Saturday, March 2, 2013

Six Tips to Bring Your Book Back from the Doldrums - Reading the Reader Tea Leaves


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 always tough to receive these emails, because I know behind the email is an author who’s feeling disappointed, or possibly depressed 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. 

Some of the authors who contact me are considering throwing in the towel.  I always try to respond with some feedback that might set them on the right course, often by encouraging them to study the best practices of their fellow authors, as I chronicle in The Smashwords Book Marketing Guide and The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success. Sometimes my feedback is well-received, and other times they’re offended when I share opinions they don’t want to hear.

The cold hard truth of the matter – which we advertise front and center in our account registration emails, the FAQ, the about us page, and in my free ebooks about e-publishing  – is that most books don’t sell well.  Period.

In my RT Booklovers presentation last year, I shared some charts on the sales distribution curve.  One such chart is at left (slide 16), and it’s the friendliest, most sugar-coated of the charts.

Book sales tend to conform to what’s known as a power curve.  There are a very small number of books that breakout big, as shown on the left side of the chart, then there’s a middle area where a bunch of authors are doing reasonably well, and then there’s the long tail that stretches out a mile beyond the right perimeter of the chart.  Most books land in the long tail.  They might sell a few copies here and there, or sell none at all.

Your mission as author/publisher, should you decide to accept it, is to take the necessary steps to move your book’s performance up to the left side of the power curve.

In the traditional world of print publishing and brick and mortar distribution, you had only one shot.  If your book didn’t take off immediately, stores would pack up your book and ship it back to the publisher for a full refund.  Stores effectively forced your book out of print before it had time to find its audience.  Stores had no choice – they were hamstrung by limited and expensive physical shelf space, and they needed to make room for the flood of incoming, potentially more-promising books on the way.

In the new world of self-published ebooks and democratized ebook distribution, the virtual shelf space is unlimited.  Even if your book sells zero copies per year, the retailer will still happily list it.  This means your book is immortal.  If you don’t get the formula correct, right out of the gate, you always have another day, another month, or another year to improve your book so it can start selling.

This is the topic of this blog post.  I’m going to share six tips on how to take a fresh, honest look at your book and evaluate what you might do to improve your results.  Most of my tips help you discern what it is about your book that's preventing readers from connecting with it.  I should note that many of these tips below apply to authors with free books too, because there are many books that get very few downloads.

Six Makeover Tips:  How to Bring a Book Back from the Doldrums

Makeover Tip #1 – Look at your reviews at Smashwords, Apple, B&N and Amazon.  Ignore the reviews from friends and family, they don’t count.  Average them up.  How many stars are you getting out of five?

Reviews of Never Too Far by
Abbi Glines (Apple iBookstore)
Today, when I look at the top 20 bestsellers at the Apple iBookstore, they’re averaging 4 stars.  On other random days I’ve done this test, they averaged 4.5.  The #1 bestselling book today at Apple is Never Too Far by Abbi Glines (distributed by Smashwords), and it averages 4.5 stars.  Some of the representative comments are, “loved this book,” “Amazing,” “couldn’t put it down,” “couldn’t stop reading,” “such a wonderful story,” “cannot wait for book 3!” and, “this book hasn’t been out 24 hours and yet I read it twice already.”  If you want to be a bestseller, good or good enough is not good enough. 

You need to WOW your reader.  It doesn’t matter if you write romance, mystery or non-fiction, if your book doesn’t move the reader to an emotional extreme, your job isn’t done.  Take the case of my novel, Boob Tube.  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.  Our sales range from 20 to 40 copies a month.  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 well and you don’t have reviews, I’d set the price to free, at least for a limited time.  What do you have to lose?  Readers aren’t finding you anyway.  That’s the decision we came to with Boob Tube.  For the first two years (2008-2009), Boob Tube sold maybe 20 copies.  It had only one or two reviews.  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.

Makeover 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).  Read the interview with R.L. here.
When she upgraded her cover images, her books immediately took off and hit the N.Y. Times bestseller list.  Great reviews plus 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.  Does your cover make a promise?

Here’s a quick test, and a challenge:  If you were to strip away the title and author name, does the 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, etc].”

Is the cover image professional?  Does it look as good or better than the top-10 sellers in your category or genre?  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, of course it’s not, but the reader doesn’t know.  Because the image isn’t resonating with the right promise, we’re probably chasing away readers who would otherwise be drawn to the story.

Makeover 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.  For readers who could afford it, the high price can makes the book less desirable when there are alternative books of equal quality at less cost.  Last year, when we conducted a comprehensive study of the impact of price on unit downloads and gross sales, we found that lower prices moved more unit sales than higher prices (no surprise there).  We found $1.99 and below underperformed in terms of gross sales (unit sales * price).  We found books priced at $2.99 earned slightly more than books priced over $10.00, yet enjoyed six times as many unit sales.

Dollars in your pocket are nice, 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, experiment with a lower price and see what impact it has.  There’s one other potential advantage of lower prices:  if the reader feels they received a great read for the price, they may be more likely to give you a positive review, and a positive reviews will lead to more readers.

Makeover tip #4 – Look at your sampling to sales conversion ratio.  The Smashwords store has a little-known feature I think is entirely unique in the ebook retailing world:  We tell you how many partial samples were downloaded.  If you click to your Dashboard, you’ll see a column for book sales and a column for downloads.  The download count is a crude metric, but if you understand how it works, you’ll be able to use it as a relatively good tool.  This data is only for sales and downloads in the Smashwords store.

The download data includes both sample downloads and full book downloads for purchased books.  If a customer or sampler downloads in multiple formats (such as epub and mobi), or downloads multiple times, each time will tick the download count higher.  To make the data cleaner, subtract your paid sales from the download count.  Divide your sales at Smashwords.com by the number of downloads.  This will tell you, roughly, what percentage of downloaders actually purchase your book.

