What I've learned (so far) about selling books

I’ve written a previous post about how to sell your first book to a publisher, and have written several posts about translating your amazon sales rank into a sales rate.  But I haven’t said anything yet about the meager lessons that I’ve learned about how to actually sell books.

Since I can only draw from my own experience (and a bit of observation and anecdotal evidence from friends), I’m going to assume that this advice will only be useful for:

  • Non-fiction books. Novels are totally different.
  • People who aren’t already famous. Richard Dawkins or Bill Clinton can stop reading now. Your book will top the bestseller list no matter what you do.
  • You have some reasonable set of credentials that make you an expert in whatever you’ve written about.
  • Your book is good.

I should also make a comment about being realistic with sales numbers. To put things in perspective, at any given time, the top ranked physics book on amazon is at #1000 or so, which means about 30 sales a day on amazon, and about 100/day overall. Royalty rates are usually of order $2-$3 per book, which means that you’re not going to get rich on your book. Probably. If you’re Malcolm Gladwell or Stephen Hawking, you should feel free to contradict me.

You can get a good idea of all of the stuff we’ve done so far by looking at our Press Room, but here’s a list of things that don’t work (for me):

  • Blogging. Sure, there are people who became semi-famous because of their blogs, which they then turned into a book. Think of Stuff White People Like, for example, or any number of webcomics authors. Blogs can build up a faithful audience, but it takes time, and it takes serious dedication. Many writers (like me) don’t have it in them to write multiple daily posts. Unless your blog readership is in the thousands, it’s unlikely to be a profitable use of your time. Check your stats on google reader (or your statcounter for your webpage), but odds are that you’re going to do much better getting into a larger venue.
  • Talks/ book signings. Again, all bets are off if you are already famous, but for a first time author, you’re not going to sell more than a dozen books or so by doing a signing or giving a talk to ~30-50 people. It can be fun, and since part of your mission (I hope) is to educate the public, it may still be worth your time, but just be aware that it’s unlikely to produce more than a few sales. This is why publishers don’t send most authors on book tours.
  • Anything written too far ahead of time. As you may recall, I wrote a very well-received article for slate back in August. Even though our web traffic went through the roof, and the story made the front page of digg, it resulted in almost no sales because the “User’s Guide” wasn’t available for pre-order yet on amazon. Even a few months later, when I appeared on Studio 360, it was still too early to make any sales. You should definitely time your events for after your book is officially released.
  • Reviews without links. We got some very favorable reviews in the Christian Science Monitor and Publisher’s Weekly. In some ways, these are great, because it means that we can quote them in our amazon profile. However (and there’s nothing we can do about this), because there are no links in the reviews to either our webpage, to the Wiley bookpage, or to amazon, these don’t do us that much good.

So what does work?

  1. Slashdot (or similar) Reviews — By far the biggest bump we’ve gotten so far is from our review on Slashdot. Because there is editorial review, simply asking an acquaintance (as we did) to write one doesn’t mean that it’ll make it in. However, immediately after our review came out, we jumped to #1 in Physics, top 10 in science, #1 for all relevant categories on the Kindle, and #1 in all of those respective lists on the amazon.ca and amazon.co.uk charts. Slashdot may not be right for you, but the fact is that there are a few sites with very dedicated readership (and user provided content), and if they say something good about you, then you’re in good shape.
  2. Write op-eds or other stories in the popular press. I’ve already warned about doing this too far ahead of time, but my story in io9 got enormous web traffice (53,000 reads), a lot of discussion (248 comments!), made BoingBoing. Every single writer I’ve spoken with has said that writing articles is the only way to bring attention to your book if you aren’t already famous. The difficulty is that you have to come up with lots of story ideas, and not be too insulted when (as will happen again and again) your stories get rejected. Learning to write a story pitch is a whole new skill set. For what it’s worth, I’ll have an op-ed in the May 7 LA Times.
  3. Get blog attention. This might seem redundant with the whole point about getting reviews, but if you can get a few links or nice comments from a few prominent blogs, that can do a lot to keep your book on people’s minds (or introduce them to it in the first place). In particular, we had a very nice bump from our “Big Idea” entry in John Scalzi’s “Whatever” blog.
  4. Make sure you’re reviewed on amazon, Good Reads, Library Thing, and other websites. This is just common sense. Everyone stacks the deck with a favorable review or two just to get the ball rolling, because after all, who’s going to read a book with no reviews?

There are other (but obvious) things, of course. It’s great if you can be interview on NPR. Pitch, pitch, pitch. The Colbert bump is unbeatable, but obviously it’s very hard to get on there. You want major reviews, of course, but your publicity department of your publisher will presumably be on that.

And a final point. Everything I’ve listed up there represents a sort of one time bump. However, often times one thing leads to another. My slate article lead to the Studio 360 interview. Our slashdot review led to lots of blog and twitter mentions, and hopefully will lead to other reviews. At the end of the day, you’re really hoping not for individual bumps, but for sustained sales based on word of mouth.

We’re still waiting for that to kick in. Our book’s only been out for a month, though, so wish us luck.


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