Image: Matthew Loffhagen
You sat down and wrote your novel, spent months slaving over the editing and then either found a publisher or self-published. After all that work your worries should be over, but instead you are faced with the question:
Why is my book not selling?
There are a lot of reasons books don’t sell but the good news is that most of them are under your control. Anything that’s putting off potential readers can be identified and fixed.
First, however, it’s important to identify the two ways in which readers assess a book.
Judgement and Perception
Though I’ll identify the elements of a book that can turn readers off there are two subtly different ways in which each element is understood.
1. Reader Judgement
This is when a potential reader makes a personal judgement about how much they’d enjoy your book. If a reader thinks a book seems badly written that’s a matter of judgement.
2. Reader Perception
This is what a potential reader believes to be facts about your book. If a reader thinks a book is aimed at a particular demographic, such as young adults, that’s a matter of perception.
The key difference between these two types of assessment is that issues of reader perception are objective facts and problems arising from them are easier to identify and address. If a reader’s perception of your book is incorrect, say they think your romance story is a horror novel, then you can find the source of that problem and fix it.
Problems related to reader judgement can be harder to understand and address. It’s impossible to cater to all subjective tastes: one person may think the story won’t be complex enough for them, but changing that judgement might make someone else think it’s not simple enough.
The answer to problems stemming from either type of assessment is to give as accurate an idea of your book as possible. If your aim is communicating the tone, style, genre, mood and audience of your novel then you have set goals to work with and a clear framework for getting there. If your aim is attracting as many readers as possible the goal posts will never stop shifting.
With each potentially problematic element I’ll highlight which problems stem from reader judgements and which from reader perceptions. Approaching these elements from a reader’s perspective means beginning before they’ve even heard of your book.
Publicity / Marketing
It’s possible that your book isn’t selling because people don’t know there’s a product to buy. This is easily addressed: with the proliferation of blogs and book promotion services no author will ever run out of ways to advertise their book’s existence.
How many blogs have you contacted asking for reviews or guest articles? Is your book being promoted by sites like Bookbub and The Fussy Librarian? Are you generating buzz by running a giveaway through bookgiveaways.net?
You need to show people where your product is and get them interested in checking it out.
If you don’t know where to begin you can click here for our guide to giveaways, or click here for our comparison of ebook marketing services and advice on which is the right one for you.
Approach every promotional activity with the editorial care you would a novel. Potential readers are already deciding how they feel about your tone and voice.
Make sure you’re contacting the right blogs and advertising in the right sections of promotional websites. Reaching out to every blog you can find will spread the word but leave readers confused as to the intended audience.
Identify the readership your book is targeted at and then find the blogs they frequent. Use direct language in your communications: state your genre and intended audience outright. It may feel obvious but you shouldn’t risk sending out the wrong message.
If your cover doesn’t interest a reader then they won’t look any further.
Your cover is your book’s salesman. It has a very specific job: get potential readers to read the blurb. To do that it has to catch their attention as the kind of story they’re after.
There is a very recognizable visual language to book covers that communicates their tone and genre at a glance. In my article about book covers I discussed how many thriller books use the same cover design of a huddled figure walking away from the reader and into wintery surroundings.
Readers browsing for their next book are searching for the recognizable features of the sort of story they enjoy. The above images may be similar but each book was successful because readers looking for a thriller novel could spot them a mile off.
To draw in your intended readership you need to study and understand the visual language of your genre and design your cover accordingly.
For more detailed advice on designing the perfect cover for your book click here.
Maybe it shouldn’t, but the quality of your cover reflects on the quality of your writing. Amateurish cover design will send potential readers running.
Be as true to your genre as possible. Potential readers are scanning cover images at speed and it can be easy for them to dismiss your cover as conveying a tone or genre in which they have no interest.
How many times have you picked up an interesting looking book only to be turned off by the blurb?
It’s the blurb that really sells the book and yet many authors treat it as an afterthought. Remember the goal is never to describe your story but to intrigue your reader.
Every story has identifiable goals for how it should make a reader feel. Stress those goals in your blurb. Like communicating genre in your cover this is a matter of finding your intended audience. If you want to horrify your reader then tell them so, rather than providing a colorless summary of the first two chapters where nothing happens.