When I do the numbers on my priced book, The 10-Minute PR Checklist, I find that approximately 13% of sample downloads lead to sale.  That’s pretty good.  When we last ran the average numbers a couple years ago, we found that site-wide, about 1 in 50 sample downloads led to sale, but when we looked only at books that had actually sold, the number was closer to 1 in 25 (about 4%).  I’ve seen multiple recent bestsellers at Smashwords where the conversion ratio is 50%.  That’s amazing!  Use these numbers as rough guides.  If you have multiple books at Smashwords, you can see how the numbers compare across your list.  Compare with your friends.  If you’ve had 150 sample downloads and zero sales, such as in my Tip 6 example below, it’s fair to say readers are sending you a message.

Makeover Tip #5 – Are you targeting the right audience?  As a writer, you’re never going to satisfy every reader.  That’s okay.  Don’t try.  Readers who love horror novels may not love romance.  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 fail to attract the right readers.  Instead, you’ll attract the wrong reader, and the wrong reader will give you poor reviews.  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. 

As a result, we disappointed her, and received 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.  So take a fresh look at your description, cover, categorization and marketing and make sure you’re targeting the right reader.  Avoid the temptation to target a broader-than-necessary market.

Makeover Tip #6 – Pride goes before the fall.  It’s tough being a writer.  You pour your heart and soul into your words, and then lay your words bare before the world to judge.  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. 

Over at Amazon, where I have the most reviews, I received this about Boob Tube:
“A total waste of my time. As another reviewer said, the best part was when I decided to stop reading it! If I could give it a minus star, I would.” 
OUCH!  Nothing’s worse than when the reader hates the book so much they don’t even finish it, and then they leave a review like that just to drive the knife deeper.  What if the book got better later?  What if everything started making sense on the next page?  Readers are a fickle bunch. 

To press forward as a writer, 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 find your inspiration about where you might improve from the negative reviews.  I try to learn something from every review, even if I don’t agree with it.  Some writers, after receiving such scathing criticism, might feel inclined to curl up in a fetal position, unpublish their books, and give up.  Never give up!

The opposite response to reader feedback, however, can be equally destructive, and that’s to let pride leave you deaf and dumb to the bread crumb clues your readers are giving you.  If you want to be a successful writer, you have to be willing to listen to the judgment of readers.  Your readers, through their word of mouth, will determine how many other readers you reach.

I think the chat transcript below serves as a good case study in pride (in fact, it was the spark that led me to write this blog post).  The author contacted me on my personal Facebook page.  As much as I try to separate my personal life from my private life - and I discourage Smashwords inquiries over my personal page - at Facebook it’s difficult to divorce the two without coming across as a rude ogre.  If someone messages me, I try to respond.  I omitted his name, country and other details to protect his identity.  I made minor edits for typo fixes or clarity.  Warning: There's not a happy ending.

Author: Hey Mark.  Good evening

MC:  hi there

Author: I have published 3 books on Smashwords around a year back.  But I haven't been paid a penny since then as [Smashwords] claims that there have been no sales of my book.  Same is the case with Createspace where I have published 5 books since last two years and same with KDP where I published 6 books since last two years.

MC:  Sign in to your Smashwords account, click to the Dashboard, then click to the Sales and Payments report, then click to the different years. You've got sales but you haven’t reached the payment threshold of $10.

Author:  Since American Government is behind my ass as they are working on my brains and spiritual development for last 15 years, I suspect they have hacked into my accounts everywhere.  I live in [country omitted] but have briefly worked in US with [employer omitted] and then In England for [employer omitted] for [X] years

MC:  No. That's not happening. Take a look at my two free ebooks, The Smashwords Book Marketing Guide, and The Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success. You'll learn what the bestselling authors are doing. It's tough to sell books, so you're not alone. Also check out the FAQ to learn how to take fullest advantage of the Smashwords platform, and if you have additional questions, please contact our support team via the "Comments/questions" link.

Author: If you go to Amazon.co.uk and just search on [name omitted] the auto search features lists my name on top still I have zero sales. Is it possible ???  On amazon.es and amazon.it if you search on [category omitted], my four to five books are in top 20 out of some 200 books still I have zero sales for last two years.  I am an MBA from [country omitted]'s top business school.

MC:  Completely. Just looked at your books at Smashwords. You're not allowing sampling. That will almost guarantee no sales. Also, your books are only 3,000 words. The bestselling books are over 80,000. If you think Amazon is underreporting your sales, buy your own book there and see if they report it to you. Sorry I don't have better news for you, but readers are not responding to your books. My two free books might help you. Good luck.

Author: My books are a collection of [category omitted] so word count is not a factor for their being bestselling or not.  I purposely stopped sampling as in first four months of my book’s launch on Smashwords there were around 150 downloads of my books but no purchase.

MC:  Alright, so you need to take that as a message from readers that your book didn't meet their needs. Cutting off sampling only guarantees no chance of sales, because people rarely buy sight-unseen.

Author: which I failed to fathom

MC:  This stuff is covered in my books [and on the Smashwords site].

Author: Also on [country omitted] retailers ( Online ) every 15 days my books go out of stock How would you justify that with zero sales worldwide.

MC:  I can't answer that. We don't do print books. But if you're looking for a conspiracy, I think you're barking up the wrong tree. You should address the stocking question to the retailer, or to your print provider.

Author: First of all don't take this as an offence, i am neither barking , Just seeking help from someone who I thought would be considerate to my plight. As it turned out it is not the case. Goodbye

The author then unpublished his three books at Smashwords.  I was sorry to see that.  His decision only seals his fate. 

Conclusion


If you never give up, you never fail.  As long as you remain open to listening to what your readers are telling you, as conveyed through their action, inaction and reviews, you’ll be more likely to learn how to grow as a writer and publisher.

75 comments:

Serban V.C. Enache said...

