Monday, January 10, 2011

In the Marketplace of the Blind

It's been one of those days when focus is hard to find. I started my day by hearing my older son is coming to the Island to get married in July, so, while that is a glad note, it's also not been good for the thoughts about blogs and writing. This is the reality of the working writer - real life intrudes, and I think it worse than the real life intrusion of say such an event on an office worker, because fortunately, office workers leave the cubicle behind when they come home. Writers never really do, unless real life is being too darn pushy for its own good.

A discussion I was peripheral to a while back focussed on e-book covers. A lot of things came out of this which I think worth summarising. It was fairly plain that there was considerable sexual dimorphism in what people liked see on covers. To my unholy amusement I found covers with bare-chested well-muscled strong-jawed men were a biggy with a vast majority of the female respondents. I wondered what the reaction to the opposite gender equivalent would be, but for a change kept my yap shut. Still, it was plain that faces (and manly upper torsos) - which told little about the story were popular with the female respondents, whereas scenes/objects (and possibly female torsos) were more interesting to the males. Of course this is a generalisation, totally unscientific and very subjective and who gives a damn, but worth thinking about, as, after all, the purpose of the cover is to get a reader to look at the book. We are not selling covers.

A couple of other things that really did come out strongly were the need for text to be legible at thumbnail size, relatively simple if they're to carry visual impact at that size, and that print needs to be in stark-contrast colors and the covers really really do need a look of professionalism about them. Oh and information is important 'short story / short story collection /part of the Lanata series etc' is vital. I've decided that one of my future conditions for e-books is more control over my covers and getting them professionally laid out -- simply because I believe this is important.

But I don't believe it is MOST important. We're moving from a small highly controlled-stocking visual/tactile market with an intrinsically captive audience once they got there (the brick-and-mortar bookstore) to a vast - millions of times the size - totally free-for-all stocking market in which our view is so darn narrow... we may as well be blind, and there is no real tactile element at all, and where the audience can find ONE book without noticing another product. So where COVER and DISPLAY were the two absolute vital keys to brick-and-mortar bookstore success, we move to a situation where cover is a lot less likely to get your book noticed. Display is of course still vital but may be more tricky. I have a feeling that display in future is going to work (sadly) like display past - publishers will pay for prominence. However, the ordering of importance and therefore logically investment (by author and publisher) will change. In the Internet bookstore I rank them like this:
1)Name. Known names/brands/ series will be searched for. Your name and your title are your most valued properties.
2)Outside feed. If you have blogs/ facebook / twitter/ review sites feeding readers towards your book, it will be vital. Professional review sites may become more relevant than they are now.
3)Linkage. Both 'customers who bought X also bought Y' and linkage to type and ranking within type.
4)Searchable/matchable content (this one will move up as becomes better)
5)Publicity (this one could move up depending on expenditure. For example, spend enough and you make someone into a name, and generate outside feed)
7)Viewable/ sampleable content.

A book of course will need probably 6 and certainly 7 to convert 'look at' into BUY.
We're out of the sheltered, heavily controlled puddle and into a big wild ocean. Those who survive will have learn to work with the new waves and use their energy to lift them. Those who cling to rocks... will drown. The rocks may survive and surface at the next low tide, but authors who held on tight, won't be there. On the other hand there is a chance to grow into Leviathan out there, or at least to swim free.

Any other ideas on how to work with sea-change? To get yourself found in the marketplace of the blind?

Oh BTW - I have been following my books on the Amazon Author central - which gives bookscan numbers. DRAGON'S RING paperback - which came out on the un-enviable 28/12, data is a bit worrying. I think we can safely say DRAGON'S RING is simply not in - or in very very small numbers in most major chain stores across the US - it sold 171 copies in the last week (very poor numbers for a book just out), but only from 70% of the reporting areas. So if you happen to go into a store, and see it there, I'd love to know about it.
On the other hand SLOW TRAIN TO ARCTURUS - apparently voted one of the worst covers in sf, continues to sell (if Amazon is to be believed on 5th reprint -presumeably VERY small runs) 35 copies the same week reporting period - not bad for a book that's been out since March. So you can't judge a book by its cover...


C Kelsey said...

Dave, there were multiple copies of Dragon's Ring at the local B&N this weekend.

MataPam said...

Lawyers of Mars, coming out next month: Bare torso, rippling with muscles, scales, spines . . .

Okay, got that out of my system.

Looking at Amazon, I see the first display on the opening page, under their Kindle ad.

Thumbnails, author and Ttitle clearly readable for three out of five. Below, the title, author, paperback or hardback, price.

So that's pretty much what will be seen by shoppers.

