A great setting can enhance your book sales.

The glitz and glamour of Hollywood might make a great location for a novel. It has a lot of bookstores.
The glitz and glamour of Hollywood might make a great location for a novel. It has a lot of bookstores.

EVERY READER ENJOYS a story more if it is enriched with observation and description that creates vivid and strong settings, and evokes mood and atmosphere. We readers, after all, want to be transported off to times, places and events where we can lose ourselves in stories about heroes we can identify with, who triumph against the odds. But it is true, of course, that some best-selling authors pay scant attention to location and setting; maybe because they consider dwelling on location, like sex scenes, simply slows down the action. Or maybe it is because some author’s strengths are so heavy in other areas, perhaps in characterization, or in plot development, or in use of dialogue, that the need to feed the reader’s senses with evocative description of place is less acute. Or maybe we just buy a Grisham book because we love Grisham, without ever really analyzing why we do.

Tom Barry
Tom Barry

But there’s a reason why in the new world of digital publishing, setting takes on a whole new importance. An importance that has little to do with what they teach on creative writing courses. And, in fact, has little to do with the reader experience after they buy book. But before I open the kimono further, a question or two. Other things being equal, are we more inclined to read a book that is set in the place we grew up in, or our parents grew up in? Or the place where we had our first sexual experience (no, not the back of the car)? Or maybe the place where we have our fondest memories, perhaps from some idyllic holiday? Or equally powerfully, what if the setting is a place we’ve always dreamed of going, that we’ve imagined in our mind time after time? I’m suggesting the answer to all these questions is yes. I know that I was fascinated to read Angela’s Ashes because it was set in a long-lost time and place where my parents grew up and where I, years later, was shipped off to and suffered the character building trauma of fighting for my life in the local village school.

Imagine for a second you are idly browsing the shelves in your local bookstore, or are trawling through streams of book cover thumbnails on Amazon or Goodreads. And as you scan past one derivative cover after another, your attention is grabbed by an arresting image that means something to you personally. An image that immediately takes you to some place that makes an emotional connection with your very core. If you’re like me then when this happens you pick the book off the shelf, or click on the image, because your need to know has been triggered. In the world of traditional publishing, such an emotional connection could only be made by chance. But in the world of digital publishing, we can make this connection in a far more targeted way.

Let’s say a book is a racy thriller. An author might choose a cover that delights in the beauty of the female form, perhaps with an image that is fresh and appealing. So far so good, and no different from traditional publishing. But let’s say the book or some important part of the book is set in Los Angeles. A savvy author might then choose a title like “Sex and Sin in Hollywood”. There’s an immediate connection with a huge demographic. The local press is much more likely to pick up on the title and feature the book. But so far we’re still in the same zone as traditional publishing. There’s no reason Grisham’s publisher couldn’t do this.

But Grisham’s publisher is committed to long print runs. He is obliged to go with a title and a cover that is optimized for an international market place. He may change it now and again, particularly to freshen up public interest, but that’s about it. He’s never going to go with a cover and marketing campaign that specifically targets the LA reader. Not so for the independently published author in the new digital world. The cover image (albeit not the title) can be changed as often as he or she pleases. Let’s say the author wants to target LA. He creates his LA specific cover, prints off a dozen copies, and marches into a few LA bookshops asking them to stock his book, maybe asks to allow him a weekend to put up some marketing collateral in store and sign some books. He tells the storeowner (truthfully), that there’s an upcoming feature on the book in the local press, and that it’s being featured on some local blogs. Put yourself in the shoes of the store manager. What’s he got to lose? A book set locally with a cover that catches local interest, and local promotional activity that coincides with the in-store event. Now, none of this is any guarantee that the store will stock the book or will agree to a signing, but in a saturated US market where 400,000 titles are released every year, it sure does move the needle in the independent author’s direction.


Please click the book cover image to read more about Tom Barry and his novels.

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