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. noorilhuda says

    You’re absolutely right! Do you think you could take time out to review my book available exclusively on Kindle Amazon (Direct Select)? It will mean a lot. It’s not a bosom-busting escapade, it’s a serious character analysis on people dealing with emotional abuse, guilt and ageism. So do think about it. Thanks.

    • MarkTwain Fan says

      You can do ALL THAT (which is great advice)

      BUT, Joanna, the reality is that no matter what you do the biggest obstacle is the sheer number of books out there on amazon and everywhere else. Especially with the fact that now anyone, and I do mean ANYONE can self publish for free and immediately therefore your work gets lost in the pile. I found the best way is to convince a smaller jury that has influence in the world of publishing … My top choice so far is “Freeditorial” (I don’t know if you heard of it) but basically if they approve your book you are guaranteed to monetize because they pay you ( as opposed to getting paid from readers) .. So in other words they “gamble” and take a chance on you. I like amazon as BUYER but as a seller oh god it’s hell.. Thanks for the great tips!

    • says

      I think that authors should help authors succeed instead of waiting for outside entities to do this for us. What really bothers me is that Amazon and other publishing platforms are seemingly forcing authors to sell their books for pennies or offer it for free without any compensation at all.

  2. says

    Like many, many others, I too am a self published author.

    Years ago, I drove a cab and at the same time I was going through a tough time in my life. I met some wonderful people, in my cab, whose stories fascinated me. So I wrote a book about it.

    I had it professionally edited and sent query letters to agents and publishes. The replies were slow, very slow. One agent took six months to reply. This left me frustrated, so I decided to self publish. Well, two years later I’m still working on bringing up sales. And while I appreciate and agree with all the advice, on self publishing, there is one major factor, in my opinion, that determines sales.
    “Who are you?”
    You see, if you’re an unknown author or you have limited presence on the social scene then no one knows you. That’s just reality.
    Apart from writing your book, getting it properly edited, you need to build up a following. Get people interested in you, have a voice because without that you’ll struggle to get book sales.

    This was written by someone who you don’t know yet.
    Best wishes
    Miles Markovic

    • Kent Tompkins says

      With the field being so competative, you have looked passed competing with other writers / authors and have chosen to help them. By helping others to promote themselves and their books, you will be Blessed! One of the many keys to success is to be willing to help those who want to be helped because you never know who will, in turn, help you. Congratulations on your success present and future!

      Thanks for your wonderful words of encouragement!

      J.K. Tompkins

  3. says

    Just wanted to say thank you for this article. I have 3 skeleton books that have been sitting on my computer for ages, and I have decided that from this month of September I will be taking the idea of getting published seriously. Your article came up in an internet search and it is just what I need. I will be saving the page so that I can put everything you’ve said into action – thank you! – Rivka

  4. says

    I have had an Imagination since I was a wee little boy. I never though about being a writer before, but I tend to write all the time. The piece I am currently working on is a blast to write. I can not wait to sit down and put my pen to paper to see what will happen next! My friends and family are always interested with what I am writing, and always ask if I am trying to get it published. I usually say I haven’t even considered it, I just write for fun, but if I were to try and put my hat in the ring, what would be my chances of going somewhere?

  5. Dale Rolland says

    I have written four books with not much success on any one of them except the few book signings done locally. I am a full time pastor and educator. Money is desirable but not the major focus. My books include: The Journey of Life Thus Far-Harlo Press; Reality Check: Theological Perspective of the African American Family-Rosedog; In the Presence of God-Crossboks. I write to address needs that I believe are relevant to starving Christians and in some cases non-believers. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

  6. Pami says

    I’m a author and if your book not selling good online or on go to your local newspaper and see if they will do a story on your book and tell people what website to buy it from. Write a children story they are selling like hotcakes. Do one for 6 to 7 month old. And then go back to the newspaper for a story. Do a book signing of all your books at the Library have 60 books of each ones people can buy. Have news reports there. Tell your friends to do a book review on for all your books 4 and 5 starts get more people to buy them.
    Good Luck!

    • says

      Very helpful information especially for new authors.. My first book – self help was self-published in print and e-book with a lot of expense for editing, covers, etc. Prospects of any reasonable return seems doubtful so my current action/adventure book will go via e-book and following your good recommendations. Thanks for your time and for sharing your expertise with those of us who are struggling to understand and appreciate the process. Best of success to you.

  7. says

    Thank your for the articles. I first self-published my book in 2008. The reason I self-published is because as a new writer I did not think I would get picked up by a mainstream publishing company. I was happy to get my book out there, but not happy that I cannot find out any information as to how my book is doing. So in another words I have to take the self-publishing book company word, which is no word except at the end of the royalty period, so far nothing.

    Now, I am working on a second book and I am so worried about how I am going to get it published. I really do not want to go the self-publishing route.

    Any suggestions will be greatly appreciated.

