Is it the cover? A PickFu polling case study

by Sandra Hutchison

It became clear during my recent Kindle Countdown Deal that my second novel was not catching on as well as my first. Intellectually, I had expected this. It has a literary title, it doesn’t cross over into romance, and I never offered it free.

Emotionally, however, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d crippled it in some way. Was the problem possibly just the cover?

One of the things I’ve noticed over time is that my “also boughts” on the first book all have a certain look that my books don’t have. (They are also all indie titles, which is an indicator that when you’re an indie most of your sales come during promotions to the same lists of willing indie readers.)

Alsoboughts

My covers are a little edgier, which may be appropriate, or may just be scaring people off.

Sandrasbooks

It’s also true that guys are often scared off by books with females on the cover. This may not be terribly relevant since most book buyers are women, but some of my most satisfied reviewers have been men, so I hate to cut off that potential audience if I don’t have to.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love my covers. I think Damonza.com has done a great job, hitting a nice compromise between literary and women’s fiction. (They didn’t design the last two shorter, lower-cost titles, since I did them myself, but as you can see I have tried to maintain some branding.)

Something else had happened recently, though. I’d been playing with cover concepts for my third novel and asking for feedback on my Facebook profile. Two of the thumbnails had women on them. The third had an “oilified” plantation house. And most people, including loyal readers, had come down in favor of the house instead of the women.

That got me wondering if I’d gone the wrong way with the first two covers. SHOULD they look more like those books on my “Also boughts”?

That’s when I remembered getting a code for some free PickFu polling from a Tim Grahl post.

PickFu is an internet polling service. It’s incredibly easy to use and very reasonably priced. How well it lines up with my target audience is another question. But I decided it was worth trying out the service to see about two other possibilities for covers for “The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire.”

One was my best shot at a thumbnail using an “oilified” generic street scene that matches the neighborhood in the book, similar to the plantation house cover that my readers had liked for Bardwell’s Folly. So after narrowing in on that with my Facebook friends, I tested it versus the current cover on PickFu. (This would normally cost $20, but I had credits.)

thewinner

The results? The current published cover won handily. But when I dug down into the demographics, my target readers of women who are little older and perhaps a little more educated seemed to prefer the street scene.

demographicsThe comments were also fascinating. One thing became clear: My current cover is considered bleak. The title also puts off and confuses some people, suggesting to them that it’s either about eating disorders, a “trashy romance,” or erotica, none of which is true.

I knew I didn’t have time enough or money enough to act on the title (new titles require new isbns), but I’m definitely storing this away for the next time I’m trying to decide on a title.

Now, I’ve actually dealt with horrifically expensive, possibly flawed market research in my past life in publishing, so I knew (as PickFu will readily point out) that this poll of fifty people was not a scientifically valid sample size. I also had no idea how self-selected the audience might be. Given all that uncertainty, the time and money it would take to create a new cover based on this less than resounding finding seemed unwarranted.

That’s when I wondered how much damonza.com might charge me if I tested one of the original cover design options I had turned down (not without some trepidation). To my delight, they said they would provide it at no cost. And so I ran another test of that versus the neighborhood cover I was considering instead.

This time the results were clearer. You can see the whole case study here: a second A/B test at PickFu.

cutoffsversusoilified
So I switched my cover.

And nothing much happened. At that point, Amazon was still giving the book some play, but I saw maybe one day’s uptick in the trends, which could have been completely random.

So I’m back to the original cover now, because it’s a lot of work to go through everything I’ve done so far and switch the art out, and if it’s not going to make a significant difference  I’d just as soon put that effort towards my next books, “Missionary Dating and Other Stories,” which is available for pre-order now, and “Bardwell’s Folly,” which is still months out.

That’s not to say that someday I might not decide to put in the effort to switch over, because I do truly like the other cover. It’s definitely less bleak. But I’m still wondering if some women’s fiction-y neighborhood cover might not do better with my target audience than either of them.

So you’d better believe I’ll be testing different approaches with “Bardwell’s Folly” before I publish. Depending on how that goes, I might then work backwards on the other covers.

What do you want to know about your books before you publish?

If you’d like to give PickFu a spin, the folks there were kind enough to offer a discount for the first 50 readers here — just use the coupon code HUTCHISON and you’ll get 20% off your first poll. (I get no affiliate income from this. At least, I don’t think I do.)

If you find it useful, let me know! I know that back in the days when I was a marketing manager and an acquisitions editor, I would have really loved having access to a fast and easy tool like this.

Now if PickFu could just find a way to poll avid readers of our genre, we indie authors would truly be in data heaven…

 

3 thoughts on “Is it the cover? A PickFu polling case study

  1. I once put a cover on a startup site (which disappeared) that presented covers to its members for a star rating and (hopefully!) a comment or two. It was sorted by genre – a plus, since likely readers could comment. I liked the idea, but they never got enough members to make a go, and it seemed that anime and comic book style covers got five stars and nothing else more than one or two stars (perhaps shows the members profiles?). Very few comments and no demographics – so what did one star or five stars mean?
    For those of us without a good sized group of Facebook or blog followers, where else can we turn for cover feedback?

    • Good question, Kate. I have seen a site that holds competitions for covers, and you can also (sometimes) get good feedback if you enter the monthly cover contest at The Book Designer. But this is where an experienced publishing team can make a big difference. I just joined the Women Fiction Writer’s Association at least partly because I am hoping to enjoy some discussions with experienced authors in my own genre.

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