Selling Books: The Only Guide You'll Ever Need

Originally appeared as Selling Books: The Only Guide You’ll Ever Need on


Note: This post is really long. I believe it’s pretty darn good, and there’s lots of information in it. If there’s one post I’ve ever written that truly sums up my thoughts on writing, books, and making money from them, this is it. Here we go! Since I’ve started this blog, I’ve grown a highly-targeted email list, gained attention in a crowded niche (writing and productivity), and have been able to correspond directly with literally hundreds of people. I’m not famous, and didn’t start by being well-known. In fact, if you would have Googled me six months ago, you’d have found my Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ pages, maybe my personal blog (now pointing to this one), and another dude with the same name as me who sings Backstreet Boys, albeit not well. Basically, I was a nobody.  Sure–I’m certainly not "famous" now, by anyone’s standards, nor have I become some sort of sage or guru. But I’ve definitely made an impact online, and the numbers don’t seem to be slowing down. There are lots of benefits to this sort of "impact," not the least of which is gaining attention and mindshare in a crowded world. For me, though, the best value I’ve received is having been able to help so many other people with their writing, business, and "platform building" online. …And, I’ve had a few book sales, to boot. That’s what this post is about I hope you’re writing for more than just making money. Selling a book is a great way to get your name out there, or promote an idea or mindset, and it can certainly lead to earning more money for yourself as well. Money’s a great thing, used wisely and for the right purposes, but it’s certainly not why most writers and creators are artists. That said, you do need money–either to spend on your family and lifestyle, or to reinvest into your writing business. Whatever the reason, I’ve been getting more and more questions lately about the writing + book sales dilemma. Most writers want to sell their books, and lots of them. But they have a (justified) hesitation when it comes to self-promotion, marketing, and spending hours and days on things other than writing. And I’ve harped on it enough to know that just writing and waiting is sort of a luck-based scenario. If you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, you’ll know that I believe in building platforms online, and these platforms help to promote us and get more books sold. The problem In a nutshell, the problem with this philosophy is that it’s unspecific. You might understand the concept of building a platform, attracting people to it, and then hyping your product, but you might not understand the intricacies of how it all works. For example, here are some questions I’ve been getting over and over again in my email inbox, in the comments section of some posts, and on guest posts I’ve written around the web:

  • I write fiction, not nonfiction. How can I blog and still sell fiction?
  • I don’t want to write about my life or other nonfiction stuff–how can I write a fiction blog that sells books?
  • How can I sell more of my books without a big publishing deal?
  • How much does it cost to build a solid platform online?

This post will hopefully answer some of these questions. Step 1: Ask the Right Questions First, though, it’s important to make sure you’re asking the right questions. Questions like, "how do I sell more books," or "how many books do  I need to sell to quit my day job?" These questions aren’t bad, they’re just too early in the process of building a platform. The first, most obvious, and most-forgotten question is WHY.

  • Why do you want to build a platform?
  • Why you? Why not someone else?
  • What do you hope to gain from your platform?
  • What do you want others to gain from your platform?

These questions are the "business plan"-type questions that are all related to vision. Vision is a fleeting, hard-to-capture entity that dances in our dreams and makes our mouth water, but it’s not something we usually write down on a piece of paper. For some people, the vision questions (and their corresponding answers) lack clarity, specificity, and action-based steps, so they ignore it, opting instead to "just have it in my head." I can tell you from experience that "just having your vision in your head" is way different than having it written out in perfectly clear sentence form. I’ve launched a few businesses and blogs, and the ones that had a chance of succeeding were the ones that I spent time working on a vision for. Note: Here’s a secret, though. The really good visions aren’t ones we usually have to think too long or hard about–they’re already floating through our heads and in our minds. We just need to actually write them down.  What if your vision is just "to be a writer"? That’s a good question–and the answer is that it’s really not your vision, it’s just the method you want to use to get to your vision. Your real vision is something like:

  • To provide a new, fresh perspective on modern-day cultural changes in humanity, provided through writing and blogging
  • To offer a style of horror novels that inspire, teach, and guide young adults into adulthood
  • To change the way the world views life in third-world countries by writing personal first-person accounts and testaments of the men and women who live there

