Book sales may seem like a mysterious void of uncertainty, but the truth is most authors fail for very predictable reasons. Luckily, if you’re doing these things wrong, they’re (mostly) easy to fix.
1) You have no reviews.
Are you driving people to buy from an amazon page with no reviews on it? Good luck – reviews sell books.
You might be thinking, “but how do I get reviews before I sell the books!?”
- First off, don’t count on your friends and family. In my experience they are well-meaning but feel awkward if asked to review a book for someone close. Instead, network with other indie authors and trade offer to trade book reviews with them. Set up an informal “book club” of writers in your genre who can review each other’s work.
- Ask for reviews, everywhere – you can even give the book away for free for awhile (which you really should be doing anyway, at least for review copies). Ask for reviews at the beginning and end of the book. Ask for reviews on your website.
- Consider paid reviews. Not the several hundred dollar Kirkus or Foreword reviews, but cheap reviews by regular people. offer $10 or $20 for a review. Or use a site like fiverr.com to find people to do it for even less. These won’t be superr in-depth professional reviews – but actually simple honest reviews may help sell more anyway.
- X In my experience, don’t offer a prize of gift or contest trying to get more reviews, it comes across as sleazy.
2) You only have positive reviews.
People don’t trust positive reviews.
If you’re like me, you skip over all the 5 star reviews and go to the one and two stars. Those seem the most honest.
It doesn’t mean I won’t still buy the book, but I want to know what’s wrong with it first.
Use this to your advantage: a couple of 3 star “this was OK, but…” will actually drive sales up, because people know they’re real. So whether you’re paying for reviews or asking for them, make sure you let people know it’s OK to be really honest, and even critical (this may sting though, see #7)
3) Your cover is ugly.
Oh, how I wish there was a “hot-or-not” website for book covers, where you could upload your own cover and have people rate it. I’m actually thinking of adding something like that on my bookcovers site.
If you made it yourself, unless you have copious amounts of design experience or training, it’s probably not great.
I spent hundreds of hours designing my very first book cover, all by myself, and it was hideous. I loved it. (If you made it, you’re bound to love it – therein lies the danger).
Just because your mom and friends like it doesn’t mean it’s any good (see #7: don’t trust people you know). Good enough isn’t good enough – your cover needs to be freaking incredible to drive sales.
There are ways to get a good, cheap cover. One simple way is to buy a very powerful, beautiful royalty free photograph (less than $5, probably) and use a free graphic program to make a cover.
Follow these rules:
- One photograph.
- Extremely simple text and font. (No text effects, no free fonts that come with your system, no fancy decorative fonts that you think are so cool but actually are hard to read and distracting).
- Put the text in a place that’s either totally light or totally dark. Use natural contrast to make it stand out. No shadow, outline, gradient or anything else. These are very tricky to use well.
- Got and iphone? Use something like Hipstamatic to take a cool, dreamy photo and use that for the cover.
I thought you might need a visual, so here are two covers I made in 5 minutes using pics from my phone. They aren’t wonderful, but they’re better than what a lot of indie authors come up.
4) Your sales copy doesn’t convert.
Writing good sales copy (the description of the book on your amazon page) is an art and a science – most authors are very bad about summarizing their story into an attention grabbing, intrigue building lead-in (without giving too much away).
You need to understand that you are in a business, and your book is your product. Packaging and sales copy matter. While you don’t want to spend tons of money, you still need pay attention to it.
- Look at bestselling books in your genre and study their amazon page. Analyze their sales text. Mimic it and change all the specifics to stuff about your book.
- Test. Every week you can make changes and see if it affects sales. Little changes make big differences.
- You might want to pay for editing, or for a copy writer (ad copy is very valuable, so an editor will be cheaper, but a copy-writer may be better.)
5) You don’t have a tribe.
While not everything is tied to social networks, having a lot of followers and constantly providing high quality content (95% supporting other people, 5% about your own projects) does help. Start building as soon as you can, share content you find useful. Most authors (myself included) didn’t do any networking until after the book was written – in which case you’re mostly trying to get people to help you out, which is a very bad idea.
- Don’t ask people to help you. Look at ways you can offer to help other people.
- Join or make a local writing group, maybe in your city, that meets once a month. Imagine if you had 50 people ready to spread your message, review your book, etc. (You could all agree to buy each other’s book on a certain day, shooting up the amazon rank.) So easy, but very powerful.
6) Nobody has heard of you.
People have to be made aware of you and your book. Advertising is one way to do this. It works, but the key is repetition, and you probably won’t make back more than you spend.
A press release helps, but the world doesn’t need another story about another writer who wrote a book.
Ideally, you want people to share your book for you – which they may do later, if they like it.
But in the beginning, you need to be the story.
Writing a book about X does not make you news worthy.
Your book is not the story.
Your job is to think of something that would be awesome, that is somehow tenuously connected to your book. Something bold, daring, extravagant, amazing. When you do that thing, write a press release about that. Here are a few examples off the top of my head:
- Rip out all the pages of your book, glue them all over your body, then go into town and start reading from your book loudly. Or singing it. Headline: Crazy author makes a costume out of his book for free publicity
- Communicate with local schools about volunteering to teach a free writing class. Do it. Then tell the press. Headline: Indie author teaches free writing course at public schools.
- Team up with a pizza parlor to have a book signing and make the pizzas shaped like your characters. Headline: Author turns pizza art into book promotion
Those aren’t great ideas, but you get the picture.
7) Your book isn’t that good.
This doesn’t get said enough. Of course there are some fabulous indie published books. But many of them, even today, are terrible. Maybe even the majority. Maybe even yours.
Marketing and promoting EVEN HARDER to sell a bad book is a bad idea. The correct path is to put it away, and keep writing. Your first book or two are probably not that good anyway. And even if they are, your marketing efforts will pay off more after you have lots of novels and short stories.
So don’t bet the farm on your first book. Do your best, set some goals, then move on.
- Don’t trust the people you know about your book’s quality. If your friend asked you to read his book, could you really tell him it was the worst thing you’d ever read? Of course not, you’d be supportive.
- Listen to negative reviews. Maybe you got 10 glowing five star reviews on amazon, and one mean, snarky comment. That asshole willing to share his true opinion may be your most honest critique. Yes it hurts. But don’t tune him out.
- Have you paid to have your book professionally edited? (I really hope so). By far the biggest cost in publishing, but a good book editor will help a lot (although, they probably won’t fix the story, which may be the main problem).
Easiest way to avoid this whole problem? Don’t rush!
Go slowly. Put it away. Come back to it later.
(On the other hand, there’s something to be said for just shipping. If you write prolifically, just keep cranking out books, and fit all the criticism towards your future books. You’ll make big mistakes, and people may hate your writing, but you’ll get better)
Did I miss something? Are you doing all of these things right, but still not selling?
I’m a philosophy dropout with a PhD in Literature. I covet a cabin full of cats, where I can write fantasy novels to pay for my cake addiction. Sometimes I live in castles.