Again, the quality and tone of your blurb reflects on the quality and tone of your writing. It’s no good having a brilliantly written novel with a stumbling blurb because the latter is all a critical shopper will ever bother reading.
Sell the perception not the story. Stories reveal their style and tone as they progress but readers need to know what to expect before they buy. Don’t make your murder mystery seem like a quaint domestic drama. Here are two blurb beginnings for the same novel:
Hannah is a 23 year old bank clerk from Suffolk, but strange events are about to change her life…
Hannah’s uncle died of fright in a locked room three days after amending his will…
Does the second example spoil the first four chapters? Maybe. But it makes you want to read the fifth.
Many authors offer a section of a novel so readers can try before they buy. Make sure your sample isn’t putting off readers interested enough to come this far.
You can provide as much as you want to, however I wouldn’t recommend sharing more than 10% of your book. You might even just provide a few pages. Samples aren’t used to make judgements on style or tone, the reader already made those decisions from the cover or blurb. They’re not even meant to intrigue, as again your reader has already got that far. Instead samples confirm the quality of writing.
Choose an easy to follow section containing a minor event. Some enjoyable dialogue or a skilled description is ideal, anything that assures the reader you know what you’re doing.
Your sample will be automatically created when you upload an ebook to Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Amazon takes the first 10% of your book and creates a sample, so this is worth keeping in mind if you are considering including something important at the beginning of the book.
Your reader is deciding whether they like the way you write. The only thing you can do here is to provide a sample that’s true to the rest of the novel.
Don’t use the only fight scene in the book as a sample. Select a passage that communicates what the reader can expect from the book’s story. Show them a page without dialogue and they’ll assume there’s little dialogue in the book. Show them a passage given over to describing a location and they’ll assume every location gets the same treatment.
The Two Tough Questions
If you’ve publicized your work far and wide, designed the perfect cover, woven a gripping blurb, provided the best sample and yet still your book isn’t selling then it’s time to ask yourself two tough questions.
1. Is there an audience?
A really tough thing to think about when a book is already written but a common issue. How many people are already interested in what you’re writing about? Not how many would enjoy it if they gave it a chance, but how many are looking for what you’re selling?
If the answer is not many then ask yourself if the sales you have seen represent a significant percentage of that market. It may be that success isn’t measured on the scale you imagined.
If not then there are two things you need to do. The first is pursue that audience. There are groups of people interested in any subject, and with the existence of online forums and blogs they’re easy to find. Hunt down your audience and let them know where to find your work.
The second thing you need to do, if sales still don’t pick up, is to move on to another project. Most readers aren’t looking to spontaneously explore a whole new writer and subject, but they’re happy to follow writers they trust to a type of story they don’t know. Establish yourself with a more accessible project and readers will be more open to trying your back catalogue.
2. Is it ready?
This is a problem most commonly faced by self-published writers. It’s not that a novel is without merit, just that it needs to go through further drafts to be ready for publication.
Is this the best version of your story? Are you sure your grammar is perfect? More importantly do other people agree? Not your friends or family but unbiased readers and professional editors?
Consider engaging a proofreader to find things which may be lessening the reader’s experience and harming word of mouth. Join an online writing group to get some feedback from impartial people familiar with the craft.
The hardest thing for a writer to do is to admit a piece they thought was finished needs more work, but it’s also the mark of a brave, committed professional and something authors of immense popularity would often be better off doing.
Be Patient, Be Busy
The key to success in getting your book read is to do everything you can and nothing more. Each element I’ve outlined can help you but if it gets to a point where nothing is working then understand that moving on to your next project isn’t the same as abandoning your first.
Some books simply aren’t released at the right time and become popular years after their publication. It might be an author’s seventh book that breaks out and gets people reading the rest, it might be a shift in the zeitgeist that makes a certain subject more popular. How different was the market for archaeological thrillers before and after The Da Vinci Code?
Every element outlined above should be designed to call out to your intended audience. If that fails then the best thing you can do to sell your first book is to write a second. Even books such as The Grapes of Wrath, Lord of the Flies and Moby Dick weren’t immediately popular on their release and now they’re household names, receiving the acclaim they deserve.
Do you have a delayed action success story, or do you have a method to boost sales and awareness? Let me know in the comments.