Test Marketing Books

In the traditional book-publishing world, insiders often refer to the initial release of a book from a new author as a marketing test…more R&D than launching and promoting a known product.

The self-publishing process can function in a similar role of market testing for a first time author. You won’t know for certain how it will be received, but it is worth the effort to try. Most authors desire the chance to prove themselves and self-publishing is a good way to do it.

I’ve recommended to any number of authors they self-publish a book because at the moment I didn’t see a ready market for it among traditional publishers. Also, if an author needs a book to sell at their speaking engagements to build their author platform, waiting 18-24 months for a release from a formal publisher is often not in their best interest.

But I also know what I suggest is that the author test-market their writing and marketing platform to see if it meets expectations. A self-published book, which doesn’t sell particularly well for the author might make it hard for them to attract the traditional publisher because they now have sales history that can be tracked. For some it might mean the end of their aspirations to be traditionally published.  But mainly, it means they should go back to work, make adjustments and try again. How much work, how many adjustments and how long they continue to try is up to them.

Every human endeavor, from a young man asking a young lady for a date to making toast in the morning, involves the same three steps:

Do something


Try Again

A book puts the writer “out there” for all to see and invites readers to vote with their money on whether they like what they read.

“Doing something” is step one of the market test.

Every week, I receive several proposals from authors who say in effect, “I tried self-publishing and it didn’t work well, so I want to pursue the traditional route.”

What I hear is, “The test marketing for this product didn’t go well, but I still think a company should invest money in it.”

It’s a rather simple decision regarding agency representation. Sorry.

If you decide to self-publish initially with the desire to eventually get an agent for traditional publishing, your self-publishing efforts need to show growth and good revenue streams over a long period of time in order to get the attention of anyone.  There are no magic numbers to aim for, but unless your sales are in the multiple thousands of revenue generating units, agents and publishers probably won’t be interested.

And, their interest would be in your next book, not the one currently available and being market tested.  (Unless your book is selling thousands per week, at which time everyone involved in traditional publishing will be your friend)

Traditional publishers would rather take a risk on a new author who has no proven track record of sales than the author who “tested” poorly in self-publishing.

So, even self-publishing is risky. It puts you in front of a crowd who will pass judgment on whether your work is worthy to be purchased. No one enjoys failure to perform as expected, not to mention the risk of poor reader-reviews.

Low sales for a self-published book means you need to try again, write a new book, or change the title, pricing, online product description, marketing, or whatever else you think for the book, which didn’t test well. But if you can’t get some momentum built no matter what you do, it is your decision how long you should persevere.

Figuratively speaking, every book has a “here I am world, what do you think?” sign attached to it. Authors need to be open to adjust to whatever the test data is trying to tell them.


22 Responses to Test Marketing Books

  1. Edward Lane May 23, 2017 at 5:32 am #

    I was thinking along those lines when I read your communique today. It’s great to benefit from the wisdom of someone like you.

  2. Diana Harkness May 23, 2017 at 5:35 am #

    Thank you. I had never thought of self-publishing as a test market and the thought intrigues me. But, wouldn’t it be a false test due to the lack of bookstore appearances, publication advertising, and promotion at trade shows. A self-published author like myself does not have the financial ability or acumen to run ads in publications like Christianity Today, travel and rent booths at trade shows, or obtain reviewer’s quotes.

    • Dan Balow May 23, 2017 at 5:54 am #

      You are correct self publishing rarely hits all the channels of sales and marketing, but doing well in it would indicate something positive to a publisher.

      Testing always involves trying something out on a small segment and then projecting the results to a larger group. For instance, there are certain cities consumer product companies know are good indicators for the rest of the country. “If it sells in Peoria, then…” is a catch phrase referring to Peoria, Illinois, a pretty typical middle American city. Some will use the phrase, “Will this play in Peoria?” as a question how something will be received by average Americans.

      Self-publishing is a good way to prove yourself…or not.

  3. Afton Rorvik May 23, 2017 at 7:03 am #

    I understand this principle, but what about a book that is well-written but just doesn’t get the attention of a broader audience either because the author does not have those connections or because a publisher does not pursue them on the author’s behalf? Seems a bit unfair of a publisher to float a book out there (R&D) to see how it sells but then not put effort into helping that happen.

    • Dan Balow May 23, 2017 at 7:22 am #

      More and more publishers wait until they see some activity and acceptance before spending time and money on promotion. Getting a good start can be as simple as shelf-placement in retail, getting a few books sold, taking the pulse of the market, then putting money and promotion behind something which is gaining some traction.

