Why Your Book Isn't Selling

by | Dec 4, 2008 | Book Marketing Basics

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Over the past several days I’ve fielded a number of calls from authors frustrated with their progress. “Nothing is happening,” “Am I doing this right?” and “My book isn’t selling” are some of the biggest complaints I hear when authors are marketing on their own. Especially now, when we feel the pressure to make every marketing effort count, marketing effectively is becoming more of a concern. Authors like to blame it on the downturned economy, but the truth is, books are a low dollar item and likely to sell better over the holidays than the spiffy new iPhone. So here’s a little reality check, mixed with some inspiration and a few ideas to hopefully kick-start your momentum!

1) Goals: it’s good to have them, but make sure they are realistic. If you’re not sure, ask someone who can be objective. (We’re here to help, email us at info@amarketingexpert.com if you have nowhere else to turn for an honest answer). Yesterday I was speaking to an author who was really discouraged she hadn’t met her sales goal for the year. She had set herself a goal of selling 20,000 books.

Now that’s a great number to aspire to, but not a realistic figure. Why? Because it was her first book, because she self-published it and because she didn’t have a distributor in place and didn’t have a platform. All of these things are factors to consider when setting these types of goals. What’s more realistic? Well, it depends on your market, but 2,000 to 5,000 – especially if you’re starting out – is a much better target. Keep in mind, though, that if your book has limited distribution, this number could drop drastically.

2) What’s your plan? While setting goals is important, it’s equally important to have mini-goals or milestones that you can reach and check off your list. I outline my big goal, let’s say it’s finding a traditional publisher for my book, and then I outline the hundreds of mini-goals I need to reach before I can even be considered by a mainstream house. When you work your goal-setting this way, it will feel like you are accomplishing things because you are. So often the larger scope of what we do is comprised of micro-efforts, things that might go unnoticed and unseen if you don’t write them down or somehow keep a log of them. In all the years I’ve worked in marketing and publicity, the single most discouraging thing is when you do a million pieces of invisible work and don’t keep track of it.

Make a roadmap: you would never drive from San Diego to New York and not have a map. Much like a trip from West to East, you’ll need a map to keep you on track. It doesn’t have to be formal, just a list of things you want to accomplish today, this week, this month and the next six months. Keeping yourself on track will keep you on the right road; if not you could end up being someplace you never planned on. Like Peoria.

3) Am I doing the right thing? No one markets well in a vacuum, so if you have questions, get answers from someone you trust. You might be doing all the right things, but it might just be a matter of timing, patience, effort, and oh, did I mention patience? The important thing is to ask someone in the industry and someone who will give you honest feedback without trying to sell you their stuff.

4) Brainstorm and get creative: again, no one works well in isolation so get out there and brainstorm with people who are in a similar situation. If that’s not possible, then start attending classes whether in person or teleclasses (we offer these, they’re totally free: authors@amarketingexpert.com). The point is, get out there and start those creative juices flowing or just sit with a speaker you like and get inspired. Re-ignite your campaign.

5) Reevaluate: if you keep hitting a brick wall, it’s time to reevaluate your marketing. Are you hitting the right targets? Are you going after your niche market or are you shooting too wide? Are you spending time and money on things that aren’t leveraging results? If so, ask yourself, why? Are you doing it because everyone else in your writing group is? Ask yourself some critical questions.

6) Stuff only works if you do a lot of it: whatever you focus on you should plan to do it consistently. If you blog, blog consistently. Radio? Same thing. Get yourself in a social networking site then be social. Don’t “dabble” – someone once told me they’ve dabbled in this and that. Trust me, dabbling doesn’t work. Diving headlong into marketing does.

7) Put a lot of lines in the water: I don’t fish so I’m not sure where that analogy came from, but you get the idea. Put a lot of stuff out there. Don’t just blog and expect that to be your singular source of marketing. Blog, social network, do radio if it’s appropriate to your book, do talks, book events, network, and go to conferences.

8) If you do nothing, expect nothing: your book is not the field of dreams, if you write it people won’t just beat a path to your door. Get yourself out there, do whatever you need to market the book. Sending postcards to your mailing list might get you a few “Hey, great to hear from you” emails but it won’t sell books. Surprisingly enough, most authors don’t sell but a few books to their immediate social circle. Break out of that circle. Mom can only buy so many of your books. I queried this on my Facebook page earlier and someone responded by saying that she’s frustrated that her clients don’t market the books they publish. Hmmmm.

