“Why don’t my books sell?” I get asked this question a bit, so I’m making a post about it, so that I can easily refer to it.
Remember that I don’t have all the answers either, and there are people who sell a lot more than I do. How to sell well also depends on genre and the individual author’s circumstances. That said, I have spent a few years in the self-publishing scene and have picked up on a few things that are often associated with writers who sell very little at all.
1. The covers suck.
Anyone who tells you people don’t judge books by their covers is telling you BS and doing you a disservice. It could be that *some* people don’t judge a book by the cover, and they may not. And they’re often extremely vocal about it, as if they have to convert everyone else that what’s inside matters the most. Yes. We get it. And yes, what’s inside should matter the most, but people won’t get to the inside when they can’t get past the cover.
The cover matters. A lot. Like: A FUCKING SHIT-TONNE. So get a good cover as soon as you can afford it.
2. No branding.
Yes, I know. Branding is marketing speak and as self-published author you’re meant to just do whatever, Fuck Teh Ebil Gatekeepers. Marketing speak is anathema to that, but if you’re serious about selling, and you want to write to supplement your income, or even just to take your family out to a nice dinner once a month, then you should learn from people who sell stuff. Marketers. We all write for pleasure first, but there is very little that justifies your time spent writing as much as money. Welcome to the capitalist age.
Branding is nothing more than structuring your works in such a way that people can see in a second, without having to read anything, that these books all belong together. It’s what you do when you have series covers with a repeating element.
But branding is more than that. It’s also making sure that all your books have a certain feel about them, that this feel and design is repeated across your website, your Amazon page, your newsletter signup form, and wherever your books are displayed.
Branding is also having a clear body of work that consists of books of a certain length in a certain genre. It’s about numbering books in a series and about keep dissimilar material out.
One thing you tend to see a lot is authors who have a bunch of “books” to fill up their profile, but a good number are not books, they’re short stories. Short stories sell like crap. They detract from your novels and clutter up your page. Get rid of them by bundling them as soon as you can.
3. The writing and storytelling are just not ready for prime time.
I know it’s hard to hear this and it’s hard to tell someone, and there is a what-the-fuck-do-I-know element about it. And yes, it’s subjective as hell, up to a point. People (including me) swear by writer training through beta reading and workshops. Others are very much against it. I know people who never did any workshopping, published their books and started to sell like hotcakes. If this is you, awesome. But those are flukes. Most people are not born bestselling writers. They develop skills through learning.
Spelling and grammar are objective measures of quality, but it’s amazing how many people publish material that just doesn’t make the grade.
Plotting is a more tricky thing, and extremely important. It’s not immediately measurable, but if you do promotions, give away free books and have a very poor sell-through to other works, I bet my bottom dollar that the plotting in the promoted book is off.
If you have trouble with plotting, I highly recommend Take Off Your Pants by Libby Hawker. It’s an awesome summary of everything a good plot should have.
If, despite your best efforts in all the other points in this list, your books refuse to sell, poor craft is very likely the cause. People don’t mention it often because of the subjective and arrogant-sounding nature of comments about writing quality, but a book of a beginning writer is usually not good enough to sell in any quantities. Note the word “usually”, and also never, like, ever, assume that you will fall outside the “usually” demographic.
4. No promotion.
Ah, the dreaded P-word that has writers quaking in their boots. Many simply publish books and don’t even know where to begin in marketing them. Promotion is a lot more than buying the occasional ad slot on a promotion site. It’s not about book launches. It’s not about bookshops. It’s not about ISBNs or other tradepub gimmicks. Promotion is about setting stuff up behind the scenes so that readers can easily find your books.
But rather than me blathering about it, here are three books that capture the behind-the-scenes essence of selling stuff:
Launch by Jeff Walker is very salesy and sounds like a get-rich-quick scheme, but it’s a really good blueprint for how to sell stuff. It deals with some of the psychology of why humans decide to buy and how to, sometimes quite subtly, get people to commit their credit cards.
Let’s Get Visible by David Gaughran is a very good summary of how retail site sales algorithms work and how you can use them to your advantage.
Write, Publish, Repeat by Sean Platt and Johhny B. Truant is an excellent outline for how to capitalise on your readers, how to capture them so that you can target them and how to use what you love doing most–writing another book–as your number one marketing technique.
The painful fact is that none of any of the above guarantees good sales. Not the covers, not the branding, not the marketing. Yeah. The writing. The book and concept don’t appeal greatly. Ouch. But, and this is the beauty of self-publishing, if you publish well-crafted books with nice covers and set up all the marketing stuff well, then a promotion in the form of a paid ad on a single book will have so much more effect, even if your books are not hugely popular. Often not immediately, but in the longer term. And you will see your sales increase, in a slow, non-spiky manner. And they won’t fall completely flat as long as you keep writing new stuff, and all of a sudden, you’ll have gone from Macca’s once a month sales to nice dinner once a month sales, to paying the electricity bill kind of sales to paying the mortgage kind of sales.