The Fundamentals of a Successful Book
Recently, resident HG designer Ginger wrote an article about the importance of a strong cover for your novel – but there are many other fundamentals that go into whether a book is successful. Today he follows up on some of the other factors that can help lead you towards publishing success.
“I don’t get it,” one aspiring author said to me recently. “I’m spending all this money on Facebook ads for my books – but I’m just not selling any!”
Another complained: “I keep getting bad reviews!”
A third lamented: “Nobody downloaded my books during my free promo days. Why?”
These are questions that keep plaguing many would-be authors, and they don’t like the answer when they finally hear it. But it’s a bitter truth anybody who takes writing and publishing needs to hear – and take to heart.
You can invest as much time, money and effort into promoting your book as you want – but it just won’t work if the fundamentals aren’t there.
So, what do I mean by that? What are the ‘fundamentals’ for a successful book?
Well, it’s something a lot of readers call the ‘author/reader’ contract – the basic understanding that if an author publishes a book – whether on Amazon, or beyond – they do so having made sure to cover the ‘fundamentals’ of good publishing.
A good cover. A compelling and accurate blurb, and a competently-formatted book that is well-edited and fits the expectations of the genre.
Basically, if you want your book to be successful – you have to start by having a decent book.
Back before the days of self-publishing, this was what publishing houses were responsible for. They’d accept manuscripts from authors who wrote good books, and then take care of the editing, cover design, marketing and more. A customer could walk into any book store and know that any book they picked up off the shelves – any one at all – would be at least a competently-assembled product. Whether it was any good or not was more of a subjective discussion than an objective one.
Then Amazon came along, and everything changed. Amazon opened up the world to self-publishing, and allowed anybody with a laptop and a dream to publish their books digitally. This was an amazing development – it totally disrupted ‘traditional’ publishing and has seen the rise of dozens of prodigiously successful self-published authors who’d never been given a chance before, and opened the doors to tens of thousands of other authors who’ve managed to earn a little – or even a lot – publishing books.
But while that’s amazing – it also meant that the one thing the traditional publishing industry was good at (aside from gouging their authors and sending rejection letters) could suddenly be side-stepped. There was no longer any quality control, and in the early days of self-publishing a lot of the books available were… for want of another word… bad.
And many continue to be bad.
These days, Amazon has incredible algorithms and systems in place that can help showcase the books that seem to be good, and keep mediocre books beneath the surface. It’s one of the reasons why reviews are so important to new books – they’re an early indicator that a book is meeting or exceeding customer expectations, and Amazon makes it more visible as a result. It’s also why it’s a lot more difficult to break into the successful ranks as an author – and why the fundamentals are so important.
So let’s go over the fundamentals that go into a successful book in more detail.
A Solid Cover
First, as mentioned in my previous article, you need to have a decent cover to your book. A professional-looking cover is an unspoken indicator that an author knows their genre well enough to choose an appropriate style of cover, and also cares enough about their book to invest in a proper cover designer (while it’s possible the author has the skills and design knowledge to design it themselves, many do not, and it’s important that an author be honest with themselves about their design skills at the risk of hurting sales of their book). If an author is willing to invest in a good cover, you can generally expect them to have invested in making the rest of the book as good as it can be as well.
A Catchy Blurb
The second fundamental is the blurb. Many authors say that writing the blurb can often be as challenging as writing an entire chapter – and they’re not wrong. It’s difficult to produce a short, concise synopsis of your book that grabs a reader’s attention, sells the concept of the book, but doesn’t give too much away. It’s also the first example a potential reader has of an author’s writing style. If your blurb is weak – if it’s boring, or has typos, or fails to engage – it’s a safe bet that the contents of the book will as well. And aside from the cover, it’s the first impression of your book – the one that entices readers to at least click the Look Inside, if not buy the book itself. So spending time on a strong blurb is well worth the time and effort, and shouldn’t be rushed.
Book Formatting and Editing
Finally, there’s the book itself. The unspoken author/reader contract states that a reader should be able to expect a book to be formatted in an easy, readable style for their device, it should be edited to the point where typos or spelling errors don’t throw a reader out of the narrative flow, and other aspects – like a working table of contents – are taken care of. Once again, this is the sort of stuff traditional publishers excelled at, and successful self-published authors invest hundreds of dollars in.
