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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Six tips to bring your book out of the doldrums

More than ever before authors are struggling to make sense of what's happening with ebook publishing and keep up.
When do we get time to write after blogging, facebooking, twittering, etc? We're told you can't get seen and your book purchased if you're not socially marketing yourself.  It's never easy but we must find the time.

I've just read Mark Coker's tips and wanted to share them here.

Six Makeover Tips:  How to Bring a Book Back from the Doldrums 

Makeover Tip #1 – Look at your reviews at Smashwords, Apple, B&N and Amazon.  Ignore the reviews from friends and family, they don’t count.  Average them up.  How many stars are you getting out of five?

Reviews of Never Too Far by
Abbi Glines (Apple iBookstore)
Today, when I look at the top 20 bestsellers at the Apple iBookstore, they’re averaging 4 stars.  On other random days I’ve done this test, they averaged 4.5.  The #1 bestselling book today at Apple is Never Too Far by Abbi Glines (distributed by Smashwords), and it averages 4.5 stars.  Some of the representative comments are, “loved this book,” “Amazing,” “couldn’t put it down,” “couldn’t stop reading,” “such a wonderful story,” “cannot wait for book 3!” and, “this book hasn’t been out 24 hours and yet I read it twice already.”  If you want to be a bestseller, good or good enough is not good enough.  

You need to WOW your reader.  It doesn’t matter if you write romance, mystery or non-fiction, if your book doesn’t move the reader to an emotional extreme, your job isn’t done.  Take the case of my novel, Boob Tube.  It averages around 3.5 stars.  That’s not good enough.  We’re not wowing readers.  My wife and I should probably do a major revision if we want better reviews.  Our sales range from 20 to 40 copies a month.  What if after a revision, we averaged 4.5 stars?  Imagine how that would move the needle on sales.

    What if you don’t have reviews? – This is as big of a problem as poor reviews.  If your book has been out for more than three months and it’s not selling well and you don’t have reviews, I’d set the price to free, at least for a limited time.  What do you have to lose?  Readers aren’t finding you anyway.  That’s the decision we came to with Boob Tube.  For the first two years (2008-2009), Boob Tube sold maybe 20 copies.  It had only one or two reviews.  My wife and I decided to set the price to free for six months.  We got 40,000 downloads, a lot of reviews, and even our first fan mail (yay!).  Then we set the price to $2.99 and it started selling.  Without reviews at the retailers, Goodreads, LibraryThing and elsewhere, few readers will take a chance on you.  FREE helps readers take that chance.

Makeover Tip #2 – Redo your Cover Image.  If your book’s reviews are averaging over four stars, yet the book isn’t selling, your cover is probably the problem.  This was the case last year for Smashwords author R.L. Mathewson.  She was earning fabulous “WOW” reviews from readers, yet she was only selling a few copies a day (even still, a few copies a day is way above average for most authors). Read the interview with R.L. here
When she upgraded her cover images, her books immediately took off and hit the N.Y. Times bestseller list.  Great reviews plus a great cover can make all the difference.  A great cover image makes a promise to the reader.  A poor cover image chases potential readers away.  Does your cover make a promise?

Here’s a quick test, and a challenge:  If you were to strip away the title and author name, does the image tell the reader, “this is the book you’re looking for to experience [the feeling of first love for romance; fear for horror; edge of your seat suspense for thrillers; knowledge for a non-fiction how-to; an inspiring story of personal journey for a memoir, etc].”

Is the cover image professional?  Does it look as good or better than the top-10 sellers in your category or genre?  The human brain is programmed to process imagery faster than written words.  When a reader is browsing book listings, they’re looking to have their attention arrested by something that speaks to them.   Everything else is noise.  Don’t be the noise.

Back to my novel.  A couple bestselling Smashwords authors have told me that the cover of Boob Tube doesn't work.  It took me awhile to come around, but I agree with them now.  The image focuses on breasts, which are an obsessive, almost-debilitating focus for the actresses on daytime television soaps.  We explore this in the book.  Yet to the reader, the image sends conflicting messages.  Is this book erotica, or pornography?  No, of course it’s not, but the reader doesn’t know.  Because the image isn’t resonating with the right promise, we’re probably chasing away readers who would otherwise be drawn to the story.

Makeover Tip #3 – Is your book priced too high?  When a book is priced too high, it makes the book less affordable to the reader. If you're an unknown author, it makes the reader less willing to take a chance on you.  For readers who could afford it, the high price can makes the book less desirable when there are alternative books of equal quality at less cost.  Last year, when we conducted a comprehensive study of the impact of price on unit downloads and gross sales, we found that lower prices moved more unit sales than higher prices (no surprise there).  We found $1.99 and below underperformed in terms of gross sales (unit sales * price).  We found books priced at $2.99 earned slightly more than books priced over $10.00, yet enjoyed six times as many unit sales.

