Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Writing Wednesdays: The Four Things You Need to Sell a Book

First up: Nice Dragons Finish Last is on sale for $0.99! Hooray!! If you've been waiting for a chance to try the series (or if you want to get someone else hooked!) this is a great chance to do it on the cheap ;).

This is where the books live! Get you one!

Also, I was on Aldus Baker's podcast this week talking fiction! He asked a lot of really great questions about my Heartstriker books, so if you're interested in a behind the scenes look at Julius, Marci, Bob, Chelsie, and everyone else came to be, give it a listen!

Now, on to the post!

Writing Wednesday: The Four Things You Need to Sell a Book

You clearly need more books! Have you tried mine?

Warning: this is a post about selling books. 

I know it might not sound like an issue of craft on the surface, but the stuff I'm going to be talking about today relates very strongly to good writing. Now, obviously, if you're still writing your book, you don't have to worry about any of this yet, but if you have a title out there, or you're planning to someday, this post contains what self-publishing has taught me about how people buy books and how I can use the skills I learned as a writer to improve my sales.

Pretty much any article you read about modern authorship--self-pub or trad--talks about the recent change of the author's role from sheltered artist to promotional machine. Personally, I think this argument is a little disingenuous. So long as books have been sold for profit, authors have always been expected to help promote their own work to increase sales, often at their own expense. But while the author as salesman/woman is hardly a modern invention, the truth of the matter is that--no matter how good you get at selling yourself and your books--the vast majority of the people who buy and read your books over your career will never know (or even care) who you are.

*record scratch*

I know, I know! How can this be? We've all heard how an author's name brand sells books, just look at any big bestseller like Stephen King or Nora Roberts. But while it's true that the really big best sellers can move titles on name alone, the opposite is actually true for smaller and midlist authors. Those of us who can't yet sell a book on name alone have to rely on other factors. Marketing can definitely help with this by getting your book in front of more people, which is why authors spend money on it, but even the best campaigns will only ever reach a fraction of your total audience.

Self pub or trad, this is the reality of publishing for the vast majority of authors. Until you become a household name, most of your readership will never have heard of your book until they see it randomly on a shelf at a bookstore or in an Amazon list. One glance, that's all we get, and it is in that moment--that second when your unknown, often busy and distracted customer's eyeballs land on your book for the first time--that makes the difference between a successful book and a flop.

If that sounds overly harsh, welcome to sales! You can write the best book in the world, but if you can't catch the attention of a busy, tired, grumpy reader and convince them to take a moment and discover your genius, it's all for nothing. But do not despair! This is a problem for everyone who tries to sell things, and while no one's figured out the absolute key, for books at least, there is a very good pattern to catching and keeping reader eyeballs, and it goes like this:

Cover, title, blurb, first pages, in that order.

Now, I am most definitely not the first author to realize this. Plenty of very successful authors before me have already pointed out that this pattern is pretty much the universal blueprint to selling books. This isn't to say that these four things are the most important parts of a book, but they are the four things that readers notice first, and this makes them the four most important things when it comes to selling your book, which is what we're talking about today.

To see why this pattern works, think about the last time you bought a novel by an author you didn't know. Chances are, you saw the book on a shelf or online somewhere, and you were drawn in by something on the cover. Next, you looked at the title, which was probably also interesting or hooky in some way. The combination of these two led you to pick up/click on the book and read the back/blurb, which, if you didn't put it back down, was probably also pretty cool, or at least intriguing. At this point, you're almost sold, but you want to make sure the writing is up to snuff, so you flip the book open/click on the sample and read the first few pages. If these are good as well, that book is sold!

This pattern is the natural progression of a sale, and it's why the Cover-Title-Blurb-First Pages pattern is the way it is. Even if the rest of your novel is horrible, if you knock these four things out of the park for your target reader, you will probably sell a lot of books. Of course, if your book actually is horrible, you won't sell any more books, but you get my point. By perfecting each part of the reader's natural book browsing pattern, you vastly improve your chances of catching their attention, even when you've only got a second to make an impression.

At this point, you're probably thinking "Wow, Rachel, that's super obvious." You're right. It is super obvious when you think about it, and that's exactly the problem, because so many authors don't

I have seen authors who will spend a year perfecting their manuscript and ten minutes on their cover. I have seen big publishers who will give a book a fabulous cover only to turn around and write a shitty, sloppy blurb. I have clicked on novels in Amazon sidebar ads because the cover, title, and blurb all looked amazing only to lose all interest because there was a typo in the first paragraph, or because the opening of the story was just boring. 

Each of these screw-ups leads to lost sales, because each step of the process--the initial interest created by a good cover and fueled by a clever title, the excitement generated by a good blurb, and the final punch of a fantastic opening page--is a decision.

