Why isn’t my book selling?
A lot of pre-published authors assume writing the book is the hard part, but from my experience, it has nothing on the perils of actually getting people to read the book you poured your heart and soul, to say nothing of hours, days, if not years of your time, into.
A lot of authors assume that once their book is published and available for purchase, the work is over. Unfortunately, that’s not usually the case. Occasionally an author will get lucky. Their book might hit at just the right time to fill a market niche that was previously unserved, might be seen by the right eyes to get great word of mouth, and take off with very little help from the author. More commonly, though, a book is published to a chorus of crickets as the world at large does not seem aware of it.
So what’s an author to do?
As a consultant and frequent volunteer mentor in writers’ groups, if I see an author lamenting a lack of sales, there are a few questions I like to ask to see if I can swiftly diagnose the problem. These form a quick check list of “what to look at” before you start giving up altogether or pouring thousands of dollars into marketing a book that might not be ready for the public eye at all.
It might seem obvious, but a lot of authors don’t realize that a poorly done or ill-fitting cover can sink a book before it’s had a chance to succeed. Maybe because we’ve been told not to judge a book by the cover? Maybe because a lot of authors aren’t visual people (more about words than pictures)? Maybe because the price tag on a lot of cover design services is frightening to behold?
Whatever the reason, the most common reason I’ve seen that a book is dead in the water is that it has a cover that is either poorly made (clearly shows a lack of design skill) or that doesn’t tell the reader anything about the book (a picture of a flower or a landscape with some pretty text might look well-designed, but if it doesn’t say, ‘Fantasy, mystery, horror, or romance’ to the reader at the glance, they don’t know what they are looking at or why they should care.).
There are a LOT of articles out there on what makes a good cover vs a bad cover or how to find a reasonably priced designer (if a several hundred dollar price tag simply isn’t feasible, there are cheaper options. Pre-mades, work swaps … you can even learn to make your own covers if you are willing to put a lot of time in and purchase good stock images), so I’m not going into this in depth, but when someone says, “My book isn’t selling” my first instinct is to reply, “Show me your cover.”
Most of the time, that’s where I go, “Well, there’s your problem.”
If you aren’t sure if your cover is good or not, workshop it. Post it in some author groups that are familiar with your genre and ask if it works. Compare it to other books selling in the same category and see if it looks like it belongs or sticks out by not in a good way. Stand out is good. A striking design that catches your eye is what you want. “Sticks out” is more like a rotten apple in a basket of red-cheeked ones. Yeah, it might draw your eye first, but no one is going to pick it up.
Okay, so you’re pretty confident your cover isn’t the problem (or maybe it is, but you haven’t had a chance to replace it next, and you want to get ahead on the next potential roadblock to success). Imagine you are a reader in a bookstore. You see a cover that draws your eye. What do you do next?
This isn’t universal, but the most common answer is “flip the book over and read the back copy to see what it’s about.”
Now, as an indie author most of your sales are going to be online. Very few people are going to be picking up your book physically, but figuratively, they will. It’s just going to look like clicking on the link and reading the Amazon (or other online retailer) description.
This description, commonly called a blurb, is your chance to really sell your book to the reader.
Now blurb writing is a skill in and of itself. Just because you know how to craft a good story and put words on a page to form a narrative does not mean you will naturally be able to convert this talent to writing a blurb that draws in readers. You might not even know what a good blurb looks like.
Similarly to covers, a lot has been written about how to write a good blurb. There are whole books on it. There are even people you can hire to write you a blurb for a small fee. Also, again like with covers, author groups are your friend here. Network. Show people your blurb and ask if it draws them in. If they would pick up the book. If they are left with confusion (bad) or intrigue (good).
Once you’ve addressed this, it’s time to move on to how people are actually going to find your book.
Okay, so if you’re in a bookstore, books are commonly sorted by genre which allows readers to go to the shelf that contains the books they think they want (be that fantasy, romance, mystery), scan the titles, and look for something interesting. Online this is done by people typing in search terms or clicking on lists. It’s also influenced by Amazon’s also bought system. I’m going to only touch on this briefly, but when you publish on Amazon, you get to pick two categories to sort your book into (they look something like: fiction>fantasy>sword and sorcery) but you also have space for keywords where you can try and hit other search lists so if someone types in, “Fantasy books with dragons” or “romantic vampire fantasy” your book has a chance of popping up if you targeted those keywords.
This is going to be very specific to individual books, but make sure you are using keywords that will funnel you into the right lists so readers will find you. Again, there are a LOT of articles out there on this topic (Google is your friend), but it’s worth double checking before you dump a bunch of money into marketing and ads).
4. The Book Itself
Deep breath because this is often the most painful and hard to face.
