One of the first things that any independent publisher giving advice to other independent publishers says is: Write a good book, have it professionally edited, and get a good cover for it.
Those are the three central tenants of self-publishing. I’m not going to even bother looking up and linking to references because I’ve seen it on just about every site I’ve ever read about self-publishing (sometimes multiple times).
The other thing I see on most of the sites dispensing that advice is a lack of supporting evidence. By that, I mean: How does anyone know that these are the most important things to publishing a book? Is there an experiment that can prove it?
Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a way to quantify whether you’ve written a good book or not. I suppose you could write a book, throw it up on Amazon and watch your numbers for some amount of time… then somehow “make it better” and upload the new, better version and see if you sell more copies. Theoretically, if you did end up selling more without changing anything else you’re doing, then you could attribute the increase in sales to the fact that people reading it are recommending it more to friends who then buy it. That’s a tenuous connection, and it assumes, as stated, that you don’t change anything else you’re doing. Not only that, but you’d have to make sure you don’t get any new reviews on Amazon (or Goodreads) because those negative or positive reviews will certainly influence whether or not someone discovering the book will buy it. (Since that’s exactly what the rating system is designed to do)
There are a lot of other outside factors that would have to be controlled, but even if you could plausibly eliminate some external variables as causes for an increase in sales, it’s going to be a pretty painful experiment and one that I’m pretty sure no author would willingly take on unless it was under a pen name. The same thing applies to professional editing. You could put up a book that hasn’t been professionally edited, and see how it sells, then have someone edit it and see if your numbers go up. The same restrictions and caveats apply to this case.
So that leaves the book’s cover.
I imagine it’s hard (especially for those authors who are writing and promoting a lot more than me) to devise an experiment where the only variable is the cover. But as someone selling in the single digits per year with only one book out (last year, this was), and doing basically 0 promotion, it was actually pretty easy for me.
The numbers below will probably make people laugh, but I’m posting them so you can see the actual values and not just a hand-waving conclusion to my bold experiment. I’m also posting them just to be honest with other indie/self-publishers who will (hopefully) end up on this page at some point. This can be the reality of it if you’re not good at marketing (or if I’m really being honest, just don’t want to put the time into it) and you only have one book out. (My reading on the subject tells me that the 4th rule of self-publishing is: Don’t bother promoting if you only have 1 book. It’s much better to hit it big when you have a bunch of books out.) Lucky for me, I have a day job with health insurance that pays well enough that I’m not a starving artist. In fact, I usually have more calories available to me than I could possibly consume on a regular basis, so I have to work out and eat right or I’ll end up as the opposite of a starving artist. Now, perhaps if I were a starving artist, and writing books to sell was the best option I had for making money, then I’d skip the extra hours that I put in at work and spend more time marketing. But that’s kind of a whole different blog post… so let’s proceed.
Book Cover Experiment
From 2012 when The Valkyrie Project was originally published until November of 2015, I had this cover:
I thought it was pretty decent considering I had done it myself. I still think it is decent considering I did it myself, but decent doesn’t sell books in this day and age.
And as proof, with that cover:
January 2015 – October 2015 sales (before cover change): 3
There’s no missing 0 there. It’s just 3.
I uploaded a new cover – no other changes – at the start of November 2015. It looked like this:
November 2015 – December 2015 sales (after cover change): 12
Yes, I went from 0.3 books per month to 6 books per month simply by changing the cover image.
Now, with only 15 total sales, I’m sure some statistician will say that I don’t have a big enough sample size, but I think the dramatic increase in sales makes up for that fact. Especially considering I did nothing different in those two months.
“But wait!” the astute among you will say, “Didn’t you release another book at the end of 2015? Certainly that had some effect on the sales numbers! Your experiment is not as flawless as you claim!”
Yes, I did in fact release a book at the end of 2015, but the 12 sales from November to December all took place before I announced that book and even before it was available on Amazon. So while you steely-eyed bean counters are correct in part, the addition of that book to my inventory did not have an effect on the 12 sales of the Valkyrie Project.
Weathering The Past has done pretty well since it’s release, most of which I attribute to the cover:
I am sure it’s harder to sell the second book in series (and I have heard/seen anecdotal evidence to support that), so the fact that I’ve sold more copies (15) of Weathering The Past in the first 2 months than I did in 3 years (up to October 2015) with The Valkyrie Project makes me happy (even though it has no bearing on nor relevance to the above experiment). And honestly, now that the book(s) is(are) actually selling a bit, it has inspired me to increase my output and stay focused instead of bouncing around between projects as I have been doing probably a bit too much recently. But that also could fill a whole other blog post.
I know there’s a difference… I just don’t understand it. Perhaps someone will stumble across this and explain to me why UK readers want such vastly different covers from their US counterparts… Are we really that different? I’ve only been to Great Britain twice for very short periods, so I will admit to not knowing anything beyond the surface level there, but I would be very interested in understanding what it is that drives the stark difference in the way the book covers are presented between the markets.
As an example, here are the covers for The Causal Angel which releases in July. I’ve seen a similar thing (surprisingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, similar in terms of colors and composition) with The Darwin Elevator released last year. I’m sure there are more… But why?