Our thanks to Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn for allowing us to reprint this post. We’ve included just a bit from each of the 10 Questions, so to read in its entirety (as well as other great entries), visit TheCreativePenn.com!
I love answering your questions and I’m always happy to share what I’ve learned on the journey, but recently I have been receiving the same question over and over again, namely,
“Help, my book isn’t selling. What can I do?”
Most of the time people include a link to their book on Amazon and I can see immediately why they aren’t making any sales, because although I’m an author, I’m a reader first and I’ve been shopping for books on Amazon for years.
My Amazon #1 bestselling book, How To Market A Book covers everything in details but the following checklist will also help you identify your problem and solve it quickly.
[As always, these are not rules, because there are no rules in this crazy, fast-moving self-publishing world. There will also always be outliers who get away with not doing any of the following, but these will at least help with some guidelines!]
1. Is your book available as an ebook?
99% of indie authors will not have print distribution in physical bookstores, and I would postulate that all the success stories we have heard in the last 2 years about indie authors and huge sales have come from ebook sales, not print.
Print books can be a good idea if you have specific reasons around wanting print. I decided against print but in 2013, I changed my mind, returning to print editions for all my books.
BUT/ if you want to sell a lot of books online, then make sure you have an ebook for sale as well.
I use Scrivener for formatting in Kindle, ePub and Word formats and then I publish on Amazon KDP, Kobo Writing Life and Smashwords or BookBaby for the rest (US citizens can use B&N Nook PubIt as well.) It’s not hard if you spend some time with the various help pages.
2. Has your cover been professionally designed?
Book buyers still shop with their eyes. If people make it to your book sales page and your cover is terrible, they will not click the Buy button. Don’t use a painting your child did or that you did yourself. Don’t DIY based on a YouTube video. Don’t assume you can make a professional cover.
Do research your genre on Amazon and take screenshots of books that stand out in a good way. Do take pictures of books you like with fonts and designs you like. Do check out the ebook cover design awards at TheBookDesigner.com to see some great covers and some truly awful ones. Then hire a professional cover designer, give them that information and work with them to create a professional cover.
If you don’t have a budget for this, then work extra hard until you have that extra money. Seriously, I believe this is non-negotiable if you want to stand out in the crowded market.
3. Has your book been professionally edited so it reads well?
I am passionate about the value of editing and editors, especially for new writers, or books in a new genre.
You should edit your books until you can’t stand them any longer, and then you should consider hiring a professional editor to help you take it further, because you cannot see your own words after a point because you know the story so well.
You need other eyes, preferably professional eyes who will critique you honestly and tell you where the problems are, especially if the book is truly awful – and sometimes it is (and that’s ok because you can write another one).
Stephen King in ‘On Writing’ says to rest the manuscript for a while, so put it away and when you have some distance, read it again. You may be horrified by what you find but better now than when it’s out there in the world. Here’s some more articles on editing and my recommended editors.
4. Have you submitted the book to the right categories on the ebook stores?
Sorry, but not everyone will like your book.
You may think that everyone will, but they won’t. You might not want to put it in a box or a genre or a category, but you have to because that’s how readers find it. The category/genre reader has expectations and if you don’t ‘fit’ they will be disappointed. That’s not to say you need to follow any specific rules in your writing (let’s not get into that now!) but when you load it up to the distributors you do have to choose which categories and tags to use and they need to be meaningful.
You need some distance from your book in order to do this, but consider where your book fits within the online bookstores. This means deciding on the categories, tags and keywords associated with your book.
It’s also important to match reader expectations and the promise of what your book delivers with what your book is actually about.
There is no point having a book with a swirly, girly pink chic-lit cover in the horror section of fiction. It won’t sell, however good it is.
If you’re struggling with this, choose 3-5 authors your book is like, not what you want it to be like, but what it is really like. That will help you find the right category.
A great book on categories and Amazon algorithms is David Gaughran’s Let’s Get Visible.
