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: http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-19965058

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! I’m glad I helped (indirectly) to provide the spark of inspiration. I’m glad you read the piece by Kameron Hurley. From my stats, not many did. Unlike others I didn’t see it as depressing (although it wasn’t particularly happy reading at first). What it showed, as you mentioned, is that EVERYBODY has to work hard to get anywhere in publishing, indie or traditional.

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    • Well, truth is always bitter, but once we get a level head, we can make a solid plan and have more realistic expectations. Always good to have some reality checks to learn from.

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  2. Reblogged this on Suffolk Scribblings and commented:
    This is an excellent follow up to my last blog post, where Leona talks more about a blog post from Kameron Hurley I linked to in the comments section. It’s eye-opening stuff and shows that it isn’t just indie authors who have to work hard to achieve success.

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  3. Well done, Leona. Writing is a looooong haul of invisible years spent winning one reader at the time until, automagically, one becomes an overnight success. Too many aspiring authors don’t understand that the “overnight” takes not less than a decade for most of us.

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    • Amanda Hocking built a blog follower base for years, published a whole bunch of books, even her success was nowhere near overnight. Though the media painted it as overnight success and gave the wrong idea to many new authors out there. Kameron Hurley’s post was a great eye opener.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. As a newbie author I knew going in that it would take blood sweat and tears…mostly tears. After hearing all the feedback and horror stories from other authors, a few years sounds about right as opposed to a few months. Those freak incidents of new authors selling millions their first year is just that; a freak occurrence. It is not the norm.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think building a network and a reader base is fun, if you see it as such. But tying up all hopes in a single book, or a series, and treating it as some kind of lottery ticket is a very bad idea. Even the great master Tolkien did not become an international best seller overnight. In fact he was unhappy with the low sales volumes of the Hobbit in the beginning.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Thanks for this wakeup call. I admit I’ve looked at literary agents as fairy godmother figures, even though I know deep down it doesn’t work like that. I’ve spent more time working on my novel this month than marketing, so consequently I’ve sold no books the first week of January 2015. As much as I’d like to think I can only make time for one or the other, I know the root of the problem is not using the most of the time I do have.

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    • It is best to have a realistic outlook on things and make solid plans. I started reaching out to the fans of my genre and gathering a rader base before I’ve even written half of the first draft. I talk to a lot of people, from the forums, social media, fan sites, etc, as well as real life, gamer scene, genre conventions etc. and I got quite a few people who want to beta read my book when it’s finished. It will probably take years (if they like it) to spread the word and see any good sales, whether I get a traditional publisher or self publish. But even if you publish from a major house, that’s not the magic ticket to riches and fame. Many books published from major houses never see a second edition. Making a solid strategy and building your reader base is the key. You start building the castle with one brick and keep adding bricks. No castle is built overnight.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Hard work on promotions certainly pays off – for discovery is the first step to sales. But ultimately neither author nor publisher know whether an upcoming publication will work – not really. I’ve had books on the best selling lists in New Zealand that nobody expected would get there; and similarly, books that were thought likely to work which ended up tanking. My worst was a science fiction history, published by Penguin, that shifted less than 1000 copies. Ouch. For the book to work it also has to be accompanied by a more subtle interaction of content with the readership. My favourite example is ‘The Lord Of The Rings’, which was a terrible seller for about 15 years until society changed and Tolkien’s themes struck chords with the rising counter-culture in the 1960s. The fact is that good sales – and particularly a ‘best seller’ – is a subtle combination of marketing, discovery, but also of the way that the book keys in to the particular needs or demands of prevailing culture.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s so great to receive such helpful information and insights from someone who has a lot of experience with publishing, I am honored! Thank you so much for sharing. You are very right, the shifts in culture have a lot of great effects, and many authors find themselves catering to the trends.The Silmarillion is not a best seller and it has never become hugely popular like the Lord of the Rings but it is the ultimate masterpiece of the entire Tolkien collection in the eyes of many fans (including myself). I’ve re-read it countless times. There are quite a few underrated books people love. I think it’s a great experience to write for the love of writing, to tell a story and connect with the audience (it’s not so difficult in this day and age) whether you sell a lot or not.

