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Top 10 Reasons Your 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.

Why isn't your self-published book selling?

Why isn't your self-published book selling?

Why Don't Self-Publish Books Sell?

“Why isn’t my book selling?”

I think most self-published authors agonize over this issue at some point, or even most of the time. From my own experience of selling a self-published book on Amazon, as well as observing the challenges of other authors, I’ve identified several reasons why a book isn’t selling.

1. Too Much Competition

It's been said that self-publishing has democratized the publishing world. That's true. Almost everyone can self-publish on the likes of Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP).

And that's the problem.

Just to give you an idea of the magnitude of competition for any self-published book:

In September 2016, R. R. Bowker—the ISBN number registrar in the United States—reported that there were over 725,000 ISBN registrations for self-published works. Keeping in mind that since Amazon's KDP eBook publishing program does not require an ISBN, this number is a low estimate of what's really out there. Plus, this doesn't include ISBN registrations for traditionally published works.

Amazon's Kindle Unlimited (KU) monthly book reading subscription program advertises that there are over 1 million titles available. That includes both traditional and self-published titles. Plus, that's only those titles that are eligible for and participate in the KU program. There are certain to be many, many more titles that do not participate in the program but are available for sale.

And as reported in 2010 on Fast Company, Google estimates there are over 129 million books in the world. That was the estimate in 2010. That number is sure to have ballooned even more since then.

That's a lot of competition! The publishing world, both self and traditional, is a noisy, crowded space, with offerings ranging from long-forgotten ancient works to the latest eBook published a few moments ago. So this is a legitimate reason why any individual self-published title will struggle in any marketplace.

While the sheer volume of books of all types can dwarf any self-published book's chances for sales, that doesn't mean that authors can't improve their chances of making sales and earning royalties. But it all comes down to the book's marketing and mission.

2. Not Knowing the Book's Direct Competition

It’s clear that any self-published book will have an overwhelming amount of competition from every possible book on the planet. But there is going to be a specific subset of books and authors that will directly compete. To help the readers see your book as a potential choice, you need to position your book near these relevant competitors.

3. Writing a Book in a Vacuum

I’m always shocked when I ask authors about the audience for their books, and they don’t have a clue. Essentially, they’re writing a book in a vacuum. Then they’re surprised when it doesn’t sell because it doesn’t resonate with readers.

4. Writing Where There's No Market

As discussed above, it’s wise to see what other similar books are in the marketplace. If there are very few or no books even close to the one being written, it could signal that no market exists for it. The book may be too unique to attract sales. Or there may not be enough potential buyers, and the market will be exhausted quickly.

5. Writing Without an Author Platform

If authors don’t have a following on email, blogs, social media, and mass media eager to read what they write—usually referred to as an author platform—sales will be slow or nonexistent since a following must be built after the fact. Create the market, then create a book for it.

Create the market, then create a book for it.

— Heidi Thorne

6. Book Cover Issues

Many self-published book covers (and interiors, too) look amateurish. I definitely recommend that self-published authors save some cash and use free or low-cost cover creation tools and services. However, don’t make it look like junk! Again, looking at competitors’ offerings, especially those that are traditionally published, can show what might appeal to the target market.

And always make sure cover art is easily viewed in a tiny size that would be typical on online book product pages. In today’s online world, that can have quite an impact on sales.

7. Price Too High or Low

This is another instance where knowing the competitive landscape for a self-published book is essential. What are other similar books in the genre or category charging? Pricing a book in line with others can also help position a book as a choice for readers.

Don’t buy into the notion that pricing a book at $0.99 will automatically attract sales! That may even make the book look like it has less value. Conversely, charging way too much could cause readers to pass the book over in favor of similar lower-cost options. Figure out an ideal price point based on cost and competition!

8. Unrealistic Book Sales Expectations

Even if their books are selling, some self-published authors are disappointed with their volume of sales. Their expectations in terms of volume could be based on wishes.

The reality is that self-published book sales will initially be made to one's immediate pool of family and friends. And sales may not extend much farther than that without more extensive and expensive marketing and PR. Backlist titles can bring in sales long after a book is published, but they will probably be sporadic.

9. "Sell" Is a Four-Letter Word

Authors who fancy themselves too much as artists may bristle at the thought of having to actually sell or market their self-published books. Whether their resistance is caused by arrogance, ignorance, or fear, their books languish in the no-sell zone. In self publishing, authors must come to grips with the fact that they are marketers.

10. Is the Book Just Bad?

I've saved the worst possibility for last. Many self-published books are just bad. Sometimes I'm just embarrassed for the author!

But I've also placed this problem last because I also know that there are a lot of hardworking self-published authors who do create great books. In these cases, the lack of sales can be attributed to one of the foregoing issues. So continue to do great writing, but also do great marketing!

In self-publishing, authors must come to grips with the fact that they are marketers.

— Heidi Thorne

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.

© 2017 Heidi Thorne


Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on October 31, 2017:

Linda, I wonder if people really knew what it took to successfully self publish, would they still do it? So I threw this out there in the hopes that even at least one starry-eyed self publisher might get a dose of reality. Thanks for stopping by and commenting! Happy Halloween!

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on October 30, 2017:

Thank you for sharing the information, Heidi. It's something that everyone considering self-publishing should read.

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on October 29, 2017:

Peg, no kidding! The numbers are just so overwhelming, it's a wonder any self published books get sold at all. Thanks so much for stopping by and joining the conversation! Have a Happy Halloween week!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on October 29, 2017:

Kristen, absolutely true! Poor--or no!--editing is one of the biggest issues with self publishing. Since I also am an editor, I've seen the issues you note here. Thanks for adding your professional experience to the conversation! Have a great Halloween week!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on October 29, 2017:

Bill, a lot of your Mailbag questions (and a terrific comment from our friend FlourishAnyway) were certainly inspiration for this article. Thanks for stopping by and I'll see you in the Mailbag this week!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on October 29, 2017:

Flourish, like you, I'm definitely not one to mince words. Thanks for stopping by and chiming in. Have a great Halloween week ahead!

Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on October 29, 2017:

Donna, I think you're definitely not alone in your thinking! I think it will dissipate as time goes on and self publishing becomes more of the norm than the exception. Thanks for adding that insight to the conversation! Have a Happy Halloween Week!

Peg Cole from North Dallas, Texas on October 29, 2017:

From a numbers standpoint alone, the competition for sales is astounding. Along with the rest of your clearly detailed reasons, it truly explains the challenges self published authors face.

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on October 29, 2017:

Heidi, great insightful thoughts on why those self-pub books aren't selling like hot cakes. Another reason could be it's poorly edited and feels like a rough draft, or the author didn't know the right genre for their books. (I've came across this issue twice, when I had to read two e-books for Upwork from my client last month and had to give them a low-rated review with only edit advice.)

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on October 29, 2017:

A reality check if I ever saw one. Thanks for issuing it. This needs to be required reading for all writers.

I completely agree with everything you wrote. I hear complaints all the time through the Mailbag series...why won't it sell....and without exception the answer to that question is in this fine article.

Happy Sunday to you, Heidi!

FlourishAnyway from USA on October 29, 2017:

You tell it like it is! Fabulous article with truths that needed to be told.

Donna Herron from USA on October 29, 2017:

Hi Heidi - I must admit I'm just getting used to the idea of self-published books, mainly by reading your hubs. Generally when I hear of self-published books, I think that the book wasn't good enough to be published by an established publishing house. I know this is an out-dated assumption, particularly in our modern digital age. But I think I'm probably not alone in this out-dated way of thinking and I wonder if this plays a part in some book sale issues?