for Affinity designer. There are very generous souls out there who have uploaded style packs to download free which can turn your text into any number of cool textures. Metals, fire, fabric; everything’s covered.

To show you what kind of difference this has made…

This image I put together on Canva. On a black background because I didn’t have the tools to remove the background all together. Which was a different shade to the site itself. It was a matter of sticking things on top of each other and hoping it all worked. It did its job, but this could have looked a lot better (and professional) if I had Affinity back then.

Now this may be a matter of taste on which is better, but this is a transparent image (no background color, so the image will sit perfectly on any website) with blended layers so the texture of the parchment comes through the image on top. I left it in gray scale as the artwork came that way, and I rather like it.

And that’s really just a snapshot and a comparable two images. I’ve learned how to make neon text, downloaded a billion new fonts which doesn’t slow the software down (unlike Word) and can successfully crop people from backgrounds and stick them somewhere new. And no more going to cool text generators to put together fancy text, I can do that myself now. I have saved time and money, both of which are finite for the average writer.

I highly suggest you take a look at the free trial to see whether this will be a game changer for your graphics. Let me know if you do cool things with it, I’d love to take a look.