The Real Key to Strong Book Sales

It has been a mantra in self-publishing circles that an author’s most reliable pathway to long-term financial success is to rapidly write and publish more and more books. This strategy is supposed to increase your exposure and name recognition, and therefore the “discoverability” of your books to buyers who browse retail websites like Amazon. 

This quantitative strategy seems perfectly sensible, too. The key to strong sales is to make your work visible, or “discoverable,” to your target audience of readers. So, how could your cumulative sales over time not increase if you issue an ever-expanding number of titles for readers to find and buy?

Author Mike Dennis recently summarized this mantra as: “Write more books. That’s the surefire way to increase sales!”  However, Dennis touched off an intense online debate by questioning the validity of this “quantitative” strategy on the “K-Board Writer’s Cafe” site, a discussion board for self-publishing authors.

Despite his release of more and more titles over the past two years, he reports steadily declining monthly book sales since January 2012. That month he sold 1077 books, spread over 6 different titles. By August 2012 Dennis had increased his offerings to 9 books; yet his cumulative sales had plunged to only 159 copies. A year later, in July 2013, he had 10 titles for sale, but the total purchased that month sagged to 90 copies. And though by October 2013 he had added yet another book, his total monthly sales for all 11 titles were just 42 copies.

Discouraged by this trend, Dennis asked if fellow authors also were experiencing declining sales over time, despite publishing more books. A lot of other writers then chimed in to confirm the trend. Clearly rattled, the discussion participants have since been bemoaning — and trying to explain — the apparent failure of this, one self-publishing’s main articles of faith. After all, how could you not sell more copies if you publish more titles?

They have pondered a host of possible explanations for what seems inexplicable. Has Amazon changed its promotional algorithms to hurt sales? (Why would they do that?) Maybe our books aren’t ideally categorized on such online sales sites. Maybe authors need to compile better customer email lists — or perhaps they should start (or stop) using this pricing strategy, that sales channel, or the other promotional gimmick. Or maybe the ebook market has just become overly glutted with too many self-published titles clamoring for readers’ attention.

On and on the thread goes, with numerous hypotheses, theories, personal anecdotes, and suggestions. And many of them have a lot of merit. Other writers, such as Libby Fischer Hellmann, have weighed in; in fact, I have offered my own suggestions about marketing.

Now, all other things being equal, it’s probably true that more titles = more visibility —> more sales. But I don’t think all other things are equal. Focusing mainly on quantity, no writer, no matter how prolific, can possibly crank out books fast enough to keep up with the thousands of new titles being published each week. The sea of available titles is now enormous, and ever-expanding. In that vast sea, how are your kind of customers going to discover your titles?

 

Marketing experts have wrestled with that problem for decades. I learned a lot about how to achieve visibility in a glutted marketplace by reading the books by marketing gurus Jack Trout and Al Ries — especially their little classic, Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind. Its subtitle is How to Be Seen and Heard in the Overcrowded Marketplace — and that, of course, is exactly what  authors need to know.

Though not written specifically for writers, the book offers us many great lessons and insights, and I don’t want to take up space here repeating them. But its overriding principle of “positioning” is about how to distinguish yourself and/or your product so that it stands out from the pack and achieves a unique, memorable “position” in your target customer’s mind.

stand-out-from-the-crowd

Yes, the key to commercial success is achieving visibility to your target audience; but the pathway to visibility is not necessarily the quantity of one’s works. A second element, of course, is the quality of one’s writing.

However, even here, let me be clear about what I mean by “quality.” I don’t only mean “craftsmanship,” although striving for professionalism in writing, marketing, and all aspects of publishing is extremely important. Still, a meticulously written story that follows all the “rules” can be a dull, unimaginative affair. In my opinion, then, craft is a necessary but not sufficient condition for strong sales.

