The Subtle (But Common) Mistake That’s Killing Your Book Sales: Guest Post from Beehive Book Design

This post is a guest post by Jeremy and Alise of Beehive Book Design, experts in ebook formatting and packaging. Take it away!

Have you ever heard this?

Self-publishing isn’t professional.

Anyone can self-publish a book. You don’t have to have any skill.

Self-published authors aren’t real writers.

As self-published authors we can sometimes have an uphill climb to convince potential readers that our book is worth a look. Despite some high-profile self-published successes out there, there is still considerable stigma around self-publishing.

The beauty of self-publishing is how easy it is for any author to publish their work. But too often, we forget that just because anyone can do it, doesn’t mean anyone can do it well. Crafting your story takes skill and artistry. Most self-pub writers work very hard at that. Revising your story takes an expert eye. Smart self-pub writers bring on professional editors to critique and proofread their novel.

But packaging your book—meaning paying attention to the formatting of the eBook—also requires skill and attention to detail. Yet for many writers, it’s an afterthought. If the formatting of the book is wonky (broken links, strange fonts, missing chapters), a reader will end up frustrated (and leave a bad review). Even if a reader can’t articulate what’s wrong with a book, they can sense if something is wrong. And they’ll stop reading—even if they aren’t quite sure why.

So if you’ve self-published a book and are struggling with dismal sales despite your best efforts, it could be that your formatting is killing your sales. Read on for some of the subtle formatting mistakes that can instantly signal to your readers that your book is self-published and “unprofessional.”

 

Your cover looks homemade.
Okay, technically your cover isn’t “formatting,” but we’re including it here because your cover is your first (and last) chance to grab your reader. If your reader is scrolling through the Kindle store and doesn’t give your book a second glance, you’ve already lost them. It doesn’t matter how good your story is if your cover doesn’t attract readers.

The most important thing your cover needs to do is look professional. (It doesn’t need to be designed by a professional—you can teach yourself!—but it needs to look that way.) A professional looking cover is enough to get past that first hurdle of a reader automatically discounting your book because it looks “homemade.”

Your book isn’t speaking the language.
Good writers know that all books, all genres, have specific tropes and cliches that readers clamor for. But most writers don’t think as much about how those conventions and expectations extend to design and formatting. This starts with your cover, of course, but continues as a reader picks up your book to look inside. And we’re not just talking about plot!

The colors, fonts, and design elements of your novel should reinforce to your reader that “yes, this is the kind of book you wanted.” Do the interior font choices look like what a reader expects of a romance novel? Dystopian YA? Science fiction? Many readers may not be able to put their finger on exactly what makes a book look like a serious nonfiction book, or literary fiction, or pulpy sci-fi, but they’ll feel it instinctively if something doesn’t look right. Design choices in covers and formatting that aren’t quite right will often put a reader off and communicate that your book is not professional.

In short, the formatting of your book should match the content and genre of your book. Your formatting is part of the packaging of your book as much as your cover is, and, just like a cover, it’s not something to try and whip up yourself at the last minute. Formatting needs to show your readers that you understand the genre, and that you have put care into the way that you’re presenting your work.

Your book has inconsistent or just plain bad formatting.
Of course, there are also the less subtle formatting mistakes that can really kill your book sales. In these cases, truly awful formatting will likely get your book returned by the few customers who do buy it—the book will be literally unreadable. And Amazon will certainly let you know that your book is garnering complaints from readers. They care FAR more about the reader experience than the author, and if your book is making people frustrated because of multiple glaring errors and formatting that makes reading challenging, your account is likely to get shut down.

Bottom line: Subtle Formatting Changes Can Give Your Book an Edge
Beyond just having a well-edited book and intriguing story, here are a few things that can give your self-published book an edge and boost sales (all of which we do at Beehive Book Design):
● A well-organized and clickable table of contents
● Genre-appropriate chapter headers, drop caps, ornamental breaks
● Embedded links to your social media accounts and mailing lists
● Smart links to your back catalog that take readers to the appropriate store for their country and device—increased sales!
● Page numbers and footers in print copies that are correctly positioned and genre-appropriate

You shouldn’t have to figure this out on your own. You’re a writer, not a formatter, and struggling with hand-coding your eBook files or clunky conversion tools is a waste of your time and energy. When you invest in professional formatting, you’re sending a message to your readers that your books matter. And that’s what publishing is all about.

About Beehive Book Design
Beehive Book Design was launched by two authors interested in using what we’ve learned in nearly six years of self-publishing our own books to help other authors succeed. For authors, by authors isn’t just a slogan for us, it represents our mission as a company – to support indie authors and make self-publishing less complicated. We are passionate about self-publishing and we are here to help you every step of the way.

