What to Do When Sales S-T-I-N-K

Flop Pic

There are tens of millions of books to choose from. Only the top couple hundred thousand are selling once or more per day on average.

Sometimes, an author pours much time, effort, and passion into a book, but the sales don’t come. It happens. Too often.

Faced with this situation, the author has three options:

  1. Give up. (Wrong answer.)
  2. Try again. (Last resort.)
  3. Change it. (Pick me.)

There have been books that didn’t sell when they were released, but began selling after making some changes. So there is still hope! 🙂

After putting months into a book and possibly already investing some money only to see the book flop when it finally comes out, it’s important not to sink too much more time and money into the same venture: What if it flops again?

Consider changes that have the potential to make a high impact without too much additional time or expense.

What you should consider changing depends on why the book isn’t selling. If you can obtain honest feedback from your target audience, that may help to point you in the right direction.

Give your book a chance first. You can’t expect it to be a hot seller on Day 1. If a few weeks go by and sales are dismal, that’s different than just having a couple of sales during Week 1.

But if you’re not already marketing actively, it’s never too early to start that. (In the future, pre-marketing would be wise.)

If your book isn’t getting noticed:

  • Maybe the cover isn’t grabbing attention. Try a different design. You don’t want to invest a lot of money in the cover of a book that has already flopped once. But you can find some inexpensive options and you can also try changing it yourself. Ask for suggestions, search for stock photos, and browse covers to see what tends to grab your attention.
  • Are the keywords large and easy to read? Does the font seem to fit the content and create a little interest, without being difficult to read? Is the main image very large, and does it stand out well? Research common cover mistakes and ensure that your cover has avoided these.
  • Maybe the title doesn’t create interest. This is easy to change for Kindle eBooks, but requires disabling sales channels and republishing as a new title for print books because the ISBN is linked to the title. Sometimes, a different title and subtitle attract attention better. Ask for feedback on your title and subtitle.
  • The best thing you can do to get your book noticed is learn how to market effectively. Research marketing strategies and try them out. With tens of millions of books to choose from, it takes effective marketing to help customers learn about your book. If you’re already trying to market your book, try some different marketing tactics. Some strategies don’t work for some books and authors. If it’s not working, try something new. Ask for suggestions. But if the packaging or content have serious issues, you need to make some other change in addition to marketing.
  • Try a marketing promotion. For example, you can make your book free for a day if your book is in KDP Select; but just making it free won’t have much effect unless you also promote the freebie (e.g. maybe you can find some blogs relevant to your genre that sometimes announce freebies). Instead of making your book free, you could temporarily reduce the price; but again, that won’t help your book get noticed unless you also promote the sale. If you have traffic from your target audience at a blog, website, or social media, a contest might get some attention. But for a book that has already flopped, I wouldn’t do a promotion without also changing the packaging (see below).

If your book is getting noticed, but isn’t selling, it could be a problem with the packaging – i.e. a target audience mismatch. If the book is attracting the wrong audience, nobody will be buying:

  • A common problem is a cover that attracts the attention of the wrong audience. For example, if the book is science fiction but the cover doesn’t have any imagery to suggest this, whatever audience is attracted to the cover’s images probably won’t be looking for science fiction. It can be more subtle: If the cover looks like a hot and steamy romance, and the book is romance, but isn’t hot and steamy, that’s also a packaging problem. Browse top-selling books in your specific genre that are similar to yours to see what attracts the interest of your target audience. Ask for feedback. Try to find more suitable stock images. Reconsider your color scheme and its relation to your subject and genre. Consider investing a little money for a more effective cover.
  • Change the blurb. If you’re not happy with sales, change the blurb. Change it again and again. Try several times. Solicit feedback. Study other blurbs, especially of successful books from small-time authors and publishers. Remember, your blurb isn’t a summary and shouldn’t give the story away (then buyers feel it isn’t necessary to read it). The blurb’s main function is to attract the interest of the target audience. Arouse their curiosity so that they have to look inside. When sales pick up, that’s when you stop messing with your blurb.
  • Does your title send a unified message along with your cover? For example, if the title sounds like a mystery, but the cover looks like action, this may create buyer confusion. Packaging works best when the title and cover send the same, clear message about which genre the book is and briefly what to expect. Solicit feedback, and ask specifically about this issue.
  • Buyers see several covers in search results. Your book has just a few seconds to attract the interest of buyers in your target audience. A common problem is that the author is partial to an image on the cover because the author knows it relates to the story, but the shopper doesn’t know this. So if there is some image that really doesn’t belong on the cover – i.e. it’s not clear in three seconds that this image fits the genre and subject – then it may be hurting sales. Look, if sales stink now, it can’t hurt to try a different image, right?
  • Don’t underestimate the importance of browse categories. You want your book to be listed in highly relevant categories and nothing else. Find similar books that are selling well to see which categories they are listed in. Change your categories if needed. If Amazon has added extra categories to your book that aren’t a good fit, contact AuthorCentral and ask politely if they could please be removed, explaining that you feel they might create buyer confusion. This happens: A buyer clicks on a book hoping to read a romance, but sees both romance and action in the categories. “That’s not what I was expecting,” says the buyer as she walks away. If sales are slow, something isn’t working, so it doesn’t hurt to make a change and try it out for a few weeks.
  • You might as well explore a different set of keywords while you’re making other changes.

