Okay. Time for a confession. A Storm Hits Valparaiso is selling a little less than I had hoped. But that’s not what today’s post is about. This question – why is my book not selling? – is quite a common one and I would like to address it in a general way because I think many people slip up on the basics.
I would also like to use my new book as a case study, to show what steps I am taking to address somewhat tepid sales over the last couple of weeks. And in fact, the tide is already turning – thanks to a couple of tricks I pulled yesterday, but we’ll get to that.
As Seth Godin says, it’s far cheaper to design marketing into a product than to advertise it afterwards – and he’s right. But what does that mean for self-publishers? Well, if you don’t get the basics right, you are making your job incredibly difficult.
Too many self-publishers skimp on, say, editing or covers, then waste money on ads that do nothing for their sales. It’s not that ads are a waste of money per se – the right ad on the right site (for the right book) can have great results. But if your cover looks like something a drunkard knocked up the first time they used Photoshop, all the ads in the world won’t help.
So, the basics. After I skip through these, I’ll get into some marketing nitty gritty and my own bean-spilling. Stay with me, folks.
All the following advice is predicated on the assumption that you have only published your best work and that your story is ready for public consumption. Newer writers especially may need to go through several drafts, and at least one round with a beta reader, to make sure the writing is of the requisite standard.
Self-editing is a skill that all writers need to learn. I will have a guest post on this topic next week, but I highly recommend Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. (I haven’t read Sol Stein’s On Writing, but I know it’s held in similar esteem.)
Effective self-editing requires lots of practice, but it’s really worth putting in the time (and will reduce the amount of professional editing you need, saving you money too). Plus, as you get better at self-editing, you won’t need to cycle through as many drafts.
Your book’s cover is the face it shows the world. You want to make a good first impression, don’t you? A smart, professional cover makes all the difference. People really do judge a book by its cover.
I can hear the complaints: this stuff shouldn’t matter; it’s all about the writing. The world is unfair. Get over it. If you want your book to stand out from the crowd, if you want to send the reader a signal that you have taken as much care with the inside of the book, you better make sure the outside looks good. In short, get a professional to design your cover.
Joel Friedlander has an excellent post on common mistakes book cover designers make, and I have a post here on the process I go through with my designer. If you are struggling with covers, read them both (note: Joel’s site has an astonishing number of fantastic posts on all aspects of self-publishing. He also runs monthly cover design awards, commenting on most entries – which is very instructive).
If you would like to show some love to your cover designer, please give them a mention in the comments so others can check out their work.
This might be where self-publishers skimp most of all, and readers will spot the errors straight away. But even if you have eliminated the obvious stuff, there may well be deeper problems.
I have written about the importance of editing here and here, and I will have two guest posts from professional, experienced editors next week (both of whom are also authors), as this topic is so important it needs more attention than a few short paragraphs. Every time I get an MS back from my editor, her suggestions improve the work immeasurably. But more importantly, I learn something. So you aren’t just investing in your book, but in yourself as a writer.
I know what the main objection will be – price. But you must consider it an investment in your book. If you can’t afford it, find a way. Save, barter, crowdfund, agree a payment plan with your editor, give up that diamante-encrusted ham you are so fond of – whatever it takes (although I would draw the line at getting into debt and/or an elaborate heist).
Again, please feel free to give a shout-out to your editor below.
I’m not the greatest blurb writer in the world, and it usually takes a few weeks after my book is published before I’m relatively happy with it (often after I get a review which describes the book more succinctly than I can). Here’s the blurb I had up for my latest release until just recently:
A Storm Hits Valparaíso. In 1810, José de San Martín deserts the Spanish Army and returns home to Buenos Aires to lead a bloody revolt against his former masters. Struggling with an increasing dependence on opiates, San Martín forms a secret army of thieves, mercenaries, slaves, and prostitutes to free Argentina from the Spanish Empire.
