Marketing: “Why Isn’t It Working?”

Almost all authors love to write. This makes writing the book the easy part.

When authors finish their books, they are often surprised to learn that there is much more work to do. Marketing tends to come as the greatest surprise. Marketing is the hard part.

Marketing is a challenge to most authors, and most authors don’t share the same passion for marketing that they do for writing.

New authors ask two very common questions about sales. The first is, “Why isn’t my book selling?” The answer to this, of course, largely involves marketing. (The other part of the answer involves the book itself – good idea, well-written, well thought-out, nicely formatted, etc. Well, you could lump these things into marketability.)

The second question is, “I’m marketing like crazy. Why isn’t it working?”

Following are several factors that impact marketing effectiveness.

(1) Is the book worth reading? Is the idea good enough to sell (both the big picture and the details)? Is the book readable, both in terms of storyline and characterization (for fiction) or content (for nonfiction), and the writing (style, flow, punctuation, grammar, and spelling) itself?

If the book isn’t worth reading (to the vast majority of the target audience), marketing should be a waste of time. Writing groups, focus groups, and good editors can help to gauge this. If the book isn’t worth reading, presently, it may still have the potential to reach this point. In this case, the first step of marketing is to make the book marketable.

(2) Is there an audience for this book? It doesn’t have to be a huge audience; it’s possible to succeed in reaching a niche audience. But there has to be an audience for the book. An idea that people just won’t or don’t read is very tough to sell. Writing and focus groups can help to judge this, as can researching what is already on the market and how well it does or doesn’t sell.

It’s not necessary to write to the widest possible audience, but the writing must address an actual audience.

A common mistake is to combine multiple genres together, hoping that this will widen the audience. Unfortunately, this tends to narrow the audience. The author is thinking, “Anyone who likes science fiction, mystery, or westerns may buy this book. That triples the audience.” What most readers are thinking is something along the lines of, “I was looking for a western, but I really didn’t want to read science fiction.”

If there isn’t an audience for the book, marketing won’t help. Before invest time in marketing, ensure that the book is worth marketing. The ideal time to research this is prior to writing the book.

For an author who isn’t sure, trying may be better than nothing; but if marketing doesn’t help, this could be the reason.

(3) Will the packaging attract the target audience? The cover, title, blurb, categories, and Look Inside must make it clear what to expect. Otherwise, the marketing will attract an audience that doesn’t buy the book. Marketing can’t help if the people who check out the book don’t buy it.

A very common mistake is a target audience mismatch. The cover might attract romance readers, who check out the book and decide it’s really a mystery, for example (or the cover might attract contemporary romance readers, when it’s really a historical romance – just as bad).

The cover has to clearly fit the genre. This is incredibly important, yet it’s also very common. If the cover doesn’t clearly fit the genre, it won’t attract the right audience. It shouldn’t just fit the genre, it should fit the precise subgenre. Research top-selling books in the subgenre to see what readers in the target audience are looking for when they browse for books.

The cover must not only fit the genre, it must also be appealing. It needs to attract the target audience. Furthermore, it must look professional (not just appealing) – it has to look like it’s worth buying. It should look like much effort was put into the book.

The title, blurb, categories, and Look Inside all need to send a unified message. If most of these scream that the book is a mystery, but one makes it look like the book is fantasy, for example, this will confuse the buyer. Confused buyers don’t make purchases.

(4) Will the blurb and Look Inside close the deal? While the cover and title must attract the target audience, the blurb and Look Inside must convince the shopper to buy now. The blurb and Look Inside are the only salespeople at the point of sale for online shopping. Marketing doesn’t help when the blurb and Look Inside don’t generate sales from the lookie-lous.

Excellent marketing can direct traffic to the book’s product page. An excellent blurb and Look Inside increase the percentage of sales that result from these window shoppers. Both points are critical to success (i.e. getting people to check it out and closing the deal).

