Writing books is a ton of work. And when you’re done, you probably want to share it with the world, and make a profit on all of your labor. But the sales don’t come like you’d expect — except from your supportive family, of course. If only you knew how to sell books to someone other than your mom!
There’s nothing wrong with selling a book to Mom, by the way.
But ideally you write and sell a book that thousands of people can’t wait to get their hands on.
Here’s how to do it.
How to Sell Books to Someone Other Than Your Mom: The 4-Step Plan
If this is you, I feel your pain. In 2016 I launched my novel, The Bean of Life, and sold about 50 copies, most to family and friends. And while I’m very grateful for their support, it wasn’t followed by the kind of viral attention I’d been hoping for.
Maybe you’ve launched a book before and it went something like this. If you haven’t launched a book, you’re probably worried that your story will be the same.
But it doesn’t have to.
There’s a way to write books and sell them to lots of people, Mom included. And it involves studying those who’ve come before and mimicking their actions, but without merely copying them.
Let’s jump in.
Step 1: Pinpoint Your Ultra-Specific Genre
My first mistake is that I wrote a genre-less book. Being the witty person I am, I tried to coin my own: “Caffeinated Realism” (it was a book about a guy saving the world with coffee, har har).
But Amazon doesn’t have a category for that. And I was foolish to think my wittiness could penetrate the avalanche of content my readers would see before anything I threw at them.
If you want to sell books to someone other than your mom, you have to study and pinpoint your genre.
To do this, dive deep into Amazon’s genre classifications and get ultra-specific. Don’t just pick “Romance.” There are millions of romance books in a long list of genres, including “Paranormal,” “Sports, and “Billionaires.”
Do a search of the genres you like to write in (mine is contemporary crime and historical fiction), and start exploring the left side-bar where all the sub-genres are listed. Then pinpoint your genre before you write a single word of your next book.
To help you, here is a Story Grid graphic that illustrates just how unique each genre can be.
Step 2: Give Readers What They Want
Your next goal is to study the sub-genre and its conventions, and use them in new and innovative ways.
So, for example, if you choose “Crime Noir” as your genre, there are requirements you must fulfill in order to meet your readers’ expectations. A detective, cop, or private eye is usually the protagonist. A sultry dame isn’t hard to find. A crime, and a twisted criminal, establishes the conflict.
And you can be sure that some surprises (and betrayals) are in the bones of the plot.
As you consider how to use these conventions, remember that there is a big difference between subverting your readers’ expectations, and surprising them. Be careful with too much subversion, as it can turn readers away more than you’d like. While I loved the film, Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a prime example of subverting too many expectations and angering an audience. Too much subversion can feel like manipulation.
Rather, surprise by using the trope, but not in a familiar way. The sultry dame in a “Crime Noir” story can seem like a traitor, and even become a traitor, but for a shocking or unexpected reason.
This will keep your readers — including Mom — coming back for more!
Step 3: Plan and Write Small Episodes
I used to want to write grand, epic novels.
But after watching the ground-breaking AMC television show Breaking Bad, my love of novels is gone. Now, I want to write seasons, and dispense my stories with the same white-knuckle intensity and anticipation-building structure as my new favorite show.
If you’ve never seen Breaking Bad, it’s about a high school chemistry teacher who finds out that he has terminal cancer. Shell-shocked by this new reality, and embarrassed that he will leave his family with next to nothing, he decides to use his chemistry wizardry to cook methamphetamine before he dies. Thus begins one of the most perfectly structured stories ever told.
The more you can study episodic storytelling, the more apt you’ll be to writing stories that grab readers and refuse to let go. Seriously — I can’t not know what happens to my favorite characters in my favorite show. I’m like a drug addict, but thankfully my intoxicant is a great story.
You need to tap into this energy if you want to sell books to the masses, and not just your mom.
To do it, write a draft or outline of the entire story you want to tell. Don’t worry about the episodes right away.
Then, once you’ve drafted anywhere from 40,000 to 100,000 words (whatever works for you and your genre), go through the whole piece and identify the major changes. Specifically, identify:
- When characters make enormous, high-stakes choices
- When characters suffer for enormous, high-stakes choices
- When new threats appear that endanger these characters
These make for great breaks between episodes. Then, to separate whole seasons (and some episodes, as you don’t want to drive your reader too crazy with addiction), look for:
- Moments when characters can take a deep breath after consequences are resolved and the danger is (momentarily) passed
- Moments when characters believe they can take such a deep breath, but actually can’t
These make for stunning conclusions to “seasons” of a story, as they resolve the conflict of the season, but keep the reader hooked and needing to know what happens in the next part of the tale.
Step 4: Test and Reflect to Stay On-Target
While Breaking Bad, and its prequel Better Call Saul, are crown jewels of episodic storytelling, others aren’t so lucky.
Game of Thrones, for example, is gaining critics while losing viewers. Many are complaining that the high-stakes drama of earlier seasons has been replaced with fan-service fight scenes and dragons.
It seems that the show, or really its writers, have strayed off-target, and lost touch with what made their genre-specific, fan-pleasing, and episodic story work so well.
This is why you need to study your work and make sure it’s hitting the sweet spot. There are two points in time when you need to take time to test or reflect on whether your story is still working: Before publication, and after a season’s end.
Test Before Publication
Before publication, you’ll want to utilize beta readers. Recruit readers who are avid fans of the genre.
To find them, look for them and reach out to them through book-related social media platforms, like Goodreads and Facebook (just search for books and genre terms in a Group search). Another great way to connect with readers in your genre is an online writing community (since writers are usually great readers) and solicit them within the community and its guidelines.
Reflect After a Season
After a season, you’ll want to get feedback from existing readers. Create a survey with Google Forms or SurveyMonkey and send it to your readers through email or social media.
When you write the survey, base your questions on your genre’s specific tropes and/or requirements. What you want to learn is whether or not your story created a satisfying reading experience within the genre, and how willing and eager the reader is to find out what happens next (or to read your next series, if this one is concluding).
By gathering this essential information, you are essentially creating a research loop that will sustain your writing business and keep readers flowing into your circle, rather than out of it.
Your writing process begins with research (by pinpointing your ultra-specific genre), utilizes it to align your drafts with an ideal finished product (via beta readers), and ends with it (soliciting feedback from readers, which informs future episodes, seasons, and whole series).
This is the intentional structure you needs to sell books to lots and lots of people, and not just your dear, sweet mother.
Give the People What They Want
When I published The Bean of Life, I knew I had written a good book. After two years of beta testing and revision, it was a finished product to be proud of.
But I also knew that I had written it for me. It was my “baby,” a decade-long dream I was pursuing.
And while the book is good, and while my launch strategy was decent, the book wasn’t created with the reader’s desires ultimately in mind.
That’s why as I plan a sequel, I’m doing things a lot differently.
I’m going to give the people what they want.
I hope that you, as you write your next story, will too.
Because that’s the only way to make money off your hard work.
What keeps you reading your favorite authors and anticipating their next books? Let us know in the comments.
For fifteen minutes, jump over to Amazon and explore a genre you’d like to write in (click on one of the images at the top of the page to start). Go as deep down the sub-genre rabbit hole as you can, and find a highly-rated book and study it. Read some reviews and analyze the books meta-content (description, pages, word count, anything you can find).
Then write a short reflection on the experience in the comments below. What did you learn about the possibilities of this genre? What do readers seem to want? What kind of surprising choices would you like to see in a story in this sub-genre?
Share your reflection in the comments below, and then leave a comment on someone else’s research!