Hit the Books with Dan Milnor: How to Sell Your Book

One of the most challenging questions I face at Blurb is, “Well, I finally finished my book. Now how do I sell it?” This tops the list in a world of difficult, self-publishing questions. Typically, I answer this question with several questions of my own. “Does anyone know about the book?” “Do you have an audience for your work?” “Have you ever sold a book before?” “What is your audience willing to pay?” There’s a lot to unpack with these questions, so let’s dive in and handle them individually.

Does anyone know about the book?

Selling books isn’t easy. It never has been, and it never will be. So when the goal is to sell, the sales process must begin the minute you make the decision your book will be publicly available—long before you have even begun to make the work that will comprise the book itself. If I want to do a book about my birding photography, the second I make this decision, I begin to alert my audience that I am planning to produce a bird book. This could be a year out from when the book hits the Blurb bookstore, giving ample time for people to begin to ponder if they might have an interest in acquiring a copy. This allows me to promote my future book over the entire period required to make the actual images. I can bring my audience along with me as I make the work so they feel they are part of the overall experience. When the book finally arrives, I have an audience lying in wait.

photo of book cover for Intertia Magazine suggesting its freshly printed and ready to sell to target audience

Do you have an audience for your work?

When I ask this question, the most common response is, “I’m on Facebook.” Or, “I have an Instagram account.” This is not what I’m referring to when I say the word audience. Historically, social media followers are more akin to window watchers than actual buyers, so when I refer to audience, I mean people who are true followers of your work and willing to engage with their pocketbooks. In my experience, the single best book sales tool is the email newsletter. Email recipients have much higher engagement rates and have proven far more financially willing. A study by McKinsey & Company found that email marketing was up to 40 times more effective than social media. And for those of you who don’t have a newsletter or a mailing list, that’s okay. Start today. And remember, if your book won’t be done until 2025, you have all of 2024 to build your newsletter and email marketing strategy. Selling books is a marathon, not a sprint.

Have you ever sold a book before?

Several years ago, my brother talked me into signing up for a 30k trail race on the Texas-Mexico border. My brother does Ironman triathlons, and running is a significant part of his life. I don’t run, but for some reason, I said yes and signed up. Five miles into the race, I knew I was in big trouble. Running is HARD. Well, it turns out, so is selling books, and I don’t mean just for you and me, but for everyone. Many of the books you see at your local bookstore don’t sell. The average book published today is selling less than 300 copies over its lifetime in US retail channels. Blockbusters are the unicorns. But, so what? If you haven’t sold a book before, that’s okay, too. Just know that selling takes a solid sales plan. The same as if you were selling a lawnmower or a self-publishing action figure. If this is your first time, set realistic expectations, take your time, and enjoy the process.

interior of a self published photo book showcasing a full page page photo of a dog

What is your audience willing to pay?

As we discussed above, you have announced your intention well in advance of your book hitting the bookstore, and you have begun to build an audience of true fans. Perfect, now you can ask those true fans what they are willing to pay for your masterpiece. As a photographer, traditional ideology says I should attempt to build and sell a photo book, but photo books are expensive. I might be able to shame my family into buying a few copies, but my audience might not have the funds. Through my email newsletter, I can query my readers to better understand their limits, which in turn will guide me to build the right object for the right audience at the right price point. Perhaps, instead of a $75 photo book, I create a $25 trade book that shows the photography but also includes the behind-the-scenes imagery of how the project was created.

Answering these questions and making a long-term plan will allow for a much more enjoyable publishing experience and might also lead to improved sales. One successful photographer explained to me, “My books are my children.” I think this is a solid analogy. Children are often what we are most proud of and protective of, but children take time and nurturing to reach their full potential.

So, what does all this mean? Intelligent, successful book publishing takes practice, patience, and a solid plan. Keeping to realistic goals while taking baby steps is key. And perhaps more than anything else, enjoy the process. Your positivity about the work and your sales plan will hopefully translate to your readers, who will see a confident, enthusiastic author with a story they can’t live without.


Dan Milnor is a professional photographer and Blurb’s creative ambassador. He shares his photography and bookmaking expertise here every single month. Are you ready to turn your photography into a photo book? Join us at Blurb.

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