When Your Book Doesn’t Sell

You have spent years writing your book and now it has been published by a traditional publisher. It took a while for the publisher to bring it to market. But it is finally out there. Dreams have been realized. You. Are. A. Published. Author.

But then the sales reports begin to appear. Sales have floundered. There isn’t any buzz. No one is even commenting on your Facebook page. It’s a disaster. A failure. A nightmare.

What happened?

Here are the two most common reactions:

Blame the Publisher

This is the default position. The marketing department didn’t do their job. The PR department didn’t get you a booking on major media. The publisher chose the wrong title. They created a terrible cover. They botched the editing.

Blame the Agent

Your agent should never have sold the book to that publisher. The agent didn’t ride herd on the publisher to make sure all the marketing was done properly. The agent didn’t fight for a better cover design. You need to fire your agent because the disaster is their fault.

The Harsh Reality

Either of those complaints sound familiar? I’ve heard them first hand at conferences. I read them in blog posts.

The blame game.

The reality isn’t that simple. There are so many mitigating factors. I remember talking to an author who was scheduled for a major media interview in New York. She arrived early to the studio to find that she had been canceled because Michael Jackson died so her interview was no longer of any interest. Or what about Jerry Jenkins’ novel Hometown Legend that released on September 10, 2001. Or the book by financial mogul Jack Welch, Straight from the Gut that released the next day on September 11, 2001.

Or one of my clients had a publisher insist on releasing her book in November 2012 claiming that would be the ideal launch month…forgetting that it was the U.S. election season and the media only wanted to talk politics.

Another writer’s book launched but a major big box retailer (like a Walmart) forgot to unpack the pallets of books and left the case lots unopened in their warehouse. Upon discovering the shipment the retailer returned all 8,000 copies to the publisher.

One of my clients had their publisher sell 9,000 copies of her book to a retailer…who declared bankruptcy the next month and never paid for her books.

You might want to dismiss those as aberrations, but don’t be too quick to dismiss them. There are other things that can happen. You might have your own tales of woe.

Never forget this solemn principle. A new book release is much like launching a new business. Unfortunately, many new businesses fail. Think of it as a metaphor. The concept (the book) might be great but the location is wrong. Or the marketing budget is too small or placed in the wrong place. The social media efforts are pitched wrong. Or the product just isn’t well received.

Could it be that the book itself isn’t as good as you think it is. (Ouch. I actually just wrote that.) Was it the book itself that didn’t deliver? But that can’t be true. Can it?

Maybe not. But some soul searching does come into it. And that can be healthy. It should galvanize you to make your next book even better. That’s right. Your next book.

Don’t be a one hit wonder. Keep writing. You never know what can happen. So many artists are “overnight sensations” when they have actually been creating for years. It may be your sixth book that is the one that gains a huge readership.

What’s Next?

If you haven’t already, create a plan for the launch of your book. If you are traditionally publishing, use this as a tool for coordinating your efforts with your publisher. The combination can be fantastic. A tremendous tool can be found in Tim Grahl’s Book Marketing 101 Checklist. This free list is a good place to start. And then take a look at Jim Kremer’s new edition of 1001 Ways to Market Your Book. (Make sure to buy the 2016 edition, not the 2008 edition. I’ve linked to the order page for the 2016 print edition which has 650 pages of ideas).

As for writing your next book? Go to a conference. Take a class. (visit The Christian Writers Institute) Read a book on craft. Become a continual student. It’s never too late to learn something new. Practice makes perfect.

The first time I water skied I kept signaling the boat to go faster. I didn’t know the tips of my skis should not dip below the water when crossing the wake. I woke up floating on my back in the lake wondering what happened (a face-plant at high speed is not recommended). Needless to say I should have taken things a little slower and learned what I was doing before going 35mph.

40 Responses to When Your Book Doesn’t Sell

  1. Diana Harkness November 14, 2016 at 5:54 am #

    Thank you for this information. I have run 4 service businesses (media production, law, computer repair, and vacation home rental) and I know far more about almost everything else but publishing. What sells? I have no idea. Books that the majority of other people read do not interest me at all. So I can’t count on my own wisdom to write a marketable book. And when you are dealing with a retail supply chain, that’s another mystery to me. I cannot imagine anyone with the knowledge to write a good selling book, and market it, and distribute it and do all of these things well. It’s a good thing there are agents, publishers, distributors, and retailers. I wonder how long their jobs will continue to exist. Newspapers and periodicals are scaling back. Gannett (a newspaper publisher) recently removed one city newspaper’s General Manager and put another city’s General Manager over both cities’ newspapers. Christianity Today recently stopped publishing my favorite periodical Books & Culture. Are book publishers also scaling back?

