When 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.