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 become big successes, and lots of self-published authors seem to have cracked it and found a way of getting reliable sales. However, most do not sell many copies, the units that are sold are often to the author’s own community of friends and family, 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 – and it is, unfortunately, possible to do everything ‘right’ and still not sell more than a few hundred copies. Such are the vagaries of the book market.
My advice is about giving your book its best chance in the marketplace so, 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.
Many authors 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.
So, have you defined your target audience? Do you know what your ideal reader is like?
A defined audience, even one which is quite narrow, is a better bet than one which is too wide. In fact, a niche audience can be great, because it gives you the chance to be an expert in your area and become a bestseller in that sub-category. But be careful, because too niche a subject ends up equalling a tiny potential audience, and once you’ve sold a copy to them there’s nowhere to go.
Once you’ve established your ideal reader profile and built up some demographic information about that group or groups, you can show up where those people are, as well as using the information to calibrate any advertising you’re doing.
Publishing the book and only then trying to find its audience is the wrong way round. You could just put the book out there and hope it finds a readership committed to looking for it, but that’s a risky approach in a crowded market dominated by algorithm.
Non-fiction authors can often get a head start if their day job is to offer education, products or services in the area of the topic they write about, as they have an opportunity to build up an email list of people who have already shown interest in their work. They may also have a social media following, especially if they have a successful YouTube channel, or regularly write articles for newspapers, or appear on TV or podcasts.
Fiction authors have a more challenging time – their day job is much less likely to yield an audience for their stories – and although successful authors may have a great social media following and enjoy using it to talk with their readers, it’s generally agreed that social media doesn’t necessarily sell a lot of books. It can be more like advertising books on the side of buses: reserved for already-famous authors and used in order to alert their regular readers that they may now purchase a new title from their favourite author.
Therefore, fiction authors need to work harder on doing something like blogging, reviewing, or placing articles in newspapers or magazine sites to build up a following. They can run discounts and submit their books to places like Bookbub, which gets the book in front of a large number of people who have already expressed interest in certain book categories. They can also arrange blog tours around their publication date and build relationships with other bloggers, so their book gets in front of those audiences.
Most often, though, fiction authors build up an audience of happy readers over the course of several books, and in this way hope to activate the holy grail of book success: organic word of mouth recommendations.
It’s a given that there’s a lot of competition, not just from other self-published titles but from traditionally published books. As time goes on, it’s harder to stand out. Often, a self-published book isn’t selling because it’s buried among the sheer number of other possibilities, and to increase book sales the author must find a way to put their book in front of its audience and in preference to another title.
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. And you should love them and support them, because if other books in your categories are doing well it’s actually more helpful to you than not – it means there’s a proven appetite among the buying public for what you’re selling.
As for your book, it needs to have enough in common to be found near the books in your category and sub-categories but 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.
Knowing your genre well, and specifically who your closest competition is and what readers respond to in their books, will allow you to align your book with theirs and better place it in the market. It also provides you with the best candidates for comparable titles. Ideally, you want your book to be among the ones their readers also bought.
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, but not so much competition that your book will end up several pages into the results. Choose keywords that your readers will type into the search field when they’re looking for a book like yours. 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.
Be careful when comparing your book to other titles or authors: a precise comparable title is great, nothing better, but if you promise your readers your book is the next Gone Girl or The Secret History, and you’ve written something with a completely different tone, they may feel disappointed or misled. 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, so don’t describe it as a romance when you’ve actually written a black comedy.
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 and can even give it a bit more credibility since no book will please every single reader.
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 the title isn’t compelling. Or the cover looks amateurish or is obviously from a template. Or 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 any thought for quality, and as a result the book isn’t selling. It’s a shame because many of these things are fixable if the author is interested in producing a quality product, 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.
Some authors feel that, as artists, they should not be expected to sell their books, or they have the idea that, Field of Dreams-style, if they just put the book out there, the readers will come. They believe that because their book is so good, it should sell thousands of copies, and ignore the reality that most self-published books sell 100-250 copies, mainly to family and friends. They ignore discoverability and marketing, expecting the right readers to do all the work of finding the book; but in the modern marketplace, their readers will not be able to find the book even if they wanted to.
There are several versions of how such unrealistic 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 do the work of gathering 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.
Some impatient authors then become bitter and disillusioned, and spend all their time telling everyone how corrupt the publishing industry is and how it’s impossible to break in. This is avoidable! Authors who learn about the industry, take advantage of the huge number of publishing professionals providing valuable advice (often for free or a low price) or who gain some experience for themselves from which they can learn – these are the authors who are able to get some perspective and learn patience.
Poor or no planning
Related to impatience is poor or no planning. Some authors don’t make a 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, when many avenues (such as blogs and podcasts) have lead times ranging from weeks to months and aren’t interested in books already published some months or years ago.
Authors who have not defined what success would look like have no plan to reach it. If an author creates a measurable goal – such as getting their book into their local bookshop’s display of local authors’ work, or recouping their publishing costs, or getting a number of new clients as a result of speaking engagements about the book’s topic – they can create a series of steps to try to achieve their goal. They can do things like figure out how many units they need to sell to break even and break that number up into a selling goal for each event they plan and try to get the book in front of enough people that a sale to a proportion of them will result in some new clients, and so on.
An author who plans can feel they have done their best to reach a concrete expression of success, 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 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 mistakes (and from 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. Your future published works won’t suffer from the same problems as the first book, because now you know the most common problems and how to avoid them.
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.
APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur–How to Publish a Book by Guy Kawasaki & Shawn Welch
Write. Publish. Repeat. (The No-Luck-Required Guide to Self-Publishing Success) by Sean M. Platt & Johnny Truant
This is the first of a series of expanded posts, available only to my subscribers. If there’s a topic you wish I would cover in more depth, feel free to email me.