Some things to consider if you want to make a living writing books.

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.

70 comments on “Some things to consider if you want to make a living writing books.

  1. Good stuff. I hate writing blurbs. I often do it while I’m in the process of publishing. Terrible, I know.

    I started going to Top 100 books in my category, copying their blurb in Word, and then I’ll start to rewrite it.

    Sounds a little like cheating, huh? Well, I find that after rewriting just one sentence it’s usually enough for me to get going myself. Sometimes you just need a little push.

    And by going around to 10 or 20 books that are selling well and then reading their blurb, you’re putting yourself into prime blurb writing mode.

    • I do blurbs as I’m putting the book up on Goodreads. It’s the last thing I think if every time! I think your process is perfect, especially since you use it to jump start your own creative process. I call it ‘modeling’. 🙂

  2. I can attest to the difficulties of a niche market. Steampunk, in my case. I’m doing everything “right”. Nice covers, evocative blurbs, great reviews, free series opener, active social media platform… but even though I’ve had almost a dozen releases in my niche category, none of them individually sell many copies, and none of them are highly ranked.

    But I’m niche in my niche; non-fantasy non-romance steampunk mysteries and thrillers, giving me an even narrower audience slice.

      • From Wikipedia: Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery,[1] especially in a setting inspired by industrialized Western civilization during the 19th century. Steampunk works are often set in an alternative history of the 19th century’s British Victorian era or American “Wild West”, in a post-apocalyptic future during which steam power has regained mainstream use, or in a fantasy world that similarly employs steam power. Steampunk perhaps most recognizably features anachronistic technologies or retro-futuristic inventions as people in the 19th century might have envisioned them, and is likewise rooted in the era’s perspective on fashion, culture, architectural style, and art. Such technology may include fictional machines like those found in the works of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, or the modern authors Philip Pullman, Scott Westerfeld, Stephen Hunt and China Miéville. Other examples of steampunk contain alternative history-style presentations of such technology as lighter-than-air airships, analog computers, or such digital mechanical computers as Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine.

        Steampunk may also, though not necessarily, incorporate additional elements from the genres of fantasy, horror, historical fiction, alternate history, or other branches of speculative fiction, making it often a hybrid genre. The term steampunk’s first known appearance was in 1987, though it now retroactively refers to many works of fiction created even as far back as the 1950s or 1960s.

  3. Saw the article link on KB. Awesome write-up. And you know, I never thought of the idea that readers want to relive the last great experience they had with a book. Not always, I don’t think, but enough. Certainly if I think, “Gosh. What do I read next?” and I know what I’m in the mood for, I’m likely to cruise the also-boughts of a book I loved that’s in the genre I want at the time.

    Anyway… very thought provoking 🙂

    • If you ask someone what kind of books they like to read, they’ll almost always give you one or two genres at most. They’re searching that genre looking for books, and more often than not, there are rules of story construction in the storytelling. So, in effect, they are searching to recreate the experience. Maybe not the exact story, but the formula? Yes.

      • Hi Elle,

        I agree, that part struck a chord with me. Mostly because I myself am the sort of reader always looking for new experiences, so I tend to read across genres. It makes sense if you’re writing genre to conform to the genre in a way that makes your book stand out but engages the reader at a subliminal level at the same time.

        Sad to say I’m still selling like crap, despite having new covers made. Maybe it’s time I work on my blurbs…

  4. Elle, this is a fabulous post. Thank you for taking the time to write it.

    (If this is your way of “paying it forward” it’s working. :-))

    • I’m happy I did it. I always worry when I do this that backlash will come and whip me in the butt. My husband always tells me not to. But so far, knock wood, the response has been positive when I give advice. Well, mostly. 🙂

  5. Beyond excellent post with equal measures of tough love and positive encouragement. I actually find marketing to be kind of fun. And you’re right; if it feels icky, you’re doing it wrong.

    Thanks again for this fantastic post!

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    • It’s not missing. It’s said in very plain terms right there in the post. If you can’t write a good story and edit it well too, you won’t sell books. Period. This advice is for people who can write but who are having difficulty with the publishing part of the business.

      In addition, I have seen that it is not correct to say “quality beats quantity each and every time”. If you have one expertly written, very high quality book, and you have your trifecta perfect (cover, blurb, sample), and you promote, you will sell books. BUT. If you write a great quality book and are missing parts of the trifecta, or you don’t promote, you will not sell books. AND. AND. AND. If you write a decent book that’s not awesome but is decent, and you write a bunch of those decent books, you get the trifecta perfect, and you promote your socks off, you will sell books. You don’t have to take my word for it; go on Amazon and buy a few of the bestselling books out there by prolific authors.

      Making a living writing books is not just about writing a great book. There’s so much more involved in the publishing aspect, and if you ignore that part of the equation your sales will suffer, pure and simple.

  7. Great piece, let me add a quick note about the psychology of success. I have sold 200,000+ copies of books that contain no sex, no overt violence, and no cursing. Nothing wrong with these things, but ‘clean’ work is a smaller niche – and my mindset has been key to some big sales numbers.

