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.