Help! My Book Isn’t Selling. 10 Questions You Need To Answer Honestly If You Want To Sell More Books.

I love answering your questions and I’m always happy to share what I’ve learned on the journey, but recently I have been receiving the same question over and over again, namely,

help button“Help, my book isn’t selling. What can I do?”

Most of the time people include a link to their book on Amazon and I can see immediately why they aren’t making any sales, because although I’m an author, I’m a reader first and I’ve been shopping for books on Amazon for years.

My Amazon #1 bestselling book, How To Market A Book covers everything in how to market a book 3ddetails but the following checklist will also help you identify your problem and solve it quickly.

I have also included lots of links so you can find all the extra material on this (ever-growing!) site.

[As always, these are not rules, because there are no rules in this crazy, fast-moving self-publishing world. There will also always be outliers who get away with not doing any of the following, but these will at least help with some guidelines!]

1. Is your book available as an ebook?

self-publishing distribution providers99% of indie authors will not have print distribution in physical bookstores, and I would postulate that all the success stories we have heard in the last 2 years about indie authors and huge sales have come from ebook sales, not print.

Print books can be a good idea if you have specific reasons around wanting print. I decided against print but in 2013, I changed my mind, returning to print editions for all my books.

BUT/ if you want to sell a lot of books online, then make sure you have an ebook for sale as well.

There has been an influx of ebooks (and print books) self-published in the last year, as well as traditional publishers beginning to re-issue backlists digitally. I’ve heard a lot of people complain about this so-called ‘tsunami of crap’, but personally, I believe you can surf the wave and make good sales even if you’re starting now. The ebook market is growing globally as new countries come online and even within markets like the US and UK, ebooks are becoming more widely accepted.

So first off, get your ebook published.

I use Scrivener for formatting in Kindle, ePub and Word formats and then I publish on Amazon KDP, Kobo Writing Life and Smashwords or BookBaby for the rest (US citizens can use B&N Nook PubIt as well.) It’s not hard if you spend some time with the various help pages.

2. Has your cover been professionally designed?

Moby Dick book cover

Amazing cover for a classic book

Book buyers still shop with their eyes. If people make it to your book sales page and your cover is terrible, they will not click the Buy button.

Don’t use a painting your child did or that you did yourself. Don’t DIY based on a YouTube video. Don’t assume you can make a professional cover.

Do research your genre on Amazon and take screenshots of books that stand out in a good way.

Do take pictures of books you like with fonts and designs you like.

Do check out the ebook cover design awards at to see some great covers and some truly awful ones. Then hire a professional cover designer, give them that information and work with them to create a professional cover.

If you don’t have a budget for this, then work extra hard until you have that extra money. Seriously, I believe this is non-negotiable if you want to stand out in the crowded market.

3. Has your book been professionally edited so it reads well?

I am passionate about the value of editing and editors, especially for new writers, or books in a new genre.

editing ARKANE

Some of my own editing

You should edit your books until you can’t stand them any longer, and then you should consider hiring a professional editor to help you take it further, because you cannot see your own words after a point because you know the story so well.

You need other eyes, preferably professional eyes who will critique you honestly and tell you where the problems are, especially if the book is truly awful – and sometimes it is (and that’s ok because you can write another one).

Stephen King in ‘On Writing’ says to rest the manuscript for a while, so put it away and when you have some distance, read it again. You may be horrified by what you find but better now than when it’s out there in the world. Here’s some more articles on editing and my recommended editors.

If you can’t afford a pro editor, then you can try using a critique group of readers within your genre, or join a group like the Alliance of Independent Authors to network with other like-minded authors in order to network and potentially barter your skills. Bartering shouldn’t be underestimated in the online world.

But definitely do not publish your book if only you and your best friend, or your Mum, have read it.

4. Have you submitted the book to the right categories on the ebook stores?

brick booksSorry, but not everyone will like your book.

