Monday, January 25, 2016

Early Warnings: How (Not) to Scare Off Readers

Descriptions, cover art, tags, all the things a potential reader sees before they ever get to look at the actual text of your story... let's call these, collectively, "the cover."  Whether you're trying to get horsefamous or not, it's one of the most important parts of your story; not only is it one of the primary drivers of readership, but for those people who chose to read at all, it's crucial for setting expectations of tone, content, etc.

And yet, it's one of the most neglected parts of many story, probably because most authors don't see it as part of the story at all.  Instead, it's an additional bit of construction to be done after one has finished one's story, before one's allowed to submit it--and when that approach is taken, the results aren't usually great.

There are all sorts of ways to use your cover to attract readers, and to make sure that the readers you're attracting are your target audience (e.g. using risque cover art for a totally platonic SoL fic can lead to a readership/story disconnect), but what I want to talk about is a little more basic than that: how not to shoot yourself in the foot.  So, I've grabbed the list views for the most recent stories (as of early Sunday afternoon, when the idea for this post popped into my head), and I'll be posting them, along with what--if anything--might scare me away from said story, were I a potential reader.  Or at least, what might stop me from even clicking to the story's main page.  Check out my thoughts, below the break:

Before we dive in, though, let me just clarify: for each of these stories, I'm approaching from the assumption that I'm in the general target audience for the story in question, so don't expect any "I wouldn't read this because ew, Dislestia" or the like.  I'll also touch on who that "general target audience" appears to be, though my focus is going to be more on obvious self-inflicted wounds than likely-reader demographics.  What I'll be posting and evaluating is the story's"list view," that being what potential readers see when a story is in the New Stories or Popular Stories box.  With that said, let's look at the first fic!

Who might consider this:  The r63 crowd, obviously.  Since this isn't a Mature fic, I'm thinking the same kind of crowd who read On a Cross and Arrow or The 63rd Rune--that is to say, those looking for social commentary and/or humor more than fetish material.

What might scare them off:  The formatting of the title, for starters; no space after the colon, and while there are several ways you could write "GenderSwapped," this isn't one of them.  Basic errors persist in the short description ("selfs," a single, run-on, comma-less sentence).  There are at least four genre tags (AU is more a content tag, at least to my mind), which is worrying, since it suggests the author doesn't actually know what this story is about.  Ditto the five character tags totalling ten individual characters; which of those are actually main characters?  Then there's the cover art, which doesn't come through at all in a thumbnail; not a good choice to catch a reader's eye as they're scrolling past.

Who might consider this:  It looks to be targeted at the adventure/enigma crowd.

What might scare them off:  The double use of "reveal(ed)" in the second sentence might scare some off, as might a personified Death being brought up in passing.  Length is also an issue; under-2000 words doesn't usually pair well with stories of the type this appears to be (even if this is, presumably, incomplete).  The tags, characters, content of the description, etc. all look good, though, and the cover art is eye-catching.  Maybe there's more to scare off readers in the long description, but as first impressions go, this makes a reasonably good one.

Who might consider this:  Based on the cover art, I'm going to say "Phoenix Wright fans."

What might scare them off:  The tagging, for starters; the disconnect between cover art and the SoL tag (and, more importantly, lack of a Crossover tag) makes it hard to tell what kind of story this is, which can lead potential readers to pass on something because they don't realize that it's exactly what they're looking for.  But (assuming my guess at the target audience is correct), I think the excited, exclamation-pointed description is a fair fit for the fic, and nothing else here looks concerning.

Who might consider this:  EqG fans, of course.  From the looks of it, this is for people who enjoy stories about the everyday tribulations of a typical high school as an end unto itself--something I've admittedly never really seen the appeal of, but I can hardly deny that it has an audience.

What might scare them off:  Although it seems an odd thing, I could definitely see the author's nom de plume frightening a few readers away; this story is clearly not being marketed as a shipfic, so a name which includes "Raridash_Fan" might leave readers leery of a bait-and-switch.  Beyond that... well, for the particular audience of this kind of story, I think it markets itself well.

