7 Reasons You’re Not Selling Many Ebooks

| Posted in Book Marketing |


improve ebook salesLet’s do a troubleshooting post today. I’ve had a few emails from new e-publishers wondering how they can sell more ebooks.

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!

Subscribe to the blog: EMAIL | RSS.

Comments (46)

4. That’s the one I suffer from.

I can see it’s handy for booksellers to be able to slot every book into a given genre, but it has nothing at all to do with quality. This mitigates against many a harmless good book.

Great post Lindsay! I yearn for the day when I’m actually totally happy with (1) my cover art (2) my blurb and (3) my writing!

I actually did not realize until I read your post that readers can downloads samples from Amazon. Good to know!

#2 is definitely where I’m at. Gotta get those 10,000 hours in!

Super encouraging post, Lindsay. Thanks!

Lexi, I don’t think you’re suffering too much! Looks like your sequel is doing well over there. πŸ™‚

Michael, I like your covers, and you’ve got good reviews, so it looks like you’re doing a lot right!

Thanks for the comment, Nicole. I know some people buy without sampling, but I sample everything unless it’s an author I know. I’m a fussy reader. *g*

Great post.

#1 trumps all others. The overall rule of sales is: “Get your book in front of a buyer that is willing to buy it.” All other reasons roll into that. For example, #2, if you get your book in front of a reader that will overlook the not-quite-1,000,000-word-experience-level of the author but is willing to pay for the book (for whatever reason: word of mouth, good cover, etc) then it’s a success. However, with every ding against the book (bad cover, tough genre, poor writing) that pool of potential buyers continues to shrink until it’s only a puddle that only includes your mother and your aunt.

@Michael: How come when I go to your page it says “Now available at Smashwords and Amazon” but none of the book covers or titles link to the sales sites? Is it my browser? If not, right away the lack of intuitiveness at your site is creating a hardship on the customer and you could be losing sales from it.

@Lindsay, I think I have a weird situation when it comes to sample size. For some reason the downloadable sample for my novel “Dark Matter Heart” is almost 2/3 of the book. No idea how it happened but it did.

Thanks for the tips, Lindsay! Yep, that #7 is almost as bad as the killer rabbit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. *grin*

Worst example of “too much front matter” I’ve seen was a book that had a lengthy copyright/license page, dedication, acknowledgement, and a huge list of endorsements. Dozens of short “FIVE STARS!” “reviews”. And no working table of contents to skip that cruft. I sat there wondering where the hell the story was, and how that could possibly seem like a good idea to anyone.

Great post, Lindsay. Glad I found your blog.

Being an indie SF/F reader and reviewer, I think the top three things that turns me off from a book are:

Bad blurb (#3), Bad writing (#2), Too much front matter (#5)

I choose books to buy and review on the basis of both the blurb and the sample. If I like both, I jump in on it immediately. The blurb is a general promise of what’s to come, the sample is a quality test.

If I didn’t get into the sample but the blurb/premise is very original and interesting, I could take a chance. Same thing if I liked the sample but the blurb was mediocre.

I’m flabbergasted at some of the bad blurbs and bad samples out there. “Not saying much” doesn’t cause intrigue, it just causes frustration on the part of the reader and will make her pass over your work. If the sample consists of nothing but maps of a world I don’t care about (yet) with three pages unoriginal, boring exposition that says nothing about the story that’s coming, you’re not making it easy for readers.

I like having a good sense of setting, tone and the POV character from the blurb and/or the sample. I’d be deciding if want to spend the next 8 hours of my leisure time in that world or not. Time is costly.

Regarding bad writing, even though many have editors, I think it’s important to bring in new and impartial betas/editors to look at the work right before it gets published. The sentence-by-sentence editing might be good, but there might be plot problems that can only be spotted by people who are a bit further away from the work. Or even just jarring details that the older editors and the author herself has gotten used to.

There’s samples I’ve read with jarring details in the first three pages (profanity that’s inappropriate with the tone, bad use of foreign phrases etc.) that made me immediately put the book down. I’m more forgiving of a few mistakes if they only happen towards the end. I care less because I’m already invested, but if I’m not invested yet and all these jarring details keep coming up, don’t expect me to read your book.

Great post. I’ve bookmarked it in my resources list that I’m building.