A blurb is not a synopsis. A synopsis gives away too much plot. Readers who feel that they know what will happen don’t feel compelled to buy the book. A great blurb doesn’t give much away, but does succeed in drawing in the reader’s curiosity. A good blurb doesn’t start out slow and build up because most shoppers won’t exercise enough patience to read past the slow part. (Why should they? They have hundreds of books to check out. If the blurb bores them, that doesn’t bode well for the book.) The style, flow, and readability of the blurb are also very important. For fiction, it’s better to err on the side of a shorter blurb. For nonfiction, any relevant qualifications are helpful.

Don’t forget critical details, like the target age group for children’s books (research this – omitting it doesn’t boost sales by widening the audience, it reduces them by introducing doubt). What would the reader like to know that would help generate the sale? (If it’s not likely to help the sale, don’t include it.)

Wise customers check out the Look Inside before investing in a book. The Look Inside can easily make or break the deal. If it doesn’t make the deal, it’s killing the book’s marketability.

The Look Inside must look professional (formatting, writing, front matter, etc.). The customer is about to spend money – but not if it doesn’t look worth buying.

The beginning must grab the customer’s attention and run with it. Make the customer curious. Let the action begin. The words should flow well. If the reader gets drawn into the story, the book will sell.

Readers will buy books with slow beginnings, lengthy forewords, and excess front matter when they are already familiar with the author – i.e. they know from experience that the book will be worth reading.

Most readers will not buy books with slow starts from unknown authors. It’s a big risk to take. There are so many books to choose from, why not pick one that’s more likely to reward the buyer? If the Look Inside doesn’t impress the reader, it doesn’t bode well for the rest of the book. Put the best stuff here.

Sales killers also include frequent spelling, grammar, or punctuation mistakes, poor sentence structure, writing that doesn’t flow well, point of view problems, or unappealing writing style, for example, in the Look Inside. Don’t let the Look Inside kill sales; make it generate sales. This is critical, as it can make the difference between few or many sales. Marketing won’t make up for mistakes in the Look Inside.

(5) Is the book worth recommending? If the book isn’t worth recommending, it will struggle to generate customer reviews, bloggers may be reluctant to review it, the media won’t want to touch it, and any reviews that it does get might explain why it wasn’t worth recommending. A book that isn’t worth recommending isn’t worth marketing. (Marketing is basically the author’s – tactful, if done well – way of recommending it, right?)

The most valuable sales of all are word-of-mouth sales from customers to their family members, friends, acquaintances, and coworkers (not the author’s friends – the customer’s friends). Such sales are very difficult to come by, yet can have a major impact on the book’s success (or lack thereof).

Customer book reviews, blogging reviews, social media shares, and so on can also have a significant impact on a book’s success.

What makes a book worth recommending? It must be highly readable. The storyline (or nonfiction content) must appeal to the target audience. The characterization must be excellent. It must be professional from cover to cover (otherwise, it reflects poorly on the reader to recommend it). If the book moves the reader emotionally (in a positive way), that’s a huge plus.

Comment: The first five points are critical toward marketing success, but so far there hasn’t been any mention of actual marketing techniques. The marketing strategies themselves are not the only things that strongly affect marketing effectiveness. The product’s marketability is equally important.

(6) Are you using social media effectively? The proper use of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites is counterintuitive to many authors.

Advertising to the effect of, “Buy this book for…,” on social media is ineffective for most authors. Even just announcing, “I wrote a book called…,” may be ineffective.

People who check their social media accounts are bombarded with numerous messages because they have several acquaintances and also follow their favorite celebrities. So they will visually filter through it.

What will they filter out? Anything that looks like an advertisement! People don’t like advertisements. Do they come home, looking forward to which commercials are on t.v.? Do they like it when commercials interrupt songs on the radio? Do they like pop-up windows that advertise products? NO!

People tend to tune out posts that look like advertisements. They also tend to tune out authors who post repeatedly about their books, even if they aren’t advertisements.

Social media and blogging aren’t about generating many instant sales from people who see advertisements. They are about branding an image (professionally), letting people discover the author’s book, providing content that will gradually draw in the target audience, interacting with other authors and fans, making connections, and widening the author’s exposure gradually.

