The days run away like wild horses over the hill. We are approaching the midway point of the year, which triggers similar emotions in me as New Year’s Eve: confusion, regret, and my favorite emotion of all, hunger.
It’s a good time of year to take stock, resolve to do better, and so forth. With that in mind, I thought it would be the right time to survey the authorial landscape and make a series of gimlet-eyed pronouncements, perhaps with a bombastic title like…
How To Sell Books in 2022
Every genre is different, every author is different, hell, sometimes every book is different too. The road to hell might be paved with generic advice, but what are the things we all wrestle with if we want to sell books?
Fundamentally, we need to have three things in some kind of shape to make that task realistically possible. You can call it the three Ps if you like, but I think that makes me sound like a math teacher from the 1950s wearing an abominable sleeveless sweater.
Anyway, you need:
Product is easy: you need a book. Preferably several, ideally in a series in a commercially viable genre, presented in a professional way which will specifically entice readers of that niche. I’m not saying writing a good book is easy, or that packaging it well is a walk in the park – clearly the devil is in the details. But the concept itself is manageable.
Promotion is easier again to understand but authors without a marketing background can find this harder to execute, at least on a meaningful scale. The basic idea of this element is that you need some way to communicate to prospective readers – i.e. fans of the genre you write in – that you have a book for sale and that they would like it very much, thank you. In more hard-nosed marketing terms: you need to generate quality traffic to your books. Easy to say, harder to do.
Platform is one that, in my humble opinion, most authors should be nailing as it more naturally complements the typical author skillset than promotion. But most authors, quite frankly… don’t. There is a lot of terrible information around about how to run email lists, or your social channels, so I don’t particularly blame writers on this front. Although it does make me sad when so many limit their books’ potential because they don’t even try building a platform as their heads are so full of (wrong) ideas of what that might entail. It’s a huge pity because building up your platform gives you a largely free and hugely effective dollop of promotion every time you put something out into the world – acting as a hefty multiplier to whatever marketing you might be doing.
Putting it all together, product is what you are selling (and the weaker your book is in hard-nosed commercial terms, the harder your job will be in selling it). Promotion is the art of getting that message out to your target audience. And platform makes the job of selling the next book a whole lot easier – giving you a free megaphone for every launch.
I think one of the problems authors have in selling books – especially in the hyper-competitive environment of 2022 – is that they focus too much on the promotion stage. They just want to sell books, not realizing that some quite important things need to be in place first to make the product shifting part go smoothly – and then neglecting to put enough effort into what you might call aftercare, the process of ensuring that a customer becomes a fan, one who recommends all your books to their friends and is first in line for the next one. Or platform if you prefer.
Over the next three emails, as we take a short break from Facebook Ads, I will break down these three stages in more detail and share all my favorite tools for mastering them too.
But first I want to highlight the more common mistakes I see among writers trying to get a handle on this stuff.
The biggest error I tend to see at the product stage is simply not spending enough time on it.
I don’t mean in terms of dedicating the requisite time to learn the craft and then actually write a good book – although obviously that happens quite a lot too.
I mean in more flinty terms, researching the market, understanding what readers are responding to, knowing what is trending, respecting genre conventions in both content and packaging, really spending the time to absolutely nail your cover (as that’s the most important packaging element by far), and just making sure the overall impression is one of polish and professionalism.
And the cost of not doing all this to at least a reasonable degree will be a bill most surely paid at the next stage, as authors will waste more and more money trying to promote a book which just might not work in the marketplace, at least how it is currently presented.
Mistakes at the promotion stage are commonplace because most writers have a steep learning curve when it comes to marketing. (And then of course it’s an endless cesspool of spoofers and chancers and all flavors of weasel.)
Even if you neatly sidestep all the bluffers and schemers, the endless array of promotional options can be extremely confusing, particularly as some are more suitable for different kinds of authors and it’s not always clear what is for who.
One charge that can be stuck on most writers, though, is spending too much time on promotion when they only have 1 or 2 books out. This is advice that is always given and rarely heeded, for reasons I completely understand on a psychological level by the way, but do try to keep your focus on producing more books because promotion gets sooooooo much easier when you have more product to fling out of your monkey-cage. Your money goes further too, so bank those Benjamins for later.
Honestly. My heart sinks when I get an email from an author saying something like “I know I shouldn’t spend big when I only have one book out, but what if I had ten grand to spend on this launch – how would you do it?”
Truly, if you have money to spend, buy yourself the most valuable thing of all: time. And use it to write more books.
The rap-sheet for the platform stage is the longest of all but most infractions can be gathered under using the wrong tool for the job. Specifically, using your nascent platform to relentlessly flog your books to death over and over and over and over and over and over and over.
You get the idea, I’m sure, but I’m going to ram this point home because it’s so important (and because this mistake is so prevalent). You can use your email list to sell books – of course you can. You can use your social channels to make noise around your latest release, or current backlist sale – and you absolutely should! The mistake is in doing that non-stop.
No one wants to follow anyone who is just engaging in the hard sell, all the time. You need to give fans (esp. proto fans) a better reason than that to follow you, and to stick around. Otherwise, you are just chewing through your own fanbase, and strip-mining a sale or two from each meatbag before tossing them on the pyre.
Instead of hanging out with them and chatting like a normal person, and then building a supercool human pyramid that can touch the moon.
P.S. Writing music this week is The Grass Roots with Midnight Confessions.
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