I recently spoke at a conference for professional editors. My session was titled “How to Edit a Book to Sell.”
Editors and writers are often confounded when great books fail to sell while poorly written books fly off the shelves.
You’ve probably had a confounding experience at a bookstore when you pick up a book, read a few pages, and say, “This is awful!” When you put it back on the shelf, you notice the words “New York Times Bestseller” emblazoned on the front.
Why do great books often fail to sell while poorly written books fly off the shelves?
Some books stay on bestseller lists even though they seemingly don’t deserve it. Other books are brilliantly written, and they never crack the top 100.
A book only finds life in the mind of the reader, which means you must convince readers to buy and read your book.
You don’t want your book to be a neglected masterpiece. So how do you write a book that will sell well?
I’ve worked in the publishing industry for over a decade as a literary agent and marketing director for a traditional publisher. But I’ve mostly been the “marketing guy” for independent authors and publishers. They come to me for advice on how to help their books sell better.
Unfortunately, by the time they come to me, it’s often too late.
Why? Because marketing is not an add-on you sprinkle over your book at the end of the writing process.
You can’t make a cookie delicious simply by sprinkling sugar on top after it’s baked. The sugar needs to be baked in. Sprinkled sugar might make a good cookie tastier, but it can’t make a bad recipe delicious.
Just like sugar needs to be a main ingredient baked into the cookie, your marketing needs to be a main element of your book writing process. It needs to be baked into the book.
As the old saying goes, good marketing helps a bad book fail faster.
By the time many authors come to me, they’re already doomed because their book was not ready to be published. For this reason, the ninth commandment of Novel Marketing says, “Thou shalt not publish thy first book first.”
The act of writing your first book prepares you to write a book people may actually want to read.
Why do books fail to sell?
Reason #1: An Unclear Who
When the author doesn’t know exactly who their writing for, the book will not sell well.
How do you determine who your book is for?
#1 Wrong Way to Identify Your Reader
If you identified your target reader by using demographics only, you’ve done it wrong.
Demographics are broad categories like age, race, sex, income level, and religion. They’re used to describe a group of people.
Many authors include demographic ranges in their traditional book proposals, which is extremely unhelpful when you’re trying to describe who you’re writing for. For example, you might say, “I write for women between the ages of 35 and 65 who are stressed out.”
Congratulations. You just described most women, and your marketing team will have no idea where to focus their efforts.
Demographic information is nearly useless because you can’t use it to make editorial decisions. If you don’t know exactly who you’re writing to, you won’t be able to make it resonate with your target reader. Plus, you won’t have any useful information to help you make marketing decisions.
Demographics are too vague. They were developed in the 20th century and were most useful for selling things like soap on TV.
Seth Godin often says, “The TV industrial complex is designed to sell average products to average people.”
Your book is not an average product, and it’s not for the average person. The demographics used to sell average products to average people won’t help you sell your book. Your book is not Irish Spring soap.
Demographics don’t work because they’re not specific enough.
For example, if you say your book is for high school girls, you’re not being specific enough.
Various groups of high school girls are vastly different. The goth girls don’t wear the same clothes as the athletic girls. They don’t shop at the same stores or read the same books.
You need to decide which table in the high school cafeteria you’re targeting.
Is your book for the nerds, the jocks, the band geeks, or the goths?
Once you look at your readers in that way, suddenly, you’ll start to see them with more clarity.
#1 Right Way to Identify Your Reader
Instead of using demographics to identify your reader, use psychographics.
Learn to understand the psychology of your target reader, which is far more important than their demography. Demographics don’t predict much about our tastes. You can learn more about why demographics are mostly useless and why you should use psychographics when you listen to this episode.
Psychographics are far more useful for marketing but identifying them is only the first step. To write for your target reader, you need to drill down further.
#2 Wrong Way to Identify Your Reader
Creating a reader persona is a popular approach for identifying a target reader. I confess I used to be an advocate of this method. If you listen to early episodes of the Novel Marketing Podcast, you’ll hear me talk about it.
A reader persona or a reader avatar is a fictional representative reader. In the corporate world, businesses create a customer avatar. This fictional person serves as their representative customer. The technique works well in corporate marketing, but it doesn’t work for authors.
I finally realized that some authors simply describe themselves in generic terms and end up writing for themselves instead of a reader. Other authors are so imaginative that they create a reader persona who likes everything they do.
Neither approach is useful for an author when it comes to making editorial and marketing decisions.
#2 Right Way to Identify Your Reader
In marketing, you’ll often find that a narrow focus on a specific person will yield more sales. It sounds counterintuitive, but many of the bestselling books were written for a specific person.