Think discovery rather than overt advertising. If a man walks into a room and says, “Hey! I just wrote a mystery. You should buy it,” people probably won’t. (Does it seem like the kind of thing a professional author would do?)

If instead a man walks into a room, interacts with people, and makes a good impression, eventually someone will ask what he does for a living. When they discover that he’s an author, rather than having this information thrust upon them, they are far more likely to check his book out.

The same concept can be applied online. Consider an author who is on a website that’s a good fit for the target audience. If the author makes a good impression, people are more likely to click on the author’s profile and discover the author’s book (along with the fact that the person is an author).

The first step with social media is to become an active (but not overactive!), welcome participant in a setting where many people in the target audience can be reached. Ideally, this should start one or more years prior to publishing. When an author suddenly shows up just to market the book, it doesn’t make a good impression.

See how other authors use the social media site successfully before starting to use it as a marketing tool. Also study how some authors misuse it. Learn about hashtags before using them at Twitter. Find author fanpages at Facebook to get ideas for making one.

A personal Facebook account (this isn’t a fanpage) can help to create a little buzz and possibly get an early boost from friends, family, acquaintances, and coworkers – but if they aren’t in the target audience, don’t expect too much help here.

Once a fanpage has grown, it can help to create buzz for a new book. It must provide valuable content in order to draw the audience in the first place. The website for it should be visible in the author’s books. An email group can serve a similar purpose – but people won’t subscribe to advertisements.

Fewer than 10% of the posts on social media should be geared toward promoting the book directly. This reduces the chances of being tuned out.

Remember, building connections and interacting with other authors and fans is a very important part of social media.

For example, most bloggers are bombarded with numerous review requests. Suppose an author has already made a connection with a blogger in the target audience who sometimes reviews books. They have been mutual followers and actively communicating for months. Will this author have an edge when it comes to making a polite review request (that follows the blogger’s posted instructions)? The author may have even already reviewed the other blogger’s book.

(7) Are you blogging effectively? Effective use of blogging shares many common traits with effective use of social media. It’s largely about connections and interactions, and not about direct advertising or immediate sales.

But blogging does have a different feel. When blogging, authors tend to provide more content, which has many benefits. It provides extra writing practice. Extra practice means a chance to find a voice and a style, to try out new forms of writing, or to develop a character. (But lengthy fiction may have trouble finding an audience in the blogging world.)

There are more benefits than just practice. A popular post may be searched for and discovered through a search engine. Writing a post can help relieve stress or receive needed support. The sense of community can make this a place of comfort for the author.

A blog can gradually draw in members of the target audience by providing valuable content. Excellent content may not get many views at first. It takes quality and time, which means care and patience from the author. Don’t give up.

Since blogging is a writing sample, punctuation, spelling, grammar, style, etc. are important. Mistakes can deter potential buyers or followers.

It’s also important to appear professional: People who discover the blog are potential customers. Unprofessional behavior can deter sales.

(8) Are you branding successfully? Successful branding is very important part of an effective marketing campaign. Most marketing efforts’ dominant effect is branding.

A big part of social media and blogging is to help with an author’s branding. Although it may not result in immediate sales, and the connection between the sales and the social media may not be obvious, successful branding is very important.

All of an author’s exposure (not just social media and blogging) contribute to the author’s branding.

The brand is one or more of the following: the book, the book cover, the author’s name, the author’s photo, a distinctive character (like Sherlock Holmes), the title, the series title, etc.

Commercials don’t succeed because people see a product on t.v. and immediately run out to the store. Rather, they succeed through branding. When people buy paper towels, they usually go with a brand they’ve heard of before. That’s branding.

The more the target audience sees a book (and associates positive qualities with the book’s brand), the more likely audience members are to recognize the book.

When a customer is shopping for a book in that genre, if the customer sees the book and recognizes it, it’s due to branding. The customer thinks, “I remember seeing this before and it seemed interesting at the time.” Branding helps to sell books.

As the brand becomes more well-known, it becomes better than just recognition. Perhaps a customer has bought one book and loved it. Now the customer searches for the author’s name. This is a higher level of branding.