Inspirational post, Mr. Coker. It's very important not to give up, and not to throw blame in another's yard. More often than not, we lie to ourselves; we are the biggest liars, and refuse to accept that truth and start improving our work and ourselves. An error doesn't become a mistake, until one refuses to correct it.
As a wise man said, to retreat is hell.

For the Read an Ebook week: A Stage For Traitors is Free to download: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/278377

Russell Blake said...

As a guy who sells 15-20K novels a month at Amazon, I can tell you that covers are almost as important as the book itself. I've changed mine twice now across the line, and will probably do so again, once every year and a half or so. But another element too many authors fail to get right is the product description. Less is more. Hit the high notes. Pretend you're trying to tell a perfect stranger in an elevator what your book is about and why it's a must read in 10-15 seconds. That's three to four sentences, max. About 80% of the books I've seen online fail that simple elevator pitch test, and don't get me to read further - if the author can't interest me with a product description, he likely can't interest me with his writing.

Book selling is a very difficult, highly competitive business. Always has been.

I don't know where the idea arose that it's anything but. I suspect from the media sensationalizing a few indie outliers, making it seem that it was as easy as falling off a log.

Nope.

If you're looking for easy money, this ain't the road to go down.

HayleySarah said...

Thanks for this blog post, as a self published author I am always trying to find new ways to get my book noticed and insights into the whole marketplace! I found this blog post really helpful, thanks again
Hayley

http://www.amazon.com/Wallflower-ebook/dp/B0075R4S6I/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1362301036&sr=8-1&keywords=hayley+howard+wallflower

Charles E. Wells said...

Well Mark.. I followed your advice late last year.. if you have more than three books in a series, make book 1 FREE.. I did this with my Whispering Pines Mystery series.. it took about six months to catch on so (as you preach) stick with it. Book 1 is taking off at Barnes and Sony.. in fact I do more sales (plus free) from Barnes in one month than a year at Amazon.. (which doesn't allow free)..

My entire point.. your preaching is on the money.. maybe not always time accurate.. but on the money at the end.. thanks so much for that advice back then.

Charles Wells
https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/ChasW

Maggie West said...

As always, Mark, you hit the mark(s) with this post. I, for one, would like to thank you for all that you do.

Russell, great line: "If you're looking for easy money, this ain't the road to go down."

Nathalie Goldston said...

As you suggested when I met you in Wichita, Kansas in 2011, I put my debut novel up for free the first month. My downloads almost reached 400 in that time. Then I put a price on it and downloads/sales dropped to a trickle. So, after several months I decided to make it free again. My downloads took off and are currently 2,252. I have 23 five star reviews on Smashwords. More than half are from people I don't know. At Barnes and Noble I have 12 reviews, six, 5-star, four, 4-star and two, 1-star. Since I've never done this before, I didn't know how to gadge my success or lack there of. You blog helped me but my book is free and there is the issue of numerous downloads from one person. Is it fair to say my story is doing well?

Jeanie Clemmens said...

Thanks for an honest assessment and your candor. Jeanie Clemmens

Redameter said...

I've been with Smashwords.com a while now, several years and I have seen my start out as suggested in the article and over time get better. It was not over night. Patience can be a huge key to making it in this business and if you don't have any, there's a problem. But I too have changed coves often. In fact, one book I had a lot of readers screamed that they hated the cover, but loved the book. I'm like, REALLY. So I got wised up and changed the darn cover. Sometimes we are in love with a cover and our readers are wondering what planet we fell off. I use sampling on mine, offer freebies all the time, lower all my mainstream novels to 2.99. Bought traffic and even re-wrote a couple. I'm not above trying anything. Good article but I know there are some who won't do all this and I wonder why? Oh well, to each his own.

Henry Jordan said...

great tips.... thanks for sharing.

the-equation-book

Trekelny said...

The ancient-history-teacher perspective- I've been at it nearly five years and don't consider that very long to be in the vocation of my remaining life. These wonderful tips about how to SELL should not overcome the chief value, to me, which is that being able to REACH the market at all connects to my self-esteem to be writing. Print agents and publishers cannot stop you. It's all success from here, just a question of how much. If you have faith in your own work, and always try to make it amazing, it's only a matter of time.

HOC said...

Well, I'm certainly feeling better about my "few sales a day" than I was before. Above average! Woo!

caseyjp4 said...

Excellent advice. My own creation, just published very recently has sold copies at the 2.99 mark without any marketing whatsoever at this point, so I'm happy.

The "no marketing" is due to my waiting until the novel actually shows up in the various re-sellers' catalogs, which takes a couple weeks, and I'd rather wait until people can actually FIND the title...which also gives me time to fine tune just HOW I want to market the book.

Thank you from a long time writer, now published selling author for all that you're doing...as WHAT you're doing has allowed me to skip the traditional mess of just hoping to be published, to simply getting the work out there.

C.J. Peter

HOC said...

Also - apologies for my slight statistical pedantry - isn't the median just a separator for the two halves of your distribution? I thought the modal value was the most likely outcome... Although the two can come out as the same value, of course.

Bert said...

Thank you for the ideas Mr. Coker. I've followed your tips by making Even The Grass Bleeds free and I believe it is leading to a few sales of The Last Romanov.

Can I apply the conversion ratio for different books? Because in this case, the ratio is about 1% based on my estimate. I hope to reach an ideal 50% conversion ratio in the future.

Mark Coker said...

Hi HOC, no apology needed! Yes, your definition of median is pretty good. An equal number events happen to the left as to the right. If my image was drawn correctly and included the entire universe of millions of books, the median would be about a half mile out to the right.

I think your definition of mode is technically correct, but I didn't include it because I don't think it would yield a meaningful insight.

When I include this chart in my talks, the main point I try to make is that the word "average" can be misleading, because "average" can overstate the typical experience of most authors, which would probably be closer to the median. The other key insight is to note how quickly sales ramp as you move to the left in sales rank. For example, a #1 bestseller at a retailer might move 2,000 copies a day, or more, but the number 10 bestseller might move 500, and number 20 might move 150, and #40 might move 100, or whatever. It drops off pretty quickly.

georgi said...

