Maybe, it’s the book?

why isnt my book selling primate-460871_640With most ventures, if we try to emulate our more successful peers and mirror their efforts we can sometimes duplicate their successes. This can apply to book publishing too. In darker days, as I attempted to climb the corporate ladder, I was told to dress and act as though I was working at the position above me. Working hard and adopting the habits of successful people can help us succeed. I’ve seen it happen time and time again. We can publish our books, utilize the same formatters, cover designers, and editors that bestselling, self-published authors are using. We can advertise our work on sites that have helped authors hit the USA Today bestsellers list. And, we can connect with readers through the same social networks where top authors spend their time. All of these methods can help us climb to the top of the mountain and sell books. There is one caveat though – you have to have written a book that readers want to read. Without that all-important factor you may briefly achieve some success, but it probably won’t last.

When I speak to a group or teach a workshop, I sometimes encounter authors who haven’t experienced sales numbers that satisfy them. They have promoted on BookBub, and joined the groups where other authors are connecting with readers, and produced a professional product, yet their books languish in the high hundreds of thousands or even millions overall (in Amazon’s rankings). They have three or four glowing reviews from review sites run by their friends. They’ve picked a sparsely-populated category and managed to break into the top rankings, perhaps even hitting number one amongst a couple of dozen books. And, they have reviews from friends, and friends of friends who also cite their brilliance. But, their book isn’t selling. So, what’s the problem?

I was described in a blog post recently as a mid-list self-published author. Sometimes I am, and sometimes I don’t think my sales merit that title. I had some initial success from a book that is still very good to me. My follow-up novels have sold fairly well, and I can usually climb fairly close to the top of the mountain when I run a promotion. I just can’t stay there for a sustained period of time. But, my first novel did. There was a time at the beginning of 2012 when I was doing very well. Large checks arrived in the mail, reviews accumulated, and Amazon even wrote of my success in a couple of press releases. Sadly, those days have passed. So, now I would describe myself as a sometimes mid-list author. I’m very aware of the way the algorithms have changed since my debut novel was released, but the fact that my subsequent books haven’t been as successful is attributable to one thing – it’s the books.

I’m very pleased that readers have enjoyed the books I’ve published since my successful debut, and the reviews are positive, but I don’t think I’ve written the book yet. I don’t think I’ve written the book that’s going to be the book or series of books that defines me as an author. I’m working on that book, and if this one doesn’t do it, then it’ll be the next one. And, I have to keep believing that. I want to continue learning to become a better writer. My readers deserve it and if this is my chosen vocation then I should be getting better at it. In order to do this I need to keep writing and learning, and believing. Until then, I won’t blame the fact that BookBub wrote a poor synopsis when promoting my work, or the fact that Amazon are just so Amazon, and I won’t complain that readers don’t understand my work.

Self-publishing is not a lottery. There has never been a better time for authors to reach readers than during the past five years. Never. There is some luck involved in terms of placement and finding a way through the other three million books that are currently live, but if you’ve written a book that readers want to read and you’ve followed the methods that other successful authors are utilizing, readers will find you, and you will sell books. And, if you haven’t achieved that consistent level of success yet – maybe it’s the book.

Author: Martin Crosbie

Martin Crosbie is the administrator of and writer of seven published novels. His self-publishing journey has been mentioned in Publisher’s Weekly, Forbes Online Magazine, and Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper. You can learn more about Martin on his Amazon author page.

50 thoughts on “Maybe, it’s the book?”

  1. Good points, Martin. But I’d like to add another that has nothing to do with the quality of the book. I know you have taken great pains to promote your books and that those efforts have paid off. You seem to have an aptitude for it, even give lectures on how to do it. And, if followed correctly I have no doubt hat, if the book merits it, it will have some success.

    Tet, in spite of your suggestions – good ones – many of us (dare I say most of us?) do not have the time, the aptitude, or the mind-set necessary to go to the lengths needed, with the level of organization needed, to do what it takes. The book may be wonderful but without that organized and dedicated ongoing promotion it will languish in obscurity.

    I am of the opinion that those who create often do not have the same ability to promote or market. They use different parts of the the brain, different aptitudes and are seldom found in the same person. I can speak personally in that the level of stress I feel whenever I do ANY promotion makes it nigh impossible to sustain.

    1. I don’t think there’s really anything new in that, Yvonne. Artists of all types have really had three choices: hustle, get lottery-winner-level lucky, or languish in obscurity.

      That’s not a self publishing thing. That’s a “human being working in the arts” thing, and it’s always been the way it works.