You may think that everyone will, but they won’t. You might not want to put it in a box or a genre or a category, but you have to because that’s how readers find it. The category/genre reader has expectations and if you don’t ‘fit’ they will be disappointed. That’s not to say you need to follow any specific rules in your writing (let’s not get into that now!) but when you load it up to the distributors you do have to choose which categories and tags to use and they need to be meaningful.

You need some distance from your book in order to do this, but consider where your book fits within the online bookstores. This means deciding on the categories, tags and keywords associated with your book.

It’s also important to match reader expectations and the promise of what your book delivers with what your book is actually about.

There is no point having a book with a swirly, girly pink chic-lit cover in the horror section of fiction. It won’t sell, however good it is.

There are some scammy sites out there that will tell you to aim for the categories that will rank the best in order to have a Bestseller on Amazon. That’s just silly because your book won’t match the expectations of the readers and even if you get a bump in sales, it will completely dry up very soon.

You can choose a category that fits your book AND is easier to rank in, for example, I use categories Action Adventure and get visibleReligious Fiction. I rank occasionally for the former and consistently in the latter. That’s optimization, but it is still true to the book and to the reader’s expectations.

If you’re struggling with this, choose 3-5 authors your book is like, not what you want it to be like, but what it is really like. That will help you find the right category.

A great book on categories and Amazon algorithms is David Gaughran’s Let’s Get Visible.

5. Have you optimized your Amazon sales page with a hook, quotes from reviews and other material?

Buy Me buttonI have seen some Amazon sales pages with not just typos but terrible grammar.

Some of them make no sense at all. Some are just the back blurb with no review quotes or other things that might draw a customer in.

Basically you need to treat the product description like a sales page. People will not buy your book if your description is badly written or hard to understand because it’s an indication of the quality of your book. Here’s another great article on 11 ingredients of a sizzling book description.

If you want to see a fantastic example, check out CJ Lyons Bloodstained which continues to rock the Kindle charts. That product description seriously rocks. CJ also explains all of this in our ProWriter Marketing course.

You can format your sales description with colored headlines and other funky HTML by using Author Marketing Club’s Premium service (which also includes a fast-track way to find appropriate reviewers).

6. Have you priced your book realistically, or at least tried different price points?

price tagIt’s important to say on pricing that no one has a clue how to price ebooks and authors are having success at many different price points. Check out this great article on The Passive Voice and the comments below to get an idea of the widely different levels of pricing and success.

However, I had one author ask why his debut novel wasn’t selling, and when I checked his sales page, the ebook was priced $11.99. It was his first novel and he had nothing else for sale.

However good your book, however marvelous the cover, your first novel is unlikely to sell at that price. Most ebooks are under $9.99, and a lot of fiction is under $7.99, with many indie books being under $5.

The 99c price point still has some power even after the algorithm changes but you might go somewhere in between, changing your price with promotions as well. I have my books at $2.99 right now so I make $2 per ebook. You get to set your own prices but there’s no way you’ll sell much at those very high prices.

7. Have you written, or are you writing another book?

bookshelvesSure, there are some breakout successes, but most indie fiction authors making decent money right now have 5 or more books. For non-fiction authors, you can expect to make your money on back-end products and services and not book sales anyway.

The more books you have available, the more virtual shelf space you have, the easier it is for people to discover you. Plus if a reader finds one they like, they may buy them all so you make more per customer.

I was as guilty as anyone of trying to hype my first novel, because it took so long and I thought it was a precious snowflake. I still believe you have to hustle those first thousand sales with everything you have, but my sales and income jumped when I released the second novel with very little fanfare because I already had an established presence on Amazon and they do a lot of marketing for you when you have multiple books, e.g. emails to people who bought your last one.

I am also fascinated by the rise of novellas and serials as a way to create more books, more quickly. Hugh Howey is a great example of someone who wrote novellas in different series and then continued the direction of the stories for the novellas that took off, Wool being his most famous and lucrative. I am definitely moving into this model in 2013 in between longer works.