Readers are busy. They don't know us, and therefore have no reason to cut us slack or take a chance on our work. It's our job as commercial authors--people writing books specifically for sale--to show readers that our stories are worth taking a chance on at every step of the book buying decision. It's up to us to catch and hold the reader's attention until our stories have a chance to drag them in, which is why I'm continually amazed by how many otherwise extremely smart authors and publishers screw up or just plain ignore these four fundamentals elements of bookselling.

We get it, Rachel. This stuff is important. So how do we do it right?

This is where things get tricky. Then answer to "What makes a good cover/title/blurb/first pages?" varies according to your book's tone, genre, and what kind of reader you're aiming for. Cozy mysteries will have different selling points than gritty Thrillers, and so forth. Part of being a successful author is knowing what makes your story interesting to your audience and then figuring out how to convey that through your title, cover, blurb, and so forth.

But while there is no universal answer, there are a few basic rules to the cover/title/blurb/first pages game that apply across the board regardless of genre, or even if you're writing fiction vs non-fiction.

Readers be like
  1. Be interesting - no matter what genre you're writing, boring is the kiss of death. Anything you put in or on your book should always be of interest/appealing to your target audience, or why is it there at all?
  2. Your cover/title/blurb/opening pages are for the READER, not for you - This is probably the hardest one for authors, especially when it comes to titles. But tempting as it is to give your book a title that is deeply meaningful to the story, that's not the point. The title isn't there to be meaningful AFTER someone has read your story, it's there to make people want to read your story in the first place. The same goes for covers and blurbs and so on. These are sales elements. To properly do their job, each one must be interesting and hooky in its own right without the help of the larger story. Obviously, this doesn't mean your title/cover/etc should be unrelated to the book. You still want it to make sense! But I can't tell you how many authors I see shooting themselves in the foot by giving their book a long title that's super meaningful in context, but dull or even nonsensical on its own, thus defeating the entire point of a good title. The only exception to this rule is for later books in a series where you can use previous reader knowledge to make the title cool, such as naming the book after an already beloved character. In general, though, anything you use to hook a reader needs to be able to be cool all on its own.
  3. Invest in Your Success - You spent a long time writing this book. Don't hamstring your success by getting sloppy once that it's done. I'm not saying you have to spend thousands of dollars on a custom cover, but it makes no sense to spend a year or more getting your book perfect if you're just going to thoughtlessly slap some stock art and stock fonts on the front and call it a day. Your cover/title/blurb/first pages are the face your book presents to the world. They should be even more carefully considered than the rest of your novel. Don't rush to market. You only get one chance to launch a book for the first time, so don't be afraid to slow down and invest the time and (if you're self publishing) money needed to do the job right.
  4. Know Your Reader -  As I said at the beginning, what makes a great cover/title/blurb/opening pages depends on your book, your genre, and your audience, but it's up to you to know what that audience wants. Whatever genre you write in will have certain conventions that readers expect, and whether you're bucking them or aiming to give readers exactly what they want, your selling points still need to be placed within that context, because that's the framework your reader is operating inside. In other words, if you're writing Romance, it has to look and sound like, or at least reference, what Romance readers expect. If you don't do this, you run the risk of losing readers simply because they didn't have the cues to realize that your book was the kind they were looking for. You can't get readers if they don't know to look at your book, so make sure your book looks like what it is. It's always good to stand out and do something different, but if the cost is having your book look so different people think someone stuck it on the wrong shelf, that's just as bad. Readers come in looking for a certain kind of book experience. If you can show in your cover/blurb/title/first pages that your book is exactly what they're looking for, but also new and awesome in its own way, that's the best of both worlds.
Now, obviously these are all elements that you'll have a lot more control over if you're self-publishing. (You also have enough rope to hang yourself, but that's the price of doing it on your own!) But even if you're going the traditional route and your publisher is the one making the final decisions on your cover/title/blurb and so forth, it's still your job to speak up if you think they're making the wrong choice.

I'm not going to lie: this can be terrifying, especially if you're a newly signed author, but that doesn't change the fact that this is your book. No one wants to be "that author" who makes a fuss, but at the same time, no one will ever care about your book's success more than you do. This is your career, and you'll be the one on the ropes if this book doesn't meet sales expectations. So if you feel your publisher is making a bad call on any of these vital four sales points, bring it up. 

You don't have to be confrontational (in fact, it's better if you're not), but that doesn't mean being silent. Don't be afraid to ask why your publisher made the decisions they made. They probably have very good reasons--they want to make money on this title, too!--but you'll never know if you don't ask. Worse, if the book does end up flopping because it had a terrible cover, you'll carry that for the rest of your career, and that's far too great a risk to take on just to avoid feeling uncomfortably now.

Remember: you're the writer here. This whole enterprise depends on you. You might not be as experienced at book selling, but you know your story and your audience. That is valuable insight, don't let anyone discount it. Even if they shut you down, it's better than knowing that something was wrong, and you said nothing.