Sometimes, your cover and title grab attention, and your cover, title, and blurb are attracting the right audience, but the book still isn’t selling:

  • Give your Look Inside a close inspection. Does your book have a slow start? Do the opening paragraphs closely correspond with the genre? Are there spelling or grammatical mistakes? Are there formatting issues? Is there so much front matter that it takes a long time to reach the action (if so, try moving some of it to back matter)? Try to find what might be deterring sales from readers who check out the Look Inside. Better yet, strive to polish the Look Inside and revise it so that it attracts interest. Maybe revise the opening chapter so that it grabs interest and is a close match for the genre. Consider adding a few professional touches, like professional looking design marks (check out the Look Insides of several traditionally published books). Solicit feedback on your Look Inside, especially from your target audience.
  • Reconsider the price. Check out the prices of similar books that are selling well. At least, you could test out a new price for a few weeks and see how that goes. If you drop your price, advertise this on your blog, through social media, etc.; the sale may help to create interest. Price is usually not the main factor, unless the book is very short or way overpriced. Many authors change nothing but the price with no improvement. Save dropping the price (except for a temporary sale) for last. I would try everything else first before lowering the price (unless you are way overpriced, like a $9.99 nontechnical Kindle book). If your price is already low, consider raising the price (it might seem counterintuitive, but many people believe that you get what you pay for, and there are stories of authors who have raised their prices from 99 cents to $3.99 and actually started selling more books). Remember, it’s not just the number of sales that matters, but also the royalty. If you drop the price, you can actually sell more books but earn less money. At 99 cents, you have to sell 6 times as many books just to draw the same royalty as a $2.99 list price at KDP (since the royalty rate changes from 35% to 70%, if eligible – and the fees at 70% won’t be much if it qualifies for 99 cents).

Reviews could be a factor. But reviews often don’t have the effect that authors expect:

