If you follow this blog, you know I’m not a huge seller, but my earnings have certainly improved a lot since I got started in December (if I lived somewhere with more affordable housing than Seattle, I might even be making my house payment by now *g*), so I’ll take a shot at offering some advice here. I like lists, so let’s call it…
7 Reasons You’re Not Selling Many Ebooks
1. Nobody knows your ebook exists.
Obscurity. This is what we all struggle with when we’re getting started, especially if we’re coming into this without an established fan base.
I know there are a lot of you out there like me, who feel the story should sell itself, but the truth is we have to work to be found, especially in the beginning. People can’t buy your ebooks if they don’t know they exist. We have to figure out what marketing tactics we’re comfortable with and pursue them, not just for the first couple of weeks our ebook is out but for the months that follow as well.
Some things I’ve had luck with so far:
2. The writing needs work
With ebooks, people can download samples before buying, so if your writing is turning the reader off in the opening chapters, that’s going to be an automatic no for folks.
We writers tend to fall into two camps: we’re either tough critics who are never satisfied with our own work, or we’re perhaps more satisfied than we should be, and it’s a shock when we get bad reviews. I’m firmly in the former camp, so I’m not sure what goes through the minds of folks in the latter, but either way we’re not the best judges of our own writing.
For a litmus test, can you answer yes to the following questions?
- If you have multiple ebooks out, does your other work occupy the top slots in Amazon’s “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” section? (Granted, if you write in different genres, this test may not be fair, but if people aren’t going on to purchase your other stories, that can be telling.)
- Are the majority of the reviews positive? (Only those from people you don’t know count.)
- Do readers write to you to say they enjoyed your work? (Bonus points if they ask about sequels.)
If these things aren’t happening, or occurrences are infrequent at best, it may be a sign that the writing isn’t there yet. E-publishing is easy, and it’s thrilling to see all the success stories out there, but rushing to publish isn’t always a good idea.
In Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell pointed out people usually need 10,000 hours to become a true expert at something, and I’ve seen other writers say your first million words are “practice.” It’s not enough just to write a lot either — we have to seek opportunities to learn and improve. Participating in writers’ workshops, where strangers are critiquing your work (and you’re critiquing their work), is a fantastic educational opportunity. Your fellow writers are probably going to be your toughest critics, so when they start telling you your stuff is ready for publication, that’s a good sign.
3. Your cover art and blurb need work
I’m still waiting for the day when I love all my covers and my blurbs are all scintillating, but I’ll get there eventually! If you’re not sure if you’re there yet, ask for feedback from others. At the least, the blurb is easy to change.
If you don’t have a lot of funds to spend on a cover designer right now, save your pennies. I’m not sure this element is quite as important as some people suggest, but it is the potential buyer’s first impression, and you can often tell a self-published book right away based on the cover alone. If it amateurish, people might assume the writing is too.
4. Your work isn’t easily categorized
My two novels fall into this camp, and it’s a bit of a bummer. They’re fantasy, but they don’t qualify as “epic fantasy” or “steampunk” or “historical fantasy” or any other sub-category people search for. This translates to less visibility, because your ebook isn’t appearing in any Top 100 lists, and it’s not coming up when people type their favorite categories into the Amazon search box.
I don’t have an answer to help you with this one, except to suggest picking the “as close as it’s going to get” categories when you’re going through the publication wizard and then tagging your novel with popular sub-categories that maybe sort of kind of apply.
5. Too much front matter before the story starts
As I mentioned, people can and do download samples before buying ebooks. On Amazon, the sample isn’t always that long, especially on a shorter work. If you have a long dedication, a list of other works, a note to the reader, a long license statement, etc., then you may not be giving your readers enough time to get into the story.
6. Your ebook is priced too high
If you have an established fan base, you can get away with charging more for your work, but if nobody has heard of you, you’re asking the reader to take a risk. The higher the price, the most risk.
You probably don’t have to price your ebook at $0.99 (though we’ve discussed some advantages of the 99-cent price point), but many consider $2.99 fair for an unknown novelist. That lets you take advantage of the 70% royalty at Amazon and make $2 per ebook (more than most traditionally published authors will get per book or ebook).
7. You just published your first ebook.
Patience isn’t one of my personal qualities, so I can understand wanting fast results. You hope you’ll be the exception, and your books will take off right out of the gate. It doesn’t usually happen that way though. With most of the success stories we’ve looked at, the authors didn’t sell many ebooks their first six to twelve months until they reached a tipping point (there’s another Gladwell book you can look up) and sales took off.
Many of the successful ebook authors have a large body of work out there too. The more ebooks you have on the virtual shelf, the more ways there are for folks to find you.
All right, that’s seven! Thanks for reading, and I hope this posts helps those who are new to e-publishing. I still have a lot to learn myself and am crossing my fingers for future success for us all.
Update: JA Konrath (bazillionaire traditionally published author turned indie) wrote up What Works: Promo for Ebooks last week, and it’s the most useful post I’ve seen on his blog. It also makes me feel terribly unoriginal for mentioning Outliers. Ah, well. The post is definitely worth a read!