Most of you are familiar with A-B testing for websites. You randomly display one of two website designs and track which design gets the most clicks. People do A-B testing because it works. But where else does it work?

When I asked for opinions about why anyone would NOT buy my new book, How to Fail..., the most common opinion I got (mostly via email) is that the title and the cover are the "obvious" problem. Folks tell me that a book with "fail" in the title isn't a good gift item, and no one wants it seen on their own shelf for vanity reasons.

To me, the interesting thing about this common observation is the certainty of the folks who make it. For them, it just seems totally obvious that the title and cover are the problem. And when you add the "memoire" confusion, they say the cover is killing the book.

Does that sound right to you? This is one of those interesting cases of common sense versus experience.

Here's the problem with the theory that the title and cover are prohibiting sales: As far as I know, no one with actual experience in publishing would agree with it.

Publishers will tell you -- as they have told me on several occasions -- that no one can predict which books will do well, with the obvious exception of some big-name celebrity books. No one with publishing experience can accurately predict sales based on the book's title, cover, or even the content. Success comes from some unpredictable mix of the zeitgeist, timing, and pure luck.

That's why a jillion books are published every year and probably 99% are not successful. If publishers had the power to turn dogs into hits by tweaking the titles and the covers, wouldn't they be doing it?

Have you ever heard of books being retitled and republished with a new cover and going from ignored to huge? Me neither. Maybe it happened once, somewhere. But in general, it isn't a thing.

Would you have predicted that there would be a hugely successful series of how-to books that call their buyers dummies and idiots? And how the hell did Who Moved My Cheese sell more than three copies worldwide? None of this stuff is predictable.

Or is it?

I try to stay open-minded about this sort of thing. And I wondered if there was an easy way to do A-B testing without actually retooling the hard cover. (That would be a huge hassle for a variety of boring reasons.) I could do Google Adwords testing to see which titles drive more traffic to Amazon and Barnes & Noble. But people would still see the real title when they arrived.

I could look into issuing a new Kindle version with a friendlier title. That's probably a bigger hassle than you think, even though one imagines it shouldn't be. And for best seller tracking, it would look like two books each selling half as much as a single book might have.

So I have two questions.

1. Do you believe publishers are wrong about the importance of the title/cover

2. Is there a practical way to do A-B testing for books already published? 

If it turns out that some sort of rebranding of books does increase sales, you could start a company that does nothing but buy poorly-selling but well-written books from publishers who have given up on them. Then apply  A-B testing to create a title and cover that will perform better. It's like free money.

The absence of such a company, or such a practice within an existing publishing house, makes me think this approach is unlikely to work. But it doesn't seem impossible that it could work either.


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Jan 17, 2014
Aren't there a lot of passionate English majors in publishing?
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 17, 2014
Just because someone is a professional at something doesn't mean they are good at it. In larger corporations and professions where the waterline doesn't generally rise and fall with the excellence of the individual behind the scenes but rather with name recognition and/or talent of the person in front, they can be mediocre or even bad and still make it look like they are successful because of others around them. Movies and publishing immediately come to mind for this.

Emily Templeton wrote about great books that started with bad titles. Here's what she had to say on 11/11/11 about it:
It’s a well-known fact that authors, for all their brilliance, can be less than visionary when it comes to coming up with titles. We understand — so much goes into the perfect title, both from an artistic and a commercial point of view, and when you’re so close to the work at hand, we can imagine how it could be a little challenging to see the issue from all angles. But even if a writer is particularly talented at title-penning, the names of books can go through as many permutations as the text itself before they see the light of day. Plus, for good or ill, writers have husbands, wives, publishers and others to weigh in, causing even more changes. Lovers of book trivia, read on: ...

When Jane Austen’s father submitted an early version of her second novel, First Impressions, to a publisher on her behalf, it was rejected. As Pride and Prejudice, it did much better.

Don DeLillo wanted to name his 1985 breakout novel Panasonic, but the corporation’s lawyers protested, and he settled for White Noise.

Once Max Brod got his hands on it, Kafka’s The Man Who Disappeared was retitled as Amerika.

Philip Roth’s most famous novel went through incarnations as The Jewboy, Wacking Off, and A Jewish Patient Begins his Analysis before it became Portnoy’s Complaint.

Bafflingly, All’s Well that Ends Well was the original title for Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace — in fact, it was first released under that title until its publishers came to their senses.

