These days, no matter how your book is published—legacy, hybrid or self-published—authors have to know how to sell books. Unless you are famous already such that your book is guaranteed to sell well, you can’t even rely on a mainstream publisher to market your book for you, and if you want your book to sell well, you can’t leave learning how to sell books to when your book is finished.
If you’ve been following this series on how to write a novel, you might wonder why I’m talking about this now, before I’ve even got to the technical details of writing and publishing. The answer is that if you want your book to sell well, you need to think about it right at the start.
Who are you writing for?
The first thing you need to be clear on for your writing is who you are writing for. Are you writing your book primarily for yourself or for others? Even if it’s a combination of the two, you need to be clear on what is most important to you: is it weighted towards what you would like to read or what your readers would like to read? If you’re writing primarily for yourself, writing the kind of book that you want to read with no or little consideration for whether anyone else might want to read it, then you may have difficulty selling your book in any quantity. There’s nothing wrong with writing without consideration of the market, just don’t expect a best seller. It could still sell well, of course, if it happens to be something that suits a big market, but if you want to be sure your book sells well, then you need to consider who your market is right at the beginning.
I met a local author who did very well for herself writing what she called ‘smut’. She made it clear that her books weren’t of any literary note, but she found a large market in erotic fiction. She wrote many books in the same vein, and readers who liked one of her books also bought her others, so every new book she marketed boosted the sales of the others. This is why it’s best to stick to the same genre.
In contrast, I wrote the kind of fiction I would love to have found to read, but rarely did. Had I known then what I know now, I would have realised that that meant that there was not a big market for such books—I write metaphysical fiction in magical realism style. Most readers don’t even know what those words mean! And I could also call my Prunella Smith Series (Worlds Within Worlds and The Locksmith’s Secret) transrealist—have you even heard that word before? Probably not. Eventually it dawned on me that my books suit a fairly small niche market, and most of that potential market rarely read fiction books; they prefer non-fiction books on metaphysics and self-help. I wrote the Prunella Smith books knowing this and I don’t think I’ve paid off my editing and cover costs on those books yet, but I honestly don’t care. They are fabulous and, in some ways, ground-breaking books, and the sales do keep trickling in at a couple a month—yep, that slow, but I do no marketing on them.
You need to know what genre you’re writing in and what elements readers of that genre expect in a book, so do some research. If you’re writing a thriller, then a fast pace, lots of tension and plot twists are vital. If you don’t have them, readers will be disappointed, and it won’t sell well. If you’re writing a romance, the protagonists must have some reason that makes it seem impossible for them to ever get together, but eventually they do get together. Romance must have a happy ending.
Historical fiction (even if it was set only 10 years ago) must be true to the actual events of the time. Research is required. You have to know the year you’ve set it in, what happened in politics and world events that year, what kind of technology was available, what kind of language was used and so on. It’s also important that you bring the time period alive with good descriptions of the surroundings. Historical fiction readers want to be transported back to that time.
I could go on, but I figure you’ve got the point.
If your book combines genres or doesn’t quite fit in any, then it’s best you try to make it fit into the literary fiction category. To satisfy literary fiction readers, however, a book requires excellent prose and deep and moving examination of themes and characters, something that not every author can manage. And even if you can write to a literary standard, labelling a mishmash of genres as literary fiction doesn’t suddenly make it marketable.
Had my Prunella Smith Series not had the fantasy story thread in them, I could have called them literary fiction, but the fantasy means I’d be wasting my money and time marketing to lit fic readers. One reviewer called the third book in my YA fantasy The Diamond Peak Series, literary fantasy because it went so deeply into the themes and emotions and was written with such skill, but that didn’t help it sell because literary fiction readers aren’t usually into fantasy and, unlike myself, fantasy readers in general don’t care too much about literary qualities. It might even have put fantasy readers off, because to some readers literary means boring—it shouldn’t, but it is true that some literary fiction is rather self-indulgent. If I wanted to sell more of the Prunella Smith books, I would take the fantasy out of them, but then they wouldn’t be the same books, and the way the fantasy story weaves around the real elements is part of what’s so special in them. So I don’t care about sales for those books, but I also have no illusions about their saleability.
What you decide in this area doesn’t matter; the important thing is to think about these aspects before you write and while you write, and to not have unrealistic sales expectations if your book doesn’t fit neatly into a genre.
Your ideal reader
Once you’ve decided on your genre, consider your idea reader. Knowing who your ideal reader is will help you when you come to actively market your product, but if you know who they are as you write, then you’ll have a product uniquely suited to them, which will make it easier to sell.
If your ideal reader is a Catholic priest with a secret passion for mysteries and a love of the supernatural or a busy mother with 3 children under 5, don’t expect to sell a lot of books. Priests are rare for a start and ones with a passion for supernatural mysteries even less so, and mothers of young children rarely have time to read a book, unless it’s on childrearing. So if you want to sell a lot of books, make your ideal reader representative of a large number of people.
Non-fiction is easier to market than fiction because you have a topic you can focus on, and you have information that will give something to a reader. Fiction, however, can also have themes or topics that provide some kind of examination of a topic.
For example, if you set your book in a specific area and include elements unique to the area, like tourist hot spots, then you can market it to people who like travel books and are interested in that area. It opens up local marketing opportunities like having it included in tourist shops and having a stall at the local market and so on.