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  7. A great dose of reality for us newbie self publishers. It’s wonderful to think of the possibilities out there in publishing, but the more I research publishing, the more I see it as a long, slow process. A marathon instead of a sprint. Slowly building up readers. But, to me, that’s still wonderful. Because if it wasn’t for self publishing and blogs, I wouldn’t be able to connect with any readers.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I enjoyed this read. Have to say that I found my blog and twitter to be the most effective when putting blood, sweat and tears into my crowdfunding campaign and also when the book was self published – it definitely paid off. I made mistakes and learnt from them. My book tour on blogs was only six blogs over six days and I’d definitely extend that for the next book.

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  9. Reblogged this on I Read Encyclopedias for Fun and commented:
    Looks like I’m a reblogging mood today. Well, here’s another great post I had to share. Authors don’t just write. They also have to be great at marketing. This post shows just how hard established, award-winning authors have to work on their own marketing. That’s right, even authors like R. A. Salvatore work very hard on marketing their own books. The publishers don’t do it for them.

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  10. The truth is a bitter pill to swallow, and ultimately the life of a writer in the modern world, trad, indie or self published, is a far cry from what it used to be. We are not just writers anymore. If anything, that is the smallest hat that we must wear.

    A lot of people do not understand that this is something that takes commitment on all levels, and if you are not willing to fight in the trenches to achieve your goals then you are never going to get there.

    Great post. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is so true. Even if you write a great masterpiece, it still requires a lot of commitment to get the word out. The competition is fierce and one needs to plan ahead and work hard to get one step ahead.

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  11. Reblogged this on Spookymrsgreen's Blog and commented:
    This post is not a wake-up call for me. It does, however, fill me with hope and confidence. I am a bloody good writer! I know this. Now I am working on telling other people, so that they can read my books and discover the fact also. I believe in my novels. And I will never give up. We should never give up. But, we can be realistic, and we can be prepared…

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    • Having realistic expectations and knowing how things are out there give us an advantage. If you know how things work, it’s not too hard to plan a good strategy for marketing the books.

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  12. I have read reports like this before, and while in the beginning I allowed them to fill me with dread and disappointment, now I am strong. My novels are bloody good, and I believe in myself. I will get those sales growing, and I will find my adoring fans, no matter how long it takes. I am young. I can do this. And so can anybody else if they feel so passionate about their work. Never give up!

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    • Even the greatest names out there didn’t become famous best selling authors overnight. They all worked hard to spread the word. Going to the genre conventions to connect with the audience, networking, being active in the social media and the blogging scene all help. But if you sit there and do nothing, books will not magically sell themselves. Recruiting people to spread the word is a good strategy, too.

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  13. Super post, Leona, thank you.

    What I’ve found interesting in my connections with authors has been how they manage their own expectations. I’ve met a couple of traditionally-published authors who were extremely unhappy with how they were treated by their publishers, in that they said they were expected to do “all the work”. They were permanently discontented because they felt that they got no support, and they were jealous of other authors in the same stable who seemed to get better treatment.

    I’ve also met a couple of self-published authors who ended up getting traditional contracts based on a couple of years’ SP book sales, and once again did huge blog tours and self-marketing after the traditional releases, but were happier, because they expected it. It taught me a lot about contentment, and how an author might come by it.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. As an author, I don’t put in nearly enough effort to market and promote my books. Part of the reason is because I don’t have time (work, family, etc), but part of the reason is because I really hate marketing. My book sales suffer because of my lack of marketing. Like you said, if I want to sell books, I’m going to have to get my hands dirty. I know indie authors who have been extremely successful, but they have put in the time and money to get the word out about their books. They are on a new blog almost every day and they are very self-disciplined in terms of managing their social media time. You are absolutely right, Leona, that this is our reality as indie authors. If you’re an author (like me) who chooses NOT to promote and market every day, your book sales will suffer. That doesn’t mean you can’t continue to write. It just means your books aren’t going to sell. It’s as simple as that. People won’t buy your books if they don’t know they exist. (That being said, this really is a wake up call for me and I need to work out a marketing plan pronto.)

