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.


Rank Up Rank Down Votes:  +15
  • Print
  • Share


Sort By:
Feb 9, 2014
Your book title and imagery will ABSOLUTELY determine your sales.

They won't polish a turd, but they will have a big enough impact to possibly shift tipping points of sales.

I'm a behavioural scientist who has turned his eye for the past decade towards conversion rate optimisation.

Headlines and imagery are some of the biggest drivers of conversion rate improvements, and that is really what you're talking about. I would distinguish this from poor sales as a result of poor marketing reach generally.

But there is a way to test this simply.

Here's how you do it. Just pick say 5 quite different book covers and get them made up, even just roughly. Then set up a landing page with an opt-in form for each book to collect email address for a notice of release of the book.

Then buy AdWords display traffic and Facebook ads with the book as the primary element in the ad. Use big ads (300 x 250) ideally or a full inline page post on FB.

Then throw some money at it and see what gives you the highest CTR on the ad. You could also shape your messaging on the landing page to see what longer form messaging best sells the book (back cover stuff). Look at the conversion rates for different versions of those.

Once you have a winning concept, then refine it further by testing via PPC till you have an optimised product.
Feb 6, 2014
can I purchase a DRM-free PDF version of your book? that would do for me.

by the way, I also dislike the orange - it takes me back to the worst part of the 80s, but wouldn't ruin the reading for me.
Jan 22, 2014
Ask Seth Godin. He changed both title and cover of his 'All marketers are liars'. I guess he faced the same worries.

Jan 20, 2014
Just to throw an opinion out there. To me, it's not about the cover or title. The issue lies more in the absence of time and the abundance of choice.

It shouldn't come as a shock that very few people nowadays have the time, or make the time, to read a book. That kind of time is a scarcity. I think you once blogged yourself that you can't stay interested in almost any lengthy article. I am sure I would be a better person for reading a few self-improvement books, but I just cannot find the time for such things.

The other issue is the abundance of choice. This is a book in the self-improvement category. There are thousands of books in this category. Why buy this one?
Jan 20, 2014
A friend told me that if you're looking for a good book but have nothing particular in mind, buy a book with a bad cover - for a distributor to put it on display means that the content must be fantastic. I wonder if it's true.
Jan 18, 2014
As I mentioned in a previous post, perhaps luck is working *against* you this time.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 18, 2014
You face a unique dilemma marketing a non-fiction book; relative to most book authors you have huge name recognition, but you're famous for a comic strip. Had I not been a regular reader of your blog I would have no more interest in getting "life" advice from you than I would have in consulting Charles Schulz about heart surgery. To that end I wonder if the title could have incorporated some of your biography so that people could infer the context. "From corporate cog to successful entrepreneur-- the real life story of Dilbert and how you can be successful too"

That said, I agree with others who have observed that the biggest problem may be that in the wake of the great recession people feel a sense of hopelessness and helplessness that makes self help books a hard sell at this time.

It's not all bad news-- after reading your posts from the past week I did buy the kindle version of your book.

Jan 18, 2014
Another comment in a semi-humorous vein. What could be better, when teaching people about the joys of failure, than having another one to brag about? Think what you learned by failing to sell your book! That's irony at it's finest.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 18, 2014
1. of course they are wrong. they publish such huge amounts of crap and fail almost all the time.
2. there is no practical way to do a-b testing for anything. you should not better that free will does not exist.
3.the absence of such a rebranding company makes think this approach is likely to work. i usually can tell from the cover if i will like the book :)

4. to satisfy "fail" haters you could make word "win" way larger. and in comics sans. and with a blinkin exclamation mark :)
5. your cover orange is wrong. it is sort of cold and crap like color. you should change it to some happier orange ;-)

Jan 18, 2014
I did mention the cover in my reply to your earlier post, but not as the only reason the book isn't selling up to your expectations. More about the last word in that sentence later, but first . . .

I am not a publisher. But I am an avid reader. A cover gives a reader the initial impression of a book. At least, it does to me. I started thinking about this after answering your previous post.

The cover tells me two things: first, the genre of the book, which I can often tell by the title - I agree, titles are important, and that they're tough to do well. I'm still trying to come up with a good title for my novel, and I completed it months ago.

Second, the cover gives me an idea of the quality of the book. A cover with great artwork and eye-catching design implies that the book within is probably going to be pretty good. Otherwise, the publisher wouldn't have spent so much money on the layout, design and art of the cover.

Your cover, forgive me for saying this, sucks in both areas. It looks cheap and sophomoric, while giving me no idea what the book is about. The title seems contradictory: how can you fail at almost everything but still succeed? As I said before, that's the main point of the book, or at least the part that sticks out in my mind: start off by succeeding really big time by meeting a major goal you set for yourself as a child, and then abandon goals and develop a system that allows you to educate yourself by failing over and over again. But if you have enough money, those expensive failures won't bankrupt you, as even one of them would bankrupt 99.99% of the population.

Gee, I'd sure like to do that! The first part, I mean. The second part, not so much. I'd rather buy my education directly than gain it through very expensive failures. Your book is almost a cautionary tale - don't do this! Not exactly what you would call your standard self-help book. More like what a prisoner would write to caution kids not to enter a life of crime.

