Books by Melissa Bowersock

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

DIY Focus Groups

Writing is a very isolated endeavor. Ideas spawn in our minds and we nurture them in our silent brain cells. We enlarge on them, imagine them growing, changing, moving forward, but it’s all very quietly within us until we set it down on paper. Even that process is isolated unless we have someone hanging over our shoulder waiting breathlessly for every word.

When we’ve finished our story-telling, the time has arrived for us to step out of our secluded little world and present our creation to others. We’ve captured our imaginings, we’ve pushed and prodded and wrangled and polished and refined until we are 100% certain it’s good and it’s done.

Or are we?

It’s not enough to write the book (although, of course, that’s the biggest milestone), and publishing now is not that hard if you choose to go the self-publishing route, which many of us are doing. So you’ve written the book, you’re ready to publish, but how do you reach out to the readers? How do you say to them, “This is a good book; take a look; read it!”

Think of the cover of your book as the doorway. This is the place where you put out the welcome mat for the reader and beckon them to enter. This is the place where you invite them to suspend their normal sense of time and space and enter into a different world. The cover of your book is the threshold, the connection, the passage. It will either call a reader in or turn them away.

Packaging is very much an instant, impulse thing. I’ve heard it said that a book has less than 10 seconds to grab a reader’s interest (perhaps even as little as 3 or 4). The title, the cover, the backcover blurb, even the predominant color of the book all must be crafted in a way that entices the reader to look deeper.

So how do you know how your book cover strikes readers? How do you know what it says to them?

Answer that question by creating your own focus group.

In the digital age, this is not that hard to do. Many writers have their own webpages already in place, and that’s a perfect vehicle for creating a focus group. Many writers also have blogs, and although these cannot be as focused on a target group as a webpage, they can still afford a window on the world for those who find webpages challenging.

When my book Goddess Rising was ready to publish, I had a couple ideas about the cover. My editor and I talked back and forth about it, but I really wanted input from the people this book would appeal to. (My editor, sweet man that he was, thought the book was worthy of publication but never really “got” it.) I have to admit, this book was difficult to market. Set in the future, the book is about a time when a geologic holocaust has destroyed civilization and left only a few scattered colonies of people who have reverted back to a simple agrarian lifestyle and worship the Great Goddess. Their one hope lies in a dream-given prophecy that Greer the Sibling, a female savior, will arise and lead the people back to greatness. The book follows Greer’s journey from simple obscurity to prophesied reign as she struggles with her destiny and discovers the rewards of power—and the price.

My first title for the book was The Sibling, simple but nondescript. One friend told me it sounded like a slasher movie, so I think I tossed it at that point. I wanted to convey the two-fold theme of the book, the rising of the Great Goddess and the rising of Greer. I finally settled on She Rises, a title that could refer to either, or both, themes.

For my graphic, I turned to one of my very favorite artists in the whole world, Meinrad Craighead. Meinrad was raised in a dynamic blend of Catholicism (she was a nun for many years) and awareness of the Great Goddess, and she weaves the living themes of both into her strong, iconic paintings. The one that I particularly liked for my book is called Mother and Daughter. I felt the graphic conjured up all relationships between all women: mother to daughter, of course, but also sister to sister and woman to Goddess.

Another piece of artwork that struck me was a painting by Dennis Davidson called Spatium Lux. Diametrically different than Meinrad’s, the space art of Davidson was at once evocative, spectacular and stunning. It had a very different feel than the warm tones of Mother and Daughter, but I liked and considered both. At the same time, my editor suggested Goddess Rising for the title, so I incorporated that into my options.

Armed with these graphics, I played around in MS Word, creating a mock book cover and trying out several different colors, different configurations, different fonts. When I had a range of styles, I put them up on a web page and asked several friends to take a look and tell me their reactions. Because I put up a new, unpublicized web page off my main page, I was able to e-mail friends the link and control who saw the page.


I invited friends to chime in on color, style, placement, font. I wanted to hear all about how the book cover and all its elements invited or intimidated, intrigued or turned off. I was mildly surprised when the votes for title favored Goddess Rising and the space art over She Rises with Meinrad. The votes also overwhelmingly preferred the center layout with the graphic making up the entire book cover, a layout I liked as well.


My next job was getting approval to use the artwork. I contacted Mr. Davidson but found him reluctant to let me use his work. He was unsure about the fit of my story with his art and being an artist of a different kind, I could well understand and respect that. This book is not for everyone. If I wasn’t 100% sure my story would be enhanced by someone else’s art, I wouldn’t marry the two, either. I resigned myself to another search for a fitting graphic.

As coincidence would have it, an acquaintance who knew I liked all things space sent me an e-mail with a stunning NASA photo. This man had no knowledge of my book or my struggles with the cover, but just happened to send me the most perfect picture I could imagine. Well, almost perfect. I had a feeling the arm of the Space Station wouldn’t quite fit in.

The good news about this was not only that I loved the picture, but that as a NASA file, it was easily accessible. If I remember correctly, it cost me something like $10 or $20 to get a beautiful hi-res copy of the photo. My editor immediately went to work tweaking it for the book cover. What resulted was, I thought, absolutely stunning, a book I was proud to hand out to readers.

As isolated as we are when we’re writing, any author concerned about the commercial success of their books can benefit greatly by using a focus group. When I look at this book, I see not only my own story, but the nudging encouragement of my talented editor and helpful friends. This book truly was a labor of love from many standpoints.

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