9) Realism will keep you sane: the truth is that unless you get a ticket to her show, you’ll probably never meet Oprah. That’s ok. There are a million other things you can do instead of sitting by the phone waiting for her to call. Realism will not only keep you sane, it’ll keep you on target. Having dreams is a great thing, everyone should have a dream, but realism will keep you from being discouraged and keep your marketing momentum on track.

10) Don’t throw money at something just to feel like you’re doing something: throwing money at a problem isn’t always a good thing, in fact, sometimes it’s the worst thing. If you’re going to invest in your marketing (and you should), make sure you’re investing your money wisely. There are great deals out there, but some of them are a waste of your time and certainly, your money. Make investments wisely. I’ve known authors to blow through a $5,000 marketing budget $99 at a time and still have nothing to show for their efforts. Also, while it’s tempting and easy to do, don’t place ads. Ads (especially online) don’t work. Media blasts aren’t recommended either. It’s tempting, I know. Blasting thousands of media at one time with your message should result in something, right? Not always. Be smart with your marketing dollars. If you’re blasting the media, ask to see the media targets first. You don’t want to be pitching your romance novel to Car and Driver.

So what’s the solution to all of this? Here are some guidelines to help you navigate this marketing and pr path:

1) Become part of the conversation, wherever that conversation exists. If your book is a New Age topic, go to web sites, blogs, and even consider attending some conferences. If you’re following blogs, comment on those blogs, get to know the big bloggers out there. If you have a social networking site, work it, make friends, comment, be helpful.

2) Don’t get into the Internet with the idea you’ll make a lot of money. Get online and be helpful, the money will follow. If you do it in reverse, you’ll have a very short lived time online. Offer tips, link to other blogs or web sites you find helpful. Offer guidance, insight, wisdom, inspiration, whatever works for your market.

3) Want to sell books? Then go for exposure. Repeat after me: marketing and pr doesn’t sell books – it gets you exposure. Exposure gets you an audience and an audience gets you book sales. Whatever effort you’re going to put into your book, understand it’s for the exposure, not for sales. Much like point #2, if you attack your marketing with the idea of selling books, you’ll be disappointed. If you tackle it with the idea of gaining exposure, you’ll be pleasantly surprised and it’s likely that book sales will follow.

4) When you make up your list of things to do to market your book, ask yourself what can give you the best exposure. That’s one of the reasons I love the Internet, because the exposure is limitless. Don’t go for flash in the pan marketing ideas, go for substance.

5) Having 35 social networking accounts is only a good thing when you use them all. People ask me how many social networking pages should they have, I say: how many can you manage? If you can’t keep up 35 pages then start with one and go from there. Better to have one very active page than a bunch of pages that are blank.

6) Do one to five things a day to market yourself and your book. Keep on track with your marketing efforts and stay in the marketing “zone” by crafting a list that lets you chip away at your goals, one goal at a time.

7) Please, please, please get a web site. It’s your 24/7 sales tool and should be one of the first things on your list of must-do marketing tasks.

8) Get help from a professional you trust. I know you’re loving this “going alone” thing, but let’s face it, at some point it might make sense to bring in a professional who can help you, someone you trust who will give you a straight answer and good, solid advice. Stay away from anyone offering guarantees in sales. This is a huge red flag, no one can predict this, nor can anyone predict a bestseller.

The more you can approach your marketing plan with a plan, a dash of realistic expectations and a lot of hard work, the more successful you’ll be. The truth is there are hundreds of thousands of books that get published each year that end up dying a quiet death due to lack of focus, goals, and exposure. Get yourself on a path, and then find a manageable plan that will work with you, not against you!


  1. Adrianna Dane

    #3 under guidelines is so important. I hear this so many times. “I only made so-and-so sales at this huge event.” My comment has always been, “I don’t attend these to make sales, although they are nice, I attend them to meet people, to gain exposure.” There are a lot of people who don’t understand that concept. I need more hours in the day. Great article! Thanks.

  2. Bookmarketing Noob

    Great article. I agree with Adrianna that #3 is important, but so is #2. So many authors think that just getting their book online and into various stores will lead to sales. Marketing a book, as I’m learning, is a long, involved process. Thanks for the tips.

  3. stephen baker

    Thanks for the article. Seems to me that a couple of the points seemed at odds: Don’t dabble and get a lot of lines in the water.

