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“Why isn’t my book selling? I should be a bestseller by now.”

As a marketing consultant, I’ve been asked questions like these from numerous authors. There is no simple answer, but there are a few tell-tale signs that can offer clarify and steps you can take to rectify the problem.

To improve the situation, though, you must be prepared to look yourself in the mirror and take an honest assessment. If you’ve written a book that isn’t selling well, you cannot blame the public. It’s not their fault, because the marketplace doesn’t lie.

Millions of books are purchased every day.

If you’re experiencing low book sales, the issue generally stems from one of the following three areas:

1. The market is too small for your book.

You could write the best book in the world. But, if it appeals to only 1,000 people, then your sales will be low. That’s why literary 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 that only appeal to a tiny audience. If they don’t think a book can sell at least 10,000 – 20,000 copies in the first year, they’ll usually pass.

Underestimating the size of a book’s audience is a common mistake for first-time and self-published authors who overestimate their potential. They become blinded by the passion for their message, which prevents them from developing a pragmatic point of view.

A great way to avoid overestimating your audience is to check the sales history for other books that are similar to your content. For instance, you could look at various bestseller lists or talk to local bookstore managers.

Every author wants to be a bestseller, but most books are written for a niche that is too small to generate bestseller sales.

2. The market isn’t responding to your material.

On the other hand, the audience size for some books is huge. Yet, the masses still fail to purchase. Authors scratch their heads wondering why they’re getting ignored in the marketplace. This problem can be related to numerous factors, such as a saturated genre, weak economy, boring title, poorly-timed release date, high pricing, inappropriate page count, inadequate marketing, seasonal subject matter, etc.

If your audience is big but your sales are small, then you have to be willing to honestly assess the above factors and make significant changes. You may need to invest more time and money into your marketing efforts. You may need to drop the price. You may need to re-release the book under a different title or at a different time of year.

If people aren’t buying your book, then it’s your problem – not theirs.

Try talking with a knowledgeable person who can provide honest feedback based on experience, such as a literary agent, librarian, publicist, or bookstore manager. Let go of your ego, ask for candid feedback, and be willing to make necessary adjustments.

Legitimate changes can always breathe new life into a book.

3. The market doesn’t like your book.

The biggest factor that hinders book sales isn’t due to bad marketing or a bad economy.

Poor book sales usually result from a poor manuscript. The quality of writing might be too choppy, cliché, or uninspired to capture reader interest. Really bad writing can even create negative word of mouth that shuts down sales altogether.

People have a limited amount of time and money, and they make decisions based on their self-interests.

Nobody wants to waste their money and time on a bad book. As an author, you have to convince readers that your book provides tangible benefits, such as inspiration, entertainment, learning, or even being a part of the cool crowd. If your book doesn’t provide tangible benefits, then your audience won’t buy it.

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What can you do to turn the tide?

If your books are meeting sales expectations, there are several steps you can take to right the ship or prevent future problems. I’ve coached over 400 authors, and I recommend these three ways to give your book the best chance for success:

a. Utilize focus groups

Never assume that your book is good.

Allow skeptical people to examine your work. Create test groups of readers who fit your target audience, give them your manuscript, and ask for blatantly-honest feedback. Many authors are scared to go down this road, because they fear the rejection, revisions, or extra work that might occur. However, the feedback you receive could be the key that unlocks your book’s full sales potential.

For example, when I wrote my first book in 2001, I put together three different focus groups who represented different aspects of my target audience. Their feedback was brutal and required me to rewrite every chapter three times – and my first chapter nine times!

They were honest, but they were right. Making the changes my focus groups recommended paid off, because that book can still be found today on bookstore shelves across America.

b. Work with a professional editor

Work with a professional editor who has a proven track record, regardless if you self-publish or go with a traditional house.

You may need to spend extra time and money, but it’s worth every penny. People hate reading poorly written books. If they browse your book and view the quality as low, then they won’t buy it.

Editing is one of the few issues that’s completely within your control. Don’t get cheap, do it all yourself, and settle for a bad manuscript.

c. Don’t write a book in less than 4 months

You might disagree, but I believe too many authors kill their book sales by writing manuscripts too quickly, such as less than four months. Books need time to percolate in your mind, test on focus groups, add new ideas, and revise to a higher level. When you rush the writing process, you prevent a book from going to market with all of the necessary elements.

A good book is like a fine wine. Most need time to develop complexity and a rich taste that will appeal to the masses.

When a book doesn’t meet your sales expectations, be careful not to blame other people, such as your readers or your publisher. That’s like a parent blaming teachers, friends, and politicians as the reason why their kids didn’t turn out well. This attitude simply keeps you stuck in your mistakes.

In contrast, take full responsibility for the sales of your book.

Use the three categories above to narrow down your problem to the core issue. Don’t beat yourself up. Rather, learn from your mistakes, and use that knowledge to improve your next book. Remember, the market doesn’t lie. If you write a great book for a large audience, they will surely buy.

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