What should you do if your book isn’t selling? 

If you’ve ever wondered why your book is not selling or why it’s not selling as well as you’d like, this article will explain why books do and don’t sell. We will give you a systematic way to know what the problem is and how to fix it. 

Gerhard, a listener of the Novel Marketing podcasted, wrote to ask: 

I write Christian nonfiction “self” help, and I’ve just completed a novel.

· I’ve subscribed to a fancy author WordPress theme and worked for three months to make it pretty.
· I write GoodReads reviews.
· I’ve got Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest pages all pretty and set up.
· I’ve even prettied up my Amazon book descriptions.
· I’ve got reader funnels set up to grow my email lists. I really want to serve — my chronic pain book is free forever.

But nothing. Bopkis. The needle is not moving. Not one visitor. I’ve sold one measly book per month for years and years now, and I’m sick of it. What can I do except hold up passersby at gunpoint and force them to visit my site?

Gerhard, I feel your pain, and I know the answer.

There are only two reasons books don’t sell, and neither of them has to do with how pretty and fancy your website and social pages are.

There are two reasons books don’t sell:

  1. A broken marketing funnel.
  2. Poor book-reader fit.

We determine which problem exists by examining several factors. 

Gerhard, we’re going to tell you what the issue is for you and how to fix it. The good news is, it’s very fixable. 

Potential Problem #1: Poor Book-Reader Fit

Thomas: In the business world, this is called product-market fit. This is a nice way of saying whether you have a” good” book or not. We’ll use the term “product-market fit” instead of “good book” because the reader defines “good.” Quality is subjective. What’s good for one group of readers is considered terrible for another group. The same is true for different genres.

I wish there were objective quality standards that would guarantee your book would be a bestseller. For example, I wish we could say, “The closer your book is to the quality in To Kill A Mockingbird, the better it is, in an objective sense, and the more likely it is to be a bestseller.” 

But that’s not the case. 

Many books are vastly different from To Kill A Mockingbird, and they are very popular with readers and well-written. It’s not helpful to say, “write a better book.”

But it’s imperative to have a good book-reader fit. You need to know your book fits the readers you’re trying to reach.

JimThe DiVinci Code has been out for a long time and continues to sell copies. From a clinical viewpoint, it’s terrible writing. But it was a great fit for the audience who wanted a thrilling, intriguing adventure. Writing better won’t fix your sales problem, but working on your craft and getting feedback from readers are still critical components.

Thomas: Good marketing only helps a bad book fail faster.

The most common form of poor book-reader fit is a poor book. If you want help with the craft part of the marketing package, we talk about craft in our course, The Five Year Plan to Become a Bestselling Author. There are no shortcuts to becoming a good writer. 

Poor book-reader fit isn’t always the problem, but when it is, it usually shows up in one of the following elements. 

Elements of Poor Book-Reader Fit

Wrong Cover 

Thomas: Having the wrong cover is the most flagrant error. Your book cover makes a promise to potential readers. It tells readers about

  1. The genre
  2. What kind of book it is
  3. What kind of reader it’s for

You may have written the right book for the right audience, but if the cover indicates it’s a different kind of book than your reader wants, no one will get past the cover to find out if it’s a good book or not. 

If you’re writing a romance, but the cover looks like a thriller, it won’t sell. And there’s nothing you can do to make it sell better until you fix the cover.

How do you fix the wrong cover?

Jim: You start working with a cover designer who understands graphics and symbols that appeal to the genre’s readers. If dragons and spaceships are on your cover, they better show up inside too. A good cover designer will understand the feeling, mood, and the reader take-away. 

With their expertise, you can design a cover that goes to the core of what your reader expects and wants.

Thomas: A good cover design is more like designing a cereal box for a grocery store shelf than painting a piece for the Louvre. The goal of a cover is to sell the book. It’s more about package design than it is about art. 

Listen to our previous episodes to learn more about creating amazing book covers.

Jim: To reiterate, you want the cover to grab someone enough to turn the book over and read the back cover copy.

Thomas: You can test different cover images by running ads with the two potential covers. The ad that gets more clicks is the winning cover. This strategy is much more objective than asking friends on Facebook which cover they like. Your friends will scrutinize the cover and give it far more attention than a browsing customer will. You don’t have to know why the cover is better. You just need to know which one received more clicks.

Bad Back Cover Copy

Thomas: Back cover copy is the text on the back of your book that describes the contents of the book. Authors sometimes make a promise that the reader doesn’t want. Other times, authors just get the wording wrong. 

Jim: We recommend hiring the right professional to write you back cover copy. Before you hire someone, ask for ten examples of back cover copy that they have already written. Study that copy as if you were a reader. Are you intrigued? Do you want to read the book described? Take the time to find someone who understands what you’re writing and has done it successfully for other authors.

Thomas: You can also use ads to split test your back cover copy. Listen to our episodes that will help you create compelling back cover copy.

Don’t Know Your Target Readers

Many authors write the kind of book they want to read. They don’t spend time getting to know real-life readers. As a result, their books become overly idiosyncratic to themselves rather than to their reader. Try to hang out with your readers.

If you’re writing military science fiction, find out where those readers hang out and talk about military science fiction with each other. Don’t promote your book. Simply listen and get to know what tropes excite them.

If you’re writing for people with chronic pain, find their online communities and listen. Find out what questions they’re asking. 

Interact with your target readers in real life too. Real-world marketing is important because on the other side of the computer is a real human being. The better you understand your reader, the better you can cater to them. Your book will be a better fit if you know a reader in real life.

Jim: Get to know readers by joining a book club. Listen to them discuss books. What motivates them? What didn’t they like about the book? You will learn a ton when you eavesdrop on that reader conversation.