When I think about the super-selling books, though, what they have in common is that they are distinctive. They stand out as something fresh and memorable, because they contain unique themes, plots, and characters. They present provocative ideas, unusual settings, iconic personalities. And that is why they become “visible” . . . often, without even much of a marketing push. Those kinds of books succeed by “word of mouth.” Consider:

Hunger Games. A society living inside a huge underground silo. A hulking, ex-Army vigilante drifter. An ape-man who lives in the jungle. An arrogant London private detective with an encyclopedic memory and dazzling powers of observation, induction, and deduction. A hunt for a giant man-eating shark. A hunt for a giant ship-killing white whale. A park where cloned dinosaurs roam. A magical baseball field in a cornfield, where the ghosts of legendary players return. A WWII German assassination plot against Churchill. A contract killer’s quest to assassinate Charles DeGaulle. An Australian girl torn between two lovers — one, a young Catholic priest. A willful young woman in the Civil War torn between a gentleman who represents the Old South, and a dashing rogue who represents the emerging postwar era. A boy wizard in a school for wizards. A small group of Allied commandos who must take out two giant German guns poised to decimate their navy. A Soviet nuclear sub commander’s desperate quest to escape to the West with his vessel. A female bail bondsman who gets into wacky adventures . . .

Big or small, international or intimate, such stories and characters grab readers’ imaginations, and that all important “discoverability,” because they stand out from the pack. They’re distinctive. They’re innovative. They’re imaginative. So much so that they “brand” themselves upon our minds.

By contrast, when I scan the titles and covers or read the product descriptions of most books on Amazon, the overwhelming majority don’t grab me and aren’t memorable. How many thriller covers display a small shadow image of some running figure against a city backdrop? How many romance covers flaunt bare male chests and heaving breasts? Pick your genre, and the titles and covers often seem interchangeable. Worse, the product descriptions don’t suggest that the novel is . . . well, novel.

And so each such title sinks into the sea of like titles, drowning under waves of familiarity, similarity, repetition. Worst of all, that familiarity, similarity, and repetition also can be found inside the books, in their rebooted plots and retread characters. And in an ongoing series, too often I see a once-unique premise or hero become stale, the victim of endless recycling.

So, I think the emphasis on rapidly producing lots of books, then obsessing about all sorts of tactics and gimmicks to market them, is misplaced. Marketing and promotional techniques certainly can be important aids to achieving visibility, hence to achieving long-term career success; but I think such things are secondary. They become valuable tools only if the writer focuses primarily on creating and crafting distinctive, inventive stories and characters that grab and hold people’s imaginations.

In short, I would suggest to authors that the main way to capture visibility and discoverability is not what you do to your story, but what you do in it.

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  • Nate Granzow

    Fascinating insight, Robert, as always! – Nate Granzow

    • RobertBidinotto

      I appreciate that so much, Nate.

  • Carolynn Gockel

    Thank you Robert!

    • RobertBidinotto

      Sure thing, Carolynn! You’re welcome.

  • Glenn Martin

    Thanks for your suggestions. Glenn Martin

    • RobertBidinotto

      Thank you, Glenn.

  • jefishman

    Brilliant post. History shows that it is hard to be original. And, then again, one must somehow be original in a way that fits the zeitgeist.

    • RobertBidinotto

      That nails it, right there. “Original in a way that fits the zeitgeist.” Thanks!

      Recently I saw a fabulous 3-part PBS documentary, “Superheroes: The Never-Ending Battle.” It dealt precisely with that issue. The first of them, “Superman,” came along in 1938, during the Great Depression. Two young Jewish comic-book artists created him. Like many young members of religious and ethnic minorities, they felt culturally marginalized, and they had both been bullied as kids And they were struggling, like everyone else, in the Depression — a period where everyone felt powerless and helpless by forces beyond their control and understanding.

      Well, Superman was a personal empowerment fantasy. He was in one guise an ordinary man, but he had hidden, latent “powers and abilities beyond those of mortal men.” He also was an alien to American culture, an outsider who had come here to try to integrate himself into the American mainstream as “Clark Kent” — about as Anglo a name as you can imagine. And he fought for Truth, Justice, and the American Way.

      And this character, this empowerment fantasy projection, overnight became a sensation. He appealed to all those who felt like alienated outsiders, who felt powerless and helpless, who felt they were victims of injustices…during one of the most disruptive and dispiriting periods of American history.