    • says

      This is great advice Gregg – basically, 3 books is probably the minimum you need before you can start to play with price promotions and permafree and other things – it also helps you relax a little about your book, as it is no longer unique :)

  8. says

    Superb and level headed advice.
    It is easy for self publishers to forget that the industry already has channels to market, distribution agreements and entire marketing departments. Simply plonking a book on Amazon is not enough.
    Part time authors like me seriously underestimate the time required to generate sales. Obtaining reviews is, I think, key as is producing a blog. But it all takes time – fortunately most of the tasks should be enjoyable, but they need doing. And one has no one to blame other than oneself if opportunities are missed.
    With 800 books a day published in the UK alone, getting any traction is difficult. But that does not make it impossible. My sales are growing month on month, albeit slowly and from a low base. But at least they are growing.

  9. says

    I’ve been an author since 2011. I am now a second time author. I don’t know how to sell books but I do claim to know how to write them since I’ve written two. There has been some outside help editing but it was someone close and there was no payment for the help.
    I really loved your article with all that you were saying. I’m sorry though, I didn’t get any magic bullet that would help me with selling my books unless I venture further in to the things that you say in one of your books for sale or others that you have sited. Now, if I am to believe “The New York Times” and what they say, no body has the key. I’m sorry, I had done a lot of advertising myself online and it led me to believe I was either going about it all wrong or something was wrong with the cover or the print was off or the etc., etc., for years now. Don’t get me wrong, I see you as very successful and I believe you truly know what you are doing. What I want is a New York Times Best Seller List book of my own. I know that sounds a little over the top for some people but yes that is my Goal.
    I could go on and on but I won’t. Oh, one more thing, when I started looking this evening, I went to google and typed in the question, “What is it that makes you want to read a book?” and there were several sites giving me the numbers thing, read this 30 books or read this such and such 10 books and you know, I’m sure you get the picture. If it were true that nobody had the answer then ever body that is on the New York Times Best Seller List would be just a big smash from their start or just lucky. Either way, I’m just snowed by the overwhelming overall mess of it. I know this is the frustration point and I’m sitting on the climax of this story. By sitting I mean, Oh well, you know what I mean. When you get to the website listed above you will be able to find my blog. I’ve written some interesting things of the period of time that I have been blogging. Hopefully, someone will get something from it even if it is only a good read. Just my opinion. Thank you very much for the comment box and all of the things you have to say in your post (article). This was very interesting. Thanks again Joanna Penn.

  10. says

    Hi Joanna
    As the author of one fiction book and just about to publish another, I’m slowly working my way through all the material on your site and finding it immensely helpful. I particularly liked the podcast with Ashleigh Gardner of Wattpad. I placed my first book on Wattpad and got over 700,000 downloads and 13,000 followers. My challenge is to try to turn some of these followers into ‘buyers’ with my second novel. I’m going to follow Ashleigh’s advice and serialise the story (one chapter each day) and at the end of each chapter suggest that if the reader can’t wait to find out what happens next, they can download the book from Amazon. Now that’s OK so long as the serialisation is running but once that has stopped the whole book will be up on Wattpad for free. So my question is —is it acceptable / ethical / permissible once the serialisation is finished to reduce the novel to, let’s say ‘half’ and then ask readers to download from Amazon if they would like to finish the novel. Or does this go against the spirit of Wattpad? I’d be really interested in your views on this and the views of other followers too. Many Thanks. Roger Penfound

    • says

      Hi Roger,
      I think it would be better to leave it whole and direct people to the next book, or whatever else you have. In the spirit of Wattpad, just leave it there as marketing IMHO :)

  11. Steve says

    Great article but several of the replies have terrible spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors and if these are examples of how they normally write, then I’m not surprised they don’t sell any books.
    I’m not just being a grouchy old Englishman; just trying to offer some constructive criticism.
    Good luck all.

    • says

      I’am astounded and dismayed at the lack of your responders rewriting their post before sending it. The sentence structure, logical presentation of content, and simply sloppy writing were glaring evidence of why some have not sold their books. For their information, there are tons of books available that can improve their writing if they will look for them. Changing subjects, thank you for an excellent website with highly valuable information. I’ve saved it and will be referring back to it often. Blessings, WFR

  12. says

    Hey, this was a very helpful post! Thankyou for putting time into it!
    Could you direct me to some other posts for first time authors if you have any? I’m just about ready to publish, but I want to make sure my manuscript is as edited and polished as it can be before I do.

  13. says

    Hi Joanna
    I am a Caribbean author about to publish my first novel and have found your post so informative. I am trying to follow the path you have outlined. Will give you feedback on my journey and my progress.
    One Love

  14. says

    I liked your articles and found them very helpful. Self publishing and traditional publishing alike offer very little chance of huge success. However, self publishing offers a much greater opportunity for moderate success . Your guidelines are excellent for persistent writers who wish to enjoy reasonable sales proportional to the hours invested in labor.


  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! […]

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