For example, S.D. Smith, author of The Green Ember Series, has sold a million copies of his books, but he wrote those books for his own children. He didn’t write them for “young kids” or even “kids between the ages of 8 and 14.” He wrote them for four real children whom he knew in real life. He wrote the books for his own kids.
Find Your Timothy
Finding a Timothy is a practice inspired by a book of the Bible written to a person named Timothy. The Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy, and by writing to one person, he wrote a book that benefited many.
Writing for a specific person made his book clear, resonant, and approachable. Many of the books in the New Testament, such as Luke and Acts, were also written to a specific person. You’ll often see their names in the books.
Lest you think this is a religious technique, consider the fact that Machiavelli wrote The Prince for the ruler of Florence.
Today, some authors struggle to name a single real-life person they’re writing for. This is always a red flag that the book will struggle to find readers.
I encourage you to follow Paul’s example and write to one reader you know in real life. We’ll call him Timothy. He can become more than a representative of a target demographic. He can become a friend.
Every writing decision you make should go through the filter of whether it will benefit Timothy.
- Will this scene make sense to Timothy?
- Will this hold Timothy’s attention?
- Will this joke make Timothy laugh?
The key to word-of-mouth marketing is to thrill a single person who will rave about your book to their friends. The magic is in word-of-mouth marketing.
Contrary to popular belief, narrowing the target audience does not reduce the potential readership. In fact, the opposite happens.
Harry Potter was written for 12-year-old boys, but that didn’t keep you from reading it.
When someone is thrilled by a book, word spreads. And it’s only through that word-of-mouth that a book becomes a best seller.
Every movement starts with a single reader.
Reason #2: An Unclear Why
You probably know why you’re writing your book, but it’s more important to know why a reader would read your book.
Why would a stranger want to read your book when they could be listening to a podcast, watching a YouTube video, or playing a game on their phone?
Despite the surge of new technologies, books are as popular as ever. In fact, younger people read more books on average than older people.
So why do people read books?
Author Media did some research to find out. We collected many qualitative answers to the question and analyzed the data.
We discovered that most readers read for one of three reasons:
Readers who want an adrenaline rush are reading to feel excited. They are dying to know how the book ends. They want to be entertained.
Picture a reader in his bed at three in the morning, still reading a book. He’s exhausted the next day at work, and his coworkers say, “What happened to you? You look awful!”
The reader replies, “I know. I was up until four in the morning reading this book I couldn’t put down! You’ve got to read it! It’s amazing.”
They’re like an addict talking about an amazing trip, hoping you’ll want to try some too. But they’re not pushing an illegal substance. They’re pushing naturally occurring adrenaline. Their friends can get the same high of entertainment if they read the same book.
Or picture a reader sitting on a couch in front of a TV. The TV is off, and they’re reading a book. Readers who want entertainment need your book to be more fun than TV and more engaging than games.
The craft of writing is vitally important if you’re hoping to woo this reader because you’re competing with Hollywood’s very best.
People who read to be educated want to feel smart and sophisticated, and more specifically, they’re reading to find the answer to a specific question.
Picture this reader reading in a coffee shop. She’ll only read a certain kind of book in a coffee shop.
The key to writing successfully for the education-seeking reader is to answer the question they are asking at that moment. If you can answer their question, the quality of the writing does not matter.
Don’t believe me? I have three words for you: Some assembly required.
When you buy a piece of furniture that comes in a box, you’ll often see “Some Assembly Required” printed on the box.
As you pull out the pieces, you’re asking, “How do I assemble this desk?” Regardless of how poorly the accompanying instructions are written, you’ll read them carefully so you can get your question answered.
Craft is still important. But in terms of sales, I would want my publishing company to hire an editor who knew how to make the book answer the reader’s question rather than an editor who could make the book conform to literary norms.
The book What to Expect When You’re Expecting answers the specific questions of a specific person. A woman who is pregnant for the first time wants to know what she can expect. What will happen to her body as a baby grows inside? What do her body and her baby need?
This book puts its finger directly on that pain point and offers answers to her first-time-pregnancy questions.
Readers sometimes want to escape their current reality.
- Are you feeling powerless? Read about a powerful protagonist.
- Are you feeling poor? Read about someone rich.
People who read for escape want to feel something different.
People who struggle with anxiety or depression often turn to escapist literature for relief. Of course, not every escape reader struggles with depression, but those who struggle are more likely to read escape literature.
As an author, you have a powerful influence in this reader’s life. Your book may be meeting someone in their darkest season. These readers sometimes write to the author to say, “Your book saved my life.”
Picture this person reading the book as a vacation, perhaps while they’re on vacation.
When I was 14 years old, my family went to the beach, and I brought a book called Computer Networking for Dummies, and everybody laughed at me because normal people don’t take an education book to the beach.
Most people take an escape book to the beach.