    • Steve Laube November 14, 2016 at 8:25 am #

      Diana,

      You asked “Are book publishers also scaling back?” Not any more than would be normal in any business. It depends on the publisher. One that is having revenue trouble needs to cut expenses. But another that is growing is hiring. And both are happening right now.

      There is little comparison between book publishing and newspapers. At least not a one-to-one comparison. Their disruption is due to being able to get their news from their Facebook or Twitter feed for “free.” A book has a different sort of content that is nearly impossible to slice into sound bites and put on twitter.

  2. Carol Ashby November 14, 2016 at 5:59 am #

    This couldn’t be more timely for me, Steve. My first novel went on sale at Amazon Friday night. I guess I’ll be marketing my author brand for at least the next decade, but I’ll have no one to blame but myself for any failures.

    • Katie Powner November 14, 2016 at 7:39 am #

      Congratulations, Carol!

      • Carol November 14, 2016 at 10:02 am #

        Thanks, Katie!

    • Steve Laube November 14, 2016 at 8:30 am #

      I was careful to make my example be related to a book traditionally published.

      For the Independent author its a tad bit harder to blame the publisher without a lot of negative self-talk.

      This is where the indie vs. traditional decision is crucially formed. If the author has a strong entrepreneurial mindset and has the time, skills, and resources to “launch a new business” then the chance of success if much greater. Unfortunately I’ve met many whose indie book has failed because all they did was post it online…nothing more.

      • Carol Ashby November 14, 2016 at 9:29 am #

        Indie sure isn’t for the overly cautious who avoid the new or unfamiliar! Working in research made me a risk taker who loves mastering something new. If the unclimbed mountain doesn’t fire someone’s jets, I’d say stay away from indie or expect poor results. If you do go indie, ask for lots of prayers, too.

    • Michael Emmanuel November 14, 2016 at 9:37 am #

      Congratulations, Mrs. Ashby.

      • Carol November 14, 2016 at 10:00 am #

        Thanks, Michael!

  3. Sarah Hamaker November 14, 2016 at 6:49 am #

    I think your attitude about the lack of sales is paramount. My first nonfiction book (on working from home) came out in 2008, and my tiny publisher did some promotion, but within 18 months, had declared my book out of print–and I got the rights back. My second nonfiction book (Ending Sibling Rivalry, 2014) with a mid-level imprint came out a few weeks after that imprint imploded and dissolved. Do I blame the publishers for not selling more of my books? Not really. Could the publishers have done more to market my book? Perhaps. But I find the better question to ask is Did I do all that I could to market my book? Yes, I’ve tried to do so. Do I let the smaller sales numbers send me into a tailspin as a writer? No, because I realize that sometimes, the audience for a book is small, but does that mean the writer hasn’t reached people? The feedback from readers of both of my nonfiction endeavors have shown that my work has touched lives, has made readers better parents and workers, has encouraged and given hope. Sales numbers are just that: Numbers. We as Christians need to look beyond the numbers.

    • Ruth Taylor November 14, 2016 at 7:35 am #

      Last 3 sentences, agreed! I do hope to touch lives by reading my stories. While I don’t want my novels to be failures in the market, my objective is to help readers by learning from my characters. If the sales are great, wonderful. Mediocre, no biggie. Bad, from a business standpoint I at least want those who invested time in my work to get something in return for it. I need to be published, first! 😉

      • Ruth Taylor November 14, 2016 at 7:58 am #

        The above comment at 7:35 is in reply to Sarah’s post

    • Steve Laube November 14, 2016 at 8:34 am #

      Sarah,

      Along with Ruth I agree that we need to look beyond the numbers.

      Easier said than done. We are culturally and practically wired to measure our “success” by the numbers associated with a project.

      How many did you sell?
      How many go to your church?
      How many Facebook friends do you have?
      What was the attendance at your last speaking event?

      To quantify “success” is one thing.
      To qualify or define “success” is another.

  4. Richard Mabry November 14, 2016 at 7:45 am #

    Steve, many authors–almost every one of us–has experienced this or something like it in some form and at some time. Although the American way is to blame someone else (the old SOGDI defense–some other guy did it), you’ve pointed out the correct way to handle this when it happens. Thanks for sharing.

    • Steve Laube November 14, 2016 at 8:36 am #

      SOGDI… the acronym is as ugly as the act behind it.

      I think it is easier to say “It is Doc’s fault.”

      [[For those who may not know, we know Richard as “Doc Mabry”]]

  5. Ruth Taylor November 14, 2016 at 7:56 am #

    What if a writer has a great novel (or more than one), many people read it (them) – not all of whom I know – everyone loves it, but the writer can’t seem to pique the interest enough for agents and/or editors to want to move forward? People tell me, verbally and in written comments at the end of the novel, “I don’t see how this cannot be published.” Or, referring to the story content, “How do you do it?” Or, “It made me cry.” Or, “I can’t wait to read it again when it’s published.” The writer contemplates, “There are plenty of books that don’t do well upon publication, but due to unbiased feedback I have received, I truly believe that my novels will be a hit!”