I have 3 books published with Smashwords and receive a couple hundred dollars each quarter for pocket money. I also have them in paper books and i actually sell more paper books than ebooks. You always speak of the prices that should be set for an ebook, which is fine and i understand that, but i've never heard you speak to the fact that some of us publish in both formats, and that paper books cost a lot more money to produce so we have to charge a lot more. For instance - two of my ebooks are 6.99 and in paper, they are 14.00 and 16.00. I make about 1.75 on royalties from the paper books when they are sold through regular channels (more when i sell them myself). Sometimes i think about lowering the ebook prices but how can i justify the huge difference to my readers? Say 3.00 for an ebook compared to 18.00 for paper - that's a huge difference. I can't lower my paper book price and it outsells my ebook by about 3 to 1.

HOC said...

That's fascinating. I had no idea there was such a gap between #1 and #10 bestsellers. Does that happen across all categories and in all outlets? And does that pattern still apply when you strip the 'hype' books off the top (e.g. 50 Shades, which even people who only occasionally read will pick up because everyone else is doing it/talking about it)?

Pam Stucky said...

Great post, thank you. I'm days away from the third book in my series going live, after which I'm seriously going to look at what I can do about the book covers. I've long suspected they're part of my problem, and the comment that "if you're averaging more than 4 stars and still not getting sales, look at your book covers" rings true.

Along those lines, if anyone knows someone who can design AMAZING book covers for a relatively small fee, let me know! I don't mean someone who can make just okay book covers. The ones I did are perfectly fine. If I'm going to change them I want BRILLIANT.

Good luck on sales, everyone! Persevere!

http://www.pamstucky.com

Mark Coker said...

HOC, yes, that happens everywhere. The numbers are different everywhere, but the general behavior of the numbers (where a #1 could be 5-20X more popular than the the #10 or #20) play out everywhere. It's the power curve. It's why the curve is so steep. Every incremental improved in sales rank as you move to the left usually has an outsize impact on unit sales, and the impact is the greatest as you start traversing up the top 100.

Alianne said...

I never ever miss one of your blog posts because every time I read one, I learn so much! Your tips are practical and useful, and I always pass them on to everyone I know who writes and wants to publish.

I especially like that you tell people a big part of success is luck. My most recent book is a first in the series. I published it yesterday, just when Smashwords began the Read An EBook Week promotion and I enrolled my book immediately. I am seeing a great (for me, anyway) response already and am so happy the timing worked out this way.

Thank you for everything you do, and for every tip and piece of advice you share.

--Alianne Donnelly

vickiejohnstone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
vickiejohnstone said...

Cool post. Thanks :) I've published 12 books since the start of 2011, most of which are for children or full of poetry. Marketing is hard and it's very difficult at times to keep the momentum going when your books don't sell. But we all love writing, so I think most of us are here to stay... I hope :)

AlexS said...

I have also noticed that different stories of mine sell very differently at the different outlets. For instance, two books are doing very well at Barnes and Noble, yet two different stories sell for me on Amazon. I think this is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy; once a book starts selling, it appears on the 'other readers bought this' type of lists, and therefore gets to the attention of even more readers. If only I knew how how to get the sales started off!

akismet-4363466808a69c3fbb070d60fc2f895b said...

I enjoyed not only reading this post but also the comments, which I found some very interesting ideas and tip bits. I liked the idea of changing the cover, if it's not working for you, also the books description as Russell Blake mentioned. I'd like to know why barns and noble get more customer reviews than amazon. strange one that, perhaps someone can enlighten me the answer might be important.

Carol said...

Thanks for this post--and all your efforts in the publishing world.

Joe Konrath said...

Great advice, and a very funny back and forth with the clueless author.

I'd add another to your list of five: Write lots of books.

That's tough to do when you are running your own big company. But if you truly want Boob Tube sales to take off, you need to write 20 more novels.

That goes for everyone. Keep writing great books until you can't be ignored. Until every search links to you somehow. Until readers see your covers so often they finally buy one to see what all the fuss is about.

This is a marathon, not a sprint. Don't give up because you are in last place after the first 200 yards. Ebooks are forever. That's a long time to find your audience.

Mark Coker said...

@Russell. So true.

@Charles, great to hear of your success!

@Nathalie, sounds like you're off to a good start with reviews, though if the book didn't sell after it had a price, there's probably something holding you back. I'd take a fresh look at the cover, since it's the first impression you make on a prospective reader, and it's one of the easiest things to change (other than price or book description). I think you write Mystery, so here's an exercise. Take a look at the bestselling mysteries at B&N or Amazon, and study the cover images. Compare them to your own. Imagine how your cover would need to look to fit in (and stand above) those you see on the bestseller list. Imagine what visual element(s) you'd want on your cover that connect with your story, and would appeal to readers. Here's a link to bestselling mysteries at B&N: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/s?view=grid&dref=2425&store=ebook&SZE=10&SRT=sa

Mark Coker said...

@redameter - it's true. We fall in love with our baby and can have trouble seeing it's flaws. Great to hear that you're getting traction by remaining nimble, flexible and experimental.

@Trekelny - thanks for that comment. Yes, the freedom to publish and to get a fair chance is often reward in itself.

@HOC - whenever I see a book that's selling two or three copies a day like clockwork, I'm thinking, "there's a book with potential." It usually means there's a good story there. It tells me that with further tweaks, this book has more potential than most to start climbing the curve.

@casey - all the time I see titles take off without marketing. If it's a great book, it only takes a few readers to start the word of mouth. Each day, millions of readers are browsing the virtual bookselves at Smashwords retailers, and they're seeing Smashwords books alongside a million others. Most sales, especially at first, will be from such serendipitous discovery. Think about how you can stand out on that shelf.

