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
I just looked it up in IMDB -- it has an "also known as" section for movies.

Looks like "Captain Phillips (2013)" was also shopped around as "A Captain's Duty" and "A Captain's Story" before they settled on "Captain Phillips". This is the new Tom Hanks story about Somali pirates.

Actually, there are a ton of amusing articles that cover this topic with examples of pre-and-post changes. "3000" was the original name of "Pretty Woman", "Shoeless Joe" was changed to "Field of Dreams". "Do Androids dream of Electric Sheep?" was changed to "Blade Runner."
Jan 17, 2014
BTW just republish it as an e-book with two different titles and covers if you really want to do the experiment and have no profit motive. See which one does best.
Jan 17, 2014

[I think it's a case of armchair quarterbacking. Everyone has their own opinions and explanations after something happens, but they aren't the ones making the calls in the planning phase. Everyone can see failure and come up with reasons it could have been prevented, but it takes real talent to stop failure before it occurs. ]

Something in that, but Scott DID ask us why its failing, so all this is exactly what he wants. And this may not be the reason its failing, but I thought it was a bad cover the moment I saw it.

And while were still on the subject, Scott, this is something else which may or may not have a bearing on why it isnt doing as well as you like:

I read your book. Im not surprised by the five star reviews; it is indeed, as you suggest, enjoyable and seemingly useful. But I myself would only give it three, maybe four stars. Why? Because when I went back to reread parts of it I didnt have the same reaction to it. It wasnt nearly as enjoyable or readable. You might say thats because I wasnt reading it the whole way through like the first time and the word magic you used doesnt work when you do that. I beleive that. But it doesnt alter the fact that I have lots of books that I can pick up, read some part of it that I like, put it down satisfied and I cant do that with your book. So how do I give it five stars?

What does this have to do with how successful your book is, you ask? Maybe Im not the only one who had that reaction. Maybe other folks who had that reaction figured a book they couldnt enjoy rereading wasnt worth a buy.
Jan 17, 2014
This phenomenon has been thoroughly investigated in a controlled setting, see for example Science Vol 311, p.854 (2006) by Matthew J. Salganik, et al. "Unpredictability in an Artificial Cultural Market." Yes, there seems to be no rationality about it. If you are interested, I have a pdf that I can email.

Basically, success is impossible to predict and relies on a phenomenon Salganik et al. call "cumulative advantage" where a song, novel etc. becomes more successful simply because it is successful. Publishers themselves, in moments of honesty, admit they cannot predict this. Apparently, for example, the first Harry Potter book was rejected by 8 publishers before finding a home. The rejection of The Beatles as "just another guitar band" is another famous example.

In an example one of the co-authors of the above article, Duncan Watts, quotes the publisher of Lynne Truss’s surprise best seller, “Eats, Shoots & Leaves,” who, when asked to explain its success, replied that “it sold well because lots of people bought it.”

That said, your "systems" idea should, if valid, still be able to position the book for the best chance of success. Otherwise you can boil it down to the #1 piece of advice I always give aspiring young scientists who ask me for it: "Be in the right place at the right time."
Jan 17, 2014
I'm pretty sure they rebrand movies in the manner you're suggesting. And I'm pretty sure they do the kind of A/B testing that you're talking about, too. Maybe it's a question of how much is invested in a piece of media that determines whether rebranding makes sense.

i.e. if we can turn this pig's ear into a purse, can we recoup millions of invested dollars? In your case, time might be valuable like that. However, I would guess that book publishers usually see intellectual property is a more hit-and-miss thing, and aren't as inclined to push the same book twice. Pushing the book is their main cost, and the sucker author's time is meaningless to then.
Jan 17, 2014
I think it's a case of armchair quarterbacking. Everyone has their own opinions and explanations after something happens, but they aren't the ones making the calls in the planning phase. Everyone can see failure and come up with reasons it could have been prevented, but it takes real talent to stop failure before it occurs.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 17, 2014
1) If the book were wrapped in brown paper and only the title (handwritten) was on it, along with many other books on the shelf done the same way, how many people would pick it up? You could do the same thing with just "A Scott Adams Memoir" with no title or cover art and see if it's your name that carries weight. Finally you could do just the cover art, no title or name, and see how people react. Personally, I think your name on the book carries more weight than the title or the artwork.

