Reasons Your Self-Published Ebook Is Not Selling

It’s a point of contention with many writers that they put tremendous work into a project only to be rewarded with a scant handful of sales. As a result of hearing a great deal of this online—FB, Twitter and elsewhere—I decided to list a few obvious errors that many writers, both beginners and long-timers, tend to make, often over and over. I see them do it and I can predict the outcome often days or weeks before it actually happen. No, I’m not psychic. I’ve just been publishing books, my own and others, for over 10 years. To whit, your book is probably not selling because:

Your cover sucks. The number one book-killer of all time, in my opinion. Since ebooks have now become so prominent and ebook-buying on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and elsewhere has picked up considerably due to low prices, impulse-buying is on the rise. Unfortunately, no matter how good your book is, no one is going to buy it if it suffers from a dreadful cover. Sadly, many authors don’t even seem to realize they have a crappy, fugly or otherwise inappropriate cover. Poseur-style covers have a bad rep, it’s true, but I’ve seen collages and photo-manipulations that looked just as sad, or worse. The medium isn’t to blame, nor the style; it’s the eye of the cover artist. Your cover needs to have what artists call “composition,” which is a fancy way of saying all the elements come together in a proper way. A book with a modern cover (not something that looks loosened from a Dorchester paperback circa 1987, for instance) is a big plus. Covers, like books themselves, go through trends too. If you are not an artist, hire one. Please, I beg of you. Do it for the children. If you cannot afford one, then go with some nice (non-pixellated) resource/royalty-free stock from and a simple, readable font. Look at big publishers’ covers and imitate their style. Bloody font sucks; do not use it. Big publishers don’t.

You’re not connecting with your readers. Writing weird, surrealistic literature about a pathological were-dolphin on a cross-country trek to find his parents may sound interesting on paper, but who in hell is going to read this crap? Not me. There’s weird and interesting, and then there’s just plain fucking weird. If you want to write about a world turned inside out where people bounce around the surface in hypoallergenic bubbles, do so after you’ve become a household name and can write whatever the hell you want. For now, while you’re still building an audience, write toward the market, not against it. I promise you are not “selling out”. You can write a spy thriller or a paranormal romance and give it a fresh spin in some way if you sit down and really think about it. And the audience is built-in. So what the hell are you doing?

Your protag is not connecting to your readers. Same as above, but coming from a different angle. You want to write about the villain as Byronic antihero. OK, fine. But if your villainous anti-hero is so vile you wouldn’t want a cold-blooded hitman-for-hire to sit next to him on a bus for fear he’ll pick up a terminal disease, what makes you think readers will finish your book, assuming they give it a shot? At best, you might pick up some disturbed online readers who are “into that”. At worse, readers will X you off the list of future authors to pick up simply because they’ll figure your computer needs to be confiscated by the FBI and you need to be institutionalized. Infamy does not automatically equal sales. Despite your possibly grim outlook on life, the world really is made up of (mostly) decent people with strong moral backbones. They don’t want to read really skeezy fiction.

Your marketing is lop-sided. You’ve spent tons of money on banner ads and paid reviewers when you could have simply joined a few forums and groups of similar interest and posted with a nice, neat little link in your sig line that takes curious readers to your work. It’s the internet; you don’t need to pay for exposure. People get around.

Your book’s edit sucks. You’ve rushed your book to the finishing line. Or maybe you haven’t. Maybe you just plain suck at editing your own work. Hire someone to edit it. Or, if you simply cannot afford a professional edit, join a group of beta readers online and edit someone else’s work while they edit yours. Just make sure you trust the people involved first. If they don’t seem to know what they’re doing, find a better group, preferably with a pro hanging around somewhere to offer advice.

You suck. It’s possible you simply write poor fiction, in which case you may want to step back and try a different medium, like poetry, comics or scripts. Alternately, if you’ve been doing this forever and still seem to suck, but want to continue writing books, it may be time for a vacation. Take a year off and simply compile ideas for books. Write them down and lock them away. Go back to all your ideas in a year and see if you still think they’re viable. You may find that what once excited you seems a little stupid now. You may be jumping in too quickly and wasting your energy on poor book ideas.

You’re a dick. You join forums and communities for the express purpose of shilling your work…and you’re really poor at covering that fact up. You don’t care about the community. You don’t care about anyone. You’re just there to pick up readers. Unfortunately, longtime community members will probably figure this out sooner or later—probably sooner rather than later. And once your cover is blown, say goodbye to potential sales (and your ass in the community, probably).

You’re preaching to the choir. You join communities and genuinely want to participate. In fact, you love these people. You’re like a giant fucking online sewing circle. Unfortunately, they’re all writers like you and all of them are poor as dirt (again, like you). So even though you’re picking up a few wayward sales here and there, it seems like the same limited crowd of readers is buying your stuff. It’s time to move to greener pastures. Seriously.

You habitually whine about your lack of sales. It’s really tacky and makes you look like an amateur. Don’t do it. If you absolutely must have a meltdown, take it offline. Mixed martial arts helps too, by the way.