@georgi - It's unusual that an indie paper would would outsell the ebook format by 3:1. I wonder if there's something about paper that makes it a preferential format for your material? I think readers understand that the production and distribution cost for paper is a lot higher than the cost for ebook production and distribution. It might be interesting to experiment, if even for a short time, with a lower ebook price and see what happens. If you're writing fiction, it might make a big difference.

@AlexS - yes, I see that all the time, and I wrote about that phenomena in my SECRETS ebook. Books often break out at different retailers at different times, and often for reasons you can't identify. Sometimes it's luck. If there's a online reading group of 20 people, and they all buy your book at the same time at the same retailer, that can give an immediate boost to your sales rank and the "also bought" algorithms, and then if you have a great cover, great price, and an awesome book underneath, the increased visibility can become self-perpetuating. 20 quick sales can put you in the top 40 of some genre lists at the retailers. Often, it's just a matter of getting that spark.

@Joe. Good advice. Write more books. Yeah, if I could write more novels, or write a sequel, I think we could do a lot more with it. I don't see more novels in my immediate future. Since I started Smashwords, it has consumed every waking and sleeping moment, and Boob Tube has become the forgotten, neglected child. Lesleyann and I have been talking lately about turning a future vacation into a writing retreat so we can do a revision.

georgi said...

Mark's quote, "@georgi - It's unusual that an indie paper would would outsell the ebook format by 3:1. I wonder if there's something about paper that makes it a preferential format for your material? I think readers understand that the production and distribution cost for paper is a lot higher than the cost for ebook production and distribution. It might be interesting to experiment, if even for a short time, with a lower ebook price and see what happens. If you're writing fiction, it might make a big difference."

Yes, I write humorous stories about my parrot, Pickles, and i promote the books through Pickles' Facebook page. People know that if they buy straight from me (paperbook) they get it autographed by me and also by Pickles who signs the page by punching a hole with his beak. They also get one of his discarded feathers taped to the page. Of course, this can't be done with an ebook. :-) Thanks for your response, Mark.

Anne Russell said...

I have enrolled for read an ebook week, blogged the links, posted an ad on Book Barista, and joined the proboards forum for smashwords authors. As my book was a Nanowrimo winner, I posted there too. Delighted to say that my book is being downloaded. I love to talk about writing and marketing is great fun. And that is just for starters. Thanks Smashwords for a great place to send a book into (virtual) space!

Lili Marlene said...

Your advice is well-noted, Mr Coker, but I suspect that it might not be applicable to non-fiction books. I don't write fiction and I rarely read fiction, and it is a bit of an annoyance to me that so much of the advice, promotional events and writing about writing and publishing seems to be about fiction.

Is there any specific advice that you would give to authors of non-fiction, or is it all the same across the board?

Lili Marlene said...

I'd like to make another comment if I may, about book covers. I'm not sure that I have any idea what makes one book cover better than another. I understand your point that the cover should be appropriate for the book genre, but I'm not sure how to put that idea into practice.

I could give many examples of non-fiction book covers from successful paper publishers that I think look amateur and terrible, but it didn't stop be from buying them. I honestly doubt that a book cover is as important for non-fiction as it is for fiction.

One interesting way to choose a book cover is to run a public online poll asking potential readers to vote for their favourite book cover among choices. This is how the book Incognito by Dr David Eagleman got its cover.

Mark Coker said...

Hi Lili, I think the principles are mostly the same for non-fiction. In the end, whether you publish NF or F, you're producing and packaging a product. You want to connect the product with your target customers. The promise and professionalism your convey through a professional, well-designed cover image will make your book more appealing and desireable to your target market. It will get you that much closer to a click. Whereas fiction is more entertainment driven (though not always!), the desires of NF readers are possibly more complex and diverse, and specific to the subject matter. People often read NF for knowledge, or to identify a solution to a problem. But NF is also often for pleasure reading. It's all about your book. Your book promises to offer the reader something. You need to identify what that something is and then create packaging, pricing, titling, book content, book description and marketing that helps create the most frictionless path for your readers to discover, sample and purchase. So bottom line, same challenges as with fiction or any other packaged product seeking to fulfill a consumer desire. Good luck!

martinlakewriting said...

This was a great post, Mark. I think you're to point out how difficult it is to sell while at the same time pointing out that time is a friend of epublished books. Not a sprint like traditional publishing but a very long marathon.

I know I'll never get rich from writing but I began to despair that I would ever get published. Now I am continually delighted to think that people all around the world are buying my books.

Martin Lake

writesaidpete.blogspot.co.uk said...

Without ever having published, or properly considered being published, this has left me feeling hopeful and positive as a young novice writer.
What you say is clearly realistic, un-sugar coated and honest - I will allocate some of my best seller millions back to you if I ever pull it off.
If I don't, I'll be a poor man with my eyes wide open, i.e. better off than most!

Rory Macbeth said...

thanks, Mark,
I was looking for tip 6---?? since it had to do with sampling and sale percentages, and readers sending you a message--
I keep getting these messages--loud and clear, it seems--since I have almost nil smashw sales--and many samples--
maybe it's my covers--
the ladies in my writing group pretty much hate my covers--
I admit I just make them up using photos of what I like--beautiful women--sorry--
bottom line--I'm very grateful for your help and the opportunity to publish

Tara Hill said...

Our sales of a small silly romance skyrocketed after some kind words in a review by the generous Ruth Ann Norton, then we started getting vicious awful reviews by "Christian" readers who were horrified by the relationship between the characters...and our sales tanked. We went from being in the top 100 romances on Amazon (I think for a nanosecond) to routinely being between over 100K in sales rank. All because someone misidentified it as "Christian" fiction which apparently has an very specific formula to follow. Then my Kobo sales tanked after a glitch in which kobo dumped my book and I lost 44 rankings. So we now sell one a day....sad story.... Love hearing from other writers!
Tara Hill

Mark Coker said...

