Why books don’t sell part II

A while ago, I wrote a post Why Don’t My Books Sell. It was originally written on this blog, but before I did the crash & burn to fix weird problems with this blog, I moved it to the “Self-publishing” section on my author site.

That post is all (well, mostly, at least) about the book. It’s about cover, branding, quality of storytelling.

But it is not uncommon to see books that defy all the advice in that post, which is pretty much conventional wisdom. The books that are full of formatting, spelling and grammar errors that DO sell really well. Or the books that are beautifully done but don’t sell at all.

If anything, the fact that both these things happen means that there is something else going on.

Luck.

Sometimes it is just that. The author came in at a right time, something caught the attention of readers and the book took off.

But let’s unpack “luck” a little.

If luck means you’ve got to be somewhere at the right time, it means that you’ve got to BE somewhere first. In other words, the more you try, the more luck you can catch.

The more you try, the better you get at it.

Audience.

Who are your readers and how much do they care about books that follow strict formulas, and story tropes and how much, indeed, do they care about spelling and grammar? (I can hear a whole library of writers shudder right now)

Marketing types will sometimes tell writers to imagine a typical reader and then to imagine where that reader hangs out.

The fact is that a lot of beginning writers have Absolutely No Freaking Clue about who they are writing for, how to reach those people and how to engage them.

A lot of writers bumble through the beginning of their career trying this or that before eventually figuring out that this sort of stuff is important.

Who are my readers? Well it’s different for each series, but the typical reader for the Ambassador books is male, over 40, has a tertiary education. He is a geek and if he has a partner, he is unlikely to have children. He may be gay. He is quite likely not to live in the US, although he might. He votes left.

Where does he hang out?

He goes to geek cons. He talks about these on Facebook, Twitter or Google+ He buys books mostly through word-of-mouth and promotion sites.*

Do you see a pattern emerging with what I’m doing with my promotions?

If you have no idea who your “average” reader is, then you don’t know where to find them.

So what about those books that are full of mistakes, poor craft and still sell like hotcakes?

I had an epiphany about these, because it always baffled the hell out of me. Invariably, these writers report that they do much better in Kindle Unlimited (Amazon’s subscription service) through page reads than through sales.

I heard someone mention on a podcast that he had bought his 12yo son a subscription (because at that age, the boy can’t buy his own books: no credit card) and he was tearing through books. At that age–sadly but true–many kids are also not going to care much about spelling.

So. Audience.

How much of that audience is yours?

If you just publish a book and have no way of letting people know that it’s out, then it’s going to sink pretty much no matter how good (or bad) it is. A lot of people who get “lucky” out of the gate brought their own audience. For example from a fan fiction site or they’re a podcast host who had been talking about a novel for a long time. Or they are well-known in a non-fiction field and everyone knows that they are writing a novel that encompasses the profession, hobby or discipline.

It takes a community to launch a book successfully.

* How do I know this? Well, it’s quite easy. You make an ad on Facebook for the book. You target broad, like the genre and a major writer in the genre. You see who clicks and run the breakdowns on age, country, gender. And when you correspond with readers, Facebook will often give you a quick rundown of their education, job, marital status and hobbies, if they choose to share it, and it’s amazing how many people do.

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Writing or Marketing?

If you poke around the internet, you will find posts by various wise writers exhorting you to spend x amount or proportion of your time marketing and the rest writing. Often it comes down to 80% writing and 20% marketing.

I think these sorts of enforced schedules miss a really important part of being a writer:

Marketing is not some evil thing that should be avoided at all cost, nor is it something that takes you away from writing, or something that needs to be rationed.

Marketing augments your writing. Marketing sells what you have already written, increasing the value obtained from your intellectual capital. Marketing can also help you decide what to write next: see what sells best, and then write more of that.

How much time do I spend doing either? However much is necessary. If I’m in the middle of an early draft of a book, I’ll spend next to no time marketing, but when I need to think about how plot threads fit together, I move to do more marketing, because most of it involves interacting with people and it takes your mind off thorny plotting problems, and that ironically helps you see the solutions that have been staring you in the face all the time.

A newbie writer’s guide to getting your first Bookbub ad (or other major advertising)

In conversation.

