OLD POST ALERT! This is an older post and although you might find some useful tips, any technical or publishing information is likely to be out of date. Please click on Start Here on the menu bar above to find links to my most useful articles, videos and podcast. Thanks and happy writing! – Joanna Penn
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,
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 details 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?
99% 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?
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 TheBookDesigner.com 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.
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?
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 Religious 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?
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?
It'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?
Sure, 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?
Again, 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 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
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?
There'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.
10. Are you working your butt off?
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.
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.