Report: Shelf Stoppers – How Do You Make Your Book Sell?

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Words by Chris Russell, photos by Zoe Sharples.

The Groucho Club was packed wall-to-wall for Byte The Book’s ‘back to school’ event, which set out to tackle the sticky issue of how authors can generate book sales. Chair Stuart Evers, Community Manager at Netgalley and himself a prize-winning author, led a lively discussion between David Headley (literary agent and owner of Goldsborough Books), Orna Ross (author and founder of The Alliance Of Independent Authors) and Matthew Lynn (author, Daily Telegraph columnist and founder of Endeavour Press).

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Our sponsors Clays, in the front row from left to right Vicky Ellis and Rebecca Souster (with author Carol Cooper) and behind them from left to right Greg Manterfield-Ivory, Kate McFarlan and Paul Hulley

Stuart opened the floor by asking each panellist for their top sales tips for authors. “Be yourself,” recommended David, pointing out that, when it comes to social media, authenticity is key. Think of your writing as a business, he added, but don’t act like a salesperson, as readers will see straight through this. Orna advised writers to develop a clear sense of who their target readers are, and then consider why those readers would want to open the book in the first place. Once you’ve defined your audience, you can speak directly to them, and carve out a niche (she also pointed out that while any individual niche may seem like a limited market, in an eBook industry that allows you to sell globally, a niche can prove lucrative in the long run). Meanwhile, Matthew advised authors to “be relentless”, and remember that a book may take months, years, even decades to reach its true sales potential. Although traditional publishers often give up on books rather early in their shelf lives, in the eBook world a novel can be given a fresh marketing push every three or four months, for an indefinite period, until it finally reaches tipping point.

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Our panel from left to right, David Headley, Orna Ross, Stuart Evers (chair) and Matthew Lynn

Next, Stuart flipped the discussion on its head and asked the panellists for some advice on what not to do when selling a book. Matthew warned writers against allowing marketing and promotion to cut into their writing time. “One of the best things you can do to promote your current work is to get on with your next one,” he explained, adding that “the machine likes to be fed”. He also pointed out that bandwagoning – the practise of trying to follow the latest trend, be it ‘chick-noir’, say, or YA dystopia – is usually a mistake, as by the time your book makes it to market, readers may well have moved on. David echoed this sentiment, suggesting that writers are much better off finding one genre they write well, and sticking to it. He admitted that not all authors are able to do this, of course, and Orna agreed. “There are no rules here,” she reflected, “and there is no one thing that’s right for all authors”. She did have some top tips for things to avoid, however: “Don’t be boring, don’t be obvious and don’t try to please everybody”.

DSC_0306Another sell out event

A significant portion of the evening was spent on the importance of book jackets. “Quite simply, jackets sell books”, said David, adding that a book must deliver on the promise made by the cover. The reader must be able to trust that the image on the front matches the story inside. Matthew picked up on this point, suggesting that part of the reason novelists need cover designers is that they are too close to their own work to objectively judge the cover art. Writers tend to worry too much about representing the themes of the book, he said, when the primary function of a jacket is actually to signify to the reader “this is a book like X”. Orna added that, in the modern marketplace, cover art must be just as readable in thumbnail format as it is at full-size. If your book doesn’t pop online, it might not pop at all.

DSC_0418Byte the Book is always about networking

Selling books has never been easy, but the difference today is that you don’t have to be on the high street or part of a multinational corporation to do it – you can sell books from your living room. The real challenge, concluded Orna, is maintaining interest in books when there’s so much other media out there to consume reader attention. At a time when bookstores are closing all over the country, it’s up to the entire industry to raise our game, whether that game’s online, in a publishing house or on the good ol’-fashioned shop floor.

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