GH = Grasshopper
VA = Veteran Author

GH: Soooooo, I hear Bookbub is all the rage, but is that site even open to us indies, because I submitted my book once, and they didn’t want it.

VA: *loud belly laugh* You submitted ONCE? Mwahahahahahahaha!!!

GH: But they didn’t even tell me why they didn’t want it. The whole site is a stitch-up between the trads and the people who already sell well. Those people don’t even need it. Look at meeee. I’m down in the rankings and no one is seeing my book. It’s a conspiracy.

VA: OK, so let’s look at your book.

GH: *blushes*

VA: Is your cover the best you can make it? Is it appropriate for the genre? Is is skilfully made?

GH: Well, it was made by a friend who has a design business–

VA: Book cover design?

GH: No, she designs business cards. But it’s all the same, isn’t it?

VA: No, it isn’t. The format is too wide, making the cover look odd. The type is far too small. The picture is OK, although the photoshop skills could be better, but it doesn’t represent the genre. Get another cover.

GH: Okaaayyyy.

VA: Let’s look at your blurb. Is it short and snappy? Does it give a clear idea of what sort of story we’re going to get? Does it support the genre indicated by the cover?

GH: Well, I got my friend and her mother to review the book, so I copied those reviews into the blurb. I don’t want to give too much away about the story.

VA: Get rid of those reviews. They’re already in the review section. Don’t be too coy about what happens in the book. Lift a corner of the story and entice readers. Look at blurbs of successful authors.

GH: Okaaayyyyyyyy…..

VA: What about your sample? I see that you start the book with a dedication to your dog, a poem by another writer (do you have permission to use this?), a glossary of terms and a long prologue that’s a condensed history of the world. Get rid of those things, or at the very least move them elsewhere. The back of the book would be a good place.

GH: But why?

VA: They’re cluttering up your sample. People downloading the sample get hit with a wall of irrelevant stuff–

GH: But they need to know–

VA: Trust me, they don’t.

GH: Okay, but tell me, I asked why lowly indies like me never get featured on the big sites. What does that have to do with all this?

VA: Hear me out. What about your formatting? I see that your book uses HUGE indents and sometimes has empty lines for no reason.

GH: Formatting is the easy part. You just upload a Word file.

VA: That will work, if you have your Word file correctly formatted. You DON’T EVER use tabs for indents.

GH: You don’t? Really?

VA: Learn how to do it properly.

GH: Okaaayyyy, but I still don’t see–

VA: Reviews, how many do you have?

GH (sigh of relief): All right, you’re getting to the problem. It’s simply impossible to get reviews. And then you do giveaways and people will only review on goodreads, where the reviews are of no use to me. Everything is conspiring against new authors getting reviews.

VA: Nope. Reviews are a function of sales. Sell more books, and get more reviews.

GH: But they’re saying you need at least fifty to get into Bookbub! That’s impossible. Everything is stitched up by the older crowd.

VA (annoyed): Stop blaming other people for your failure.

GH: *blushes* Sorry.

VA: Because reviews are a function of sales, you must sell more books. Have you done all the things I mentioned earlier?

GH: I’m getting to it.

VA: OK, when you’ve done them, lower your book to 99c.

GH: WHAT? Do you know how much all this cost me? *faints*

VA: Do you want to do this or not?

GH (weakly): I guess…

VA: Lower your book to 99c for a week every month and run promotions on it. Start with the cheaper ones. Sell as many books as possible. Offer your book free to people who want to review. This will take a while.

GH: But! FIFTY reviews!

VA: They will come.

Six months later.

GH: OK I have 45 reviews, but it’s really slowed down a lot. Should I apply again?

VA: Yes, you should.

GH: What if they reject me?

VA: You apply again, as soon as you can. And again, and again. And again.

GH: But what if they never accept me?

VA: It happens. But by doing all the steps above, you’ve ensured that you may not even need it anymore. And above all, stop obsessing and keep writing.

GH: That’s what I most enjoy doing anyway.

Expenses–and books don’t sell themselves

I came across this post in my Twitter feed.  TL;DR: an author lamenting how much it costs to produce a book, and how little she has sold.

