20 Reasons Books Don’t Sell (Part 1)

books-21849_640When your book doesn’t move off the shelves or Amazon warehouses in vast quantities, our first tendency is to point fingers. There is something deep in the human psyche that needs to blame someone when hopes, dreams and plans don’t work out. Publishers blame authors, authors blame publishers (or oddly enough, their agents), retail might blame marketing.

The truth is, there will never be one reason why a particular book doesn’t sell. All any of us—author, publisher, agent, retail partner—can do is look in the mirror and ask, “Did I personally do all I could to help the process?” The other truth is, everyone who invests time in writing, agenting, editing, packaging, marketing, publishing, and selling a book wants the book to turn a profit.  We all want books to sell . . . every single book! Otherwise, none of us could stay in business.  So let’s disabuse ourselves of mistrusting motives of the key people trying to help our book—everyone wants to stay in business!

So why don’t books sell? It’s usually not because of a lack of desire, or effort, or skill, or hope, or prayer… it’s a myriad of tangible and intangible factors. Some an author can control, some a publisher can, and many are outside the control of anyone.

Welcome to the world of publishing in the 2010s. Times… they have changed. So what are the reasons a good book may not have great sales?

  1. Hundreds of books have been scuttled because a war or national tragedy took center stage right when a book releases. Suddenly, all of the great PR efforts and TV interviews set up get pre-empted, never to be rescheduled because everyone has moved onto the newest front list of books to promote.
  2. A bad package. It doesn’t happen too often these days; publishers like to make authors/agents happy. But cover designs do sell—or not sell—books. A great title that screams “must read,” a subtitle that grabs, back cover copy that says, “keep looking,” engaging table of contents, endorsements or a foreword by someone of note, a compelling first few pages… these are a few factors that can turn a book browser into a buyer.
  3. Champions leave. With uncertainty in the industry and publisher entrenchment these last five years, editors have been leaving or moving to different jobs at an enormous clip. Without an in-house champion to keep the book on track, details often fall through the cracks no matter who is following up. New editors must inherit projects, but if they didn’t acquire them, sometimes those books get treated like the red-headed step-child.
  4. Marketing/PR failures. A publisher had no effective marketing plan, or didn’t work their marketing plan no matter the agent effort or follow up. The truth is, the 80/20 principle is truer in publishing than likely anywhere else. Eighty percent of their marketing money goes to 20% of their books, because 80% of their income comes from 20% of their books. A huge fact of life in a very tough publishing environment. Sadly, these days, it may even be 90/10.
  5. Author ambivalence. An author decided they’d let others do the heavy lifting in creating awareness about the book. The writer took the attitude that “Everyone, other than me, should tell the world about my book—because I don’t want to be seen as commercializing anything; I’m above that.” Or, “God has called me to write, not to market my writing.” Or, “I’m busy writing my next book. I don’t have time.” Or, “I’m just not good at pushing my own stuff.” Spiritualizing or tossing out excuses about your inactivity likely means one thing in today’s book culture: a short writing career. God will more often “bless” hard and smart work. If you don’t believe in your work enough to champion it, rethink book publishing. Or, perhaps become a collaborator, you can write and not have to worry about promotion.
  6. Author platform. Ah yes, the scourge of authors everywhere. If you haven’t built enough potential readers into your sphere of influence through blogging, speaking, radio or social networking, publishers will just often say, “We can’t help you.” Why? See reason 20.
  7. Friendship failure. An author’s famous friends (the ones your proposal said were on board) who promised to blog, tweet and Facebook about it forgot, or got too busy, or finally read your book and didn’t like it, or have been doing too much of it for every other author friend they have and are just tired of filling their social networking space crowing about someone else’s product (when they have their own to PR).
  8. Small target audience. The book doesn’t meet a broad enough felt need. Niche books used to have a chance. These days they often do not.
  9. Topic overpopulated. The book has been done a million ways from Sunday and there is just too much competition on the subject.

Not all is as discouraging as this post might have started out—and how you might be thinking. I’ll continue my post on Wednesday with further analysis, but also a bit of hope that I hope will help shift the publishing paradigm and eventually change how we as authors, publishers and agents approach the industry.

How I Discover New Books– Hint, Not in a Bookstore

It’s been said that the reason an author should stick to traditional publishing is book discoverability and distribution by way of a publisher’s marketing budget and sales staff.

bookstore-482970_1280I was fortunate to get a three-book deal with a mid-size Christian publisher who did get behind my book generously with marketing dollars. They even landed me in Sam’s Club with my first two books in hundreds of stores nationwide.