Seven Blog Post Ideas to Promote Your New Novel

Whether you’re traditionally published or an indie author, doing guest posts on blogs aimed at readers and writers is an excellent way to get the word out about a new release. But it’s easy to write one or two posts and then feel like you’re repeating yourself. Want some fresh ideas to hook in readers about your latest book? Here are some post ideas to get you going.

A Playlist
Do you listen to music while you work? Did a particular artist or soundtrack inspire your writing? Great! Throw together a shareable song list (in Spotify, for example) and write a few paragraphs about what the music means to you.

Character interview
Sit down with your main character and interview her as if you’re writing a newspaper article. It could be a straight-up profile of her as a person, or an interview more related to the plot of the book—whatever brings out her originality.

In-world newspaper article
Speaking of newspaper articles, you could also play journalist and write a piece from the perspective of a publication within the world of your story. What’s going on in there? Can you include some weather reports? Sports scores? Quotes from colorful characters on the street?

Draft comparison
For a more writing-focused blog, talking about your writing process can be a huge draw. But instead of trying to scare up some material about your “inspiration” (who can ever pin that down, anyway?) try something more concrete: pull out two copies of the same scene, one from an early draft and one from the final, and discuss what changed. You can either quote directly from the lines themselves and analyze word choice, or just give a bird’s-eye view of all the tracked changes and/or margin notes you made in the process. If you worked with an editor, you can have them chime in, too, to discuss their end of the process.

Cover process
Similarly, readers love peeking behind the curtain and seeing how covers get made. If you worked with the designer yourself, you can go in-depth about the discussions you two had, how you selected color scheme and artwork, and how you tweaked the design to get to the final product. If your publisher made the cover for you, you can ask for some in-process covers (if they’re okay sharing them) to discuss, or else just talk about why the cover works for you and how it represents your novel.

Title process
Finally, titles can and often do change—but you’d be surprised how few readers know that. Talk about what went into your original title, what it means to the book, why it changed (if it did change), and how you hope it’ll reflect the book to readers.

Surprising Things I Learned
A grab-bag post idea for when you’re coming up a little empty, this topic allows you to frame anything that you encountered on your publishing journey in a neat format. Make a list (like a Top 5) or just ruminate in paragraphs about all the unexpected lessons that cropped up along the way, and don’t hesitate to show some personality.

What Agent Responses Really Mean

Querying is almost like online dating: as soon as a writer gets any indication of interest from an agent, they gather their writer friends and begin to pick apart every possible inference from the message.

Is she going to read more?

Does he like my writing?

Am I about to get the call?

It’s hard to tell, and every agent is different—plus, as with all parts of publishing, there are no guarantees. Everything is subjective! If you’re been writing strong queries and getting responses that stump you, here are some guidelines to decoding agent-speak.

If they’re responding to your query

I’m intrigued by this. Can you send me the partial manuscript?
It’s what it sounds like: they wanna read it. Some agents want to commit to a smaller chunk at first, just to get a feel for the story and the voice. Does it mean they think your story has less potential if they only want a partial? Not necessarily! It could just be a time saving method.

Can you include a synopsis?
Agh, the synopsis: the nightmare of many writers. Whether it’s 2 pages or 10 (or anywhere in between), this kind of plot summary can be a drag to write. So why do agents want them? Before they dive into a manuscript, they may want to make sure the bird’s-eye view of the plot is sound and logical. If your ending is muddled or your plot goes off the rails, you may be looking at a no—so don’t submit a fixer-upper and hope for the best! Make sure your plot is solid, and your synopsis reflects that.

Can you send me the full?
Great news! They want to read. This means you’ve broken through to the next step: no more, no less. Celebrate and then get moving on your next idea. Try not to dwell!

This sounds like a wonderful idea, but…
…it’s too close to something on my list.
The downside of hyper-specific manuscript wish lists is that agents may get flooded with a certain type of book, and by the time your query reaches them they may already have signed a client with a similar project. When they’re pitching editors, they want each project to stand on its own merits, so taking on too many Robin Hood-inspired fantasies, say, will overload their submission list. It’s not a reflection of your book!

…the market for this is too saturated right now.
Trends wax and wane, and agents are always paying attention to industry fluctuations. If they say this, it’s because they’ve spotted a lot of books in your niche getting picked up, making editors much less likely to want more. (Bear in mind that agents see deals reported years in advance of books hitting the shelves, so they can see trends that haven’t reached readers yet.) It’s discouraging news to get, but the upside is that it has nothing to do with the quality of your book, and another agent may totally disagree.

…it’s not to my taste.
Taste is taste. If an agent isn’t feeling your book, nothing can make her change her mind. You want an agent that’s passionate about your work, not meh on it. So move on to the next!