      In short, he “fit the zeitgeist” of the time. After all, culture is only a sum of the individual values, yearnings, fears, hopes, and fantasies of millions of individuals. Superman clicked with what millions, especially millions of kids in the American “Melting Pot,” were feeling and experiencing and wishing during that period. And he became an instant cultural icon.

      The documentary series went on to show the evolution of comic-book superheroes over the generations — how they changed as the culture did, expressing new values and emerging concerns.

      Believe me, this all really struck home with me, confirming and clarifying a lot of thoughts I’ve harbored for a long time. And it is clearly relevant to what we’re discussing here — about “positioning” your work, and “branding ” it.

      If you “position” your stories/characters in such a way that they tap into the values, yearnings, and fantasies of an identifiable target audience — and if you are a skilled, professional storyteller — then you are well on your way to commercial success. If you’re really lucky, and your stories/characters are positioned to tap into the values, yearnings, and fantasies of a broad swath of the culture, then you are well on your way to having a breakout mega-bestseller(s).

      • jefishman

        I completely concur, Robert. The hard part is that it is much easier to explain in retrospect how something hit the zeitgeist and much, much harder to hit it looking forward. Perilous, too, as by the time you finish writing, the spirit of your identified audience — or of the age — may have moved on. Which of course is not an argument for not trying!

        There is undoubtedly a great dirth of originality out there, as there always has been. And if one is writing genre, successful originality usually means advancing the form, not starting from scratch. As a film agent once told me, “Hollywood wants something fresh, but not too fresh.” In commercial fiction, the same applies to what readers want.

  • R.E. McDermott

    A terrific and well-reasoned analysis. (As usual) 🙂

    • RobertBidinotto

      Well, thank you, Bob! And obviously you’re doing “distinctive” things with your own stories, given their stellar and steady sales.

  • Mike Dennis

    Insightful post, Robert. When I started that thread on Kindleboards a couple of weeks ago, I had absolutely no idea it would ignite such a debate, but it’s clear to me now that the concept needed to be aired. I’m glad to see you jump in.

    You make a good point, that a story needs some intrinsic “X” factor to make it unique, to draw the reader to it. And the examples you gave of famous novels drove the point home. I have actually floated that idea to myself, that my stories lack some mysterious inventive element that would pull in readers and drive sales. It would make sense, after all, because selling fewer than two books per day (over 11 titles) is certainly an indication that something is lacking.

    In any case, thanks for weighing in on this important topic, and I’ll be checking back occasionally to see if your blog followers chime in with more opinions.

    • RobertBidinotto

      Mike, I want to thank and congratulate you for the courage to raise this challenge to the conventional wisdom, and also to share your own sales stats and personal reflections with other authors. You caused me to rethink the “quantitative mantra” myself, and to realize that there was something about it that didn’t quite make sense. If I had to summarize it in a sentence:

      Quantity of books will bring lots of cumulative sales IF visibility is achieved by other means; but quantity alone will not necessarily build visibility and sales.

      So yes, by all means write and publish as many books as you can. But don’t expect that alone to generate significant and ongoing sales. Other factors, usually intrinsic to the books themselves, will capture reader attention and interest. Once that happens, then the more books you have out there, the better.

      Thanks again for a brave and insightful post, Mike.

  • gary ponzo

    Yes, I agree with your theory and there’s no doubt a unique book stands out. I would suggest, however, an element of luck plays a part as well. Otherwise how do you explain 50 Shades of Gray?

    • RobertBidinotto

      Sure, luck plays a part. I haven’t read “50 Shades” and have no plans to, but the general buzz is that it isn’t great literature. However, I would suspect that something about it is original and distinctive from some of the previous offerings in that, um, er, “genre.” Either that, or a subterranean latent market for “mommy porn” out there suddenly was directed — by some p.r. means — toward that one book, making it trendy. I’m sure the “Tipping Point” phenomenon had a lot to do with that, once the publicity started. But I just don’t know.