      Writers need to learn how to promote, get insanely lucky, or accept they are not going to have a lot of readers. That’s just the way it is. It’s the way it was ten, fifty, and a hundred years ago, too. Only the means of promotion have changed, not the need to do it.

    2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Yvonne.
      For me, as a self-publisher as well as a writer I need to fulfill those responsibilities to reach readers. Fortunately promoting now can be as simple as filling in a submission form and letting someone else do the work. And, it doesn’t have to be costly.
      And, it’s not just promoting. It’s making sure I present a professional product too. I’ve read some very good books that are lacking in their synopsis or cover design. I believe a simple tweak can sometimes be the answer, and I’ve seen this happen many times.

        1. (…I KNOW you two are pros, and both know this, but it’s important to remember that synopsis is what you send to a publisher. What you upload to Amazon as a product description is your sales copy. Sales copy is VERY different from synopsis. Just pointing it out for other people reading this who might get confused!)

    3. True, Yvonne. I struggle with those aspects myself. And, like Martin says: Sometimes, “tried and true” doesn’t work for those of us who write outside of the mainstream.

    4. Yes, Yvonne. Decidedly yes. I think it takes as much talent to market one’s books successfully as it does to write them. And it’s a completely different kind of talent. You can and should work to develop those two kinds of talents, but if you don’t have the seed to start with, then it’s exponentially harder. I also think that those who have the talent tend to think it doesn’t *take* talent, and so don’t believe this is true.

  2. Interesting post, Martin. I think some of what you say is true. At some point, you should look at the book. However, I don’t think your sense of your worth as an author should be entirely dependent on the book selling. There are lots of good books that don’t sell. Well edited, professional books published by traditional publishers as well as self-publishers.

    When you say, perhaps it’s the book, that’s true in the sense that the book isn’t selling. But sometimes books don’t sell. That doesn’t mean the author won’t eventually sell with other books. Hugh Howey had very modest sales of six books prior to Wool. But after Wool’s success, all those other books picked up steam.

    So, if it’s the book — in that the book is just your average good book that’s not going to propel the author to the best seller list — then write another book. JK Rowling’s book under a pen name, had it been her first, instead of Harry Potter, wouldn’t have become a household name. It’s a good book by all accounts, but not one that’s going to propel a writer into the stratosphere.

    1. Yes, and it’s a personal thing. I write so my work can be read. And, I want it read by as many readers as possible. In order to keep producing I need to sell books. I get a great deal of accomplishment from writing itself and completion is a fantastic achievement, but I want to share what I’ve created.
      Your point about Rowling is well taken. And, it’s a pity the lid wasn’t kept on that secret for a while longer to see what might have happened with it. I’ve heard mixed opinions on whether the book is any good.
      Thanks for commenting.

  3. One key is to never stop learning and always keep writing. Every book I write is better than the last. I learn from each. The more books you write, generally speaking, the better you will get.

    If you want to improve, write more books. 😉

  4. Good points. Might be worth trying a new cover or title sometimes. But you can also comfort yourself that plenty of books we know and love today did little for their authors during their lifetimes, and plenty of past bestsellers have sunk into utter obscurity … if that comforts anyone. At least you got it out there. 🙂

    1. Yes, if we’re not in the game then what’s the point?
      And, I agree, sometimes it takes a minor change to see an improvement. Thanks for commenting, Sandra.

  5. Thought-provoking post, Martin. The way I see it, there are several facets to success: write a good book, promote well–then wait and hope for it to catch fire. The thing is, that’s a crapshoot. We just never know what’s going to capture the public’s attention. 50 Shades? Who knew a badly-written throwback to 70’s sex odysseys would break out? Some of it is just being at the right place at the right time with the right book. I realize that can sound like an excuse why none of my books have caught fire yet, but it’s also a possibility: none of my books have caught fire yet. As long as I’m still breathing, there’s still that yet.

    1. I wish that 50 Shades book had never been written, lol. In the article I suggest that one of the things to consider (amongst all the other factors), is whether this is THE book. And, I suppose even though it hasn’t happened today it might happen down the road with the same book.
      Thanks for commenting Melissa.

  6. A lot of good and (at least on the surface) contradictory thoughts in the post and comments.

    Kevin’s point about luck is a good one. This is a point Joe Konrath is constantly making. Hitting any high level of sales whether sustained or not is has always and probably will always have some element of luck. One of the positives of self-publishing is it is a guaranteed to get you a lottery ticket. Traditional publishing makes you participate in a pre-lottery in the hope of winning a ticket. (A ticket that for all practical purposes is only good for a limited time, unlike the self-publishing tickets.)

