A few times each month, I'll receive a plaintive email from an author asking me why their book isn't selling better.
It's tough to read these, because I know behind the email is an author who's feeling disappointed their years of effort have borne no fruit. The impossibly of answering such a question makes it all the tougher. There's no one single magic bullet. Most books don't sell well.
Don't give up. One benefit of ebook self-publishing is that the author can evolve their book over time. Unlike static print books of yesteryear, your ebook is a dynamic, living creature.
Below, I share five tips on how to identify and repair what standing between you and readers.
Tip #1 - Look at your reviews at all the retailers. Ignore the reviews from friends and family, they don't count. Average them up. How many stars are you getting out of five?
This past weekend, when I looked at the top 20 bestsellers at the Apple iBookstore, they averaged 4 stars out of five. On other random days I've done this test, they averaged 4.5. The #1 bestselling book on Saturday at Apple was Never Too Far by Abbi Glines (distributed by Smashwords), and it averaged 4.5 stars. Some of the representative comments were, "loved this book," "Amazing," "couldn't put it down," and "couldn't stop reading."
If you want to become a bestseller, good enough is not good enough. You need to WOW your reader. It doesn't matter if you write romance, thrillers or non-fiction. If your book doesn't move the reader to an emotional extreme, consider a revision.
Take the case of my soap opera novel, Boob Tube, co-written by my wife and me. It averages around 3.5 stars. That's not good enough. We're not wowing readers. My wife and I should probably do a major revision if we want better reviews and better sales. Our sales range from 20 to 30 copies a month, not bad for an ebook that's been out five years. What if after a revision, we averaged 4.5 stars? Imagine how that would move the needle on sales.
What if you don't have reviews? - This is as big of a problem as poor reviews. If your book has been out for more than three months and it's not selling and you don't have reviews, consider setting the price to free, at least for a limited time. What do you have to lose? Readers aren't finding you anyway.
This is the course of action my wife and I selected with Boob Tube. For the first two years (2008-2009), Boob Tube sold horribly, maybe 20 copies total. It had only one or two reviews across all the retailers. My wife and I decided to set the price to free for six months. We got 40,000 downloads, a lot of reviews, and even our first fan mail (yay!). Then we set the price to $2.99 and it started selling. Without reviews at the retailers, Goodreads, LibraryThing and elsewhere, few readers will take a chance on you. FREE helps readers take that chance.
Tip #2 - Redo your Cover Image. If your book's reviews are averaging over four stars, yet the book isn't selling, your cover is probably the problem. This was the case last year for Smashwords author R.L. Mathewson. She was earning fabulous "WOW" reviews from readers, yet she was only selling a few copies a day (even still, a few copies a day is way above average for most authors).
When she upgraded her cover images, her books immediately took off, and then a couple weeks later she hit the N.Y. Times bestseller list for the first time. A great book with great reviews supported by a great cover can make all the difference.
A great cover image makes a promise to the reader. A poor cover image chases potential readers away. Great covers are aspirational. The reader aspires to feel something, and the cover promises that feeling.
Here's a quick test, and a challenge: If you were to strip away the title and author name, does your cover image tell the reader, "this is the book you're looking for to experience [the feeling of first love for romance; fear for horror; edge of your seat suspense for thrillers; knowledge for a non-fiction how-to; an inspiring story of personal journey for a memoir, delicious home-cooked meals for a cookbook, etc]."
The human brain is programmed to process imagery faster than written words. When a reader is browsing book listings, they're looking to have their attention arrested by something that speaks to them. Everything else is noise. Don't be the noise.
Back to my novel. A couple bestselling Smashwords authors have told me that the cover of Boob Tube doesn't work. It took me awhile to come around, but I agree with them now. The image focuses on breasts, which are an obsessive, almost-debilitating focus for the actresses on daytime television soaps. We explore this in the book. Yet to the reader, the image sends conflicting messages. Is this book erotica, or pornography (no!)? Because the image isn't resonating with the right promise, we're probably chasing away readers who would otherwise be drawn to the story.
Tip #3 - Is your book priced too high? When a book is priced too high, it makes the book less affordable to the reader. If you're an unknown author, it makes the reader less willing to take a chance on you.
Last year, I conducted a study of the impact of price on unit downloads and gross sales. I found that lower prices moved more unit sales than higher prices (no surprise there). Books priced at $2.99 earned slightly more than books priced over $10.00, yet enjoyed six times as many unit sales.
As an author, dollars in your pocket are good, but over the long term, the greater number of readers is what will drive your fan base and future sales. If your book is priced over $5.99, and it's not selling well, try a lower price and see what happens. There's one other potential advantage of lower prices: Value. If the reader feels they received a great read for the price, you're more likely to earn a positive review.
Tip # 4 - Are you targeting the right audience? As a writer, you're never going to satisfy every reader. That's okay. Don't try.
Know your target audience, and then make sure your title, book cover, book description, categorization and marketing are all aligned to target that audience with fine-tuned precision. If you send the wrong messages, you'll attract the wrong readers, and they won't generate the positive word-of-mouth or reviews you need.
Again, I'll use my own novel as an example (since I'm not afraid to illustrate my mistakes!). Early in our novel, a dead body is discovered, so there's a bit of a mystery about who did it. It's a minor plot point, and the book isn't categorized as mystery. However, at one time in 2011, our book description played up the mystery surrounding the murder.
For at least one reader, after she read the description she downloaded the book thinking it was a murder mystery. It's not. It's a book about the dark side of Hollywood celebrity.
The reader felt mislead, and gave us this one-star review:
"If you want to read about drug use, masochism, naive behavior leading to wrecked lives and truly disgusting eating disorders, this book is for you. If you were looking for a murder mystery, look somewhere else. I got more than 50% into the book and no one was calling the death a murder. So, no investigation, no questions, none of the things that make a book a murder mystery."
Following this review, I removed the murder-mystery subplot from the description and focused on the top themes.
Avoid the temptation to target a broader-than-necessary market.
Tip #5 - Balance humility and pride. It's tough being a writer. You pour your heart and soul into your words, and then lay your words bare before the world for judgment. It takes bravery and confidence to publish. Speaking from personal experience, it's heartbreaking to receive your first one-star review. We all get them.
To press forward as writers, we have to decide what we can learn from, and what we can ignore. Find your strength from your five-star reviews (we have those too!), and carefully examine your other reviews to identify opportunities for improvement. I try to learn something from every review, even if I don't agree with it.
The opposite response to reader feedback, however, is equally destructive, and that's to let pride blind your eyes to the bread crumb clues your readers are providing you. If you want to become a successful writer, you must consider the feedback of readers if you're not already wowing them. Your readers, through their reviews and word-of-mouth, will determine how many other readers you reach.
As a self-published author, your ebook is immortal. You always have another day. If you never give up, you'll never fail. If you listen to what your readers are telling you, as conveyed through their action, inaction and reviews, you'll reach more readers.
This post has been condensed from the original, which can be found here.