    • SamthaS

      I’m not Robert, but I can give a bit of background on 50 Shades. 1. There was already a market for BDSM romances that had been selling fairly well. See companies like Ellora’s Cave, Samhain, Loose ID and so on that had been publishing this for over a decade (in EC’s case). 2. 50 Shades started as fan fiction for Twilight, which means that it could tap into that already large (extraordinarily large) market. Even if people hated Twilight, there was the interest in what a story about those characters having raunchy sex would be like. 3. The author had a huge following of her own in fan fiction circles. Never underestimate the power of a few “true” fans to get the word out.

      There’s more, but those are the basics. She tapped into an existing market, appealed to a ready-made audience and used her large fan following to propel her up the lists. Luck didn’t have much to do with it, as far as I can tell.

      • RobertBidinotto

        Interesting. So, James was already highly visible and had a significant following; she exploited the enormous visibility of “Twilight” series and its audience; but she also differentiated herself from Meyer with the sex focus. Writing quality issues aside, that all seems to reinforce my “positioning/branding” case. Thanks a lot for that information.

  • Andy Holloman

    excellent robert, thanks for sharing

    • RobertBidinotto

      You’re welcome, Andy.

      Just
      to be honest: I had blithely gone along with the “quantity idea” myself, because on its face, it seemed to make sense. More books = more visibility, right?

      But then you pause to ask: What can even a prolific author’s “quantity” do to win visibility, when measured against the vast and ever-growing “quantity” of titles available on outlets like Amazon?

      It was stupid of me not to realize that, and to more strongly emphasize the importance of “positioning,” of “branding,” of striving to be distinctive and stand out. Now, in fairness to myself, that IS one of my major “ten marketing tips” that I emphasized in another blog post here. But still, I’ve been pushing, somewhat out of context, the notion of “writing more books” as a vital career marketing move.

      Yes, that works…but only IF you have achieved visibility by other means — “positioning” and “branding” being among the most important. IF you do such things to gain visibility, THEN having a lot of titles will bring you great sales; but simply issuing a lot of titles per se won’t necessarily bring you great visibility and sales. That’s the fallacy of the “quantity” approach.

  • http://www.alanpetersen.com/ Alan Petersen

    Hi Robert,

    I only have one book under my belt (The Asset), so the “have more titles” mantra is something that I’ve struggled with since I just can’t write and publish ten books in one year, which is why I’ve been following Mike’s excellent thread closely on the Kboards. However, I do see both sides of the coin.

    One thing about covers; my book has been selling steadily every day, and I have one of those covers you don’t like, a shadowy man holding a gun with the city of Caracas in the backdrop, but although I agree that positioning yourself for achieving a differential advantage is important, I don’t think it’s a good idea to get too cute with a cover that doesn’t convey the gist of what genre you’re writing in.

    I write spy thrillers, and I want my covers to convey that since I’ll only have a few seconds to catch the attention of potential readers who are perusing “CIA Thrillers” on Amazon. They’re not searching for my name so I have to show them this is for you.

    Back to quantity, I do wish I could have more books in my series though since I have readers asking for more and I keep saying I’m working on it. My goal is to have three books out in the series by early 2014.

    In my opinion, a balance of the two strategies and a solid marketing plan is key, and I do agree with you Robert that just by having ten titles out for sale doesn’t mean we can sit back and wait for sales to happen by magic or luck. It could happen, but more than likely it won’t and we’ll be left scratching out head, “Hey I have 50 books out, why am I not making a lot of sales.”

    I’ll take three steady earners over a plethora of titles selling a little here and there.

    Thank you for the great thought-provoking post.

    • RobertBidinotto

      Thanks for weighing in, Alan.

      Actually, I have no problem with your cover. The figure of the man is large and somewhat detailed, even though shadowed. I meant the endless parade of covers with tiny, distant, dark figures running down a street in Washington, DC, Istanbul, Moscow, etc. My complaint isn’t that they’re not dramatic or well-executed. My complaint is that they are all the same. They will never stand out to a browsing Amazon customer. Now, an already-established bestselling author could get away with this; he could (and often does) get away with just having his name on the cover, in enormous fonts. But for someone seeking visibility, copying what everyone else does isn’t very smart. You fade into the crowd, rather than standing out.

