How do we sell more books? This is the big question all authors ask (myself included). Obviously, there are countless opinions about how to sell more books, but not all opinions are created equally.
Thus, before we hop onto the latest marketing/promotion fad we’re wise to understand why traditional marketing doesn’t sell books. Books are not like cups of coffee or breakfast cereal, and thus require a different approach.
Yes, ads, marketing and promotion campaigns sell toilet paper, soap, and toothpaste because seriously…who is NOT USING this stuff? When it comes to influencing what folks do with their free time, however, it’s a whole other game.
Writers are unique as well. Yes, we really are special unique starfish. And, since we are responsible for producing the product, we need a social media approach that leaves time to write great books.
This said, what’s the critical element that makes a book a mega success? Is it lightning in a bottle? Black magic? Voodoo? Can we buy it on Amazon? Is it banned in Georgia?
No. The answer is actually pretty simple (though simple and easy are NOT synonymous). Writers have to get out in the metaphorical boat.
We had a saying when I worked in sales: Fish where the fish are.
If we want to sell more books, we must learn to fish, and the fish are schooling on-line. And trust me, I know it’s tempting to take shortcuts.
Yet, there’s a marked difference between a legendary angler like Jeremy Wade who goes after a very specific fish to catch and release…and that weird third cousin who tosses dynamite in a pond then collects whatever floats to the surface.
Approach and technique make all the difference in our results. But first…
Field of ‘Dream On’ Marketing
A lot of authors don’t even want to get in the boat let alone learn to fish. They try to apply the ‘Field of Dreams Plan’ to sell more books.
If I write it, they will come.
No. No they won’t. Sorry to break the news. No one cares about our book simply because we’ve published one.
Reading for pleasure has been steadily declining since the 1980s, and now that our culture is firmly entrenched in the new digital paradigm, this number is dropping off…a cliff. Back in 2004, roughly 28% of Americans over the age of 15 read for pleasure. As of 2017, that number was down to 19%, and for good reasons.
There’s Netflix, Fortnite, YouTube, Instagram, Tinder, and Candy Crush. Also, the final season of Game of Thrones in April—Spring is Coming—and we need to refresh our memories and who exactly all three hundred four characters are. Right?
Suffice to say, writers have had a tough time inspiring humans to read since before the radio was invented. The 24-7 Global SHINYfest is certainly NOT helping. This is why, if we want to sell more books, we cannot simply publish the book then slap down some cash for some Facebook ads.
When we settle for this approach, we’re essentially saying:
Hey, why don’t you devote an average of 11-15 hours you don’t have, to sit still and do an activity you believe you hate? Oh, and PAY ME!
Yep, they’re right on that.
No, no…I can see through their window. Nope, they’re on Netflix. My bad.
Seemed so promising with that 3-D dragon sparkle cover.
Writing excellent books is a fantastic start for those who want to sell more books. But, don’t get too excited. While a great book is a fabulous start, there’s more work we need to do to locate and cultivate our audience.
How Do We Move the Needle?
Yes, I know the above statistics look grim, but as Mark Twain once said, ‘There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.’ Numbers are wonderful, but they’re a guidepost not gospel.
Sure, data is useful because, if research showed that 96% of all Americans read three books a week and we still weren’t able to sell any books? Probably safe to say writing books is NOT our strong suit. Maybe look into cosmetology school or underwater welding.
Ah, but, when the numbers are low—19%—it’s easier to accept that, when faced with an ambivalent marketplace, we’re going to have to think and do things differently.
We need to work smarter, not harder. If you want to captivate a reading audience, you must do these three things.
Intentionality: Social Media on Porpoise
*bada bump snare*
First, if we want to sell more books, we have to ditch the ‘Field of Dream On Marketing Plan.’
Times have changed and buying habits have as well. As I said earlier, Fish where the fish are.
When it comes to 21st century publishing, if authors don’t have a strong digital presence (brand), we’re not even in the right place to be successful. It’s like trying to fish on dry land…which does NOT yield a tasty catch and just makes us look ridiculous.
So please, get on-line. Your future fans are there and waiting to discover you.
Secondly, stop devoting huge efforts marketing to people who would define themselves as ‘avid readers.’
Why? Because every author out there is trying to sell books to the same limited population, a limited population only capable of buying and reading so many titles.
Additionally, marketing to ‘readers’ is a doomed plan when we apply basic logic.
I just mentioned there are fewer ‘avid readers’ than ever before, but—thanks to self-publishing and indie press—there are more ‘published authors’ than ever before. Fewer readers compounded with exponentially more titles for sale.
See the problem? Basic MATH.
These digital waters have been overfished to the point that anyone who’s still fishing there is likely starving.
Our odds of success will vastly improve if we learn how to make converts, which brings me to my third point.
Thirdly, ditch the misconception that non-readers don’t read AT ALL.
Remember, the 19% stat only represents people who don’t need to be coerced to read.
The other 81% of literate humans in need of being informed or entertained CAN read, they’re simply choosing NOT to read. This group just needs convincing. A little seduction. Build a relationship. Tell them they’re pretty and ask about their day.
Put out better bait.
