Missing Data

One of the biggest and most frustrating challenges authors face is marketing our books.

Part of the reason for this is that we deal with incomplete or misleading data. That means we’re guessing.

We respond to anecdotes. If someone reports great success with KDP select, we try it. If it falls flat for us, we scratch our heads.

If we hear someone had success placing an ad on this site or that, or their sales bumped after they put out a book trailer, or held a giveaway, or bought a booth at some book fair, we try it. But it’s all groping in the darkโ€”and not the fun kind. As they say, your mileage may vary.

When you’ve done all the right things to move your book and it still doesn’t move, there is a problem. You don’t know what the problem is because you are missing data. It’s not that you don’t have access to enough information, you just don’t have access to the right information.

You need to know exactly what will make a browsing eye stop on your book, and what has to happen next that will trigger a decision to actually buy the book.

It turns out that the human brain is hard-wired to do a lot more things than science had postulated. In many instances, it appears the brain makes decisions before the cognitive phase of thinking occurs.

It is this precognitive or subconscious metric that marketing firms exploit. They spend gazillions of dollars researching the choices people make. Consider this: cola is brown. The labels of the cans the cola come in are almost always red or red and blue. If you are looking for cola and you see a brown can of soda, you are more likely to think root beer than cola, even if it says “cola” on the can.

Think of your book as a product and its appearance as product packaging. It’s on the shelf with all the others. If consumers are buying the others and not yours, something is causing that to happen. They can’t know before reading it that they will like that other book better than yours, but they made the decision to buy that one instead of yours. Why? What were the actual triggers for that decision?

The answer lies somewhere in the information available to the browser. That means there is a difference in one or more of the following areas: book cover, book description, reviews/ratings, and preview pages. That’s all the buyer has to go on. I’m discounting outside influences like enthusiastic recommendations from friends because something made the friend buy the book.

It is likely that your book has considerably less than a second to arrest a browsing eye. Because of that, the book description, reviews/ratings, and preview pages all have the secondary job of closing the sale after you get the buyer’s attention in the first place. This places the onus on the cover itself.

Assuming you have a professional-looking cover, what are the elements that might be considered in the hidden matrix of a brain’s hard-wiring? The cover can be divided into two informational cohorts; text and image. Here are some things I’d like to know about in terms of whether they influence a decision to buy:

What is the optimal position of cover text?
What is the most appealing font style, color, and size?
Does the number of words/syllables affect the decision to purchase?
Do certain letters or numbers more effectively attract the eye?

What color palette/combination most effectively attracts the eye?
Does a photograph as cover art have a higher or lower correlation to sales than graphic art?
Do books with images of the characters sell better than those with some other image?
What is the optimal distribution of cover space between image and text?

I would expect even those eight data points to vary widely between genres. For instance, a top-selling horror title could reasonably be expected to use a darker color palette than a bestseller in chick-lit.

But even more variables are introduced when you make comparisons between the covers of the topsellers with the covers of the other titles available at the very time the purchasing decisions are made. How similar/dissimilar were the competing covers?

The number of variables to be considered is mind-boggling and certainly not in my wheelhouse. However, if you knew, what would you be willing to change about your writing if it meant more sales?

Let’s say that research showed books with protagonists whose names started with the letter “D” far outsold those with heroes whose names started with any other letter. Would you change your character’s names from Kent or Samantha to David or Darielle?

What if the research showed that your name has too many syllables or two few? Would you be willing to publish under a data-defined pseudonym?

Would you be willing to change everything? Anything? At what point then would you still be actually writing instead of responding to data? There is a Russian proverb that translates: That which nourishes me also destroys me.

Please be sure to take our exit survey.

Author: Stephen Hise

Stephen Hise is the Evil Mastermind and founder of Indies Unlimited. Hise is an independent author and an avid supporter of the indie author movement. Learn more about Stephen at his website or his Amazon author page.

30 thoughts on “Missing Data”

  1. Thanks Stephen for a great post. Oh to have the answers! I keep trying to find out ways to market my work and maybe one day I shall discover a secret formula. If so, I’ll be sure to share it with you all.
    Meanwhile, I have tested the cover waters and my next book cover is so bright, I defy anyone not to notice it!

  2. Thanks, Stephen. First off, I’m changing all my characters to Derek and Dereka regardless of genre. Second off, I’m betting the big boys on Madison Ave have data from focus groups etc. How ’bout you and me break in there some night? Meet you at McSorley’s Pub first.
    I’m sure the cover art/photo and text/logline are a major influence on the unreferred purchaser/browser and that most of it is, as you say, unconscious.

    1. Thanks Timothy, I’m sure all the answers are locked up somewhere safe, probably tucked away behind the formula for Coca-Cola. I’ll give you a jingle when my burglar suit gets back from the cleaners.

  3. Ain’t that the truth. Personally, I blame it all on data overload – there’s too much info and too many websites and too many options, and all I want to do is write ***sobs pathetically***

  4. At a recent self-publishing conference in New York there were several examples given of people who had changed their book covers with amazing impact on sales. Unfortunately they were all romance writers who decided to put a picture of either a bare-chested male or a couple in a passionate embrace onto what had previously been a bland cover,,, not a lot of help for anyone who is not a romance writer.
    Maybe I’ll write a mystery called “The bare-chested detective”!

    1. Good point. I think the romance cover formula is pretty well known. It’s all the rest of us that are sort of twisting in the wind. Thanks for the comment. “Bare-Chested Detective” sounds like a winner to me. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  5. I’d love to know the secrets for non-romance genre covers. I’m so-so about book covers for my own purchases, so I’m not a good judge when it comes to my own covers. Your post raises some good questions.

    1. Lita, that’s interesting because I don’t pay too much attention to covers for my purchases either, I think the title is more the immediate attraction and then I check the book description to see if it matches what the title conjures up in my mind. But if there are lots of readers like us, does this suggest that we might be putting more emphasis on the cover than it really deserves and maybe there is no secret for non-romance genres!

      1. Hah! You only think you “don’t pay too much attention to the covers.” According to the post, your pre-cognitive metric has already made up its mind in the first second, and after that, any logical choice you think you made is delusional.

        1. My mistake, I should have said ‘cover image’. I assume the way the pre-cognitive metric works varies from person to person (otherwise wouldn’t we all make the same decisions?) so what we immediately notice on a cover will vary from person to person too, along the lines of those mentioned in Stephen’s eight data points.

          Ah, what would life be without delusions….

  6. And then there’s the flip side data. The covers that in one second turn me off so much, there could be a Hemingway or Twain or Poe novel hidden inside and I’d pass.

    I’d like to hear more from fellow Indie’s about the issue raised by Stephen: photos with text as covers versus artwork with text.

  7. Ah… Stephen, youโ€™ve done it again. You are so skilled at initiating debate; I bet you started lots of arguments at school, played Devils advocate and loved it, were even on the school debating team?

    A great article, Stephen, raising lots of very important points for the independent author. Iโ€™m with Chris, I just want to write, but I know the day of the reclusive author who just writes and forwards his manuscript to whomsoever to do the rest (if indeed it ever was that way for more than the select few) is gone forever.

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  9. Great points, Stephen, and great discussions! Lots of things to examine in book publishing that you guys bring to the surface. Thanks for everything you do!

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