This is Why Your Books Aren’t Selling: 4 Ways To Improve Now

Your Books Aren’t Selling

“My sales are awful, and I’ve done everything. I give up.” 

I heard this from three authors in January, and it’s not an uncommon sentiment right now. As an imprint director, book manager and book marketing consultant, my first questions are always:

* What do you mean by everything?

* How do you define “awful?”

* What do you mean by ‘giving up?’

Let’s deconstruct four ways to improve on that!

1) What Is ‘Everything’ RE: Book Marketing?

Your definition of ‘everything’ and my definition are probably quite different. When I asked one of these authors what he’d done, he said he’d:

* placed a few Facebook ads,

* sent out a bunch of tweets during his free days,

* placed a FreeBooksy promo (cost: $45). That’s about it.placed a few Facebook ads,

To me, that’s barely scraping the bare minimum of ‘hardly anything,’ but in his mind, that’s more than he’d ever done! When I asked him what he had achieved in his marketing plan, he replied: what marketing plan?

I asked this author some of these questions, to which he answered, “no.” How about you:

* Are you consistently on social media building relationships with readers, sharing great content, blogging and commenting on other bloggers’ sites?

* Do you know what your keywords and branding are?

* Have you optimized all your social bios? Are your graphics high quality, hi-res, and consistent?

* Growing your followings through targeted keywords? Not spamming links, but interacting and networking?

* Have you bought your domain, and optimized your website for SEO and SMO? Do you know your Alexa Ranking and Website grade?

* Are you advertising?

* Are you approaching book bloggers and review sites (politely) for reviews?

* Participating in weekly Twitter chats and blog memes like #MondayBlogs and #LinkYourLife?

* Do you belong to Facebook Groups where you can share ideas and partner up with other writers to promote each other?

* Do you regularly visit the Help Sections of all the social media channels to learn how to use them correctly? 

If the answer is no to any or all, you have work to do. You’re not doing everything, and you know it.

Again, not uncommon. Here’s the thing: art is work, to paraphrase Patti Smith. You’ve taken what, six months to two years to write your book, pouring your heart into this work. You’ve (hopefully) worked with a professional editor, graphic designer, formatter, and proofreader, and now that your book is live, you expect to sit back and watch the sales roll on in.

Wait, what?

2) Marketing Your Books is Not An Option

Why? Where does this outrageous expectation come from? I just do not get it. Writers are not dumb. Why do they think marketing is an option?

In what job in the world do you do zero work and make money?

A few tweets and an ad here and there does not create a consistent author platform, which is what this author needs — what every authors needs. This is how we meet readers, bloggers, and other influencers. This is how they find us, where the all-important word-of-mouth storm begins to swirl.

I suggested he rethink his author platform completely, create a robust marketing plan which he then implement, and lose the expectation that writing books is all about, and only about, selling books. One book will very, very rarely create an entire career for an author — and even those who do achieve those heights (Donna Tartt, The Secret History, Elizabeth Wurtzel, Prozac Nation) still go on to write more books, eventually.

I’ve worked with many authors who feel their job is only to write, and expect to do zero marketing; they feel that once they sign with a traditional or hybrid publisher, the publisher will do all their marketing for them. Big Fat Lie. The reason I have a business is because I have many traditionally published clients who are signed by those big publishers and guess what? They hire me to help them market and do their social media because their publisher does so very little marketing, if any, for them.

Do the work. art is work #pattismith, BadRedhead Media,

3) Define ‘Awful’ and Now Improve

One author sells twenty books every day and is upset because she used to sell fifty. One is distraught because she’s only selling five per day and she used to sell ten. Another has sold ten in six months. Your definition of awful is going to be different than anyone else’s, and depending on Amazon’s latest policy or algorithm change, awful can mean different things to different people.

It’s always good to keep an eye on your daily sales, but we can also become obsessed with it. My advice, take it or leave it from one who knows (I have five books out myself), is to check your sales once weekly — no more than that. This is enough to give you an idea of what’s happening during that period of time, analyze any trends, and adjust your marketing efforts. (If you are in the midst of a promotion however, feel free to check them more often, of course.)

4) Should You Ever ‘Give Up?’

NO. There is no ‘Sell By’ date on books anymore, really…especially eBooks. If you look at my third book, Broken Pieces, released in 2013, it’s currently in the #1 spot on Amazon’s paid Women’s Poetry list — and it’s been sitting pretty there since November for a few reasons you can read about here.

If you choose to give up, that’s ultimately your choice. I hear from authors all the damn time who give me every excuse as to why readers aren’t reading them, but when I ask them the questions in that list above, the answers are always ‘no, I haven’t done any of that, but…’

Oh, okay.

I can tell you this: as the director of the Gravity Imprint for Booktrope, the books that sell the most are where the authors are doing everything on that list above — they interact with readers, build their platform, generously share others’ posts and content, blog consistently, and have a clear, strong message. Take a look here at H.M. Jones, Lindsay Fischer and Lisa Douthit — their books are fabulous, all have built strong advocacy platforms (for postpartum depression, domestic abuse survivors and wellness, respectively), and they do the work. If you’d like to learn more about all the amazing Gravity authors, please visit our website!

Writing and marketing ourselves, our brand, goes hand in hand — it’s not one or the other. Writing more books will help gain you visibility, of course. The most successful authors are prolific, having at least five to ten books out — so keep at it. We are authors first. You don’t need a degree in marketing to market, just as you don’t need an MFA to write. You simply need to improve upon what you’re already doing.

It’s really not as difficult as some folks make it: step up, be smart, do the work. 


12 replies
  1. avatar
    Malcolm R. Campbell says:

    What would be interesting would be seeing the results of doing all or mostly all of the suggestions described here. Statistically, most self-published books sell so few copies, is it likely that authors who do all of these things will still never break even? I see no point in spending $500 to sell 50 e-books.