2) If you want to do an A-B test for your book, instead of referring to it as "How To Fail..." start referring to it as "... And Still Win Big" or "... Kind of Story of My Life". See how many more click-throughs you get with those hyperlinks.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 17, 2014
If you really want to increase the unit sales (and help others) just lower the price of the Kindle edition to 2.99 and then pay Amazon to feature the book on the Kindles that have the "Special offers" enabled that display your book cover (or improved book cover) when powered off. There have been numerous times when an advertisement on my wife's Kindle caught my eye.

That should drive the book higher on the best seller lists which should also help sell the paper editions of the book.
Jan 17, 2014
Scott, for question one think about the first 5 minutes when you meet someone. That's the time your brain is hardwiring our opinion of them. The same holds true for books.

I read a book about story structure (Story Engineering) and it said that you've basically got a few pages to get people interested in the book. A book title and cover is something that needs to appeal to people when compared to the ones next to it on a shelf or a website.

Let's say you go to a bookstore or browse for one on the net. You aren't looking for a specific title or author. Most people don't methodically make comparisons by reviewing each one thoroughly. They make A-B comparisons until something interests them. Then they investigate further.

So I think you need to ask: which groups do you want reading this book and what are the things that get their attention?

BTW, companies don't always know what's in their best interest:
Jan 17, 2014
I bought and enjoyed your book, but I was already familiar with the "Scott Adams Brand" through Dilbert and the blog. I think any book with a title that begins "How To Fail..." from an unknown source, would not be immediately appealing. What to do about it now? ...I have no idea
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Jan 17, 2014
1. No. I am a layman in a room full of experts who know how to track down elephants in the room.

2. Covers and titles are frequently changed for different markets and especially for translations. This is not a "true" A/B testing of course, but there may be markets that are similar enough in relevant regards (level of income, distribution of industrial sectors, level of education). Plus this stretches your condition of "already on the market" a little bit.
Jan 17, 2014
I don't see what the difficult part is about A-B testing as long as you don't do it in the field...

Pay to have a run the test with a test audience. Movie studios do it all the time. I'm sure that there are marketing companies that will gather a pool of volunteers and figure out a way to show them different cover possibilities and poll them on which they are more likely to buy or give as a gift.

Then when you find the best cover title combination, you rebrand the book. That happens all the time.
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 17, 2014
I mostly agree with your hypothesis. And I never minded the title; sometimes being a little different makes people notice.

But I do find the color hideous. And the graphic looks cartoon-y without the Dilbert-style appeal. It doesn't look serious -- even in a fun way.

Worst of all, it's a giant foot stepping on a little guy. That screams "how 'the man' is !$%*!$%* you." That is not something I'd care to look into further.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 17, 2014
I'm a daily reader of your blog so I think of myself as something of an expert on what you are thinking and feeling. Not as much as your wife but probably more so than an aunt or uncle.

And you seem more concerned about the sales of the new book than I would have expected. You don't need the money. And you've learned to manage your expectations about your fellow man. You've led us to the water, do you really care if we drink it? (Lots of did) I'd be suspicious if lots of people bought and loved your book. It would make me question my own judgement in some fundamental way.