Maybe a customer has seen this author’s name on several books in the genre. The author is looking increasingly well-known through branding.

Successful branding doesn’t bring instant sales, but it brings very important sales. Branding requires patience. A customer might see the book today, three months from now, and six months from now. After that, it might be weeks before the customer is shopping for a book in that genre. Then several months after first seeing the book, it may generate a sale.

This is why marketing requires patience. It can take one to two years of active, diligent marketing for the efforts to really pay off. (Even then, points one thru five are critical.) Once branding starts to pay dividends, word-of-mouth sales can really grow (assuming the book is likely to generate them).

Branding is also about exposure. If a book meets the first five points above, then the more people who discover and read the book, the more people are likely to refer it to others.

Freebies can generate exposure. But if the freebie doesn’t satisfy the first five points above, it probably won’t help. Also, price doesn’t sell books. Just making it free may not result in many actual readers (although it may result in many downloads – though this isn’t even guaranteed – many don’t result in actual reads).

To get actual readers, the author must successfully promote the freebie (that’s where part of the 10% of the social media or blog posts can be helpful; a little advertising may have potential, or sites that list freebies may help). Promoting a temporary sale rather than a freebie can also generate exposure.

(9) Did you wait too long to begin marketing? Marketing begins with pre-marketing – i.e. marketing strategies employed before the book is ever released.

Start out by creating buzz for the book. Build a following before publishing. Occasionally let fans and acquaintances know how the book is progressing – to try to create interest. A focus group among fans or potential fans can help with this. Do a cover reveal. Ask for input on the cover and title (separately) – this gives you useful feedback while creating buzz, too.

Strive to generate sales right out of the box. Get the book to reviewers months in advance of its release to help time blogging, media, or other reviews with the book’s debut. Setup preorders for a paperback with Amazon Advantage. Throw a book launch party. Do an advance reading (build a local following first and promote this effectively). Send out advance review copies to people in the target audience.

As with much of life and marketing, where there is a will, there is a way. Some creativity can help, too – not just generating interest, but getting motivated. (Example: Arrange and promote a zombie race, then follow it with a reading – if marketing a zombie book, of course.)

(10) Are you reaching your target audience? Blind marketing won’t net many sales. Yet there are authors who promote their books in front of audiences that don’t primarily consist of their target audience. This tends to make such marketing ineffective.

The target audience isn’t anyone with eyes. Think long and hard about who the target audience is. Specifically, where can these people be found? Meet and interact with the target audience in person and online. Direct branding efforts toward the target audience. Post content online that is likely to attract the target audience.

If only a small percentage of the people who see the branding efforts are in the target audience, this severely limits the potential of the branding.

The target audience is a specific group of people who are most likely to buy the book when it is discovered. Gear all marketing toward this specific audience. Strive to build a following among this audience.

Interacting personally among the target audience, making a good impression, charming them, and letting them discover the book (rather than overtly advertising it) significantly improves the prospects for sales, reviews, and recommendations. Making a concerted effort to find the target audience (and look and feel like the author belongs there – instead of seeming like the author is just there to sell a book) in person (online counts, too, but in person is the best) can be a very valuable tool.

People like to buy books by authors they have actually met, especially when they feel that the author is a professional and they enjoyed the interaction. This valuable resource is available to every author.

(11) Do the benefits outweigh the costs? Before investing money or time (that’s valuable, too!) in advertising or any other form of marketing, consider both the benefits and the costs. Realize that some of the benefits, like branding, may be quite valuable, even though they may not pay immediate dividends (or may be difficult to predict).

Paid advertising often isn’t cost-effective with regard to book sales. There may be an exception when investing to promote a temporary sale, for example, with wide visibility among the target audience.

Long-term branding is more likely to pay off than advertising efforts intended to generate immediate sales.

(12) Are you impatient, or looking for a shortcut? Marketing is work, and it requires patience.

Marketing isn’t about a finding a shortcut. It’s not about instant sales. It’s not just about making money (authors who feel this way betray their marketing efforts – prospective customers see right through them).