  • If you have no reviews, or if you have a small number of reviews that includes a bad review, your book might benefit from more reviews. But it might not. Keep in mind that nothing is better than the natural assortment of reviews left voluntarily by actual customers. It takes more sales to generate such reviews, which means effective marketing. You can hope to solicit reviews from advance review copies – free books given upfront to potential reviewers with no strings attached, where it’s clear that any review (good, bad, or ugly) is welcomed (don’t violate the customer review guidelines). A review from a blogger in your genre may be helpful (even if the review isn’t posted on Amazon). Sometimes, time and patience draw a few reviews that make a difference. Other times, you happen to get a couple of rave reviews, and sales don’t pick up at all. It happens.
  • If you have a small number of reviews, and they’re all good, buyers may be suspicious. If you just have good reviews, you have something to be happy about (that’s a problem many authors would love to have); focus on that. Keep marketing, and more sales will eventually draw more reviews. Hopefully, the new reviews will be good, too – because no author likes to receive bad reviews. Even if you don’t have any bad reviews (which would be sweet), once you have enough reviews, there will finally be a healthy assortment of opinions which helps to provide balance.
  • Does any criticism in any of the reviews have merit? For example, a review might complain of a storyline issue, or describe spelling and grammatical mistakes. If so, it might be worth reworking part of the story or finding an affordable editor. You can’t implement every suggestion made by every reviewer; you have to decide what has merit and what’s reasonable to change. Sometimes a critical review helps the author improve the book.
  • Commenting on reviews carries a huge risk. Especially, if you make the mistake of reacting emotionally or making more than one comment. Once you make a comment, the reviewer can simply ask you a question, which draws you into a conversation. Then suddenly there are several comments. If the reviewer becomes upset, the reviewer can get friends and family to leave reviews and make comments. Only the author’s image is at stake – not the reviewer’s image. Strive to look like a professional author; don’t ruin your author image over a review. If you get a review with wrongful criticism that kills sales, don’t do anything for a few days (this gives you time to calm down and think, and to see if sales are, in fact, slowing – if sales keep up, the best thing is to just leave it alone; reviews often have less effect than we expect). If sales died and you feel that there is nothing to lose, if you feel that a tactful comment might have an impact, if there are no sales, you might feel that trying this is better than nothing – but it must be tactful and you need to let go after that (don’t add more comments later). If the comment has no effect on sales and the reviewer doesn’t respond to the comment, go ahead and delete your comment; but if your is not the only comment on the review, don’t delete it – otherwise, there will be a note saying that the comment was deleted by the author (which means poster, as in author of the post, although shoppers may not interpret it this way). Most authors would advise you not to comment; and most others would say that you must be tactful and stop after the first. Besides, most shoppers will read the review, but not check out the comment. The better thing to do is marketing, trying to improve sales through marketing and promotions, try changing the packaging or content, and hoping that after weeks and months, some new reviews will help offset any bad reviews.

When I first published my conceptual chemistry book, sales really took off in the UK – better than in the US. This was really exciting, until I received my first review. It was a bad one. Often, a bad review has little effect; and sometimes a bad review actually improves sales. But when the only review is one or two stars, many customers won’t even look at the book. And when the review is really short and just vaguely states that there are many typos which could easily confuse the reader, it creates a lot of doubt in buyer’s minds. It sounds like the book is plagued with problems. And the review didn’t clarify whether the problems were typos, differences between American and English notation or vocabulary, mistakes in the content, issues with the equations formatting improperly in the Kindle edition, or what. So, of course, most buyers assume the worst. Sales had been frequent prior to this review, and then sales stopped dead. I’ve had other bad reviews, and most of those have actually improved sales. But this one was a doozy. Fortunately, I had several other books that were selling well (one benefit of publishing multiple books), and this book continued to sell in the US (fortunately, the UK review didn’t carry over into the US). Let me clarify that I have two different chemistry books with similar titles; the one with the blue cover is the far better book, and that’s the one I’m referring to here.

This review cut deep. I had already had about 20 versions of the completed file from plenty of editing. It’s not like the book hadn’t gone through many rounds of editing. I was shocked that anyone could think it was plagued with problems. I’ve read many technical works that are, in fact, loaded with mistakes. I also had a reputation for content knowledge and much teaching experience. And I wasn’t quite sure what the reviewer was complaining about, since the review was quite vague.

So here is my experience with such an issue:

