What to Do if Your Book Isn’t Selling

BY HANNAH GUY • October 22, 2019

What to Do if Your Book Isn’t Selling

You’ve been tracking your book sales, and even before you’ve seen the check, you know the terrible truth: no one is buying your book.

We’re not talking about your intense disappointment that your book isn’t an overnight bestselling hit. In that case, you may just have to come to terms with the reality that most books don’t sell millions of copies. In fact, even new authors at the major publishing houses are “doing pretty well” if they sell 5,000 books, former Electric Literature EIC Lincoln Michel wrote in his essay “Everything You Wanted to Know about Book Sales (But Were Afraid to Ask).”

But let’s say your book has been on Amazon for a few months, you’ve sold less than 100 copies, and sales are already tapering off. Is this it for your book? All the time and work you invested, and now you just have to watch helplessly as your sales plummet further?

Well, no. You can do something about it.

There are loads of guides and blogs about self-publishing (we’ve got lots of tips at Kirkus Writers’ Center as well), offering advice on making your book better, understanding how sales work, and the importance of good marketing and promotion. Maybe you’ve paid attention and done everything right, or maybe you skipped over a few steps. (We see you, marketing-averse authors!) Still, while you may have lost momentum, you might still be able to turn things around.

Take a deep breath; then double-check your work.

Your first official step is to take the advice of Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Don’t panic.”

Next, check your book sales sites, and make sure you listed your book properly and used the correct search categories and keywords. If your readers can’t find your book, they certainly can’t buy it.

Then ask yourself if you did everything you could to make your book the best book it could be. Did you hire a reputable, experienced editor? Did you get objective feedback from any readers ahead of time? What do your customer reviews say?

Take a careful look at your cover art and book description. These are aspects of production that many authors neglect, not realizing that they are important drivers for book sales. Did you create your own book cover or hire the cheapest designer you could find on Fiverr? Or perhaps you hired an excellent designer but overruled their suggestions and feedback? How does your description read? Is it clean, lean, and compelling, or is it little more than a plot summary?

If there still doesn’t seem to be anything obviously amiss, the next step is to approach your friends and family, or (if you have them) your favorite beta readers. Send out a couple of copies to people you trust and then take them out for coffee or a drink (or send them a gift certificate). Then ask for the cold, hard truth.

Solution: If your book cover and description are inadequate, or there are serious issues with the quality of writing in the book (too many grammar errors, mistakes, typos, plot holes, etc.), don’t despair. While your description can be updated fairly easily (especially for e-books and print-on-demand publishing), more serious problems with your book may suggest that you need to rebrand and re-release it. This is no small amount of work, of course—new art, a new description, a fresh edit and revisions, new ISBNs, and more. Then you will need to come up with a new marketing and promotional plan.

To market we go!

“You could write the best book in the world. But, if it appeals to only 1,000 people, then your sales will struggle,” writes Rob Eagar in “3 Reasons Why Some Books Never Sell.” “Agents and publishers use market size as a primary filter to decide which book projects they accept. They can’t afford to invest in a manuscript with limited potential. If they don’t think a book can sell at least 10,000–20,000 copies quickly, they’ll usually pass. The problem of underestimating a market size tends to happen to first-time and self-published authors who overestimate their potential.”

The truth is that now, more than ever, the e-book market is flooded with submissions from authors. So how do you make your book stand out?

Well, the best marketing opportunities for your book are before it’s released. Submitting for review (either through readers or professional book review publications), growing your social media, setting up a website, creating a mailing list … these are things that need to be done. Ideally, they should be already running smoothly long before your book is released, but if you are missing any of these important elements, don’t hesitate. The caveat here is that social media becomes a challenge for authors who don’t already have either a following or aren’t active in online writing communities, so you won’t get the same traction as authors who are already established online.

Solution: While it’s true that many book review sites and publications may not be interested in reviewing a book after publication, you do still have time to reach out to book bloggers and other independent reviewers. You can also send your book to readers in hopes of getting reader reviews, which can increase your visibility on bookselling sites.

If you’ve written a book that has clear ties to current events, this also can also offer you additional publicity. Some authors have drawn obvious comparisons on social media between their books and trending topics (avoid the hard sales pitch, though), while others have joined sites like HARO, where journalists can look up subject experts to use as sources in their work.

But remember that marketing your book isn’t a short-term commitment.

“Many self-published authors give everything they’ve got to see their book listed on Amazon and spend a few months aggressively promoting the title,” writes Crystal Ponti in “5 Reasons Why Your Self-Published Book Isn’t Selling.” “Then suddenly they lose steam, stalling or stopping their marketing efforts. This is a BIG no no. Marketing a book is an ongoing, long-term commitment. In order for you to sell copies, you need to create and continue to generate awareness and interest. Don’t get frustrated if you’re not meeting your expectations as quickly as you had hoped. If you expect the masses to come knocking down your door just because you hit the ‘publish’ button, you’ll be sorely disappointed.”

Just keep scribblin’, scribblin’, scribblin’.

We keep saying it, and we’re gonna keep saying it. One of the best ways to drive sales for an already-published book is by writing and publishing a new one.

Your writing is one of the best ways to keep the conversation going with fans, readers, and even other writers and publishing professionals. Whether that’s writing a blog, publishing essays and short stories, or even self-publishing novellas and short story collections, new material can engage readers and get some extra attention—not to mention a few extra dollars. Some authors even self-publish an older book for free in order to generate sales for newer titles.

So market your existing book as best as you can, but make sure you’re leaving energy to begin your next writing project.

“Writers should absolutely write with an eye toward art, not markets,” writes Michel. “Thinking about sales while creating art rarely produces anything good.”

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