How to Sell a Half Million Books | Author Denise Grover Swank How to Sell a Half Million Books | Author Denise Grover Swank
Denise Grover Swank

How to Sell a Half Million Books

After watching my Createspace videos,a lot of authors have asked, “How did you do it? How did you sell so many books?”

Honestly, one book at a time.

In my video, I say that by the end of December, 2011, I’d sold 26,000 books. As of this weekend, I’ve sold 532,814 books–both eBooks and print, but about 95% are eBooks. I have twelve self-published books released (with one coming out April 10, another scheduled June 24, and  a third November 4) I have one book published with 47North, an Amazon imprint, along with a short story and the second book in the series releasing April 29. I also have two box sets, three short stories, a novella and a very short memoir. In addition to those, I have six audiobooks and I’m about to begin German translations on three of my series.

It all started with one book in July, 2011.

I’m not going to lie to you and tell you it’s been easy. That’s what a lot of you want to hear. You want to find out the magical way to sell a lot of books. If I knew the answer to that, I’d have sold about a million more. I don’t have a magic answer. I have a lot of little answers and suggestions, but what works for one author or book doesn’t always work the same for another. I’ve found this to be true within my own books and series.

Here’s what I will tell you:

1) Write a damn good book. Not a mediocre book. Not a “it’s okay book.” Write the best damn book you can write. You will be judged on this book. They are called reviews. If your book sucks, the reviewers will let you know and they aren’t shy about it. Especially on Goodreads.

2) Before you hit publish, make sure your book has been critiqued. Have people you know read it–but don’t take their word that it’s good. You need an unbiased opinion.  Find a writers group. Find writers online–Absolute Write is a good place to start. If you’re embarrassed to show your work to other writers, then you aren’t ready to hit publish. See #1.

3) Don’t skimp on the editing. This goes hand in hand with #1. The quality of your book reflects on you. You want to grab a reader with that first book. And an editor isn’t your sister, your mother, your next door neighbor who taught English. You need someone familiar with the Chicago Manual of Style.

4) Don’t skimp on the cover either. If you want readers to take you seriously, don’t publish a book with a cover that looks like a fifth grader made it for a school project.

5) When you decide to publish a book, you become a business. If you open a shop at the local strip mall, you aren’t going paint your name on a piece of particle board and nail it over the entrance. You have to invest money in your business. Self-publishing is the same. My first book cost about  $750 to publish. I invested in my business. If you want to be taken seriously, you need to look serious. People don’t want to hear this either, but there are ways to publish on a budget. You can get a quality cover for close to $100. You can find a copy editor for around $300-$500.

6) Don’t expect to make much money off of one or two books. There was a time you could but with the glut of authors and books, you need a minimum of three books in a series to do well. There will be exceptions to the rule. Maybe you’re the next Darcie Chan, the author of the mega-bestseller The Mill River Recluse. But I’m going to be honest–you probably aren’t, so don’t count on it. I have twelve books available, remember? I didn’t start making real money until I had four or five books published.

7) Don’t waste your time marketing and promoting one book. The very best thing you can do to sell the first book is write and publish the next book.  No body wants to hear this either, but here’s the cold hard truth: My Rose Gardner Mystery series didn’t take off until after I released the third book in the series– two years after I published the first one.  My Chosen series didn’t take off until I had two books. Readers like a series they can commit to and you need a book you can use for promotion.

8) It’s called social media not sell my book media. It’s important to be involved in social media but you don’t have to do it all. I used to blog, but people don’t really read blog posts much anymore. I’m on Twitter but I’m much more active on Facebook.  I have an author fan page and a personal profile.

Facebook has begun reducing the visibility of fan pages in their attempt to get users to pay to promote their posts. I have bought them and still do from time to time. but I haven’t found them all that effective.  When I’m on Facebook and Twitter, most of the time I’m interacting with with my friends and followers. Today I posted about getting snow and what I wore to pick up my kids from school.When I talk about my books, it’s usually while I’m writing or have a new release. I’ll mention when I have a book on sale or if one is doing really well. But here’s the thing: Because I’ve formed relationships on Facebook, my friends and readers want to hear that a book is going well. In January, my Rose Gardner Mystery box set hit #1 on Barnes & Noble and my Facebook friends were almost as excited as I was.

If you connect with your friends and readers, they’ll want to read your books and they’ll want to celebrate your success. But if you’re constantly telling people to buy your book, you’re going to annoy the crap out of them.  Here’s something else a lot of authors don’t like to hear: It takes a while to build your social media platform. I’ve been working on mine for five years.

