The Magic Bullet; or, Why Don’t My Books Sell?

It’s question every author wants to know the answer to – Why aren’t my books selling?

Some people struggle to get any traction, some struggle to get recognition, and whatever we’re selling, we all want to sell more. I have spent two years now lurking and participating in the places where authors (indie or not) congregate and discuss sales and marketing. It’s a refrain I hear over and over.

trans The Magic Bullet; or, Why Dont My Books Sell?

Firstly, a bit about me. Where do I get off talking about sales? Well in 2012 I sold 10,000 books. That’s sold – for cold, hard cash. That rather pleasingly-round figure also, rather pleasingly, translates to just over 1 book sold every single hour of last year. Now I know a number of indies who sell more than that every single month. Hell, I know a couple who sell more than that a day, but on the other hand it is far more than the so-called “average” sales as reported in various articles, and it’s twice the number of books I’d expect to be produced in a first print run from a traditional publisher. It was enough to put one of my books at #1 in genre on Amazon in five domains, to be a bestseller in three of ARe’s four biggest categories, and to chart on iTunes all over the world. I will take that figure, happily!

When What He Wants, the book responsible for the vast majority of that number, took off, I was contacted by several authors wanting to know what my secret was. And my answer, in a nutshell, was simple: I don’t know.

Not very comforting, is it?

Here’s the truth. There is no ‘magic bullet’, no sure-fire way of guaranteeing a bestseller. If there was, don’t you think every book ever released would be a bestseller? The fact is that in a capitalist market based on charts and rankings only a limited number can hit that coveted #1 spot, be it in a tiny niche genre or on the NYT bestseller list. What will work with one book won’t work with another, and usually once someone tries something new and is successful that technique is already dead. Just look at some of the ‘magic bullets’ of yesterday – Twitter campaigns and the $0.99 price-point being the two biggies.

As human beings, we look for patterns in everything we do. There are several famous experiments about precisely that – the scientist provides an incentive or reward to their subjects on a random basis and watches as they go increasingly insane trying to work out what combination of behaviours caused them to receive the reward. (The same has been done with animals, coincidentally.)

I see this behaviour all the time in the indie community: someone sells a shedload of books after listing it for free for a couple of days, so everyone else also lists their books for free. Then they complain that they, too, didn’t sell a shedload of books. Then someone combines a free listing with an advert on [name a website, any website] and sells a shedload of books. Suddenly that site is inundated with requests for advertising space. And so on.

What you need to do – what we all need to do – is make our own magic bullets. Find a unique way to reach your target market. Give them something new and different. No-one said this was gonna be easy.

But first things first, you need your dominoes to be in place before you can expect them to topple. I’m talking back to basics here. Look at your book(s) again. Specifically at the cover, the editing, the blurb and indeed the storyline itself. If any of it seems in any way inferior to what you would expect to buy from the biggest publishers out there, fix it. Now. No excuses, no “I’ll pay for editing when I sell enough copies to be able to afford it,” no “I failed high school because of my undiagnosed dyslexia and this is the best I can do and I’m proud of my achievement.” Let your mother be proud of your achievements; or else give the book away for free. If you want ordinary, hardworking people to part with their cash then make sure your product is as good as it can possibly be. That’s simple business, but more than that it’s basic respect.

Once you’re sure your book is perfect in every way (and not just in a “It’s my baby – of course it’s perfect!” way, but in a “Strangers want to make love to it” kinda way) then you’re ready to rock and roll.

Firstly, throw out everything you think you’ve ever learnt – that listing a book at $0.99 will work; that giving it away free will work (this one especially if it’s your only book); that having fifty 5* reviews will work (first thing I do when I see a book with a lot of 5* reviews  Check the rankings). Some people will do well with certain price-points, some will do well with free promotions…every technique you’ve ever heard of will work for someone, but let’s not assume you’re the one to get lucky, mmmkay?

Secondly, stop expecting success to fall into your lap. This is a tough business and it’s getting tougher. As I already pointed out, not every book can be a bestseller. Whatever it is you’re doing to sell yours, there are a thousand authors out there doing more. Yes, sometimes some people will just get lucky – right book, right time, right place – those stories are by far and away the exception.

Thirdly, don’t lose hope. Some books take years to take off, all the while slowly puddling along and gaining momentum in teeny-weeny increments. It’s not over ’til you give up.