The expenses side in her post looks fine. I tend to budget about A$1500 per book for editing, cover design and formatting. I have a line editor/proofreader who also formats my books. I use a variety of cover artists, and this is where the main variation in expense comes from. I’ve also recently started working with a paid content/developmental editor.

A$1500 per book serves me fine. This, of course, is a one-off cost and the more books you sell, the more you get out in profit. It is also where cover price affects your bottom line. At $2.99 per copy, I need to sell 750 copies to cover my costs. At $3.99, I need to sell less than 500. Everything else is gravy.

But the trick is: how do you sell 500 books? It is in this part of the equation that you can make a huge difference. To me, it sounds like the author of that blog post has not done an awful lot of effective promotion.

Promotion is not yelling at your social media friends. It’s not bookstore visits, blog tours or signings. It’s not even incessantly buying ads. There are only a couple of sites that are effective anyway.

Promotion is:

  • A good self-hosted website that you use as platform for:
  • Your mailing list signup form
  • Listing all your books and places where people can buy them
  • Write an engaging series of a couple of books
  • Make the first one free, and link to your mailing list signup in the front and back of the book
  • Now advertise the hell out of your free book.

A good dose of patience is also required. And writing a couple of books per year.

Self-publishing: Warning – There Are Sharks In The Water

General warning: as soon as you decide to self-publish, a certain section of the population decides that you are a cow to be milked. Some will be blatant about it by sending you emails soliciting your business. Usually, it’s to buy into some form of marketing. Mostly, you’ll be marketed at in more subtle ways, where people tug at you with statements like “I went from selling xxx to selling yyyyy using this method/site!”

Especially the latter is very hard to evaluate objectively, because writers get told to treat their writing as a business, and you should therefore invest in that business, right?

Wrong!

Yes, you should invest in your business, but you should invest smartly in that business. You will not make your book sell better by randomly throwing handfuls of money at it.

In order to know how to invest smartly, you first need to know what you need and who offers the best services to give you these things.

It is perfectly OK NOT to invest terribly much while you’re learning the ropes, especially on the side of marketing.

Don’t become that author with the $2000 book trailer without a clue how and where to use that book trailer (hint: book trailers are a luxury that you can spend on when you can afford it. They don’t lead to many sales).

Don’t become that author with a $1000 book cover by a great artist who 1. has never designed a book cover before and 2. didn’t really portray genre cover conventions that help sell the book.

Don’t become the author who bought a marketing plan from a vanity-type press because the people emailed and it “sounded so good”.

If someone emails you about a service and you have to pay for it, it’s not going to be something you want.

Don’t fall in these traps. Educate yourself. Decide what YOU need and then hunt for people to provide the service. Anyone whose service is good will be very busy and won’t spend much time looking for clients.

No, it’s not easy. Yes, it sounds like work. If it sounds easy and too good to be true, then it usually isn’t. Do your homework. Sit on your wallet until you’re convinced that the service is good. Ask other people about it. Google the service. Ask the Kindleboards hivemind about it. Do. Your. Research.

Why I give books away for free

Listened to the Marketing SFF people’s podcast with Elle Casey this morning.

I love Elle and the nice, unassuming way she treats her career and the success she has had. She said a lot of things that I agree with.

But she went on a little bit of a crusade against people who offer books for free, because apparently it conditions people to think that all books should be free. She had a mini-rant against people doing Facebook ads for mailing list subscribers, which I could get into. Mainly because I think Facebook ads take waayyyy too much time that I’d rather be writing, and I also think that people signing up *because* you’re offering free books tend to be on average the most unengaged peeps (only marginally more engaged than those you get from competitions).

But.

Then she said “unless you are offering a free book 1 in order to entice people to buy the rest of the series”. And this is often a caveat we will hear from the self-professed free-haters. It’s OK if it’s a marketing strategy.

And I just wonder what else these people think we’re doing with giving away free books. You distribute free books so that people can read a sample and go on to buy the rest of the series. That is the whole point of it.

In order to spread the reach, you advertise your free books as much as possible.

But then, their argument goes, you get emails from people wanting the entire series free.

Yes, I know. I get them, too.

And you know what?

I GIVE THEM THE BOOKS!

That is, if they want to review the books.

Get this: someone writes me saying that they’re a poor pensioner and can’t afford books but liked a free book, and wants the rest for free. I tell them: OK. Become a reviewer, and you get all my books for free.

