Selling Books


Every author wants their books to sell … no duh, right? Listen long enough and you’ll get a bookstore (remember those?) full of theories about what can push a title up the lists from few to many to bestseller and maybe even beyond: reviews, podcasts, blog tours, t-shirts, coffee mugs, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, contests, eBay, interviews, tattoos, action figures … you name it.

I’ll go into some of those ideas—the good, the bad, and the just plain nuts—soon enough but in the meantime I want to talk about what I consider the most important thing every writer needs to do when it comes time to put their book out into the world.

Well, actually, what they should do before it’s time to put their book out into the world – in fact after they’ve just finished writing it.

The problem, you see, is that far too often authors—and even some publishers—think in terms of a single book, and having one book be the end-all, be-all bestseller of all time, the book that launches a fantastic career. The hard truth, though, is that while that does happen, it’s so rare that it might as well as not happen. Let me rephrase that: the odds are decidedly against your, or any other writer’s, first book leaping off the shelves. Nor is it likely to put lots of cash in your pocket.

So what’s the reality? When you look at the careers of successful (for now I’m going to ignore the fact that ‘success’ is a very, very subjective term) writers, you’ll find that they worked their way up those book lists one book at a time. But don’t think in terms of ‘this book made a little money,’ ‘the next one made a little bit more’ and then, finally, ‘KA-CHING!’ Nope. Mostly what happens is that one book might do well, the next not so much, the one after that a bit better, the following one badly, then, if they’re lucky, a bestseller … very much up and down, up and down.

And what ensues when that one bestseller does happen? Not only does that one book will sell well but all those people who enjoyed it will also, very often, hunt down that author’s other books as well. Suddenly books that didn’t sell two copies at publication now leap off the shelves as readers hungrily consume their newly discovered favorite.

But this only happens with authors who have books in their inventory. See where this is going? If you only have one book, you’re spending a lot of time pushing your way up the lists. If it does manage to sell, and sell well, then your readers have only that book to read. If you have a stock of several books, however, your readers will be able to get into your entire stock of works … going from casual readers to loyal fans. If that’s not enough of a motivation then keep in mind that sometimes ‘success’ (whatever the hell that means) can come from totally unexpected directions. Remember I mentioned that sometimes a book just doesn’t sell, or doesn’t sell well? Sometimes books don’t sell well at first: very often a book will magically spring to life and go from a forgotten favorite to a phenomena.

And so it’s very important, if not essential, to think about writing as a long-term thing. A very long-term thing. Not just one (early) bestseller but instead a life of book after book after book that will give you multiple chances at creating a career.

Besides, if you tailor your publicity and such for one book then you’ll have to restart the whole thing from scratch with the next one. If you instead think of exposure and publicity with regard to your entire body of work then you can just add book after book to the line, building momentum with each one. Publicity is damned hard—so why make it harder by having to do it over and over again?

Okay, I’m almost out of space and, anyway, I think you might already understand my point. The answer, just to spell it out further, is that the first thing every writer should do when they finish one book, even before that book comes out, is to begin writing another one. Sure it’s tough, trying to simultaneously write a book and create publicity for your entire life as a writer, but considering how much time it can sometimes take to establish your ‘name,’ can you really afford to wait for sales that may not come? Why not take steps now and write a whole bunch of books? Then just one has to be The One. Besides, writing is something that gets better with practice, right? Not only will your next book be a good seller but, more importantly, it might be your best one—and if not that one then the next, the next, the next ….

If this scenario scares you, and there’s every reason it should, then remember that professional writing isn’t done easily or quickly. But it is special, magical, and—most of all—takes a rare kind of bravery.

Never forget that.

M. Christian
April 2009

“Confessions of a Literary Streetwalker” © 2009 M. Christian. All rights reserved.

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