    With this being said, the dilemma in your post is not one I can relate to –YET – but I have these thoughts all the time. What if the agent/editor thinks it won’t sell? Do I disagree because of all the positive feedback? I wouldn’t dare since these professionals have been in the business for many years. Anyway, this is what one unpublished reader of this blog post is thinking. Thought you’d be interested in what goes through everyone’s minds…

    • Carol Ashby November 14, 2016 at 8:39 am #

      Ruth, I think a novel can be marvelous but not have broad appeal. If it won’t sell several thousand copies, it’s a money loser for the traditional publishers. It doesn’t take many of those kill a business.

      I love the great classic novels written in a style no publisher would buy today. My first drafts were classic style, but I rewrote to contemporary style after learning what agents and trad publishers expect.

      I got glowing comments on the classic versions, but they needed rewriting before coming to market. Maybe you have lovely work in the old style and merely need to keep your plot but update the style. Agents might drool over your work then.

      • Ruth Taylor November 14, 2016 at 2:35 pm #

        Thank you! I’ve tried to keep it original – both writing style and story line. I’ve done extensive rewriting to make the novels relevant to modern day appeal. I definitely don’t want my novels to be a money-loser for anyone. Thanks for the feedback.

    • Steve Laube November 14, 2016 at 8:44 am #

      Ruth,

      You’ve asked a different question. The post relates to an already published book at a traditional publisher. One that already passed the eyes of the agent, the editor, the marketing department, the editor and their publisher.

      What you’ve asked is getting to that “yes.”
      Since I don’t know your situation it is hard to answer definitively. But one problem with accolades on a pre-published manuscript is the mix of reviewers. If they are people you know. Family. Church friends. Critique partners. That is wonderful, but are they objective reviewers?

      That’s not to say their opinion is invalid. It only means that the weight of their opinion should not be as heavy.

      You might have 10 people who’ve loved your manuscript and yet when I see it I yawn because I have six others just like it in my piles.

      Or you might get my attention and I then shop it to editors who yawn because they have six others just like it in their piles.

      Or!!! The publisher might love it and then publish it to the marketplace who yawns because they have six other just like on their to-read pile.

      That is a rather depressing litany. But it is a dose of reality. Almost a miracle that any book sells!

      It may be that in your case the current book is a good start. Maybe it will be the next manuscript you write that really sings and get’s attention beyond your review circle.

      Hope that helps.

      • Ruth Taylor November 14, 2016 at 2:43 pm #

        Thanks for the insight, Steve. I try to keep in mind the need for unbiased opinions from people who don’t know me, so I allow readers to pass the novel on to others. I include a feedback sheet at the end of the novel for both negative and positive comments. They’re always so good and humbling. I understand only so many books can be published per year, so professionals in the industry must be very selective. All in the Lord’s timing, right?

        By the way, I sent you a proposal in September after we met at the ACFW conference. I know it can take 2 – 3 months for an answer, so no expectations on my part. I’m also putting another one in the mail for you today!

        Thanks again for the insight.

  6. Martha Rogers November 14, 2016 at 8:28 am #

    Thank you, Steve for a great post. My first book was an EPCA Best Seller and is still selling a few each royalty period, but since then only one other book as done as well. I don’t blame my publisher or my agent. Both worked hard on my behalf. The person I blame is myself. I am not a self-promoter, so my marketing is very poor.

    If we want our books to sell, we authors must take an active part in promotion and marketing it to readers. I really want to do that, but when I read all the suggestions, my eyes glaze over and I don’t know what half of it means or how to do it.

    This is a great reminder that I need to do more if I want my books to sell. I see blaming others as the lazy way out of doing what needs to be done.

  7. CYNTHIA RUCHTI November 14, 2016 at 9:20 am #

    I believe there is a sweet, well-appointed, soft music and candles library in heaven where Jesus will sit with disappointed authors and tell His behind-the-scenes of why certain books didn’t sell well. In that room are other authors, but the conversation with each author is personal and intimate. Then Jesus will call others forward to join the conversation, men and women with joy on their faces and maybe tears in their eyes. They are the readers who will say, “You sold one copy of that book of your heart. I bought it. It changed my life. I’m here because of you. Your accountant may not think so, but to me, it was worth it.” The next person will say, “I didn’t even buy your book. I dug it out of a wastebasket in a waiting room. The story was just what I needed to put my life back into perspective.” “Hi. I’m the acquisitions editor who rejected your book. One of them. I didn’t buy your story, but I heard what you had to say. Thank you.”

    • Michael Emmanuel November 14, 2016 at 9:51 am #

      And on that day, Cynthia, I’d say, “Thank you Cynthia. Your comment on ‘When your book doesn’t sell’ blog post warmed my heart, but I couldn’t comment for fear of… Thank you still for sending it out.”

