Browsers and brains: Why it pays to know your audience

At some point back in the late ’90s, I thought about going into web design. Two seconds later I decided against it. My scant HTML experience had taught me that designing for different browsers was a pain. You could code something that displayed exactly the way you wanted it to in Netscape, but looked like a hot mess in Internet Explorer (or vice versa). I just wanted to make stuff. I didn’t want to spend half my time dealing with arbitrary software obstacles.

As it turns out, though, all designers deal with a metaphorical version of the browser problem eventually. And by “eventually,” I mean every time we design something that’s intended to be seen by more than one person.

The perfect example presented itself when I was developing a new promotional product for authors: Book Memes. A Book Meme is a little graphic that contains a short excerpt from your book and an accompanying image. The idea is to post the meme on social networks like Facebook or Google Plus—and hopefully get other people to share it too—making viewers curious about the book.

An author of a poignant coming-of-age novel I’d designed had agreed to be a test case for my new product. I created a couple of different concepts and asked him to compare. I also posted both versions on my own Facebook wall and requested feedback:

Book Meme v1

Book Meme v2

What do you think? Which Book Meme would people like better?

If you said the one on top, you’re right! And also wrong. Votes were split equally between the two.

“The blurb mentions a hawk, but there’s none in the [bottom] picture, and they couldn’t live underwater anyway,” said one commenter. “The first picture is really nice, and oh, there’s the hawk.”

“Top one looks too much like an inspirational poster,” another commenter argued. “Bottom one picture-wise looks a lot more intriguing. Would be more likely to click the bottom than the top.”

The moral of the story is, you can’t please everybody. So what do you do?

Know your audience.

If you don’t know your audience, get out there and learn. Do the sorts of people who’d buy your book go for happy images, or do they respond better to potentially disturbing intrigue? Do they like inspirational messages or snarky ones? Talk to people who read and enjoyed your manuscript and ask what they think would hook them.

Just as the same HTML will display differently in Firefox, Explorer, Safari, etc., the same design will be interpreted differently by different brains. If you know what kinds of attitudes your target readers bring to the equation, you’ve won half the battle.

Shameless plug: Cover to Cover Book Memes will be heavily discounted through November 2012. If you act quickly, you can hedge your bets and get two for the price of one.

Posted in Design | Tagged , | 3 Comments

The effing gatekeepers

Fearsome Gatekeeper

“None shall pass! Except maybe that trilogy based on Twilight fanfic.”

An aspiring writer recently wrote in to one of my favorite advice columnists, Captain Awkward. The advice seeker loved to write, but lost confidence with every rejection letter. The question: how to persevere when all efforts seemed futile?

Among the Captain’s excellent suggestions was this:

If rejection is killing you, eff the gatekeepers and look into self-publishing your work. My friend Phil did just that, check it out. Chuck Wendig is another person who is creating his own writing career and connecting directly with audiences to sell his work. Catherynne M. Valente wrote short stories in the form of letters to her audience for years … The gatekeepers will take notice of them and come to them eventually with money and contracts and offers of a mainstream audience, but they aren’t waiting for that to do what they want to do. And when the big time comes, they’ll be ready because they’ve already been doing it. Think of what it would mean to a publisher or an agent to take you on as an author with a built-in following who is great at self-promotion and attracting fans? Lots of people can write well. Not everyone can have the hustle to make their work stand out in today’s crowded marketplace. [Emphasis added.]

I like this advice because it presents the potential benefits of self-publishing without downplaying the time and effort involved.

Some authors think of self-publishing as a magical pole that will allow them to vault over the heads of the effing gatekeepers who stand between them and their audience. Those authors are in for a disappointment when they reach the other side. Yes, they’ve bypassed the agents and traditional publishers, but now what? “If you build it, they will come” is a poor business model if no one knows your book exists.

In other words, you still have to do the work. Instead of writing dozens of query letters, you’re looking for an editor who will help you make your manuscript as polished as it can be. You’re hiring other members of your publishing team to help you with cover design and page layout, or you’re learning how to do those things yourself (pro tip: not as easy to do well as it looks). Once your book is available to the masses, you’re pounding the digital pavement every day, trying to connect with readers directly.

None of this is meant to discourage you! There are valid reasons for bypassing the traditional gatekeepers. A hundred agents might reject your manuscript, not because it’s poorly written, but because they guess it will only be of interest to around 600 readers in the world, and major publishers won’t consider it worth the investment. You, on the other hand, might be very happy to sell 600 copies to the people who really want them. You might decide you’re willing to do what it takes to find those people.

In the end, the traditional and self-publishing routes share certain features in common. There is an opportunity for success. There is a risk of failure. There is work to be done.

The good news is, if you’ve already written an entire book, you’re no stranger to hard work.

So do your homework. Review your options. And then, whatever option you choose, give it your very best shot.

Posted in Self-publishing | Tagged , | 3 Comments

A view from the passenger’s seat



If you’re a creative type, you may have noticed that it’s not always easy to hand over the reins of creativity to someone else. You may have noticed that this is true even when the thing to be created isn’t the kind of thing you usually make.

I recently experienced this for myself. My business, Cover to Cover, needed a website. There were a couple of ways to bring this about: build the site myself, or hire somebody to do it.

Part of me was tempted to dust off my long-neglected HTML skills and go with option #1. I could save a lot of money that way. True, I wasn’t a web designer, but I’d been doing book covers for years, and I could apply my knowledge of aesthetic principles to another medium. And it was my site promoting my business, which meant I should make it with my own hands. Right?

Wrong. So very wrong.

When it helps to get help

My ability to create professional book covers and interiors didn’t make me an HTML guru. In fact, the most useful thing I knew about web design was that it’s really hard to make things look the way you want them to. Furthermore, every medium has its own special conventions to learn. Either I’d end up creating something subpar, or I’d spend months and months trying to do what a pro could do in three days.

So instead of letting my ego drive, I took the following steps:

  1. Mocked up a couple of web pages in Photoshop (no HTML coding, just visuals).
  2. Asked a web designer if the mockups were good enough for him to work with (he said yes).
  3. Gave him the mockups and said, “Please make this better.”
  4. Waited.
  5. Received a design similar to mine, but better.
  6. Asked for minor revisions.
  7. Received minor revisions.
  8. Had a fully functioning website.

Was it scary to hand this project over and hope for the best? Maybe a little. But I had a good grasp of my abilities, and I’d seen the web design company‘s portfolio. I knew whatever they turned out would be superior to what I’d produce on my own. And it was.

Takeaway message

You don’t have to do it all. If you’re publishing a book, it’s OK to stick to what you’re good at (like writing) and let other professionals do what they’re good at (like cover design).

That said, being in the passenger’s seat doesn’t mean you have to relinquish all control, or even that you should! The driver, your designer, knows the terrain and how to operate the vehicle. Your job is to have an idea of what your destination will look like—however vague or specific that idea might be—communicate it to the designer, and provide feedback on how close you’ve gotten.

The collaboration is where the magic happens.

Posted in Working with a publishing team | Tagged , | 5 Comments