The Ugly Truth About Book Sales

Today I am going to share some eye-opening truths, which might shatter the illusions regarding the book publishing business and crush the dreams of some folk out there. I have recently come across a rather interesting blog post link in the comments section under a post at Suffolk Scribblings blog.

It was a rather grim post by author Kameron Hurley. For those who are not familiar with her, she is an established author who has been a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, the Locus Award and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her short fiction has appeared in prestigious SFF magazines such as Lightspeed, EscapePod, and Strange Horizons. Her fiction has been translated into Romanian, Swedish, Spanish, and Russian. She is also a graduate of Clarion West. Impressive credentials many of us dream about accomplishing some day, if ever.

According to her blog post, her novel titled God’s War sold only 300 copies in seven months in the UK and another book of hers, titled Rapture, sold only 2000 copies. As a result of the poor sales, every single major publishing house had passed on her latest novel titled the Mirror Empire. She was considering to give up and shelve it.

When her publisher decided to release a mass market paperback version of her novel titled God’s War, she decided to market it with a blog tour and worked her ass off. It was quite brutal for her.

I emailed every writer and reviewer I knew with a UK reach. Called in every favor. I begged for blog post space. I scheduled a massive three week guest blog tour. I wrote a tie-in novelette for Del Rey UK to publish exclusively on their blog during the release.

The blog tour kicked off in early January of this year, and continued to the end of the month. It was brutal, for me – up to two posts a day for three weeks – but I wasn’t doing anything else; MIRROR EMPIRE was still on the market, so my next project, whatever it would be, was up in the air. I poured everything into the blog posts. For three weeks, a lot of people in the online genre world couldn’t go anywhere without reading a post from me, without being reminded I was alive, I wrote books, I had shit to say.

I got really fucking tired of talking about myself.

Now, I come across authors who complain about marketing and how it’s so difficult. Well, that’s the harsh reality of it. If a Hugo nominated, award winning, traditionally published author is having that much trouble selling and has to beg the bloggers and work around the clock for weeks to do blog tours and guest posts, a no-name self published author has to do more than double that. The competition is tough out there. R.A. Salvatore, who is a NY Times best selling international celebrity author, whose books sold millions of copies and translated to every foreign language you can name, works his ass off marketing his new books.

Dear author friend, if you are not willing to get your hands dirty and work your ass off to market your books, no one is going to do it for you. Even if you get traditionally published, the publisher is not going to market your books for you, as seen in the above example.

The Hugo nominated author, who graduated from the extremely prestigious Clarion West workshop, who published her short fiction in the most renowned genre magazines and published a number of books from actual publishing houses, sold only 300 copies of her latest book and failed to get her latest manuscript published, until she worked a brutal schedule and spent countless hours with blog tours and guest posts. Only after all this rough work was she able to get the word out and get her latest manuscript published. You can read the whole story here.

So, if your dream is to get traditionally published, take it into account that it’s not going to be like the fairy godmother’s magic wand. You will still have to work like no tomorrow to market it in the end. And this is not a new thing, either. Here is a news story about a letter Tolkien wrote to his editor complaining about the poor sales of The Hobbit:

Another example: The murder mystery book J.K. Rowling wrote under a pen name sold only 400-odd copies after its launch, despite the huge marketing campaigns of the publisher. They only sold serious numbers after they revealed the author was J.K. Rowling. Even after that, the book pretty much tanked and was quickly forgotten, for it was no Harry Potter.

Yet another example, from Wikipedia page of A Song of Ice and Fire:

Martin’s publishers initially expected A Game of Thrones to be a best-seller,but the first installment did not even reach any lower positions in bestseller list. This left Martin unsurprised, as it is “a fool’s game to think anything is going to be successful or to count on it”. However, the book slowly won the passionate advocacy of independent booksellers and the book’s popularity grew by word of mouth. The series’ popularity skyrocketed in subsequent volumes, with the second and third volume making the The New York Times Best Seller lists in 1999 and 2000, respectively.

It took 8 years after its initial publication for ASOIAF to make it into the NYT best seller list. Martin was no newbie either, he had been a well established author for solid two decades, and a Hollywood screenwriter to boot, when the first book of the series was published in 1991.

Long story short: You need to establish an audience, i.e. your reader base, way before you release the book. You need to establish your marketing network well ahead of time. Even then, if the audience and the reviewers don’t like it, it won’t sell. Even if it’s a splendid piece of work, unless you do rigorous marketing, it may take years before the word gets out and you start to see good sales numbers.

I hope this post serves as a wake up call to the new and aspiring authors out there.

86 thoughts on “The Ugly Truth About Book Sales

  1. Great post and example of the difficulties of marketing, especially for self-published authors. I find that I have very little patience for message boards catering to self-published authors anymore, since most of the posts are whining about marketing.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Pingback: The Ugly Truth About Book Sales | Trisha Faye

  3. Interestingly enough I just wrote a piece on this very topic two days ago. Unfortunately good writing and a high interest level subject doesn’t equal success. My soon to be released novel is written in the voice of a dog and does have some following due to the scarcity of such books. Nonetheless, I spend considerable time everyday working on pre-release marketing and I do have very limited expectations. I’m hoping to make several people smile and even a few laugh. That would be “success.”

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Pingback: Book Sales Ruminations & Why You Need A General | Archer's Aim

  5. Interesting. My publisher, Storehouse Press, is new and small, no one ever heard of me, I’m responsible for my own marketing and haven’t got a lick of skill at it–and yet even I did better than to sell just 300 books.

    If any of your readers would like to find out about my “Bell Mountain” fantasy series, visit my blog, , and click “Books.” I’d love to hear from you. I’d love it even more if some of you decided to read my books.


  6. Pingback: The Irascible Indie. Part 4: Who Are the Real Writers? | Audrey Driscoll's Blog

  7. Reblogged this on The Official Site of Celeste DeWolfe and commented:
    Marketing really IS the name of the game these days, ladies and gentlemen. If you think the fun stops after you’ve painstakingly WRITTEN and EDITED the thing, you are much mistaken! Consider your book, if you would like to publish it, like you would a real child–yeah, you spent 9 uncomfortable months creating the thing, but after it actually comes into the world, guess what? You still have to feed, cloth, and care for the thing for 18+ years.
    Books are like that. You can’t just write one, throw it to the wolves, and start work on another.
    Not if you wanna be successful!


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  10. I just came across this post, and what good timing! I’m getting ready to publish my first book, and while the message in this post isn’t exactly cheery, it makes complete sense. Anyway, I’ll write on—that’s what I do—and work my hardest to promote my book. Thanks so much for writing about the hard job of selling books.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Some tips: Build a mailing list. Link your website/blog and the mailing list sign-up page in your e-books. Building a platform is important. Reddit genre groups work wonders. If you can, go to your local genre conventions, get together with a few other indies and open a booth (if the xonvention allows you to set up a shared booth, it’s much cheaper to divide the cost) and don’t forget to pitch to your local indie bookstores. Build a ‘street team’ to promote the launch with swag, bookplates, giveaway parties. Katie J. Cross wrote some awesome tips on her blog, she did quite well as an indie author and shares a lot of tips and strategies. I highly recommend going through her archive. I’ll write more marketing tips as I learn myself. Oh and check out my Wattpad article, if you write YA, you can get a lot of new readers there by publishing the first couple chapters and free short stories few pages at a time.

      Liked by 1 person

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