Using Feedback to Choose a Cover Design

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June 2015
by Belinda Pollard

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When I posted an article on my blog about whether or not to use images of people on book covers, I also displayed two alternative covers for my upcoming novel Poison Bay—one with a person on it and one without. What happened next alerted me to the pros and cons of seeking feedback in this way, and taught me some things about how to make the most of that feedback.

Poison Bay is a mystery/suspense novel about a bunch of old friends with a shared secret who go out into the wilderness and, well, start killing each other, really (as old friends so often do . . . ).

Covers PhotoI had two draft covers: a very simple one with a crashing wave and a version with a woman among ferns and a crashing wave in the background.

The poll delivered a clear winner—not. The cover with just the wave received 70 votes, and the cover with the woman received 72.

Hmmm.

Not getting a clear message, I looked at the comments voters had provided.

For the cover with just a wave:

  • Some said it looked great but didn’t spell “wilderness” to them.
  • Some found it spooky and atmospheric.
  • Some said it was drab.
  • Some said it was too much like a thousand other book covers.
  • Some said the wave looked dangerous.
  • Some noted that there was nothing to give the wave any scale so it could be a wavelet.

What about the other cover, the one with the person on it? Here are some of the comments about that human figure:

  • “Quite mysterious—she looks anxious, possibly sinister with those slightly arched brows.”
  • “She gives the impression of being wary and a little fearful and looks like she is trying to stay out of sight.”
  • “For me, her expression doesn’t fit.”
  • “I think that the woman appears to be waiting for a date to turn up, rather than being frightened.”

Yes, they were looking at exactly the same image. And there were more comments as disparate as these.

Hmmm.

Processing Procedures

Obviously, I couldn’t please everyone who commented. But I wanted to honor everyone who pitched in with valuable feedback.

So I decided to try processing the information in terms of demographics and reading habits.

Originally, I had tried to find a way to do a more detailed poll, including questions about age and gender and whether the person responding reads mystery/suspense. But a website-based poll doesn’t allow more than one question (I used the YOP Poll plugin). Including more than one would have meant that I had to use a service such as surveymonkey.com, which would take people away from my site to another page. That in itself would create a barrier to participation, and probably would have meant that I’d get far fewer people voting.

Since many (but not all) the comments I got had links to social profiles or blogs, I thought for a while about analyzing them in terms of age, gender, and genre preferences using profile information. But I didn’t feel at all sure that such information would capture the subtle reasons that explain why an individual prefers one cover over another.

Interestingly, some commenters from Australia, where I live, went for the wave. Publishers apply different covers to the same book in different markets. Lots of crime novels on my bookshelf feature the setting on the cover. Maybe that’s what we’re used to Down Under, and maybe that’s the choice I would have made if I’d been publishing for an Australian audience. But because I was publishing for a global audience, I knew I needed to break free of local habits and think internationally.

Another option I considered was giving greater weight to commenters who are publishing pros. Sometimes (but not always) the pros are better at analyzing their own responses. That can be handy. But my instinct is that, as readers, we all know what we like or don’t like, and what would make us click or not click on an Amazon thumbnail, so the opinions of nonpros are also important.

In the end, I decided to try to discover what it was about a cover that tipped someone one way or the other by reading through all the comments slowly and carefully, several times, and letting them marinate in my head.

I thought about compiling them in a spreadsheet, but ended up ditching that idea. Given the way my brain operates, that method wasn’t organic enough. (However, it might work well for a different personality.)

As I reviewed responses, I looked for the undercurrents. Not just which cover people preferred, but the problems they identified in deciding against the other one. For example, some didn’t like the second cover because they didn’t want their mental picture of a character to be too controlled. So that prompted me to think about using a silhouetted or back-view figure instead of the one I’d used.

Some people said the cover with the woman could fit romance or YA. That raised a red flag for me. Could I find a way to include a figure but avoid the genre confusion?

Cover Decision ImageQuite a few people didn’t like the lack of color on Option A. I liked that cover at full 6″ × 9″ size, but I realized that the monochrome-y nature of it might be a problem online where a whole set of thumbnails can appear together. Something has to lure the click.

