Hitting Publish: Why Your First Goal Isn’t To Sell Books

You’re publishing your first book. Your main goal is to get a lot of sales right away, right? Wrong.

Okay, not exactly wrong, as who doesn’t want a lot of sales? But starting out focusing on how many books you sell can lead to feeling discouraged, which can lead to failing to do what you need to do to get those sales.

In the beginning, you need reviews:

Good, bad, and indifferent, you need reviews of your first book. Once you have a decent cover and a solid book description, reviews are what convinces people who don’t know you to consider buying your novel. A large number of reviews shows a lot of people have bought the book, which cues readers it’s worth giving it a try.

Quantity matters:

It’s more about how many reviews than whether they are all good. In fact, most readers who see ten five-star reviews figure those are all the author’s friends, which is probably right, at least with a first book. So you actually want that person who likes one part of the book and not another to review your novel.

The occasional one-star review is not bad either. It shows your novel evokes strong feelings. It can especially be helpful if the reviewer says why she or he didn’t like the book, if it’s something that would draw in your ideal reader. For example, I had a so-so review from someone who commented “Think plot,” as a criticism of The Awakening. I was happy with that. I write thrillers. Thrillers need strong plots.

Ways you can get reviews:

Getting reviews can be a challenge. Think about how many times you read a book, watch a movie, or buy a product compared to how often you review one. While I don’t have a magic formula, here are some suggestions:

  • If someone you know emails you to say something positive about the book, politely ask that person to cut and paste the comment into a review wherever the book was bought.
  • Choose a week to list the book at 99 cents and purchase ads in enewsletters that will accept new releases in your genre. Assume you won’t earn this money back, so spend only what you can afford. Remember, the goal is to generate sales and get reviews that will help sales in the long run, not to earn money right now.
  • Ask your friends on Facebook to read and review the book if they like books like yours. (So if your novel is a horror novel, write a post asking that friends who like to read horror read and review the book.) Let them know how important reviews are to a book’s success. Don’t do this all the time, obviously, but there’s nothing wrong with asking once and asking again a few months down the line. These are your friends, they want to help you out.
  • Be active on Goodreads, a social media network for readers. By active, I mean be active as a reader. Review other people’s books. Eventually as people start seeing your reviews and get a sense of who you are, they will check out what you write and hopefully post some reviews.
  • List your book on Goodreads and, if you have a paperback edition, consider running a book giveaway. This gets your book in front of a lot of readers. Ideally, the people who win the book will review it, though they may not. You can see some examples of current giveaways here. (One caveat—if you’re cost conscious, offer the book only to people in your own country. It can be very expensive to send books internationally.)
  • On author platforms that specifically allow it (such as some author/reader Goodreads or Facebook groups), post a link to your book and ask for reviews. Be sure to check the group’s guidelines, though, before posting about your own book. If it’s a group that doesn’t allow that, you may find yourself banned.
  • Do an Internet search for book bloggers in your genre and contact them to ask if they would like to read and review your book. Keep in mind that bloggers get lots of requests, so check their guidelines, contact them by their preferred method, and send a short, polite request.
What not to do:
  • Don’t pay for reviews. Services that charge to list your book and make it available to reviewers are probably okay, but if you’re paying for a review, that review may get taken off the book sales platforms where it’s posted. Amazon in particular is vigilant about paid or shill reviews, some authors say to the point of taking down valid reviews that inadvertently raise flags.
  • Be wary of review-for-review exchanges with other authors. It can be tricky because whether it’s stated or not, the implication is good review for good review, as unless you’re kind of a jerk, you probably won’t feel right posting a bad review of someone’s book who praised yours.
  • Don’t push friends and family members who aren’t interested to post reviews. First, while it’d be nice if everyone supported what you do, people are busy, and if they’re not readers, don’t like the type of book you wrote, or feel awkward about telling you they didn’t love the book, you’ll only succeed in making them avoid you. Second, and more important for your career, it could be harmful to your novel’s success to have reviews from people who usually don’t read or buy books in your genre.

As author Chris Fox explains in The Six Figure Author, Amazon uses data to determine to which potential buyers to show your novel. If you write hardcore science fiction and three-quarters of the people who buy your novel the first month read mostly cozy mysteries and diet books, Amazon will likely suggest your book to strangers who read cozies and diet books. Based on their reading preferences, those people are highly unlikely to buy your sci fi novel. Which can then result in Amazon not showing it to anyone anymore, undercutting your long-term goal of selling novels. (So cheer up–when friends and family members make excuses for not reading or reviewing your book, they may be doing you a favor.)

In the end…

It takes time, but remember embarking on a career as a novelist is like building any other business. In the beginning, you spend a lot of time letting people know what you’re doing and trying to bring in work. You know every single source of business personally and can trace it back to the specific pitch you made. Eventually, though, someone tells someone who tells two more people who pass on recommendations to their friends and you start getting reviews–and sales–from people you’ve never met.

Good luck and best wishes for productive week.

L. M. Lilly

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