***Cat videos are marvelous, FYI.
Yes, it’s more ‘work’ but what (legal) long-term relationship doesn’t require consistent emotional investments?
Every dark horse runaway success has one common denominator:
These authors/books were able to convert millions of fans from the ‘NON-READER’ population into the ‘THEIR READER’ population.
There are converts who will claim they ‘don’t like to read,’ but they own every Harry Potter book (in hard cover) and will read anything and everything J.K. Rowling publishes forever and ever AMEN.
Fifty Shades of Grey didn’t launch to stratospheric success because it scored rave literary reviews from elite book critics. 50 Shades did what other books didn’t or couldn’t.
E.L. James’ books moved the needle in a MAJOR way because 50 Shades converted disinterested ‘non-readers’ into ‘die-hard devotees.’ Devotees that then set suburban bedrooms and sales records on fire.
Change Tack for the BIG Haul
When we want to sell more books, converts are key. Yes, avid readers are wonderful to have as fans, because they (we) read all the time. We enjoy books, buy books and most of us need a twelve-step program and a sponsor because of our book-buying habit.
This should be awesome, right?
Hold on there, Sparky.
While us avid readers inhale books faster than a line of cocaine at a West Hollywood party, we’re not exactly blown away when we find a book we can finish. We don’t feel our world just tilted on its axis because we enjoyed a novel. It takes a ridiculously amazing book to get us amped up.
For the person who believes she hates reading and doesn’t understand why anyone would read a book unless there was a mandatory test at the end? When SHE finishes a book and LOVES it? This person becomes positively EVANGELICAL and tells everyone who will listen to buy it.
***Oh, and this sort of ‘catch’ is easily caught with kitten videos, funny memes and just talking about what y’all have in common. No ookie ‘self-promo’ required. People buy from who they know and LIKE.
Alas, what frustrates so many authors (and traditional marketing/advertising/PR people who still think it’s 1997) is that social media is the modern version of ‘word of mouth.’ Unlike direct marketing, social media efficacy can’t be precisely measured or controlled.
Also, as authors, our social media activity can’t be outsourced. We aren’t a faceless company like GEICO or Starbucks. People expect they’re interacting with US on-line, thus paying someone else to pretend to ‘be’ us is a bait-and-switch that smacks of catfishing.
No one in the history of ever enjoyed being catfished.
Social media activity also can’t be solely automated, because that’s called rude…I mean spam.
How many of us have emails dedicated for the stuff we don’t want? We use spam filters, and gripe to anyone who’ll listen when forced to sit on the phone interacting with a robot.
So then WHY would this be a good plan to do to our (potential) readers?
Hint: It isn’t.
Why would we serve what even we don’t want to consume? Exactly. An automated tweet or post here and there? Fine. But go easy on this.
If we wanted to try to connect with an automated message and never a human? We’d call our cable provider’s customer service line. At least there we could mock the irony of the name…and drink heavily.
In The End
Selling more books becomes simpler when we open our minds to who makes up our potential audience. Once we’re brave enough to venture into uncharted waters and plumb new depths, our odds of success improve dramatically.
The more niche we can become, the less competition we have to outmaneuver and outdo.
Me trying to connect with and catch ‘readers’ is heck of a lot harder than trying to locate then connect with ‘people who love true crime, binge-watch Dexter, and quote Fight Club way more than is socially acceptable.’
Dare to do more than hook ‘a fish.’ Instead, be bold and go after that ‘perfect catch.’
Yes, it takes more time, finesse and patience, but it’s worth it. You’ll sell more books, and get to enjoy a colorful, diverse, and enthusiastic ‘school’ of followers who will continue to grow and bring you joy long after the first sale.
What Are Your Thoughts?
I love hearing from you! Does this make ‘marketing’ and ‘promotion’ seem a tad less terrifying? Do you struggle with the idea of selling your book because it feels too smarmy? Have you been approaching your promotion from the perspective of an avid reader instead of a person to be converted?
Maybe most people don’t read books, but they might read YOUR books…
Come to the Dark Side. We have cookies… 😀
For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook.
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Great article thanks for writing it. What is your favorite social media site? I have found the most success with Instagram but everyone always talks about Twitter being great for writers but honestly I feel like Twitter is more for people to bitch about writing than to actually write. Any thoughts?
Love this line, “Basic MATH.”
I know you’ve been saying the same thing for forever, but this time it clicked with me. Not because I didn’t understand it before. I just always looked at social media as a mean-spirited place, and rarely felt like I had anything worthwhile to say on a blog. Reading this post, though, I realized that the principles apply to more than selling books. We could change the landscape of online society if we all learned to connect with others like this. At the very least, I can participate in the way I believe social media was meant to facilitate.
Social media is an organic entity that can be cultivated the way we want it to be. It takes work and discipline, time and experimentation to hone our vision. But do it well? And it can be a wonderful experience. So many of the best people I know and almost ALL my closest friends and colleagues I met via social media. So thrilled to meet you!
Is it the book or the social media that needs to be niche-ified? Or both in concert?