Who might consider this:  As best I can figure, this is aimed at the "philosophical sci-fi" crowd.

What might scare them off:  The lack of a Sci-Fi tag might cause them to pass right over this, and I can see the EqG tag troubling some as well; even people who are interested in EqG fics might find the subject matter an odd fit for a high-school student (and, if she's aged up/this is in the future, that only raises the question of what the EqG setting brings to the story in the first place).  The tense slip in the description is also concerning, and the lack of cover art makes it hard for the fic to catch one's eye.

Who might consider this:  I'm going to guess... fans of psychological horror?  Honestly, I'm not really sure what the target audience is, here.

What might scare them off:  As with the previous fic, the lack of cover art makes this an easy story to skip over when looking for something to read.  Even if you do see it, the lack of proper capitalization (and presence of end punctuation) in the title are concerning, and seeing that "BlackRose" is mentioned in the description absent any context to who (s?)he is doesn't bode well.  Then there's the fact that, if I'm in the market for a dark tale of the mind, and am interested in something tagged Dark/Horror/Thriller, that "Everyone" rating at the top of the fic probably isn't what I want to see.

Who might consider this:  The audience is pretty much limited to people who've read Convergence and want more.

What might scare them off:  Nothing I can see.  That's not to say this is a perfect (or even terribly good...) cover, but I took a look at Convergence's cover for comparison.  I can't imagine that anyone who read that story, and was interested in reading a sequel/side-story, would be scared off by anything here.  Credit where it's due: this story makes no bones about who its audience is.

Who might consider this:  Looks like a M/M shipfic--and judging from the cover art, I'm guessing it's going more for the "goofy" than the "passionate" end of the shipping tone spectrum.

What might scare them off:  The presence of the Random tag, coupled with the lack of a Comedy tag, might move a few people off of investigating this story, just based on the disconnect between those tags and the cover art (and the description, which sounds pure-romance).  But beyond that, I don't see any warning signs here; if Sorburn(? I can never keep these shipping portmanteaus straight (heh)) were my thing, I'd give this a try.


  1. The FimFiction Writers Group had a thread on this a few days ago. (checks)

    The topic has always been a little hit-or-miss for me. The words Trixie or Flash Sentry seem to pull about 50-75% of the readers away right there.

    1. Can't blame them for hating Worst Human, but Trixie? The Liar alone should at least get them to give her a chance

  2. "Basic errors... 'selfs,'"

    Don't foist your Tolkienian grammar on us, Walker! :p

    Honestly, I love that he went with irregular plurals. Oh, and you'll be happy to hear that, despite my best efforts, the Rings may be acquiring another fan soon; my youngest brother started reading Fellowship recently and seems to (somehow) be enjoying it. I'll have to lend him Tales of the Dying Earth so he can see what real fantasy looks like!

    Regarding that last story: it's weird, I'm subbed to two groups dedicated to m/m fics, yet few ever catch my interest. This one's no exception. Someone needs to drag Vimbert back and make him write more gay horses for me

  3. In that Phoenix Wright cover-arted one, the "see you in court" sentence is a run-on. There should be some other kind of punctuation right there!

    You're otherwise spot-on with these. Nothing turns me off faster than typos in an otherwise interesting description.

  4. Personally, I can handle typos in the description, even if it leaves me wary, but if an author can't even get the title gramatically correct, then I ain't going anywhere near it. Not unless I'm actively seeking something cringeworthy and terrible.

  5. I might direct some people here from time to time, unless you're already planning on s haring this on fimfic. :P

    1. I'll be posting a link to it in a roundup--in fact, I'm going to put that together once I finish replying here--but feel free to link anyone to it you like!

    2. I'll be posting a link to it in a roundup--in fact, I'm going to put that together once I finish replying here--but feel free to link anyone to it you like!