Self-publishing a book has become so easy to do that sometimes it seems everyone is doing it, and that might not be far from the truth: millions, literally millions, of books are self-published globally each year. A very few authors become big successes, others gradually create a series of dependable sellers, but the vast majority sell around 100 copies, and so a perennial question is why a self-published book isn’t selling, and what the author can do to increase book sales.
Naturally, nobody can guarantee an author high sales levels for their book – and if someone makes promises like that, please know they are lying to you – so my advice is about giving your book its best chance in the marketplace. Then, whatever happens, you will know you have done your best and you couldn’t have done more.
Many a self-published book isn’t selling because its author doesn’t know who the book is for, and so cannot increase book sales to its audience. Some authors even get it backwards: they publish the book and only then think about its audience.
Many fall into the trap of defining their audience too widely, fearful that they will miss out on a sale if they don’t target every permutation of possible reader. Your audience shouldn’t be ‘everyone’ – when you pitch a book to everyone, you’re really pitching to no one.
A defined audience, even one which is quite narrow, is a better bet than one which is too wide.
It’s a given that there’s a lot of competition, not just from other self-published titles but from traditionally published books.
That’s why you need to focus on your area of the market. Forget about the indirect competition. Who is your direct competition? You must know who else is writing in your category and what their books are like.
Your book needs to have enough in common to be found near the books in your category and sub-categories and be different enough to appeal to readers who have already read those books.
If your book is too different from others in its category, it will jar with regular readers who have expectations of the category they read, and if it’s too similar it will bore them. Either will mean it gets ignored.
This one can be difficult for authors who feel their talent in writing is not compatible with having talent in marketing, and I sympathise. But the fact remains, it’s very common that a self-published book isn’t selling because it’s being marketed drably, half-heartedly, or just incorrectly. To achieve or increase book sales, the book must be discoverable, and then it must be described in a way that drives readers to buy.
Discoverability: categories and keywords
When you’re listing your book, choose relevant categories and sub-categories that are a mixture of broad and niche and that have traffic. Choose keywords that your readers will type into the search field. There are tools, such as Publisher Rocket, that will help you with this, and they can be a godsend to the kind of author who feels a bit out of their element when marketing their book.
Your back cover copy needs to make the reader excited to read the book. Boring copy won’t do you any favours. If you’re stuck, getting a pro to write it might be a good place to spend some of your publishing budget.
Make sure you’re describing the book accurately – you don’t want lots of reviews from readers saying they were expecting x but got y.
Speaking of reviews, give some thought to how you’re going to get as many as possible, as close to publication day as possible. Ask your readers for reviews, and remind them that reader reviews really help independent authors. Lots of self-published books still have only one or two reviews when they’ve been out more than a year, which makes it obvious the book isn’t selling and will put off new prospects. More than that, a single negative review will then drastically reduce the book’s rating, whereas it will barely show on a book with fifty or more positive reviews.
Many authors are thinking in terms of a writing career rather than a single book, and if so, it’s wise to have a website which showcases all your books, so you can encourage sales of your backlist as well as of your forthcoming titles.
Here, the book isn’t selling because it isn’t appealing to readers. The title is vague. The cover looks amateurish or is obviously from a template. The quality of the text is poor: it’s not ready for market, it’s a rough first draft, the prose is hard to read, there are lots of errors, and so on.
This is the major complaint about self-published books, and the one that continues to make it difficult for independent authors to reach wider acceptance in the industry. Far too many self-published titles are not ready to publish and are produced without much concern for quality, and as a predictable result the book isn’t selling. It’s a shame because many of these things are fixable, and in that case the author can increase their book sales. But not always. Some books cannot be saved.
Pricing is important. You can get a reader all the way to your purchase page and have them hovering over the buy button … only to lose them at that moment because the price seems wrong, and it causes them to rethink.
Sometimes a self-published book isn’t selling because the price is too high, but a price that’s too low can also make it stand out in a way that is off-putting. A slim volume of short stories, if priced at the same level as a full-length novel, risks the reader feeling short changed. A cheap book that claims to solve the same problem as several lengthy, expensive books might well be assumed to be shallow and of low value.
Look at the price of books comparable to yours. Don’t assume that if you undercut their price you’ll automatically get the sale. There are trends in book pricing that regular readers become familiar with, and when that happens it’s better to go with the crowd.
An author’s expectations are unrealistic when they engage in magical thinking about how the market should be and refuse to engage with the market as it is. There are several versions of how such expectations play out that mean they find their book isn’t selling, but most fall under the headings of impatience and poor planning.
There are authors who are in a tearing hurry to get the book on the market, at all costs, including the quality of the book. They are the authors who deal with editorial feedback suggesting their book needs more work by publishing straightaway out of spite. Three months later, the book isn’t selling or has attracted a couple of critical reviews, and they give up.
Some authors dream of being the kind of debut author that makes a splash and is catapulted to the top of the rankings, but when it doesn’t happen with their first self-published book, they aren’t prepared to build up sales slowly over years and after publishing several books.
This kind of author may only have one book in them, and so instead of moving on to another book, improving their craft, and building up an audience and a backlist, they try to change course and get the book republished by a traditional press.
Poor or no planning
Some authors make a half-hearted or vague plan, and others have no plan at all. These are the authors who put the book out, then start looking for the audience. Or the ones who look for editing a few weeks before they want to publish, or even after they publish when the main response is complaints about the errors or the formatting. They didn’t build up an audience, get pre-orders, or ask anyone to review the book. They publish, then think ‘now what?’ and start trying to do marketing activities.
An author who plans can feel they have done their best to reach a concrete expression of success, whatever that may be for them, even if they don’t quite achieve everything they hoped. It’s the best way to avoid that hopeless feeling that the book isn’t selling, and that there’s no realistic way to increase book sales.
If you have already published and you’re here looking for ways to increase book sales, then take heart. You can learn from your (and others’) mistakes and avoid making the same ones next time. Most successful authors build up over several books and improve their writing and their marketing through experience.
So, here’s your basic plan: write and edit your way to a great, attractive, satisfying book that is ready to publish. Consider who your audience is, and how to reach them. Make your book discoverable and compelling. Plan how to promote and sell it. Follow through.
Then, you will know you have done everything you could. The rest is out of your hands.
In the meantime, keep learning as much as you can about the publishing industry and how it actually works. Signing up to my newsletter, The Inbox Edition, for free advice for authors and subscriber exclusives (such as an expanded version of this post with more detail and more tips) would be a terrific way to start.