We talked about that reader walking through the book store. They go to the section they want (keywords). They see a title/cover that draws them in, then pick it up and check out the back (blurb/copy).
What do they do next?
The most common answer is “read the first page/s.”
So here’s where you need to get tough on yourself.
There are a lot of different things that can turn a reader off at this point. For instance, formatting is a basic issue that can cause people to turn away here. The first page is laid out in a weird way. Text isn’t easy to read. Margins are off. If your book does not look like a book should, then you’re in trouble. Also, if there are typos on the first page, errors in punctuation, things like that, people WILL notice and your book will get shoved back on the shelf/clicked off of in a heartbeat. It still surprises me how many authors think they can type out a first draft, upload a basic word doc without any formatting, and call it good. There are so many resources out there about why this is a bad idea that it seems like I shouldn’t have to say anything on the matter, but I think a lot of first time authors feel alone and lost and just don’t know what else to do beyond that.
That said, a lot of times authors will learn formatting and either hire a proofreader or self-proof to a degree that is professional. However, what about the writing? The story? Does that first page draw readers in so that they have to keep turning until they get to the end of the Amazon sample and go, “Oh, gosh, I need to know what happens next?”
This is honesty very hard to judge as the writer of the book. Chances are you wrote a book you like. You put things into it you like, and distancing yourself from that to the degree where you can judge if others will also like it is hard. This is what beta readers, critique partners, and editors are for.
Also, what makes a book page-turn worthy differs from book to book and genre to genre. A suspense book thrives on tension. A more literary book might sink or swim on the prose itself. Fantasy on the joy of exploring a new world or going on an adventure. Writing a book that keeps people reading does not mean looking like/sounding like every other book on the market. It means being something that will appeal to a group of readers who want that sort of book. Getting second opinions on your opening chapter is definitely something you should do if the book still isn’t selling. (Another thing, if the book has been published a while and has gotten some reviews, seeing if the reviews bring up similar problems like, “slow to start” or “some places were confusingly written,” that can give you an idea where you’re disconnecting from your reader … though admittedly, if you aren’t getting sales, you probably won’t get reviews, but if you do have some, take advantage of them as a source of information).
The number of books available on Amazon is staggering. New books are published every day, and the chances of a reader just stumbling onto your book, realizing it is what they want, and going through with the purchase are about the same as being picked out of the crowd by a stage magician as their volunteer. You’re a face in a sea of faces, and you might get passed over a thousand times through no fault of your own.
Marketing is what you do to put yourself on a platform to stand out from that sea. Now I would very much advise making sure you’ve double checked steps 1 through 4 before you put too much time or money into this step. I have seen authors pay thousands of dollars to buy ads they’ll never see a profit on because their book has flaws that no amount of money can overcome.
Marketing is also a huge topic with a lot of variables. There’s Amazon Marketing Services, Facebook ads, social media campaigns, word of mouth, BookBub and other newsletter curators, etc. There are too many options to go over here.
So my final word on this: you cannot put a book up on Amazon and expect it to just sell itself.
How you choose to market the book is again going to depend on the book, the book’s audience, and even your personality as a writer (I offer a service helping indie authors come up with plans that suit their goals and temperaments because there is NOT a one-size-fits-all answer to this, though again, a lot of articles, books, and other resources exist if you want to educate yourself).
6. Manage Expectations
Making a living off writing is hard. Making a living off a single book is rare. If you put up a book expecting to be profitable in the first week and making 40k a year right off the bat, you’re probably going to be disappointed.
It is not unusual for authors to make barely anything their first year of publication. Especially if they sank a lot of money into cover design, editing, and promotion, they might might not even be profitable in the first year. It’s pretty common to need a backlist of multiple titles published before you see any measurable success.
So there is a chance you could do EVERYTHING right with 1 through 5 and still have your author journey be a crawl rather than a sprint. That’s just how this industry works. If someone is selling a “follow my instructions exactly and you’ll be a rich author by the end of the year” program, approach it with great skepticism. For every success story where a writer rocketed to financial freedom based on their writing, there are many authors who are slowly chipping away at the roadblocks one book at a time.
So what to do about this?
Talk to other indie authors. See who is doing what. Most indies I know are willing to share their stories and advice. You might be surprised how many authors who seem to be successful are still working day jobs or how hard the authors who are successful are working to maintain that success.
Whatever path you take, writing a book is only the beginning of the journey. However, it’s a journey that is well worth it if you love writing and sharing your writing with those around you.
H. L. Burke is an indie fantasy author, Fellowship of Fantasy founder, and author mentor with Sparkly Writer Princess Author Services.
You can find out more on her website at: https://www.hlburkeauthor.com/sparkly-writer-princess-author-serv