Challenge,  On Writing,  publishing

Five Shots At Your Own Sales

This Was a Fun Post in Late 2011…

Still all true going into 2018. Sadly.

I actually did two posts on this topic because I had to shoot off all ten toes of indie writers. But for a bring forward, this one is the fun one.

See if this almost completely holds up after six years. I think it does and I find that amazing.


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 because some things vary with genre, 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 of that genre.

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 or appropriate size for the genre.

— Only two fonts that are compatible, usually one serif, one sans-serif. (Many fonts is a pure sign of a beginner as is too much use of drop shadows and bad kerning.)

— 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. But that is rare.

— 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 indie and traditional publishing covers.

The fifth toe is now gone.


Those are the five major areas that indie writers and indie 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, including cover branding and blurb writing.

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. And where you shelved it.

Yes, it is a learning curve.

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.


Speaking of Learning…

January Workshops Now Open On Teachable

You can sign up directly on Teachable now. Or write me and have me put you on the list for the workshops. Full list of workshops and descriptions here.

Those of you with credits from either the Kickstarter or the certificate special we offered, you must write me to sign up.

Those who would just like to sign up directly can do so on Teachable at any point.

Class #1… Jan 2nd … Depth #3: Research
Class #2… Jan 2nd … Author Voice
Class #3… Jan 2nd … Business
Class #4… Jan 2nd … Writing into the Dark
Class #5… Jan 2nd … Writing Fiction Sales Copy
Class #6… Jan 2nd … Think Like a Publisher
Class #7… Jan 3rd … Depth in Writing
Class #8… Jan 3rd … Advanced Character and Dialog
Class #9… Jan 3rd … (Empty spot)
Class #10… Jan 3rd … Pacing Your Novel
Class #11… Jan 3rd … Novel Structure
Class #12… Jan 3rd … Writing Fantasye

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  • paladin3001

    Heard a lot of discussion about these points on a couple other sites from several indie authors. Mostly hammering home the points you have mentioned about what NOT to do as well. Right now I am a little sytmied on cover art and what to do at the moment. Have a couple ideas that need to be worked out and I guess I have to work on style elements to keep things similar.

    • dwsmith

      Cover art you have millions of choices, literally. Just google royalty-free sites and you will find a billion choices. The difficult part is finding a piece that fits both a cover style and your book. Don’t be afraid to imitate books in your genre you find attractive.

  • Mark Kuhn

    Great advice as always. Doesn’t apply to me yet, but it will at some point in 2018, so I’m printing this blog for safe keeping.

    One question, is it safe to say that a blurb is similar to the logline for a screenplay story? Like, when an ancient evil is loosed during a recent battle in Iraq, a secret cadre of soldiers is tasked with destroying it?

    • dwsmith

      If that is in the first chapter or so. But otherwise, nope. Blurbs are lead-ins to the novel, not telling the reader the plot of the novel. They buy the book to learn the plot.

      Tell them why they want to buy the book. And always mention who the book is about. For example:

      Dale Done, commander of a secret cadre of soldiers, fights the good fight against evil of all forms. A rip-roaring thriller of action, friendship, and holding the line against hatred. Dale Done shines as one of the great action heroes. If you like Dan Brown or James Patterson, grab this fast-paced novel by Mark Kuhn. On sale everywhere.

      A quick example without me even reading your book. I told the readers what the book was about and who the book was about without ever telling them a detail of plot.

      That’s why it takes us six weeks in an online course to teach this sales language stuff. It is a skill, like learning another language.

      Go watch Five Guys in a Limo on you-tube. Never mind, I’ll link it in tonights blog.

        • Mark Kuhn

          Carlos, I know, right? Holy cow, Dean’s blurb makes me want to go write it now! But right now I’m writing a ghost story that has me sleeping with a light on. Had to check the furnace last night and asked my wife to stand at the top of the stairs while I went down into the basement.