Maybe this is my problem: I’m not aiming at a niche; I’m happily pinging about from subject to subject, blogging about whatever takes my fancy – cats, consent, cosiness, capers, or crochet, to name a few.
Although now I think about it, most of what I write (book, blog, whatever) is aimed at giving people a humorous-but-encouraging respite from whatever they’re dealing with IRL.
Perhaps I need a new motto: Books for When You Need a Break.
Thanks for the link to Writers in the Storm, girl! That was one fab-o post you wrote…both there and here. Thank you. And particularly, thank you for that link on the WANA theory of publishing – I hadn’t read that article for a while and I needed it.
I’m still pouting because I can’t go to San Fransciso. WAHHHHHHHHHH!!!
As for me, I detest that word “brand” when it comes to my being a successful author.
These words by my favorite marketing guru apply:
“I am not a brand. You are not a brand. You’re a person.
A living, breathing, autonomous individual who doesn’t seek to maximize ROI or long-term brand value. You have choices. You have the ability to change your mind. You can tell the truth, see others for who they are and choose to make a difference. Selling yourself as a brand sells you too cheap.”
— Seth Godin
As an author whose books (mainly self-published) reached over 1,000,000 copies sold in September, and have been published in 22 languages in 29 countries, I will stick to my techniques. I have come up with 75 to 100 of my own unique marketing techniques that 99 percent of authors and so called “book marketing experts” are not creative or smart enough to come up with. I have used similar unique marketing techniques to get over 111 books deals with various foreign publishers around the world. These techniques involve what my competitors are NOT doing — instead of what my competitors are doing. None of these techniques have anything to do with using paid advertising or social media.
Here are some words of wisdom from people much smarter than me that have guided me over the years:
“It’s better to do a sub-par job on the right project than an excellent job on the wrong project.”
— Robert J. Ringer
“A market is never saturated with a good product, but it is very quickly saturated with a bad one.”
— Henry Ford
“Good isn’t good enough.”
— Mark Coker (owner of Smashwords)
“Very Good Is Bad — It’s Not Good Enough!”
— Seth Godin (My favorite Marketing Guru)
“Even the most careful and expensive marketing plans cannot sell people a book they don’t want to read.”
— Michael Korda, former Editor-in-Chief at Simon & Schuster
“The shortest and best way to make your fortune is to let people see clearly that it is in their interests to promote yours.”
— Jean de La Bruyére
“In the arena of human life the honors and rewards fall to those who show their good qualities in action.”
“Books work as an art form (and an economic one) because they are primarily the work of an individual.”
— Seth Godin
“Writing is the hardest way to earn a living, with the possible exception of wrestling alligators.”
— Olin Miller
“Your success and prosperity are too valuable to depend on crowd funding or lottery tickets.”
— Seth Godin
“Read, every day, something no one else is reading. Think, every day, something no one else is thinking. Do, every day, something no one else would be silly enough to do. It is bad for the mind to continually be part of unanimity.”
— Christopher Morley
“The amount of money you make will always be in direct proportion to the demand for what you do, your ability to do it, and the difficulty of replacing you.”
— Earl Nightingale
Thanks for such a thoughtful comment! In fact, most of my teaching is directly in line with Seth Godin. And I get it, the word “brand” makes me feel icky, too. But, if I don’t give my own definition, then I acquiesce to those I strongly disagree with via my silence.
Godin is all about connecting with people and creating your Tribes. Small is the New Big, etc. etc. I have ALL his books, and cited them A LOT in my own.
The simple truth is that there are a lot of choices for what we can do with our free time. We think we need to do some MAJOR promo push or marketing blitz, yet underestimate how much authentic and BASIC human connection can tilt the needle in our favor.
I don’t feel paid advertising is a good use of money for books (never has been). As for no social media? That’s a hard sell that we (authors) can have success with NO social media. Maybe the author isn’t personally using any social media platforms, but that author has to rely on others to share the word about their work using THEIR social media outlets of choice. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc. IS word of mouth, which is the only thing that has ever sold books ever.
Even down to a person leaving an Amazon review, Amazon’s unique format for reviewing IS itself a form of social media because these reviews are crafted by those who have (ideally) read the book, and there is a way for other users to engage, comment, dispute, agree, etc. Not only that, but reviews are what make the algorithms work in our favor so people SEE our book. No reviews and the book might as well not exist because it isn’t being put in other consumers’ feeds.
Suffice to say I believe we’ve gone over the event horizon when it comes to NO social media. It’s in there somewhere and might as well use it to get to know people, have fun, and make the world a tad bit brighter.
This was so interesting! I hadn’t considered that we should be targeting people who think of themselves as non-readers. I shared this post with my author Author Alchemy Lab community for discussion, by the way!
Is there a part 2 – how to co-mingle with non-readers? Asking for a friend…
I know this in theory, but would actually appreciate a few tangible steps.
Sure, I can write that…I think. Challenge ACCEPTED!
Wow. Your comments are both inspiring and depressing. What? I have to go out and try to make contact with readers?
Of course you’re right. I budget two hours per week social media even though I haven’t sold a manuscript yet. In addition to my charming, under-read WordPress blog, I also now post reviews of every book I red on Goodreads.