Do you see the difference? These "vision statements" are bigger–much bigger than, "to be a writer." Your vision can change, and it often does, but it needs to be something big, lofty, and "change-the-world"-y. So again, ask yourself the right questions and come up with a vision you can stick to for awhile. If you need help with these questions, I’ve written an entire book giving them to you (101 in all), and you can grab it here. Step 2: Build A Platform Once you know the right questions, you’ll know the right answers. You’ve been around long enough to have heard all of the ins and outs of what you do, and you’ve read enough about it and studied it long enough. In other words, you’ve read so many answers that all you need to do is figure out the right questions, ask them, and then let your mind answer them the way you know is right. I realized long ago that my platform was going to be successful only if I provided a solid value to other people, first and foremost. Building a business on affiliate programs and product sales was one of the many "answers" floating around on the web, but for me the "right answer" was more about writing for other people and listening to their concerns, and then helping when I could. So, how do you build a platform? You start by figuring out your value. What are you going to offer me that’s going to save me time, earn me more money, entertain or enlighten me, or give me something to think about? You can pick any of these things, but the secret to providing value is doing it well enough that I’ll want to come back later. Platforms range in all shapes and sizes, but the ones we’ll talk about (because that’s what I’m trained to talk about and what I know how to build) are those platforms that are built and grown online, using technology like social media and blogging, and are teaching-based and product (books)-based. This website is a good example of that kind of platform. And here are instructions for building one:

  • Set up a home base. Your "Home Base" is a website, preferably a blog, that will act as your online start and endpoint to everything you do. You don’t need to spend forever building this Home Base, but you do need to take some time to get it right. Here are a few posts describing this process in more detail. Use Google Analytics to track your Home Base’s activity.
  • Set up your outposts. Like your Home Base, these "Outposts" are websites, but they’re usually owned and controlled by someone else. Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter are all Outposts, and they should all be set up with one and only one goal in mind: Get people to click through to your Home Base.
  • Start promoting. Use the "Slow-Drip Marketing Method" to promote other peoples’ content most of the time, and your own stuff a much smaller portion of the time. Don’t be afraid to promote your own stuff if you’re promoting other stuff most often. Shoot for an 80/20 ratio of promoting other content versus promoting your own. Figure out how to promote almost on autopilot, so you can focus on the next step.
  • Start writing. Actually, you’ll be writing throughout this entire process. You are a writer, so this shouldn’t be difficult. Specifically, you need to write about things people want to read about, and don’t be afraid to try out new things. Again, get this on autopilot (blog every Tuesday and Thursday, for example, no matter what), and then start writing other things, like guest posts, manifestos, and books.

Tweak as you go, adding/subtracting/changing/whatever until you feel like your platform is looking polished and running like a well-oiled machine. Once you get to the point where you don’t need to actively be working on your blog’s theme, widgets, and plugins, use that energy to write more and broaden your horizons. Once you’ve started writing more, measure the results of everything you do, which is the next step. Step 3: Measure and Improve What gets measured gets managed. You don’t want to micromanage for too long, though, or you’ll get analysis paralysis and burn out. However, don’t use that excuse to not track what your efforts are leading to. Here are some key points:

  • Watch Google Analytics data on your Home Base and track things like Bounce Rate, which pages are bringing in the most visitors, and where your visitors are coming from.
  • If you’re using WordPress, install Pretty Links and set up some "pretty links" on your site. An example is the link I use for my new book:, which is a "pretty" link that just sends you on to Amazon–but it also tracks how many clicks there are on it, and now Analytics can track it as well. If you’re not using WordPress, start. If you won’t, then I guess you can use
  • Using the data you’re starting to measure, tweak things on your Home Base to hopefully improve them.