Toni Morrison wanted to name her first post-Nobel prize novel War, but instead wound up calling it the wildly dissimilar Paradise.

They Don’t Build Statues to Businessmen was the original title of Jaqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls.

Rick Moody, who has described himself as a ‘bad titler,’ eventually changed the title of his novel F.F. to The Ice Storm. Apparently, “F.F.” would have been meant as “short for ‘Fantastic Four’ or a variant of the notation for ‘fortissimo.’”

Trimalchio in West Egg; Among Ash-Heaps and Millionaires; On the Road to West Egg; Under the Red, White, and Blue; Gold-Hatted Gatsby; and The High-Bouncing Lover were all titles considered for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Adolf Hitler originally wanted to title his book Four and a Half Years of Struggle Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice, but ultimately changed it to the much more succinct Mein Kampf.

Ford Maddox Ford wanted to call his novel The Saddest Story — he only suggested calling it The Good Soldier as a joke, but his publisher wasn’t laughing, and took him up on it.

The Last Man in Europe wasn’t commercial enough for George Orwell’s publisher, who suggested they go with 1984.

When William Golding’s first novel was discovered in Faber and Faber’s slush pile, it was called Strangers from Within. With a little editorial guidance, every American schoolchild now reads it as Lord of the Flies.

In the end, Ayn Rand thought her first title, The Strike, gave too much plot away, and renamed her novel Atlas Shrugged, at the suggestion of her husband.

Tomorrow Is Another Day was the working title of Gone With the Wind, and that’s not the only change we’re grateful for: up until the very last second, Scarlett was named ‘Pansy.’ Bullet dodged.

Bram Stoker considered many titles, one of them being The Dead Un-Dead, before landing on the much less B-filmish Dracula.

When Carson McCullers was twenty-one, she submitted six chapters of her first novel, The Mute, to Houghton-Mifflin. They offered her an advance, renamed the book The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, and launched her career.

Fiesta, the original title of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, is still used on many foreign editions.

Evelyn Waugh’s The House of the Faith was changed to the much more distinctive title Brideshead Revisited.

Joseph Heller originally imagined his novel as a Catch-11, but doubled the number to Catch-22 so as not to compete with the recently released Ocean’s Eleven.

Alex Haley’s influential 1976 novel was changed from Before This Anger to the much more diplomatic Roots: The Saga of an American Family.

When Harper Lee decided her magnum opus was about more than one character, Atticus became To Kill a Mockingbird.

Vladimir Nabokov originally planned on calling his most famous work The Kingdom by the Sea before it became the Lolita we know and love today. Waste not, want not — Nabokov used a very similar phrase (A Kingdom by the Sea) in his 1974 pseudo-autobiographical novel Look at the Harlequins! as the title of a Lolita-like book written by the narrator.

Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s book about the Watergate scandal was originally called At this Point in Time, before it was changed to the more dramatic All the President’s Men.

Stephen Crane’s original manuscript was entitled Private Fleming, His Various Battles, but in an attempt to keep it from sounding like what he considered to be a more traditional Civil War narrative, he renamed it The Red Badge of Courage.
Jan 17, 2014
Not exactly an A-B test, but what if you had the book translated into Cantonese and marketed to a billion Chinese? Let someone else design the title and cover for that market. This list indicates a strong interest in non-fiction books geared to having a better life.

I imagine the Dale Carnegie organization would be happy to give you an endorsement on the cover.
Also, if you could get celebrity endorsements, I think more people would check it out. Charlie Sheen seems like a natural and I recall you met him once.
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 17, 2014
My advice would be:
* make your name bigger (authors sell more than titles in the paper back market and also pulp books, so I expect you want to grab the large floating Dilbert audience's attention)
* put Dilbert on the cover, perhaps under the foot of the PHB. You could put yourself under the threatening foot as well, but Dilbert looks better. People probably identify with him more than you.
*put Ratbert in there, too. I like Ratbert. Also, it suggests "rat race" and thus "success" and "failure".

Dilbert (and Ratbert) will sell to millions of occasional cubicle cartoon readers, while your name will sell to bigger fans, and the action sequence may sell to non-fans who are just attracted by the dramatic action and the promise of the secrets of easy success through something they know how to do already, name fail.
Jan 17, 2014
I'm not a publisher, per se, but I have been in bookselling 25 years next month with a company that strictly sells audiobooks. We used to publish audiobooks as well, but a few years ago we sold those assets to the BBC.