If you have a mother with an autistic child in your story, then you can use rearing an autistic child as the point of interest in marketing. If one of your characters is a medium or goes to séances or the book explores issues around the topic, then you can connect to potential readers through that topic.
If you have such a topic in your book, it will make it easier to market, especially if you write it so that the topic is well examined such that it gives the reader something about the topic that they might be seeking. Ask yourself: what can I offer the person interested in this topic? What will they gain by reading my book? If you know this, you have a sales hook.
These considerations may change the balance of your themes and the direction your book takes, but being clear on the matter of themes and topics will help you sell your book. If the ideas that come from this seem forced, however, then you’re probably better forgetting them. You might have to make a decision between art and sales. Follow your gut and your heart. Personally, I always choose on the side of the artistic consideration, but then I also don’t sell many books. They are, however, quite unique.
Writing to market
My best seller is my non-fiction book The Elements of Active Prose: Writing Tips to Make Your Prose Shine and yet I have never actively marketed it (beyond talking about it like this). It sells well because I wrote it to market, meaning that I wrote it to fill a need in a specific market. I wrote it for fiction authors who want to know how to line edit their own work and write active, engaging prose—and do you know any fiction author who doesn’t want to know these things? It’s a large market and knowing who my market is and what I’m offering makes it’s easy to sell the book whenever I’m talking to an author. I also know that the book delivers exactly what it promises.
You can also write fiction to market. This whole post, in fact, is about writing to market, about considering how you will sell your book before you write it, or as you write it.
In addition, another, rather calculating, approach is to choose a bestselling author, examine what elements they have in their books, make sure you have the same elements in yours and then market to the readers of that best-selling author’s books. Be careful with this approach though, don’t aim to clone the author, or even to write ‘like’ them; your voice, your own style is more important for your long-term career than selling a few more books in the early days. Readers want all the elements that make a good read, but they also want a unique voice, not a clone of someone else.
So that’s it. Essentially, if you want to sell lots of books, write for a specific and large market, and if your book can offer readers an intelligent and balanced examination of issues in which they may be interested, you’ll have an easier job finding potential readers.
Not writing to market
If you don’t like the idea of writing to market and just want to write what you want to write, that is also fine, but your sales expectations should be adjusted in light of this.
I knowingly wrote Worlds Within Worlds about themes (bullying over author reviews and integrating Buddhist teachings into life challenges) in which I was interested and with no care as to whether anyone else gave a damn about such things. Because of this I never expected any sales at all, and so, considering that I’ve never actively marketed it, I’ve been delighted with the sales that I have got, small though they are. The two Prunella Smith books are the only fiction of mine that are still selling since I gave up actively marketing my books, and they are ones in which I didn’t consider my ideal reader at all. They were written simply because I was inspired to write them.
I suspect they’re selling because I’m hanging out online with a lot with people who would actually like the book, even though I rarely mention I’m a writer and may have never mentioned the books specifically—if I did I would probably sell more, but I’m not there in order to sell my books; I’m there because I like hanging out with those people and because we have a shared interests. That means that I’m selling books without doing any marketing at all. Not many, true, but the sales are organic, taking no effort on my part other than being part of a community that I want to be part of anyway.
My next book, however, I shall be writing specifically for this community. I wasn’t sure which approach to take, fiction or non-fiction, to examine the shared topic of interest—spiritual abuse in a Buddhist community—and I’ve decided to go with non-fiction because it will be most helpful for the community. Even so, I’m not writing it with the aim of selling lots of books, but only with the aim to actually help people to understand and work through the issues, and use what happened to me and my community to help others avoid ending up in the same situation. But that’s me; money has never been a motivator for me.
Which brings us back to your aims for your writing. For most authors writing doesn’t make a lot of money. Some never get their money back on a project, and for many it takes years and several books before they break even, so money from high sales isn’t a realistic motivation; most authors simply write because they love doing it. Of course, sales are always lovely, and the bigger the better, but you do have to work at marketing in order to get those sales, and you do have to put some money into it.
If active marketing doesn’t appeal to you, you don’t have to do it—so long as you don’t care whether or not you get your money back on your project. You could just aim to produce a quality product that you can be proud of, but if you consider your potential market before you write, even if you then cast aside the idea of writing for a market, it will help your book to sell. Just thinking about it, even if you don’t consciously take it on board, will show in your writing and assist you when you launch your book—after all, you will have to tell people about it at some point.
A post on marketing does need to mention quality, of course. If you want to sell a book, you first need to make it the best it can be, and that’s the part I can help you with. I can make sure your major plot elements are in place with a manuscript appraisal and then line edit your work until the prose shines. If you’re writing a novel and feeling overwhelmed, click here to download my FREE Novel Revision Checklist and get new insight and inspiration. (You’ll also get fortnightly articles on writing sent to your inbox.)
This is part of a series of blog posts on how to write a novel. It doesn’t just cover the technical details, but also the emotional journey we take and the personal challenges we meet on the road from potential author to author. Join the journey now, and don’t miss a post, click here to sign up to get my Novel Revision Checklist and links to the articles sent to your inbox.
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You’ll also find my book on writing, The Elements of Active Prose: Writing Tips to Make Your Prose Shine, very helpful.
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