The Most Critical Element of a Novel–Your Story is Not It

Photo by Dollar Gill on Unsplash

You’ve spent weeks getting your characters to pop on the page just the way you want them to. Your structure is sound. It’s a damned good novel! But when you release it to digital storefronts, you end up with disappointing sales.

Nothing feels worse than pouring your soul into your work only to have it fall flat. And the thing is, it would have entertained a lot of people, if only they had gotten the opportunity to read it.

I know it sucks because it happened to me, too. I wrote a martial arts text a few years ago that was unique for its market, from someone qualified to write about the subject, and it went nowhere.

That book failed because I got this vital element wrong, and yours will, too, if you don’t get it right.

No, it’s not your story

Like I said: your story is solid. Know how I know? Because you’re probably like most writers. You’re in love with your MC; your settings are well-researched; your structure follows an ‘industry-standard story arc’ (whichever secret-saucy formula you chose); you’ve stressed so much over the grammar that an English teacher would need a week and ten cups of coffee to find a single mistake.

The reason you’re not selling books has nothing to do with your writing. Fortunately, and unfortunately, your book is as good as every other book out there. In fact, there are books with far less quality making more sales than you on the very same storefront. Know why?

Your story is not the most important part of your novel.

That’s not what you wanted to hear. I get it. We all want our stories to be nice little snowflakes, but the reality is they aren’t. They’re all more similar than we care to admit, much like Facebook posts: the story is the same, but the names have been changed to spread the credit around.

Feel discouraged? You shouldn’t. Your story being similar to others means you’re on the same playing field. All you need to do is beat the other authors at sales and marketing, which most word-slingers, even self-published ones who need it, are terrible at.

Let’s get it right, and get you some (sales) numbers on the board.

You need to pop off the digital shelves

Back in the early 2000s, I worked for a brick-and-mortar bookstore that is no longer around, which is sad because it was a big-name place that many people enjoyed. (Hint: they had a delightful Triple-Chocolate Espresso that was to die for!)

During my tenure there, I stocked lots of bookshelves. I also took things off of those shelves when they were no longer hot items — I’m not sure where they ended up after I packed them away, but I like to think they’re awaiting their one-true-reader on a dusty bookshelf on the other side of a magical wardrobe’s door.

Regardless of the subject, author, or publisher, the books I pulled off the shelves all had one thing in common: they looked boring.

I’m sure you know this already, but boring books don’t sell.

But how does a reader know your book is boring? Their first hint is on the cover. Ask ten people what attracted them to the last random book they purchased, and nine of them will tell you the same thing: “it had a great looking cover.”

Like it or not, the clothing you wear tells potential companions something about you, just as the cover of your book hooks the interest of potential readers, or fails to. Dress that book up, and it’ll take you places.

Do not use Fiverr or some other cheap alternative

Your book’s cover is the most critical element that will pay you back tenfold whatever you sank into it. Why would you not want it to be all it could be? This is a pageant, and you need to win it! Dropping a hundred bucks (is anything on Fiverr ever just five dollars anymore?) on a shitty cover will net you shitty sales. Let your competition get that sweet non-deal on a cover that won’t sell.

Like any good pageant contestant, you need to shop around for just the right clothes to make that story pop.

Look around the internet for digital artists and graphic designers — you’ll need both. An excellent digital artist will cost you around five hundred to a thousand bucks for some kickass cover art. The graphic designer will run you somewhere around a hundred to two hundred dollars and will place your well-designed title in just the right spot on that sweet, sweet canvas to fully represent your incredible story on those digital shelves.

Remember that martial arts book that didn’t land many sales? I built that cover myself, using free stock art off the internet. Result: a stinking pile of horse dung. Seriously, I got like five sales.

I’ve gotten it right before, though, on another book project. I dropped five hundred on cover art and found a layout designer to handle the logos for fifty dollars. Result: Platinum Bestseller!

Don’t hate me for this, but ditching the cost of an editor and spending it on a good cover will pay you dividends in the long run.

Both of the books I just mentioned had their editing costs inverted: I hired an editor for the martial arts text, but for the bestseller, I paid a friend in a bottle of cheap wine to look it over for me after Grammarly had gotten the better of it.

Nothing should cost you more than your cover. It’s too important not to be the pride and joy of the entire project, even if you didn’t create it.

Your story is still important

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to leave anyone thinking that it’s okay to slap a sick cover on a shitty story and start their career that way. Your future is in your backlog, and readers getting to that require that they first enjoy the story they’re reading. But they need to read your story, and that requires a great cover.

Sorry if you were looking for an easy way out of grinding those words into diamonds. Focus on your story. Pay other people to realize your vision on your cover. We authors go it alone on so many fronts, it’ll feel nice to give someone else a bit of the responsibility for a change.


I used to run a publishing company, so I’ve been around the block and know what mistakes to avoid. If you want more no-nonsense publishing advice, sign up for my newsletter.

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