As someone who is preparing to jump into the self-publishing pool, I appreciate your experience and insight and you willingness to share it.

Thanks again.

Good line, Nathan: “However, with every ding against the book (bad cover, tough genre, poor writing) that pool of potential buyers continues to shrink until it’s only a puddle that only includes your mother and your aunt.” (My aunt doesn’t have an ebook reader, so I may be out of luck with her.)

Thanks for commenting Suzan and Theresa!

Anke, I think I saw that book. πŸ˜› When authors stick a bunch of glowing reviews up front, it kind of makes me think, “Oh, yeah? Prove it.”

Thanks for the reader’s-eye-view, Frida! Hm, I may have to ask you for a guest post or interview someday. As soon as I stop looking at my own blurbs with a paranoid eye. πŸ˜›

Thanks, Roh!

I’ve been reading your blog for a couple of weeks now and I appreciate the thought-provoking topics covered. I think a lot of us recently published indies need to keep the perspective of number 7. It’s too easy to look at Konrath, Hocking, Larson, and others and think that kind of success can be built in a day, week, or month–heck, even a year might be impossible.

I read these same bits of advice over and over from different authors, and I am astounded that everyone really is saying the same thing (which is not a bad by any means). Simply put, there is no formula and there is no guarantee. I don’t know how many books I’ve seen selling like mad on Amazon with very basic covers and complaints from reviewers about editing, and yet they continue to sell. Sure, you don’t want to emulate that, but as Lexi and others said, it’s about doing everything possible to increase your chances.

@Lindsay: Glad you find my comments worthwhile. I’d love to do a guest post/interview, feel free to email me anytime.

I guess some of my frustration shows through my comment, but there’s just published books out there that aren’t ready. I love science fiction and fantasy, but I feel disappointed whenever I see books with great concepts but didn’t go through a quality control process. Considering the amount of time writers invest writing each book, not taking the next steps to polish it just seems bizarre.

Many readers are enthusiastic about indie books, but we’re also genre-savvy and expect nothing but the best regardless of price point. Indie authors aren’t competing against other indies, they’re competing against the entire world of literature and fiction in general. I review all books on the same scale as books by George R. R. Martin, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Arthur C. Clarke. I think it’s the only way for indie authors to get out of the indie sandbox.

Readers are smart and won’t trust the uninformative short 5 star reviews written by the writer’s mother and aunt. We can tell. I tend to pay more attention to books with mixed reviews or at least some criticism, because it means that the author received the attention of an audience that owes nothing to him/her. Then I judge for myself if it’s something I’m interested in or not.

Awesome blog, funny how I’m reading this now after I asked about a sequel for Flash Gold earlier.

I’ll be filing this blog away to review when I do get that debut published. Keep up the awesome work you’re doing!

Hi Lindsay,

I’m a new visitor to this blog, and I found it very informative.

My novel has been selling reasonably well, and I think it’s succeeded mostly because of its dynamic cover (as many people tell me it is), the blurb is good, and Upcountry has been getting great, independent reviews from blogger everywhere. I’ve done two giveaways, with good success. And the price is right at $2.99.

Therefore, I think my problem is # 4 as well, since Upcountry doesn’t fit well in any specific category. A crime occurs, but crime reviewers don’t think it’s ‘crime-y’ enough (an actual criticism). It is suspense driven, but most of my readers liked the emotional journey and serious issues (spousal abuse, being the number one issue) presented in dramatic, fast-paced terms.

Big Al’s BooksandPals blog gave me a 5-star review. Al, of course, is the guy who had the now-famous tiff with a disgrunted British novelist over a poor review (she told him to eff off!).

Anyway, Al labelled Upcountry as strong literary fiction/suspense–which is the closest it’s come to a category.

I’ve been through the Amazon site. How do you peg your book to the wizards? Any specific suggestions are welcome.

Thanks for such a good blog!


Brondt Kamffer said: “Simply put, there is no formula and there is no guarantee.”

This is an excellent point which is so difficult to accept.

There’s a “minimum floor” formula from J.A. Konrath (great cover / content / blurb / price), beyond it, we’re all on our own.

There is at least one other reason for me as a reader that an author doesn’t sell beyond the first book anyway. And that is the atrocious editing of some indie. In my opinion, any author that writes a book of whatever size, runs it through a spellchecker and considers it edited, is a fool.