Thank you for reading another installment of Writing Wednesday! If you enjoyed this blog, please consider following me on social media (Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Google+). You can also subscribe to the blog directly via Feedburner. I do new writing posts every Wednesday and tons of publishing business/fun stuff in between, so come talk shop with me! The more the merrier. :)

Thank you again for reading, and as always, keep writing!



  1. Cover art is certainly the part I struggle with. There's an awesome artist who did the covers for my trad published books, but having gone indie I just can't afford him. Seems unfair that the cover artist should earn more than the author, however good they are.

  2. I'm not in the sell your book stage YET, but so many salient topics here. Especially about keeping it interesting! From the cover to the first few pages!

    You cannot hear that enough, as you get deeper and deeper into your story, and realize, hey! You've gotta write for your reader. Stephen King calls it CR for Constant Reader. : )

    Thanks for this piece, Rachel. I will be re-reading it. : )

  3. It's also sobering to reflect that 90 per cent of what sells a book actually takes place *outside* its covers. By the time most readers discover how good (or bad) your book is, they've already bought it. So the factors that induce them to buy are often little to do with the contents of the book, and a lot to do with what's going on around it.

  4. This is a very good post. I've been thinking about self-publishing lately. I'm about to finish my seventh book (haven't published anything previously) and it's about time I decided whether to self publish or get an agent. Your post makes it seem easier than self-publishing likely is!

  5. Oh yes. So many times I've got as far as the first few pages and found a typo....

  6. incredible work if i can say. This post is a bunch of information actually

  7. @Jimney: my advice is, do both. Self-publish and look for an agent. You don't 'decide' to get an agent, you try and try (sometimes for years) until, maybe, one of them takes a risk on you. In the meantime, self-publishing certainly doesn't harm your chances, and will probably enhance them.

    Even if you do have an agent, that agent may themselves struggle for years without success to get you a publishing deal. And that deal may end up being worse than you could have achieved on your own. So: hedge your bets.

  8. Nicely summed up, Rachel. It really is a simple case of chronology --cover, title, blurb, pages-- because there aren't many ways anyone is going to encounter the book in any other sequence. So like you said, it's that obvious when you think about it, and that easy to assume there just *has* to be a way around it.

    (All those "judge a book by its cover" jokes don't help. We still do it.)

    Although, it can be a bit different with online shopping (where the cover's a smaller window and the other parts might pull the reader in first), or if your marketing has piqued the reader's interest in the blurb and the pages. But those don't change the basics much; these are still the things that the reader goes through, or doesn't, on the way to deciding the book's a keeper.

  9. @Nick Green

    Thank you! I am however under the impression you don't get an agent if you've already self-published? (That's what I've heard anyway...) I am talking about a single book here. I've written about seven now to get better/basically, even though I didn't realize it at the time, those books were simply exercise. I did my best, but they just weren't that good. It took me a while to gain the courage to put them aside.

    This book, number eight, is different. I know it is good. I am currently in the process of polishing it, and I hope to send it out to agents by the end of this month. I've also thought about self-publishing it in case no one bites... but I realize it might be difficult as a first time author, so that's why I'm reluctant to try. (Also this stigma of 'not good enough for trad so has to self-publish' annoys me a bit. Then again... if the book sells very well, well, the readers have decided.) :)

  10. @Jimney - No, no sensible agent would turn down a book just because it'd been self-published already. My agent actually encouraged me to self-publish while I was waiting for a deal (which is yet to materialise for the book in question!).

    You sound like you'll go places. Not many writers these days will write seven books and call it 'practice'! It shows you are striving to improve, which is a very good sign I think. :-)

    But forget the stigma of 'not good enough for trad'. Plenty of crap gets trad-published, and plenty of gems never get picked up. Editors are not infallible, not by a long shot. Nor do they always base their decisions on 'quality' alone. It's about what THEY think can be sold by THEIR imprint, and what else they have on their list at the time. There are so many variables that it's almost (but not quite) a lottery. I know a Carnegie-Medal winning author who couldn't get a book published despite a legion of fans clamouring for it, when it was part 3 of an award-winning series. Go figure!

  11. @Nick Green

    Thank you for your encouragement! It helps a lot! (After seven books I'm kind of about to lose hope... haha... but I won't quit. That's just not an option to me at all... even if it takes twenty books!)

    I get your point about trad vs self! I didn't know you had an agent, but congratulations! They're as slippery as fish! I did however check out your... website/lack thereof... or am I missing something? I wanted to see what you did... but clicking on your name only gets me to your google + page! Is there a secret to getting to your website? :)

  12. @Jimney Ha, yeah. I am a notoriously terrible self-marketer. There is a link on my G+ but it's not easy to find. My website is

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