The formula for all of this is build-measure-tweak-repeat, over and over again. It’s not fancy, pretty, or even fun sometimes, but it works. Having a vision that excites and invigorates you is going to help you run with this formula without getting sick to your stomach. "If you fail to plan, you plan to fail." Alright–that covers it! Wait–you thought I was going to give you a top-secret recipe for selling loads of books? Well, I can’t do that–but what I can do is help you figure out how you, as a horror/romance/memoir/investing author, can actually get people to pay attention to you and take the time out to visit that awesome platform you’re building. There are a few tried-and-true methods in the industry that still work, and probably always will. Pick one of them if you want:

  1. Writing about writing. Companies like Writer’s Digest do this very well, and probably make a killing. The goal is to teach other writers about the craft and business of writing, and sell them products, services, and books that further help them. LiveHacked is doing this to some extent.
  2. Writing about yourself. Memoir writers and some other nonfiction authors can usually do this pretty well. Basically, you’re blogging about yourself, your life, your cat, your kids; whatever. It can sometimes be more difficult to make a long-term career out of this style, unless you have a large catalog of your work for sale or you have a bestseller or two.
  3. Writing about your fiction. Every now and then, I’ll come across a blog that’s just a mashup of an author’s fiction–blog posts are really snippets of short stories, character shorts, or serialized books (one chapter or section each day/week). If you want to sell books like this, you might try starting with releasing your book as serial fiction, one post every other day or so. This way, you can "set it and forget it" while you work on your next novel and promote the blog.
  4. Writing about your subject matter. This one’s cool, but it’s difficult. Basically, you’re writing nonfiction blog posts about your fiction’s subject matter. Let’s say you write a novel about a wizard kid who has to defeat He Who Shall Not Be Named. You might write a few posts about the history of wizardry, maybe another few on castles, and some on fantasy in general. You can certainly build a successful platform, but be careful when you try to turn around and write a Tom Clancy-esque military novel–that might need another platform (or pen name) altogether!

I hope all of this makes sense–blogging and platform building is not as much about the subject matter (what you’re blogging about) as it is about to whom you’re offering it. If you can figure out a subset of your demographic that really loves the stuff you blog about, it doesn’t really matter if it’s related to your book’s subject or not. WHAT?!? Yeah, okay, I said it. If you can build a great, successful, and popular platform, your readers and fans will buy your book.  They might not all buy it, but don’t think that just because they like reading your blog about military history, they won’t like reading your YA fan fiction. If you’re building a platform correctly, people will know you as a good writer, not just as a niche-focused writer. An example Trent Hamm, a very popular blogger, is known primarily (and almost exclusively) for his blog, TheSimpleDollar. He’s written so many blog posts on personal finance and helped so many people find financial answers, it came as sort of a shock to me when he announced that his next book (after his first, called The Simple Dollar) would be a novel.  Huh? That’s right–a novel. I don’t know what it’s about, but I know that I’ll buy it. Part of it is just trying to support the guy–hey, I love his work–and the other part of it is that I know he’s a great writer, and even if the book’s a flop, it’ll be like having a friend’s book on my bookshelf. I’m pretty sure that there are about 100,000 other readers of The Simple Dollar who feel the same way. Last thing–let me paint a picture There’s one other way I can illustrate this. I had a comment from a reader not too long ago asking (basically), "how can I promote and blog about nonfiction stuff, and expect these readers to buy my fiction?" It’s a good question, and it warrants a good answer. So here’s my best shot: Imagine you’re at home, having a nice dinner with a friend, whom you know through work. You often exchange work-related ideas, and help each other on projects and such. After dinner, you start watching TV, and the friend says, "hey, man, is this book on the coffee table yours?"  You of course reply, "Yup! I wrote it last year–I’d love for you to read it, but I don’t have another copy here." They will, no doubt, say, "Oh please! Just tell me where to get it! Is it available on Amazon? I’m more than happy to help you out!" You’ve just sold a novel to a "nonfiction friend" (does that analogy make sense?). There will be some friends who congratulate you and pat you on the back, but who never actually buy the book. There are also people who read only one book per year (usually Harry Potter, Twilight or Hunger Games, etc.), so you can’t really expect them to read yours, too. The point The point, if you’re still following along, is that this little parable of The Friend in Your Living Room is really People Who Read Your Blog. Your "living room" is your "Home Base," and the "friend" whom you invite over is the reader whom you attract through your platform-building efforts. Keep plugging away at your platform, and there will be more and more friends in your living room. The end.  I’m really sorry this post ended up so long–thanks for holding on there with me, and if I can ask one more favor–let me know what you thought. Leave a comment, and add your thoughts on the subject!