      And my point about the quantity of book output is: That can be enormously profitable…if and when you have achieved considerable visibility. But alone, quantity won’t make an obscure author and his works visible. Visibility is only slightly impacted by the number of one’s offerings. It is much more impacted by the quality and distinctiveness of one’s offerings.

  • Valentine Williams

    Hi Robert.
    Echoing what Alan’s said, I think publishers have a lot to answer for in the choice of cover. I don’t read chick-lit, though some of it might be good, because the covers are anodyne, over- feminised and uninspiring. And they all look the same. It’s the same with a number of genres. Author Lisa Alther, having written Other Women, had a real fight with her publisher because they put a cheer leader on the cover and her book was not into all that, quite the reverse in fact. Tirgearr gave me a great cover for my last book, ‘Losing It’ and I thank them for that. I like the covers of my other books too, with Immanion Press (red/black, toadstools, trees, cat). They are gothic and strange enough to say ‘dark fiction’ to would-be readers. But as an author I know that uninspiring covers can be foisted on you by the in-house designer, who has no idea what the book’s about.
    Originality does seem to be important, and craftsmanship, but the continuing sales of quiet old classics, such as ‘Mrs Palfry at the Claremont’, also makes me think that eye catching covers and dramatic plot lines are not the whole story.
    That leaves us with word-of-mouth, and I think that is the most powerful selling point of all.
    I’m in the middle of writing about an archaeologist, a witnessed suicide and the ‘Ndrangheda. I’ll let you know !

    • RobertBidinotto

      Please do! And good luck with it, Valentine. It sounds intriguing.

  • Libby Fischer Hellmann

    Well said, Robert.

    • RobertBidinotto

      Thanks, Libby. And thank you much for your provocative blog post on this topic.

  • John Brown

    Robert,
    This to me is the key insight here: “Quantity of books will bring lots of cumulative sales IF visibility is achieved by other means; but quantity alone will not necessarily build visibility and sales.”

    I will also say that distinctiveness/quality isn’t enough either.

    Back in 2008 Duncan Watts reported on a study he conducted with 14,000 participants looking at the role social influence played in popularity of songs. He had 8 different sites with the same collections of songs. You’d think the same high-quality songs would be most popular in each. No so.

    He reports:

    “This setup let us test the possibility of prediction in two very direct ways. First, if people know what they like regardless of what they think other people like, the most successful songs should draw about the same amount of the total market share in both the independent and social-influence conditions — that is, hits shouldn’t be any bigger just because the people downloading them know what other people downloaded. And second, the very same songs — the “best” ones — should become hits in all social-influence worlds.

    “What we found, however, was exactly the opposite. In all the social-influence worlds, the most popular songs were much more popular (and the least popular songs were less popular) than in the independent condition. At the same time, however, the particular songs that became hits were different in different worlds, just as cumulative-advantage theory would predict. Introducing social influence into human decision making, in other words, didn’t just make the hits bigger; it also made them more unpredictable.

    You can find my thoughts on this and the link to the original article here: http://johndbrown.com/2008/12/is-product-popularity-totally-random/

    • RobertBidinotto

      Fascinating stuff, John. Your post is a fertile source of fascinating marketing research for those seeking to crack the nut of “visibility.” And I’m glad you draw from that research the conclusion that an author can do things to boost his visibility, hence sales.

      That’s why I wished to add the “positioning” factor to the discussion: the idea of doing things to make your work (and yourself) distinctive. It’s closely related to the concept of “branding”: good “positioning” within a specific market can help you develop a distinctive “brand.”

      That said, I hope that no one thinks I’m saying that one factor alone is the Holy Grail of high sales. I’ve already emphasized that you will improve your odds of becoming visible by mastering the craft of writing — by learning how to captivate readers. You further improve those odds by being completely professional in your production, publishing, and promotion. Those first two elements, to me, are basic and foundational. Now, add the “positioning” factor — doing things that make your work unique and distinctive — and you greatly improve your visibility. Finally, do all of this repeatedly, with multiple books, and you will vastly increase the odds of discovery.