Dollars in your pocket are nice, but over the long term, the greater number of readers is what will drive your fan base and future sales.  If your book is priced over $5.99, and it’s not selling well, experiment with a lower price and see what impact it has.  There’s one other potential advantage of lower prices:  if the reader feels they received a great read for the price, they may be more likely to give you a positive review, and a positive reviews will lead to more readers.

Makeover tip #4 – Look at your sampling to sales conversion ratio.  The Smashwords store has a little-known feature I think is entirely unique in the ebook retailing world:  We tell you how many partial samples were downloaded.  If you click to your Dashboard, you’ll see a column for book sales and a column for downloads.  The download count is a crude metric, but if you understand how it works, you’ll be able to use it as a relatively good tool.  This data is only for sales and downloads in the Smashwords store.

The download data includes both sample downloads and full book downloads for purchased books.  If a customer or sampler downloads in multiple formats (such as epub and mobi), or downloads multiple times, each time will tick the download count higher.  To make the data cleaner, subtract your paid sales from the download count.  Divide your sales at by the number of downloads.  This will tell you, roughly, what percentage of downloaders actually purchase your book.

When I do the numbers on my priced book, The 10-Minute PR Checklist, I find that approximately 13% of sample downloads lead to sale.  That’s pretty good.  When we last ran the average numbers a couple years ago, we found that site-wide, about 1 in 50 sample downloads led to sale, but when we looked only at books that had actually sold, the number was closer to 1 in 25 (about 4%).  I’ve seen multiple recent bestsellers at Smashwords where the conversion ratio is 50%.  That’s amazing!  Use these numbers as rough guides.  If you have multiple books at Smashwords, you can see how the numbers compare across your list.  Compare with your friends.  If you’ve had 150 sample downloads and zero sales, such as in my Tip 6 example below, it’s fair to say readers are sending you a message.

Makeover Tip #5 – Are you targeting the right audience?  As a writer, you’re never going to satisfy every reader.  That’s okay.  Don’t try.  Readers who love horror novels may not love romance.  Know your target audience, and then make sure your title, book cover, book description, categorization and marketing are all aligned to target that audience with fine-tuned precision.  If you send the wrong messages, you’ll fail to attract the right readers.  Instead, you’ll attract the wrong reader, and the wrong reader will give you poor reviews.  Again, I’ll use my own novel as an example (since I’m not afraid to illustrate my mistakes!).  Early in our novel, a dead body is discovered, so there’s a bit of a mystery about who did it.  It’s a minor plot point, and the book isn’t categorized as mystery.  However, at one time in 2011, our book description played up the mystery surrounding the murder.  For at least one reader, after she read the description she downloaded the book thinking it was a murder mystery.  It’s not.  It’s a book about the dark side of Hollywood celebrity.  

As a result, we disappointed her, and received this one-star review:
“If you want to read about drug use, masochism, naive behavior leading to wrecked lives and truly disgusting eating disorders, this book is for you. If you were looking for a murder mystery, look somewhere else. I got more than 50% into the book and no one was calling the death a murder. So, no investigation, no questions, none of the things that make a book a murder mystery.” 
Following this review, I removed the murder-mystery subplot from the description and focused on the top themes.  So take a fresh look at your description, cover, categorization and marketing and make sure you’re targeting the right reader.  Avoid the temptation to target a broader-than-necessary market.

Makeover Tip #6 – Pride goes before the fall.  It’s tough being a writer.  You pour your heart and soul into your words, and then lay your words bare before the world to judge.  It takes bravery and confidence to publish.   Speaking from personal experience, it’s heartbreaking to receive your first one-star review.  We all get them.  

Over at Amazon, where I have the most reviews, I received this about Boob Tube:
“A total waste of my time. As another reviewer said, the best part was when I decided to stop reading it! If I could give it a minus star, I would.” 
OUCH!  Nothing’s worse than when the reader hates the book so much they don’t even finish it, and then they leave a review like that just to drive the knife deeper.  What if the book got better later?  What if everything started making sense on the next page?  Readers are a fickle bunch.  

To press forward as a writer, we have to decide what we can learn from, and what we can ignore.  Find your strength from your five-star reviews (we have those too!), and carefully find your inspiration about where you might improve from the negative reviews.  I try to learn something from every review, even if I don’t agree with it.  Some writers, after receiving such scathing criticism, might feel inclined to curl up in a fetal position, unpublish their books, and give up.  Never give up!

The opposite response to reader feedback, however, can be equally destructive, and that’s to let pride leave you deaf and dumb to the bread crumb clues your readers are giving you.  If you want to be a successful writer, you have to be willing to listen to the judgment of readers.  Your readers, through their word of mouth, will determine how many other readers you reach.

I think the chat transcript below serves as a good case study in pride (in fact, it was the spark that led me to write this blog post).  The author contacted me on my personal Facebook page.  As much as I try to separate my personal life from my private life - and I discourage Smashwords inquiries over my personal page - at Facebook it’s difficult to divorce the two without coming across as a rude ogre.  If someone messages me, I try to respond.  I omitted his name, country and other details to protect his identity.  I made minor edits for typo fixes or clarity.  Warning: There's not a happy ending.