How to write a book that doesn’t sell [case study]

I talk a lot about writing books that sell, but I don’t always take my own advice.

Out of the 5 novels I’ve published, most do pretty well with no promotion – but I’ve been having trouble keeping the rank up on one. There are reasons – mostly it’s a less popular mix of genres, so it’s harder to get the positioning right. (I’ve fixed that a lot with an updated blurb). The new blurb will help conversion, and I can keep visibility high with advertising, but it will still never be as popular as my other books for one reason:

IT’S NOT WHAT READERS WANT

It’s basically a young adult science fiction, time travel/dystopian book… 

But after reviewing the top 100 bestselling young adult books, there are very consistent themes and tropes that I’m missing entirely. The answer is NOT to be “more original” – it’s to write stories readers are interested in reading.

So I’ve gone through and analyzed some of the major features of the top sellers. It’s interesting that all of these books – both indie and traditionally published – hit the same tropes very hard. They’re all great, and unique, and different, but they also satisfy these basic features, which makes it easy for their blurb to resonate with readers.

How to write a bestselling dystopian young adult novel

These are mostly notes to myself… 

  • A structured society with class conflict
  • Second class citizens/slaves
  • Feelings or authenticity is outlawed (emotional repression)
  • Testing or trials used to define and position
  • A choosing or placement ceremony
  • Being an outlaw, getting jailed or executed for existing
  • Can’t choose how to love or marry
  • No control over own life
  • Social statuses can be changed suddenly or hacked
  • Fancy party with fancy dress
  • Rich, powerful guy takes interest in her
  • Strong, handsome guy likes her (main love interest). He’s tough and mean to everyone but her. He saves her/protects her… but they clash at the beginning “I don’t need you to protect me!”
  • Devious, fanatical villain with personal vendetta
  • A class of enforcers who hunt down nonconformers (her parents might be one) She might be one too, until she’s fallen and becomes hunted herself.
  • A cruel mother who abandons her, or a weak father who doesn’t protect
  • Ungrateful siblings she needs to support
  • She must break the law or risk bending the rules to protect her family
  • Revolution/rebellion is already brewing, but they need a symbol
  • She’s already practically trained, efficient, competent (she’s had to be)
  • Might be an assassin, thief or hunter
  • War, soldiers, or big monsters (something wild and dangerous that is hunting them).
  • A secret that could destroy everything.
  • A special child, chosen one that was lost (might be her).

Most of my books started with the “Twilight” model = supernatural things happen at high school.

But books based in high school aren’t popular anymore. The “Harry Potter” model is better = story starts at a new/remarkable school or setting.

And actually, those still aren’t very popular – the better model is just “story whisks protagonist into an adventure.”

Also, my books have been more “coming of age”, as in, hero begins normal and discovers their powers.

More popular books start fast without all the backstory, dropping a competent hero into a supernatural /technological conflict.

 

Finally, most of my protagonists are 15~17 and that’s hurting me. Since a lot of YA readers are actually adults, the ideal age is 17~19. Most of the bestseller protagonists are 18.

I already have a couple books mapped out that follow this formula much more closely, so I’m excited to see how those do, but I’m also not sweating the book that isn’t earning well – it doesn’t mean it’s a bad book, but it doesn’t satisfy the cravings that readers of my target genre have… it’s not what they want. Which just means marketing will be a lot more difficult.

 ALSO – readers love completed series, so I also know all my books will be more attractive once the series is done.

 

How to fix a book that isn’t selling

That said, it’s a little strange my book isn’t performing better. I’ve tested several different covers. The new one on the right is a lot better for the genre (post-apoc/dystopia). Because it’s a little cross-genre, it’s hard to know exactly who to target – scifi/dystopia, zombie survival or time travel romance (it’s a little of each). But there are other books like this in the YA space, so I’m confident that my covers are pretty close and probably not my main problem. I might still keep tweaking though.

 

Next I thought it might be the description.

Recently I redid all the description for this book to match what bestsellers in the genre were doing. The description seems much better, but it didn’t improve my rank as much as expected (this book is usually around 150K).
See the before and after.

 

Just for comparison, this book has sold 616 copies and been downloaded 10,760 times. Another book project I published at about the same time, has less sales (417) but more downloads (21,045). That books sticks closer to my others, in the 30K range.

For some reason Amazon just really doesn’t like this specific book.

Which means: it’s probably not getting much organic visibility. Maybe I promoted it to my friends and family which screwed up my also boughts (rather than to my fanbase – I mostly gave this book away for free). To boost visibility, I need to focus on attract more of the right readers in my genre. With my new description, I’m going to try and spend some money on target Amazon ads (by interest and product). That should help.

 

Drastic Measures

With a few more ads, my rank went up to 60K, but I made changes to my KDP dashboard and the text reverted back to the original… so it’s hard to tell whether the new one is actually working – assuming it is, I added the next text back in.

But then I took drastic measures. Another big problem with this book is I didn’t follow my cardinal rule, “Be Clear Before You’re Clever.”

It’s a Time-Travel Dystopia so I used a thesaurus to find “prescient” which means “foreknowledge.”

But, because it’s not a common word, a lot of people are unsure how to even pronounce – which makes it less likely they’re be able to talk about it or “get it” from the title.

So I changed the title.
With Kindle, I just needed a new cover and a few changes to the ebook format.

For print, the title is tied to the ISBN so I’ll probably need to make a whole new Createspace edition… but for now I uploaded the new files to KDP and they should show up soon.

I wanted to use the title, “Dead Before Prom” – which is probably stronger, but I’m going to use that on book 2.

It’s poorly photoshopped, but it still looks cool and does a better job of conveying the genre (nobody will look long enough at the details to notice she doesn’t have hands).

 

Then I raised the price to $3.99 – not totally sure about that move, but the reasoning is that most other bestsellers in the genre are at 3.99, it gives me more room for advertising, and I may get more KU borrows at the higher price point.

The goal is to get this up in the 30K range with my other books.


Results = NONE

Frustratingly, even after all these changes, Prescient continues to sink to a resting rate of about 150K or worse.

I have several Amazon ads running, but they aren’t helping. I ran a new free campaign for 5 days and got 1000+ downloads, but it didn’t help my rank. I reached out to more reviewers (700+) and sent free copies. At this point, it seems it’s a combination of visibility (not being seen) and conversion (not getting sales or borrows) – it’s gotten only 12 sales this month.

Which is a little suspect, since with that many reviews, a pretty nice cover and description, the ads should be working reasonably well. My also-boughts might be screwed up, since most of my other books are more dark fantasy. Maybe my audience doesn’t like this kind of dystopian adventure; fantasy is more popular in YA right now. But I have friends with YA dystopian books that do much better.

The next phase is to spend some money on Facebook ads to build up sales and also boughts but I would have liked to see more results from these changes first.

About Derek Murphy

Derek Murphy is a book designer with a Ph.D. in Literature. He’s been featured on CNN and spoken at dozens of writing conferences around the world. These days he mostly writes young adult fantasy and science fiction, while helping authors build profitable publishing platforms. Find me

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