Also, I realized that even though it’s essential to choose a cover that potential readers will like, I had to like it too. That would make a big difference in how eagerly I promoted the book.

Rather than settle for either of the original covers, I decided to look for a third option that would combine some of each cover’s best features and deal with some weaknesses.

Assessing the Outcomes

Am I glad I held the poll? Was blogging about my cover options a good idea for me, considering all the conflicting feedback I had to process?

I’ve been pondering that one, and my answer is Yes!

People were very generous with their opinions. Some took the time to write detailed responses that have been amazingly useful. Some posted the poll to their social profiles, started discussions there, and let me know about them so I could eavesdrop. It was wonderful to see people’s instinctive reactions, especially when they weren’t feeling constrained by trying to be nice to me.

The poll was definitely a good idea in connection with blog traffic. That aspect took me by surprise. Blog comments began pouring in quite soon after I posted the article about choosing between covers, and within days that article was in my top four for drawing comments.

On NetGalley, where the book is listed for reviewers, the cover has received 29 thumbs-up and 2 thumbs-down responses. So that’s a positive.

And the cover won a Gold Star Award. I had entered it in Joel Friedlander’s Book Designer’s e-book cover competition, feeling quite nervous because these awards are meant to be educational and the comments can be less than flattering. But I thought that even feedback I’d find hard to hear would mean the book got another snippet of exposure, and that’s always valuable.

To this day, I’m still a little in shock that the cover won an award, and the comments were by no means hard to hear (“A near-perfect ebook cover that has great balance, drama, and a clear hook into the story. Very accomplished for a cover by an author”).

I’d amend that last comment to make it read, “ . . . for a cover by an author and 100 of her closest friends.” I can say with some confidence that neither of my original covers would have performed so well. The hard work of making sense of all that conflicting feedback was definitely worth it to me, and I would do it again if I was trying to decide between concepts and not confident that either of them was working.

But for me, the most wonderful part of this process was experiencing the sense of being part of a community.

Poison Bay Cover PhotoAs an editor and author previously sailing happily on the cruise liner of traditional publishing, debarking into the sea kayak of self-publishing has been terrifying. Much more terrifying than I expected. At an established publishing house, there’s a gang of people pitching in to help make choices, including choices about book covers. One of the things I find hardest about the self-publishing gig is the sense of aloneness in making some big decisions.

Yes, I had run the covers by a couple of people I trust before I wrote the blog post, but the blog response supplied a whole extra level of involvement from others. I felt supported and encouraged and “heard” and helped.

It was more than feeling part of a group with others up against similar challenges. It was as though we were all actually in this thing together.

My Tips for You:

  • If you decide to blog about your own cover options, wait until your concepts are fairly polished; don’t use rough drafts. It does take a lot of time, of course, to develop two cover options, and you may have to pay for multiple stock photos. But many people find it hard to see beyond the execution to the concept.
  • Be genuinely open to the feedback; resist any impulse to focus on support for your secret favorite.
  • Beware of offering more than two options. I suspect that would lead to confusion and despair. It was hard enough with two.
  • Brace yourself. The comments will contradict each other, and some might be hard to hear if you’re invested in a particular cover design.
  • Ask people to say which cover would get their click on Amazon, because that seems to direct them to think purposefully about the feedback they’re giving. But I suggest showing the thumbnails first and putting the larger images further down the page, to try to avoid skewing the results.
  • Ask people to say what drew them to their favored cover. Thoughtful responses on that question have proven very valuable.

About the Author:

<Belinda PollardBelinda Pollard is the owner of Small Blue Dog Publishing in Queensland, Australia. A former journalist, she has been a book editor for 20 years and a publishing consultant for 14, working with trade publishers, independent publishers, and self-publishers. Also a writer, she is a published author of meditations and a prize-winner for fiction. Poison Bay is her debut wilderness thriller. To learn more: smallbluedog.com; admin@smallbluedog.com.

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