Tara, thanks for sharing those experiences. That's a fascinating example of how positive, well-meaning word-of-mouth can backfire! It's ironic how one reader's great romance novel can become another reader's horror novel. The silver lining I see in your story is that you've earned the high sales rank and strong reviews in the past, which tells me you'll earn them again. Good luck.

Nathalie Goldston said...

Mark, I appreciate your response. I had a different cover in mind at the beginning but my pocketbook said otherwise. It is something I hope to do at a later date. I did make changes to my blurb which seemed to help. Since my last note to you, my downloads have averaged about 20-30 a day. Currently, they stand at 2400+. Much as I would love to put the book up for sale again, but for reasons I won't go into, I can't. Therefore, I am content to create a following for my next novel that I hope to have out soon. At what point, if ever, does a free book get recognition? Also, regarding Tara's comment...A negative review such as the one Tara received that scuttle her book is a subtle form of censorship. Can't something be done in cases such as this? Her book has been essentially blacklisted with no recourse. Why can't an author appeal such a review. It doesn't seem fair. I would love to know if the review was sent anonymously.

pigsquash said...

Excellent advice, Mark - especially the part about listening to readers' criticisms and complaints and negative reviews of your book(s). I once had an editor tell me (when I was balking at her suggested changes, which I thought were inane): "Even if you don't agree with an editor's change, consider it a 'red flag' alerting you to some weakness in the manuscript at that spot, something that makes the reader's eye and mind trip up. Figure out what it is and address it." Proved to be some of the best advice I ever got.

Kim Goldberg
(Nanaimo, BC)

M.T. Miles said...

Mark,

Thank you for some invaluable advice.

Ernie J. Zelinski said...

Overall, a great article. I would give it 5 stars out of 5.

But I disagree that having an average Amazon ranking of less than 4 stars can be a bad thing for a book.

Check out the Amazon review average for "Who Moved My Cheese?"
It has an average ranking of 3.3 stars. This book has sold over 10 million copies.

Also, check out the Amazon review average for "Assholes Finish First". This book has an average of 3.8 stars. It has sold over 200,000 copies.

On the other hand I can cite examples of books with an average of 4.8 stars or even 5 stars and have sold terribly.

Ernie J. Zelinski
International Best-Selling Author
"Helping Adventurous Souls Live Prosperous and Free"
Author of the Bestseller "How to Retire Happy, Wild, and Free"
(Over 175,000 copies sold and published in 9 languages)
and the International Bestseller "The Joy of Not Working'
(Over 250,000 copies sold and published in 17 languages)

Mark Coker said...

Nathalie, I don't think those bad reviews were censorship, but I would call them misplaced and unfair criticism, and intolerance. In Tara's case, as she gets more reviews and the haters are buried, she'll probably recover.

Ernie, yes, there will definitely be bestsellers lower than four stars. In my survey the other weekend, there were several 3s and 3.5s. While it's possible to have a bestseller with poor reviews, it becomes more difficult. The opportunity for all authors is to identify the myriad points of potential friction that might reduce the reader's ability to discover, sample and enjoy your book. You want to do everything you can to stack the odds in your favor.

Nathalie Goldston said...

Took your advice regarding book covers, Mark and checked out the link to other mystery writers. It seems they like to put their name all over the cover which stands to reason as they are well known. In my case, I'm just starting out so my name might not attract any attention. Then again, maybe that's the way to go.I will do further research. Thanks for responding. My downloads are now at 2520 and climbing.

Mark Coker said...

Nathalie, I'm actually a fan of large type author names on the cover because it sends the message to readers that this is a big name, a name you should know, and if you don't know this name why not because it's a big name? The key is to make sure the author name doesn't subtract from the message of the image, which is usually more important.

Nathalie Goldston said...

Mark: Thanks for responding. Regarding book covers...there must be a happy medium between the author's name in large type and the title of the book with images that relate to the story. My name would take up the entire cover. Food for thought. I will continue to research.

T said...

This article gives me some good insights, but it leaves me with a question re: Tip #1 and making your book 'free' to get more downloads and reviews... the question is this:

Even if I make the book free on smashwords, that doesn't make it free on amazon, iBooks, B&N, Diesel etc... or does it??

Thanks.

Mark Coker said...

T., if you price the book at FREE at Smashwords, the retailers in our distribution network will price it at free (Apple, B&N, Sony, Diesel, Kobo and some others). We're only distributing a small subset of our titles to Amazon, so most of our authors upload directly there. Amazon doesn't allow you to select free as price, though they will often price match to free once they see the book priced at free at other retailers.

Sharkbytes said...

Hi Mark- This was very interesting, and I was glad to see the conversion numbers. I was thinking that mine stunk, but I am actually a little better than the 1:50 ratio, so you cheered me up! Total across all platforms and titles, I'm selling over 5 books a day, so I have good hopes that if I keep on with my series I'll break through to a better level. I'm not even dreaming of best seller, but supplemental income is high on my wish list!

makavelisprince.com said...

Words of wisdom. Thanks for that. Now I just need to work out what I'm fixing first!

Glenn Thompson said...

Mark, I was hoping you could take a look at my book at www.sportofkingsbook.com and let me know if you have any ideas? The book is the 2nd top rated racing book at Amazon with 37 Reviews. 30 are 5 star and the other 7 are 4 star. Amazing reviews. Have sold 11 ebooks and 6 hard copies so far this month but feel it should be doing much better. Hoping for some good advice. I testified before congress about the book and it is a hot topic right now. My email is Daresoar@aol.com Thanks For Your Time!! Glenn Thompson

Mark Coker said...