    There are things you can do to improve your chances. Promotion is one (but what works today, might not work tomorrow – that luck factor again). Not to mention that some authors are better at it than others.

    The one thing you can control is the book you write. And more than one book gives you more than one entry, plus having a winning entry increases the chances of your other entries. But even then, there is luck involved. (See 50 Shades.)

    1. Yeah, what is it Konrath is always saying? “The harder I work, the luckier I get”?

      It’s also worth noting that modest success can equal a pretty good living in self publishing. If you have 1000 readers who buy EVERYTHING you write – and average another thousand people who buy each book – then your books would be considered failures by traditional publishing standards.

      But if you sell each of those books for $4.99, you make $7000 on each book you sell. Write just eight a year, and you’re beating the average median US family income.

      Most of us are not going to be JK Rowling. 😉 Or even Joe Konrath. But there’s a LOT of room to do REALLY WELL in the space between “zero and Joe”. 😉

    2. Thanks Al.
      There’s luck involved in everything, but if you’re not at least following what’s currently working for successful authors you’re probably going to reach readers. (I think I just agreed with you).
      And, as Kevin and others said, the book is everything.

      1. Exactly, Kevin and Martin. Konrath’s “the harder I work, the luckier I get” really says it. I can look at those areas in life where I’ve had success and recognize hard work happened. But unlike a lot of people, I’ve always recognized the luck factor as well. One career example is a promotion at my then day job 20 years ago. There were two or three people with an equivalent work ethic, skills, etc who might have received the promotion (put themselves in position to “get lucky”). I’m convinced that the difference is a relatively new manager who was making the decision chose me because our personalities meshed best. (The same guy tracked me down and offered me another good position at another company a few years later, so I got lucky again.)

        1. I agree. Someone asked me just the other day how I managed to get some traction with my first book. Part of it was work – I spent a lot of hours in discussion groups and doing other sorts of social media stuff (a lot of which no longer works). But part of it was luck. Because of those groups and that online presence, a handful of people found my book and liked it and spread the word. I was in the right group at the right time with the right people.

          1. Yes, a lot of that stuff doesn’t work any longer. It really shows how quickly things have changed.
            Your books hang up in the rankings when you run a promotion (I’ve watched them), so you’ve obviously written a book that readers want to read. Thanks for commenting Melinda.

    3. Exactly Big Al,
      The more tickets in the lotto, the greater the chance of a win – as long as the tickets are valid. 😉

  7. I’m with you, I just plain old think it’s the book. We have done all the plans and steps others have taken and it just doesn’t take off. I’m so done with the advertising, promoting and the rest. People just don’t like the book.Period. Do I love it? yes! I love the characters and the plot, how the story weaves and takes you on an adventure. It’s nice to see someone else say that maybe it is the book. People may just not like the book. Thank you Martin!

    1. I’m sorry, I haven’t read your book Wendy, so I don’t know if it’s the book or not. But, if it indeed is, maybe the next one will be the one that breaks out.
      I do know that the story of how your book was created and completed is perhaps more satisfying than hitting the top of the rankings. Thanks for dropping by.

  8. Love your honesty, Martin. Not surprised at all that you did so well with My Temporary Life. Great title, great story, well written. I enjoyed the read. I know you also promoted it and understood how to climb that mountain when self-publishing was still in its infancy. Now the game has changed; more players competing for the reader’s dollar.

    As you know, I self-published my debut novel in October. Since I went into this with low expectations (protecting myself from disappointment) I’ve been surprised by how well my book has been received. Though my numbers aren’t great, my reviews have been excellent and my novel is a bestseller at our local bookstore. And I even managed to get it into some independent stores. But as Yvonne said, promotion doesn’t come easily. I’d rather be creating than marketing.

    And then, there’s luck. Timing. Word of mouth. Right story at the right time. Anyway, I’m planning on publishing a novella this month, and I’ll just keep writing and of course, hoping my sales improve. Call me an optimist!

  9. It’s the age-old problem, Martin: Do we write the books we want, need, have, to write? Or do we try to write for the masses? I’ve always strove for originality; but if you want to sell books, you’re better off following the accepted formula for your genre. And if your books don’t fall in a particular genre, then you’re really in for an uphill battle!

      1. I think we should write what we want to read. Ed Griffin talks about truth in fiction. I think if we achieve that then readers will read our books. Ed says it so much more effectively though.