You think you’re Glenn Beck. Being controversial will get you noticed for about five minutes. But unless someone at Fox is offering you your own show, eventually readers are going to get sick of your constant bellyaching and soapboxing and look for a new circus act to follow. No matter how exciting and insightful your world views are, I guarantee it’ll tire out your audience after the millionth online expose about government coverups. Then you’ll need to up the ante with tinfoil hat theories, which will make you look stupid, insane, or both. Is completely sacrificing your pride and becoming an online klass klown really worth it? You’ll need to answer that. It’s kind of an all-or-nothing gamble. Either it’s going to make you the most interesting person in the world, or completely wreck your career. I’m betting on the latter.

You think you’re Dan Rather. You broadcast so much info about “the genre” or other people’s projects in an attempt to seem sincere and important to your community that you get completely washed out of the equation. You’re known web-wide for your witty and insightful reviews and comments and you lead the pack in personal opinions, but hardly anyone knows you actually wrote a fucking book.

You’re king or queen of the knockoffs. You want that built-in audience so bad you just imitate your favorite popular writer. Unfortunately, if it’s being released now, that means the trend for that type of book is already about a year old, since it takes around a year for a book to move from the manuscript stage to finished project. And since it’ll take you about a year to do so too, that means your book idea is two years old at the time of the release. Cinderella, you’re late for the ball. You better hope it’s a lasting trend or no one’s gonna bother reading your opus up to two years after the original work has been launched.

You suck to work with. Publishers, agents, beta readers, your spouse, your mom—everyone says you’re a prima donna and no one wants to correct your mistakes or make any suggestions to improve your writing because, frankly, you’re not gonna listen anyway. You’ve been PMS-ing almost from the beginning of your career. You’re known to hunt down and flog reviewers and readers with a verbal martinet when you disagree with their opinions of your work. You consider taking hits out on other more successful writers. Your rage makes eggs boil in the cartons. Your heart and ego are like glass balls ready to explode the moment someone kicks them down the stairs. In short, you need to get over yourself. Everyone else has.

Your output sucks. You write so little, or take so damned long to pull a project together (a year to write the book, say, and ten years to edit and drum up the courage to actually release it) that people simply forget you exist between projects.

You think you’re Mel Gibson. You spend so much time doing months of pre-promotion and drumming up controversy (aka, interest) in the project and being the center of infamy and attention that by the time you actually release the damned book, readers are underwhelmed. Most readers are busy people, and even if they like your work, they’re not likely to hang on your every word and check back compulsively on your blog to see when your next book is going to see release. A little marketing is awesome, but after that, shit or get off the pot already.

You have no web presence. In which case, you can’t read this and it’s not going to help you anyway. Or, alternately, you do have a website—some crappy free site that’s riddled with annoying, spammy ads dropping loads of spyware on the computers of everyone who visits you. Or maybe you use a popular networking site as your “main site”. Unfortunately, those come and go in popularity. Having a MySpace, for instance, isn’t worth shit anymore. On top of it, many networks require that you join in order to see content, so you’re alienating anyone who’s not already part of it. Get a paid website, dress it up appropriately (not like a fugly cheap whore with ugly, drippy colors) and write intelligent stuff on your accompanying blog. If you absolutely can’t budget a site in, get a free, clean WordPress blog. Put your books on your widget sidebar with a direct link to the places where visitors can buy them. Remember, your website will continue to work for you long after you’ve gone to bed. It’s a 24/7 commercial for your work.

You’re not setting reasonable goals. You want it all and you want it now or you’re going to scream. Unfortunately, that went badly for Veruca Salt, remember? It will probably take years of hard work and patience to develop the kind of readership you’re hoping for. Expect to be underwhelmed for a long time. Expect disappointment. Disappointment is like shit. It happens. A lot. You need to be in this for the long haul or GTFO.

You’re worrying too much about blurbs and reviews. A few are good, if you know some fellow writers and reviewers willing to help you out, but don’t expect a good review will get you a ton of sales. There’s little correlation between reviews and sales anymore. And author blurbs are virtually useless unless they’re coming from a household name. Small press unknowns blurbing other small press unknowns is kind of silly when you think about it, unless there’s a strong sense of networking going on and fan-sharing. Throw some review copies out, but don’t stress it so much. You’re better off developing a readership via your own blog or some non-writer community.

Your distribution sucks. The best ebook distribution in order (as far as I’m concerned) is Amazon, followed by B&N, and then everything else, including Smashwords. If you’re not using the “big two” then you’re really missing the bus to quick sales. Go where the customers go.

Your ebook formatting sucks. Plainly put, your ebook is unreadable and migraine-inducing. I suggest getting Jerrod Balzer’s On Making Ebooks.


2 thoughts on “Reasons Your Self-Published Ebook Is Not Selling

  1. You left out that many of those are the same reasons the author isn’t traditionally published, and resorted to self publishing to begin with.

    Of course, some writers make the deliberate decision to self publish, and some of those even do the actual work to make their book sell. But some self publish because they have been rejected by every agent and publisher on the map, and they’re desperate to get their brilliant work to their adoring public – then the adoring public fails to appear.

  2. I agree with all that, Kenra.

    Self-publishing is its own double-edged sword. It can be used to make a tidy profit when done right and treated like a business, but the self-publisher could also easily fall on his or her nose, and so often they do.

    I will also add that, in my own experience, publishers seem to have less business sense than in the old days, and self-pubbing is being seen in a much different light these days.

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