PUBLISHED NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2020
by Richard-Anthony Lena, President, Brattle Publishing Group —
Product testing will help you learn what appeals to your readers so you can be more successful in the marketplace.
- Quick testing will improve your narrative, illustration, design, and your readers’ experiences.
- Testing can be ongoing so that you receive continual customer opinions and ideas. It is also iterative and can be done several times while you are writing your book.
- Many author publishers use writing groups or beta readers to review their work and obtain advice, but they often do it too late in the process.
Brattle Publishing is a children’s educational and trade publisher. Brattle’s educational division creates instructional online and print-based products for global partners. For many of our projects, we include formal user testing in our development to ensure that our content and delivery systems aid, educate, and assist learners. We involve our end users, as well as our other stakeholders, early in the process in order to get their feedback about their expectations for our products. We also employ some of these techniques in our trade division as our authors write their manuscripts.
Now, you might be asking yourself, “Who are these stakeholders, and why should I compromise my vision of my book?” or “This sounds so formal. Why does this matter when I’m writing or publishing children’s books or mystery novels?” Well, these stakeholders are your readers and customers, and you want to write and publish books they will love. And how might you do it? By checking in with and listening to the very people you hope will share your vision: the readers.
This article will present how you can quickly, easily, and inexpensively do your own product testing to connect with your readers and learn what appeals to them so you can be more successful in the marketplace. Of course, this kind of testing is a compromise between the time it takes collecting more information to address uncertainty and releasing the book faster in order to start sales. But we believe that quick testing will improve your narrative, illustration, design, and even your readers’ experiences and may present opportunities for either additional titles or a series.
Testing can be ongoing so that you receive continual customer opinions and ideas. Typically completed with small groups, testing is iterative and can be done several times while you are writing your book.
We informally polled author publishers and small publishers and asked what they do. We learned that many author publishers use writing groups or beta readers to review their work and obtain advice, but many wait until they are far along in their creative process or even finished with a full draft of their manuscript. Some might say this is very late, and sometimes too late, in the process.
As authors and book publishers, we often perform a mix of informal testing tasks, but we might not do enough up-front work. Without early testing, we might struggle to make a difference while still writing, illustrating, and designing. We may miss chances to address our customers’ expectations and hear their feedback about the plot, story structure, and characters while we are still in a writing mindset. In short, we may ultimately produce a “less-than ideal” book and wind up with bad reviews or low sales because we didn’t connect with the readers.
You might be asking, “But how can my customers be included in the writing or development process without crushing my creativity or my author’s vision?”, “How can it be done without taking years to complete my book?”, and “How much will this cost me to do?” Here are three easy ideas you can try to include customer feedback into your book development at the earliest time.
1. Survey Target Readers
Before you begin writing or soon thereafter, survey your target audience. Ask them questions such as the following:
- What do you think about this book topic?
- What do you think a story about this topic should include?
- What type of characters might be included? Describe those characters.
If you are struggling with the story flow or plot points, you might ask specific questions around these. Balance your questions so that this quick survey gives you answers that can help steer your writing process.
Compile the results to see if there are any consistent or interesting responses that you can include in your manuscript. Remember, this is a small sample, and you may not get much consistency in the responses, but you might get some great idea generators. You are not obligated to use them, but they might include ideas you never thought of before.
2. Check in With Your Reader Groups Early
Many of the author publishers we talked to claimed they seek outside opinions and feedback through their regular reader and writing groups. These can be sources of great feedback, but if your groups do not include members of your target audience, then you are not tapping into and connecting with your customer base. You should check in with your groups, but in order to get the most out of their feedback and suggestions, you might try to send sample chapters to a select few before you’ve invested in a full draft. That way you can make simple changes or major shifts before you have an entire manuscript.
“Depending on the publisher or agent you are approaching, this could be an additional selling point for your proposal,” said children’s book author Fran Hodgkins.
3. Create Digital Focus Group
As you continue writing, hold a digital focus test with some of your survey or newly recruited participants. In our COVID-19 “Zoom world,” people have become very comfortable meeting virtually. Use this to your advantage. Sign up for a free video account and put together a series of informal focus groups. Use this time to read sample chapters, review illustrations, or work on covers. You can share all this content easily in this medium and in real time. You might even revisit some of the survey questions you asked or earlier feedback you received. If you have trouble finding potential readers to join, use the same process you used earlier to find survey participants.
If video conferences are not to your liking, find in-person opportunities such as classes in which to run your focus groups. “I was teaching an art class and would read the chapters to the children while they were working on their projects. I would watch their reactions and listen to the questions they asked. Kids are brutally honest and, in this setting, if they didn’t like it, they would say so,” said author and illustrator Samuel Valentino.
Using these three strategies may just provide you with the beginnings of a ready-made audience for your book.
How many people should I survey, and how do I find them?
- Identify potential readers—those that you know who are likely to read a book about your chosen theme or topics. Find survey participants in your writing groups, through the local library, family and friends, or word-of-mouth referrals. A personal note explaining how you would like their help and its importance may help you to gain buy-in.
- Ask seven to 10 people, with the goal of getting five to seven participants.
- Pull your survey together—keep it brief, with a maximum of 10 questions. This will result in more participation. No one likes long surveys!
- If you need to motivate reluctant participants, offer them a small token of appreciation for completing the survey, such as coffee gift cards or a discount on the completed book. An inexpensive gesture, if needed, can go a long way.
What can I do if I am not part of a reader group?
- You can recruit beta readers who are either professionals, or ask some of your survey participants.
- Release sample chapters on Goodreads or other book sites and closely analyze the reviews.
How can you maximize the time you have with a digital focus group?
- Craft new questions to help you move the book forward, or revisit some of your survey questions with this group.
- Simplify your questioning process by using polling apps built into the online video communication apps.
- Have sketches of your book’s illustrations before they are finalized. Note participant feedback as you hear it.
Richard-Anthony Lena is the president and publisher at the Brattle Publishing, an independent publisher and full-service development house. For more than 25 years, Lena has worked in conceptualizing, designing, and managing the development of educational, entertainment, and “edutainment” products in various media forms, including print, digital, video, and audio products. Lena has worked in and provided strategic consulting for industry leaders such as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Cambium Learning Group, and Xerox.