Know your audience

I cannot stress this enough. You should have a clear demographic in mind to market your book to. Don’t give me that “My book is accessible to all and everyone can enjoy it” BS, that just means you’re not sure what the hell you’ve written. Yes, people outside your demographic might read it and love it, but you should still know your key target market. Once you’ve identified them, find them. Find out what they have in common, what they like and where they hang out. Then you need to engage them. By which I mean engage, not spam. If you piss these people off that’s your ship sunk before it’s even left port.

There are countless ways of doing this – run a blog or tumblr dedicated to something your demographic finds interesting (written a Victorian ghost story? What about a blog on the occult in Victorian London?); join a Goodreads or Facebook (or wherever) group where they congregate and join the discussions (DON’T mention your book in every last bloody post!); keep an eye out for conventions or meetings or even just interesting news stories and articles that might pique their interest and get sharing and commenting.

If you go into this with your “I must sell books to these people” blinkers on, you’ll fail. Consider your goal networking – making friends. You don’t even need to mention that you’re an author, just make sure that it says it somewhere on your profile. Get someone interested in you and I guarantee in this digital age of casual snooping they will check out your books all by themselves. Shove links down their throats and they will avoid buying your book on principle.

Advertise

Yes, the great unmentionable. But before you go throwing money willy-nilly at this week’s “must be on” website, think about your audience a little bit more. Everyone’s talking about BookBub at the minute, and I know a number of authors who’ve had great success advertising there. When I looked, however, I saw that romance is their second most expensive category (and that site is expensive) and they don’t distinguish between straight and GLBT romance. As a gay romance author, the likelihood is that (even were my book accepted) I’d be paying through the nose to advertise it to people who wouldn’t be interested in buying. Ergo BookBub, for me, is a waste of money.

In every instance – especially when it comes to speculating in hopes of accumulating – you should ask yourself, What can this site do for me? Forget what it’s done for others and always keep your demographic in mind.

So what happens if you’re writing in a niche and it seems none of the sites out there can offer you any return on your advertising? How do you get discovered then? Well, don’t despair. Firstly, you should already know where your target audience hangs out. Can you advertise on that site? If not, or if you don’t think it would help (Goodreads is a prime example of a site where lots of groups meet to discuss every genre under the sun but it’s so big that it’s difficult to target the marketing) then start thinking outside the box. You know your genre, right? You might even have done extensive research on something for the book. Why not turn that knowledge to good use by contributing to ‘Zines or bigger blogs dedicated to the subject? Just don’t forget the all-important buy link at the bottom!

Be innovative

Scary, right? I’m asking you to think outside the box. Every breakout author of the last five years has done something completely new and different (at the time). They have been oft-imitated, but never equaled in success. You need to think of something fresh and different, something that’s never been done before, something that will get the attention of your target audience and compel them to buy your book. Quaking yet?

You shouldn’t be. You know your audience. You know what they like and don’t like, where they hang out, who the movers and shakers are. You should have an idea how they communicate with each other – be it Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, G+ or whatever – and how information is disseminated (do they all follow certain blogs, for example). What was the last thing that really caught their attention and how did it happen? Who started it? Go digging and understand how your audience interacts and reacts. Think of the internet as one great chain of cause and effect. Sharing something with friends takes only as long as a single click, so think about the sort of thing that your target market responds best to, be it pictures or articles or jokes.

What we’re looking for here is virality, that magic spark that sets something sweeping over the net (in the right circles, of course). Think for a minute about any social network you’re a part of, and think how many times you have to see any one member crop up before you start to really notice them, before their name jumps out to you whenever they comment. It takes a lot of impressions before that happens (unless they say something truly groundbreaking the first time!).

Say a dozen impressions in the space of a few days before they notice you, then a dozen more before they actually get nosey enough to check you profile out. If all those impressions come from you banging on about your book, the only impression you’re making is a bad one. What you want is lots of different people talking about you. After all, everyone’s interested in what their friends are interested in.

Never miss an opportunity

You might have 1,000 friends on Facebook, and they might all know you’re an author. But where’s the link to your book? I read a guest article on a big blog two days ago by an indie moaning that he was a failure. He linked to his book’s video and his blog, but not to the damn book. Indeed, he didn’t even mention the title in the article. It’s no wonder he’s a failure!

