- Those picky sales folks in publishing houses. They only want to sell bestsellers and big name authors anyway.
- The marketing folks at publishers who never seem to pick me or my book for that infamous 80/20 principle (80% of the money going to 20% of the books).
- My agent who takes their 15% and then runs for the hills (with no Internet access).
- Stupid consumers who wouldn’t know a good book from, well, a bad book.
- Me, the author, who sweats great drops of blood in writing the Great American book, but can’t market and PR my way out of a paper bag.
- God, of course. I’m not worthy of His blessings anyway.
- None of the above
- All of the above
After representing a couple of thousand books, the answer is “8” (minus “3” & “6,” of course). In my last 22 years in publishing, I’ve seen average books go through the roof, and great books struggle to find readers. I won’t name names or titles, but we’ve all scratched our heads after reading a current bestseller, thinking Really? Naturally, I’ve seen hundreds of books sell just “okay.” And on rare occasions, I’ve even seen great books do very well. Imagine that?
So why are some books unable to find a foothold in retail and with consumers? The reasons are legion.
- No one has heard of the author, so they’re not looking for their book.
- A world event happened–war/disaster/crime/election–so the book and author who could have been talked about on media (and was booked on media), is no longer big news. (I’ve seen this happen more than once.)
- Bad cover. While you can’t “judge a book by its cover,” you certainly may not buy it if it’s awful.
- A less than scintillating title. I’m hearing that consumers are buying books based on Search Engine Optimization (SEO), especially felt-need nonfiction.
- Bad spine. A consumer takes .8 seconds to look at your book spine as they walk down the aisles in bookstores, and if they can’t read the font/script/type, they won’t work hard enough to pick it up to see your great title, subtitle, endorsements and back cover copy. Sale denied. (So always make sure you are sent the spine to make sure it’s readable.)
- Interior type is too small or squished together. I’ve had several great books die because the publisher wanted to save paper so they put it in 9 pt. type. Even a great cover and big author name can’t save a book from people saying, “My eyes got tired of reading so I didn’t finish it.”
- Many bad reviews and too few good reviews to counteract them.
- Retail doesn’t reorder. While a publisher will often get at least one book of yours on the shelf at most stores, they can’t put a gun to a retailer’s head and make them reorder. Complaining that “my book is not on the shelf” is rarely the fault of the publisher. Believe me; they ARE trying to sell books.
- No e-book marketing/sales strategy.
- No buzz. The publisher must create some buzz through TV/radio/blog reviews and all the rest. But it’s not only their job. The author must (MUST) be about the business of creating their own buzz, as well, which is why there are advantages to a bigger agency like WordServe that has a Facebook Fan page, Pinterest page, WaterCooler, and Twitter accounts. We’re doing what we can to help create a little synergistic buzz. Of the 100% of buzz needed/wanted, this is likely 5% of the overall puzzle of how books start getting buzz. (Look for my article next month on “Creating Buzz.”)
I tell my authors that a publisher can sell about 15,000 copies of almost anything if they really want to. (I only wish they really wanted to on every book.) But the book won’t sell more than 15,000 if it doesn’t get word of mouth. Good, bad or mediocre books sell well because groups of people start talking about them and telling their friends and neighbors. Think about how many times you’ve said, “You’ve got to go see this movie,” or “You’ve got to read this book.” That’s what sells tickets and books the most.
So what causes a book to sell through the roof? (Tongue firmly in cheek…)
“We must personally thank the literary agent. She obviously hand-sold 50,000 copies.”
“I think a bookstore owner in the Southeast region is what helped put it on the list.”
“The author’s Facebook fan page made all the difference…”
You get the picture, individuals outside the creation and sales process likely would only get a very small portion of the credit (or blame).
Bottom line: They heard about it, saw it, bought it, loved it, and then told others.
Do you agree with this conclusion? Are there other reasons you’ve seen or heard about why books sell or don’t sell (yours or others)?