Dear author, thank you for your query…
A form rejection stings, no doubt about it. But agents are busy and can’t respond to everything personally. If they get 50 queries a day and take two minutes to respond to each, that’s almost two hours of (unpaid) work every day! (Remember, agents are paid on commission, so only selling rights to books makes them money.) There’s no point in parsing the phrasing of a form rejection; they’re standardized by the agent and simply don’t contain meaning specific to your book. Throw another iron in the fire and don’t look back.

If they’re responding to your manuscript

I loved the voice/characters/etc. but had concerns about the plot/pacing/etc.
Concrete feedback is good. Whether you end up revising for this agent, or just in general, you’ve gotten specific criticism in where your book could be better from an industry professional—even if it’s a rejection, that’s a compliment to your work. Sometimes the agent will leave the door open for a “revise and resubmit,” or “R&R,” which means they want you to do just that: fix the issues and send it back. You don’t have to do this; if you disagree with the feedback, there’s no obligation to follow the advice just for the sake of maybe landing an agent. Remember, you want an agent who’s passionate about your work, not trying to change it beyond recognition. If it’s ultimately a rejection, though, don’t push back. A no is a no, and they’ve already done you the favor of sharing some thoughts. A polite thank you is all you need to send back.

I just didn’t connect with it.
The dreaded missed connection. What does it mean? It’s hard to make general statements for ALL agents, but in many cases this means the agent loved the concept of your story (based on your query), but for them, the execution fell flat. This is often a case of a weak, less than compelling voice. If you’re getting consistent non-connects, it may be time to have an editor look at your work.

This one isn’t right for me, but please resubmit in the future.
The mixed bag. A personal invitation to query in the future is a big positive, so try not to dwell on the rejection and get to work on your next project. If you do re-query, refresh the agent’s memory about your first submission when you submit.

If you have no response yet

Agents are busy. At any given time they’re revising with clients, preparing submissions lists, meeting with editors, negotiating contracts, chasing payments, selling foreign or audio rights, attending a conference, or, yes, reading queries. So they simply haven’t gotten to your query yet! Remember, agents are only paid with their author clients are paid; they prioritize client work to keep the lights on. No response yet is just that: no response. If an agent says a certain number of weeks with no answer is a rejection, then it’s a rejection. If not, keep waiting and try not to stress!

 

Want a free eBook guide to querying? The Coffee Break Query Letter is our free workbook for brainstorming, drafting, and polishing a killer query.

Seven Great Podcasts for Writers

Got a long commute (or a long workout) and need a productive way to pass the time? Fire up one of our favorite writing-related podcasts and get craft advice and inspiration on the go!

Writing Excuses
A huge favorite among writers, this podcast is hosted by Dan Wells, Brandon Sanderson, Mary Robinette Kowal and Howard Tayler.

The Narrative Breakdown
Plotting, writing craft, and author interviews about all things story, with a great backlog of episodes.

Upvote YA
The official podcast of the r/YAWriters subreddit is hosted by members of the group and goes in-depth on the topics discussed in the subreddit.

Shipping and Handling
Literary agents Bridget Smith and Jennifer Udden talk about the industry, agent life, and more.

Print Run
Another agent podcast hosted by Laura Zats and Erik Hane, with lots of good industry info that makes for edutaining listening.

First Draft with Sarah Enni
Enni hosts interviews with a host of impressive authors, including Beth Revis, Libba Bray, Veronica Roth, and many, many more.

88 Cups of Tea
Yin Chang hosts this excellent series of interviews with creative types ranging from literary agents to novelists.

Want a free eBook guide to querying? The Coffee Break Query Letter is our free workbook for brainstorming, drafting, and polishing a killer query.

8 Query Mistakes You May Not Realize You’re Making

Writing a query letter to pitch an agent, editor, or mentor is one of the most nerve wracking steps to becoming a published writer. And a query letter is so short! Ask most writers if they’d rather write a query or a whole entire new novel, and you can bet lots will say the latter. And no matter how long a writer sweats over those three short paragraphs, there are a few inadvertent mistakes that can stop her reading in her tracks. If your query hasn’t been getting the traction you want, take a good hard look and see if you’ve done any of the following:

You’re too casual.
All agents, editors, and mentors want you to sound like a human. And these days it’s easier than ever to look up publishing pros on Twitter and learn everything from their dog’s name to their favorite flavor of ice cream. But a query letter is first and foremost a business letter. Sending a solid query that is professional, well-written, and compliant with any peculiar parts of an agent’s submission guidelines shows that you take your writing—and yourself—seriously. It’s the first step in demonstrating to a prospective agent, editor, or mentor that you’re someone who will be easy and professional to work with.

