selling a self-published book

What to do before publishing a book, Part 1: Create a Sales Plan

A sales plan is critical to making your book successful—and will be your guide in almost every decision you face in design and printing.

Our clients, Marilyn and Nadine, as they load up their third print run of A Cincinnati Night Before Christmas. They donated the profits from their book to Cincinnati nonprofit adoption agencies, and sold it in retail establishments across the tri-state.

Our clients, Marilyn and Nadine, as they load up their third print run of A Cincinnati Night Before Christmas. They donated the profits from their book to Cincinnati nonprofit adoption agencies, and sold it in retail establishments across the tri-state.


Key questions to answer as you create your sales plan:

Who is your target audience? If you’re publishing a book for an anniversary, how large is your company, community, or organization, and how many within this group do you expect to actually purchase the book? If the book is for a more general audience, how many do you think you can sell within three months?

Why does this matter? You need to know how large your target market is to determine how many books you can conceivably sell, and consequently, how many books you should print in your first run.

Where do you plan on selling the book? Your website, local stores, national book store chains (Barnes & Noble, Books-a-Million, etc.), Amazon, your gift shop?

Why does this matter? This will determine how many access points you have to your target audience. If you’re only selling your book on your website or in your gift shop, this may limit the number you sell.

Do you need (or want) to make money on the book? Some of our clients only want to cover the costs of production, others want to donate profits to the organization or another nonprofit, and some see the book as an opportunity to build market share or extend the company/organization brand.

Why does this matter? This will determine how important the unit cost is in your decision. If you don’t need/want to profit off the book, then a smaller print run with a higher unit cost isn’t necessarily a bad idea. However, if you have a large target audience and you intent to profit off the book, then a larger print run with a lower unit cost is ideal.

How will you use the book? Is it a gift to donors or employees? A business development tool? A sales piece? A product for your gift shop?

Why does this matter? This determines certain quality decisions—hard cover or soft cover, black and white or full color, dust jacket, etc. For example, if the book is a gift to donors who give a specified amount during a capital campaign, the book’s perceived value/quality needs to be fairly high. A cheaply produced book given to high-dollar donors undermines the gesture. 

These four questions are critical starting points for your sales plan. You may also consult friends and family with experience—anyone who has published or sold a book before, or anyone who has experience in marketing/sales. You can also refer to writers’ blogs online for helpful input on marketing and promoting your book—these resources may also have personal stories that resonate with your goal and may help clarify how to publish and sell your book.

Promoting a Book: It’s a Lot More Like Writing Than You Think

Book publishing workshop at Milton-Union Public Library.
Book publishing workshop at Milton-Union Public Library.

As part of Orange Frazer’s educational outreach, I regularly conduct workshops and sessions on book publishing for aspiring authors. Not surprisingly, a number of their questions revolve around book marketing and promotion. Typically, authors will point out that they don’t enjoy marketing, and that they publish books because they enjoy writing. I can empathize with this. I love writing as well, and book promotion and marketing (after the emotional rollercoaster of writing, editing, and publishing a book) can seem that much more exhausting, intimidating, and frankly, boring. But the more I work to promote and market our own books at OFP, the more I recognize that book promotion is not so unlike writing as we often assume it is: the two are, actually, quite similar.

1. Tell a Story Promoting and marketing a book—like writing—is all about telling a story. People buy products because of compelling narratives. For those who watched the Super Bowl on Sunday, this is particularly poignant. Budweiser won our hearts not because it laid out the facts: Budweiser is a cheaper, more cost-effective beer that provides the same taste quality, value, and availability as its more expensive alternatives. I’d guess no one would be running out the door for a Budweiser after that bore of a message. Instead it told us a story: the story of a puppy and a Clydesdale, of friendship, loyalty, companionship, of the potential for dreams to become reality. They told us a story that we wanted to believe, that made us feel good, that appealed not to our needs, but to our wants.

2. Consumers buy based on wants, not needs This strikes at the second crucial part of book promotion and marketing: forget about what people need and start showing them what they want. Oftentimes, marketers will expound on the needs of consumers: show them why they need this product and then why your product is their best available option. This seems like it will be effective; we assume that our target audience makes logical, fact-based decisions about which products to buy. But think of yourself, and you realize that this is hardly ever the case. While we would like to think we buy based solely on need, we almost exclusively buy products based solely on our wants. Right now I need a new clothes iron, but instead, I bought a pair of overpriced yoga socks. Why? I liked the idea of yoga socks, I liked their bright colors (especially in a winter that seems neverending), and I liked how comfy they looked. An iron, while necessary, did not invoke any of these feelings, and so, I essentially forgot about it.

Similarly, people will not buy your book because they need it. They don’t need it. At all. Book buyers are a niche audience, and they are not reading voraciously because their life depends on it. They read books because they want to, because they want to be involved in your story, swept up in it, transformed by it.

So stop thinking about book promotion like a formula, where well-placed ad + reputable book review + in-store displays + radio interview = bestseller. Start thinking about book promotion like your own writing. Tell your readers a story. Will your book sing them to sleep, remind them of their first love, suspend them breathlessly from chapter to chapter, revolutionize their understanding of the past? Marketing, after all, is plot, with all of the characterization and emotional integrity of a well-written book.