Maybe what they tell me is true, maybe they’re lying. I don’t really care. What does it cost me to send out a review copy? Nothing! What do I get? Reviews! Win=win.

So I’m afraid I don’t get the anti-free-ranty people. Where do they see lots of writers giving away books *without* some sort of strategy to entice people to buy more books? Because all the writers I know who use free, use it as strategy. I could certainly argue that it *needs* a strategy to work, but I’m not seeing the conditioning to expect everything free. Second and subsequent volumes in series are never free.

Self-publishing: about selling on non-Amazon platforms

This morning I was listening to the Creative Penn podcast in which Joanna talks to Mark Levefre, the director of Kobo Writing Life.

Kobo has a special place for me, because it was the first platform where I started selling more than coffee money. That was pure luck, but lately I have been selling quite well on all non-Amazon platforms, and in the interview, Mark confirmed a few points that I had also noticed about selling on non-Amazon platforms.

Anyone who knows me will also know that I am a big proponent of being “wide”, meaning: selling on all retailer platforms where possible. This is the opposite of being in Amazon’s Select program, which requires you to be exclusive.

That’s not to say that I don’t play with Amazon’s toys every now and then. I like poking things to see what happens.

But it means that the bulk of my work will be available everywhere I can make it available.

A good many people complain about not selling much outside Amazon, so here are some of my thoughts about selling on non-Amazon platforms.

Other platforms are about the global reader. In many countries in the world, you can’t even access Amazon. Those people can only buy at Kobo or Google Play. Last months sales from Google Play featured countries as varied as Poland, Ireland, the Philippines, Switzerland, Finland, New Zealand and Argentina. There are many more people reading in English outside the US than there are inside it.

Other platforms are about commitment. I’m a Kobo reader. When I go to someone’s page on Kobo and I see a half-arsed selection of just a couple of their minor titles there, I know that that author is not committed to selling to me. I go and find another author.

Other platforms are about slow building and few spikes. It takes a long time to build up a sales history on some platforms. If you flip-flop in and out of Select, you start from scratch each time. Once your books have built up this sales history, they will sell themselves pretty much without your involvement.

Other platforms are about tailoring. I can’t comprehend why writers do their best to optimise their listings on Amazon, and then just plunk their books on other retailers (with the same blurb and same keywords as on Amazon), and expect the books to sell, without making ANY effort whatsoever to tailor their books to the site, and often without having looked at the site and what makes it tick.

If you have no real commitment and spend no effort advertising your books on other sites, you can’t expect to sell.

But, some people say, if I take my books out of the Select program, I make so much less money!

That may be true for some (it certainly wasn’t for me), but selling everywhere is not primarily about money. It’s about security, because if you’re exclusive with Amazon and don’t show consistent commitment to other sites, then when Amazon sneezes, you’ll be in bed with glandular fever for six months.

Selling on other platforms is also about taking control of your audience. It’s about learning to create your own sales rather than relying on retailer algorithms to do it for you (or, all of a sudden, to stop doing that for you overnight).

To try to go wide out of panic after a sudden downturn is the absolute worst time to do it. You can’t be in a hurry when you go wide. You need a lead time before you see the significant benefits.

Goodbye little blue line

… It was nice knowing you, but I’m ready to leave you.

Earlier this year, I put some of my books in Amazon’s KDP Select program, where they have to be exclusive to Amazon for a period of three months and people in Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program can “borrow” them for free. The writer is then paid per page read. The amount isn’t much, about half a cent and trending down. An average book is 500 KDP pages. A read is about $2.50, which is roughly equal to what you get per copy sold.

Screenshot 2015-12-09 17.17.38

Your sales page gets an extra graph that shows pages read. The figure above is mine for the beginning of this month. The spike is from when I did a promotion. While I had great days, as a result of promotions, I found that my do-nothing scenario netted me between 500 and 2000 pages per day. That’s 1-4 copies sold.

The question is then:

Can I sell that much of these books per day on non-Amazon platforms? On days that I get 10k page reads, probably not, but in my do-nothing scenario–which will apply most of the time because I can’t keep running promotions–most definitely.

So, out they come.

