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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39 thoughts on “What Really Sells a Book?

  1. you’re so right about reviews! i find that’s also true with t.v. shows – some people for example reviewed Ghost in the Shell and hated it, but it was one of my favorite movies last year it was sooo good

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. Confession, I’ve seen this book before but never looked into the synopsis but from reading this post here I will have to reconsider. Sounds like a good read. Word of mouth (or in this case blog) does work. Thanks!

    1. It’s really a fantastic novel. Well worth reading, if only for the beautiful writing.

      “Once upon a time, there was a boy. He lived in a village that no longer exists, on the edge of a field that no longer exists, where everything was discovered and everything was possible. A stick could be a sword. A pebble could be a diamond. A tree was a castle.
      Once upon a time, there was a boy who lived in a house across the field from a girl who no longer exists. They made up a thousand games. She was the Queen and he was the King. In the autumn light, her hair shone like a crown. They collected the world in small handfuls. When the sky grew dark, they parted with leaves in their hair.
      Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering. When they were ten he asked her to marry him. When they were eleven he kissed her for the first time. When they were thirteen they got into a fight and for three weeks they didn’t talk. When they were fifteen she showed him the scar on her left breast. Their love was a secret they told no one. He promised her he would never love another girl as long as he lived. “What if I die?” she asked. “Even then,” he said. For her sixteenth birthday, he gave her an English dictionary and together they learned the words. “What’s this?” he’d ask, tracing his index finger around her ankle and she’d look it up. “And this?” he’d ask, kissing her elbow. “Elbow! What kind of word is that?” and then he’d lick it, making her giggle. “What about this,” he asked, touching the soft skin behind her ear. “I don’t know,” she said, turning off the flashlight and rolling over, with a sigh, onto her back. When they were seventeen they made love for the first time, on a bed of straw in a shed. Later-when things happened that they could never have imagined-she wrote him a letter that said: When will you learn that there isn’t a word for everything?”

  5. Very timely for me since I just published my first book. Mine is a middle-grade novel, so I haven’t had any Amazon reviewers except for their parents, but that works. Word of mouth is great. Facebook is great. Being patient while you’re trying all of these things and more is essential.

  6. Excellent insights and conclusions. I buy mainly from suggestions on review sites and fellow writers that I follow. Amazon reviews for my debut and giveaways didn’t work for my debut, and maybe word of mouth will eventually.

  7. I never read reviews. I always buy either because someone whose opinion I trust recommended it or because the cover is intriguing. I also read the blurb and the first page, if I like the way the author writes then I am sold.
    I think finding representation is the hardest part, but maybe that is because it is the hurdle I have not crossed yet.

  8. You are an extraordinary writer yourself. I learned so much from the blog – and I began to love a book I have not yet read. Your words inspired action. I ordered the History of Love today.

  9. I love the History of Love! Pretty sure I cried at some point while reading it. For me, word of mouth, book covers, and book blurbs work. This is why I get frustrated at sealed hardcover books in our bookstores that only have author praises and no blurb at the back. I shy away from most reviews, even though I tried watching book vloggers on youtube, just because I don’t want my opinion to get too influenced or possibly spoiled on the story before reading. Nice post!

    1. The part with “Once upon a time there was a boy. He lived in a village that no longer exists, in a house that no longer exists, on the edge of a field that no longer exists, where everything was discovered and everything was possible. A stick could be a sword. A pebble could be a diamond. A tree a castle.” And then it just tell the story of how we struggled to get to America only to find her married with some one else… that’s the part that makes me cry. Every single time I read it.

  10. in the bullet points, last par, you forgot Word of Mouth. I have to use this since it’s free. lol. you’ve summed up what makes a book sell very well. The only thing I can add is that the book is actually well written.

  11. Discoverability is by far the trickiest wicket. What makes some titles pop, and others drop? Even publishers can’t figure that one out. Toughest job for an indie is to “get the word out” as best they can, and hope to build a fan base (tribe) that will aid the effort. Good article.

  12. Another awesome past Cristian, and I pay almost no attention to reviews. I think what really sells a book is the amount of effort you put into telling people about it with the ability to put up with negative comments about it. For Instance–when I asked a fellow Christian woman in my home school group back in 1996 to read the book and let me know what she thought (the book being about a rock band that accepts Christ in a later book I had not written yet), she said she didn’t like the book because the characters cussed and there were sex scenes in the book (actually, more like suggestive type sex, not actual sex). Another woman said that my doing a mission God gave me to do was redundant, and that “works” would not get me into heaven, just faith (even though God gave me the mission to write these books!). With today’s social media,I’m not worried about book sales or how many folks download my FREE E-book I will be linking to soon.

  13. This is something I’ve really got to figure out. I know marketing is 95% of it. I just don’t know yet how to do that on a shoestring budget.
    Liked your comment about the cover. I’ve purchased more than a few books because of the cover. I mentioned on my blog that the major reason I picked up the book “The CaveGirl” was because of a nice looking girl in a fur bikini with a spear and two saber tooth tigers on a leash.
    I shot the cover art for the Lawman a few weeks back, and frankly, I’m not so sure I’d buy it based on the cover.

  14. For what it’s worth book covers and titles have had great importance for me. How trivial that sounds and yet my subject matters have very often been far from trivial. One of the best books I have ever read I was thus attracted to in the bookshop at the City of London Airport on my way out to Zurich. It was “The Fabric of Reality” by David Deutsch a quantum physicist and by default philosopher.

    Browsing has always been my first choice and title and book cover have always been important to me. Word of mouth is next: I came across Ian Banks and John le Carre this way. Authors whose fiction may be popular but, I would argue, far from trivial.

  15. Book promotion these days is hard, i found that for me what really sold me some books is the recommendation of a friend. Of if someone cool and famous / smart mentions some book. Also a very good day to sell a book is to be a blogger and put a link to it everywhere on your website and media, people who are interested in you as a blogger often want to know what you wrote and willing to buy it to support you.

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