    One question I have re the Web site. I have a blog (above) and I try to focus it more or less on the theme of the book. The idea is that if people come to the site, they might not want to see, first thing, a piece about the rest of my life. But to establish a voice and get to know my community, I think I have to branch out a bit and bring more of my life into the blog. Thoughts?

  4. Penny

    Hey Stephen, I would agree. Without knowing your topic it’s hard to comment specifically but my sense is that you’ll want to share more of your life in your blog – bring readers in, just like you bring them into your story. I hope this was helpful! Thanks for reading, Penny

  5. Penny

    You know so often authors will do one radio interview and sit by the phone and wait for it to ring. It just doesn’t happen that way. The more exposure you can get, the more people will hear about your book and (hopefully) the more books you will sell. The metric is really pretty simple: get out there, get out there, get out there. Now is not the time to be a shrinking violet!

    Thanks for reading our blog! Penny

  6. Deborah

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



  7. Penny C. Sansevieri

    Hello Deborah,

    Thanks for the comment, I’m glad you’re enjoying our blog!

    Happy New Year!


  8. Mark Eller

    Well, my first book isn’t out yet, but it is coming soon with several more on the way, so I’ve been scrambling looking at different ways of self promotion. This blog was very informative and helpful.

  9. Penny

    Thanks, Mark! I’m glad you found us. Good luck with your book and keep us posted on your success!

  10. Cassidy McKay

    Definitely good tips. I don’t go to book signings, author talks or chats expecting to sell many books there. But residual sales certainly come in, along with web site visits, blog hits, etc. and my name gets out there.

    Thank you for the information!

  11. Penny

    Hey Cassidy, thanks for reading. I’m glad you enjoyed the article…

  12. Stacy Hawkins Adams

    Thanks for the great advice. All of the tips were helpful, especially the reminder to focus on substance rather than PR simply for the sake of PR.

  13. Judy Goss

    This is amazing advice – I learned SO MUCH!! Thank-you – you have inspired me to keep plugging away, no matter what, and to not worry about “sales” but “exposure.” That is what I thought, but wasn’t sure if I was right – now I know!!

  14. Martha

    Thanks Penny, my new book has been online for only three days, I realize that in many respects getting it there was the easy part, now I need to grow my exposure and expand to people who need what I can offer them. thanks for all the rich content here, it is inspiring…..let’s me refocus on helping others not just selling!

  15. Penny

    Hey Martha! I’m glad you like this blog entry. Yes, lead with helpfulness and sales will follow! Good luck – keep us posted! 🙂

  16. Kim Smith

    Excellent advice. I especially approve the statement that exposure equals sales. Get out there and open your mouth, people!

  17. Penny

    Thanks, Kim – you are 100% right! Get out there and promote, promote, promote!

  18. Rick

    I actually knew a guy who didn’t want to sell on the net because he was afraid of being overwhelmed



  19. I added Your Article

    Just wanted to let you know I added the first paragraph of your article and a link to the full article in the article section of my forum


  20. Kendra Kett

    Thanks for this great article! It is the first article I’ve found that makes sense, offers encouragement, is practical, and not overwhelming all at the same time. As a brand new author, and self-published, I learned a lot reading this and feel a new sense of energy and relief from it. Thanks for sharing this great information and encouragement. I knew that the road to marketing my book would be long and tedious but somehow I thought that the efforts would yield results more quickly. I’m learning now how residual it all is. I’ve been focusing on the mission of my book and fledgling company as that is what I think will eventually yield sales. But it all still keeps me up at night! I am really glad that somehow your newsletter wound up in my in-box and that I found you as a great resource to help me! Thanks again!

  21. carl brookins

    What a good piece! Every new author–check that–every author today should read and take to heart your expertise. As the world of electronic publishing really lifts off there will be much more to learn and adjust.

    I’d add another thought. It helps to be positive. Assuming the worst may mean you’ll never be disappointed, but it can become a self-fulfilling attitude. “Why should I bother going to that bookstore? Nobody will show up anyway.”

    be well

  22. Penny

    Hey Karl, thank you —- and you’re right, staying positive is important. Keep perspective and keep moving forward. That’s the ticket!

  23. Sandip Sen


    When I wrote my first Book ” The Project Management Time

    Cycle” ISBN 1440493332 against a amazon.com offer for

    creating a print on demand POD title in Dec 2008, I expected

    that the worlds biggest online retailer would sell 100’s of

    copies each week.