The thumbnails are, at this scale, more a confusing riot of colors than a coherant picture. The ones with a single central figure are clearer than the others.

Makes me wonder if, for thumbnails we don't need to focus down on a part of the cover art, rather than reduce the whole, then reimpose the large title and author.

Rebot? No thank you, I'll keep my current robot.

Amanda Green said...

Dave, first of all, great news about the upcoming wedding. Are you ready for the whirl and swirl that will surround it all?

You know the cover issue is something we've been dealing with at NRP. The problem is that getting a good looking cover for the e-reader screen, and for web pages, is totally different from having a great thumbnail. The issue with the thumbnail is that most of the sites require you to upload an image of at least 800 pixels on the shortest side. Definitely not thumbnail side.

Okay, so I can hear folks saying to make a different "cover" for the upload that will be the thumbnail. That actually leads to a couple of problems. The first is cost. The publisher or author would be paying the artist for two different images.

But the real issue comes with regard to the readers. If they buy a book that has a thumbnail cover that is different from the cover image they will see on their computer or e-reader, believe me, they get concerned. The first thing they will do is go to the kindle forums or their equivalent and start asking if there's a problem with the e-book. Did they download the book they bought? That sort of thing. I've seen it happen too many times already for things from cover discrepancies, title discrepancies between what's on the cover and on the title page, etc.

What's the solution? Better attention to how the actual cover looks as a thumbnail in the short term. But that may also require more work for the artists, especially those who aren't used to dealing with e-book covers, and that may result in more money -- at least in the short term.

Your list for the internet bookstore is pretty right on, in my opinion. However, I'd add one more factor -- will the publisher allow the store to set the price or will the publisher maintain complete control? Under the agency plan the Big 5 publishers are operating under right now, the e-tailers can't even put an e-book on sale when the price is set by the publisher.

As for how to get yourself found out there, well, being visible is the key. Not just by blogging and having your facebook and twitter accounts, but by taking part on different fora -- including the kindle boards both on and These discussion fora are quickly replacing the personal appearances writers used to be sent on by their publishers. It's especially important for new authors.

As for Dragon's Ring, I checked the stock in the DFW area and, as of the weekend, it was in 2/3rds of the B&Ns and about half the Borders. That's very good for any Baen book not written by Weber. Of course, the problems Borders is having right now makes me worry that it is in their stores because I fear it means there are books out there Baen hasn't been paid for yet and for which sales you won't be paid for as a result.

Dave Freer said...

Thank you Chris. Hopefully I am worrying about nothing. After the tiny number of hardbacks shipped I was worried the book wouldn't be available. Now all I have to worry about is people decicing to buy it, reading it and enjoying it.

The worrier's path... ;-)

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Congrats on the wedding, Dave.

Our house is full of teenage sons and girl friends, early twenty daughters and boyfriends. I make a meal and 11 people come out of the woodwork to eat it!

Loved your comments on cover preferences.

I took a look at the Amazon stats on my book sales. Then decided it was pointless since there was nothing I could do about them.

There is so much that is out of a writer's control.

Dave Freer said...

Heh, Matapam, thank you for that image...

Anyway, look at the slideshow on the side of MGC to get an idea of which books get it right. A single central less busy picture definitely works better as does high contrast text.

Dave Freer said...

Amanda, I figured by having boys I would quietly get away with paying for the drinks at the reception, as certainly in South Africa organising (and paying for) the reception is traditionally the the Bride's family. Alas this is not the way it is going to be. My wife is delighted. I am terrified. But in some ways the island is a good option.

Covers: IMO NR reeds a house 'marker' or style (possibly a logo or something - this is YOUR future) and the display on the site needs to be more uniform, (all the covers the same size). Obviously you're still early days, and there is a learning curve with both the e-book publishers and artists. I think you're right - look at the thumbnail and it's workability, before worrying about the artwork at larger size. And yes, cover and art on thumbnail need to be the same... But what about interior art and maps? what is the situation there? (I don't know).

The big issue with fora participation is TIME. Something has to give, and it's that or write...

Dave Freer said...

