A few times each month, I’ll receive a plaintive email from an author asking me why their book isn’t selling better.
It’s always tough to receive these emails, because I know behind the email is an author who’s feeling disappointed, or possibly depressed their years of effort have borne no fruit. The impossibly of answering such a question makes it all the tougher. There’s no one single magic bullet.
Some of the authors who contact me are considering throwing in the towel. I always try to respond with some feedback that might set them on the right course, often by encouraging them to study the best practices of their fellow authors, as I chronicle in The Smashwords Book Marketing Guide and The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success. Sometimes my feedback is well-received, and other times they’re offended when I share opinions they don’t want to hear.
The cold hard truth of the matter – which we advertise front and center in our account registration emails, the FAQ, the about us page, and in my free ebooks about e-publishing – is that most books don’t sell well. Period.
In my RT Booklovers presentation last year, I shared some charts on the sales distribution curve. One such chart is at left (slide 16), and it’s the friendliest, most sugar-coated of the charts.
Book sales tend to conform to what’s known as a power curve. There are a very small number of books that breakout big, as shown on the left side of the chart, then there’s a middle area where a bunch of authors are doing reasonably well, and then there’s the long tail that stretches out a mile beyond the right perimeter of the chart. Most books land in the long tail. They might sell a few copies here and there, or sell none at all.
Your mission as author/publisher, should you decide to accept it, is to take the necessary steps to move your book’s performance up to the left side of the power curve.
In the traditional world of print publishing and brick and mortar distribution, you had only one shot. If your book didn’t take off immediately, stores would pack up your book and ship it back to the publisher for a full refund. Stores effectively forced your book out of print before it had time to find its audience. Stores had no choice – they were hamstrung by limited and expensive physical shelf space, and they needed to make room for the flood of incoming, potentially more-promising books on the way.
In the new world of self-published ebooks and democratized ebook distribution, the virtual shelf space is unlimited. Even if your book sells zero copies per year, the retailer will still happily list it. This means your book is immortal. If you don’t get the formula correct, right out of the gate, you always have another day, another month, or another year to improve your book so it can start selling.
This is the topic of this blog post. I’m going to share six tips on how to take a fresh, honest look at your book and evaluate what you might do to improve your results. Most of my tips help you discern what it is about your book that’s preventing readers from connecting with it. I should note that many of these tips below apply to authors with free books too, because there are many books that get very few downloads.
Six Makeover Tips: How to Bring a Book Back from the Doldrums
Makeover Tip #1 – Look at your reviews at Smashwords, Apple, B&N and Amazon.
Ignore the reviews from friends and family, they don’t count. Average them up. How many stars are you getting out of five?
< << Reviews of Never Too Far by Abbi Glines (Apple iBookstore)
Today, when I look at the top 20 bestsellers at the Apple iBookstore, they’re averaging 4 stars. On other random days I’ve done this test, they averaged 4.5. The #1 bestselling book today at Apple is Never Too Far by Abbi Glines (distributed by Smashwords), and it averages 4.5 stars. Some of the representative comments are, “loved this book,” “Amazing,” “couldn’t put it down,” “couldn’t stop reading,” “such a wonderful story,” “cannot wait for book 3!” and, “this book hasn’t been out 24 hours and yet I read it twice already.” If you want to be a bestseller, good or good enough is not good enough.
You need to WOW your reader. It doesn’t matter if you write romance, mystery or non-fiction, if your book doesn’t move the reader to an emotional extreme, your job isn’t done. Take the case of my novel, Boob Tube. It averages around 3.5 stars. That’s not good enough. We’re not wowing readers. My wife and I should probably do a major revision if we want better reviews. Our sales range from 20 to 40 copies a month. What if after a revision, we averaged 4.5 stars? Imagine how that would move the needle on sales.
What if you don’t have reviews? – This is as big of a problem as poor reviews. If your book has been out for more than three months and it’s not selling well and you don’t have reviews, I’d set the price to free, at least for a limited time. What do you have to lose? Readers aren’t finding you anyway. That’s the decision we came to with Boob Tube. For the first two years (2008-2009), Boob Tube sold maybe 20 copies. It had only one or two reviews. My wife and I decided to set the price to free for six months. We got 40,000 downloads, a lot of reviews, and even our first fan mail (yay!). Then we set the price to $2.99 and it started selling. Without reviews at the retailers, Goodreads, LibraryThing and elsewhere, few readers will take a chance on you. FREE helps readers take that chance.