      • CYNTHIA RUCHTI November 14, 2016 at 9:54 am #

        Thank you, Michael. Your words have already made a difference for someone. Me!

  8. Michael Emmanuel November 14, 2016 at 9:47 am #

    First thought on reading today’s post, “I don’t want to write again.”

    Second thought, “I can’t not write. I’m helpless as regards writing.”

    Third thought, “I probably have ten years before I get the yes from an
    agent, and another ten before the publisher nods, and another ten before the novels buzz.”

    By then, I’d still have twenty more years of writing, so it’s not an awful projection, except that attention must be given to the day job.

    Really, it becomes frustrating when my circle of readers – friends mostly, – say, “I loved your story,” and I can’t even manage thanks because I know its placing on the list of awesome novels.

    Or investing five months in a novel only to realize it’s just one of the many.

    I need help!

    • Martha Rogers November 14, 2016 at 11:18 am #

      Michael, if I had given up in my younger days, I wouldn’t have the number of published books I have today. I’ve been writing with the idea of publication since I was a teenager and wrote my first novel at age 17 as a freshman in college in 1953-54. I wrote and kept on writing with nary a nibble. Finally a Christian magazine published my first article in 1994. Then nothing but an article or little bit in a collection. I wanted to give up, but the Spirit wouldn’t let me.

      I went to conferences and took classes and joined writers’ organizations. My acceptance of first full length novel came on my 73rd birthday with the contract arriving a week later.

      Now at age eighty, I’m working on my 18th full length novel and have nine novellas published as well.

      Take to heart Galatians 6:9 and remember you will reap a harvest if you don’t give up.

      • Michael Emmanuel November 14, 2016 at 3:28 pm #

        Ms. Rogers, I surely want to learn from you.
        I just don’t know what else to say. Thank you very much ma.

        • Martha Rogers November 14, 2016 at 3:37 pm #

          You are very welcome, Michael. I pray I will see your name on a published book in the future. Keep writing. 🙂

      • Michael Emmanuel November 14, 2016 at 3:35 pm #

        And then I visited your website and started crying. Inexplicable drop of tears. Thank you ma.

        • Steve Laube November 14, 2016 at 4:14 pm #

          For others who wish to see how God has blessed Martha’s writing visit: http://www.marthawrogers.com/books.html

          • Martha Rogers November 14, 2016 at 4:22 pm #

            Thank you, Steve, and your agency for believing in me and getting my manuscripts out there to editors. I’m very thankful for what the Lord has done for me.

      • Tisha Martin November 14, 2016 at 6:15 pm #

        Martha,

        You’re an inspiration!

  9. Carol Ashby November 14, 2016 at 10:10 am #

    Michael, I always say the only way to guarantee failure is to quit. Study the craft and keep writing. You may have your first publishing success in less than 5 years if that’s how God wants you to serve him.

    • Michael Emmanuel November 14, 2016 at 3:29 pm #

      Yes ma’am. Truth is, the best part of my writing journey is the lessons I garner from those that have gone well ahead of me.

      A humbling experience. Thank you, Mrs. Ashby.

  10. Jeanne Takenaka November 14, 2016 at 2:35 pm #

    First off, can I just say I cringed when I read about your water skiing experience? Yikes! Glad you lived to tell about it.

    Secondly, I appreciate the perspective that launching a new book is like launching a new business. As one who’s aiming for the traditional published route, I hadn’t thought about launching a book with that mindset. If I was launching my own business, I would do everything possible to make ensure its success. Launching a book should receive the same degree of dedication and determination, rather than either waiting on the publisher to carry most of the workload (which they won’t) or not putting my whole-hearted effort into the endeavor.

    Thanks for that perspective and for this post. SO helpful.

  11. Sheri Dean Parmelee November 14, 2016 at 3:40 pm #

    Thanks for the great tips, Steve. I plan on purchasing the books you suggested. Amazon love me these days, as I visit them frequently to buy books on my newly-chosen craft. We need to always be learning, that’s my motto.

  12. Tisha Martin November 14, 2016 at 6:08 pm #

    My thoughts were a mixed bag as I read this:

    1. Are you preparing rejection letters soon to mail out, and this is the cushion post meant to boost authors’ “self esteem”? 😉
    2. So this is why people write novels after they retire . . .
    3. Oh. My. There’s so much work involved. I’d like to resign it all in now. Nope, not doing that. Passion’s too deep and the Lord’s pull is too strong. As a friend told me once, “God’s got it so we don’t have to.”
    4. Okay, where are all the resources? Let me have at it!
    5. Oh, wait. Gotta still work my day job. Darn.

    All in all, I’m encouraged and energized by this post. Thanks, Steve.

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