What really sells a book?

Some might say the trickiest part is actually selling the book. Or writing it? Opinions differ. But what really sells a book? What marketing tool? What recipe to follow? Is there a recipe?

Well, let’s analyze one of my favorite novels, The History of Love by Nicole Krauss, and hope that I’ll be able to offer some insight as to how people decide to buy a book.

Word of mouth. Yeah, simple as that. Things haven’t changed much in the last couple of years – except, of course, the fact that people are rarely using their mouths anymore. They tweet, they like, they share, they e-mail, they text. You get the idea.

I told a friend about The History of Love, told her a bit about the premise, rambled about how good it was, and she bought it because she trusted me to know what kind of books she enjoys reading, and because she liked all the other books I had recommended her.

This is the only thing you can’t pay or beg for, and it’s the most powerful marketing tool by far. People recommending books to their friends – in terms of reach it beats the living crap out of any publisher’s marketing efforts.

This friend of mine loved the book, so she recommended it to several of her friends, and those friends recommended it to their friends… you get the picture.

The Cover

How many times have you picked up a book in a bookstore simply because the cover picked your interest? Some people even buy books just because they love the cover.

Think of it in this way: the cover is the first thing a potential buyer notices, it’s what makes a first impression. A badly designed book cover might give the impression of carelessness – there’s a chance that the rest of the book is just as badly written, badly edited, badly formatted.

A cover should convey the general tone of the story, so people will know what to expect from the moment they see the cover – a brilliant cover is like a small sample of the feeling a reader will get when reading that book.

The Blurb

Leo Gursky is a man who fell in love at the age of ten and has been in love ever since. These days he is just about surviving life in America, tapping his radiator each evening to let his upstairs neighbour know he’s still alive, drawing attention to himself at the milk counter of Starbucks. But life wasn’t always like this: sixty years ago in the Polish village where he was born Leo fell in love with a young girl called Alma and wrote a book in honour of his love. These days he assumes that the book, and his dreams, are irretrievably lost, until one day they return to him in the form of a brown envelope.
Meanwhile, a young girl, hoping to find a cure for her mother’s loneliness, stumbles across a book that changed her mother’s life and she goes in search of the author. Soon these and other worlds collide in The History of Love, a captivating story of the power of love, of loneliness and of survival.

With that first sentence you get this sense of hopelessness – the exact feeling Leo Gursky’s narrative exhales. It’s also enticing without giving away too much of the storyline. If you were to ask me, it’s a very good blurb.

Praise from other authors

To be honest, what really made me buy this book was the fact that J. M. Coetzee endorsed it. I mean, the guy’s a literary god, so paying a few bucks to read a book he called, “Charming, tender, and wholly original,” was a no-brainer.

Amazon Reviews and Rating

A few months ago I bought a book which had only five star reviews (more than 40 of them). It was so bad. I really mean it. Bad, bad, bad. I don’t trust these reviews too much anymore, because I know you can pay five bucks for one on Fiverr, you can ask relatives and friends, and so on.

This is why I don’t let reviews influence me very much. After all, even brilliant novels like Lolita or The Great Gatsby have 1 star reviews. Like I said before, it’s all just a matter of taste, so reading about someone else’s experience with that book, someone you don’t know, someone whose literary preferences are a mystery, is not the best of options. I just skim through the reviews, both good and bad, and try to get some sort of general idea about the style of the book and so on, but ultimately, what’s most helpful about Amazon is that sample that I can read – you get the feeling, the style, everything you could want to know about a book, basically.

Review Sites/Blogs

I reviewed The History of Love on as many websites I could find, even here. Many others did the same. All these blogs, even though some of them might not have a large following, create a lot of buzz around a book. Even a bad review can help you, because you get your book in front of a few people, and given that the review is not very bad, someone might decide to give it a try.

All these bloggers exert a tremendous influence on buyers, because they usually attract followers who have the same taste in literature as they have, so any good review has a much better chance of resulting in sales.

Of course, Nicole Krauss is a traditionally published writer, so she gets advertised and promoted by her publisher. She’s also been featured in the New Yorker, she’s been translated in a lot of countries, including Romania, and she’s also one of the best young writers in the US at the time.

But most of the factors that affect sales influence self-publishers as well.  Let’s break it down:

The Cover – you can either do it yourself or pay a designer.

The Blurb – write it yourself? I don’t know, I suck at writing blurbs, and maybe it happens ever so often for the writer to be too close to the story to write a good blurb, without either detailing useless information or giving away too much of the story. Maybe you can ask a friend (another writer perhaps?) to write one for you. After he has read the book, of course.

Praise from other authors – this one’s pretty tricky. You need to know other writers in your genre, and they also have to be willing to read your stuff. But I also read about writers just sending thousands of e-mails to fellow writers. Maybe that one works. Who knows?

Amazon Reviews and Rating – this eludes me greatly. I’ve tried giveaways, free promotions, all kinds of stuff. I even sold some copies, got some e-mails, a few comments from people who loved my stories, but received very few reviews.

Review Sites/Blogs – you can find a lot of reviewers just by using our old pal, Google. Ask nice, be polite, professional, and patient. Oh, and follow the guidelines.

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8 thoughts on “What really sells a book?

  1. I’m hoping to generate a word of mouth campaign for my novel by posting about it on history of San Jose/Silicon Valley web pages since that’s it’s subject matter. More specifically, San Jose in 1990, a very transitional time.

  2. For indie authors, reviews mean a lot. The comments above are true, and reviews can be deceiving. But it is also true that really bad reviews help justify the good ones. Every book isn’t for every reader (even if we had the time) but reading reviews should give a potential reader a sense of the story and hopefully why the reviewer liked (or didn’t) the story.

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