Glenn, I see your book at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/101155 My first thought is you could use a better cover. One super-smart merchandising manager at Apple told me, after I pitched a certain Smashwords title for feature coverage, that it's dangerous to put images inside of frames like that, because once the cover is shrunk down to thumbnail size, much of the image is lost. Also, when I click on the image and blow it up, it's blurry. I'd redo the cover and bring your image out to the very edges of cover. You're writing about an interesting topic - the prevalence of cheating in horse racing, and the unconscionable excessive use of performance enhancing drugs - so your challenge, or I should say your "opportunity," is to create an image that somehow communicates "cheating in horse racing" or "cheating with drugs in horse racing" or "horse mistreatment in horse racing." Your title does a pretty good job of this. Assuming that's the key nugget that captures the interest of your target readers (and I don't know what the key nugget is - so my assumption may be completely off base), if you can communicate that in the image, then you just created that much closer of a connection between your book and your target reader. I see the image shows three healthy looking horses with three smiling jockeys. I wonder if a more moving image, such as a horse collapsed on a race track, might make the point better. Next, take a look at your categorization. I see one categorization tree is "Nonfiction » Sports & outdoor recreation » Equestrian » General". Since you're dealing with horse racing, I'd choose the "Nonfiction » Sports & outdoor recreation » Equestrian » Horse Racing" category, because that'll put you on a more appropriate shelf. The second categorization you selected is "Nonfiction » Politics and Current Affairs » Legal systems". I wonder if it might make sense to change this second one to maybe something related to animal rights. Our English language mapping to animal rights is a little funky, but you'll find it under Nonfiction: Science and Nature: Amateur naturalist: Animal rights. On a related note to categorization, for those following this thread, a metadata manager at B&N gave us some good advice the other day: Many authors try to choose general categories for their books, under the mistaken assumption that they'll reach more readers. For example, a paranormal romance author might mistakenly think that Romance: General is the best categorization, when in fact Romance: Paranormal is best because it gets them on both the paranormal shelf AND the general romance shelf. In other words, always select for the most specific and precise category as possible. Good luck!

Glenn Thompson said...

Mark thank you very much for your time and solid advice. I am going to start working on it!!
Best, Glenn

Mark Coker said...

Thanks for the interesting case example, Glenn! Fingers crossed you'll get some incremental advantage from this.

Avant Guard said...

Mark
I write under the pen name John Blandly on Smashwords--my sales are pretty dismal compared to your commenters here--I'm wondering what improvement (other than a brain transplant) could be suggested--here are a few of my books--Robot Driver
https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/272566
Abbie
https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/295270
Kiss Me, I'm Irish
https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/44699
The Volunteers
https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/25733
Robot Driver and Abbie are new to Smashwords--

Mark Coker said...

Hi John, I took a quick look. My first thought, looking at your list of books on your author page, is that you write men's erotica, yet it looks like most of these books are categorized as something else.

The covers look like self published covers, yet your competition is the covers put out by big NY publishers, and the best self-published authors (who do covers that look like they came out of NY).

You've got images of scantily clad women, and then small text added to the image. If your covers are promising erotica, yet the books don't deliver it, it means your images aren't making the right promise to the right readers.

For each of your target categories, take a look at the bestsellers at Apple, B&N and Amazon and compare your covers to theirs. You want your covers to look like they came from a big NY publisher. They do *great* covers.

Some of your books are categorized as romance. Indie romance authors do some of the best covers in the business. Take a look at the bestsellers at the retailers. I *love* the covers of Bella Andre, for example. She knows how to make a promise to her readers with the image alone.

Also take a look at the images. When I click and enlarge some of these to full size, I see many of them are blurry.

Most of your books are only a few thousand words. I see at least one under 1,000 words. When we look at the books that are the bestsellers across our retail network, longer books sell the best. 80,000 words and up for romance, and 100,000 words and up for fantasy.

Are these books getting reviewed at the retailers? If not, I'd set some prices to free so you can increase the odds of getting some readers and reader feedback.

Since John Blandly is a pen name, and it sounds like this name hasn't achieved any traction, you might consider a different pen name. "Blandly" might be making the promise of "bland," which is not what readers of any genre are looking for.

Good luck!

Rory Macbeth said...

Mark
thanks for taking the time to comment--
I guess I wasn't surprised--books looking like erotica with no erotica--yes, I need to work on the covers--no matter how much I like them--I'll work on your suggestions about my John Blandly books--

Kristen Pham said...

Thanks for your insightful post. It's so helpful to read some specific suggestions on what I can do to see if my book is at the level it needs to be to sell. I think it's time for me to rethink my cover!

Aya Walksfar said...

Mark,
It is kind of you to take time to share your insights. I truly appreciate it. I have a novella published on Smashwords (Dec 2012) and have found your advice very helpful. I will, of course, take another look at everything you have listed in this post because I am always interested in improving my sales. Again, thank you.
Aya Walksfar

Teena Stewart said...

Great post and very candid. I have traditionally published books and one self-pubbed. I am discouraged because of all the effort it takes to market and, other than selling direct to friends and a few people in person, I have yet to see a penny from my self-pubbed book. I have a great cover and have gotten good reviews. I believe I have good content. I know I need to aim more at my target audience. You've got some good suggestions here I am going to try.

Tracy Krauss said...

This is one of the best posts I've read on the topic. It is very practical with real tips on how to improve. As well, your candid disclosure from your own experiences makes this all the more valid, I think.

Avant Guard said...

In defense of John Blandly's books; no way do his covers or accompanying descriptions promise erotica. You'd have to be blind not to see the real raunchy questionable erotica posted every day. It's obvious that Blandly's books are different. His books are mostly love stories with light humor. There's no real category for them. If there is one--please shine a light to the way. The covers usually give a clue to the female main character, who is ordinarily of high character, bright, and extremely desirable. Blandly's efforts are into good quality literature, believe it or not, and the covers aren't paid for by corporate big shots. Obviously, this writer has had some excellent coffee this morning.

Vincent North said...

Y'know, I might get barbecued for even saying this, but ... I frankly think that Boob Tube needs a better title.