A Storm Hits Valparaíso is an epic, 400-page historical adventure with a huge cast of characters whose stories gradually interweave: two brothers torn apart by love; a slave running for his life, a disgraced British sailor seeking redemption in a foreign land; an Indian trapped in the death mines of Potosí; and a Spanish general who deserts the army to raise the flag of rebellion against Madrid.
Ugh. Just makes you want to click onto the next book, right? It’s boring, makes the book sound like non-fiction, and no connection is made with the reader. Here’s the new improved version, crowdsourced in a Facebook group (thanks guys):
Catalina Flores de la Peña’s tongue got her in more trouble than any other part of her body, even though there were far more likely candidates. But when a storm rolls into her sleepy port town, she finds herself embroiled with a gang of adventurers, mercenaries, and prostitutes on a journey to free South America from the Spanish Empire.
A Storm Hits Valparaíso is an epic, historical adventure starring two brothers torn apart by love; a slave running for his life; a disgraced British sailor seeking redemption; and José de San Martín, an Argentine general who deserts the Spanish Army to lead a bloody revolt against his former masters.
Can you see the difference? The second is far more enticing. Each sentence should hook the reader. Keep it brief, and make sure there are no lazy words in there. Try and capture something of the voice of your book. And don’t write a plot summary or a query letter. Sell the book.
There is some nifty advice on blurbs at Publetariat (another excellent site), written by Joanna Penn (who also has a fantastic site herself). Blurb writing is a skill, but you can get quite handy just by looking at the books at the top of the charts and copying the structure.
It might feel a little cheesy boiling your magnum opus down to a few hooky sentences, or you might find it tricky if you have a complex plot or multiple main characters, but my book has seven main characters. I only alluded to that, and really focused on one.
Your aim is to get the reader to click the sample/buy button, not to write a school report. After you get some nice reviews, you can add those underneath the blurb, which will add weight. I think my first three releases are good examples of this (here, here, and especially this one here). And if you are wondering how to add effects like bold and italics, you do that through Author Central (where you should also set up your profile).
I’ve spoken about a pricing a great deal here. All I will underline is the importance of experimentation. And if you are going for the higher end of the spectrum, you better make sure the rest are pristine.
I launched A Storm Hits Valparaiso at $4.99. In retrospect, that might have been a little saucy, considering I was branching out into a new genre and wouldn’t have that much carry-over from the audience I built up with my other releases.
I think it’s a price I could sell this book at, but perhaps not until it gets a few more reviews and/or visibility. But I will be experimenting to find the sweet spot (more on that below), and I suggest you do the same for each of your titles.
Okay. The reader has clicked on your arresting cover, was sucked in by your compelling blurb, liked the price, and clicked on the sample button. You’re nearly there. Whatever you do, don’t screw up when you are this close to a sale.
Your book should be properly formatted. If you can’t learn how to do it yourself, I have recommended two services on that page. Recommend your own in the comments.
Don’t force the reader to wade through pages of unnecessary stuff before they get to the actual story (i.e. dedication, table of contents, acknowledgements) – move all of it, bar the copyright page, to the back so that they get more story in the sample, and they dive straight into it.
Finally, make sure the opening of your story grabs the reader. Open with a bang (but it doesn’t literally have to be an explosion, or similar dramatic action, it can be an arresting sentence). If there is no conflict on that first page, you have probably started your story too soon.
The Wisdom of the Crowd
These are the key components to a professional looking book. They are no guarantee of success, but if you get these basics right, you are giving yourself a much better shot.
If you are struggling with these basics, or can’t put your finger on what’s wrong with the whole package you are presenting, I highly recommend an excellent (free) service provided by the New York Times bestselling self-publisher Victorine Lieske.
Together with her regulars at Why Is My Book Not Selling, she will run the rule over everything – critiquing your presentation through a readers eyes, but providing astute advice on how to remedy whatever issues you may have from the perspective of an extremely successful self-publisher.
But that’s not your only option. I road-test everything. I use beta readers to whip my story into shape. I put two different versions of my covers on Twitter to see what the reaction is. I crowdsource blurb advice on forums and Facebook. All of that costs nothing, and can create some anticipation for your release.
