An author phoned me a few days ago seeking help with an already published ebook that wasn't selling as expected. I get calls like this all the time from authors who are mystified as to why their books aren't earning them big bucks. According to most of these callers, "Writing a book that sells well is easy. Right? Just look at all those rich authors like Stephen King and that woman who wrote 50 Shades of Grey. They're selling a ton of books without really doing anything."
After a good chuckle, I start asking questions so I can look the book up on Amazon. I want to see the cover design, analyze the title and subtitle, as well as skim through the free preview as I'm talking to the author. I've been in publishing for a long time and can usually get a feel for why the book is struggling just by looking at these things.
What am I looking for? Here's the list:
- Does the cover look professional and is it genre-appropriate?
- Is the title too long or unpronounceable/difficult to spell? Is there a subtitle? If there is, does it help to clarify what the book is about?
- Is the text formatted professionally in the free preview?
- Are there typos and grammatical errors?
- Does the story grab you from the first paragraph or is the reader treated to boring background information, overuse of adjectives, poor sentence structure, verbs that don't agree, etc.?
Let's expand on these so that I can explain what I'm looking for and why.
First, the cover. If the cover looks "homemade," that's a potential reader's first clue that this book might not be all that good. Why? Because the author/publisher didn't care enough to make sure the book's first impression was a good one. If the cover doesn't adhere to what's expected for books in its genre, that's another warning flag that means the author doesn't understand what readers of this type of book are looking for. Finally, a poorly done cover sends the subliminal message that the book it accompanies is a substandard product.
Next, dealing with the title. Back to the conversation I mentioned earlier. The book in question was a fantasy story with an unpronounceable title. While fantasy books tend to have made up words for many things, it's probably a good idea to create a title that's easy to search for (i.e. spell) and pronounce — otherwise no one will ever be able to find the book. I also recommend using a subtitle for all books because it gives you a chance to explain what the book is about and to eek out a few more keywords on Amazon, which means you need to choose the words in your subtitle carefully.
The free preview provided by Amazon and other booksellers is a great promotional tool, as long as the book has been professionally edited and formatted. It has the opposite effect if the book has obvious problems in either area. Many authors think they're being smart and saving money when they bypass an editor and upload their ebook for free without paying a professional formatter. Nine times out of 10, they're actually causing potential customers to pass on their books because the corners they cut make a bad first impression.
A professional edit will eliminate the problems mentioned in #4 and #5. Editing is the most important thing authors need for their books. There is no substitute for the polish a professional editor gives to a book. Yes, it's expensive but it's also necessary! Bad reviews earned by poorly edited text will NEVER GO AWAY on Amazon, and those bad reviews will continually stop potential readers from clicking the buy button. If you spend money on nothing else, save up and pay a professional editor.
I mentioned all of the above to my frustrated caller, and he complained about the cost of using professionals, told me flat out that he didn't care that readers don't really care for present tense books, and finished up with, "I'm tired of dealing with this book because no one will help me with it unless I pay them. If people don't like it, then that's just fine with me."
This scenario is frustrating for me (and others in my field) because most new authors don't want to know about reality. They have a preconceived notion about how things work in the publishing world, and even when they're confronted with reality they just don't want to believe it. I'm sure this author will forget all about our conversation in a week or two and be back to wondering why no one is buying his book.
The moral of this long post? Successful books don't just happen. Authors of successful self-published books have researched the publishing industry, treat their writing like a career including creating a business plan and budget for each book, and they learned everything they could about their chosen genre and what readers expect from these types of books. They also constantly promote their books, which is a topic for another time.