Just, why, didn’t I hit the bestseller lists? I think the books are good. Proof and Poison got starred reviews from Library Journal. Both were nominated (though never won) for awards. Lots of favorable reviews.

In fact, I might even say that landing in Sam’s Club hurt me a little. Why? The issue with Sam’s club is it’s a BIG order. It’s a risk for the publisher. If you’re not a well-known name who can move those novels many are going to get returned and your royalty report is going to look like a defaulted home loan and the bank is knocking on your door.

I began to analyze how I discover books, and does it match with the way a traditional publisher markets novels?

Sure, your best chance of getting into a bookstore is partnering with a traditional publisher but how often are you going to bookstores anymore? I used to go weekly, when they were close. There aren’t any close ones anymore. The one at the mall I would stop in while shopping for other things . . . gone . . . both of them. The closest bookstore is a 15-20 minute drive. And as NYT’s bestselling author Jamie McGuire blogs here— even she wasn’t seeing her novels in bookstores during release week.

Here is a list of how I now discover books.

1. Goodreads Reviews. Goodreads is the place for people who LOVE books and where book lovers leave reviews. I find I have more Goodreads reviews than Amazon reviews. I have close to 2,500 friends on Goodreads. Every day, I get an e-mail of their reviews. I’ve come to know whose reading tastes are similar to mine. A good review of a book will cause me to look further on Amazon. Plus, since I’m friends with so many, I get exposed to a wide variety of books outside my general reading genre (suspense) that I probably wouldn’t have heard about– even browsing bookstore aisles.

2. Amazon Lists. Amazon lists are fun to browse. Of course, there is always the 100 top paid and free Kindle lists but I also look at genre specific top 100 lists. I also pay attention to novels getting a crazy number of reviews and try and read those to see what is catching the reader’s eye. So, from my first two examples, I don’t think any author can say that reviews don’t matter . . . they do.

3. Advertising Lists. There are a couple of advertising lists that I belong to– BookBub and Inspired Reads. On these sites, you can narrow down the types of e-mails you receive to genres you like. Every day you’ll get an e-mail about books that are on sale. Bookbub lists are the primary way I’m buying books. If I see an interesting book cover then I click the buy link for Amazon and check out reviews. Based on the number of reviews, I make a decision about whether or not to buy the novel. BookBub has a very good reputation among authors that though pricey– is generally a good investment of your marketing dollars. I think the same is true with Inspired Reads for their reach/price ratio.

4. Word of Mouth. I’m like every other human being. If a good friend says, “You must read this book.” it will climb up to the top of my TBR list. The more people that say it– the more likely I am to read it. One author I’d almost given up on until a good friend said, “Just read this one. If you don’t like it, I give you permission to never read this author again.” Reading that novel changed my opinion of the author and their work.

What I find is that I’m rarely in a bookstore anymore but I’m discovering a lot more books because these things are available to me every day.

For my fall release, this is how I’m spending my marketing money. I’ll likely not be arranging bookstore book signings, but that’s a topic for another time.

How are you discovering books? Does that determine your marketing plan?

4 Powerful Strategies for Claiming Your Promised Land

” … Now you and all the people prepare to cross over the Jordan to the land I am giving …” (Joshua 1:1)

Photo/AnitaBrooks

Photo/AnitaBrooks

Standing on the banks of the Jordan, I look across to the other side, gazing at my “promised land.”

Perhaps you’ve been here, too. You’ve been given a vision. And you’re waiting to see your dream become a reality.

I remember the years that I spent wandering through the wilderness on the road to publication, wrestling with my doubt, fear, and unbelief. I recall the first time that I considered writing a book. It seemed impossible, doubting that I would ever see my dream fulfilled. Now, I find myself on the shore, looking across to my promised land.

But wait! How can I navigate the rough waters in front of me? The manuscript deadline? The marketing? The on-going platform challenges? What other obstacles will I face as I try to ford the river to my promised land?

I sense the enemy of my soul preparing for another onslaught of roadblocks and dead ends.

Lord, help me!

I inhale slowly—one, two, three, four. Then, I exhale, counting to seven. I inhale again, counting to eight. As I repeat this focused breathing, trying to avoid another panic attack, I relax.

An encouraging promise from God’s Word dispels my fears, “I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you. Be strong and courageous …” (Josh. 1:5-6 NIV).

