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5 Ways Your Book Must Stack Up to Bestsellers

The only thing that’s certain in book marketing is surprises. In fact, I’ve spent more than 18 years in the book marketing business as an indie author, and I am surprised all the time. Maybe not every day, but just about every single week something happens that leaves my jaw on the floor.

And book marketing surprises come in all shapes and sizes, but the biggest ones for me have to do with which books do—and don’t—become bestsellers.

Some books that you’d swear are a sure thing, never take off. Others that publish on a wing and a prayer, end up being cult favorites.

And although there’s no formula that guarantees a bestseller, there are some things that every indie author must really nail if they’re going to be successful. Because if your book doesn’t stack up in 5 key areas, no matter how much effort and time you put into your book marketing, that train just won’t ever leave the station.

So if you haven’t published your book yet, pay close attention.

And, for those of you that have already published and are wondering why your book isn’t performing well, it will be okay. Quite frankly, one of the best things about being an indie author is that you get another chance. It’s like the movie Groundhog Day. You learn from your mistakes (or lack of success) and you get to do it better with the next book.

With that in mind, here is the ultimate checklist that every book should measure up to!

Is your book cover movie poster worthy?

According to AuthorEarnings.com audiobooks, eBook and 43% of all print books were purchased online in 2016.

And ultimately, with mobile devices really taking over, this means that your target audience is viewing and deciding whether or not to buy your book based on a tiny, thumbnail version online.

So your cover needs to be powerful. The title needs to be bold and clear. And overall, it must reflect your genre and speak to what your readers like. And while it shouldn’t be identical to other book covers, you should take some time to explore the typical characteristics of bestselling books in your genre. Make a list of what all these covers have in common, and then compare your cover to the list.

Then assess your cover design in thumbnail size. Because even if your book cover stacks up to others in the genre, even if you have utterly fallen in love with your book cover, if you can’t tell what it is in a 1” square, then it’s not going to get people’s attention online.

If it stacks up, great! If not, back to the drawing board with a professional cover designer. And they really should be professional cover designers, not your best friend who sometimes designs business cards.

Is Your Title Irresistible?

Sure, your title might be good, but in today’s market, you need a killer subtitle too.

As indie authors, we are lucky in that we get to play around with subtitles. You should aim for something that really sells your book.

Because a super-descriptive subtitle can open doors for you, and you can put your elevator pitch right there at the top of the page! Non-fiction books often already use this feature, but fiction authors can really use this more!  Check out these examples:

Does your description leave them wanting more?

If you’ve written non-fiction, your description must solve a problem. It must succinctly express why your approach is unique. Finally, it should include bullets that draw a potential buyer’s eye to the strongest features and selling points.

If you’ve written fiction, your description shouldn’t be a summary or a play-by-play. Instead, it should read like a movie trailer. So if your book description doesn’t touch on the most exciting or entertaining aspects of your story line without revealing too much, try again. Imagine you’re pitching the next blockbuster to movie executive in 250 words or less! It may take lots of revisions to distill your book to its core message and cliffhangers, so don’t give up if you don’t love it. Take a step back, a few days off, and revisit it again.

Have you used smart keywords and super targeted categories?

Keywords belong everywhere.

You can read more here about keywords, but I’ll distill it down to this: effective keywords mimic what buyers use to find books. So they won’t be single words. If you think of Amazon as a search engine, which it is, then this will make more sense. So think about how you search for things on Google, and use that to extrapolate keywords. You can read more here about how to research keywords, because there’s a lot of strategy here.

Bottom line: A shopper on Amazon isn’t going to search for “mystery.” They’re going to search for “murder mysteries crime thriller series,” so you’ll want to use searches like this as a jumping off point for your keywords.

And, your keywords will change with the seasons and the news cycle, so you’ll want to revisit your keywords several times a year.

As far as categories go, drill down as far as your genre allows, which can be quite deep, to get as specific categories as you can for your book.  And the more competition there is for your genre, the more specific you’ll want your categories to be. In fact, I recently learned that you can have up to ten categories (not just the two most people know about), and you can read more on my strategy for deciding categories here.

Do you have book reviews that prove you’re a sure thing?

Amazon’s algorithm is designed to take notice of books that are getting purchased AND reviewed. Basically anytime someone posts a review to your book page, it triggers your algorithm.

So be sure you have a solid book marketing strategy to remind people to review when you launch, and at regular intervals through other channels like email or social media for the life of your book.

And, be sure to include a letter at the back of your book reminding readers to review. Reviews are notoriously hard to get, but honest reviews are gold, and you should capitalize on every opportunity you have to ask people to leave you a review with their thoughts on your book.

Ultimately, people like what other people like, so when an Amazon shopper sees a bunch of good reviews for your book, they don’t have to think as critically about buying. So never stop, there’s no such thing as too many reviews.

And I’ll tell you, the less thinking a buyer has to do, the easier it is to make the sale.

The Bottom Line

Not every book will be a bestseller, and in fact, breakaway bestsellers are rare in our marketplace today. But you can have a very successful book. And to do so, you’ll need a really fantastic, easy to read cover, a subtitle that sells, a description that proves you stand out from the competition, smart keywords and categories, and a boatload of reviews. So how does your book stack up?


Penny Sansevieri, CEO and founder of Author Marketing Experts, Inc. (AME) and Adjunct Professor at NYU, is a best-selling author and internationally recognized book marketing and media relations expert. Her company is one of the leaders in the publishing industry and has developed some of the most cutting-edge book marketing campaigns.