PUBLISHED JULY/AUGUST 2018
by Cory Schulman, Owner, BestSellerPublications.com —
Helpful tips for independent publishers about how to obtain focus groups and why they are so important
A focus group can help authors understand how their manuscript is perceived from a reader’s perspective. Members of a focus group read manuscripts and provide objective feedback on the merits and limitations of the work. This ultimately helps authors and/or publishers know whether readers understand the manuscript as it was intended.
A reader in a focus group is not an editor; however, they often do cite errors. Their main job is to give an overall impression of the work — whether or not they liked the book, and why. But, more importantly, the main job of a focus group member is to provide specific advice about the characters, plot, climax, denouement, vocabulary, readability, theme/message, etc.
An author will often give their manuscripts to a spouse or trusted friend for a review. The problem with this convenient approach is that your close relationship may cause the reader to give biased support, even unjustifiable praise absent of critical insight. These allies may feel obligated to say something positive as a show of support, which doesn’t help an author realize the manuscript’s limitations. These loyalists may not even be good analysts or effective reviewers. Lastly, a couple of confidants do not represent the diversity of the reading public.
How Do You Set up a Focus Group?
BestSellerPublications.com (BSP) finds focus group readers through all network venues. We advertise the opportunity in our quarterly newsletter, promote the concept through social media, and connect with avid readers at literary association meetings and other social gatherings. Members have included colleagues, referrals, and complete strangers. We vet these individuals to determine that they are well read and understand that they must evaluate the works objectively.
Getting Input from Focus Groups
When we use focus groups, we also gather a few facts from the readers, such as their age, education level, gender, preferred genre, how many books they read a month, etc. Then we issue a series of questions to help direct their attention on issues that concern the publisher.
We distribute two different surveys: one is essay-based; the other is a score-based assessment. The essay-based survey asks the reader to write responses to a variety of key questions about the manuscript, as well as any other thoughts they may volunteer. In addition, a second, 100-point survey is given that covers 10 issues, such as use of vocabulary, readability, plot, climax, ending, etc. Each issue is graded from 1 to 10, 10 representing excellence; 1 representing poor execution. The 10 scores are added for a total score that is compared from member to member in the focus group. If a trend can be seen among the survey scores, it could indicate to the author how well the book is received. If all the focus group members grade it low, maybe it’s not ready for publication.
After a member submits the two surveys we provided them, BSP evaluates their thoroughness and insights they bring. If their essay answers are lacking in depth, we do not invite them to perform additional reviews. For members who provide insightful feedback, we offer additional manuscripts to review. There is, therefore, a constant turnover of members so that the core membership are the most talented and effective. The incentive to join this effort is mostly for the personal rewards of participating; however, BSP provides a $25 gift card for each review as a show of appreciation.
Listening to Your Focus Groups
Some members of the focus group have special talents, such as having a good ear for dialogue; others are great at punctuation. Although the focus group members are not editors, BSP encourages them to identify any errors or improvements in the content as they read the manuscript. By catching errors in awkwardness, mechanics, style, and flow, the manuscript can be passed on to the professional editor in a cleaner state. This way the professional editor can focus on the most important aspects of their task.
For one of our clients’ manuscripts, which featured members of the Mafia who frequently cursed, focus group members said they enjoyed the manuscript but felt the frequency of cursing marred the experience. BSP examined this issue and took it very seriously, especially since several of the focus group members cited the same issue. In collaboration with the author, we eliminated about 30 percent of the cursing, which we realized was gratuitous. The story still captured the rawness of gangster language, but flowed better with less emphasis on cursing.
Scoring and Making a Decision
Surveys submitted by the focus group help BSP identify both weaknesses and strengths in the work, as well as give an overall indication of favorability of the work. Scores for publishable works should exceed 80 percent on the favorability scale. Though BSP makes the decisive call on whether to publish a manuscript, based on other criteria such as novelty, style, humor, insight, entertainment value, fit for the BSP portfolio, and so much more—the focus group is a key external influence that cannot be overlooked, helping improve the product and give an impression of how the work will be received by the public.
What Makes a Good Focus Group?
In the end, if you adhere to the following four “rules,” you should be able to create a good focus group for your book(s).
- It should consist of an adequate number of members. There is no magical number, but the more the better. For reference, BestSellerPublications.com uses about nine readers as a focus group for each manuscript.
- The members should be competent readers. They don’t necessarily have to be college educated, but they should be avid readers.
- Employ readers who like the genre of your manuscript. Readers who love romance novels may be poor candidates for a focus group if you have them read a crime thriller. A cross section of readers with varied interests may better represent the general public. So, it depends whether you want to know if your work will appeal to the masses or to a more niche group.
- The readers you select should be coached to speak freely. They can provide objective insights and justifiable opinions. They can also cite examples to identify the negatives and positives of the work.
Cory Schulman is the owner of BestSellerPublications.com and can be reached through BestSellerPublications@gmail.com. His debut in fiction, The World of Comics, just recently released.