When I read through this passage, Joshua affirms the promise of the Lord’s presence. He also repeats an exhortation: “Be strong and very courageous.”

Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law my servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go. (7-9)

Joshua calls attention to four powerful strategies for claiming our promised land.

  1. Obey God’s Word. After the Lord assured Joshua of His faithful presence, He also instructed him to warn the people of the importance of obeying everything He had commanded them to do.
  2. Meditate on God’s Promises. The LORD also reminded Joshua of the importance of lifting up His Word—meditating on His truths and confessing His promises day and night.
  3. Surrender fears to God. The LORD instructs Joshua to encourage the people to surrender their fears and discouragement to Him, promising to always be with them.
  4. Prepare for battle. As I look across the deep waters of the Jordan into my promised land, I read another warning about impending warfare.

Get your provisions ready. Three days from now you will cross the Jordan here to go in and take possession of the land the Lord your God is giving you for your own … the Lord your God will give you rest … but get ready for battle … (11-14).

Will I still have battles in my promised land of rest? I think this scripture gives me a clear answer to this question.

We must always be aware of our weaknesses, vulnerability, and dependence upon God. As Christian writers, we are called to lead others to claim God’s promised land, too.

So, get “ready for battle … You are to help them until the LORD gives them rest, as he has done for you, and until they too have taken possession of the land the Lord your God is giving them” (14-15).

Are you prepared to claim your promised land?

Photo/AnitaBrooks

The Making of a Masterpiece

In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.” Michelangelo

I’ve spent the past month living as a hermit while I finished a manuscript. (Insert sigh of relief here.) I spent countless hours after my day job writing and fine-tuning every detail. Some days, I couldn’t wait to share the story with the world. Other days? All I saw were flaws, flaws that sent me running to fast food and the newest Netflix series while I processed what to do next.

That’s one of the many fun aspects of writing, though, isn’t it? I’m making the manuscript, but in the process, the Lord is making me. As my character wrestles through a growth point, I wrestle with it, too. Often what my character is learning is a lesson the Lord has spent months instilling in my own heart. From the overflow of my heart to the page…I think the story of The David illustrates this perfectly.

In the late 1400s, a group called the Operai provided blocks of marble for several prominent sculptors and artisans to create twelve statues of characters from the Old Testament. Work began on The David in 1464 but after initial carving, the piece was abandoned to the elements for twenty-five years. Then Michelangelo begged the Operai to allow him to complete The David. For three years, he carved the statue, shaving away the damaged parts and shaping features in great detail.

Kariss Lynch creating a writing masterpiece

If you hate history, I hope you stuck with me because none of that is the reason I love The David statue. Michelangelo took a wrecked, abandoned piece of marble and he turned it into a MASTERPIECE. Where everyone else saw a useless block, he saw potential and beauty, a story waiting to unfold.

I think the writing process is a lot like this. A story idea with little initial substance becomes a piece of art with a lot of effort. Over time, the author chips away the unnecessary and ugly pieces until a beautiful story is left.

I believe that’s what Jesus does with the author as he/she writes. Just as Michelangelo labored over The David and you labor over your manuscript, so the Lord labors over you, writer friend. He is in the process of creating a masterpiece that lasts for eternity, and he wants to do that with your writing, too.

Yours is a message of truth and hope. As you identify impurities and polish your writing to perfection, know the Lord wants to do that with you. He wants your voice for his glory. Sometimes the polishing and chipping are painful. With every bit you allow him to remove, you enable him to speak more clearly through you.

Keep chipping away at that novel while the Lord chips away at the excess around your heart. The beauty becomes more evident with every fallen piece.

Lessons I Learned From My Editor

From conception to finish, I spent a couple of years on my first novel, Shaken. I had a mentor who coached me, a professor who professionally edited the manuscript, and an internationally acclaimed novelist who provided a critique. But nothing affected my story quite as much as signing with my publisher and beginning work with my editor.

Writing is difficult. You are bleeding your emotional artery on the page, complete with life experiences, beliefs, and creativity. But editing? That became another playing field entirely. In my military-romance-driven brain, it could be described as surgery to remove shrapnel. Each piece of metal must be plucked for an individual to get back to full health. In a similar way, editing requires painful digging to remove everything that does not add value to the character. After the shrapnel of your story is removed, you are freed to enhance and improve your story until it’s as close to perfection as you can get it this side of heaven.