5. Have you optimized your Amazon sales page with a hook, quotes from reviews and other material?
I have seen some Amazon sales pages with not just typos but terrible grammar.
Some of them make no sense at all. Some are just the back blurb with no review quotes or other things that might draw a customer in.
Basically you need to treat the product description like a sales page. People will not buy your book if your description is badly written or hard to understand because it’s an indication of the quality of your book. Here’s another great article on 11 ingredients of a sizzling book description.
If you want to see a fantastic example, check out CJ Lyons Bloodstained which continues to rock the Kindle charts. That product description seriously rocks. CJ also explains all of this in our ProWriter Marketing course.
You can format your sales description with colored headlines and other funky HTML by using Author Marketing Club’s Premium service (which also includes a fast-track way to find appropriate reviewers).
6. Have you priced your book realistically, or at least tried different price points?
It’s important to say on pricing that no one has a clue how to price ebooks and authors are having success at many different price points. However, I had one author ask why his debut novel wasn’t selling, and when I checked his sales page, the ebook was priced $11.99. It was his first novel and he had nothing else for sale.
However good your book, however marvelous the cover, your first novel is unlikely to sell at that price. Most ebooks are under $9.99, and a lot of fiction is under $7.99, with many indie books being under $5.
7. Have you written, or are you writing another book?
Sure, there are some breakout successes, but most indie fiction authors making decent money right now have 5 or more books. For non-fiction authors, you can expect to make your money on back-end products and services and not book sales anyway.
The more books you have available, the more virtual shelf space you have, the easier it is for people to discover you. Plus if a reader finds one they like, they may buy them all so you make more per customer.
8. Have you done some kind of promotion or marketing to let people know it is there?
Again, there are no rules and in fact, everyone has different results from different marketing tactics. Some hit a mega-success with none at all, but I do think that you need to hand-sell your first 1000 readers because they won’t just appear out of nowhere.
Remember: Marketing is sharing what you love with people who want to hear about it. You don’t have to be hard salesy, scammy or nasty. Just be authentic and share your passion.
I also believe that social media can sell books, but it is a slow build over time and you have to have other goals than just book sales, e.g. networking with peers and other authors. It’s not instant sales so you can’t rely on it. The whole author platform thing is massively useful in so many ways but it is only one aspect of book sales.
If you have some budget you can pay for promotion, but be targeted and track results…
9. Have you asked for reviews, or submitted to review sites?
I give away a lot of free books to people who might like my genre and ask that they leave a review if they like it. No hard sell, no pressure, no expectation. This is easy if you have built up a list from the last book, or if you have built a platform and in fact is one good reason to do this. Traditional publishing has been doing this forever so it is not a new or a scammy tactic.
Remember that not everyone will like your book and not everyone will leave a review, or a good review, but it is a start. [And remember, don’t respond to bad reviews!]…
10. Are you working your butt off?
I absolutely believe that you can be a great writer and make an income from writing.
I have to believe that for you because I believe it for me, and I have left a stable job and steady income to take a chance on being an author-entrepreneur. I’ve been on this path since 2007 when I decided to write my first non-fiction book, so I am 5 years into working my butt off to change my life.
But writing books is not a get rich quick scheme.
So please, if your book is not selling any copies at all, go through this checklist and honestly evaluate what you have done and how much effort you have put in. Please also share this with other people who may be asking the same question…
Based in London, England, Joanna Penn is an author, speaker and entrepreneur, voted as one of the Guardian UK Top 100 creative professionals 2013. Her website, TheCreativePenn.com is regularly voted one of the top sites for authors and self-publishers. Writing as J.F.Penn, Joanna is also a New York Times and USA Today bestselling thriller author. Connect on Twitter @thecreativepenn.
Joanna has also written several books for authors, including How to Market a Book and Business for Authors. Joanna’s keynote will take place at our signature keynote luncheon on Tuesday, sponsored by Kobo Writing Life.