There are a lot of threads on KB and other groups I'm a part of posted by authors asking why they aren't selling more books, or by authors considering giving up on their dreams of being writers because they aren't seeing the sales or accolades they were hoping for.
I've critiqued many titles to examine why they might not be selling more (at their authors' requests) and have come up with some things that are almost always the reasons why *I think* they're not having the success they want. I usually share feedback with authors privately, so no one big group sees my standard feedback. I've decided some people might find it valuable, so here I am. I plan to link back to it any time an author asks me why his or her book is not selling because it seems to be the stuff I'm always giving out as advice.
Before I go into this in more detail, let me just reiterate that little bit I highlighted up there. This is just what I think. I have one opinion: mine. Others' opinions will probably differ. All I can say for my opinion and anyone else's is this: consider the source. If the source is someone you trust, give her a listening ear. If it's not, then just ignore her. I hope someone out there finds this post helpful.
I also want to put the disclaimer out there that I'm not perfect. I try to follow my own advice, but sometimes I miss the mark too. The important thing to keep in mind is that this industry is changing, and it's necessary to examine things that aren't working for you and make changes until you find that sweet spot balancing your abilities, time available, and reader reaction. I've changed covers, blurbs, published new editions of a couple books, re-uploaded when readers have sent typo finds to me via email … the list goes on and on. I'll always be in search of perfection and not quite getting there. That's the nature of this beast – independent writing and publishing.
Now on to the advice…
The trifecta of awesome: Cover, Blurb, Sample
COVER: Every single time, without exception, that someone asks “why aren't my books selling?” the cover is a problem.
As indies, we often have these personalities that cause us to want to go our own way, to be original, to not follow the trends. That's good in some ways, but not good for covers. Why? Because readers who loved a book, when searching for their next purchase, go in search of another book that will re-create that experience they just had. They want the same breathless anticipation, the same emotional roller coaster, the same laugh-out-loud moments, or whatever it was they loved.
How do they find that next read? They search thumbnails (tiny cover images) in also-boughts or on book blogs or on Amazon category lists. Since covers are the first thing they see, they search for one that looks like the last one they read. If the last awesome book they read had a couple kissing on the cover with a foggy background, and there's another book in their search that has the same kind of vibe and feel, they'll be tempted to at least check out the blurb. That's what you want, to move them through the process of evaluating and then selecting your book.
Likewise, if they see a book with a black background and a canary, they're going to assume it's nothing like the last book they loved and they'll pass on it, never giving the blurb a chance. That's another lost sale.
When you're putting together the cover concepts for your book, the first thing you should do before you shop for the photographs or artwork is go to the bestseller lists and search covers in your genre. See what people are buying. Look in the bestseller also-boughts (you'll find many covers that all look similar.) Use these as guides for your stock-art purchases, your effects, and your font choices. I'd even go so far as to say you should use this list of books to guide your choice of book title.
As an indie not selling over 50,000 books a month you need to come face front with this fact: You are not in a position to be a trend-setter. You need to be a trend-follower until you have a fanbase of your own so big and so loyal that you can support yourself with these people buying your books. Look at a trend as a wave. You need to ride that wave all the way into the shore, otherwise, you're going to be lost at sea (Boom! Goes the metaphor!)
Another reason some indies miss the mark with their covers is they're on a really tight, really small budget. They either try to do the work themselves (using GIMP or Photoshop or some similar program) or they pay someone not qualified to do the work. If an author can't come up with artistic concepts on her own or do a good job of getting inspiration from other bestselling covers out there in your genre, it's short-sighted of her to settle for a cover that doesn't do its job to attract readers to her blurb.
Authors in this position say “I can't afford a good cover,” thinking that once they have sales, they'll update the cover to something better. But without the good cover in place from the get-go, they won't get the sales, and a million readers in the meantime will see their title and their name and those readers will already be programmed to pass on the buy-button. First impressions count. Invest in a good cover so you can get readers to give your blurb a chance.
Graphic artists go to school to enhance the creative skills they were born with. If you aren't artistic, you probably can't make your own bestselling covers unless you just copy someone else's. When I say do what others are doing, I don't mean to copy them. Get inspiration from other covers, but don't copy them. If people who know art and who know the industry tell you your book cover is amateurish, listen to them. Get professional help. You can buy pre-made covers for pretty much any genre out there for $15-$60 on many different websites. I'm not saying non-graphic-artist-trained people can't make good covers. I'm saying most can't. Remember also that font work is as important or maybe even more important than the stock art chosen and the effects.
BLURB: Be detailed enough to lure people into wanting to know more and vague enough not to give the whole plot away. Look at the blurbs used by the bestsellers in your genre. Break them down into parts and do your blurb using the same parts. I'll also add they should match the tone of the book. If your book has a lot of humor, so should the blurb. A great example is the blurb for Wallbanger by Alice Clayton. If you have a killer cover and a ho-hum blurb, probably half the readers who get that far will abandon your page. The other half will bother to read reviews – mostly the poor reviews, not the 5-star reviews – to see if your book is worth taking a risk on.
