Whose Fault Is It If Your Book Doesn’t Sell?

Pop Quiz: When your book doesn’t sell to your expectations, who is to blame?

  1. Those picky sales folks in publishing houses. They only want to sell bestsellers and big name authors anyway.
  2. 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).
  3. My agent who takes their 15% and then runs for the hills (with no Internet access).
  4. Stupid consumers who wouldn’t know a good book from, well, a bad book.
  5. 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.
  6. God, of course. I’m not worthy of His blessings anyway.
  7. None of the above
  8. 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)?

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This entry was posted in Agent's Desk, Marketing and Promotion, Publishing by Greg Johnson. Bookmark the permalink.

About Greg Johnson

I’m the president of WordServe Literary in Centennial, Colo. and founder and president of FaithHappenings.com. More importantly, I’m married to Becky, and together we share six adult children, and are grandparents to seven. In previous years, I've been a Campus Life leader (10 years), Breakaway magazine editor (5 years), author or coauthor of 21 books. But for the last 22 years, I've been a literary agent privileged to work with a great family of authors and staff trying to make a dent for the Kingdom.

22 thoughts on “Whose Fault Is It If Your Book Doesn’t Sell?

  1. Good thoughts Greg. We can’t expect to just write the book and everyone else do the work and more often than not, I think that’s what happens. If we let entitlement take over and think we as authors have no more work today besides sit and wait for the $$ to roll in, we’ll be sadly disappointed.

  2. In these days of rankings and algorithms, it’s nice to remember that word of mouth still sells books.

  3. Almost every book I’ve bought was either from word of mouth, back cover copy, or it answered/delivered on a felt need. The latter usually in the case of non-fiction. But if someone I trust or know says check it out, I usually will. 🙂

    • I think that would be a good exercise for each of us author types to do for a year (not that we will). Every time we buy a book, write down why we buy it and how we heard about it. Ultimately, it actually comes down to the five reasons why people buy books: Entertainment, reference, gifts, decoration and felt need. But how we hear about them will be that diligent search and/or someone told us about it.

  4. So a hungry writer needs to do his/her best work, have the best people on his/her team, and wait on the Lord’s timing.

    I do have a concern about spines and book covers etc. Glad you are on my team, Greg.

    • Spine copy is that little known dilemma that sometimes publishers don’t even get. A designer puts together a great cover with script type and then typically just puts that same type on the spine. That can truly be a book killer if it’s too flowery. Let’s all keep an eye out for that when your book is being designed. Always ask to see the spine.

  5. Excellent advice. I am new to the industry and often feel overwhelmed at the thought of simply completing my book. You break it down into manageable parts and have a plan for how to reach audiences. I’ve started a blog, been on several book launch teams, and am beginning to see how the pieces all come together.
    Thank you again!

  6. Thank you for this terrific post, Greg! I’m curiously relieved (but not surprised!) to learn that if my books don’t sell, it won’t be my agent’s fault. 🙂

    • Since an agent gets absolutely NO credit if a book does really well, I sorta feel they shouldn’t get the blame if it sells below expectations. There are a number of reasons to be disappointed with your agent, I just don’t believe low sales is one of them. There are far too many factors that affect sales outside of the agent’s control. Thanks for noticing that message I was trying to slyly make sure authors saw 🙂

  7. Hard not to agree with that logic. There are a lot of different industries besides book selling asking the same sort of questions. For us, it all seems to come back to writing the best book we can, getting it out there, then making sure people can find us. At least those things are mostly within our span of control. No use obsessing about the others–that way lie madness. (:

    • And then the one big factor that I didn’t dwell on too much is the God factor. I gave up a long time ago scratching my head why God seems to bless one book and not another (though it may indeed be the reason I have no hair today). So the “not obsessing” part of your comment is so true. The sun shines and the rain falls on us all (except this summer), so why worry?

  8. Good input! After writing some 40 plus books I know the thrill of good sales and the agony of pitiful ones. One thing that really helps, emotionally, is to not put all your hopes in one book basket. Tell yourself from the start that you will do your best, but this will be a long career if you really love writing, are truly talented, and want to make a living at it. Movie/TV actors all have some flops and successes, but the most enduring stars keeping doing great work and making lots of good films (not all will be Oscar-worthy), are careful to make more friends than enemies in the industry, and have a ball working. (Think Samuel L. Jackson. Betty White.) It’s a wonderful career, you minister to many thousands along the way, and when one book is “done” and you and publisher have done all you can do– you bless the project and begin anew on the next one.

  9. Blame is a futile game, especially in light of God’s Sovereignty. We do our best, and let God do the rest. Thanks for these thought-provoking reminders, Greg!

  10. Love this post, Greg. When my first book was published, I was horrified to discover – the first time I saw it in a bookstore – that no way could the title be read on the spine. Thank you for giving that advice so other authors don’t have to learn the hard way like I did!

  11. Pingback: Whose Fault Is It If Your Book Doesn’t Sell? « Miriamspia's Blog

  12. Random miscellany
    ,
    The spine? That’s one thing I never thought of. And for me, book covers do it. Wistful, Amish women looking into the distance…no thanks. Realistic covers…yes.

    As an author, this is the scariest part…marketing.

    Of course, it’s NEVER the agent OR author’s fault. Hmmm…looking forward to next blog on how to promote the next best seller.

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