Rowena, on Amazon stats - I feel they're worth recording for several reasons. If there is no sales, and there should be - you can find out why, and sometimes do things about it. Yes, this is your publisher's job, and yes this why you get 8% and the rest of the system gets 92%... but in reality, if you don't check and intervene (sometimes as little as asking why the book is out of print, sometimes getting fans to rally and push a book in certain stores) no one will do it for you, and in our trade every crash - even if there was nothing you could do about it, is driver error. You as the writer will take the consequences of their lapses, and it is your numbers and your future that will suffer for those lapses. So I believe in trying to monitor and fix as much as possible. That would have made a huge difference to DRAGON'S RING hardback (which didn't ship very much and sold just over 1000 copies as a result... at the very time I and two fans were successfully reaching sixteen thousand readers for SAVE THE DRAGONS (ie a mere 1600% better than the professionals did), and could easily have tacked that onto that effort had I known. That's what 3 amateurs, no money and a _lot_ of hard work can do, so yes, you can make quite a difference) and the sales of Wizard of Karres (accidentally out of print when the sequel came out, and no one at the publisher noticed and I had no ability to monitor). Additionally it has enabled me to establish that two books are OOP and ask for my rights back. These are things you and your agent need to monitor. Really. Besides I know one really successful author having a royalty 'disagreement' with her publisher - the reason - a large difference in royalty statements and bookscan figures. My own feeling is this may be isolated, or be explainable or an accident, but there is nothing like knowing that authors are watching to make people a little more careful.

Kate Paulk said...

Congrats on father-of-the-groom-ness!

Getting things that look good in full-size color (I'm making poster size copies of Impaler's cover, for cons), in thumbnail, and in gray-scale is interesting. That's not something art directors have had to think about before - and it shows.

And now we can all see for ourselves why certain parties did their best to stop authors getting hold of the bookscan data for so long - it might be flawed, but it's the best there is, and gee, isn't it funny how errors on statements are always in the publisher's favor? Someone conspiracy-minded could make something of that.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


I think you have the order somewhat wrong. Free sample, IMHO is the most important thing after name. If the book is by someone I've never read, the sample makes or breaks my interest in the book. I will not buy an unknown author -- most of the time -- but I will download a sample into my kindle, and if I get to the end panting for more, I will buy it.

This, of course, also makes -- again, as in the days everything was stocked -- the first chapter or so vital.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Oh, yes, and Draw One In The Dark was out of print when Gentleman Takes A Chance came out. Ditto the first musketeer when the second came out. Of course, with Prime Crime I can bitch or I can shut up. It don't make no difference to them...

Dave Freer said...

Kate Father-of-the-groom is already shuddering at the catering implications.

Art is always a tricky area, as one man's art is another woman's pornography and third bloke's yawn. e-book art is still developing. I have a feeling 'window' art may be the answer - with the thumbnail showing a clear, recognisable say 1/4 of the 'cover' with the text.

Dave Freer said...

Sarah - the value of 'free sample'or view inside read first chapter is vital to BUY the book. On that I would agree. And a year ago being available, and available for cheap/free was a huge boost to a book's recognition. Now, everyone and his dog are doing it. Therefore it is of limited value to get readers to FIND the book in the first place. 'I love my kindle' lists at least 10 new free books every day. There are probably the contents of the average bookshop available for free in any month. How do you make YOUR book one of the ones people sample?

Dave Freer said...

And OOP... it absolutely infuriates me. The responsibility of the author is to write the best book they can. That's it. All the other jobs we end up doing, are not ours, we're not paid for them (in fact we're paying for them to be done), or trained for them or really have the opportunity or time for them. The responsibility of the publisher and retailer is to get that book a fair go with the public. If they've done that, and a book just doesn't fly, it's the author's fault. But when they ignore / ruin / willfully stuff up through incompentance or don't-give-a-damn, opportunities for sales, it's their fault... except it's not, as all faults are always the author's and the bad figures and ruined career are what we get for it. Occassionally publishers may privately acknowledge they stuffed up and buy another book to soothe you, and that's a good thing at least - but it's like a criminal record, those bad figures. Very hard to escape.

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Wow, Dave you made some really good points there.

I should pull my head out of the sand about sales!

Sarah A. Hoyt said...


Right now -- though this will stop being as useful if the market expands ten times, mind -- free books still have a value. Their best aid-to-selling is being in a category/subject I WANT to read. If I'm in the mood for space opera, I'll download all free space opera/space opera samples. However, the value has already diminished, to the point that I think a lot of people never buy anything for the kindle, they just coast on free books -- which doesn't help the market.
But that was the last post of my ebook-exploration: how to do what a good bookstore owner did in the old days (twenty years ago. I haven't seen it recently) and be able to direct a reader "Oh, you liked Agatha Christie, but you want something funny? You might try Dorothy Cannel." I think there is a place for someone -- not US -- with time on their hands and wishing to make a business (one would think the site would be able to pay for itself in advertising not too far off) to establish a moderated site that feeds off readers suggestions, collates and organizes them. Who knows, maybe it will happen. Maybe there will be several competing ones.
And, brother, am I with you on those other jobs. part of the reason I'm forever hovering on the verge of illness is that blogging and even FB take the living stuffings out of me. Why and how? I don't know. I think it might be the straw on the camel's back.