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 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 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…


So you’re thinking of indie publishing? (Updated 1-31-15)

Do your homework first and check out some of this information on the state of the art.

I originally pulled this information together because I was presenting about self-publishing at the Troy NY Public Library with traditional authors Jenny Milchman and Diane Cameron. That session filled quickly and ended up with a long waiting list, so there’s clearly a need for this information. (We may well do more sessions in the future — in fact, I am already working on one for March — so join my mailing list if you want to hear about them.)

The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire -- showing a (dressed) teenage girl on a bed, looking rather pensive.It was a handy review for me, too, as I decided just how much to undertake in the marketing of my second novel The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire — which came out last month and is just not selling itself no matter how much I wish it would. (Yes, that’s one of the things you need to know about indie publishing.)

I’m just going to assume that you’ve written a good book, gotten plenty of feedback from people other than your mom, and gotten it properly edited and proofread and formatted. I’m also assuming that you can handle a bad review without melting down. (If you can’t, stop now, because you’re not ready to publish.)

Indies Unlimited
This is a great site to explore because it offers tons of good information shared by knowledgeable and experienced indie authors. There are also opportunities to promote, but that’s mostly going to fellow authors, so don’t get too excited about it. Start here, since it’s a guide to the whole site:

Kristine Kathryn Rusch on “Business Musings: Things Indie Writers Learned in 2014”
This is a post that pretty much sums up the state of the business at the end of 2014. Among other things, Rusch points out that “writing is hard,” “publishing is hard,” and “the gold rush is over.” In short, this article provides a useful reality check about indie publishing. But it’s not completely hopeless! So if you can read this and still feel willing to buckle in, consider giving it a try. (You should also read her year-end take on traditional publishing if you are contemplating that as an option.)

Hugh Howey on “Where do we go from here?”
Howey, probably the most famous indie author success story, is more upbeat than Rusch here, though he reminds us that no entertainer can expect to succeed forever.

Anne R. Allen on “Why the Self-Published Ebook is No Longer the ‘New Query’”
This post by Anne R. Allen provides a useful counter to Howey, in case he encourages you a little too much. I think it applies best to people who are hoping going indie will transition them into a successful traditional career selling literary fiction. I would honestly recommend trying traditional first if that is your goal. But if you hit a brick wall or don’t sell well enough in your debut, even though people unrelated to you are quick to say your stuff is good, indie publishing is the other way to start finding your readers.

Lindsay Buroker’s marketing advice for 2015
Good stuff here from a successful and personable indie author, including the perennial discussion of whether to be in Kindle Select or not. Her blog is worth mining for lots of good information, especially if you write historical mysteries or series.

Build your author platform
Instead of giving you a blog link, I’m giving you a book link, because I think this is a really good guide at a reasonable price (though you could also just track down the author’s blog posts on the subject):

Network with fellow authors
Jenny and Diane and I were doing this when we got together to put on a presentation. Writers often benefit from working together, perhaps especially if they share a genre. Or maybe you’re neighbors, or one of you started as a fan of the other, or you met and bonded while surviving a crazy writer’s workshop (that’s Jenny and me). Anything goes. Be supportive of other authors to the extent you can without lowering your own standards or turning off your own audience.

Having said that…

  • Don’t ask authors for favors when you haven’t even bought their books, or reviewed them, or written to them, or helped them get the word out, or in some way established a relationship that isn’t just asking them to do something for you.
  • Unless people are already your friends — and volunteer to do it — assume that you will need to pay them for editorial services. Nobody edits or gives feedback for the sheer joy of it.
  • Don’t “trade” reviews. It puts you in an unpleasant ethical bind.
  • Don’t write nasty reviews. Reviewing fellow authors is fine, but if you didn’t like their books, it’s better not to review at all. Even a middling review could get you in trouble.

My first (homemade) cover

TheAwfulMess 396 x 612 pixels

Designed by

Get the right cover
Whether you think you have the skills yourself (it’s possible), or plan to hire someone, the cover is a big decision. (Though it need not be a final one – as an indie, you CAN change covers much more easily than a traditional author can.) Joel Friedlander, AKA The Book Designer runs a monthly cover contest, and reading his honest commentary can be really educational as well as entertaining. He’s particularly geared towards e-book covers, which have slightly different requirements than bookstore covers – they have to be something you can get an impression from even when they are really, really tiny. (It’s worth noting that my friends still argue over which cover is better, but to my mind there is no contest.)

Get the right copy (book blurb)
This is a useful exercise whether you are traditionally or indie published, or are unpublished and setting up your author platform. (It’s also very helpful as you query agents.) I especially like this post from Ruth Harris because it not only offers good advice, it gives you links to lots more good advice:

Avoid being taken for a ride
During the California gold rush, the people who made the most money were the people who sold stuff to miners … and the people who stole stuff from them. That’s true of the indie publishing phenomenon, too. Heck, people who are trying to be traditionally published often fall victim to scams, too. Before you do business with anyone who claims to be in publishing, check that person or business at Preditors and Editors. You might also want to check with Indies Unlimited, the Writer’s Café at the KBoards, and anyone you know who’s already out there. Go beyond the first pages of Google (which can be manipulated by savvy operators) in doing your due diligence, and include in your searches terms like “reviews” or “complaints” as well as the business name.
Preditors and Editors:

Finally, two rules you really need to understand before you publish:

Rule #1: DON’T SPEND ANYTHING YOU CAN’T AFFORD TO LOSE. Even legitimate expenses don’t always pay off in this business. No provider can guarantee you financial success, and you should be deeply suspicious of anyone who makes that kind of claim. (On the other hand, you should also be prepared to invest in your business.) The obvious companion to this: Don’t quit your day job (unless you really can afford to).

Rule #2: SUCCESS AS A WRITER IS A LONG GAME. If you hope to make a living at this, or a decent supplemental income, or a measure of fame, one book will not do it. Most people who do well already have four or five or six books out and have been slogging away without great reward for years. So if you just want to publish your memoir or your Great American Novel and be done with it, realize that you are essentially just making it conveniently available for friends and family rather than trying to build a career as an author-publisher. And if that’s the case, you really don’t need to learn your way around — just find a handy vanity publisher or formatting service and get it done.

Feel free to add info below — we can all benefit from your knowledge!