Goodbye little blue line was originally published on Must Use Bigger Elephants

Why don’t my books sell?

“Why don’t my books sell?” I get asked this question a bit, so I’m making a post about it, so that I can easily refer to it.

Remember that I don’t have all the answers either, and there are people who sell a lot more than I do. How to sell well also depends on genre and the individual author’s circumstances. That said, I have spent a few years in the self-publishing scene and have picked up on a few things that are often associated with writers who sell very little at all.

1. The covers suck.

Anyone who tells you people don’t judge books by their covers is telling you BS and doing you a disservice. It could be that *some* people don’t judge a book by the cover, and they may not. And they’re often extremely vocal about it, as if they have to convert everyone else that what’s inside matters the most. Yes. We get it. And yes, what’s inside should matter the most, but people won’t get to the inside when they can’t get past the cover.

The cover matters. A lot. Like: A FUCKING SHIT-TONNE. So get a good cover as soon as you can afford it.

2. No branding.

Yes, I know. Branding is marketing speak and as self-published author you’re meant to just do whatever, Fuck Teh Ebil Gatekeepers. Marketing speak is anathema to that, but if you’re serious about selling, and you want to write to supplement your income, or even just to take your family out to a nice dinner once a month, then you should learn from people who sell stuff. Marketers. We all write for pleasure first, but there is very little that justifies your time spent writing as much as money. Welcome to the capitalist age.

Branding is nothing more than structuring your works in such a way that people can see in a second, without having to read anything, that these books all belong together. It’s what you do when you have series covers with a repeating element.

But branding is more than that. It’s also making sure that all your books have a certain feel about them, that this feel and design is repeated across your website, your Amazon page, your newsletter signup form, and wherever your books are displayed.

Branding is also having a clear body of work that consists of books of a certain length in a certain genre. It’s about numbering books in a series and about keep dissimilar material out.

One thing you tend to see a lot is authors who have a bunch of “books” to fill up their profile, but a good number are not books, they’re short stories. Short stories sell like crap. They detract from your novels and clutter up your page. Get rid of them by bundling them as soon as you can.

3. The writing and storytelling are just not ready for prime time.

I know it’s hard to hear this and it’s hard to tell someone, and there is a what-the-fuck-do-I-know element about it. And yes, it’s subjective as hell, up to a point. People (including me) swear by writer training through beta reading and workshops. Others are very much against it. I know people who never did any workshopping, published their books and started to sell like hotcakes. If this is you, awesome. But those are flukes. Most people are not born bestselling writers. They develop skills through learning.

Spelling and grammar are objective measures of quality, but it’s amazing how many people publish material that just doesn’t make the grade.

Plotting is a more tricky thing, and extremely important. It’s not immediately measurable, but if you do promotions, give away free books and have a very poor sell-through to other works, I bet my bottom dollar that the plotting in the promoted book is off.

If you have trouble with plotting, I highly recommend Take Off Your Pants by Libby Hawker. It’s an awesome summary of everything a good plot should have.

If, despite your best efforts in all the other points in this list, your books refuse to sell, poor craft is very likely the cause. People don’t mention it often because of the subjective and arrogant-sounding nature of comments about writing quality, but a book of a beginning writer is usually not good enough to sell in any quantities. Note the word “usually”, and also never, like, ever, assume that you will fall outside the “usually” demographic.

4. No promotion.

Ah, the dreaded P-word that has writers quaking in their boots. Many simply publish books and don’t even know where to begin in marketing them. Promotion is a lot more than buying the occasional ad slot on a promotion site. It’s not about book launches. It’s not about bookshops. It’s not about ISBNs or other tradepub gimmicks. Promotion is about setting stuff up behind the scenes so that readers can easily find your books.

But rather than me blathering about it, here are three books that capture the behind-the-scenes essence of selling stuff:

Launch by Jeff Walker is very salesy and sounds like a get-rich-quick scheme, but it’s a really good blueprint for how to sell stuff. It deals with some of the psychology of why humans decide to buy and how to, sometimes quite subtly, get people to commit their credit cards.

Let’s Get Visible by David Gaughran is a very good summary of how retail site sales algorithms work and how you can use them to your advantage.