8. Have you done some kind of promotion or marketing to let people know it is there?

marketingAgain, there are no rules and in fact, everyone has different results from different marketing tactics. Some hit a mega-success with none at all, but I do think that you need to hand-sell your first 1000 readers because they won’t just appear out of nowhere.

Remember: Marketing is sharing what you love with people who want to hear about it. You don’t have to be hard salesy, scammy or nasty. Just be authentic and share your passion.

If you need some starter tips, you should definitely be building your email list from your own website and also from a signup at the back of your book.

If you do that with book one, you will have at least some people to market to with book 2. It’s a start, and it grows over time. This is my only non-negotiable recommendation for authors, because you never know what will happen with all these sites we depend upon for sales. If they disappear, or the terms we publish under change, then your email list of fans and buyers is all you have.

I also believe that social media can sell books, but it is a slow build over time and you have to have other goals than just book sales, e.g. networking with peers and other authors. It’s not instant sales so you can’t rely on it. The whole author platform thing is massively useful in so many ways but it is only one aspect of book sales.

If you have some budget you can pay for promotion, but be targeted and track results.

The biggest leaps I had on the Amazon charts were from paid promotional pushes on sites that market direct to Kindle readers. I have used Kindle Nation

Prophecy Joanna Penn next to Lee Child

Prophecy with Lee Child on the Action Adventure Bestseller List

Daily, Pixel of Ink and BookBub and there are new opportunities all the time. I more than made my money back but the rankings were worth it. Prophecy hit the Action Adventure list above Lee Child! (of course, it dropped away but the screen-print is worth gold!)

Free is still a great option, especially if you have multiple books, as it means people can discover your work with no risk. Fantasy author Lindsay Buroker talked about this in our interview where she revealed that the first book in her series is permanently on free with her other books at $4.95. You can do this by making your book free on Smashwords and eventually Amazon will price match it.

9. Have you asked for reviews, or submitted to review sites?

reviewsThere’s been a lot of scandal about the sock puppet reviews but reviews are still critical because they give your sales page social proof and they feed into the book site algorithms.

I give away a lot of free books to people who might like my genre and ask that they leave a review if they like it. No hard sell, no pressure, no expectation. This is easy if you have built up a list from the last book, or if you have built a platform and in fact is one good reason to do this. Traditional publishing has been doing this forever so it is not a new or a scammy tactic.

Remember that not everyone will like your book and not everyone will leave a review, or a good review, but it is a start. [And remember, don’t respond to bad reviews!]

You can also contact book bloggers or Amazon reviewers to get more reviews. This is hard work if you do it manually, but you can use the Author Marketing Club’s Premium service to short cut the process by finding reviewers for books like yours.

You can also listen here to Rachel Abbott in this interview talk about how this strategy got her to #1 on

10. Are you working your butt off?

hard work aheadGenerally, I’m an even tempered type of girl, but when I get emails from people asking why they’re not successful and they’ve done nothing on this list, I get a little annoyed!

Especially when this site has over 700 free articles on writing, publishing and marketing and there’s 75+ hours of audio for you to learn from for free. Oh yes, and a 57 page Author 2.0 ebook on all this.

That’s all available for free, but I also have a book you can buy for less than the price of a coffee – How To Market A Book.

market book premiumPlus you can join my How To Market A Book Premium audio membership

Plus you can learn from New York Times bestselling author CJ Lyons in the video based ProWriter: Secrets of Successful Book Marketing

There is no excuse not to be educated, even just from this site.

I absolutely believe that you can be a great writer and make an income from writing.

I have to believe that for you because I believe it for me, and I have left a stable job and steady income to take a chance on being an author-entrepreneur. I’ve been on this path since 2007 when I decided to write my first non-fiction book, so I am 5 years into working my butt off to change my life.

But writing books is not a get rich quick scheme.

