Ditching the nudity, but not the sex

by Sandra Hutchison

I’ve been contemplating bringing THE AWFUL MESS: A LOVE STORY (2013) in from wide distribution to Kindle Select, where various promotional opportunities can give it a boost. But the cover was a problem. Because it had a naked lady on it, sort of.

The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire -- showing a (dressed) teenage girl on a bed, looking rather pensive.

Still widely distributed, without any recent promotions, I get the occasional foreign sale through Kobo and almost nothing in domestic or foreign sales from any of the other retailers except Amazon. About one in five Kindle purchasers of THE RIBS AND THIGH BONES OF DESIRE (2014), which is in Kindle Select, also buy THE AWFUL MESS, which is nice, but will never get it ranking high on its own.

As indie authors with any experience know, if I go back into Kindle Select, even for a while, I can more easily try to goose those sales a bit. (This will indeed hurt my ranking at the other sites, but as noted above, I don’t have really have one.)

However, there was little point in going back into Kindle Select if I couldn’t at least promote it on Amazon from time to time. And so I had an exchange with Amazon about their AMS marketing standards and whether this cover would meet them. (Thankfully, they were willing to consider the question.)

No, I was eventually told, there could be no nudity. Not even tasteful, blurred nudity.

Evolution of a coverSo I tried going back to a more professional version of my first (homemade) cover. But sales fell during that test, so I returned to the naked lady.

Next, I tried drawing a blurry underwater bathing suit on that naked lady. That was pretty funny.

Then I decided to try to cover up her blurry naked behind with a nice blurb. 500x700theawfulmess_ebookyellowquoteWould that be okay, I asked Amazon? Nope, that was still no go. Even if we couldn’t see it, nudity was being suggested. (The helpful representative told me that standards have toughened a bit recently — even a male nipple disqualifies AMS marketing nowadays.)

I suppose this sensibility may also explain why I’ve had a harder time getting BookBub and other slots lately. Who knows why, though? My books are getting dated now, definitely backlist, so that’s a possibility. I won’t shut up about the current election, or race issues, or whatever, so maybe they think I’m too outspoken. Or maybe they blacklisted me for my post “The Five Stages of Grief of Being Rejected by BookBub,” even though it was free advertising.

Making your opinions public as an author or any small business person is always a risk. But so is publishing a book, right? I’d rather err on the side of telling the truth as I see it than tip-toeing around.

Of course, I’m not depending on my writing to pay the bills, so I get to make that choice from a position of privilege. Many others cannot.

Besides the really beautiful design by Damon Za, what I like about that semi-nude cover is that it signals the book might include some racy stuff. Which it does, in two short sex scenes. Some readers have an issue with that, which is understandable, although I could wish they would read the whole product description before they start reading.

Meanwhile, of course, other readers are disappointed when I don’t have any explicit sex, as I’ve noticed with my beta readers on BARDWELL’S FOLLY. It has some bedroom scenes between heroine and hero, just as RIBS does, but getting graphic about slot A and tab B in the two of them didn’t, to my mind, serve any non-prurient artistic purpose.

Occasionally I’ve thought of excising the explicit aspects from THE AWFUL MESS, too. But I feel those explicit scenes do add something to the characterization in that novel. And anyway, what’s done is done (except, cough, with covers and typos).

I do still, sometimes, toy with bringing back the clean PG-13 version, much as MM Jaye did with a recent romance, but since my clean version sold a total of two copies back in the day I doubt it would be worth the trouble.

tugboat-cover-for-the-awful-messIt’s not as if a novel addressing misogyny and gay rights is suddenly going to find great favor in Amazon’s Christian romance market. The only reason I still toy with the idea is that I’d just like to try marketing it as a progressive Christian novel. Many Evangelicals are more progressive or at least less prudish than you might expect, and there are plenty of Christian readers like me who are quite liberal.

Anyway, I just recently purchased from Tugboat Design a pre-designed cover of a fully dressed woman that I hope gives at least a suggestion of sex while also, perhaps, hinting at the theme. I really like it, even though I personally envision Mary having slightly darker brown hair and even though I’m still not entirely sure what is going on in this photo. (What do you think?)

As long as I was investing in real design work, I had Deborah at Tugboat clean up my design for BARDWELL’S FOLLY, and get the paperback cover done, an effort I was procrastinating figuring out for myself. Hopefully this means the ARC will be ready next week to start going out for review. (If you’re a blogger or reviewer, feel free to request one).

bardwells-folly-tugboat-designIf you’re a writer who includes bedroom scenes that are more or less explicit, how are you handling that issue in your cover design and marketing?

Or, if you’re a reader who has strong opinions one way or the other, I’d love to hear from you. Do you think explicit scenes usually add to your experience of a novel, or get in the way? And even if you don’t mind them yourself, does it keep you from recommending a book?




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.)


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


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.)


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.

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…