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)
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.
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.
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.
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.