I look at authors like CJ Lyons, Scott Sigler, Chuck Wendig, Joe Konrath, Bob Mayer and so many others and I know they are working their butts off every day writing and getting their work out there. The recent success of Sean Platt & David Wright in landing a Serial deal with Amazon is because they work incredibly hard at writing all day, every day to produce new content for their market. They are my heroes.

These guys are pros and they know it takes hard work to get there and hard work to stay there.

So please, if your book is not selling any copies at all, go through this checklist and honestly evaluate what you have done and how much effort you have put in. Please also share this with other people who may be asking the same question.

I’d love to know what you think, so please leave a comment below. What other tips can you give for people who aren’t selling any or many books?

Images: Bigstock Help button, Bigstock Buy Me button, Bigstock price tags, Bigstock hard work ahead.

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  1. Karla Tamayo says

    Thank you so much for this post!
    The content was really valuable to me.
    I’m still really green in this writing/publishing world.
    I have a finished novel and 2 other short stories that I’m working on. I tried to send them to different publishing houses without much success, therefore my interest in becoming and indie author. But as you said, first thing first: professional edition!
    I thought I had the best novel in the universe, and now that I’m working with a pro I’ve seen how much more I could improve my writing. This improvement is not only in my grammar skills, but also in details that I can add to make my style better and create a better product.
    It is taking a while, let me tell you… 4 years on the novel and still going. Since I want to write the best possible book according to my abilities I know that the sacrifice is worth it. I work on my writing as much as my family and full time job allows. Sometimes I get frustrated with the pacing and wish I could do it faster, but I’ve learned that faster doesn’t do better.
    I’m very much interested from learning from you and your experience. I’m also taking online courses to make of me a better writer. At the beginning I thought writing was going to be my way out of the office, now I’m taking to be smarter and professional.
    Thanks for your help!

    • says

      I think you’ve covered everything. The one point I think is the most important and the one I struggle with the most is writing the next book. I’m a good way in, but I want to devote so much time a day to it and I’m not. I write everyday, but my book isn’t going to get written if I keep focusing on my other projects.

      • says

        Thanks so much for this post. I self-published my second culinary mystery this month, and I’m working on the third. I had them professionally edited and the covers was done by a professional, too. I’m on the usual platforms for both ebook and print. From what I’ve read here, I can see I need to have more reviews online. I’ve had moderate success, but mostly at the local bookstore and book signings. Your posts have given me motivation. Thank you.

    • says

      Yes, your post was very helpful. I just retired a year and a half ago; updated my website…and now in the process of really trying to market my three books. The first was published 2005 and the last was published in 2010. So yes I have learned a few tips from reading your post.

      • says

        Everything you say is correct, I have published five books for children and young adults and am working on my sixth and seventh. They are available in print and Kindle (tried Nook but their publishing editor is a terrible mess, full of bugs, and Kobo I won’t give the time of day to after that erotica titles fiasco when they dropped all self-published books, even my harmless children’s title). I have a website, a blog, a Twitter account and a Facebook author page.

        The problem is, two thirds of the review sites are based in the US and I’m in the UK, and there are fewer and fewer of them offering free reviews. Amazon won’t accept third party reviews any more. I’m promised reviews by readers who have bought and read my books, telling me on social media how much they like them and promising reviews, but they don’t bother, and that is really frustrating. I’m struggling to get reviews for my latest book, a sequel to my first book which did really well, and I don’t know why.

        With regard to editors, it doesn’t always follow that a professionally edited book is a good book; I’ve read a few that are bang average, though it’s right that an author shouldn’t rely on their own editing and proofreading skills. Having said that, when you’ve paid your money to get your work edited and proofread and it still doesn’t sell as much you hoped, then what?

  2. says

    This is such an awesome list. I think a lot of people truly don’t understand how much work is involved with publishing and making sales. Most people don’t spend the time they need to spend on editing their manuscript and formatting it to make sure it’s top quality. Cover artists and covers are so easy to come by and so much fun to work on. :-)

  3. says

    I’m not even joking when I say I love you Joanna! :)
    You have a world of information and as an aspiring full-time author I have learnt a huge amount from your blog info.
    Thank you for sharing your journey and expertise with us.

