Why “write the next book” isn’t enough; Or: What to do if your books aren’t selling.

Starting out as an Indie Author

In this installment of my series, I am going to take it as a given that you’ve written a good book and either had it professionally edited, or critiqued by several colleagues in a workshop or through critique exchanges, or sent the manuscript out to multiple beta readers — or all of the above.

It the story is lame, the writing bad, or the manuscript riddled with spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, changing the cover or blurb won’t help increase sales. If your book hasn’t already been thoroughly torn apart by someone other than friends and family members, before you tweak any of the things I’ll be going into below, you might want to run it by some critique partners or beta readers first.

Intro: My Year of Marketing Dangerously

By which I mean — very nearly not at all. Over a year ago, I got so frustrated with the way Amazon kept changing their algorithms and how difficult it was to keep up — I was selling less and less with more and more effort — that I quit marketing entirely and concentrated on writing and getting more books out. Everybody tells you the best thing for your indie career is to write the next book, after all.

So I published another novel and another collection of short stories, and worked on getting Island of Glass finished.

Well, the novel and the story collection both tanked, and the rest of my books started fading into oblivion right along with them. What was perhaps even worse, my incentive to write was fading right along with my sales.

So when Island of Glass was ready for publication, I got the marketing machine going again. I’m not getting rich, and I can’t quit translating yet, but whereas last summer I was making less than $50 a month from my fiction, it is now back up to a couple hundred dollars.

For that reason, I’m going to start my list with MARKETING.

4 possible reasons your books aren’t selling:

1) You aren’t doing any (effective) marketing.

The thing is, as painful as it might seem, we indie writers have ALL the responsibility for making our books visible, so that readers can find them and buy them. Traditionally published writers have to do a lot of the marketing these days as well (I know, I’ve been there.) But if nothing else, a book that is traditionally published is at the very least listed in the new releases of the publisher in question, which goes out to bookstores and creates a certain initial buzz.

If indie authors want any kind of initial buzz, they have to create it themselves. On the other hand, an indie publication has the advantage that it won’t be remaindered (another thing I know from experience). Since your book isn’t fated to fly or die within six months, you can try new marketing strategies with it, can give it a push with a free run or an ad, can tweak the blurb and the keywords.

But the fact of the matter is, as an indie author, you are responsible for the sales strategies. And you have to learn what will work for you.

To give you a couple of examples from my own experience: from my Year of Marketing Dangerously, I learned that my incentive to write goes down proportionate to the smaller my audience gets. Yes, I am writing the kinds of books I want to read, but neither am I Emily Dickinson. I am not only writing for myself — I want to reach people with my words and my stories.

And that means, I have to figure out ways of reaching my potential audience that don’t make me start cursing fate.

Analyzing the situation, I realized that what I really don’t care much for is Facebook and Twitter (except when I’m tweeting with friends like my Villa Diodati folks). Blogging, otoh, I can do that, like it even. So, I concentrate my Internet presence on blogging, and make sure it’s connected to Facebook and my Twitter feed. It might not be the most effective method, but it’s the one I can concentrate on without dreading the work.

But whether your thing is blogging, Facebook, or Twitter (or maybe even all three), that presence by itself usually isn’t enough. You have to do SOMETHING to get the word about your books out there. Marketing.


Nasty, evil, non-writing stuff. Figuring out where to list your books, writing bloggers who might review your books, deciding what strategies to use to push your books …

Somehow, you’re going to have to figure out a way to make it palatable to you personally. Me, I like a good puzzle. And that’s the thing I finally hit on to make marketing more interesting to me. Starting various experiments is a challenge I can get into.

I have no idea what might make getting the word about your books out there more appealing for you, but as an indie author, you’ll need to find something.

2) Your cover doesn’t inspire people to click on the book in the first place.

You are convinced your cover design skills are great, and you are very proud of the covers you created yourself, sure that they totally reflect the spirit of the story. Who could possibly catch its essence better than you, the writer?

Easy: a professional cover designer.

And when it comes right down to it, capturing the essence of your story isn’t the important thing. It’s getting readers to click on your link. You may have created a wonderful cover that includes hints of all the major elements of your novel — but in thumbnail it looks like a confused mess. Or you’ve created the perfect illustration of an integral scene in Bryce or some other 3D software — and in thumbnail it looks like a 3D rendered image with a title slapped on. Or you found cheap stock art, since you want to keep costs down, and added the title in Gimp, since that’s easy enough — only to discover that there’s book after ebook on Amazon using the same stock photo.

Whether you do it yourself or not, more than anything else you need a cover that’s arresting, that draws the reader’s eye, that makes her look twice and that’s appropriate to the genre. If your ideal reader doesn’t see the thumbnail and think “ooh, that looks kinda cool!” it’s a fail. It has to be more than functional. It has to be eye-catching.

