One of the best things about being an indie author is creative control.
You get to decide what to write, your cover, your book design, your pricing, your promotional strategy. But it’s also one of the most difficult things, especially when first starting out, as often, what we like may not resonate with the audience.
NY Times bestselling author, Tim Ferriss, famously tests everything about his books, starting with the title ‘Four Hour Work Week’ and look where that took him! A few years back, I did a survey on this blog for the cover of my first book, Pentecost. The cover I liked didn’t win and I went with the crowd-pleaser. In today’s post, Alistair McGuinness, author of Round The Bend, goes through his experience of using surveys to improve his book.
As a Business Improvement Coach, I often cite this quote when faced with a problem that my client feels is difficult to quantify.
I have learned that when confronted with something intangible, the secret is to turn emotion into logic, and by generating a metric you gain clarity.
Writers are often described as emotional people, which is wonderful for creativity, but how much logic are you putting into the key elements that will attract people to your book?
Like many indie writers I have considered the key elements seriously, so that my adventure travel book, Round the Bend, has every chance of success. After months of effort I feel confident that these are appealing, but what would potential customers think? It was time to find out, by completing a survey in my hometown.
The ranking was written in a fun, easy to read manner that would allow participants to make a quick but tangible assessment. I’ve included the survey questions at the end of the post if you’re interested in the detail.
To help with data collection I created a sheet to capture the information. I then printed out The Big 5 elements and worked out a way for them to be easily viewed. My book cover was glued to a large piece of cardboard, with a random page stuck to the other side.
My random page was one of the hand drawn travel maps that are scattered throughout the story. I then did the same thing with the blurb and the 1st paragraphs.
Now it was time for the survey.
After moving from the UK, I now live in Australia and headed to my local beach in search of a diverse mix of locals and overseas visitors and although it was winter, the weather was kind with many people relaxing by the water. The more chilled they were, the greater the likelihood they would be willing to answer a few questions.
My wife and her friend carried out the survey and as soon as our children realised that free chocolate went to every participant, they came along too. You can watch the short video below or here on YouTube to see the survey in action.
I stood in the background, taking photos of them in action and watched sail boats glide across the bay, as complete strangers voted on my work.
I scattered a few of the results on the grass and took a picture to capture the moment.
We then searched for a coffee shop and reviewed the results.
The most popular element was my blurb, with a score of 4.4, which you can read here to see if you agree.
Score of 4 = Well written and informative
My original book cover was the least popular, gaining an average score of 3 and I checked the ranking system to confirm what this meant:
Score of 3 = Looks like a run of the mill front cover. Not unsightly, but lacks bite
Overall, I wasn’t too disappointed as there was not a large difference in votes, but the front cover was a possible element to reconsider. During coffee I gained a valuable piece of information about my 1st paragraph. Although most reviewers liked it, there was some mis-perception on my choice of words during a particular scene.
This was important news and that evening I viewed the 1st page with fresh eyes. During a thirty minute blitz I transformed the first few paragraphs and instantly knew that it was right.
I was just in time, as the publishers requested the final manuscript for proofreading days later.
So although I felt that my top 5 elements were professional, I needed tangible proof.
The survey results and the feedback gave me enough evidence to change some critical parts.
If you feel that your book is ready to launch, remember that you only get one go at making a first impression. Taking out a survey can be a fun way to gain valuable information on your Top 5 elements and also a subtle introduction to get the public thinking about your book.
Have you tried an audience survey for your book? Do you have any tips or questions? Please leave them in the comments below the survey points.
Alistair McGuinness is the author of ‘Round The Bend: From Luton to Peru to Ningaloo, a Search for Life After Redundancy,’ an adventure travel book. Inspired by Mr Benn and Michael Palin, he left the UK to go traveling and now lives in Western Australia.
Here’s the detailed options in the survey:
1 Poor design. Looks like something created by a 1st grade art student
2 Picture or font are lacking substance
3 Looks like a run of the mill front cover. Not unsightly, but lacks bite
4 Crisp picture, good style and looks better than many others on the shelf
5 Eye catching, stylish and has me reaching for the book
1 Too long, too obscure or too weird
2 OK, but hasn’t that been used before heaps of times?
3 Matches the cover, but not compelling
4 Nice and punchy or quirky enough to remember
5 Why didn’t I think of that one?
Back page blurb
1 An irrelevant ramble that did nothing for me
2 Too short, too long or too boring
3 Just about kept me interested
4 Well written and informative
5 Sucked me in and I want more
1 I switched off after the first line
2 Read the paragraph but felt nothing
3 I can see there may be something, but my interest is waning
4 Enjoyed the paragraphs and hungry for more
5 You nailed it. Hooked
1 Found a grammatical error
2 Why didn’t I give up after the first paragraph?
3 Could be worth purchasing. Might try another page.
4 Well-paced and I’m eager for more
5 Cracking stuff. Who is this writer?