The New World: Publishing: Killing Your Sales One Shot at a Time

Over the last month or so, (I suppose because I was preparing for the “Think Like a Publisher workshop) I started noticing how indie writers shoot themselves in the foot as far as sales. And not just once, but often so many times that it guaranteed that no sane reader (past family and friends) would pick up their book.

And they did it all purposefully. And were often very proud of the fact that they did what they did, having no idea what their decisions were doing to their sales.

I call that “Shooting Yourself in the Foot.”

You hold the gun, you aim at your own foot, you pull the trigger. You have no one to blame but yourself when you indie publish.

So, let me detail out a few of the “shots” I have seen indie writers take at their own feet lately.

Shot #1

Tiny little author name on the cover, sometimes hidden in some part of the very busy artwork.

It has been proven over and over and over that author names sell books. So an indie writer has ten books out, which means that if someone manages to find one of the author’s books, the reader wants to look for other books by the same author. And how does  the reader do that????

Author name.

I was looking for an indie author the other day who had a list of twenty books. I scanned right past the author’s books because the author’s name was so tiny on the covers, in thumbnail it couldn’t be read.

If your name isn’t in about 60 point type, you are just taking shots at your own foot. (Just a general guideline, but think about it.)

One toe now gone…

(I look forward to your letters on this first shot… (grin))

Shot #2

Wrong genre. In about thirty different ways.

Always have someone else tell you what your wrote. Writers are awful at knowing what they write. Indie writers put their books on the wrong shelves in online stores all the time. Or call it by the wrong genre name, making sure that readers who might like it will never find it, and readers who do find it will hate it because it’s not what it claims to be.

Wrong genre on cover design.

Folks, I hate to tell you this, (and I made this mistake early on as well) but covers need to scream genre. For example, I had a book I did called “On Top of the Dead” which was a pure science fiction story with aliens and everything. So what did I do to make sure it didn’t sell?  I put the lower half of a dead body in a street on the cover, making it look like a literary mystery. And, of course, it didn’t sell much. I just redid the cover putting alien spaceships hovering over New York City on the cover instead. Duh…

And genre in fonts.

The types of fonts on a cover will shout to readers about the genre. Put a romance font on a science fiction book and trust me, you ain’t going to sell many copies. Start learning fonts.

And genre in blurbs.

For heaven’s sake, if you call your book a romance, it needs to have a complete focus on the romance, must have girl meets boy, must have issues, and must live happily-ever-after in the ending. And that needs to be clear in the blurb. The blurb must be focused on the romance, not on the murder that brings the two together.

So if you don’t know what your wrote, ask someone else and then focus your blurb to the elements of the genre that are important to readers.

Second toe gone….

Shot #3

Dull blurbs, filled with plot elements.

Plot is dull. “My story starts with a woman getting out of bed, yawning, going to the restroom, brushing her teeth, washing her face, brushing her hair, then stumbling to the kitchen for a cup of coffee.” You would never think of doing that in a blurb to sell your book, yet indie writer after indie writer do exactly that, only in more general terms.

Plot is the linked events. Readers want to read the story to figure out the linked events. But to buy the book, the reader first wants to know WHAT THE BOOK IS ABOUT. Not the events in the book. Two very distinct things, folks.

And dull blurbs also means nothing but passive verbs. Sure, we all use them at times in blurbs. I do as well, but I know what I am doing to make a reader buy a book. I know how to write tag lines that snap. And when I write a blurb, I ask myself what would make a reader buy this book? But if you use nothing but passive voice, the reader will automatically think your book is dull and never open it to the sample.

Third toe missing…

Shot #4

All your books look different, even if they are in the same genre or series.

A good friend of mine is having this problem, causing bad sales.  His name floats all over the covers, different sizes, his art is all different, his fonts are all different from book to book. He now understands what he did wrong and is fixing it. Here is how this shot works to not only blow off a toe, but kill almost all sales.

A reader finds a copy of a book and reads it and likes it, so goes to look for more work by the same author, and finds a ton of books that all look different. What happens?

Instead of the reader just grabbing a book that looks similar, (and in the same genre as the one he liked) the reader must now start over, look at each book to try to figure out what he wants and what each book is. And that guarantees the reader will often not buy another book, because the author is making the reader start over with every book. And work to find another book.

And if you are looking to build the sacred 1,000 fans who buy all your work, doing this will make sure that never happens.

In other words, if you do this, every sale to every reader must be like a first sale.

There is a real reason traditional publishers make all books from a bestseller look pretty much the same from book to book. Just walk into any bookstore or stand in front of a rack with a lot of books and look at that. Then ask yourself why you aren’t doing that as well? I know some of you hate traditional publishers, but in some areas, like author branding, traditional publishers know what they are doing. So copy what they do, learn from them to increase your own sales.

Fourth toe missing…

Shot #5

Covers looks like they are indie published.

Wow, is this going to cause letters. (grin) But alas, true. If you can’t put your book next to a traditional publisher’s book in the same genre and have your book look more professional or at least at the same level as a traditional publishers’ book, you are losing customers.

Most indie-published books all look the same. Sadly. Title at the top, centered, author name in small print near the bottom, centered. Nothing else on the cover except a picture or art, often done so it looks like it was photoshopped. No contrast in anything. Fonts are wrong for the genre, no tag or blurb or anything.

A cover likes that SHOUTS indie published and will push readers right past it.

Why? Because you sent your book to a job interview half-dressed and without shoes, that’s why. The reader will not hire your book and spend money on it. And why should they? It screams amateur.

Readers are looking for quality and covers scream if a book has quality or not. The customer might not actually notice an indie-look cover, but they will subconsciously, and move on to a different book.

What makes a professional cover? A bunch of things, but let me list a few major ones. (And please, this is all general.)

— Massive contrast in fonts, big author name at the top of the book.

— Only two fonts that are compatible, usually one serif, one sans-serif. (Many fonts is a pure sign of a beginner.)

— A small blurb near the author’s name such as “Author of (another book title).”

— A tag line or small active pitch about the book on the front. And no more than that. Only the four print elements on the cover, or five at the most.

— Art or photo that is clear and matches the genre and the font genre.

— It looks like other covers of other books and stories the author has written. In other words, it is CLEARLY branded.

Again, all that was general and I left off a ton of stuff.

Professional covers take a skill that is easily learned given some practice and the ability to use InDesign (or Photoshop.) But to learn it you must study covers and sometimes imitate traditional publisher covers in your same genre. It takes a focus in the learning. But if you just toss up a standard CreateSpace template cover, your book will shout indie and drive readers away.

Your book must complete with the best of the traditional publishing covers.

The fifth toe is now gone.


Those are the five major areas that indie writers and publishers shoot themselves in the foot and thus kill their own sales. There are others, of course. And all I talked about was in general terms. We teach entire classes on some of this stuff.

So if you are wondering why your books are not selling when everyone tells you your story is wonderful, maybe you should back up and look at the package you put the wonderful book inside.

Clearly, there is more to this indie publishing that some let on, isn’t there? (grin)

But honestly, for me, it is great fun learning. And having the freedom to write what I want, when I want. And only write for me and my readers.

That’s worth the learning curve a hundred times over.

Keep having fun.


Copyright © 2012 Dean Wesley Smith

Cover art copyright Philcold/Dreamstime

This chapter is now part of my inventory in my Magic Bakery.  

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