My favorite SA books is God's Debris. I don't know what your expectation for that book was but I can't imagine you thought there would be long lines. My own take on GD is it will be the Dead Sea Scrolls of some future era. What I'm saying here is maybe it's about timing. Perhaps there's nothing you can (or could have done) beside wait. Let me know if that strategy flies with your publisher.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 17, 2014
You seem to be struggling with the goal of increasing sales of your book. A wise person told me these important things recently:

• Goals are for losers. Systems are for winners.
• “Passion” is bull. What you need is personal energy.
• A combination of mediocre skills can make you surprisingly valuable.
• You can manage your odds in a way that makes you look lucky to others.

Maybe you should read this book? http://www.amazon.com/How-Fail-Almost-Everything-Still/dp/1591846919/
+8 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 17, 2014
[1. Do you believe publishers are wrong about the importance of the title/cover]
Yes. The phrase "don't judge a book by it's cover" exists because our default reaction is do just that. I suspect the reason rebranding isn't done for books is due to cost. Plus a publisher/author/agent would be admitting that they made a mistake by not suggesting something better the first time. It could end up with a lot of finger pointing and sour a relationship.

Who does come up with the title? It seems that the publisher would leave final say in the author's hands so as to avoid blame if the sales aren't as good as expected. But that means their "expert" opinions could get over-ridden.

[2. Is there a practical way to do A-B testing for books already published?]
I don't think so, until you are ready to stop making money off it. At that point, you offer it for free under several titles and ask people that have read the book to choose one of those titles when recommending to their friends that they download it.

Other opinions based on not having read the book:
1) The title makes it a difficult gift to give. It's sounds like an accusation that the receiver is serial failure. I'd be hesitant to give or recommend a book with that title without having the time to caveat the gift and the relationship with the receiver to know they'll take it well. It's kinda like the opposite of getting someone "Oh the places you'll go" upon graduation (which has a much more positive title).
2) I only buy books I expect to reread (usually sci-fi series, more books in the arc is better, and longer books are better). This is the type of book I'd get from the library.
3) I don't expect the book to make me more successful. Success still takes work and most people don't like to work hard enough to achieve big success. I'm comfortable where I am now given the amount of work I put in.
4) I suspect that your book may also suffer from "what kind of book is this?" confusion. You being who you are will cause a lot of people to expect it to be a humor book. The "kind of the story of my life" part of the title makes it look like an autobiography. You describe the content as self-help style book (I haven't read it yet; I'm still waiting for my copy from the library which is where I tend to get books I expect to be able to read in a few hours). Which genre is it being compared against?
5) (More related to success pie blog) I think the backlash against the 1% is more related to inflated C-level salaries. Your pay should be commensurate with effort and talent. I don't think CEOs are working 273 times harder than the average worker. And I don't think they are that much more talented than those below them who are making much less. That makes their work overvalued, and since CEOs sit on the board to set CEO pay, makes them look like d-bags and easy to hate. The exception is for those that built their companies from the ground up like Elon Musk.
Jan 17, 2014
It is interesting that you mention the "For Dummies" series. I can honestly say that I resist buying them simply because of the title, and have given some (unserious) thought to starting a competing series of books "For the As Yet Uninformed"
Jan 17, 2014
1. As someone who pointed to the title as a reason I wouldn't give it as a gift to certain people, I certainly think the title/cover is important. HOWEVER that doesn't mean I believe publishers could predict which combination will work any better than you or I could. Perhaps your title/cover, as is, still sell more copies than something more amenable to my gift-buying sensibility.

2. I agree; I cannot think of an obvious way to split-test with books.
Jan 17, 2014
Scott, it's probably too late to fix any problems, for reasons stated already.

Nothing about Dilbert suggests "self-help success", and your name only indicates that to people who already know who you are and (like me) would have bought it anyways.

I like the cover, but it looks like a funny memoir as opposed to a personal growth/success book.

That said, you have more money than you'll ever use so I guess we can just write this off then.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Jan 17, 2014
The exception that proves the rule?

Dr. Agus was one of the cancer doctors to Steve Jobs, who retitled Agus’ book, The End of Illness.


I can't find a better source for this story, heard on the radio the other day.
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