  • I debated with myself over this for some time, then decided to try a single tactful comment. After all, sales were suddenly nonexistent. There was still some risk, however, because I had other books and a reputation to uphold. The reviewer didn’t respond (it would have been nice to receive a little clarification – but reviews are primarily there to benefit shoppers, not authors), so I removed my comment. Hindsight shows that this option wasn’t worth exploring in this case.
  • I re-read my book a few times. I did find a handful of silly mistakes in Chapter 2, and a couple of other issues. So I fixed those. Then I had an issue with the equations; I knew that they formatted better on a few electronic devices than others. So I retyped every equation and formatted it as text with subscripts and superscripts, in color, so that there wouldn’t be any problems with the Kindle formatting of equations. This took a great deal of time (every compound mentioned anywhere in the book was written with equation formatting, like H2O), but now I knew the equations would all format nicely. I checked them repeatedly for possible mistakes. (Wish I had thought of this the first time, but I was focused on the paperback first.)
  • I revised the book, calling it a new edition in the copyright page, corrected the mistakes and some other minor issues, and reformatted the equations for the Kindle edition. I revised the blurb to mention that it had been updated and when (since the review is dated, this allows for logical deduction; and I didn’t want to call attention to past problems in the US). This led to a trickle of sales in the UK and a slight improvement in the US.
  • I visited AuthorCentral and reformatted the blurb to include bullets and boldface. This had a small effect, too.
  • Then I added a line near the top of the blurb describing my qualifications. That was the magic answer. Why hadn’t I thought of this before? (Well, I often put any relevant expertise into the blurb, but not often near the top.) Who had more credibility? An author with a degree in the subject or a reviewer who didn’t specify any credentials? Some UK buyers took a chance once I thought of doing this; the US sales improved, too. Eventually, with the sales, a couple of good reviews came, too. The main thing that worked in my case was revamping the blurb and exercising patience (it took weeks before the rebound came).

If things are really bad, you might need a fresh start. You could unpublish and republish later (wait at least 30 days). If you do this, you have to make some dramatic changes (otherwise, you shouldn’t expect any improvement the second time). Keep in mind that I’ve never unpublished and republished a book myself, so I don’t have direct experience with this. But I have seen others do this:

  • Note that your book may remain on AuthorCentral even if you unpublish. If it’s available in print, the reasoning is that some customers may have used copies to sell. So you probably can’t have a print book removed from your AuthorCentral profile. If your book is only available in eBook format, you could ask if this is possible, pointing out that nobody will have a used copy to sell.
  • When you republish, it’s possible for your old reviews to get reattached to the republished book. If this happens to the eBook, contact KDP and explain that you’ve unpublished, revamped the book (explain how), and politely request a fresh start. Keep in mind that the original reviewers may leave new reviews on the new book if they discover it.
  • You can try a new title, cover, and blurb. But if you had any buyers the first time, they might be frustrated to buy what they believe to be a different book that turns out to be the same book again (but if sales had been slow, it’s probably worth the risk and there weren’t too many buyers in the first place). You can also try changing the content, getting the book edited or formatted, and improving the Look Inside.

On the other hand, if sales are good to begin with, don’t fix what isn’t broken. Maybe you are wondering if sales could be great instead of good. But what if you change something and sales go south? It’s not easy to recover when sales slip. So if you’re content with sales, I recommend not changing anything now. If sales slip in the future, consider making your changes then. (Also, if sales are good to begin with, any drastic changes – like a new cover – might fool a previous customer into buying the same book again, which may frustrate the buyer.)

Finally, not every book idea has an audience, and occasionally there may be an audience, but it’s really hard to get the book to that audience. Repackaging and marketing can’t help every book. Some books have ideas that just don’t interest readers. Other books are so highly specialized and only interest a very narrow audience (many specialized books have a significant audience; I’m talking about an extreme case here). Once you have given it your best shot, if sales still don’t come, all you can do is start over. If that’s the case, next time do some research prior to writing your book. Try to find similar books to see if a possible demand exists for your book idea.

Remember, all books that had good intentions surely go to Book Heaven. 🙂

Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers (Volume 2, now out, includes several marketing, pre-marketing, and packaging suggestions)

17 comments on “What to Do When Sales S-T-I-N-K

  1. I’ve heard many authors say that writing the next book is how you fix the sales of the first book. It’s supposed to bring a sense of professionalism and seriousness with it. According to some, one book published comes off as a hobby while two books published means career author.

    I like this strategy, but I think it does work off the idea that the first book does poorly for the sole reason of author reputation. So, I thank you for your list of suggestions for books that are limping along for other reasons.

  2. You’re absolutely right, and with the ability to manipulate all production factors from content to marketing, I think this is such a scary-fun time to be writing. Great post.

  3. It really is crazy what one bad review can do…. the WORST is when the criticism isn’t warranted: as in, the reviewer claims typos and errors and, like you say, there are no real errors, just a different in American vs British English or something like that.

    Love your advice here…. many solid suggestions. I can say that a cover change and KDP promos have worked well for me.

  4. Pingback: 18: What Caught My Senses This Week

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