Author, You’ve Got it Wrong Again!

One of the great things about being an independent author is the freedom of choice; you can choose your author name and book titles with impunity.

One of the great hazards of being an independent author is the freedom of choice; you can choose an author name or a book title in ignorance and sabotage your chances of success.

This freedom of choice can find the tiniest chink in an author’s self-confidence and subject them to flag in the wind decisions on all kinds of aspects of publishing. When sales are disappointing the independent author often jumps to a conclusion that isn’t based on fact. No one is buying the book because the cover is crap; so change the cover. No one is buying the book because the blurb stinks; rewrite the blurb. People are not drawn to the title; choose a new title. Nobody wants to buy something written by an obviously made-up name; choose a new pen name. Re-invent everything because you got it wrong the first time. Or did you?

I’ve seen perfectly good covers dumped and replaced, at some expense, by new covers which are not stunningly better and sometimes less appealing than the original. Some folks have felt the title to be their Achilles Heel and have swapped it for a new one, running the risk of losing reader referrals based on the original title. Fooling around with the author name is perhaps the riskiest move of all because, unless there is brand strength through a main character or series title, the author name is where brand identity resides.

Superficial changes to a book are usually futile. What sells a book is (a) exposure and (b) recommendation / word of mouth. There are any number of excellent mainstream and independently published books out there, wallowing in obscurity. A change of cover, blurb, title or author name is unlikely (with a few exceptions) to catapult the work into the public eye. Now to muddy the water a bit more. Big sellers aren’t always great masterpieces but they rarely have a homemade cover, ridiculous author name, insipid blurb and irrelevant title. So what am I saying here? Those items are product marketing prerequisites but exposure is what is needed for sales.

However, if title, cover, blurb or author name are definitely wonky then they do need fixing. But how to be sure that they need fixing and that it’s not just a knee-jerk reaction to lack of sales? Answer – ask a group of readers. You can also ask a group of authors - they might be wallowing in their own uncertainty but they are also usually readers. Facebook is a good medium to gauge reader reaction by posting alternative covers / titles / blurbs. Facebook groups can work well if some privacy is required. Posting on a blog can also work if there is enough traffic and visitors can be persuaded to comment.

Sometimes, though, an author will persevere with a title etc. that they subconsciously suspect isn’t quite right. I can put forward my own example with my thriller The Crucible. Isn’t that a play by Harold Pinter? I hear you ask. Yes, all the better to lure in the reader. But isn’t a near-future political thriller going to disappoint buyers who thought they were getting a play about 17th century Salem witch trials? Yes, and that’s probably why the Amazon e-book return rate on this book has been 50%!

There is wisdom out there about choosing a title that performs well enough in Google searches but isn’t swamped by products with the same title. What also needs to be remembered is the risk of genre disappointment if a title contains a component familiar to the reading public but out of genre.

Obscure titles are another risk. Often as not, when an author is asked about a dubious choice of (working) title, their answer is “Well, it’s the key to my story. If you get to the second last page you’ll see why I chose that title.” They imagine a wry smile developing on the reader’s face as they realise the author’s cleverness. In reality, potential readers will look at that title and say, ‘Nah, not for me.’ The title needs to be relevant and intriguing.

So what did I do with my Crucible? I gave it a new title – Koobi Fora - a Kenyan village thought by many anthropologists to be the origin of human life. So how many returns since renaming to Koobi Fora? Zero. 

Oh, and I changed my author name from Ruby Barnes to R.A. Barnes, but that’s another story for another day, to do with gender and genre confusion.

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