SAMPLE: In books experiencing problems with sales, assuming the writing skill/storytelling is good, I almost always see grammatical errors or punctuation problems in the free sample provided by Amazon (click on the book cover and you can read a sample of pretty much any book on there). All books will have errors; even trad-pubbed books. What you don't want is an error in the sample. Readers will assume they are rampant throughout the book if they see one in the sample.
If the sample shows lack of writing or storytelling skill, the book will never sell any appreciable numbers. There are too many good books out there to choose from these days to settle on a poorly-written or poorly-edited one. None of the above advice will help you if you cannot write well or tell a story well. You might get some early readers who are captivated by the trifecta, but once the disappointed reviews start rolling in, the sales will plummet and your reputation will be set until people forget who you were. Here's a perfect example of that phenomenon. The book linked to is no longer available on Amazon, but you can read the train wreck on Goodreads.
The market matters.
I always shake my head a little at people who complain that they don't sell many books, but when I look at the book, it's written for one of the smallest niches there is.
The vast majority of writers in any genre only get a very small percentage of a market to buy their books (we will ignore the outliers like JK Rowling and her ilk.) So, for example, if the romance reader market has 5,000,000 people in it, and I get a very small percentage of that market to buy my book, I'll sell a lot of books. If the steampunk reader market has 300,000 people in it, and you get a small percentage of that market to buy your book, you're going to sell a hell of a lot fewer books than the romance writer will.
So what do you do if you want to write for a niche market? Well, either plan on making less money or write a lot more books. If you can get a small percentage of a market to buy all your books, and you have a lot of them, you'll meet your goals.
It's a numbers game, plain and simple. Do the math. If you need X amount of money in a year to support your family, and your market has Y number of people in it, and you can nab Z percent of those readers at A price … well, you know the deal. I suck at math, but this is basic algebra. Find a teen to help you put it all together if you're like me and left Algebra behind in high school.
A willingness to promote the work
I've seen people posting that they're too shy to talk about their books or they don't like being used car salesmen-like, and yet they moan about no sales. They equate promotion of their work with something akin to torture.
Some well-meaning authors advise them to just write another book. I guess it's the Field of Dreams phenomenon: write it and they will come. The problem with this advice is that I don't know any successful authors who sell a lot of books without doing some form of promotion. Even when they claim not to, I can point out several avenues of promotion they're using that they don't realize are promotional.
Here is the cold, hard fact you need to just face up to and internalize: If you don't let the world know about your book, the world will not know about your book.
What is promotion? It's not something painful, it's not something that should take a huge amount of time out of your day, and it's not something that should make you feel creepy (in fact, if it makes you feel creepy, you're doing it wrong.)
Here are some types: (1) posting an occasional blurb, sneak peek, photograph, or thought on Facebook or Twitter; (2) joining in a group giveaway of books using rafflecopter or something similar; (3) giving away gift cards or free books in exchange for sharing your promotion that gains you Facebook likes or email list sign-ups; (4) KDP giveaways or perma-free, giving away book 1 in a series to get follow-on purchases of the rest of the books in the series; (5) blog tours; (6) being active on Goodreads or book blogs; (7) having a fellow author introduce her readers to your book; etc.
There are so many forms of promotion that will help sell books, there's no excuse for not doing one or more of them, if your goal is to support yourself with your writing. The list is pretty much endless since new avenues are opening up all the time. If you look at my list above, you'll see very few of them actually require that you hawk your wares or talk about your book.
Bottom line: if you don't believe in your work enough to try and promote it, don't expect anyone else to do it for you or to go out of their way to find it. You are not going to win the lottery. You will not sell a lot of your books if you aren't willing to promote them somehow.
The psychology of success
I have a friend who has at her fingertips the means to have a financially successful life, but she always fails to do the things she knows will bring her this security. I call that fear of success.
People like this think if they never try and fail, well, they can sleep well knowing “if” they had tried, things might be better and they can choose to do this at any time. It's like a savings account of sorts. But if they try and fail, their safety net goes away. They must face the fact that it was just an illusion all along and they have nothing “in the bank”.
To someone like me who is a grab-the-bull-by-the-horns kind of person, that ^^ sounds insane, but after knowing her for a long time, this is my analysis of her behavior and I know she's not nuts. She's just afraid, and it's easier for her to live this way.
I wonder how many writers have dreamed of hitting it big as an author for many years and yet are afraid to completely pull that trigger to find out if they really can support themselves with their writing. They keep the dream alive in their heads by failing to give it their all, so they always have an excuse for never reaching the dream. For some, I think that's easier than outright failing.
For me, failure is just getting me closer to my eventual success. I've failed enough for twenty people, but I've accomplished a lot of goals too.
For anyone out there who this might strike a chord with, I'm here to tell you that you can do this – you can be a professional writer. If you invest enough of yourself in the business of publishing and the artistry of writing, you can succeed. The important thing is to be open to the advice of other people you admire, who have attained the goals you've set for yourself.