It is amazing to me the number of homonyms in some works. I consider it to be a sign of illiteracy or extreme careless. It would seem to me that a simple rereading of the book would make such errors stand out. If you are a professional writer or want to be then this would be important to you. Bad grammar, weird spelling and extraneous words in a sentence mean to me that the author doesn’t care. Why should I?

May I ask, Ms. Buroker, who edits your books? You or someone else? Whoever it is, they do an excellent job. If only all authors were as careful and professional.

Hi, Xenchu! Thanks for the blog comments and the compliment on editing. πŸ™‚

I have some great beta readers who catch many of the typos and extra words on the first pass, and then I run the manuscript by a freelance editor. Faith Carroll (Have Faith Proofreading) did The Emperor’s Edge and Shelley Holloway (Holloway House) did Dark Currents and Encrypted.

Thanks for reading!

[…] Harper Lee your first book. Self published authors especially tend to find some commercial success when they get a couple of books in circulation. If your first book is destined for success, it will get there, but let it come. And before you […]

Phew…so glad to hear that it’s usually 6-12 months for a book to take off! I uploaded my ebook to Nook and Kindle a few weeks ago and have only sold one copy…to a friend recovering from surgery–ha! My no-budget marketing push (free copies given to forum friends, guest posts, etc.) hasn’t really begun yet, but I was starting to worry that I might be forever doomed to a dust-filled virtual shelf life.

Patience is a virtue, patience is a virtue, patience is a virtue…my new mantra!

though this post is old(er), like me πŸ˜‰ it still has much great info, thank you!

your more recent post, “does advertising work for authors…” helped lead me to this article

thank again πŸ˜‰

This is a BRILLIANT blog! Thanks for the information.

Thank you for the tips you’ve outlined above. I’m finding that shifting from print to electronic books wasn’t as easy as I thought.

But I will continue trying. Never give up! Never surrender!

I wish you continued success.

Great post and thanks for the tips.

Wonderful advice, Linsday! Thanks for the tips!

Hi Lindsay,

Great post! Although my first book sells quite well, I released my second book last month and have only sold twelve copies of that so far. My second book is the follow on from the first so I’m hoping things will pick up soon.

G’day Lindsay! – Thanks heaps for your meaningful advice.
As a British author having recently uploaded my 2 novel series to Kindle, I am surprised, considering Amazon’s substantial ‘cut’, that a newly listed title is given precisely NIL promotion. Surely other ‘hopefuls’ share the same concern?
On the subject of genre, you are so right in your observation that Amazon/Kindle’s list is inadequate in terms of more specific genres. For instance, my novel series should be classed as ‘neo-classical fiction’, surely not such an obscure classification, rather than ‘general’ or ‘mainstream’. For example, ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’ was a ‘neo-classical’ at the time of publishing, though now, of course, it is regarded as a classic work of literature.

Lindsay, your post came up on Twitter. You have very good points that made me take the list to my novel Tree Soldier. I think I’ve met all the points, except I do worry sometimes that an early version I put up on Kindle is the inside the book. (Think I heard that corrections catch up). The novel has attention with some awards and I’ve done giveaways. I haven’t done a Goodreads ad, but I’m putting one into a magazine special edition that fits the novel’s background and I’ll have an ad on a well known blog. It meant putting out some money, sometimes you have to do it.

Well done.

Hi Lindsay,
I just linked to your post through Author Marketing Experts and have now read several of them. I think they’re great. You do a great job of explaining the steps to take to increase exposure – rather than just telling readers to “increase your exposure” without explaining how.
You’ve got a new follower.

Yep, #1 is #1 … Ray Kroc (of McDonald’s fame) once said about the secret to success: ‘Early to bed, early to rise, advertise, advertise, advertise.’ I don’t really know if Ray Kroc really said that, but that is what it is all about … unfortunately, marketing for indies requires one of two things: the determination to stick to it and follow-through, or the access to a balanced bank account … unfortunately, I have neither.

There is one other possibility that I have never seen anyone bring up. The reason that your book may not be selling well is that no one can find it. I purchase my books at kobo and the search engine is terrible. This problem is magnified if you are an author who uses your initials. For example, let’s use a pretend name like K.A. Smith. As a purchaser, do I type in K period A period Smith or do I try KA Smith? Either way, I usually end up with a huge list of Smiths and your work may be 2007th on the list. Believe me, I have already given up finding it. My usual response is to attempt the title – and sometimes that works but let’s say your title is ‘Dead Man.’ Again, I am never going to find this in the sea of works that the search produces. No matter how much I want to read your book, if I can’t find it, I can’t buy it.