      Any and all of these things, as you point out in your fine post, enhance the likelihood of getting key endorsements, and those endorsements by “early adopters” can in turn engage the “tipping point” phenomenon, where a book becomes a word-of-mouth sensation.

      If anyone wants to study a fine example of this, read my interviews with Lee Child and Vince Flynn, posted here on this blog. You’ll see exactly how these two #1 bestselling thriller authors developed hero characters that were completely fresh and distinctive, and who captured the imaginations of millions of readers.

      Thanks again, John.

  • Warren Hately

    I think that’s a fair enough conclusion to draw. I always knew my alt.superhero novel series Zephyr was a fairly unique take on a genre that has been reinvented many times over. But I deliberately pursued my (as I loftily call them) “Banksy-style covers” even though a lot of the other books in my genre are more graphic novel style. FWIW more info here: http://www.amazon.com/Zephyr-Phase-One-ebook/dp/B00C3C4OZU

    • RobertBidinotto

      Interesting. It certainly sets you apart. How did that work out for you?

      • Warren Hately

        Ha, yes sets me apart and might not be to everyone’s liking. I thought/think I am doing OK as someone who has only been selfpubbing since June (though I started with three titles in my Zephyr trilogy). However, since all the link surfing and reading I have done today since happening upon your excellent blog I realise my numbers are pretty tiny. I’m only making a few hundred $ per month at present.

        • RobertBidinotto

          Cheer up. It takes a while for your target audience to find you. I had respectable sales for the first 5 months of “HUNTER’s” publication before I got lucky and things went crazy. The key thing is to make your book visible to the specific audience interested in that kind of thing. You have to be imaginative to figure out who and where they are, and how to approach them. But if you do, you’ll do just fine.

          And remember, Warren: Most writers aren’t making a DIME most months. If you’re making a few hundred per month, a lot of authors would envy you.

          • Warren Hately

            Early days for me yet, but I appreciate the feedback Robert. Interestingly I have been looking at starting a second series in a “more marketable” genre, which now gives me pause. Perhaps my modest success has been because of my niche rather than in spite of it? My other works I was looking at the utterly swamped YA Dystopia and Epic Fantasy genres. A gazillion books in these niches. Yet I have another potential series in a Fantasy/Historical setting that a bit of research on Amazon shows me is slightly less populated (and I also note their books are priced higher than my superhero novels).

          • Nancy Beck

            Count me as one of those people who makes almost nothing per month. But that’s okay for now, since I have a lot of crap going on in my personal life.

            As to going into another genre, IMHO, don’t jump into another genre unless you enjoy reading in it. There was a subgenre of romance that I thought I enjoyed, put up 2 novelettes, but haven’t gotten much in return. I’m now looking at another subgenre of romance, but I decided to READ a few of the books I liked when I was a teenager to see if I still like that particular subgenre. So far, so good, tho I’ve only read one book of the 4 I bought.
            So I would caution you before taking the leap, to make sure the passion is there. 🙂

          • Warren Hately

            Thanks Nancy. Yes you’re right. Though it was more enlightenment than desperation in the realisation that this “old” genre interest of mine could finally pay off (maybe like my “fringe” interest that fuelled my existing series) and therefore justify writing a series I have thought about on and off for years. However, at the moment being “lucky” that I do have readers of my Zephyr series, I am focusing on writing the 5th book because there’s nothing like the encouragement of watching readers swoop on the newly-released 4th book to drive me back into my writing (however small by H Howey terms my readership is).

  • Mary Burns

    Quality… amen. I am a relative newcomer to the eworld of books and have found that it is a word I don’t hear often enough. Thanks.

    • RobertBidinotto

      For sure, Mary. Quality is foundational. Writers who try to market poor-quality writing are doomed.

      • Warren Hately

        They also bring the rest of us down. As much as times are changing, the “stigma” of self-publishing is only going to be erased by consistently high quality by self-pubbing authors.

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  • Robert W. McGee

    I plan on following your advice when my first novel — Justifiable Homicide: A Political Thriller — comes out in mid-January.