KarissLynch Kill Your Darlings

Working with an editor is refining, a true process of iron sharpening iron (just don’t throw the sword at them if you don’t like what they say), but ultimately, it is a beautiful journey. The longer I work with my editor, the more I am thankful that God gifted her to look at stories differently than I do. She makes me better, and she is constantly teaching me and reminding me of craft tips that just haven’t taken root yet. Over the course of writing The Heart of a Warrior series, here is what my editor has taught me:

  1. Timeline is everything.

By the time my first novel went to my editor, the timeline needed major surgery, something I hadn’t thought about in great detail during crafting. I am a pantser and only use a bullet point outline to guide the major points of my scenes. Everything else just spills out on the page. This can make editing much harder for me. When it came time to edit Shadowed, I had a better timeline in place. Lesson learned? Don’t make the same mistakes on the second novel as you did on the first.

  1. Ground your character. Ground your scene.

Ever heard of floating head syndrome? No? Well, that’s probably because I just made it up. But I have it. Bad. Especially when I am writing in a steady stream of consciousness. Characters speak but you don’t know what they look like or what is going on around them. Thankfully, I am now aware of this ailment and am working to correct it before the manuscript goes to my editor. Each character needs to be firmly grounded in whatever is going on, each person in the scene accounted for, even if only briefly. Your scene also needs to be grounded within the larger story. Your reader should have no question where the character is, what is going on, who the character is with, and what drama is unfolding.

  1. Provide concrete details. Paint the canvas.

I actually love this part of writing, but I also struggle with fear. What if people think that a place or person doesn’t look that way? What if I get a detail wrong? What if, what if, what if? The “what if” game keeps me paralyzed from simply using my imagination and the beautiful tools of my eyes and the Internet to ground a scene exactly as I see it. I use research to make sure I didn’t get a basic detail wrong, but otherwise, I craft exactly what I want the reader to see. They are less likely to question what I paint in great detail than they are a canvas where I leave glaring holes due to my own people-pleasing and insecurity. No fear. Write boldly. Paint that canvas, and give the readers a scene they don’t have to try to imagine. Let it unfold in all of its beautiful detail. And then make that process even better in the next book.

Time for surgery on your manuscript. What weaknesses do you notice that you could improve on next time? What lessons have you learned from your editor (or critique partner)?

In Praise of Editors

facebook personPosting a comment online this morning made me suddenly hyperaware of the publicness of published writing. Publishing actually does mean, as I tell my students, making something public.

“Everything you write for a class, even if it’s disseminated no further than the classroom, even if I’m the only one reading it, is public writing,” I tell them. “Don’t tell me you just wrote it for yourself or attach a sticky note saying it’s just for me. Assume that whatever you hand in may be made public. That it’s already public. It was public the moment you printed it up and put it in my hand or clicked ‘attach’ and then ‘send.’”

copyedited manuscriptIt’s easy to forget that writing is public, though. Consider Facebook, where people often post sentiments best kept to themselves. However tempting it might be to rail or even to agree—by liking it—with someone else’s railing, I generally restrict myself to happy birthdays, comments about good-looking photos, and commiserations with others’ suffering.

Today I was doing just that: commiserating with a friend whose autistic child had just “had a huge meltdown . . . complete with yelling, food throwing, and tears running down his face” in front of, as she wrote, “almost everyone I know.”

It was a wonderful post, as those who’d already commented said, because it was so frank. So, as my students say, “relatable.”

“Most of the time I suck it up,” my friend wrote, the “meltdowns, 10+ accidents a day, the stares, rude questions, the incomprehension on the faces of people around me, but today it was all too much, so I walked to the car sobbing my heart out.” She confessed, “it felt, somehow, like it was my fault,” and I sobbed too. For her. For her son. For sufferers of autism and their parents. For parents in general. Is there a more agonizing feeling than the unavoidable conviction that it’s somehow our fault whenever anything goes wrong—even something we didn’t cause and couldn’t have stopped—with a daughter or son?

It’s hard to respond to someone else’s pain in a way that doesn’t compound it, though. I learned that when, in the aftermath of a sexual assault at gunpoint, friends commented, among other intended condolences, that I was “lucky not to be dead.” I didn’t feel lucky and wished I was dead. Being told the contrary merely intensified those feelings.

I was thinking about that as I commented and (hopefully) didn’t make that error. Not this time, anyway—thanks to my best editor, the Holy Spirit, who, I’m convinced, translates our groans not only to God but to everyone else and (with some effort, in my case) bleeps our stupidest words. After telling her I’d cried, I advised her not to blame herself: she was doing the best and only right thing to do—loving her son—and doing it perfectly. So far so good, I thought—or anyway, I didn’t feel that tug in the direction of the delete key at that point.

