Monday, 1 April 2013

Why your book isn't selling OR How to improve your ebook sales

Today I read this rather entertaining article about some guy whose book didn’t sell, and I had to chuckle to myself. As an indie writer I come into contact with A LOT of other indie writers (we have to huddle together for warmth in the cold, cold climes of indie publishing). Some of them are super successful pros and others are journeymen picking up a few sales here and there. I'm very much in the latter category but I've seen sales gains every month since December and I sold exactly eleven times more books in March 2013 compared to March 2012 so I'm moving (slowly slowly slowly ...) in the right direction.

One thing about sales is that you can be never quite sure if you’ll get any or not. Some genres sell better than others, while some writers are incredibly prolific and literally saturate their corner of the market. However, for many people, writing a good book is the easy part. Actually selling the thing is remarkably hard and you might have no idea why.

One thing that will give you a push in the right direction is having a positive attitude. I tend to steer away from whingers like the guy in the article above, who seem to think they have a God-given right to sell thousands of copies. You might get lucky, but we’re talking 1/100,000 lucky. Otherwise you’re going to have to work for every sale you get and hope that they become more organic as your name and backlist grows.

So I’ll tell you this now:

DO NOT whine about not getting any sales. Unless you're famous enough to whine in large internet magazines like the guy in the article above, you will achieve nothing other than to make hardworking writers hate you. Speculating about why you don't make more sales is fine, that's what I do. :-) But don't start jumping up and down and screaming "I'M A FAILURE!", at least not in public. It's counterproductive. Be proactive instead.

If your book isn’t selling you can guarantee it’s for one of three reasons -

              1. It sucks
              2. It looks like it sucks
              3. No one knows it exists

Be honest with yourself. If your book falls under #1, sort it out. I’m sorry to say this, but if you regularly struggle to write a page of text which contains no spelling or grammar errors then you probably shouldn’t be publishing. I don’t mean that harshly, because I couldn't care less whether you publish your error-strewn rubbish with your name spelled wrong on the cover or not. It's nothing to do with me. I'm saying it for your own benefit. If your writing is littered with mistakes then sooner or later you’ll get canned by reviewers. It hurts. I think my work is awesome yet I’ve been one-stared, and it’s painful. I have confidence in the quality of my work, but if deep down I knew the review was justified it would hurt even more.

Here's a little allegorical story about becoming an indie writer.

Doctor A and Doctor B both went off to medical school. Doctor A was a good student, worked hard and stayed for the full five years. Doctor B got bored of studying after two years and thought he was good enough already. He went out and paid a bit of money to get a nice coat, he bought some pretty paintings for the inside of his surgery, and he put a nice window display on the front. Lastly he set his prices nice and cheap to get customers in through the door.

For a while he was doing okay. He saw a lot of clients and made a bit of money, but after a while he realised  no one ever came back. A few weeks later he saw a bad review of his practice in the local newspaper, because it seemed that once people had got past the glossy facade they realised he wasn't a very good doctor at all, and gradually his business began to suffer.

Doctor A, on the other hand, studied hard until he was fully qualified. At first, when he set up his practice, he found patients were hard to come by, but over time the same ones returned again and again, and they recommended him to their friends who also showed up to hand over their cash for his wonderful medicines. Pretty soon he was the most well-respected (and richest) doctor in the land.

The point of my little story is that if you cut the corners you'll end up getting bitten on the ass. Sure, you can pay for nice covers, editing, proofreading, formatting, advertising ... but if your intrinsic writing skill is not very high and your stories suck, sooner or later these problems will come back to haunt you.

In short, it’s best to be properly armed before going into battle. Thankfully there are these wonderful things called grammar books and this equally wonderful thing called practice. These will help you out if you put enough time into them. There are no short cuts. On forums and websites I regularly see statements such as “I have my own style” or “(insert name of famous writer) doesn’t use correct grammar”. In the first case, 99 times out of 100 it’s a case of you don’t have ANY style (except a bad one), and in the second, they’re allowed to. Famous writers are famous for many reasons, but one is that they’re a master of their art. And when you’re a master of something you can pretty much do what you like. Your job as the noob indie is to become a master. You can’t break the rules until you know what the rules are. If you do, it shows. Trust me.