What’s the difference between reading for entertainment and escape?
Escape books will have elements of entertainment and vice versa, but the reader’s motivation for choosing one over the other is very different.
The core distinction is that people who read for entertainment are reading to find out how the book ends. In contrast, people who read for escape know how the book will end. They know the hero will defeat the villain. They know the couple will get together,
They don’t mind knowing how the book will end because they’re reading to experience the character’s journey, and they’re wishing the book would never end.
Escape readers tend to be voracious. As soon as they finish one romance, they pick up the next one. As soon as they finish one fantasy story, they’re onto the next.
Escape to a Different World
I recently finished The Wheel of Time Series for the second time. That is 11,898 pages and 4.4 million words. The audiobook version was hundreds of hours long. But it’s not a story you read because you want to know how it ends. Everybody knows Rand would defeat the bad guy and restore order.
I read the series because I wanted to spend time in that world.
Good escape books take readers to a different place. Readers may escape to a mythical past, a fantasy world, a distant future, or a simpler time.
I’d include Amish books in the escape category. People love Amish novels because they help them escape future shock.
Future shock is like culture shock in your own culture. You haven’t changed, but everything around you has. That rapid rate of change is so shocking it can become physically painful.
The term was coined in the 1970s, but as the pace of cultural change has accelerated future shock, which normally is associated with the elderly, has been affecting people at a younger age.
In fact, the kids have a meme they use to express future shock, and it’s called the jealous girlfriend meme.
The jealous girlfriend represents how things were, and the guy typically represents culture.
As long as culture shock persists, I predict Amish stories will be an enduring genre. Every micro-genre alleviates a psychological pain that causes readers to want to read that genre.
Escape to a Different Feeling
Escape readers are often seeking a different emotional feeling. Bestselling romance books seem to sell because they make the reader feel wanted by an amazing man.
Back when Fabio graced the covers of most romance books in the nineties, Avon Books did a study to determine the impact his image had on the sales of those books. They discovered that when Fabio was on the cover with another woman, he would boost sales by 33%. But when he appeared on the cover alone, sales went up by 45%.
That data tells marketers that romance readers in the nineties weren’t buying the story. They were buying Fabio.
A more modern example comes from the book Twilight, the 20th bestselling series of all time. If you read Twilight, you might have thought the main character was hollow.
Bella’s defining characteristic is that she is clumsy, which isn’t particularly unique or special. Most people are somewhat clumsy. Bella is especially clumsy, but other than that, she has little personality.
When I look at this book as a marketer, I see that Twilight was successful not despite the under-developed protagonist but because of it.
Twilight allowed readers to feel like they were Bella, a beautiful and wanted high school girl.
Bella’s personality wasn’t detailed enough to push out the reader’s personality.
Her other defining characteristic was that every good-looking man in the story wanted her for one thing or another. And that was her challenge. She had to choose.
The desire to feel beautiful and wanted resonated with millions of high school girls, and I think that’s what led to the book’s prominence.
If Stephanie Meyer had given Bella a more specific personality, I don’t think it would have helped the book sell more copies. It might have made it a better book objectively. It might have won more awards, but I don’t think it would have sold better.
Now, I’m not saying that all romance readers want to feel wanted, and I’m not saying you should make your book worse so it will sell well. But I am saying you need to know what your readers want. If you want them to buy and read your book, it needs to deliver what they want.
These three motivations, entertainment, education, and escape, establish an emotional connection with the reader. To connect with your reader emotionally, find out which specific emotions they have.
When your reader has a strong reason (or why) to read the book, the book will sell.
Determine whether your reader has a strong desire for education, escape, or entertainment, and then make sure your book delivers.
Reason #3: An Unclear Benefit
Readers will never get back the time they spend reading your book.
Reading a book is expensive and risky. It’s risky because some readers feel guilty about not finishing a book. Every unfinished book on their shelf feels like an indictment of their character, which isn’t true, but they believe it is so.
These readers don’t want to buy a book unless they’re confident they’ll finish it.
As an author, you must realize that some people are afraid to buy your book because they don’t want your book to make them feel guilty if they don’t finish it. These readers need to know what benefit they’ll gain from reading your book.
There’s a classic Calvin and Hobbes cartoon where Calvin is sitting behind his lemonade stand. Instead of selling lemonade, he’s selling a “swift kick in the butt” for $1.00. Hobbs asks Calvin how business is going, and Calvin replies, “Terrible. I can’t understand it. Everybody I know needs what I’m selling.”
Some authors think like Calvin. They say, “Everybody I know needs my book to tell them how they’re doing it wrong and how they should do it my way.” But you’ll never sell a book if you lead with that.
