Any time an author publishes a book, there are three possible outcomes: it will perform amazingly well and sales will go through the roof, it will totally flop, or land somewhere in-between. I suggest that most books end up in that nebulous middle-area, but unless one hits a bestseller with the first and makes a name for him or herself straight out of the gate, everyone has one that performs poorly. This can be incredibly discouraging considering the time, energy, and monetary costs associated with publishing a book. What do you do when you expect book sales to perform well and they don’t, and what can you do to fix it?
First, you have to look at the problem, because you can’t solve a problem unless you know what is causing it. In this case there are really only three possibilities: Price, Content, and Marketing.
Pricing is a bit of an art, rather than a science, but one can do a few simple things to make an educated guess. First, what are successful authors in your genre selling their books for? Make sure not to price higher than theirs, and consider pricing slightly lower to make up for any notoriety you may lack. Second, do a general survey of prices based on book length. If your book is two hundred pages then don’t charge what a five-hundred page book is priced for, and if your book is electronic it must be a lower price than a print version of the same length. Look at all authors in the genre, not just well-known authors, because the majority of books in any genre are most likely going to be by lesser-known indie and/or self-published authors.
Once you have priced your book more appropriately, or decided that price wasn’t the problem, you need to look at the next item on the list: book content. In the case of content issues, the only thing you can do to fix it is go back to the drawing board and start over. But what really IS the problem with the content? If it is bad spelling and grammar, then you made a major rookie mistake—you must not have used an editor.
An editor is worth his or her weight in gold, taking what might otherwise be a “B”-level piece of writing and turn it into a masterpiece. Editors catch spelling mistakes, turn passive-voice sentences into active-voice ones, break up run-ons and combine strings of simple sentences. They are the equivalent of an interior decorator, taking whatever you are working with and sprucing it up until it pops. If you haven’t used an editor, you have broken what I consider to be the cardinal rule of publishing, and you really will need to revisit your material. Because editing can get expensive, make sure to use spell-check and grammar-check in your document, possibly get a subscription to a software that does some basic edit-checking for you (such as Grammarly), and do a round of edits yourself prior to handing it to someone else. If you find flaws in your own work and fix them, the editor will be able to focus on other problems within the text, ultimately costing you less long-term and helping raise the level of your writing even higher.
Once you have fixed the editing-problem, you shouldn’t have any more problems with the material inside the book. Content can only make up a small portion of why a book fails. After all, someone SOMEWHERE must be interested in what you have to say. This brings us to the next problem, Marketing—how to connect the audience with your material.
Marketing is a bit different than sales. If I had to differentiate the two, I would liken sales to getting someone who is standing in a bookstore to pick the book up off the shelf and buy it, and marketing to what gets the buyer in the bookstore and standing in front of your shelf to begin with. The cover is one key part of that. Do you have a title that is catchy and informative about what the book is about? Does it use important keywords to hlep the reader find the book? Does the cover art draw the reader’s eye and also give a glimpse into the content? Does the back-cover blurb draw the reader in and/or make them want to know more? If the answer to any of these questions is a “no”, you need to fix that before going further.
Next, comes finding the right people to actually look at the book. Marketing is all about audience, and if you get the wrong audience then the book will perform badly no matter how amazing the writing is. And truth be told, marketing is in some ways more important than a well-written book. A well-marketed B-grade book is always going to do better than an A-grade book that only your family and friends know about. This means you need to know who your audience actually is, and then find ways to connect them with your material.
One example of a marketing fail in this area is my book The Gamer’s Guide to the Kingdom of God. This almost three-hundred-page book took me over the course of three years to write, edit, and publish, and if God hadn’t dropped the book Gemstones From Heaven in my lap during that time, The Gamer’s Guide would have been my first book. Gemstones sold well given my audience, so I expected The Gamer’s Guide would do the same—until I launched it and almost no one bought the book. I will be honest, I was extremely disappointed when the launch fell flat on its face. I had created a social media buzz in the days and weeks leading up to it, posted some interesting excerpts to draw people’s attention, and still didn’t get much of anywhere. Why?
I had the wrong audience.
Only a small subset of people who are interested in supernatural manifestations are also interested in online gaming. It’s a venn-diagram—that picture of two overlapping circles with that section in the middle representing where those two interests overlap. The audience who loved my first book were mostly not gamers, and therefore didn’t see the relevance of the book to their lives, no matter how relevant I might believe it to be. Once I began to connect with gamers, the book began to perform a little better, and most of the people who bought that book have raved about it. The lesson there was “don’t assume you have a crossover audience.” What you do for one subject may or may not work for another one, so go to where your audience is.
Marketing also means spending money. For those who are leery about this (as many of us are at the outset), the saying “you have to spend money to make money” is true. Just work on learning how to spend wisely. You can put ads on social media, in search engines, or through various organizations who specialize in your subject matter. You can put up a table at events, although again, preferably choose topic-relevant ones. Having a book table at an electronics fair is not likely to perform well, even if the book is all about electronics. Why? People at that event are wanting things involving electricity, not paper. It all comes down to honing in on what the audience for your subject matter wants, not what is easy for you. If you can find a way to make it easy for you and meet your audience, much the better.
One final part of marketing is the book launch. The launch itself can be done a number of ways, including limited-time giveaways, prize drawings (check with state laws regarding raffles and such), book trailers, scheduled interviews with radio programs and/or internet radio, a blog tour, book signings, and more.
One of the things people like at a book launch (or any time, really) is free stuff. It doesn’t even have to be something they use; it needs to be something they think they might use someday, enough to catch their eye and push them over the edge to purchase the book. On the other hand, prize drawings don’t work as well. The chance of winning is less invigorating than a guaranteed-win for everyone who purchases within a certain timeframe. The timeframe creates urgency which drives up sales, and the free gift also helps push people from the “considering” category into the “purchasing” category. This is essentially an interest-grabber, and anything that gets someone to look at your book with interest is likely to be a good idea provided it is cost-beneficial.
At the end of the day, Content and Marketing are both the only two real problems a book can have in terms of sales, and they are the two things the author has significant influence over! While we cannot force anyone to purchase our product, there are literally billions of people on the planet, and over one billion of them read English. Of those 1,000,000,000+ people, there are more than enough who would want your book—but it’s your job to find them. Get the content fixed, then make sure to get the right audience, the right message, and the right interest-grabbers, and your book sales will start shooting upward.