Marketing is about building and establishing a brand, growing a following and fan base, and interacting with other authors and fans. It takes wisdom, commitment, effort, patience, and belief.

Good things can come in time to those who earn them and wait.

Another important marketing point is future works: It’s not just about one book. The first book attracts notice and slowly develops an author’s reputation. Subsequent books market to the existing fan base in addition to new customers. Multiple books allow for add-on sales.

A readership can grow significantly over the course of time, especially as the author writes more books. Some marketing strategies – like generating buzz or a book signing – become easier once a readership has formed.

Don’t think big money, quickly, with little work. Think long-term success.

But writing subsequent books is not a substitute for marketing. Many authors get frustrated with marketing and avoid it, concentrating on what they like better – writing. However, selling a set of books successfully still requires effective marketing. Books don’t sell themselves. It takes marketing to get people to read books.

(13) Are you properly motivated, passionate, and genuine? It’s unrealistic to expect anyone else to buy a book if the author doesn’t believe in it. The author must convince himself or herself that the book is worth buying before trying to sell it to others. If the book is worth reading, it’s worth marketing.

The author who is passionate about the book must translate this passion into the marketing. It’s not about being a salesman (coming across like one may very well backfire!). It’s about helping the target audience discover a book that’s a good fit.

It’s about sharing. Think of marketing as helping to share a book that’s worth reading. It’s about sharing it with the target audience.

People can see through half-hearted attempts. Think about marketing until understanding it in terms that make it seem very much worth doing. To help people find a book that they will enjoy.

Get motivated to market the book. Make a concerted effort. Make a long-term commitment to marketing (it’s okay to abandon one thing that doesn’t seem to be working to explore another form of marketing – but realize that many forms of marketing don’t pay quick dividends).

Consider This: A few extra weeks or months spent improving the marketability (cover, blurb, Look Inside, editing, formatting, etc.) of a book that has great potential (this part is very important) could pay huge dividends long-term.

If the book hits the market a few months sooner, it starts to generate sales sooner. But if the book would generate a higher frequency of sales by waiting a few months, it may generate many more sales in the long run. It’s not just a matter of how many more books may be sold in one month. For how many years will this book be on the market? How many other books will be available (since the success of one book may improve the sales of the others)?

Does the book have enough potential to warrant the extra work or expense? That’s the million-dollar question. To some extent, research can help.

Do you have enough motivation to market your book effectively and diligently over a long period (and to pre-market your book, too)? The commitment is very important.

How much do you believe in your book? If you really believe in it, why not go all out? In the worst case, you won’t have doubts about whether or not you should have put more effort into its marketability.

4,000 Words: Wow. This post is as long as many short stories. I suppose I could have published it as an e-book. But I think it looks better here on my blog.🙂

Chris McMullen, author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers, Vol. 1 (formatting/publishing) and Vol. 2 (packaging/marketing)

23 comments on “Marketing: “Why Isn’t It Working?”

  1. Excellent advice again, Chris. Seriously. I see where my strengths are (professional writing, research, characterization, passion), and where my weaknesses are. The one that popped up for me, from this article, is my blind acceptance when anyone thinks I have mixed genres (largely for putting people and emotion into sci-fi), when I actually have not.

    I’ve always written outside the box, so accepted that maybe my books push beyond the sci-fi genre, but that’s not what it is at all. My books are complex and deep with multiple threads, and you get to meet and know minor characters as well as the leading ones – whereas publishing houses want to fill their stables with simpler stories and a single hero/single thread. Hence, I’m above and beyond, but not outside science fiction.

    Good heavens, thank you – you’ve given me my tomorrow’s post!

    Cheers! 🙂 🙂 🙂

    • Thank you.🙂 An important marketing tool is perception. Of course, I don’t mean deceit, which will backfire. Rather, I mean using the packaging and marketing to show the target audience how the book fills their needs. If the book does fill their needs, but doesn’t seem to when they hear about it or check it out, then perception is a problem. Good luck with your book and your coming post.