I covered marketing basics in Let’s Get Digital. I think there is no real need to go over them here (but if you want to, the PDF is free here, and you can just read Steps 6 to 10) as I think most authors understand the importance of websites, blogging, Twitter, Facebook and the rest. Let’s assume you are doing all that stuff, that you have tried giveaways, competitions, ads, the lot, and you are still getting nowhere.
I know the feeling, I’ve been there many times, and I’m sure I will again. Just recently, I released a book I had been writing (on and off) for over five years. I know what it feels like to pour your heart and soul into something, to put out what you feel is your very best work, only to have it slide into relative obscurity.
After a good launch in December, sales dried up this month. I was selling one a day (all channels) all month. One of my shorts was outselling it, despite being free everywhere except Amazon! But, I didn’t panic. It was, after all, early days, I was confident the basics were in place, and I had some tricks lined up to get it a little more attention.
Right after the launch, I updated the back-matter of all existing titles – with nice blurbs for all my other books, but really pushing the new one with a good sample – and then made my two shorts free on Smashwords.
Yesterday morning, both shorts finally went free on Amazon (because of the holidays, it took about three weeks). Immediately, I slashed the price of the new book to $2.99, and announced it as a two day sale in the blurb. The timing was especially fortuitous because I have an ad spot today on a readers’ site.
I sent a couple of tweets… and that was pretty much it. And I got lucky. Real lucky. But having all the basics in place helped. I had 8,000 downloads across both shorts in 24 hours or so. And that’s just Amazon. They are free everywhere else too.
If You Go Into The Woods has been the #1 Free Short Story on Amazon (and #3 Literary Fiction) for about 12 hours now.
Transfection would have been #2 if it hadn’t been stripped of its categories in the transition to the free listings. The stories are currently at #58 and #104 in the overall free listings, but did peak a little higher than that late last night.
On top of that, I had my best sales day (of paid stuff) this month. I might top that today with the ad spot.
Plus those thousands of downloads will eventually be read (or at least some of them will be), and they all have a nice sample of the new book in the back. Even if only a teeny tiny percentage of those downloaders purchase the new release, I’ll do very well out of this. If nothing else, it gets my name out there, and give me a little (a lot actually) extra visibility.
The sale for A Storm Hits Valparaiso ends at some point tomorrow. So if you want to grab a copy – and save yourself $2 – you better be quick. I’m switching the freebies back to paid tomorrow on Smashwords too. I’ve no idea how long that will take to filter through to Amazon (could be a few days, might be a few weeks), but grab them while you can!
You might not be able to employ similar techniques, but try thinking outside the box. Be creative. Even better: come up with something no-one else is doing, or at least something different from what everyone else is doing.
A lot of writers who are disappointed by their sales will be tempted into KDP Select, but it may not work out for them (especially if those basics aren’t in place), and then they could be tied down to the terms for 90 days anyway. I’ll have another guest post on Friday, this time from an author who is doing fantastically well by staying out.
Whatever you decide, don’t lose heart. Your situation can turn around very quickly. Getting down achieves nothing. Checking your sales achieves nothing other than putting you in a sour mood. And whining? It does all of that, plus it makes you look silly (whining in private though, is fine – my whiskey bottle is stained with tears).
Have confidence in yourself. You wrote a book! Only a tiny minority ever cross that finish line. Take that immensely creative brain of yours, take those rigorous standards you apply when selecting books to read, and go over every aspect of your presentation. Look at your marketing and see how you can get more eyeballs on your work – because that’s what will turn things around for you, but give yourself a helping hand by having those basics in place.
A caution: make sure you aren’t spending time on promotion when you’ve got one or two cheap titles out. Unless you have some earners (either titles pulling in volume at that price, or higher priced books that can get you a good return per sale), then it’s not really worth it.
And write something new. Nothing reinvigorates you, your readers, or your whole approach than new work.
Speaking of which…