As to the 'expectations' part. Let me speak metaphorically for a moment. Do you know why technicians largely make poor salespeople? It's because they love their product so much that they can't see its flaws nor honestly evaluate it versus the competition. They just consider anyone who buys a competitor's product to be an idiot.

So what are your bona-fides for writing a self-help book? You are a cartoonist who authored a series that made you a lot of money. You're a talented and creative artist who struck an everyman chord in your "Dilbert" strip. As you said in an earlier book, "ta-daa!!!" Then you pretty much bombed out in big ways ever since.

You know what I said to myself when you first told all of us about this book? That it would sell because of your name, not because of the content. I now think that your expectations for this book were unrealistic because you love the content much more than the content deserves.

So the question is: on what did you base your expectations for the sales of this book? Is the publisher disappointed, or is this more a personal thing? I mean, it seems to be selling pretty well to me. Your Amazon rank is #5,232. My wife's book, which is a guide to helping seniors and their families cope with the challenges of aging (arguably a better book in its genre than yours is in yours) has an Amazon rank of #846,252.

And no, I'm not going to mention the title here. I don't write these posts to make money.

My advice? Quit whining.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 18, 2014
Some romance novels by best-selling authors are printed with different colored covers although the contents and words on the covers are the same. Don't know if it increases sales.
Jan 18, 2014
@checkm - "Goals are for Losers"

Now that is a title that would make me pull a book off a store shelf or click on a link. Brilliant.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 18, 2014
I remember hearing a similar story about Leonard Nimoy's autobiography entitled "I Am Not Spock". The publisher balked at having a negative in the title, and the title caused Nimoy to be blamed for the lack of a Star Trek movie/reunion for years.
Jan 18, 2014
"No one with publishing experience can accurately predict sales based on the book's title, cover, or even the content."
Maybe no one in the publishing industry, but what if you're a delusionary professor at Stony Brook?

"Professor Yejin Choi thinks she has a tool to bring some science to that art, and she is co-author of a paper, Success with Style: Using Writing Style to Predict the Success of Novels"


+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 18, 2014
I tend to buy a book if I know the author or am interested in the title. So, I bought your book despite the title! By the way, the cover is lame. It's like something I would come up with. "Goals are Crap!" would have made a better title or "Goals are for Losers!", better still.

So yes, publishers are wrong, at least from the way I buy a book. Maybe they could come up with a short run of books with two different titles/covers and advance market the books in two comparable cities. Both books could use the "...previously published under "another name"" rubric. The winner of the marketing research would get the big printing.

And of course, never take book publishing advice from a property manager!
Jan 18, 2014
Even in areas where it's hard to predict success, it's often easier to predict failure. Unless you forced your title and cover on a protesting publisher, I'd go with, "Nah, that's not it."

You could certainly play with the cover, especially for the paperback edition(s). I've seen mass market paperbacks with different cover colors, side by side on supermarket bookshelves. You could try one with the, "Fail at almost everything and still," in small type and, "How to," and, "Win Big," in big, bold type. You could do different drawings for the cover. You could get yourself photographed at the Playboy Mansion, surrounded by Playmates. At least for the electronic edition, you could probably arrange for Amazon to display the different versions randomly on their web site - and track sales by cover. All these would be fun. And they will probably all appear to work, since sales will grow as enthusiastic readers recommend the book to their friends.
Jan 18, 2014
So... Just looked this up, and say that...

Just over 77% of self-published writers make $1,000 or less a year, according to the survey, with a startlingly high 53.9% of traditionally-published authors, and 43.6% of hybrid authors, reporting their earnings are below the same threshold.

Which puts the whole "publisher willing to republish" issue into perspective. The author's time & effort -- pretty much the bulk of "the actual work" doesn't cost the publisher squat, and is therefore not something that they're worried about salvaging.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 18, 2014
1) Yes.
2) Cover: Yes. Just look at the different covers for the harry potter books or terry pratchett's disc world. Different publishers also give you a chance to have different covers.

But changing he title? Never heard of that and most people would count it as cheating, because with a different title they expect a different book. A title identifies a book, much more that a cover image.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 18, 2014
I am who I am, so I will have to take your question literally.
Q: Is there a practical way to do A-B testing for books already published?“
A: Too late. :-(

For a book that has not been published, I would say the answer is “Yes!” ...but it doesn't apply to normal schlepps that can't draw a crowd. You are an accomplished public speaker, that commands a hefty speaking fee, and you live in the bay area. Volunteer to speak at a large tech company or two, and sell “draft” versions of a new book, with different titles. Say they are different, but don't say how. Only bring a few copies, and limit to one book per customer. Include a page at the end of the books saying what you did. Ta dum! It's not exactly scientific, but it is better than guessing. For truly scientific data, you could hire a market research firm to poll a statistically significant sample, but where is the fun in that?
Jan 17, 2014

I'm sure that I'm not alone in this - I tend to read the reviews that have three stars (out of five) because that automatically gets rid of the people that are too enthusiastic to tolerate as well as those with an axe to grind. With regards to your new book, the three star reviews on Amazon are pretty consistent - the content is thin and not terribly interesting. I might've purchased the book despite the god-awful cover if I I didn't see such a strong response of "meh"...
Get the new Dilbert app!
Old Dilbert Blog