      • Thanks Chris, I don’t mean deceit either (don’t know where that comes into it), I just see I should stop being wishy-washy about whether the scope of my books push beyond the genre or does not. Some characters fall in love, for instance, does that make it a romance? No, it does not. If theirs is not the main story, it’s a human interplay that happens along the way and perfectly fine – it’s not a mixed genre.

        Like that.🙂

    • (I’m sorry; I didn’t introduce that word with any connection to you; I only included that note for the benefit of anyone who may be reading the comments who isn’t familiar with my blog – who might interpret that the wrong way.)

      Your example is very much what I had in mind in the way of creating the proper perception.🙂

      • Thank you!😀 I love giving an example. By the way, I’ve written my post and got it up, and had great fun doing it (I love it when a good post comes together).

        Thank you again for helping clear my own perception. Cheers to you.😀

  2. The comment about mixing genres caught my eye. As one who continually tries to combine chicklit with social/political commentary, I sympathize. It does make the marketing process more challenging.

    • A few popular authors have been quite successful at integrating ideals, philosophies, or commentaries into their books, though not necessarily in chick lit. One way is to find subtle ways of doing so. Another way is to create a positive perception about this and start a new trend. And then there may be a niche audience for it that you just have to find. But definitely it adds to the marketing challenge. Good luck with your book.🙂

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  5. Well Chris, thanks for leading me to your blog from Createspace. After reading your blog on why my marketing is not working I realize I have a long way to go. I am very introverted so I probably wont be looking for opportunities to give talks and I think things are different here in Jamaica. However, I will work on other avenues and hope my sales will increase. As we say in Jamaica “one, one coco full basket.”

    • Thank you for visiting my blog. I hope you found something useful here. All authors differ in their situations, skill sets, and needs, so definitely you need to factor this into your marketing decisions. If only there were a one-size-fits-all.🙂 Good luck with your books.

      My parents visited Jamaica once. If I recall correctly, they said (at least, back then) that, “No problem,” was a common saying there. I hadn’t heard the full basket line before; thanks for sharing it.

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  7. Thanks for this excellent post which I picked up from today’s link. I just wondered, you talk about blurb for fiction and how that should be short etc.. which I totally agree with and I also agree that this is the point of sale bit. I wondered if you knew of anyone/anywhere who will check/advise on blurbs? I have re-written mine numerous times but I am so close to it now, it is impossible to tell whether it would grip someone who (by some miracle) happened across my book. Thank you.🙂

    • I feel that the best thing is to show it to a variety of people—both authors who may contribute from the marketing side and readers who can tell you if it grabs their attention. Most people will read and comment on a blurb if asked because it doesn’t take long to read. A variety of feedback will help you see if there is a common issue and give you different options to consider. Personally, I think seeing how your target audience reacts to it is more valuable than, say, consulting a blurb-writing expert because in the end, it’s not the expert opinion that may be buying your book, but readers from your genre. Good luck with your book.🙂 (I would read it and share my views, but realize that I may not be in your target audience and the books I publish aren’t fiction.)

      • Thank you Chris, I appreciate you taking the time to respond to this for me. I will definitely do that, I may post it on my blog for comments but that will only really get author’s opinions – I could show it to a few people and just ask them if they would buy that book. Great advice, thank you. And if you would be happy to read the blurb then I would more than appreciate any feedback!🙂

    • If you can find some people who read that genre (or read anything, will be better than nothing), that will be helpful, too. When you make your blurb available, feel free to post a note here to let me know.🙂

  8. Being new to ebook marketing, I’m soaking up all the knowledge that I can and your blog is a valuable resource. I’m constantly amazed at how complex social media marketing is and how many small things can make a significant difference to sales. I’ve begun to blog about my own progress, partly as a tool to motivate myself to continue and to help me focus on what works. Thanks Chris, you will be getting a plug shortly.

    • It does seem surprisingly complex, but the simple thing is to get started and once you do, that’s the trick to learning the intricacies and benefiting from it. Good luck with your book.🙂

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