That title is, at best, very trite and hackneyed. It doesn't say anything to suggest what the book is actually about. A close-up picture of a woman's cleavage, after the split-second it takes to figure it out, also doesn't prompt any association with a story about the world of soap operas or of the actresses that play in them ... no matter how obsessed they might or might not be about God's two gifts.

A book about the world of soap operas sounds interesting - but a title like Boob Tube does not. Even to a normal, healthy male of the species.

Avant Guard said...

I feel bad about getting all defensive about the covers on John Blandly's books--he is repentantly working hard to get acceptable, uncontroversial covers done, so his books won't appear to be erotica--admittedly, he can't lay claim to that--but he is afraid of girls in burkas--and is fighting his incorrigible tendency to make his books more attractive, by having hot, gorgeous ladies on the covers of his books--on another front, I agree with the writer who says that "Boob Tube" needs another title--maybe--"Hot Chicks 24/7"--oh, sorry, there I go again--
but anyway, thanks Mark for this blog, and comments from writers like the guy in the biker do rag who says he sells 15-20K novels a day on Amazon--I think he's right--thanks, man

Mark Coker said...

@Vincent, it's funny you would suggest that, because in an earlier draft of this I talked about my reservations with the title. I don't disagree with you, but my challenge at the moment is that my co-author (my wife) doesn't want to change the title, so we've decided to do a revision and a new cover first. :) In daytime soap operas, breasts are a big focus of the actresses. In our research for the novel, we heard stories of how one actress on a show will get a boob job, then the other actresses on the show get bigger boob jobs to compete, and then the original actress does her's again to stay one step ahead. We refer to this as the "boob wars" where these skinny (often with eating disorders) women go overboard. It's sad and dehumanizing what these women put themselves through. Often they're under pressure from managers, agents and casting directors who treat these women like livestock. "Boob Tube" is a somewhat derogatory term for television, but it's a term that is meaningful to Americans only. In the UK, it's a form of tank top. We may yet change the title. I'm in favor of it.

Drew Lindsay said...

Well I like "Boob Tube" Mark including the cover shot but then I write the Ben Hood series and anyone who has read them knows of Ben's preferences where women are concerned! Your wife (and co-writer) likes the title so I think that issue has already been settled for the time being! I totally agree with you about having the right cover to grab people's eyeballs. I've got a couple of shocking home made covers out there because I tried to cut costs and when I compare the sales figures of those books against my others, I can see how far they are lagging behind. Everyone who reads those books say they are as good as the others (more or less) but they just don't keep up with the better covers. Thanks for your input and suggestions.

Redameter said...

HI Mark,
Well, I've just been through a re-edit my work thing, and re-do covers and re-do period. One cover I redid I can say is selling much better now. When they realize that I've done a re-edit, I think that will matter greatly. My reviews are usually 4-5 and average out, although I do get some nasty ones, I think we all do because we are self published. And some don't want us to succeed. I can prove this statement but I won't. There's no need. I just keep trying to do better, put more stuff out there and enrich what I have. It pays off eventually. If a book has been out there a while, I usually change the cover if it isn't selling like I think it should. Also series do better with a brand that people can identify with, letting them know this isn't the only book about this one thing.
We are never so good that we can't improve and can't learn. Thanks Mark. Love and blessings

Connie Loya said...

Hey there,
I just recently posted my book on Smashwords and after reading your advice I chose to set it as free. It makes perfect sense to let people see what they are getting before they purchase, but the reason I left you this comment is because you said something I have told myself for years. If you never quit trying, you cannot fail. It was refreshing to see you repeating what I have said many times over. Writing is hard and I have had many downfalls with publishing companies and literary agents who were out for themselves, so it is refreshing to find Smashwords and be able to publish my own books to become, as you say, immortal. I do not have to worry about them being ripped off the shelves after a couple of weeks because it is as you say, they have time to gain trust and we have time to make our brand known. Keep up the good work and thank you for creating Smashwords because for some, it is a writer's salvation.

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boiled down money goo guru said...

Have I found a great book cover designer, or what? Thanks, Mark. You picked well!

http://coryrichardson.wordpress.com/2013/11/07/my-favorite-book-cover-designer/

Sudhir Mittal said...

Wonderful :)

Although I am myself no different case than the fellow author in the facebook chat, but I am laughing; probably on myself too.

Indeed 'Don't give up' is the word, but I am sure that it alone won't be enough. I just started half a year before with Smashwords and have published 10 ebooks (including free ones). Sales are pathetic (near negligible). All I am doing nowadays is sacrificing my authoring zeal for the marketing zeal, though unsuccessfully yet. But I am sure one day I will make it.

God bless you all :)

Sudhir Mittal said...

Wonderful :)

Although I am myself no different case than the fellow author in the facebook chat, but I am laughing; probably on myself too.

Indeed 'Don't give up' is the word, but I am sure that it alone won't be enough. I just started half a year before with Smashwords and have published 10 ebooks (including free ones). Sales are pathetic (near negligible). All I am doing nowadays is sacrificing my authoring zeal for the marketing zeal, though unsuccessfully yet. But I am sure one day I will make it.

God bless you all :)

Ed said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ed said...

Its hard to sell books.

My Nomi Nivag books are struggling but i will persevere.

Heather Killough-Walden said...

I'm so confused. I've done everything you mentioned. And more. I always do. I made the NYT Bestseller list as an indie author. But since then, my sales have plummeted. Every month, they are fewer and farther between. The covers are gorgeous, the sales synopses are catchy, readers claim to be anxious for the books' releases. I have one up for free, I advertise, I use Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, a blog, a newsletter, giveaways, and contests. I feel as though... I'm exhausted from an endless struggle. I'm so tired. When you said "throw in the towel," you could not have been more apt in your description of what some authors are at the point of doing. Towel is in my hand... I'm turning toward the ring.
- Heather