Very good point, one I thought of when I began using my initials professionally (as you see there are no periods in Lp) On that same note, when I first published on KOBO, the first two days I couldn’t find MY OWN book by my name or the title! They fixed it, and thankfully the title is not that common, but I can definitely see your point on that.

Thanks for the post. Very helpful information.

[…] self-pubbing, promotion, and making it as an Indie Author. One of her most popular posts is called 7 Reasons You’re Not Selling Many eBooks. In her post, she links to what she calls possibly the most important article by J.A. Konrath for […]

This is a great eye-opening post. I think I suffer from #4 the most. My stuff is far from the norm, it seems, but then again, I do have weird and picky tastes in books as it is.

Hi Lindsay,

Thanks for helping me calm down. πŸ™‚ I’m at #7 (it’s been 3weeks, haha) and despite the great support I received from my already established (I thought) fan-base my baby is not ‘flying off the shelves’ – yet. So now I can grab a breath, calm down, and give it time. Meanwhile, back to getting this sequel finished! Great post!

Lindsay, I’ve followed you from your podcasts, and I also love reading your insight into the indie world. Thanks for your seven reasons and your calm voice in this crazy e-publishing world. πŸ™‚

Great advices here Linday. Agree to your number 1 tip. How can people buy your ebook or lets say a product / service if they don’t know they even exist. There are actually many marketing tactics you could use for FREE. I guess being resourceful is the key here to get more sales. Let’s get out of our comfort zone and make our hands dirty.

Happy Marketing!

Belinda Summers/@belindasummers

Thanks for this post. I am new to this game and expect to publish my first short story at the ende of the year.
I own no patience myself either so it was good to be told that it doesn’t happen overnight.

Awesome advice, Lindsay! I completely agree with your first point, that no one knows it exists. Authors really need to utilize today’s online world and get the word out with an Author Blog/Website, post it onto Smashwords, Goodreads and other forums/marketplaces.

Also, because I’m in this business, I know quite a lot about digital piracy. This is another reason why some author’s ebooks are not making much money. If someone searches specifically for your ebook title, goes and downloads it for free, that IS a direct lost sale. This happens far too often unfortunately. It is my full-time job to stop ebook theft and I’m happy to say that I’m at least starting to make a dent.

Anyways, great post Lindsay. πŸ™‚

If you use a mass eBook distributor like BookBaby, you may choose to purchase one of their ISBNs at a slightly cheaper rate than buying your own.

Hi, Lindsay and everyone!

To help indie authors get a tiny bit more exposure I’ve just added a Review And Recommendations page to my Create An Enchanted Life bog – that celebrates Magical Realism and Urban Fantasy. If you have hard to categorize novels or stories (published anywhere online) please feel free to get in touch. The details and my contacts are at:

Hi Lindsay. I am new to your blog. Your advice and words of wisdom are very helpful. I have dreamed of being an Indie Author for some time now. I have written several books over the years for a series but so far haven’t jumped into the water yet to get them published on eBook. Still standing on the edge. (L.O.L.) I keep going over and over them searching for any mistakes but now I think maybe it’s time to take the plunge:) Do I have to have a Web Page first? Do I have to have a Copyright from the government or can I do what is called the Poor Man’s Copyright (where I mail a copy of my manuscript to myself)? If I do the latter, do I just leave out that information on the Copyright Page of the e-book? I’m not sure what to do. I would appreciate any help I can get. Thanks!

I am not an author only a reader.

I love finding indie’s to read and frequently follow. I am a reader who doesn’t sample so nothing actually limits my purchasing decision but when I read ..
1. a blurb with typos I go no further
2. the reviews are few and too flattering I’m suspicious
3. the blurb gives me no idea what the content is
4. the blurb is too long, I bore easily

I know this is an older article, but I really found it helpful! Thanks!

I am not new to the ebook scene, but it is always good to hear the ideas of others in the business. Thank you for the great advice.

Post a comment

\r\n"; } // end function form_reset() Contact";