    • avatar
      Frank Parker says:

      Or buying a review for $250 as is suggested in the banner on the bottom of this post – or as I view it anyway.

      • avatar
        Rachel Thompson says:

        I don’t work for IndieReader, but here’s something to look at when deciding where to spend your advertising dollars: what’s their Alexa ranking? how many sites do they have linking in?

        The ranking here is 184K in the US. that’s GREAT (anything under 500K is really good). They have 629 sites linking in. That’s a lot.

        You do whatever you want, of course. You can take that same money and advertise on FB, Twitter, or a site like BookBub. Your call.

    • avatar
      Rachel Thompson says:

      Well, I’ve done all this and my books are all bestsellers and award-winners. My 3rd book, Broken Pieces, is still #1 on Women’s Poetry and #2 on Women’s Authors, and Top 20 in Memoirs on Amazon and has been since 2013. Broken Places is Top 10 in the same first two categories.

      I’m not making a HUGE amount of money, but that’s not my goal (as I mention in a response above), as I write about surviving and thriving after childhood sexual abuse. If your only goal is financial, then maybe you’re in the wrong business.

      My books are published by Booktrope now, though I did start out self-pub’d. Regardless, I still do all of my own marketing. The publisher covered all the creation costs; I still cover all the marketing, advertising, and promotion.

      In my business, BadRedheadMedia, my clients do all of this and many are top-selling NYTimes bestsellers — some are Big 5, some are not. Some have huge budgets, some do not. You have to spend money to make money. Basic rule of business.

  2. avatar
    M. M. Justus says:

    Apparently I’m just so much of an idiot that I don’t know *how* to do 90% of what you’ve listed. No matter how much I read about the techniques, it all comes across like this:

    • avatar
      Rachel Thompson says:

      LOL I get what you’re saying, M.M. Did you click on all the links I provided that explains it all? If I wrote all of it out, this article would be days long.

      Try doing that, and see if it helps. I also list plenty of practical ‘how-to” tips on my blog at (click on articles) and see if that’s helpful. I also recommend Jane Friedman’s site and Joanna Penn. They’re great!

    • avatar
      Brian Stubbs-Satterfield says:

      LMAO … I’ve wrote one #1 best seller and it’s opened up doors for the other half of my speaking and writing business “Decide 2 Evolve” / | We’re an agency promoting chronic illness recovery and childhood trauma healing. Now, for making series money as an unknown author in 2016, it’s not gonna happen for 99% of us. (Being a former “published musician”, I see how the music industry has greatly changed as well…) That’s reality, I’ve learned to write as first a coping skill to get me through childhood sexual abuse, painkillers/alcohol addiction, mental illness and chronic pain. Today, I write to help others with our common struggles. I sell books at every speech, and I’m OK with speech based book sales. Every speech networks into future speeches and opportunities to offer hope, help and healing via my spoken message.

  3. avatar
    Theconsoler says:

    “In what job in the world do you do zero work and make money?” that’s a weird way to describe spending two years writing and editing a book. But there in lies the problem. When you’re not making a living on writing, you hardly have the time to do that, much less become and act as a marketing guru. And as some people have already pointed out, all the time and money needed to market yourself, not to mention to pay experts to do it for you, isn’t really worth it since 9 times out of 10, it won’t result in enough sales to recuperate the cost. I’ve found the best mindset to keep me from blowing my brains out is just accepting that I’ll may never make a dime. I try to stay active on social media and write a blog here and there, but I’m not holding my breath.

    • avatar
      Rachel Thompson says:

      HI Consoler — I appreciate your feedback, despite your questionable ‘resume check’ (feel free to check my 20+ years of marketing experience, but whatever).

      I agree that it can and is frustrating — in my own author experience over 5 books in 5 years, much has changed. I went from making rent money every month to barely enough to cover groceries. I feel you.

      The changes in Amazon’s pay structure (Kindle Unlimited in particular) has screwed us all, and that’s a reality. Looking at my rankings, you’ll see my two Broken books #1 (Broken Pieces #1 on Women’s Poetry and #2 on Women Authors), and Top 20 in #Memoirs — ALL of MEMOIRS — since November. You would think “Wow! Big money!” and you’d be wrong.

      So I get it. Despite all that, I continue to write my books because my goal isn’t solely making money. The subject matter of my books is to share my story as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, to empower others, to create a community to inspire and help people know they are not alone. To that end, I’ve started #SexAbuseChat (a weekly twitter chat on Twitter with a certified therapist), published the #NoMoreShame Anthology DISCOVERING TRUE which highlights stories of survivors, and helped found and now direct the Gravity Imprint of Booktrope Publishing, bringing stories of trauma and recovery to life.

      Blogging is a wonderful way to connect with others and that’s why I started the #MondayBlogs Twitter meme — you’re more than welcome to join us anytime! Here’s more about it:

      “What is #MondayBlogs and Why Should Bloggers Participate? #NOBookPromo”

      I hope my response is encouraging and helps you. Thanks again for responding.

  4. avatar
    Fiona Skye says:

    So what do you do when you are very active on social media, interact with readers on a daily basis, approach book reviewers, blog consistently, et cetera et cetera et cetera, and STILL have abysmal sales? ‘Cos that’s where I find myself.

    • avatar
      Rachel Thompson says:

      Hi Fiona!

      Well, that’s a great question, actually, and one where many people find themselves. I find advertising is likely the component missing in this case, as well as email marketing, a street team, book promotions (giveaways, signed copies, gift cards, Amazon and Goodreads have nice options also) — many other options to turn those interactions into a call for action.

      hope those suggestions help!


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