I hear a lament from friends and acquaintances who’ve self-published a novel — that no matter how hard they try, they can’t seem to make any decent amount of sales. This phenomenon sometimes applies to authors published through small- and mid-sized presses, too, when authors play a larger role in moving product on the market than they do with large-press projects.

Let’s begin with five significant points:

  • Roughly half of all self-published authors will make less than $500.
  • Despite a few high-profile success stories, self-published authors still face significant perception barriers and often trade significant writing time for marketing time.
  • Half of all books published thorough self publishing and small-press publishing move fewer than 100 copies over the book’s lifecycle.
  • Certain genres sell well (romance, 170% of average) while others perform poorly (literary fiction, 20% of average).
  • More than a million active titles enter the market each year.

So what does this mean?

Remember the cardinal rule of book sales: Books don’t sell themselves.

Whether you’re self-published and need guidance or have been published by a small- or mid-sized press, take comfort in knowing that some strategies — while they’re not guaranteed to sell you even one additional book — have, on balance, proved helpful to other authors looking to grow their sales.

  1. Fine-tune your author platform. Do you have an established author’s blog with its own domain name, a dedicated mailing list, a dedicated Facebook fan page, a Goodreads author page and an author-branded Twitter account? No? Start there. If you already have these assets in place, then optimize them. A few basic principles:
    1. Post frequently.
    2. Engage with your audience.
    3. Observe the old 60/30/10 rule — 60 percent of content should be new value-add, 30 percent should promote the value-added work of others, and just 10 percent should focus on hard sales.
    4. Don’t use your platform as a mechanism for shouting at people to buy your book.
    5. Avoid posting non-literary material (e.g., politics, religion) to your author website. Focus on the craft of writing; don’t give people a reason to dismiss you before they’ve even encountered your material.
  2. Go places to sell your book. Find author events or community events where authors will show up with a table. Remember, books don’t sell themselves. If you’re self-published, you’ll find you can move a few copies (one to ten, if you’re lucky) at local author events. If you’ve partnered with a small press, then the press may or may not attend these events, but if they do, you’d be well-advised to attend. Casual book purchasers enjoy the chance to talk to authors and to get a book inscribed.
  3. Master the art of the hand-sell. Selling books isn’t easy. Just sitting behind a desk and waiting for sales doesn’t help. Stand up, greet people, be prepared with your elevator speech and don’t blather on and on, boring the potential purchaser. There’s an art to retail; you must persuade people to buy your book. You rarely make sales just by showing up.
  4. Invest in the tools to complete seller transactions. There’s not much excuse to not be equipped with the ability to accept credit cards (try Square!) and to make change. Bring a cash box and a card-swipe reader. Consider bringing a receipt book in the off case a person wants a receipt. And don’t forget to check whether you need a sales-tax license — if you do, you’ll need to display it at your table.
  5. Seek distribution in indie bookstores. Some indie booksellers welcome the chance to offer books on consignment. If you’re self-published, try it. (If you’ve partnered with a small press, distribution is the publisher’s responsibility.)
  6. Write what people are reading. Don’t expect to sell books in genres that aren’t already doing well in the open market. Authors love to write and then they expect that people will want to read exactly what they’re writing. Not necessarily true. Particularly with niche genres and fusion genres, if people can’t really figure it out, most people will take a pass on buying it. So if you want to do some sort of creative mash-up of genres or plots — think again. You’re almost guaranteeing retail failure. Genres are standard for a reason; you deviate from it at your financial peril.

We at Caffeinated Press have been paying respect to the slogan that “it’s easy to publish a book but damned difficult to sell one.” As an author of a self-published or small-press-published book, a big chunk of marketing falls to you. Simply placing the title on Amazon and putting a sales link on a static website isn’t enough. You must market the book and you must market your persona as an author. That process takes time and the return-on-investment is low.

And there’s no “one weird trick” to getting commercial success as an author, either. It’s a ton of luck leavened by two tons of in-the-trenches marketing and sales work.

Why Isn’t My Book Selling?
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