    Lately there’s been talk of this ‘survivorship bias’ which claims essentially that all successful authors merely got lucky, and we shouldn’t be studying their careers for advice. Horseshit. If you subscribe to the theory that luck is the only thing separating you from millions in sales, then you are going to fail. That is a loser’s mentality.

    Study the hell out of advice like this from Elle, and all others who write similar columns. And if you chose a smaller niche like mine, release new work 4-6x a year, minimum. I have 17 full length novels and over 1,000 subscribers to my New Release Newsletter, but it took 4 years of 50+ hours a week of writing/promotion to get there.

    Good luck!

  8. Oh and one more quick note about blurbs. They are sales pitches. Study books on marketing for help about how to write these ‘offers’.

  9. Great post, Elle!
    Thanks in particular for the tips on promotion. That is an area that I’m admittedly weak in.
    Your point about market size makes a lot of sense, and it’s one that I struggle with sometimes. Do I write in a popular genre or what I like? It’s good to hear that your thoughts on it echo mine — write more books or expect to make less money. So, do you ever plan to go back to writing YA again? 🙂

    • Write what you love, just adjust your expectations to the realities of the market. Everyone wants to believe they’ll win the lottery and be some kind of outlier who defies all the odds, but the chances of that happening are about 5 million to 1, so it’s better to just play the odds that are in your favor: trifecta! Cover!Blurb!Sample!

  10. Hi Elle,
    I love your posts and look out for them every piece of advice, every day on KB.
    I’m in the midst of preparing for an early December release (ER borderline on NA). It will go up on NetGalley Nov 1st., I’m sending emails to bloggers to feature me on release day and I’ve recently joined a great giveaway which gave me over 30 new newsletter sign ups in a week (which is a lot for me)
    Question regarding approaching successful authors to share your work to their fans: How did you do it in the beginning? Is it just a simple email? Some authors may not know you’re a fan of their work and I wouldn’t want to sound like I’m using their platform. I think this part for me is part of the ‘fear’ you wrote about.
    What’s the best way to join an network network in the same genre?

    Thank you.

    • I’ve had authors get to know me by joining in on my Facebook page, reading my blog posts, and commenting over on KB. If I think their work is a good match for my readers, I don’t mind introducing them around. But if I don’t think it’s a good match or if I think the writing isn’t quite there from a sample, I might be reluctant to do that. It’s only happened once that I can think of, though. Usually people who approach me for help have done their homework first. 🙂

  11. Thanks for your advice. I like making book covers and think I’ve become okayish to good in making them, but you made me rethink about them. I’ll be reviewing my bookcovers and probably remake them all closer to those from the bestsellers. I think I’ll also redo my blurbs. And promote more… I’ve been slacking and I immediately noticed my meager sales became almost non existent.

    Sometimes people need a little push to do that needed extra they need to do, you just gave me that push, so thank you. If I ever become a bestseller, I’ll buy you a beer. 😉

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  13. Really excellent advice, Elle. I struggle with blurbs and promotion, as well as being in a niche market (literary fiction- which hasn’t accepted self-published work as well as others) but your post is inspiring.

    • So many people turn to literary fiction when they’re tired of their current favorite genre. And all those book clubs love lit fiction. I would guess the hardest thing to do is to get noticed.

  14. Thanks so much for this post! I think most of us hate writing blurbs, but they are crucial to making the sale. I’m constantly tweaking mine in one way or another. Your post reminds me that while being a selling author is hard and constant work, it’s not rocket science. Thanks for bringing it all into perspective.

  15. I would reverse that thinking about niches – a romance market of 5,000,000 readers is all well and good, but it’s unlikely any of them will find you in all that noise.

    A steampunk book that appeals to 300,000 readers is going to be easier to promote and will be easier to get a bigger market share – because those readers know exactly what they want and where to find it.

    In other words, a 1% share of 300,000 is better than a 0% share of 5,000,000.

    So use categories to your advantage – don’t be a “romance” book, be a romance -> historical romance -> medieval romance (or whatever) and help those readers find you!

    • Actually, I’ve found it surprisingly easy to get noticed in that market? Why? Because I know where to find the readers. They’re online using social media like crazy. They are super tuned into some key book bloggers. Just a mention there and it means guaranteed sales.

  16. Wow. This: “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.'”

    Elle, maybe you should hang out another shingle that reads, “Life Coach.” You could have written that paragraph about me. I need to look hard at my motives for not pushing myself harder.

    I appreciate all of the time you spend sharing with other authors and aspiring authors.

    • I’m so glad it resonated with you. I think everyone is afraid to fail but a few can push through that fear and keep on going even after stumbling. You can do it!

  17. For me the biggest take away from this post and there was a lot, is your sub-topic on ‘The Market Matters’. And plain and simple that is how an author can make a lot of money. If you prefer to target a smaller niche, then write more books that you audience will love and buy from you.

    • Exactly. And the point of making money writing books is that it allows you to support yourself as a writer so that you can write that many more books! It’s a win-win. You get paid to create, and readers get more great books. 🙂

  18. Great post–good for me to read at the start of a new year. It’s always encouraging to hear from successful indie writers, especially when they’re encouraging. I’ve started reading “Shine not Burn” and it’s good fun, keep doing what you’re doing!

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