I haven't read the book yet because I have our publisher's listening sample out in my car, but I'm finishing the Richard Dawkins autobiography Appetite for Wonder that I'd already started.

I remember being disappointed when I clicked through on the Amazon link. I found the orange color off-putting, and I was confused by the comic-looking art that didn't scream Dilbert, and the "life story" tag made me wonder if it was going to be more autobiographical than I would like in a success book. I'm pretty OK with the title. (This was back when you begging us minions to pre-order.)

People definitely judge books by covers, and fans of particular genres have a stereotypical archetype of how those books usually look, e.g., romance has a couple in a field and the guy has his shirt open, sci-fi has a rocket/planet/alien/robot, horror is mostly black, etc.

The archetype for self-help and business is a mostly white cover with bold clean type in strong colors like black, red, and blue, often with a sharp graphic like a stock chart, a stopwatch, a pile of money, or yes, a piece of cheese. I know you said that this isn't a single-point thing like Gladwell, but I actually like Gladwell, and his most recent David & Goliath is next in my reading stack at home. When I see those self-helpy looking books I think, "That looks like something I might like."

As for testing, as the author, changing the cover image on Amazon should be a piece of cake if you know someone who can draw (wink-wink). As long as you don't change the EAN/ISBN everything should track through as the same book on Amazon, Bookscan, etc. (Quick aside: The full name of that EAN barcode is EAN Bookland, where the 978 that all ISBNs begin with is the country code for the fictional country of "Bookland.")

You wouldn't necessarily even need to change the actual book cover unless you saw a significant increase in sales with the new cover.

Another idea for testing is to test with the audiobook version. I imagine that the initial print run for the audio was pretty small - Brilliance Audio is practically print-on-demand, so you could change it pretty easily before the next run. (I think it's a single sheet slipped into a plastic case.)

You could change the artwork on Audible immediately, even in advance of any other changes, since there no problem rebranding the download.

So those are my thoughts. I've typed this up twice now because Dogbert ate my first post - if this one doesn't take, I'm done.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 17, 2014
You have a lot of very smart "fans" here contributing a lot of insightful observations.
I am not one of them. I'm pretty shallow and am cursed with a perpetual tendency to use television anecdotes to answer life's questions.

In the end, if the book sales aren't what you expected, it may be as simple as your readers just don't like green beans.

Jan 17, 2014
You might not be able to change the hard cover version at all and you might not be able to change the title in the e-book... but you can and it should be pretty easy to change the cover in the e-book version. So why not?

You could have a version without a cartoon, so it'd look more serious.
You could have a version with a character that looks struggling so people can relate.
You could have a version with your face on it, and a serious expression... so people will see that you're serious and that your looks didn't help you succeed in live.

Also editors are old people, they are used to old systems.
Don't blame them for not figuring out A/B testing on their own.
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 17, 2014
Hey man, no one's trying to argue with your publisher. You asked for our opinions on what might be preventing people from reading your book, and I (and a zillion others) offered them. Why ask if you're confident that you publisher already knows why people might read (or gift) a book? As a marketing professional, I can say that there are many niche markets where consumers don't behave like the 'average' consumer for their demographic. Geeks, for instance, have entirely different ways of evaluating potential purchases than your average (demographically-defined) shopper. The more your book could appeal to non-average consumers (for instance, people who don't usually buy self-help book), the less applicable demographic marketing trends will be.
Jan 17, 2014
I think the title and cover aren't as important as the fact that based on what you said previously the people who are buying the book are not the ones it is most likely to help. It probably needs to be aggressively marketed towards 25 year-olds and the title/cover issue may or may not be a part of that.
Jan 17, 2014
Actually I kinda like the title. Its a bit long, even without the 'Kind of the story of my life' part, but...
Jan 17, 2014
Whatever. You can make up any story you like but it doesn't detract from the idea that the title of this book is totally stupid and hurting sales.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 17, 2014
Books are often re-released after being made into a movie with a new cover showing the star(s) of the movie. Generally this leads to a run on those books, judging from my experience in bookselling.

In some cases, obviously, you judge a book by the (movie) cover.
Jan 17, 2014
1. As an author, I agree with you that publishers cannot tell what will sell, and opinions about covers are only opinions.