You can present your book as a vitamin or as a painkiller. Calvin was selling something you need but don’t want (a vitamin). But writers who answer a burning question for their readers are selling what readers want (a painkiller).
Even novelists writing Amish stories are selling something that alleviates the pain of future shock. Painkillers are easier to sell than vitamins because they meet an immediate need.
It’s important to realize that readers will only buy and read the best possible book that will kill their particular pain.
Most books cost $5.00-$25.00, which is to say, all books are affordable. But they do cost the reader time. Since you can always make more money, but you can never make more time, readers will only spend their time on the best possible book.
Once they read that book, it’s no longer the best because they’ve already read it.
Books compete for attention in the store and on a reader’s bookshelf. Many readers keep several books on their bedside table at one time. Depending on their mood, they choose to read for escape, education, or entertainment,.
If they’re going to choose your book, it must be the best book for them at that moment.
Can you see why picking a Timothy is so important? Writing for a generic, unspecified reader doesn’t cut it. How can you create the best possible book for a generic reader?
You can create the best possible book for your Timothy right now. It usually only needs to be the best in one of those three categories of escape, entertainment, or education.
Examples with Category Ratings
The following examples are bestselling books that were “the best” in one of the three categories of escape, entertainment, or education. I’ve rated the book’s performance in each category on a scale of 1 to 10.
The Harbinger, by Jonathan Cahn
The Harbinger spent 80 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
- Entertainment: 1
- Escape: 2
- Education: 10
The book is a series of conversations which doesn’t lend itself to entertainment. It takes place in present-day New York City, so there’s no real escape. I gave it a 2 because there is some supernatural activity.
So why is it selling so well?
From an education perspective, the book offers an answer to the question, “Why would a good God allow September 11th to happen to America?”
The book offers a satisfying answer for people whose hearts burn with that question.
The Harbinger offered such a satisfying answer that those readers told all their friends to buy the book. For 80 weeks, without any real marketing, it sold millions of copies because news about the book spread by word of mouth.
Perhpas you haven’t heard of The Harbinger, but the people who have probably read it because of the word-of-mouth phenomenon.
Most books will score 5 of 10 in all three categories rather than 0 of 10 in two categories.
If the book is not the “best” in any one category, it’s usually an indicator that the reader benefit is unclear. If readers aren’t sure what they’ll get, they won’t read.
Redeeming Love, by Francine Rivers
- Escape: 10
- Entertainment: 3
- Education: 10
Francine Rivers is one of the best romance writers of the 20th century, and romance is primarily escape. It has some entertaining elements, but you know how it will end.
But from an education perspective, I’d give it a 10 because it offers a commentary on the biblical book of Hosea. Many people read the Bible, but few people remember the book of Hosea. However, readers of Redeeming Love remember the book of Hosea, and that has led to the book’s enduring popularity.
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
- Entertainment: 10
- Escape: 10
- Education: 10
To Kill a Mockingbird is entertaining because you have no idea how it will end. It’s packed with suspense and tension.
It also offers a beautiful escape into the world of a young girl who is culturally separated from the reader. She lives in a time most of us didn’t live through, and she allows us to see what it was like to be a child in an age before cell phones.
It also provides an educational commentary on racism, which is our nation’s enduring sin.
For all these reasons, To Kill a Mockingbird has resonated with readers throughout the decades. People have tried to burn and ban the book over the years, but readers still buy and read it.
If you want your book to be an enduring classic that resonates for generations, you’ve got to score a 10 in each category, which is difficult. Very few books pull it off.
The key to success is to make a promise to the reader and over-deliver on it.
Authors make promises to readers through marketing.
You must know who you’re making a promise to and what they want.
Before You Write Your Next Book
If you want your book to sell like crazy, write your back cover copy before you write the book. Determine who you’re writing to, what they want, and what your book will deliver. A good book is like a box of cracker jacks. It provides a tangible benefit inside.
The pitch describes the prize inside your book. I encourage you to also create pitches for your book before writing your book. Write three pitches, one for each motivation category. You can learn more about writing a pitch for your book here.
Once I started approaching my courses that way, my sales increased by 1,000%. The approach transformed everything.
When I create courses, I promise something I know people want. Then I record the sessions to deliver on those promises.
You can do the same thing in your book.
- Identify who your book is for.
- Make a crystal-clear promise.
- Over-deliver on that promise through your book.
When people hear the promise they want, they say, “Thank you! Finally! This is the exact book I’m looking for. This is the best possible book for me right now.”
That approach will make people email all their friends, and that is how you bake the marketing into the cookie.
I crafted this plan with bestselling and award-winning author James L Rubart to be step by step guide through the first five years of your writing career. Learn each quarter what to do to succeed and avoid the mistakes that hijack the success of most authors. Learn more at AuthorMedia.com/courses.
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