You didn’t follow directions.
Query directions can be maddeningly specific: attachment! No attachment! Five pages pasted in! But agents ask for those specs for a reason, and whatever that reason is, you gotta follow it. At a time when agents are more swamped than ever—overflowing slush inboxes, editorial work with current clients, endless negotiations over every last clause in the contract—agents are, frankly, too busy to bother with queries that don’t follow their rules. (Remember, every minute an agent spends reading submissions is a minute she can’t use to sell books—i.e., to make money.) More than that, getting the specifics right is a strong indication that you can be trusted to figure things out on your own. An author who is a self-starter and a fast learner is always a welcome addition to an agent’s stable of talent.

Your comp titles are outdated, huge bestsellers, or missing entirely.
“Comp” titles are books that are similar to yours (i.e., the COMPetiton, or those that are COMParable). Well-selected comp titles help your agent begin to envision the potential market for your novel, which is a huge help to them—they may even start envisioning which editors might want it! But comp titles only work if they’re culturally relevant in the current marketplace and truly comparable to your book. If you say your book is like The Catcher in the Rye, that’s all well and good—it very well may be—but to an agent, that can read like a major red flag that you haven’t read a YA book in decades. Similarly, saying your book is like Harry Potter or Twilight is more or less meaningless; you’d be better off picking more niche fantasy or paranormal titles that reflect the content (as opposed to the bestseller potential) of your book. Don’t have comps? Poke around Amazon and read through a few books in the category to see who’s doing a similar thing, then add them to your third paragraph: “my book is a YA high fantasy that will be enjoyed by readers of X title and Y title.”

You have a wonky word count.
How long is your book? Know what’s expected for your genre (check out this post for YA and MG guidelines), and know that word counts over a certain amount (around 90,000 words) will raise eyebrows. Also, always round your word count to the nearest thousand words: word counts calculated in word processors aren’t precise, and a rounded off word count is more professional.

You waste time.
“I’m querying you because…” “Have you ever wondered if…” “My novel is about…” “What would you do if…” Axe it! Get to the meat of your plot and characters, and avoid rhetorical questions like the plague. You want your query as lean as possible.

You’re too vague—especially about your ending.
You shouldn’t give EVERYTHING away, of course, but avoid using vague, nonspecific language whenever you can. “Her powers will be tested” is much weaker than “She’ll have to draw every ounce of her fire magic to save her brother.” And never end with any variation on “if you want to know what happens, you’ll have to read the book!”

You include too many characters.
Queries don’t have a ton of space. Even if your book has a wonderful ensemble cast, not every character is an A-lister. It’s fine to call characters “her best friend” or “his parents” and allow the reader to digest the information without getting bogged down in a sea of proper names.

You don’t end with a call to action—or say thanks.
This isn’t a mistake per se, but it’s good form (and polite!) nonetheless. All you need is a quick “thank you for your time and consideration. May I send you the manuscript?” Boom. Done.

 

Want a free eBook guide to querying? The Coffee Break Query Letter is our free workbook for brainstorming, drafting, and polishing a killer query.

Should You Write A Sequel to an Unpublished Book?

When you create characters, conflicts, and a world within your novel, it can be hard to let them go after you type the end. Sequels are a great way to give yourself more time with the story world you’ve created, and maybe even deliver a satisfying next volume to readers. But does every book need a sequel? Here are some things to consider before opening up a new document.

You should write a sequel to your unpublished book if:

  • The story is inherently a series—for example, a cozy mystery series featuring the same sleuth in the same setting over a few books
  • The first book will be published for free, and you’re intending to use it to build an audience with further books in the series
  • You feel confident about what the story will be—there’s something in it you must write about
  • There is a theme or structure inherent to the series: for example, a series with a cast of narrators established in the first book, or a series where each volume is inspired by a different type of magic in a magical system, etc.
  • You’ve published book one and readers are begging for it—give them what they want!
  • You’re really trying to build the series into a brand and market it heavily

You should consider whether you really need a sequel if:

  • You don’t know exactly what will happen in the second (or third!) books
  • You’re planning to query the first book for traditional publication—agents and editors will more often than not work one book at a time (at least until they know how the first book sells) so your efforts are probably better spent on a fresh new project rather than continuing a series that may or may not sell multiple volumes
  • You’re writing in a genre that doesn’t typically have sequels featuring the same characters (e.g., romance, YA contemporary)
  • You don’t feel invested in marketing the series any longer
  • You’re just scared of trying new characters, settings, or ideas (it’s okay, it happens!)
  • A new idea is tugging at you, and writing a sequel feels like a chore

If you’re unsure, you can always set your sequel idea aside and try something new for a while. The sequel will always be there—and no one else can write your sequel for you!