How To (Really) Sell Your Novel – The Shocking Truth

Re posted with permission of John Yeoman
Originally posted on The Wicked Writing Blog
Friday, April 5, 2013 Under: Libels & Wickedness



How do you sell a novel? That’s the number one problem for every self-publishing author and it probably accounts for all the other numbers too. Unless your novel sells, you may well be a writer but you’re not a novelist. Here are four ways that don’t work.

1. Banner ads don’t work.

Many sites will sell you a banner, in a choice of sizes, to promote your book and each at a fancy price. None will yield a profit. You might not even get a single click-through. Why? The average click-through rate for banner ads is just three tenths of one per cent or 0.3%. That’s the industry average according to imedia

So only three in 1000 people who see your banner ad will click on it. And only about 4% of those people will buy your book. (That’s the average conversion-to-sale ratio at Amazon.) So you’ll make just one sale for every 10,000 people who see your banner. How much will you be charged for that banner? Anything between $100 and $1000.

Result: you’ll lose your shirt.

Rotating banner ads are even worse. They’re a duck shoot. Now you see them, now you don’t. Who clicks on them? Only kids who like duck shoots.

BTW: I respect these site owners. Every one I’ve talked with has been sincere and decent. They honesty didn’t know their banner ads don’t work.

2. Google Adwords don’t work. (Nor do Bing or Facebook ads.)

To specify any keyword that might attract a book buyer you’ll need to pay Google or Bing around $1 per click. True, you can run ads for just a few cents per click if you select obscure or ‘long tail’ keywords. They’re cheap because few people ever search for them. So you’re no better off.

Do the math. If your novel sells at $4.99, how many folk who click your Google or Bing ad at $1 per click will have to buy your book for you to break even? One in five or a 20% conversion to sale.

It never happens. Remember that Amazon, with all its sophisticated marketing, averages only 4% conversion to sale.

Result: you’ll lose your shirt again.

Facebook ads are only slightly better, in my experience. You’ll just lose your shirt more slowly.

Why is conversion to sale so poor with these ads? You have only three lines plus a tiny graphic to attract the reader’s eye. You may be the smartest headline writer in the world but folk won’t really know what they’re clicking on. They’ll click, see your offer, sniff and click away. That’s $1 of your money gone.

I’ve tested both banner and ppc ads exhaustively, at ruinous expense. They might work if you’re looking for customers with an annual value in four figures. But they’re a dead loss if you’re marketing a book priced between 99 cents and $9.99.

3. Blog tours (probably) don’t work.

For a fee, a publicist will set you up a blog tour. (You could do it yourself, of course, with some labour.) Every day for a month you’ll be interviewed at a different blog. “What gave you the inspiration to write [drop in the name of your novel]?”

Your ego will glow as comments gush in. But how many books will you sell? Maybe five, mostly bought by your fellow authors as a professional courtesy. They’ll buy/review your stuff if you buy/review theirs.

I’ll be candid. My knowledge of blog tours is wholly anecdotal. So I’ll pose the question: has any author made a significant (ie. three figure) profit from a blog tour, after expenses? It seems unlikely but I’ll keep an open mind. If it worked for you, please tell us how you did it!

4. Press releases, posters and press ads don’t work.

John Locke, the first man to sell one million self-published ebooks, says he spent $25,000 on paid-for publicity and sold not a single book. I can attest to that, in a small way. In 2003, my local newspaper gave one of my books an awesome half-page review. I couldn’t have written it better myself. It even contained full order details.

How many books did it sell? Two. Had I bought that space as an ad, it would have cost me around $1000. Just as well I didn’t buy it.

Press ads can work wonderfully if you sell non-fiction into a specific niche. I built a large self-publishing business that way, advertising in specialist magazines (see here). But I either got my ads free, in exchange for feature articles, or I bought them cheap at ‘last minute’ prices, around 10% of list rate.

Alas, press ads rarely work for fiction. Why? The big-circulation consumer magazines that reach your target readers are not likely to give you a cheap or barter deal. Why should they?

So what does work to sell fiction?

Here’s where I bow to the strategy of John Locke. It makes sense to me because I followed a similar pattern in three different self-publishing businesses and it worked. He swears by the ‘funnel’ approach.

First, he sold novel number one at a token 99 cents and built a Twitter list to promote it. (Google+ is probably a better option today and it’s more author-friendly than Twitter or Facebook.) He encouraged reviews, welcomed feedback via an email link in his book, and acknowledged every customer personally.

He put every customer on a database.

That was list #1. If anyone bought more than one book, they were transferred to list #2: ‘Friends’ or repeat buyers. These people got regular, highly personalised emails, gifts and privileged previews of his next novel. It was worth the effort because such people would buy everything he wrote. Once he hit a critical mass of several thousand customers he found he could relax a little and let his fans promote his books for him.

Second, he traded up his regular list to buy his next novels at a higher and more profitable price, say $4.99, but his Friends still got a discount.

His strategy was time-intensive but it worked.

Why was Locke so dramatically successful when many self-publishing authors will say they’re doing much the same? Answer: they’re not. Locke sells through Amazon and other on-line book stores, like everyone else, but he works hard to get every customer on his own mailing list.

If you put up your books at Amazon, Lulu, CreateSpace and the like, and do nothing else, you’ll fail. These stores will keep your customer names to themselves and you’ll never see the names. So you can’t build a direct personal relationship with your customers and encourage them to come back.

You must build your own list plus an after-market that you control.

Leastwise, that strategy worked for me across 25 years. I see no reason why it can’t work for fiction, and Locke shows that it can. Just don’t ever be tempted to buy a banner ad!

What’s worked for you when marketing your book? What hasn’t? Please tell us!

(I’m indebted to Michael Alvear for alerting me to the math of banner ads. I highly recommend his book Make A Killing on Kindle. John Locke’s How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months is also a ‘must read’ for self-publishing authors.)

Thank you John-

Read more from John Yeoman on The Wicked Writing Blog

3 responses to “How To (Really) Sell Your Novel – The Shocking Truth”

  1. Ann Victoria Roberts says:

    In other words, it’s the personal touch that works. Helpful advice!

  2. Tui Allen says:

    I agree, Amazon does seem a bit of a waste of time, even when you have good friends there bending over backwards for you. You have to work very hard for every sale, both there and on Goodreads. I think Goodreads might be a better forum. I think I’ve been very much helped by good rankings on the Goodreads Listopia lists.
    I’m hoping that patience works – patience and faith. Also busily working on the next book. I seem to have a steady inward trickle of excellent and appreciative reviews but as yet still very low sales but those reviews give me confidence so I feel that Ripple’s time will come. The reviews are also a wonderful help to your rankings on the Goodreads lists.

  3. Plum McCauley says:

    That was an absolutely amazing post! Anyone in retail worth their salt knows that building a client base–to whom you send thank-you notes, make random phone calls–is absolutely essential. I don’t know why I didn’t think of this myself! And yet I suspect that this personal outreach was an essential part of Hugh Howey’s success, along with that of many others.
    Thank you for this great post!

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