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How to sell a book: From first draft to market

Finding how to sell a book starts at the writing stage, crafting a commercially viable book. Read about knowing your market, using hybrid genre to your advantage and more.

After drafts and rewrites, beta reads and edits, how to sell a book is the next hurdle. Read insights from commercially successful books, Goodreads reviews, the resilience of now-famous authors, and more:

How to sell a book from the writing stage:

  1. Know your audience and market
  2. Find broader appeal via genre
  3. Build in timelessness
  4. Play the long game of authenticity
  5. Ensure your book is well edited and formatted
  6. Persevere until you find your champions
  7. Use platforms your target market haunts
  8. Let readers get to know you
  9. Try serializing to success

We’ll start with general suggestions on how to bake commercial viability into your book. Then read about basic book selling and marketing strategies:

1. Know your audience and market

Audiences fall into market segments. Different markets have different expectations.

A romance reader won’t want fountains of blood and scary clowns (unless your book is billed as a horror-romance hybrid and has set up this expectation).

The first rule in how to sell a book is to know who you’re writing to.

What do readers in your genre, thirsty for your subject matter, enjoy?

To gather a sense of what’s popular now (and what matters to readers in your segment) you could:

A) Do some Goodreads research

As an exercise, look at the genre (and subgenre, if applicable) category page for your genre on Goodreads.

Let’s take ‘historical romance’ as an example.

Look at the ‘new releases’ section and find a book with a higher average rating, e.g. The Siren of Sussex by Mimi Mathews (the first result on the page at time of writing). A higher rating with multiple reviews indicates the author has done something right in learning how to sell a book.

Scan some of the reviews. What do readers mention favorably? Positive language readers use to describe our example book include:

  • ‘eloquent and touching’
  • ‘distinctive characters’
  • ‘brings the Victorian era to life’
  • characters read ‘modernised’, but not to a ‘ridiculous’ extent

Getting a window into what readers love (and deplore) in your genre broadly is valuable insight. It helps you see what broad genre elements tend to elicit positive reader responses.

B) Follow genre and other news sources

Resources such as Publisher’s Weekly are useful for keeping abreast of the latest in your genre’s market.

Keep abreast of releases, reviews, and general insight into the state of the global publishing industry. The more you understand about the business of selling books, the better equipped you are to pitch or sell your own.

2. Create broader appeal via hybrid or multiple genres

Genre is a crucial aspect of how to sell a book.

Different genres and subgenres have different estimated readership sizes, for a start. QueryTracker lists YA, fantasy and children’s fiction as the most popular and most agent-requested genres.

Romance is another immensely popular genre (with romance books accounting for 18% of sales in the year ending March 2021 according to book sales statistics).

It’s important to remember that even if a genre has an estimated X million readers, your target audience or market is specific to your work. Not all romance books (and their subtopics) will appeal to all romance readers.

As Maggie Doonan for Writer’s Edit puts it:

Your market is the ideal readership for your work. You may share it with other works, or overlap at the corners, but ultimately your market is your own; it is a unique community that will invest in your characters, surrender to your narrative and enjoy the ride all the way to the end, so much so they are prepared to pay money for it

Maggie Doonan, ‘Ultimate Guide: How To Identify Your Manuscript’s Target Market’, Writer’s Edit

There are two ways to use genre to sell more books: Hybridize, or branch out.

A) How to sell a book through genre overlap

Many authors manage to appeal to multiple markets by combining genre elements. This ‘hybrid’ element resonates with different groups of genre and subject interests. Think ‘paranormal romance’, for example.

Hybrid genres may have more niche readerships (due to a subgenre being a smaller, more niche category). Yet because they straddle different genres, they also have the potential to appeal to overlapping audiences.

It is partly through this principle that a book like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (which has literary qualities but straddles historical adventure, thriller and sci-fi) sold over 500,000 copies within its first two years.

The novel’s genre-bending was perhaps a large part of it being screen-adaptation friendly, too. Despite complex narrative structure, it had a ‘something for everyone’ appeal, the way Pixar movies appeal to young and old.

B) How to sell more books by branching out

Now Novel writing coach Romy Sommer made a useful distinction between early-career and mid-career authors in a Now Novel writing webinar.

When you are starting out, it is wise to stick with one genre if publishing under the same name. New readers you gain may be alienated by a foray into a genre that they don’t enjoy.

As you reach a later stage in your writing career, you may find you’re reaching the ceiling of readership growth. Branching out into a different genre could help you reach other, untapped markets.

Nora Roberts, for example, began writing classic contemporary romance but switched to romantic suspense and sci-fi police procedurals as J.D. Robb.

How to sell books is thus also a question of adaptability and synthesizing your unique strengths.

3. Build in timelessness

Why do some books sell and sell for generations? Because of their ‘timelessness’, in part.

How often have you read a review that said (or heard someone say) that a story is ‘timeless’? What makes certain books written in the 1800s still fly off bookstore (or digital) shelves? What makes a book ‘timeless’ and why does this help sales (and the longevity of a title)?

Let’s think about a few aspects (add your perspective in the comments). ‘Timeless’ stories offer:

  • Insight that transcends era
  • Entertainment that doesn’t date
  • Familiar motifs and symbols that resonate across history
  • Adaptability to changing eras and attitudes (or a timeless window into earlier life and culture)
Timelessness in stories - Kent Karuf quote

How do you give stories timeless appeal?

How do you make a story timeless, so that it has a good chance of selling perpetually?