No, I don’t mean spam your books all over the net (see above re: sinking ships). But make your links easy to find. It’s a fine line we walk. You should have a direct buy link on all your profile pages, on your blog/website and on any forum that allows a signature line (Kindleboards, for example). If you’re doing a guest post somewhere include a buy link. If you’re paying for advertising make sure the link directs to the vendor.

Seems simple, but so many people don’t do this. The internet is a wild wood of distraction – say you write a guest post on a blog that interests someone and you include a link to your blog. The click on it. Then they have to click onto the page dedicated to your books. Then they have to click on the link to your Amazon author profile. Then they have to click onto the book page. Then they have to start over because they’re in America and you directed them to the UK site…somewhere in the space of all those click you’re gonna lose them, guaranteed. One click should be all it takes, any more and the sale has gone.

Be patient

This is my last point, but probably the most important. Overnight success is a myth. Nothing happens overnight. Nothing. Too many times I see indies knee-jerking so fast I’m surprised they can keep up themselves. They enroll in Select, they don’t get the sales they expected, they pull the book and upload it to Smashwords. The premium distribution takes too long so they go back to Select, then they hear about another site so they pull it and upload it there. The book’s already on iTunes through Smashwords but they want to upload directly from somewhere else so they end up with duplicate copies for a while waiting for the system to catch up… Seriously people, it’s dizzying and it’s not helpful.

You need to give your market time to grow. Yes your book has been available on B&N for six weeks without a sale, but who have you told that it’s there? Most people focus on Amazon, and for good reason – it’s the behemoth of the industry. But don’t bitch about low sales outside of Amazon if you never advertise that your books are available anywhere else. Whatever you’re doing, think long-term. It doesn’t matter what you sell on any one day, or in a week or month or even year. What you’re looking for is long-term market growth. Whatever decisions you make for your business, stick with them for at least six months, and during that time give them a fair shot. If you’re still not selling on a particular site after that time then maybe have a re-think. Part of the beauty of being an indie is that we have so much control over where we distribute our books.

Take heart

Ebooks have changed this industry forever. Time was you’d go through an endless process of querying agents, sending out scripts and collecting rejections. If that gilded acceptance letter ever did arrive, it could take two years or more for the book to actually appear in the shops, and if you didn’t earn out your advance (usually on the back of a small print run) then you were dropped and no-one would touch you again. Rejoice, because those days are behind us. Ebooks are forever, there is no fear of your books being remanded and even if they sell slowly, they can sell slowly forever. These things add up.

Particularly if you’re an indie – but this also applies to small presses – you have control over your destiny as never before. That can be scary when you focus on the fact that you could end up being the architect of your own downfall, but think of it another way: if something isn’t working, you have the option to change it. Time was a publisher would tie your hands and if they marketed your book all wrong, well, tough. Not anymore. Cover not working? You can change it. Not selling at a particular vendor? Try another. Experiment, be brave, take risks. If it doesn’t work, it’s not the end of the world.

And remember, it’s not over ’til you give up.

 The Magic Bullet; or, Why Dont My Books Sell?

Kate Aaron lives in Cheshire, England, with two dogs, a parrot, and a bearded dragon named Elvis. She has the best of friends, the worst of enemies, and a mischievous muse with a passion for storytelling that doesn’t know the difference between fact and fiction.

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3 thoughts on “The Magic Bullet; or, Why Don’t My Books Sell?

  1. Hi Katie,

    I’ve just read your blog and had to send you a comment. I’ve been writing and been published (in women’s magazines) for years. A few years ago I nearly ‘made it’ with a children’s book – I managed to get a top agent who believed in my book, but he couldn’t sell it, even though it got to the final selection panel at Usborne, but it wasn’t just meant to be. I’ve been philosophical about it, and did take about twelve months off having written another book which was touted to the big six publishers and although there was some worthy comments that one didn’t make it either. And then I discovered indie ebook publishing and I can’t tell you how liberating this has been for me. I’ve now published this book via Kindle Direct and it’s been great fun. The pressure is off, I’m mistress of my own destiny and if it doesn’t do any good it doesn’t do any good, but the best thing about this is that I’m now writing again, and really enjoying it! And I’m not waiting around for the inevitable rejection letter or email!

    One of my old magazine editors used to keep telling me that those who give up don’t succeed, and you are so right when you say it’s not over until you give up.

    Great blog! Sarah x

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