Advice: take a step back and look at your covers in thumbnail with the eye of a reader. Would you click on the image? If not, consider redoing your cover.

Alternatively, if you have an honest friend who can tell you anything without the risk of you never speaking to him or her again, ask for an honest opinion of your covers in thumbnail. It can be ridiculously hard for us to step outside of ourselves.

The fact of the matter is, for any book that isn’t selling (assuming the author is doing some marketing to get it into the public eye and the writing isn’t absolute dreck), the first thing that usually needs to be changed is the cover. It may be true that you can’t *judge* a book by its cover, but it is also true that you cannot entice a reader to try out your book with a sub-par cover.

3) Your blurb isn’t exciting and doesn’t inspire readers to even read the excerpt.

So let’s say you’re doing a free run to get a few more eyes on your book, and you already have a cover that has inspired your target reader to click on the link. The next hurdle to overcome in reader resistance is the blurb. Does it make the reader curious and raise questions in her mind that have to be answered? Or is it more of a summary of events that happen in your book, without context?

Since I eventually want to do an extra article about blurbs, as important as they are, I won’t go into them here in any more detail. Instead, I’ve created a fictional blurb for a book many people are familiar with:

Katniss doesn’t like the rules she has to live under, so she goes hunting in the forest with her friend Gale. It’s illegal and dangerous, but it puts food on the table. Then her sister Prim gets chosen for the Hunger Games, and Katniss volunteers to take her place as tribute. She has to go to the capitol to fight against boys and girls from all the other districts under the control of Panem. The boy chosen to go with her from her district, Peeta, is the baker’s son, and he once threw her a loaf of bread when she had nothing to eat. But now if she wants to survive, she will have to kill him — along with all the other tributes to Panem …

Here is the real blurb for the book:

In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. The Capitol is harsh and cruel and keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one boy and one girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV. Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives alone with her mother and younger sister, regards it as a death sentence when she is forced to represent her district in the Games. But Katniss has been close to dead and survival, for her, is second nature. Without really meaning to, she becomes a contender. But if she is to win, she will have to start making choices that weigh survival against humanity and life against love.

In the real blurb, there is very little specific info about what actually happens to the main character, and NO additional names, other than that of Panem. It concentrates on the big picture and the essential conflict.

4) Your excerpt (the first however many pages of your book) doesn’t raise enough questions in the reader’s mind to make him or her feel compelled to buy the book.

Of course, as I mentioned above, I’m assuming here that your prose is not full of errors or awkward constructions that will turn a reader off after a page or two. I personally never buy an ebook without downloading the sample first. Any spelling mistakes or sentences that have me itching for a red pen will make me delete the sample immediately, and good riddance.

But most of the writers who will be reading this are not those who will be uploading the kind of error-ridden manuscripts that give indie writers a bad name. On the other hand, even when the book we wrote is quite good, a lot of us haven’t given much thought to how those first few pages might strike a reader who’s gotten far enough to check out the excerpt. Does it (like the blurb) make the reader curious and want to know more? Does it dazzle her with beautiful prose? Does it paint a picture of a character so interesting, the reader wants to spend many more hours with him or her?

Your excerpt doesn’t have to do all these things, but it should at least do one.

So if you are having problems getting your books into the hands of readers, do some research on marketing, and take a look at your cover, blurb and excerpt with the eye of a reader. Maybe there are some things you can change after all to get more people to click “buy.”

Here’s some further reading elsewhere on the Internet that might help you figure out what you should do if your books aren’t selling:

Why Is My Book Not Selling?

10 Reasons Why Self-Published Books Don’t Sell – and What You Can Do to Ensure Yours DOES

The 7 Habits of Highly Ineffective People

9 thoughts on “Why “write the next book” isn’t enough; Or: What to do if your books aren’t selling.”

  1. I’m a bit away from being ready to publish any of my WIPs (taking the track of having several finished before I dive in…).

    But I always find your indie posts thought provoking, Ruth. Sharing this one on my FB Writer page, with hashtags. to get the word, and your name, out a bit more! =D

  2. Thank you as always, Ruth, for sharing your analysis. I’ve been procrastinating about rewriting my blurb. Working on the blurb now, this morning, and cross linked your post to my blog!

  3. About covers … I conducted an interesting experiment at the library the other day. I perused the SF bookshelves, deliberately just glancing at the covers. The ones that LOOKED (can’t italicise) like SF were the ones that caught my attention. This is a combination of font, for both the title and author name, and artwork. (which as you stated must be clear enough to be understood at thumbnail size)
    Whether we like it or not, as readers we’ve been conditioned to expect specific things to occur on the covers of specific genres.

    1. A very good summary of the dilemma, Widdershins, even in a physical bookstore. When it comes right down to it, clicking and pulling a book off the shelf are very similar impulses.

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