First, many thanks to the owners of this blog for this opportunity to post some thoughts on selling a book. That is an issue that exercises the minds of many authors, especially new ones, and I should state up front that I’m talking about fiction here, as selling fiction and nonfiction are rather different.
I titled this post “Thoughts on Selling a Book” to highlight the fact that we, as authors, are really not trying to sell books. We are trying to sell a specific book or a small number of books—ours— not books in general. This is crucial difference. To illustrate that difference, here are two articles, both posted by BookBub, who arguably knows a good deal about selling books:
98 Book Marketing Ideas That Can Help Authors Increase Sales:
Tips on Optimizing Your Submission for a BookBub Featured Deal:
These articles have value in their own right, but the point I wish to make it that the first applies to selling a book. The second applies to selling books in general. The key distinction is that the first article lists 98 ideas, a large number, while the second is much shorter and pithier.
The conclusion I draw from this, supported by my own experience, is that there are a many things that might help sell a book. Most won’t, however, and an exhaustive experiment to test which do and which don’t is beyond the practical capability of us independent authors (and pretty much anyone else—more on that later).
The bottom line here is that no one really knows what will sell a book.
What will help sell books in general is a different question. BookBub, whose sole job is to sell books (in general), has a something of handle on the things that help and the things that hinder book sales and they filter submissions accordingly. But bottom line here, as I see it, is that obeying these general principles will help give a book a better chance of selling, but that certainly does not mean it will sell. And that “better chance” cannot readily be quantified (if at all).
So where does that leave us indie authors, trying to sell our book[s]?
Are we condemned to trying one scheme after another, at great expense of time and emotional energy, to discover which might have some positive impact on sales (if any do)?
Or is there another way?
Personally, I think there is. It goes back to the question: how do publishers sell books?
Stripped of the frills, publishers sell books by applying the some of the principles laid out in the article above and then simply throwing books into the market. These days (especially for genre fiction) whatever “marketing support” a book initially gets usually falls on the shoulders of the author, just as it would if the author published it themselves. This is significant, because it shows what the publisher thinks of these efforts: not enough to invest in them from the get-go.
A few books gain some traction within the time period the publisher is willing to allot to them. These few then get some support for the publisher. The rest get dropped. This is simple economics, and reflects the fact that no one knows a priori which books will sell or (really) why.
It may seem counterintuitive, but we indie authors can do exactly the same thing. When we publish our book (on Amazon and/or whatever other outlets we choose), these outlets, and especially Amazon due to its size, put that book in front a vast number of potential readers; orders of magnitude greater than we, as indie authors, can possibly reach, especially if we are new.
Our book shows some life or does not. If it shows some life, pursuing some marketing options probably has value. If it doesn’t, our marketing efforts are almost certainly not going to bear much fruit. The fact the we authors have to face is that if a book doesn’t sell well on Amazon, it’s probably not going to sell especially well anywhere else, and with our comparatively meager resources, it is unlikely that we can do much to help that.
In that case, what do we do? I can’t speak for others, but what I’d do is leave that book up there and write another book. Maybe it will gain traction and maybe it won’t, but I’d keep writing books until I saw some signs of life and then, I’d start applying some marketing effort to it, content that now I have a backlog for new readers. The cost of this is patience—years worth, probably.
Alternatively, I’d adjust my expectations for sales and redefine what success mean to me (if I’d defined it in terms of sales) to write for fun and for whoever enjoys what I write, even if that’s just a handful of people.
The cost here is giving up the dream of being a commercially successful author. But I think the rewards can be priceless.
Owen R. O’Neil is a physicist, a writer, an amateur historian and the descendant of a long line of engineers.