Write, Publish, Repeat by Sean Platt and Johhny B. Truant is an excellent outline for how to capitalise on your readers, how to capture them so that you can target them and how to use what you love doing most–writing another book–as your number one marketing technique.

The painful fact is that none of any of the above guarantees good sales. Not the covers, not the branding, not the marketing. Yeah. The writing. The book and concept don’t appeal greatly. Ouch. But, and this is the beauty of self-publishing, if you publish well-crafted books with nice covers and set up all the marketing stuff well, then a promotion in the form of a paid ad on a single book will have so much more effect, even if your books are not hugely popular. Often not immediately, but in the longer term. And you will see your sales increase, in a slow, non-spiky manner. And they won’t fall completely flat as long as you keep writing new stuff, and all of a sudden, you’ll have gone from Macca’s once a month sales to nice dinner once a month sales, to paying the electricity bill kind of sales to paying the mortgage kind of sales.

Why don’t my books sell? was originally published on Must Use Bigger Elephants

Why you are the biggest impediment to selling your books

I’ve reached the goal of having a decent stable of books. Having series with good presentation (cover, blurb, sample) is important. Few people start selling out the gate with just one book, so I wrote some series. This is still ongoing. It was my aim this year to spend more time selling my books and less time writing new books.

But where to start?

You poke around on the Kindleboards a bit, buy a few ads, butt your head against Bookbub, and eventually get accepted by them, a few times even. Each successful ad makes your sales spike, in case of Bookbub for 6 to 12 weeks even. But eventually you slide back, and you feel you haven’t made much progress.

And then you come across a post like this

OK, so you try the Facebook advertising thing. This is a good guide for how not to completely blow your money. Watch those videos. Seriously.

These posts are written by authors who have been insanely successful at what they did. Is their method going to work for you? Maybe. Could you try something a little bit different and make that work for you? Absolutely. You should be doing just that.

Because when you take away the specific advice about where and how they reached their mega sales (like exactly which tools they used) their advice looks like this:

1. Write every day. Publish.
2. Do an promotional activity every day. It better to advertise low-level every day than to run big ads with lots of days of nothing in between.
3. Give away as many books as you can for free to get people to read subsequent books, until you don’t need this tactic anymore. Advertise the hell out of your freebies.
4. Get a mailing list. Use it.

OK, so what’s up with the title? Why is the author the biggest impediment to selling books?

Because authors get hung up on things, often “helped” by an enthusiastic band of author friends.

Despite the two links I gave above, getting sales rolling is not a formulaic process. It will be different for everyone, and therefore you should be willing to change *everything* about your process.

The author likes a cover and therefore isn’t changing it. Friends may be saying “but I like that cover!” and they’re not being friends at all. They’re an impediment to the author trying out another cover (or another blurb, or another category).

The same applies to marketing. Marketing is not, ever, about individual preferences. How often do people tell you “But I hate XYZ marketing technique!” And heck, the author might even hate it themselves. The authors then lets his or her actions be coloured by those opinions.

How often have people told you:

– I fucking hate popups and close down sites that have them (yah, there isn’t going to be much of the internet left for these peeps, but what the hey)
– I never subscribe to mailing lists
– I would only send mailings for one new release per year

And yada yada yada.

So, in trying to be a good friend, you try to be as sanctimoniously least-offensive as you possibly can. Because you can’t annoy your friends, right?

Wrong.

Thing is: you’re not marketing to your friends. They will be your friends regardless of whether or not they buy your books. If they want to, they know where to find your books and they know when they’re out, because you never shut up about writing.

So forget about the things they tell you about whatever they hate in marketing. While you’re at it, toss your own opinions as well. Like, clear the slate. Stand up and say: I’m going to try everything at least once to see if I can get it to work.

So try stuff. Give it a good spin (like a few months). Doesn’t work? Then go back to the drawing board and try something else. Get your suggestions for which things to try from people who are where you want to be, sales-wise. Forget about how *you* would, or wouldn’t, like to be marketed at. IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU! It’s about a percentage of highly consumer-oriented people who may make a difference. You’re very unlikely to be part of that percentage. That’s OK. You are not in your target group. That’s OK. Marketing is not about you.

Why you are the biggest impediment to selling your books was originally published on Must Use Bigger Elephants