      Certainly a chicken/egg issue. And why social media has become so important because it is relatively free.

      Traditional publishers can get their books carried by certain retailers and sales channels, even it is just a few copies per location. It’s a start. But they don’t start promoting and pushing until they see it gain some attention on their own.

      Publishing as always been this way. I have a cartoon in my office from the 1980’s showing a publisher presenting their marketing plan to an author…a sign saying, “If you want to buy this book, it is okay with us.”

      Author turns to colleague and says, “Well, it’s more than they did for my last book.”

      Gallows humor, I know.

  4. Damon J. Gray May 23, 2017 at 7:35 am #

    I’m in the same boat as Afton and Diana. I looked at self-publishing more as a learning experience for me (and it WAS) rather than an R & D experiment for potential future published works.

    But, what is is, and there is little I can do to alter the view of agents, editors or publishers. So, I’ll just stay true to the path and keep working and moving forward.

  5. Carol Ashby May 23, 2017 at 8:01 am #

    A very interesting article, Dan. Shelf placement is not a realistic metric for most of us indies since it’s virtually impossible to get my paperback on a shelf in anything but an extremely local presence at a few nearby bookstores. I can’t imagine selling more than a few dozen, if that, so I haven’t even tried.

    The track record of sales raises interesting questions. First, is it the total sales or how the sales rate has changed over time that matters more? For example, my first started slow, with about 1 book every 3 days, but I’ve worked on targeted direct marketing and it’s gaining traction, including international sales because of my history website. The sales rate is steadily climbing now, with this week’s sales rate extrapolating to >2000 a year. My second, which has been out only 5 days, is selling at half that rate already. First question, given that fact pattern, would 2000 a year be considered too few sales to make an indie author attractive to an agent and a publisher? Second, does an agent or publisher look more at the sales trend or the total number of sales in making a decision?

    • Dan Balow May 23, 2017 at 8:29 am #

      Always a combination of totals and trends.

      Nice work!

      Publishers are also on the lookout in the total mix of data for the financial model used to achieve the sales. If the majority of sales are really inexpensive ebooks or heavily discounted print books, it would need to be considered in the decision process.

      No magic numbers, just a combination of progress and financial viability.

      One other item to consider is the geographic map of a book. Every book sells well in some places and not-so-well in others.

      There are a number of best-selling books in the traditional publishing world which sell very well, but are pulled from appearing on national bestseller lists because they sell in only one channel like the author’s church bookstore or almost all in a few towns. It would be a red flag if you only sold to those in proximity to you.

      Authors are like a local small business trying to go national. Not everyone can do it effectively.

      • Carol Ashby May 23, 2017 at 8:39 am #

        Thanks for the extra info, Dan. I’m priced for 70% royalty, which is why I know I’m selling in the 35% part of the world (non-Commonwealth and non-Western Europe). I would assume that market doesn’t especially interest American CBA publishers, but I personally find those the most exciting sales. It is fun to see 70% income in Australian and Canadian dollars. I would assume CBA does care about Canada.

        • Dan Balow May 23, 2017 at 8:47 am #

          Canada is very important, as are all worldwide markets. Publishers have distributors in every market. However Christian bookstores in Canada and the UK have been devastated by retail trends. US Christian stores are strong and doing well by comparison.

          I was referring mostly to towns in the US. Bookscan data breaks book sales (even Amazon) into metro areas. It is alarming if 95% of an author’s sales are in one city. Publishers wonder if the message is too local.

          Not a fatal thing, but one of the many elements considered.

    • Louisa February 25, 2019 at 6:53 pm #

      If you’re doing that well, why would you publish traditionally? It makes no sense for an author who is selling thousands a year to go trad. Why not just keep the royalty for yourself?

  6. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser May 23, 2017 at 8:18 am #

    It seems to me that the most successful test-marketing was that carried out by Richard paul Evans when he was selling “The Christmas Box” out of the trunk of his car at swap meets.

    He was able to get direct feedback from buyers and browsers, and that gave him a unique perspective in what was important to the then-contemporary reader.

    In terms of test-marketing, it seems to me that free downloads are a meaningless index, and that a very low price can actually drive people away, being perceived as an indicator of poor quality.

    Finally, rebranding can work, as this article from BusinessInsider points out:


  7. Sonja Anderson May 23, 2017 at 11:19 am #

    I’ve heard that most self-published books sell 45-75 copies lifetime. If a book sells 700 books in its first year or two, does that still count as abysmally low sales, or would that be considered a book that has some promise in the broader market?