2. Since, as you say, luck and timing are major parts of the sales equation, A-B testing is probably not useful.

3. One reason I bought your book was the title. I LIKED "How To Fail..." A certain percentage of the population will.

I get that you want more people to be aware of the book as a public service. Probably leaning on your publisher to do more marketing would be the best way to increase sales. Just wondering if it's all that necessary.
+10 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 17, 2014

Publishers are always wrong. Authors just don't dare admit it in public.

If a title/ cover has never been changed before, then it's all the more reason for you to be the first. Nothing more sensational.

Something like this:

"How to be Dilbert and still win big"

And in small letters you may want to add: 'Published earlier under the title "How to Fail at almost everything and still win big" ... which failed, and now I am proving it right'

Jan 17, 2014
Perhaps the publishers just SAY the title/cover isnt important because if they didnt the next words out of Scotts mouth would be 'Then give me a good title and cover damnit!' or 'So its YOUR fault my book is selling poorly!'. And they cant give a good cover/title to everyone. Or have become so infested with losers/PHBs/accountants that they cant bring themselves to do the testing that would be required to identify good titles and covers.
Jan 17, 2014
This isn't the same thing as A-B testing, but it came to mind. When the first Harry Potter book was published, the American Publishers suggested that children would be off-put by the word 'Philosopher' in the title, so the books published in the U.S. have a different title than in the U.K. and other English speaking markets.
Since it is different markets, and the book was popular everywhere, I don't think any valid comparison can be made. But it raises the question as to whether Harry Potter would have been such a best-seller if the U.S. publisher had kept the original title.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 17, 2014
Perhaps people are confused by the adage "You can't judge a book by its cover"?

I know I *do* judge books by cover & title all the time. When I'm browsing in a bookstore I don't have time to pull every book from the shelf, open it, read some excerpts, etc. I apply a first pass filter to weed down the number of books that I physically touch. Since I can only see the spines of the books (in most cases) - that is what gets used as the filter. Probably I miss out on a lot of things that I might like - some of those are caught by friend recommendations. But I always have more books than I have time to sit and read.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 17, 2014
I have no idea how to fix your book's sales. All I could do is tell you why my initial reaction to the title was disinterest mixed with confusion. I wasn't planning to read it, but you seem so sure that it's great, and you've gotten so many positive reviews both on Amazon and here on your blog (not an audience known for flattering your ego) that I'm going to go ahead and read it. I hope it's great.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 17, 2014
Update and more thoughts:
I now see where the title could be an issue for gifting; it may sound like you're insinuating that the recipient seems to fail at everything. That's problematic.

Regarding a pen name, unless you're using "Jack Welch" or "Steve Jobs," I'd say Scott Adams is better than a nobody. With all of the self-help books out there, who would pick up one by an uncredentialed nobody? For example, J. K. Rowling's recent pseudonymous book flopped until her authorship was revealed.

Also, Scott, do the publishers really say that title and cover don't matter? Of course they can't predict success, but do they have information about how titles and covers affect your odds? I find it hard to believe they'd say it doesn't matter.
Jan 17, 2014
[ When I first saw the cover my first thought was, literally, 'That cover is right out of the fifties, whats it doing on a modern book?' ]

Unfortunately (because it's horribly ugly), that 50's design style is back in a huge way. It's one of the many things to hate about Windows 8, for instance. Flat, uninteresting, simplified graphics are everywhere, being gushed over as "clean", "retro", or "timeless". Yeecch.

Back to the point at hand: I don't think there is any way to predictably modify a book's appearance to be successful, but it is probably easy to do the opposite -- that is, make a book that you are sure very few people will want to read. Just getting a book's chance of success marginally above zero has to be a skill that very few people possess.

It's like the drafting process in sports -- coaches and GMs are often mocked for wasting high draft picks on players who turn out to be busts. (Of course, the same people who do that mocking are all a-gush over the picks when they happen. Remember the 1998 NFL Draft, when there was a huge debate over who the Colts should select, Peyton Manning or Ryan Leaf?) Their success at identifying good players is compared to a coin flip, implying anyone could do it. In reality, though, just to get to the point where your odds ARE 50/50 requires a tremendous amount of knowledge and experience.

This is actually very much in line with the theme of the book: you can't guarantee success, but you can make it easier for it to find you.
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