What Sells A Book?

by Cathi Stevenson

Book covers

I’ve often seen independent authors posting a series of cover images online and asking people to choose their favourite; or they might ask a handful of friends what cover they’d buy. Choosing a book cover with either method doesn’t make a lot of sense. I have been telling my family I’m going to paint my bedroom for the last 15 years, but there it is, the same ugly shade of pink it was in the late 1990s. My point is that people don’t always do what they’ll say they’ll do. A better question to ask friends or people on forums is “what were the last five books you purchased?” Now you’re researching the books that actually did sell—at least once. You can also get some idea of what sells by searching best sellers’ lists, although Amazons’ figures can be skewed by a sudden bump in sales and the New York Times doesn’t include all books in its calculations. Even studying books not in your genre will give you an idea of design trends and what people are buying.

Statistics show buzz sells books

But does the cover really matter? What motivates someone to actually purchase a book? In a 2009 book buying survey by Verso Digital (US), just more than half of 5,640 US respondents said they purchased books based on author reputation. Forty-nine percent said they bought books others recommended to them, and 45 percent used price as the deciding factor. Reviews influenced 37 percent of book purchasers, artwork played a role for 22 percent and advertising, 14 percent. This is a quite a change from a 1999 survey by Penguin Books that cited jacket blurbs as the criteria for 73 percent of book purchases, followed by recommendations at 62 percent and price at 57 percent. While new authors can do little about their reputations just starting out, they can influence other areas. It would appear that particularly for new authors, getting buzz about your book is essential, and if you’ve written a good book, and sell it at a good price, then the author reputation part will quickly follow. And there are case studies that support this theory. Word-of-mouth has been credited with the success of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code; Eats Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss and The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold,. Each has sold millions of copies. Two have been made into movies.

Website or blog essential

Online presence was shown as another key factor to book sales and it’s another element completely within the author’s control. When the same respondents were asked what made them aware of books online—especially important for independent authors who often depend on online sales, the number one response was search engine results, with 58 percent of people saying they plugged in search terms to find reading material. Author websites and blogs was the second most popular resource, with a respectable 30 percent; social networks brought particular books to the attention of 20 percent of respondents and online advertising yielded 17 percent of reported awareness about a particular book or books. The obvious conclusion here is that authors need a strong website or blog that will raise them higher in search engine results and help make them a familiar name to potential readers. This is a topic I’ve researched and written about in the past, and it’s nice to see statistics backing me up.

Is the cover important?

What about the book cover though? There are no current statistics on this, although there is anecdotal data. In the late ’90s Penguin redesigned covers for its Modern Classics series. Soon after, sales soared in the under 25 demographic. In the March 2006 meeting of the Association of American Publishers, Marcella Smith, director of small press relations for Barnes and Noble, discussed the remake of the cover for The Little Book That Beats the Market (Wiley, 2005). In the March 24, issue of Publisher’s Weekly Daily, Smith is quoted as saying the original book jacket was pale blue and featured a dollar sign. After discussing the cover with buyers, the publisher decided to change the book jacket to a more classic dark blue with white lettering, which they felt better suited a traditional business audience. It became a hit and the jacket was credited with the book’s increased popularity. One of the issues for factoring cover design into sales statistics is that unlike books by well-known authors and large publishers, independent authors are usually doing most, if not all of their sales online. The only statistics available are relevant to print books sold in stores, and they don’t necessarily generalize. So, do online covers matter? I’d have to say yes. First of all, it’s quite easy to weed out books that are self-published when the cover is obviously amateurish. One can only assume if there was no effort put into professional design, then there probably wasn’t much effort invested in editing, or layout or even research and story development. The cover is a necessary bit of polish, like a well-pressed suit. Since covers are often only displayed at one or two inches online, a book cover is pretty much at the mercy of good advertising techniques to get the click-through on a page filled with similar books. An easily read title and strong use of color are going to play a role. So, while author familiarity is not going to help independent authors just entering the market, they can change this with a bit of work, and not necessarily a lot of money. A good blog and a professional product are all going to work in their favour and make that second book much easier to sell.

Editors Are Not As Evil As You Might Think. Honest!

DownloadedFile by Cathi Stevenson “Thou shalt commit adultery. That “commandment” was printed in a Bible in 1631. The publishers, Robert Barker and Martin Lucas, were heavily fined and lost their printing license as a result. Still referred to as the Wicked Bible, the few copies that are still in existence are highly sought collector’s items. In modern times we have only to look at the $2 million loss Rogers Communications Ltd. suffered due to a misplaced comma to appreciate an editor’s job. According to a Toronto Globe and Mail article, Rogers understood that it had a five-year agreement, renewable for successive five-year terms, to run cable lines across poles in the Maritimes. The agreement began in 2002. In 2005, Aliant Inc., that company that administers the poles (owned primarily by Fredericton-based utility NB Power), informed Rogers that the contract was being cancelled and the rates would be increasing to triple the current fee. Rogers argued that this breached the agreement. In response, Aliant cited the English version of the contract, which said the agreement “shall continue in force for a period of five years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five-year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice.” Aliant won. Lack of editing is often cited as one the main reasons many publications will not review self-published books. On the Direct Contact PR site, Paul J. Krupin has collected a list of quotes from reviewers, who were asked if they review self-published books. While most weren’t completely against the idea, several did mention the editing issue. Colleen Truelsen, former Editor of Valley Community Newspapers, Inc., in Sacramento says, self-published books are fine, “…but too many of them needed a good editor to catch grammar and misspellings. A book with even a few glaring inappropriate words makes me hesitate to tell our readers about it.” Editing is also one of the reasons author Amanda Hocking accepted a traditional contract with St. Martin’s Press after becoming a millionaire self-publishing her own series of books. In a March, 2011 blog post, she says, “Here are the two considerations I made in my decision (to accept a contract with St. Martin’s): what’s best for my career, and what’s best for my readers. (Notice I didn’t say what was best for my wallet).” She then lists the number two reason as “readers’ complaints about the editing of my books.” Hocking goes on to explain she did hire editors, but in spite of their improving the books and working hard, she was obviously choosing the wrong editors, because readers still complained about errors. Surfing around the various writers’ and self-publishing forums on Linkedin.com, it appears many authors believe they can edit their own work, or that editors will try to change the integrity of their messages or the tone of their stories. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” says Dick Margulis freelance editor and book designer. “A professional editor strives to preserve the author’s voice and to work with the author as a colleague, not to dictate fusty old grammatical rules that do nothing except get the author’s shorts in a bunch. But every writer needs another set of eyes on the text. It’s devilishly difficult to edit your own work and not miss things. I think the reason so many authors have bad experiences with editors is that the editors they think they can afford are not pros. Here’s a hint: a moonlighting or retired high school English teacher is usually not the best choice. Neither is your best friend’s father’s secretary, even if she’s an awfully good proofreader. Editing is a whole nuther ballgame from proofreading.” And keep in mind that even industry icons such as Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe had an editor: His name was Maxwell Perkins. He’s credited with being a significant influence in the success of The Great Gatsby.