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Help! My Self-Published Book Isn't Selling

Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing advocate and author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. She is a former trade newspaper editor.

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Pretty regularly, like around once a week or so, I come across a post from an author on social media where they’re crying about their low book sales. Sometimes this is accompanied by a link to the books on Amazon. Other times, it’s just a generalized cry for help, or maybe just crying.

After reviewing many of these posts, I’d like to share some general observations about what ails these authors, their books, and their book sales.

Sneaky Self-Promo

Usually, I run across these posts in groups or forums where self-promotion is either frowned upon or outright prohibited. This cry for help is kind of a sneaky way to say, “Hey, check out my book on Amazon,” hoping that a few might buy. I especially think this is the case when the author is whining about low sales in the first month. Or it’s a new author with their first book, and they have some serious “look at me”-ism.

In these cases, I’ll comment asking about what they’re doing with their marketing. Often, there’s no response. Busted!

Pity Pleas

Other posts are just plain sad, like really sad. They cry about how their life is a mess, how they’re facing some life challenges, or that the social media platforms are doing them wrong. Then it’s wrapped up with, “If you could please buy my book, it would really help me out.”

I’ve called out pitiful pity selling before. In short, pity buying is when a sale is achieved because the buyer feels sorry for the seller. It’s an emotional bandage for the seller, giving them a false and temporary sense of success. Sales eventually and inevitably drop off, and the seller is once again plunged into another round of sadness, prompting even more pity posts. Sometimes, I’ve noticed that the pitiful story continues to take a downward spiral in future posts, with even sadder details and developments.

This is a vicious cycle that serves no one. Sales that are made without true buyer want and desire are not true sales.

Keyword Stuffing

One thing I’ve often noticed in these complainers’ Amazon book listings is keyword stuffing, particularly for low content books.

For example, a blank journal “title” might be something like this:

“Super Cool Journal for Children Age 5 to 9, 8-1/2” X 11”, Lined Pages, Including Fun Questions and Answers about Animals, 10 Animal Stories…”

And that’s how the title starts. It’s almost a paragraph long! Is this the title? Or the product description?

These authors are aware that titles are super important for searchability on Amazon. But they haven’t gotten the message that Amazon, like the Google search engine, is sensitive to keyword stuffing. That’s a sure way to prompt the robots to lower your search rank to the bottom of the listings.

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Plus, these authors’ books are usually in hyper-competitive product categories, especially in the low content arena. Two of these books that I checked out on Amazon were in product categories that had over 60,000 listings each. These authors may have understood they were in a very competitive market but thought they could game the system with keyword stuffing the title.

Unrealistic Advertising Expectations

It’s interesting and encouraging that some authors in these groups are trying Amazon ads to promote their books. So I’ll give them credit. The problem is that they don’t understand how advertising and Amazon advertising work.

Advertising can take a long time to realize results. Unless a campaign is completely running off the rails and sapping your cash stash fast, leave it alone for up to 6 months so you can see trends. Some authors in these groups are upset that one month of ads hasn’t produced a groundswell of sales.

Amazon advertising isn’t a vending machine where you deposit payments for ads, and book sales automatically, reliably, and sustainably come out. You’ll have good and bad days, weeks, and months with Amazon ads.

At this point, the Amazon advertising platform is pretty mature, meaning that it’s super competitive and expensive now. I’ve been advertising on Amazon since 2016. Back in the early days, I was getting great ROI. Now I’m lucky to break even.

It's Not About the Book

The crying authors also ask fellow group members for feedback on their book so that they can either revise the current book or do better on the next book. Fellow author members are all too happy to dive in with comments on the book cover, illustrations, whatever.

What the authors and the commenters ignore is that it’s not so much about the book as it is about the market and marketing for the book. They still erroneously believe that the “better” the book, the better the sales. This leads to a never-ending loop of publishing perfectionism.

While it’s true that you have to have an acceptable level of book quality, that quality level will be determined by the demands of the market, as well as comparable titles, and the resources you have available to invest in attaining perfection. Sadly, most of these authors don’t even understand the markets they’re targeting.

No Author Platform, No Book Sales

Sometimes I jump into the comments to interrupt the “better” book conversation, and ask the author about their following or author platform. The answers can range from no response to “I don’t like social media.”

In observing these comment threads and posts, I’ve realized there are two types of authors who make these posts. There are the authors who are “authors.” They just want to continue authoring. They hope sales will happen magically without any marketing.

The other authors, if you can call them that, are entrepreneurs. I even hesitate to call them authorpreneurs because they’re not truly authors. They’ve slapped together something that they hope will make money. They may have watched some “get rich quick” videos on YouTube and found one that told them they could make gobs of money publishing Kindle eBooks, children’s books, or other such nonsense. They might do ads because another YouTuber told them that ads work. Some videos may even tell them that they can make mountains of sales without social media. Then, after they realize this is a long game with a long ROI horizon and more cost and resources than they can even anticipate, they’re out. Some of these will call themselves “serial entrepreneurs,” though “serial failure” is more accurate.

As I’ve harped on over and over again, you can estimate that about 1 percent of your author platform, or fan base, will actually buy your book as a unit sale. That may even be optimistic as more people jump into subscription reading programs like Kindle Unlimited.

My suggestion is to quit crying in the author groups and forums and spend time building your audience of potential book buyers and fans.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2022 Heidi Thorne

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