The Most Common yet Critical Publishing Mistake (?)

Perhaps the most common mistake that I see when shopping for self-published books is a target audience mismatch. Either many indie authors don’t realize how much this may deter sales or they didn’t consider how significantly this affects marketing when they were selecting the title, designing the cover, and preparing the blurb.

When authors with slow sales ask what they are doing wrong, very often their books suffer from this same marketing flaw.

In the simplest terms, the problem will seem very obvious, but knowing is only half the battle:

Imagine that you’re browsing through search results for a sci-fi novel. Are you likely to click on thumbnails that look like they might be mysteries, romances, or fantasies? If it doesn’t look like a sci-fi novel, will you click on the book? What if the title doesn’t sound like sci-fi? What if the cover looks suitable for kids, but you’re an adult?

After you click on the book, if the blurb sounds like adventure or erotica instead of sci-fi, will you look inside? What if it sounds like a blend of sci-fi, romance, and mystery? If you were in the mood for sci-fi, maybe you would prefer pure sci-fi.

(Don’t contemplate the exceptions. It’s what the majority will do that influences your sales.)

When you look inside, if it starts out like historical fiction or comedy, will that satisfy your hunger for sci-fi?

If you’re a sci-fi fan, you know what sci-fi covers usually look like, what sci-fi titles often sound like, what you expect to see in the blurb, how the novels usually begin, etc. When readers are looking for something in particular, they usually don’t settle for something else.

When a thumbnail cover looks like genre A, but the blurb sounds like genre B, then all of the potential readers who are attracted to the cover won’t be buying the book, and all of the potential readers who would be attracted to the description will never check it out.

A target audience mismatch is a huge sales killer!

Even a slight mismatch is a major problem. For example, readers should be able to distinguish between contemporary romance, historical romance, teen romance, and erotica. A contemporary romance cover with too much sex appeal might be mistaken for erotica, and vice-versa.

I understand that it’s not easy for most writers to design excellent covers. But it’s not enough to just have an appealing cover. If it doesn’t attract the right audience, the cover isn’t helping at all.

Many authors struggle with their image searches, often settling on stock photos that are in the ballpark, but really aren’t a good fit for the book. Others get a concept in their minds that either isn’t a good fit for the book or that they can’t pull off well enough for it to work. If the cover doesn’t appeal to the intended audience, this isn’t satisfactory.

If you’re in the mood for a candy bar, you won’t purchase a snack that looks like potato chips from a vending machine (and those in the mood for potato chips that wind up with chocolate will be irate customers). It’s no different and should be no less obvious for books.

If you value sales, don’t make this costly mistake.

Develop the title, cover, blurb, and Look Inside with the specific target audience in mind.

Check out other covers in the same genre to see what buyers are accustomed to seeing. Make sure that your cover appeals to the right audience. Receive feedback from readers in the target audience as you develop your cover.

You don’t need to copy the ideas of the bestsellers; in fact, copycat covers may backfire. But you do need to see what’s common.

If you absolutely loathe a very common concept, you can work around it. For example, if you write contemporary romance and find that most covers feature a romantic couple, but refuse to put people on your cover, you can find other elements common in the genre that signify romance. It is possible to make a cover without people that clearly looks like a romance (how about a red heart?). However, be sure that you do this for the right reasons. Don’t sacrifice your sales simply because you can’t find people to put on your cover; do it because it’s something you believe in so firmly that you don’t mind if it deters sales.

Do similar research for the title and blurb. Ensure that the title, cover, blurb, and Look Inside present a unified message regarding the content and genre. Have people in your target audience check these out before you publish, specifically asking them if they all sound like your book’s specific genre.

The cover and title are most important because if these send the wrong message, nothing else matters. Next, the blurb and Look Inside must reinforce the same signals.

Will the story and characters also appeal to your target audience? This is very important for reviews and the prospects for valuable word-of-mouth sales.

Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers (Volumes 1 and 2)

2 comments on “The Most Common yet Critical Publishing Mistake (?)

  1. Thanks for writing this post. I think that self publish books too often seem like they are market for everyone, instead of just their target audience. I’m still not sure of my feeling re: self publishing vs. traditional publishing, but I will keep this mind.

    • Yes, that’s a good point. It would be nice if “anyone with eyes” read the book, but that’s just as much a target audience mismatch. Another common mistake is to assume that a romantic mystery will have twice as large a target audience as a romance or mystery. Thank you for commenting. 🙂

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