    Sheree Carter

  4. Nina says

    Been reading your blogs/articles for sometime. This is the first time I post a comment. And that’s because I self published my first book on Amazon yesterday. And I’m completely unaware of what to do. Next I mean. I have a second book almost ready but I feel I’m stuck in this agony of my first book being out. It’s been so difficult for me because it’s something so private. And I’ve finished it under very difficult conditions, after personal struggles. And now reading everything about how to promote it. I review and edited the book on my own. And I feel so stressed. Yes I care for sales. I lost my job, facing huge financial strugle in my country Greece. Writing saved me. And now I’ve reached the moment where I don’t know what to do or feel if doesn’t sell. It’s been so mentally tiring. Love your post by the way. Sorry for the long post.

  5. says

    Wow! I just stumbled across your site and love what I’m reading. As a writer you’re hitting everything on the head. It’s nice to see. The funny thing, I help authors but I’ve always sucked at marketing my own work.

    I tried something that I didn’t know I could do, give away my book for free on Amazon for five days. And utilized Facebook ads helps as well. But one thing I’ve noticed in the past two days, my book went from over 1,000,000 in the best-seller list to now I’m under 6,000. We’ll see if I hit the top 100 – but if not, that’s an improvement, and many more people are now seeing my book.

    Again, thank you – i’ll be passing your blog onto fellow writer friends!

    In-case you’re curious about my book.

  6. lusajo says

    Hi Joann, am so inpired by you. Am working on my second book, the first on market. I believe I will be a great writer on future

  7. says

    Is there a step-by-step (emphasizing that — no skipped steps and lots of explanation, *please*) anywhere that you know of to get from the stage of “I know what makes my books unique” to “here’s how to target the audience who might like what makes my books unique”? Especially if what makes your books unique *isn’t* something concrete? What makes my books unique (or at least what makes them mine — unique is a *really* loaded word) is that they’re about ordinary people dealing with supernatural layers of our world that most people never even realize exist. I find a fair amount of material that explains how to do it if you, say, write books about dragons, and how to find potential dragon book readers, but not how to find readers for something that’s not that concrete.


  8. says

    Thank you so much for this. It is reassurance that I am doing the right things and moving forward. Before you ask, I am doing everything on this list, except the price point experimenting. I’m with a very small press, so I don’t have control over that. Despite my best efforts, however, my sales are still extremely slow. If anyone has any feedback on my website or book, I’d be incredibly grateful. I know it takes time, but when I’m plugging away at it every day and not seeing results, it’s very discouraging.

  9. Becky says

    I found this article really useful! At the start of launching my book I had lots of sales but now (almost a year on) I have next to none! I’m not really sure what to do. I’ve had a few book bloggers agree to give an honest review for me in exchange for a free copy (PDF) but I’m wondering I should just run a free promotion if that’s easier for them and their followers to read then? But I also know that not having many sales at all is likely that I might not earn any money from that in the long run. I’m not really sure where I’m going wrong as most who have reviewed the book so far have left four stars so I know the content is great.


  1. […] Joanna Penn I met Joanna at London Book Fair where I did my first, and giggly, podcast. We chatted over lunch about all things books and writing. When I got home I took a look at her site and quickly followed it for regular updates. Joanna runs The Creative Penn website – some really useful advice on those too. I also follow her podcasts. And if you’re book isn’t selling and you want to know why, this is a fantastic page to read! […]

  2. […] Joanna Penn I met Joanna at London Book Fair where I did my first, and giggly, podcast. We chatted over lunch about all things books and writing. When I got home I took a look at her site and quickly followed it for regular updates. Joanna runs The Creative Penn website – some really useful advice on those too. I also follow her podcasts. And if you’re book isn’t selling and you want to know why, this is a fantastic page to read! […]