      • Prasenjeet Kumar

        Hi Dean. I’ve seen plenty of indie authors writing in their blurbs something like, “If you like Dan Brown, you may like this book.” Or “Perfect for the audience of Dan Brown.” Is it a good idea? Or can it lead to adverse comparison? Especially when a reader picks up your book thinking he’s going to have the same experience as he does with Dan Brown but feels disappointed by your voice and your vision. Which is not at all like Dan Brown. Leading to reviews like this is a second rate Dan Brown novel or nothing like it. Even if the book belongs to the same genre.

        That’s one of the reasons I don’t mention other author names. I would say something like, “If you like reading fast paced thrillers, grab a copy or download a sample.”

        But what do you say?

    • Elise M. Stone

      I think one of my great “Ah ha!” moments was when Dean called blurbs “fiction sales copy.” All of a sudden, my whole perspective on what this bit of writing was supposed to do changed.

  • Maree Brittenford

    Every time you say that about blurb that tells the whole plot I think of Mercedes Lackey. The blurbs on her novels, at least the ones published in the last ten years or so is practically a two page plot summary. I’ve picked up a couple that were part of a series and felt uncertain if I’ve read the book or just read already, of if I just read the blurb previously.

    I am curious about why a publisher (presumably it’s a publisher choice) would want to do that. Any thoughts?

    I struggle with writing blurbs myself though. I feel like they’re rather dull, and not enticing. Perhaps I just need to write more interesting books!

    • dwsmith

      Because the publisher doesn’t understand sales, Maree. Like watching a trailer to a movie that has the entire plot of the movie in it and all the good parts. No point in seeing the movie.

      On your own, do two things. Only mention something in the first chapter of a novel or the first page of a short story. And search and restructure all passive verbs like is, was, has, were and so on. And WMG has a six week workshop on all the different structures of blurb writing. Your books will sell more once you learn to not bore readers with a blurb. (grin)

  • Cynthia Lee

    I was confused by what you wrote, at first, because I thought how can books have different genres but
    still look the same. So I went and had a gander at Stephen King’s covers, since I write horror and horror-ish stuff. After scrolling through Stephen’s many titles, I think I see what you mean, Dean. His name is big and bold and jumps right out at you. The colors practically leap off the screen too. I have been doing my covers all wrong! I’m excited because I get to teach myself some stuff!

  • J. D. Brink

    I was just thinking the other day that I need to consolidate the cover styles for my universes. I have multiple series but they all look different from each other.
    And I’m sure I could use revisions on covers and blurbs and everything else.
    And that’s the slippery slope. The trap door that falls out from under me as I bang the gargoyle-faced door knocker.
    It’s kind of the negative effect of reading posts like these periodically. I naturally assume everything I do sucks, so when another post like this comes up, I think, “Oh, I need to redo all my stuff again.” For the 5th, 8th, 12th time. And so all forward progress comes to an immediate halt and I go back to the same handful of titles to rework them all *again* instead of moving forward. An endless loop of anti-confidence. All based on the same anti-progressive thinking that “I need to change the covers, blurbs, and price again, and *then* all my books will suddenly be discovered and leap off the shelves and I’ll be the next sliced bread.”
    Instead of writing the next book. Instead of adding two or three new books to the series, just rehash the same one several times.
    I’m not blaming you, Dean, not at all. I’m just recognizing the severe lack of confidence in my own work, the empowerment of the critical voice that allow him to kick the creative voice back down the stairs, padlock the cellar door, and revel in doubting everything I have all over again. Its an ugly cycle.
    And I’m not going to allow myself to do it again.
    Maybe my stuff doesn’t suck. Maybe there are a hundred other reasons I’m not a best-selling indie millionaire. And spending the next 3 months working on the same stuff all over again isn’t going to make a big enough difference.
    …I’m going to entitle this rant, “Letters from a Dank, Dark Cellar.”

    • dwsmith

      J.D., a solution. Set a time limit. You can’t touch a series for at least three years. You can add books to it, sure, but you can’t go back and redo a series for three years. And then only if someone tells you it needs it. You can’t be the judge.

      Trust me, you do that and you will need as many titles as we have before you even think of hitting that mark. Three years. Set it on your planning right now and then forget about it.

      This trick works. Honest. Takes it out of your critical voice hands and puts it on a timer instead.