    Not so, it sells in ones & twos and the publisher/retailer

    says they do not promote books, which was terribly

    dissapointing. So I approached John Wiley & Sons, a hundred

    year old publisher and a big daddy of Project Management

    Books. Wiley agreed to publish but a a much reduced royalty

    (a fifth of what amazon gives) with a initial print run of

    6000 copies which they expected to sell over 2 years.

    Naturally I decided to stay with Amazon and try and create

    my own network, as I understand after further study, that

    only a good review and distributor network works.

    If anyone knows how to get good Technical Reviewers from

    Stanford or Kellogs or any other top Universities please

    let me know.


  24. Ed Weinsberg

    Hi, Penny

    Thanks for the great article and for motivating esp. new authors like me. I knew that marketing would be harder than writing my book, Conquer Prostate Cancer, but I really didn’t know it would be so time-consuming. Is there ever a time when you can stop marketing a book, or is that so only for the leading, established authors? Also are book reviews in broadly distributed magazines which target your audience as effective as writing an article for that magazine? Today I read a superlative review about my book in Cure Magazine (circulation: 400,000) and was thrilled. But is that the kind of exposure you referred to that can get an audience’s attention and thus substantially more sales? So many questions! Thanks.

    -Rabbi Ed Weinsberg

  25. Jolie du Pre

    Hey Penny,

    Learned about this by clicking your link at Twitter. I learn so much from you!

    Sitting here typing on my iPhone while I’m getting a pedicure and sitting in a massage chair. Life is good!

    I’m aggressively marketing Swing! The hits to the website continue to increase. The blog tour that we have during the month of April has been fun too. It’s a lot of work, but I’m doing what I love so it’s not really work.

  26. Penny

    Hey Jolie, thanks for staying in touch! Keep me posted on your success!


  27. Kayelle Allen

    Helpful and realistic. Glad I followed this link.

  28. Carolyn Wilman

    Loved the article, but what if you have done everything “right” according to your post and sales are still low? (Website, e-newsletter, blog, online radio show, Facebook, Twitter, countless TV, radio, print interviews including a documentary) Will there ever be a tipping point? Everyone keeps telling me there will be…

  29. Dorothy Thompson

    Penny, I want to applaud you. It’s about time someone brought this out into the open so that authors can understand publicity for what it truly is. We all need it because without publicity, no one will know who you are, but authors sometimes have high expectations and they get frustrated, then they start blaming their publicists or their publisher or even themselves. When you pay someone to publicize your book, that person who you have put in charge is responsible for getting word out about your book through various outlets. It does not mean they are a magic genie who has found the perfect solution to book sales. There is no perfect solution because as hard as this is for authors to grasp, all books are not created equal. Some require more of this, less of that, so what the publicist does is take the book and find out where that book would fit best. If it is a self-published book by an unknown author for example, it’s going to be a little different than if it’s a NY Times bestselling author and that’s also hard for the author to grasp. Just because they made the NY Times, it doesn’t make that book better than mine, they say. No, it doesn’t, but to book vendors and book stores and all those other people who know what kind of books sell the best, it does. Where we come in, we take that book and give it the best publicity we can, but what we need to tell the authors upfront that whatever we do is for publicity – to get the word out about your book so that others will find you – and isn’t an instant guarantee to sales. However, on the upside, you do need people like us because we can get them past doors they may not have been able to get into if they had handled things themselves and, often times, it is because of our efforts that their books have sold. Very very good article and I’ll be sure to tweet it.

  30. K.M. Daughters

    So glad I paid attention to the tweets conversation today. Excellent article with invaluable advice. Thank you.

  31. Penny

    You’re very welcome! Thanks for following me on Twitter!

  32. Jackie Griffey

    Thanks, Penny and all of the people who left comments too. Learned I’m dong one thing right – I love blogs because I love meeting people, networking, and learning and sharing experiences. I just need to get on the ball and do MORE of it and also update my own blog more often and jaz it up with some laughs and interesting things (as I myself would enjoy).

    Thanks and good luck to all of us,

    Jackie Griffey


  33. Penny

    hey Jackie, thanks for posting – I’m glad you’re here and you are right – it’s a great place to network! Good luck to you 🙂


  34. Marty Roppelt

    Penny, got this link form a Long Ridge Writers Group forum. This is tremendously helpful stuff. Thanks so much!

  35. Penny

    Hey Marty! You are so welcome – glad you’re here and hope you’ll stick around 🙂



  1. Shack’s Comings and Goings » Sunday Wash-Up - [...] Why Your Book Isn’t Selling Long article from Dec 2008 which is being tweeted around again. Worth a read…

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