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Sunday, February 26, 2017

Cover Wars

By Jim Jackson

For the past week, I have been filling out a questionnaire that will provide the basis for an interview to appear in a magazine later this year. I’ll leave you in suspense about the details so I have fodder for a future blog. One of the questions was, “How did getting/being published change your life?” My response was that after publication I spend much less time on pure writing and significantly more time on sales and marketing activities.

To my way of thinking, it’s all about exposure. I have faith that my novels are well-written and a certain segment of the reading public will like them—but only if they get a chance to read them. The problem is to find ways to make those potential readers aware of my books so they can find out for themselves just how good they are.

Since you never know what works until you try it, I experiment with different promotional opportunities. One I tried last year is called “Cover Wars.” The concept is simple: every week fifteen book covers are displayed on a webpage. The public can vote for the best cover, and the winner receives some free promotion on the website that sponsors the contest. It costs nothing for an author to participate.

Now, I think my Doubtful Relations cover is a really good cover – the kind of cover that makes you want to pick up the book and find out more. I’m prejudiced, of course, but you can judge for yourself. I signed up, waited a couple of months for my turn to participate, and early one Sunday morning the contest including my book opened.

I checked out the competition. There was only one other book that I thought was a contender. Now, those of you who personally know me know I am a teeny, weeny, bit competitive. I wanted to win. The rules were that repeat voting was allowed, but no more than once a day. But the reason I had signed up wasn’t to win; I hoped the exposure would intrigue some folks who did not know my books to give this one a try.

I posted about the contest on Facebook and mentioned it to the Guppy Chapter of Sisters in Crime, where I am currently the president. And, of course, I voted once a day for the best cover!

The other cover that should have been my competition garnered very few votes. The book that turned out to be my major competition was not a particularly strong cover; it was so busy the key message (title and author) was lost.

Some of my Guppy chapter associates got behind the contest in a big way, voting daily and encouraging others to vote. Had each of the chapter’s 700 members voted for my cover just once, it would have won by a landslide. Which tells you the contest exposure was small. The fifteen contest authors ginned up various amounts of support from friends, but there wasn’t a large group of folks out there in cyberland using this contest to find some great new books.

And that led to the marketing result: During the week of the contest, sales of Doubtful Relations declined compared to the average for the previous few weeks.

I also quickly recognized that the free contest was only free in terms of me not spending any money. I spent lots of time thanking people who let me know they had voted for my cover. And Mr. Competitive wasted mucho time tracking how my cover was doing compared to the competition.

I went to bed Saturday night with a very small lead, and woke up Sunday morning having lost by a bunch of votes. The winner had rallied her troops or bots or whatever for a last-minute push.

Lessons for me: Measure all the costs of a promotion, not just the cash outlay. Check some prior results to see the number of votes – that would have given me a clue that the contest was thin on reader engagement. Remember that whatever I tell myself about being disengaged from the result of a contest, I won’t be, so make sure to factor in all that wasted time checking to see how my entry in the race is faring.

So dear readers, where do you find out about new-to-you books that seem to be worth trying?


E. B. Davis said...

I find out about books via Net Galley, Ann at Great Book Deals, BookPage, Kindle Unlimited, Facebook, email groups, and the grapevine. So glad you are sharing your experiences so the rest of us don't have to reinvent the wheel. Thanks!

Jim Jackson said...

I just signed up for Net Galley because one of the authors on a panel I am moderating at Left Coast Crime next month has a novel in the pre-release stage and that's how she suggested I get it. However, I'm waiting for the publisher to approve it . . .

With the great interviews you do of authors, EB, publishers should be happy to get you copies!

~ Jim

KM Rockwood said...

I value your considered input on all things writerly. You provide us with an honest perspective and careful analysis of so many aspects of being a published author who's trying to get his very accomplished work out to the public. I think we all appreciate your efforts!

Jim Jackson said...

The truth, KM, is I can't help myself in keeping track of the numbers/financial aspects of the writing business. :) I'm glad you find my musings useful.

~ Jim

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

When are you going to write the "how to" book? Or is the publishing scene changing too quickly?

What seems like years ago, a Houston friend put me on the Murder by the Book weekly email list. I've used their recommendations ever since.

I also scan the new acquisitions list in the Cincinnati library system and put holds on anything that looks interesting.

E. B. Davis said...

Yes, well, you'd think so, Jim. The last time I went to Malice, I ate two desserts provided by Kensington because I thought they owed me. Now--I can get any Kensington book on Net Galley since they finally preapproved me. Now--I'm wrestling St. Martins for a book whose author I'm interviewing. I sent them a letter with links to my interviews of many St. Martins' authors and pointed out that I not only have interviewed our own Linda--but blog with her--one of their star authors. So far, the interviewee is still pleading my case!

Jim Jackson said...

Unfortunately, Margaret, I'm learning the "how to" one chapter at a time. :)

Murder by the Book is a wonderful mystery book shop -- Houston, if I recall? One of my good friends from KY uses them to distribute his signed books in the US. (He's much better known outside the US than in.)

EB -- And hence, one of the reasons why even medium publishers are sometimes way behind the curve relative to small publishers and indies who can get you a book to review without requiring a new version of the Magna Carta.

~ Jim

Grace Topping said...

Thank you, Jim, for sharing your lessons learned. Some promotional efforts are worthwhile, while others can be a waste of time. The problem is knowing which ones are going to pay off.

Jim Jackson said...

Exactly, Grace, which is why it is important for authors to share their experiences.

~ Jim

Gloria Alden said...

Interesting, Jim. To tell the truth I don't spend much time trying to promote my books because I'd rather be writing. In spite of that, I do have a following and while I'm not making big bucks, I am getting money from Amazon for both digital and print books, as well as a following wanting to know when the next book is coming out.

Where do I learn about new books? Well, I belong to two book clubs and the other members come up with books that we read. Also, in the newspaper, I read about books the local library recommends, and then there is Malice Domestic, or The Mystery Guild, I get every month with the latest books in mysteries to buy. And then there's the interviews on Writers Who Kill.

Jim Jackson said...

Gloria, it's great that you have a following without having to spend marketing time. Unfortunately, I need to tend that garden to try to make it grow.

~ Jim