    The book I’m thinking of isn’t actually self-published, but published overseas (UK) by a very small publisher, so the marketing and sales attempts feel identical to a self-published book.

    • Dan Balow May 23, 2017 at 12:02 pm #

      There are no magic numbers, but a book would need to sell in the multiple thousands in a year to show the author might hold some promise to a traditional publisher…and their interest would be in the next book.

      Publishers in the US would look only at potential in the US since that would be their primary market. Sales in the UK are helpful, but would still not shed much light on potential in the US.

      • Sonja Anderson May 23, 2017 at 12:57 pm #

        Thanks, Dan. I appreciate your thoughts. Just to clarify, my UK-published children’s novel has sold mainly in the US, not the UK, but I agree that the numbers are still too small to attract a US traditional publisher.

        What I’d really like is to find a US-based traditional publisher who could translate the novels into Spanish. We have lots of kids in the school where I work who are from Spanish-speaking countries, and they are very interested in the Bibles and Christian books we have in our public school library.

        Do you know how/if this kind of deal is negotiated? Thanks again.

  8. Sheri Dean Parmelee May 23, 2017 at 11:48 am #

    Dan, thanks for the information. My question is: what will my agent think if I self-publish a book that he is trying to market?

    • Dan Balow May 23, 2017 at 12:04 pm #

      You would need to ask the agent. Don’t surprise them.

    • Carol Ashby May 23, 2017 at 12:55 pm #

      I had a parallel situation at a conference last summer, Sheri. I talked at length with an editor about thinking I would have to self publish since we were concerned about keeping rights. He asked for the manuscript, anyway, and assured me he really wanted it even with me waffling about what I should do. After about three months, I made the firm decision to self publish and let him know that I was withdrawing my manuscript from consideration. He was very encouraging of my decision, but he did tell me the market was weak for my particular genre. His company’s last entry in that area had underperformed, and his publishing committee probably wouldn’t have gone for mine, anyway.
      I think he’s right that my work would be a poor bet for a traditional publisher. I can’t imagine selling 20K a year. Maybe you’re more general market, or are you more of a niche player like me?

  9. Sherrie Giddens May 23, 2017 at 5:53 pm #

    I have self-published a few books and know exactly what you are saying. I am glad that I did it, but I can see now that it will make getting a publisher a little more difficult unless I am able to produce something that knocks it out of the park.

  10. Alyssa August 27, 2018 at 12:41 pm #

    Nice article. I liked the way you projected about self publishing and how it can be used as a test market.

    Question – what’s the minimum audience size needed to trust the results? If I’m just starting out and don’t have an audience, would a test marketing tool like PickFu.com be an effective alternative?

  11. Brian Johnston December 18, 2018 at 1:13 pm #

    Hi Dan, is there a Compamy you might recommend that a first time self publishing author might hire to market test his work for him? My book is my personal version of “The Little Prince,” it is over 200 pages already and I have invested over $20,000 dollars already in art for the book. The book is finished but the art is only half done! I am wealthy enough to afford to do this on my own but would also like to be working with a “good” agent. Any suggestions as to how I might procede from this point! You can view some of my published poems on PoemHunter.com or Poetrysoup.com to get a feel for my work! I have at times ranked in the top 10 poets on PoemHunter.com.

  12. Edward Johnson June 1, 2019 at 5:28 pm #

    Hi, Dan. Having just read your blog about test marketing books, I feel that I may have committed a serious error in self-publishing my first book. It was done on a shoestring budget, and I didn’t have the money to invest in all the “extra” enhancements that were available for marketing it. I tend to describe the sales as somewhere between extremely disappointing and abysmal. Still, feedback from readers has been excellent. One of my readers (our pastor) actually tracked me down after church one Sunday to tell me that, when he started reading my book, he did not want to put it down. He admitted that he did not normally read books like mine, but he was glad that he had read it, and he said he’s looking forward to the second in the series. (He is not one to compliment just because he knows me or because I am a member of the church he pastors. Other remarks from those who have read it are similar. So, my reviews are good, but the sales are dismal. I have written a second and am almost finished with the third in the series. Do you offer any advice in this area?

Get New Posts by Email

Get New Posts by Email

Each article is packed with helpful info and encouragement for writers. You can unsubscribe at any time with one click. 

You have Successfully Subscribed!