If your problem is #2, this is a far easier fix. And the easiest way to do it is to pay someone. There are covers available everywhere, from custom made ones to Photoshopped ones to cheap premade ones. Can you believe that my very first cover was a screen print from Word which I used Paint to erase the ruler marks from? No, nor can I. So, if looks like I’m getting up on my high horse and talking down to people just starting out, be assured that I’m not. I’m speaking as someone who learned the hard way, and by listening to my advice you can save yourself a lot of hardship and a whole lot of time.

If you’re good with computers you can do it yourself, using Photoshop or stock images. I buy the images for my short stories from a site called for about $20 and then play around with them with Picasa on my iMac. They’re not perfect, but they look nice enough and they fit into my budget. For my novels I use Su at Novel Prevue. If you have a budget of several hundred dollars, go to Kindleboards and browse the covers in the profiles in the Writer's Cafe. There are dozens of designers to choose from.

If your problem is #3, then you have to be proactive about ways to find extra visibility.

You might not be a particularly outgoing person, but you’re going to need a social media presence.

Off the top of my head you have -

Your own blog/website

And then there’s the mighty ‘Zon of course. Amazon’s KDP Select might not be as lucrative as it once was but those five free days a quarter are still going to get you plenty of exposure if you get picked up by sites such as

Ereader News Today (free to submit to, paid bargain book listings)
Pixel of Ink (free to sub, hard to get on!)
Free Kindle Books and Tips (free to sub, paid bargain book listings)
Freebooksy (free to sub, paid advertising)
Free Book Dude (free to sub)
Bookbub (expensive but the undisputed king)
Bookblast (cheap but still growing)
and lots more (Google is your friend)

Most of the above can be accessed directly through Author Marketing Club. Some of them will require a certain number of reviews. If you don’t have any, please don’t review your own books or get someone you know to give you arbitrary five star reviews. Don’t pay for them either. Again, it might seem easy in the short term but you’ll suffer for it eventually.  Instead, put your nose to the grindstone and submit to a bunch of blogs at The Indie Book Reviewer List or join the Making Connections group on Goodreads. Don’t offer to review swap with other writers of dubious quality. Remember those teeth marks on your ass? You'll end up with gangrene and you really will be over as a writer if your ass has to be amputated (unless you can afford one of these ;-) ).

All of the above mentioned sites also do advertising and bargain book listings, which are your second best friend. Some of them are free and others are paid. You have to decide what’s in your budget. “But I have no money!” I hear you cry. Um, you can afford your computer with a net connection, your iPhone, your car, your beers on a Friday night … what you actually mean is that you’re afraid of reallocating some of your funds from a known/accepted expense towards a speculative/unknown one. As with producing your book, you will have to speculate to accumulate, it’s a given. Are you prepared to sacrifice just a little bit - say one night out a week - to chase your dream? It's your choice …

You don’t have to drop thousands of dollars, but you can guarantee you will have to pay something. I’ve cut a lot of corners in my time but these days I pay for advertising, pay for proofreading, pay for covers, etc. I make a little money but probably 90% goes back into my “business”, because I’m building for the future. If your book isn’t selling then you need to invest in it too.

Another thing you can do is increase your available formats. For paperbacks you have

and others

while for audio books you have

Work on having as many formats available as possible. My novels are available in both ebook and paperback formats and I’ll be trying to sort out some audiobooks later this year. ACX isn’t currently available to non-US authors so we have to go via subsidiaries. I’m looking into it.

Another thing you can do, particularly if you don't like using Select, is to expand your markets. You can be distributed by 

or if you're in the US you can go it alone on sites like

Apple iStore (though you need a Mac to upload)

It all comes down to being proactive and getting off your badly bitten ass. You WILL have to put the time in, and you will probably have to put money into it as well. There's no other way around it.

And before I forget, perhaps the most important thing of all - WRITE MORE BOOKS. Nothing sells a book like another good book. You might get lucky with one book, but you probably won't.

Remember, don't be a whiner, it's lame. Help yourself, and the general public will help you, by showering you in lots of wonderful cash.

Good luck!

Chris Ward
2nd April 2013


  1. Superb stuff, Chris! Just bopping over to some of theses sites-

  2. You missed one Chris. covers free and paid

    1. Hi Jennie, I'll check them out and add them to the list if they look good. When I had a look earlier they didn't seem to be taking submissions at the moment.

    2. Update - having now tried Ereaderbuddy I'm afraid I couldn't recommend them. 50,000 Facebook/Twitter followers yet not one sale or even a Facebook like? It was only $10 but it's a site I won't be using again.

  3. This was really useful. Thank you :)