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I didn’t think this was so much “ugly” as honest. At the same time, it only shows what hard work and perseverance can prove. Look at George R. R. Martin. The payoff was later on, but daaang, the payoff was good.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. You’re right, You can’t just twiddle your thumbs and hope you just get noticed. For every 100 posts/tweets/etc. I make to promote, I sell one book (on average, unless it’s just a really good day for me. It’s a pain, and authors have to be persistent if they want to be successful. I think many authors are afraid to market aggressively for fear of looking pushy, but how else are you supposed to get yourself out there?

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Reblogged this on The Road to Nowhere… and commented:
    It may not be my place to say, but I think a good number of authors should read this post that discusses realistic expectations. As a small publisher, I would like to point out that it is equally as difficult for small to middling publisher to promote your work as it is for you in this over-flushed world of publishing – but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. We work hand in hand with every one of our authors to promote them as strongly as they work to promote themselves, but we can only do so if, one – they are working at promoting their own work; and two, they make us (the publisher) aware of it. Please, read the blog post. There is a great deal of ‘real world’ knowledge to be found here… whether or not the genre references are specific to you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for the kind words. I have discovered this information and started building a reader base before I’ve written even half of the first draft. I just wanted to share what I learned from research, to save the others a lot of frustration and disappointment. Learning the facts of the market and being prepared is very important for success.

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  18. I’ve been staggering around recently with a bruised ego after my first novel, put out there by a small American publisher passed largely unnoticed through the readosphere. Having been pressed to write book by the readers of my Blog, I was initially astonished to find it attracted such little interest. Now I am more realistic about the world I have entered and when my second novel is published shortly, I shall be much more prudent in my expectations. Interestingly, to me at least, I have attracted a certain amount of reviews, mainly favourable, on Blogs and Amazon, but have found they make very little impact on book sales, to date at least.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The indie authors who sell a lot of books have more than one book on the Kindle store. Even the top sellers didn’t sell much when they published their first book. You see the sales after putting a few books out there (sticking to the same genre, for one) and heavily promoting with blog tours, author interviews and book signings. I know some indies who do local book signings and appear in local radio shows. These activities all help getting the word out.

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  19. Reblogged this on Tea Talks… home of Helen Treharne, author : I write, I review, I rant and commented:
    I came across this and had to share. Publishing, whether it is self publishing or the traditional route, is hard work. Getting signed by an agent or traditional publishing route does not exempt the author from having to do a phenomenal amount of marketing work. Not only do you have to do a lot, you have to be consistent. Yes, the majority of your efforts might be focused on the launch of your book but it cannot end there. Many of the book tours I host are books are that have been on the market for some time. It’s important to think of your long term marketing plan but also to accept you will get a lot of doors closed in your face. Keep working at it!

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  20. Pingback: The Ugly Truth About Book Sales | Charles Ray's Ramblings

  21. Of course we know that! This will not stop some of us newbies, from dreaming of being discovered, of our books making it to the best seller’s list through the proverbial hand of God, without any effort from us. This is a good lesson.

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  22. Hello Leona,

    After reading this article, I can understand how many book writers feel and how you feel about it. Since I started writing articles for my website, I had become one of those people who just started writing books, but I mainly release my books online for free in PDF form instead, because I’m one of those people where I don’t want to go into the processes of getting my book sold, and getting licences for ISBN numbers, when I can publish it for free online via Dropbox.

    If you’d like, please feel free at any time to drop by my website to download the free books that I have currently published so far, as I’m currently working on the third installment which may be released earlier than Q3 of this year. I’ve put the link to my website below for you, which may be good as I regularly publish articles on Mother Nature almost all the time :-).

    Again, thanks for sharing this article with all of us :-).

    Alex Smithson

    Mother Nature: asterisk15.wordpress.com

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  23. The truth of the matter is it makes no difference if you are working through a publishing house, or self-publishing. When it comes to your latest book’s chances, it already has an uphill battle to make its presence felt, considering how many million books are being published each year.

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  24. This author is saying what the rest of us Indie Authors already knew. Its brutal out here. I personally never had a good feeling about the big publishing houses because I’ve known for quite some time that if you are not a famous person, they are not going to do the work for you. Nice enlightening post.

    Like

    • At least when you self publish on Amazon you get 70% of the royalties. With trad pub, you get a very small percentage, and unless it’s Tor or Penguin they do zilch for marketing. You still do all the marketing yourself and get less than 20%. A few people I know regret not going indie. So getting a publishing deal is not the ticket to success.

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