You can follow me on:

Facebook author page

9) Start building your mailing list yesterday. Who is the audience for the second, third, or fourth book of your series? The readers who read the previous books. You can’t count on Amazon or Barnes & Noble or iBooks to email your previous readers and tell them your new book is available. Sometimes they will, but you can’t count on it. Encourage your readers to sign up for your mailing list so you can let them know when your next book comes out.  Most won’t do it on their own so bribe them. Give them free content– a short story or a deleted scene. Last fall I serialized a novella and posted it over three months. Subscribers could read it on my website for free by using the passwords I sent them through the newsletter. I gained four thousand new subscribers. This leads to–

10) Don’t be afraid to experiment with promotion. I’m the queen of trying new things. Some turn out to be great ideas, others were huge mistakes. If something doesn’t work, don’t waste time being upset over it, just move on

11) Be prepared to work harder than you ever worked before. I work every day. I work on Christmas Day. I work on Thanksgiving. I work when I’m vacation. My typical work day starts at 9:00 a.m.  and I work until I pick up my kids at 4:00. Then I work for an hour or so before dinner. Then I put my kids to bed and I work from 9:00 until 1:00-3:00 a.m., depending on my deadlines. Sometimes I take a nap at 9 pm. so I can stay up and work. Half of my work is on the business side and the other is writing and editing. I will never be caught up. There will always be work to do. But I love what I’m doing, so I don’t mind. If you want to be successful, it’s a huge commitment.

12) Don’t compare yourself to others. There are a lot of authors who have sold many more books than I have. They release books that debut on the New York Times list.  I’m not them and you aren’t me. We each have our own path to travel so don’t stress about what other authors are doing. If you’re a self-published author, you’re on a journey. It’s full of highs and lows, but it’s entirely your own. Enjoy it.


Here’s a few previous posts:

100K and a Winner
I Hit 150,000 in Sales

My three part series about creating a business plan on The Writer’s Guide to E-Publishing (October, 2012)

Part One
Part Two
Part Three

If you have more questions, I contributed to the book  THE NAKED TRUTH ABOUT SELF-PUBLISHING. It’s written by ten New York Times bestselling authors and it’s FULL of great information.

Good luck!


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Fred LeBaron
Fred LeBaron
10 years ago

Great post, Denise, thanks! I think the tricky part is #1 – and doing it over and over and over again. That takes something special. Good advice is hard to come by, thanks for sharing yours.

Lisa Lang Blakeney
Lisa Lang Blakeney
10 years ago

This was a great post and was like the cold glass of water I needed tossed in my face today. Gave me a great idea for an ethical bribe to get people on my list. Thx for sharing this.

Robert Scanlon
Robert Scanlon
10 years ago

Thanks for the pragmatic detail, Denise! I love to hear the ‘how’ of how others have made this work for them. I’m not afraid of hard work, nor publishing a lot of books, but it think I had fallen into the ‘shouldn’t something be happening now?’ after two books under my belt.

Time to stop worrying about that and move the schedule up – and take some lessons from your work ethic!

Thanks again for sharing 🙂

Edward Smith
Edward Smith
10 years ago

Wow, great advice from someone who has been there and done that. Successfully! I coach authors how to pitch the media and I loved your advice to treat it like a business. An author has to switch to a “selling” mode as soon as the last line of the book is written. And then keep on selling after that. I hope at some point you will offer your thoughts on getting publicity for your books, I bet you have some great advice. OK, thanks, Edward Smith.

Lara O'Brien
Lara O'Brien
10 years ago

Great post Denise, thanks for sharing the amount of work you have done is truly a credit to you and shows just how much work it takes to get ones name and books out there.

10 years ago

This was kind of exciting.
When my first book didn’t seem to be near its ending, my friend told me to break it up and here you’re telling me people WANT a series???

What luck!
I’m about 85% through Part II of the trilogy and here I thought I was being ridiculous writing three books before selling the first hard. By the sounds of it, the first one won’t fly until I’m done!

I give promo codes out to book review blogs. Sold two books so far. Woo hoo! Really, I’m easy to please.

For the Writer: How To Cope When Frustration Sets In – J.R. Young
9 years ago

[…] found the answer reading a post by NYT best selling author Denise Grover Swank. If you care at all about turning your passion into a living, read her post. She delves into eight […]

8 years ago

Hi Denise,

I cried to when I got the paperback of my first book that took me awhile to write and decided I wanted to do it always. I love it, so now I am currently working on my third book Eden’s Journey haven’t decided if I wanted to self-publish this one or try traditional with it waiting to see what happens. Yeah its a slow process, but writing and doing what you love is most important! Congrats on doing well. 🙂

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