Writing to the Wrong Target Readers

Thomas: I don’t see this happen very often, but occasionally it is the culprit of poor book-reader fit. Sometimes the initial audience doesn’t like the book, but other audiences do. 

To fix this problem, adapt your writing to thrill the audience you are targeting, or target a different audience. If you tried targeting adults and they don’t like your book, try targeting young adults. They may like it better.

Book Fails to Deliver on its Promise

Your cover and back cover copy make a promise to the reader. If the cover looks entertaining and the copy says it’s going to be a “thrilling adventure,” then it better be a thrilling adventure.

If your book promises to answer questions about childbirth, it must answer those questions. Readers decide whether a book is “good” or not based on whether it delivers on the promise it made.

If your book does not deliver on its promise, you need to change the promise to one you can deliver on or rewrite the book so that it delivers on its initial promise. 

For our listener Gerhard, none of these elements is the problem with his book. We know that because no one is buying his book in the first place. Since no one has purchased it, no one knows whether it delivers on the promise it makes.

Potential #2: Broken Sales Funnel

This leads me to believe Gerhard’s problem is a broken sales funnel. 

Imagine a funnel that is wide at the top and narrows toward the bottom. If your funnel is broken at any of the three points within the funnel, you won’t make sales.

Readers buy books from authors they knowlike, and trust. Readers move through three steps of the funnel in order.

Three Steps of the Sales Funnel

  • Attract: Get the attention of strangers. It’s the art of getting people to know who you are.
  • Engage: People who know you begin to like you.
  • Convert: People who like you eventually trust you with their money, and fans become customers.

All three steps of the funnel need to be working in order to sell books.

If we look back at what Gerhard is doing, we can see he has great engagement activities. He’s engaging his readers on Twitter and Facebook. He’s leaving Goodreads reviews, and he writes emails. These are ways to engage his readers, but engagement is step two.

None of those activities will help if no one visits your website or reads your reviews or emails. 

Gerhard is missing step one: Attraction. Strangers aren’t finding out about his book. 

How to Fix the Sales Funnel: Attraction

Advertise

Thomas: Advertising is the fastest way to reach strangers. Advertising can solve the problem of attraction. If you have poor product-market fit, advertising won’t help you sell books. But if no one knows who you are, advertising may be the solution you’re looking for.

If you want to start advertising, be sure and listen to our webinar with Chris Fox called Ads for Authors Who Hate Math.

Jim: When people hear you say “advertise,” they think they have to spend thousands of dollars. But there are many ways to advertise that don’t cost money. Sometimes we call it PR. Listen to our episode called How You Can Create Massive PR for Yourself, Even If You’re A Complete Novice. You’ll learn how to pitch yourself to media outlets and podcasts to create a wave of attraction without spending money. You’ll have to spend time, but if you’re serious about publishing, you’re probably willing to spend the time. 

Begin by pitching podcasts. There is an explosion of podcasts right now. That means many hosts are looking for entertaining guests. You can listen to our episodes How to Get Booked as a Podcast Guest and How to Sound Great as a Podcast Guest, and you will be well on your way to some free PR.

Public Speaking

Jim: Think outside the box of traditional media advertising. We’re not necessarily advocating buying ads on radio, TV, or even Facebook. Most authors make most of their sales in their local area because people know them and are connected to them. Start by approaching your local library and bookstore. Seek speaking engagements with local Kiwanis or Rotary Clubs. Ask about opportunities to speak with students at area schools. If you’re willing to do the legwork, opportunities abound.

Thomas: When you’re selling your book face to face, we call that hand-selling. The best place to hand-sell your book is from the stage. Public speaking is a learned skill, and it’s a good way to attract strangers to your content. You can sell books at the back of the room after you speak. You may find you sell more books after one talk than you do after a thousand tweets.

Jim: I have an author friend who became a massive bestseller by speaking to fifth and sixth graders at schools around the country. He gave a motivational and encouraging talk and then made his books available at the back of the room. He didn’t pitch the book, but he inspired the kids, and they wanted to hear more from him. He sold hundreds of thousands of books that way.

While he had traveled around the country for two years, new students entered the fifth and sixth grades in those same schools, so he did it all again.

Not everyone is selling to that age group, but it’s an example of how authors can think outside the box.

Write Guest Blogs 

Thomas: You can also write a guest blog post for a popular blog to attract the attention of strangers. New readers will discover you and your writing. If it connects with them, they will remember and perhaps even visit your website to sign up for your email newsletter. 

Spark a Controversy on Your Blog

 Thomas: If your topic lends itself to debate, nothing draws attention like a controversy. Writing a controversial blog post can be a great way to attract the attention of strangers. You may have a happy fan who always reads but never talks about your writing until you write a controversial post. If they agree with your position, they become your advocates.

Not all of these strategies work for every author. Some authors are afraid to put themselves out there. They tend to want to hide, and that mindset is the biggest enemy. Writing is an act of leadership. If you write nonfiction, you’re leading readers into a new way of thinking. If you write fiction, you’re leading readers into a whole new world. 

You can’t lead and hide at the same time. 

You can have your photo on the book with the glory and challenges that come with it, or you can hide. You can’t do both.

Jim: This is a common feeling. When I speak at writing conferences, part of me loves being on stage, and the other part wants to hide. It’s a universal feeling, so embrace it. It’s not ultimately about you. It’s about what you offer others.

Thomas: The more you embrace that, the more liberated you’ll be to promote your work without feeling guilty. 

Each of our episodes is about Attracting, Engaging, and Converting. Some strategies do all three at once. We’re here to help you with that process.

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