BloggingI did feel it moments later, though, when I helpfully passed on a reassuring comment from a pastor’s wife eons ago when I was in the throes of parental shame about a problem with one of my toddling daughters: “God chose you, precisely you, for your girls,” she said, “because he knew you’d be the best possible mom for them.”

Sounds safe enough, I thought. And I was mightily comforted by that woman’s words at the time. God chose me to parent my girls. I was the best possible mother they could have. Everything was going to be fine.

But, as I say, the Holy Spirit apparently didn’t think so. In the fraction of a moment before I pressed enter, stories of parental abuse and neglect poured into my brain. A friend whose mom once told her children she hated them. Did God choose those children’s parents, too? What child, grown now but surely still suffering that meanness, might be reading my post?

The public is a tricky sea to navigate alone. Our kindest intentions, our most heartfelt theologies, have as much potential to mislead and hurt as to inform and uplift. Thank God for editors.

To Write a Book Someday, Share Your Writing Now

8139708904_9a1d1783d4_bSome people will tell you the defining characteristic of a writer is that he or she is someone who writes. There is truth to that perspective, but it fails to offer a complete picture. It also gives many “aspiring writers” an excuse to be nothing more than journal keepers: diligently plucking away at Moleskine memoirs or first-novel manuscripts that have zero chance of getting published, ever.

The point here is not a matter of quality. It’s about privacy.

The reason why many written works-in-progress will never see the light of publishing day is that they are stowed, always and forever, in a drawer or on a hard drive where they have no risk of being evaluated by a second person. The writers of these works will never be writers because they will never have readers. They exist completely outside the writing market, and the only critical eye they allow to view their work is their own.

If you think that one day you’d like for people to read your writing, then you should begin by inviting people to read your writing now. Here are five ways readers can strengthen your writing and make it even more worth reading:

Readers help you get over yourself. It’s not uncommon for writers to feel uncertain or insecure about what they’ve written. Will this technique work here? Am I being clear? Am I using a marketable concept? Does anybody else care about the subject? Without readers to help confirm where and how a piece of writing is hitting its target (and where and how it’s missing its mark), these uncertainties and insecurities often grow and fester. But when you prioritize feedback, typically you get it. As a result you might find that your sinking suspicions will be confirmed. Some of your assumptions might be challenged. Maybe you’ll be pleasantly surprised by rave reviews. Whatever the case, you won’t be stuck wondering anymore, and that will help light a clear way forward.

Readers identify strengths in your work. Encouragement and affirmation give extra fuel when you’re trying to produce a manuscript. So ask your readers to note the places where they laugh out loud, hold their breath with anticipation, get caught by surprise, can’t stop turning pages, or are struck speechless. That paragraph you’re thinking about deleting? It might be your readers’ favorite part. Give them a chance to tell you so.

Readers identify weaknesses in your work. That poetic metaphor you’ve taken days and months to craft? It might be so complex that it’s confusing your readers. The story you’ve built a whole chapter around? Your readers might be bored out of their minds.

As the writer of a work, you will undoubtedly feel more attached to it than your readers will. Because of your heightened emotional attachment, you’ll probably miss seeing some of your writing’s flaws. You might even be blind to enormous holes in the work. Let your readers open your eyes to the problems you don’t see, so you can take the opportunity to fix them.

Readers expand your perspective. You are only one person, so your outlook on the world is limited and skewed. You have strange views about certain things, and some of your views simply haven’t been challenged in a way that forces you to clarify them well or charitably. Readers can help you identify the odd little points in a draft, the ones that either are or seem arrogant, stingy, dismissive, hyper-emotional, you name it. Points like these will jut out in unseemly ways, always subtracting and distracting from good work, unless someone will be so kind as to call your attention to them, so you can know to improve them.

Readers make the process realistic. If your writing aspirations are real, then you’re going to have to accept the reality of readers at some point. Get used to feedback now, and critiques won’t make you crazy later. Write with readers in mind now, and it won’t feel strange when they’re a part of the process later. Start learning what readers are interested in now, and then when your defining moments as a writer come, you’ll be prepared to deliver for your readers.


YOUR TURN: Respond in the comments: How have readers helped your writing? What kind of readers give the best feedback? What keeps you from pursuing readers?


Photo credit: cogdogblog cc