  10. Great post, Martin, and it gives me a lot to think about. I know that when I veer away from writing what I want to read and toward what I “think” readers want, I get into trouble and my passion wanes. That shows in the writing. I’ve abandoned several projects because of that. So then it’s either find the readers who like to read what I like to write, or take my lumps and tell myself maybe the next book will be the one. Or the next…

    1. “I know that when I veer away from writing what I want to read and toward what I “think” readers want, I get into trouble and my passion wanes.”

      All readers are not the same, so how can we write to appeal to all of them?

      Personally, my aim is to find and connect with the kind of readers who read the novels I enjoy reading. Sadly, the last bestseller I read was Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Ergo, I probably won’t ever write anything capable of hitting a bestseller list.

      But that’s okay because I’m doing what I want to do, how I want to do it. And I’m leaving a mark, even if it’s just a teensy weensy one. 😀

  11. All success, whether in writing, marketing, or anything else, is a combination of passion, talent, effort, and luck. The only factor over which you have any meaningful control is effort. You are either born with talent and passion or you are not. Training and inspiration can augment them, but they cannot substitute for them. Luck is random or fate; you have no control over that part.

    The trick is to find the Goldilocks zone, the balance between the book you want to write and the book others want to read. But even writing a book that people want to read is no guarantee of success.

    To win the literary lottery jackpot:

    – your passion for what you want to write needs to overlap with what your audience wants to read,
    – your book must be available by effort your audience is willing to make,
    – your audience must be willing to pay your asking price, and
    – you need to have the marketing means and skills to let them know it is available.

    We all hope to win that jackpot, but if you are making a living as a writer, pat yourself on the back, because you are doing well. And if you are not, then keep at it as long as the effort is worth the pay-off you get.

    1. So, hard work will pay off. Because, even if we don’t hit it with this book if we keep working we get better at what we do and who knows?
      And, at least we’re in the game.
      I want to be in the Goldilocks Zone. Porridge is good.
      Thanks Sera.

  12. Martin, your post and the comments are just what I needed today. The small windows of creative time I have need to be reserved for just that—creation. As Yvonne and Kevin have said above, artists have always struggled with the promotional/business end of marketing their work. This is where social media needs to be utilized in a controlled fashion. The rules of the publishing playing field change constantly, but success starts with a great book.
    Good luck with your future projects.

  13. Thanks for the post, Martin. It’s a timely one for me. I’m a bit in the doldrums because my current WIP has stalled and the moon seems to have aligned with another force someone and slowed everything to a standstill.
    I have one book that started selling well – The Cornish Knot (because of the title I think) but has suddenly dropped off the rankings, one book that sold well in NZ (Daniel -about a NZ pioneer and soldier) as a print book but is slow to non-existent as an ebook, and one book I had to write because Charlotte the main character in The Art of Secrets kept telling me her story needed writing. I love the book, but the readers haven’t taken to it the way I’d hoped.
    But I still think my best book is yet to come. Meanwhile, I’ll keep writing, I’ll keep promoting, although I absolutely hate that side of it, I’ll keep with social media that makes me feel I’m doing something when I know I’m not. I’ll keep plugging on the maybe one day I’ll get lucky.

    1. More optimism, this is good. I think I’m working on my best book too, Vicky. When I don’t believe that it’ll be time to quit.
      The Cornish Knot is a great title. I’m off to check it out now. Thanks for commenting!

  14. Awesome article! I face the same battle and continue to keep working on “the book” and keep believing that one day it’ll happen for me.
    Sometimes it’s depressing to keep slugging along with unsatisfying sales, but then there’s always that lingering hope that one day it will change. And of course my never-ending passion for writing keeps me going.
    We’ll get there, we just have to never give up 🙂
    Thanks for your thoughts. I really enjoyed reading this article 🙂

  15. Great post, Martin. This topic sure hit a lot of chords with a lot of writers. I’m not the best qualified to enter the discussion as I have only a few books published and do next to no marketing, in comparison to others, but I just wanted to add my observation that now, in 2015, with self-publishing becoming so easy and so much more accepted, it seems to have become a double-edged sword – EVERYONE is publishing a book or three these days and the competition for the eyes of the reading/buying public is that much more fierce than even 5 years ago.

    So it seems to me that obscurity – becoming lost among the thousands and thousands of new releases – has become a huge factor in getting our books noticed and purchased, no matter what genre they are or how good the story is. Hence the luck factor for the chosen few, and even more so for those who rocket to fame ….

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