  1. Write real, believable characters driven by credible goals and motivations.
  2. Show human insight. As an example, Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations is still a vivid character today because her wallowing in her trauma – being jilted at the altar – is a deeply human and thus relatable response, even if excessive, to loss.
  3. Give a core emotional experience that taps into the common experiences of the average human (birth/death, triumph/loss, love/hate, the list goes on.).

In an insightful article summarizing a panel discussion about children’s literature, author Valerie Lawson shares editor and publisher Elise Howard view on what makes stories endure:

Elise Howard, editor and publisher at Algonquin Books for Young Readers, said during the Editors Panel that enduring stories have a core emotional experience that transcends any period of time.

Valerie Lawson, ‘What Makes a Story Timeless? Emotional Truth’, August 30 2012.

Agatha Christie had sold between two and four billion books at the time of her death. In sleuthing the source of her timelessness, USA Today credit her genre’s enduring popularity (murder mystery), a concerted rebranding and repackaging campaign by publishers, and a steady raft of film and TV adaptations.

Stories thus may seem timeless, when in fact they have been carefully repackaged for new times. Changing dated, offensive titles (such as the original title for Christie’s And Then There Were None) shows that timeless stories must be adaptable to eras’ shifting sensibilities.

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4. Play the long game of authenticity

One of the top bestsellers of all time may surprise some: The French aviator and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince.

In the book, a pilot who crashes in the Sahara meets a young boy, the ‘Little Prince’ of the title. The boy shares his experiences of visiting several planets and insights into grownups’ folly.

The book has to date been translated into over 301 languages and dialects.

The story of this novella and moral fable’s success shows that ‘how to sell’ isn’t just about playing to markets.

The novella was initially met with puzzled reviews (as Adam Gopnik describes in this article in The New Yorker). Yet over time, readers came to grasp, as Gopnik puts it, that the book is:

Not an allegory of war, rather, a fable of it, in which the central emotions of conflict—isolation, fear, and uncertainty—are alleviated only by intimate speech and love.

Adam Gopnik, ‘The Strange Triumph of “The Little Prince”’, The New Yorker, April 29 2014

It becomes clear that the book was not just a product of its time (the loss of France to Germany in World War Two), but has that timeless appeal – an emotional journey or core – that gives a story the legs to survive global conflicts and more.

5. Ensure your book is well edited and formatted

Very few (if any) first drafts make it to publication – except in self-publishing, perhaps.

What if you want to sell books today? Make sure your book is well edited and formatted first.

An editor is like a Swiss army knife for your book’s commercial viability. Editors will help you eliminate puffy or confusing language and make your book as pleasurable as possible.

The greater your story’s clarity, sense of satisfying narrative structure, pacing, characterization and other key elements, the more professional its polish. Why not have a better foundation to sell from the start?

6. Persevere until you find your champions

Beginning authors sometimes think of writing a debut as a ‘one and done’ process. The truth is that many authors – even big names – have first novels that never see the light of day.

Charlotte Brontë’s first novel, The Professor, was only published posthumously. The rejections were disheartening but lovers of Jane Eyre thank her today for persevering. It at least gave the author a practice run to get more ‘right’ on her next project.

The lesson in this is to persevere until you write something that resonates enough with others enough for them to champion your work (and for people to want to buy it). Writers who have legions of champions and fans, are practiced, persevering authors.

Enter short story contests for find other avenues to build up the resilience to stand up again after any rejection. Master the art of pitching stories, such as how to write a good query letter.

Quote on stories transcending bad times - Daryn Kagan

7. Use platforms your target market haunts

Where do readers in your target market hang out online or in person? What hashtags do they use to talk about the books they adore? Who in your genre is using their platform brilliantly, and what can you learn via observing their strategy?

Colleen Hoover is an excellent example of an author who has engaged her target market via a fitting platform.

We wrote previously about how viral shares on the #Booktok community on the short video social platform TikTok boosted Hoover’s popularity to the point that agents came knocking on her door.

Knowing where to find (and how to speak to) your target audience will make a big difference in how you sell books. It could help word-of-mouth do the real promo.

IngramSpark offers several tips on social media for authors, such as building a presence across multiple platforms (you can find us under /nownovel on Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, YouTube and LinkedIn).

8. Let readers get to know you

Many authors are introverts. Loving books and introversion do often go hand in hand. Yet how do you build a tribe of passionate fans? By letting readers get to know you.

Look at authors such as Margaret Atwood or the late Toni Morrison. Both have histories as public authors who have given many appearances, revealed themselves and their passions fearlessly (racial justice activism on Morrison’s part, eco-activism on Atwood’s).

What are you passionate about? Sharing behind the scenes personality with readers (though keeping content as non-divisive and positive as possible) could inspire further connection (and sales). A switch from one-off customers to ardent fans and supporters.

9. Try serializing to success

There are now more ways than ever to publish. You can learn how to sell a book on a platform such as Kindle Vella, where authors serialize stories and readers proceed in serialized sections.

This harks back to Dickens’ times, when serializing stories in Victorian England was the dominant publishing approach, according to Oxford Bibliographies.

Even if you don’t serialize segments of individual books or stories, writing a series of books opens up strategies such as selling your first entry cheaper to entice unfamiliar readers (and the new life new releases in your series may breathe into earlier titles).

What’s your best advice for selling more books? Sound off in the comments.

Before you hit ‘publish’, edit your book to eliminate grammar gremlins and other sale stoppers.

I am very pleased with the evaluation of my draft novel. It arrived well within the promised schedule. It is exactly at the level that I had hoped for. — Patrick

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By Jordan

Jordan is a writer, editor, community manager and product developer. He received his BA Honours in English Literature and his undergraduate in English Literature and Music from the University of Cape Town.

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