If you haven’t taken the time or invested the money to make sure you’ve covered all three of these bases, your book has very little chance of becoming a hit – or even a mediocre success.
If the cover is poor or amateurish, readers won’t click on the thumbnail. If the blurb isn’t catchy or interesting, readers won’t click the ‘buy’ button. If the contents are hard to navigate or full of errors, readers may click the ‘refund’ button, leave your book unfinished, or give you a bad review.
And Amazon sees all of this, and markets your book appropriately. If people fail to finish reading it, or fail to click ‘buy’ after reading the blurb, it’ll likely be promoted less heavily (or not at all) and books with better analytics will be showcased instead.
If you want the perfect example of this, take the author I mentioned first – who spent all that money on Facebook adverts “but isn’t selling any books.”
Why is that?
Well, Facebook allows authors to pay to promote their books, and they’ll get charged per ‘click’ through to their book product page.
If there’s something off about the book – the blurb, for example – those ‘clicks’ won’t translate to sales. In marketing circles you call those sales ‘conversions’ because you’re ‘converting’ a visitor to your book page into a paying customer.
You can spend all the money in the world on advertising, but if getting people to click on your book page fails to ‘convert’ them than you’re wasting your money.
In fact, depending on how good you are with Facebook’s analytics, you can go deeper than that. They have a ratio of views to clicks – so you know how many people saw your advert and how many actually clicked on it. If your cover is bad, that ratio is probably horrible – plenty of people just scrolled straight past your advert and you’re paying a higher premium for people who do click through… and then compounding the problem when they fail to ‘convert.’ (Note, however, that the image on your FB isn’t always the same as your book cover – many authors do use their book cover as the basis for their ad, but some don’t – in which case you would need both images to be strong).
So if you want to be successful, you have to deal with these fundamentals first. In fact, as final proof of that, I’ve spoken to many authors who asked me whether or not to invest in Mark Dawson’s famous Author Marketing Program – thinking that if they did, they’d instantly be able to shoot their books up the best-seller lists. I’ve invested in that program myself and for the first year wondered what ‘secret ingredient’ was missing from the program – because my results were never close to those of Dawson or his other students.
Eventually, as my writing got better and my books became more closely aligned to their genres, I realized there was no ‘secret sauce.’ At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how much money you spend on advertising – if nobody wants to buy your books, they won’t.
So while that course is great in terms of learning how to market your book, you first need a solid product to try and sell. Focus on these fundamentals. The first and most important step to writing a successful book is to write and publish a book that deserves to be successful.
A Successful Book Has Content That Meets Reader Expectations
Even if you get the cover, blurb and concept right, and hire a solid professional editor, you still have to make sure the fundamentals of the book extend even further. You still need solid content that meets the expectation of the readers.
As noted in my cover design article, successful MMA author Simone Scarlet pointed out how changing the cover of her book Bruiser instantly transformed the success of its sales – but that didn’t translate the book into a best-seller. As she pointed out: “The book featured cheating – a big ‘no-no.’ There was a love triangle, but between a guy and two girls – another ‘no-no.’”
Your book can be solid in every other fundamental aspect, but if it fails to fulfill the expectations of a genre then it similarly breaches the unspoken author/reader contract. Typical romance books, for example, need to have a hero who keeps it in his pants (except for the love-of-his-life, obviously) and a guaranteed HEA. If you fail to meet those standards, a reader can complain that your book isn’t even really a romance novel. It’s one of those examples in which a book can “look like a duck” (the cover) and “sound like a duck” (the blurb) and even “walk like a duck” (the formatting and setting) but still end up not being a “duck” in the eyes of the targeted genre’s readers.
So circling back to my original point – it’s all about the fundamentals.
Successful writing isn’t about marketing, or advertising, or street teams or blog takeovers. Those are all aspects of how to amplify the success of a book, but none of them can make a book successful if it doesn’t deserve to be.
If you want to be a successful author, you have to start by being a good author – by doing your homework, coming up with a plan, putting in the effort, and making sure the foundations of your writing are built on sturdy bedrock.
But that’s not beyond the means of any motivated writer – and just like successful writers respect the author/reader contract, by making sure you cover the fundamentals, you’re making a commitment to the success of your writing career that will always eventually pay off.