Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Real Deal of Book Sales (and Why Yours May Not Be Selling)

WARNING: THIS IS VERY LONG.  Go get some coffee and maybe pop yourself some popcorn or something.

Got it? Good.  I mentioned possibly writing a post about this topic to the girls at CTP and they were all over it, so this is what I spent aaaaallll day yesterday writing.  I hope someone finds it helpful!

I am extremely new to the published author industry. It was not something that I had even given serious consideration to joining three months ago, but one story snowballed and here I am. I've been scrambling to play catch-up on actually learning how e-books work, how to accept an edited electronic document, and how to market yourself on social media; but I did come into it with one thing that many authors don't have... years in the book selling industry and a lot of time working with the public in entertainment. I used to work in a small book store chain in New England called Book Corner, starting as a cashier in 1987 and leaving at the management level in the late 90's. I also spent many a year working in the theme park industry and also as a radio personality, and have a lot of hours clocked seeing what people react to, why they do not react the way folks expect them to, what makes the public listen to you, and what makes them walk away. Most of this article will focus on my book store experience, but the public relations stuff will come up later.

When you work in a brick-and-mortar book store, you learn how book sales really work and it is vastly, vastly different than many independent authors today think it works. Yes, times are changing and a nobody can go to a rock star through their .99 cent e-book on Amazon overnight; it does happen and I will not tell you it doesn't. Frankly I can't tell you how or why that works because I have not worked on that end of it long enough. But what I can tell you is a lot of the background of why books sell, when books sell, what makes people buy books when they have never heard of the author, how best seller lists really work, and why some of the fallbacks that many authors use in indy publishing are actually hurting you. Badly.

I will be mentioning specific authors and books in this article so that the reader will be able to easily grasp examples. Sometimes you may not be happy to read what is said. But please keep in mind I am not saying this to imply that the author or publisher is scamming anyone, ripping anyone off, or trying to be deceptive in their practices. This is simply how it actually works.

Book Store Terminology

Before we go into the details, you have to know some of the basic terms of the trade. If you haven't worked in a book store, a lot of these will be unfamiliar, and occasionally shocking, because their descriptions will give you some clues as to how the bound book market works.

Hardcover: any book that is bound between two thick cardboard sheets with pages in between. There are two big classes of hardcover books: the general term “hardcover” is used for any mass produced book that is later intended to come out in paperback; such as when a Harry Potter book would come out, it would come out in hardcover first and then paperback a year or so later. It also applies to many hardcovers that will never come out in paperback but are intended to remain marketed on a large scale, such as Dr. Seuss children's books. Then there are gift books or coffee table books. These books are usually odd sized, full of full-color pictures, and generally never intended for the paperback market. Many are intentionally printed to be remainders, described later.

Trade paperback: Any paperback that is non-standard sized. This includes everything from oversized paperbacks of mass produced fiction books (The Hunger Games is printed as a trade paperback), to the big paperback For Dummies series, to paperback glossy picture books.

Mass Market paperback: when you think of a paperback book, this is generally what you are thinking of. All those fiction, sci-fi, and fantasy paperbacks in the book store that are all the same size and line up neatly on the shelf are mass markets.

Remainders: the sale books that you see at the front of every book store with the big sticker on the cover that is usually hugely below the printed price on the inside of the book; think of the 500 page illustrated book of castles that is the size of a Ford Pinto and sells for $12.99, and the inside cover price says it was originally $80.00. Remainders are made of four categories of books:
      1. Books that were printed specifically to be remaindered. These books never appeared in a bookstore for $50.00 more and often don't have an inside price, but they look like they should be expensive. They were specifically printed to go on the remainder shelves at a “sale” price. Here is where we take away our first lesson from book publishing: books really are not that expensive to make. It costs a LOT to set up the printing machines, set up the interior of the book, color-correct all the photos or illustrations, pay the editor, the marketing department, and the janitors, but when the book is actually rolling off the presses they don't cost that much simply because so many are made at once by big publishers. This is why you see these big beautiful hardcover books selling for $10 when your independently published book in a run of 100 copies cost you $12 a piece. The more you print, the cheaper it gets and the greater the profit margin is on sales. Remember that.

      2. Books that were specifically printed to be remaindered but they don't tell you that. Collectors books on something that actually has mass interest are often released at an extremely high price at first and then remaindered later. A good example would be a huge book on Star Wars full of nice pictures and great trivia that is released at $75.00 for Christmas sales and then goes on the remainder table for $15.00 that summer. The publisher knows that very few people are going to spend $75.00 on a book, but there's definitely people out there who will and they want their money. Many more people will buy a $15.00 book and they want their money too. So they print a ton of copies, knowing that they will definitely not sell all of them at $75.00, but that they will sell tons at $15.00. At $15.00 they are still making money (remember what I said about cheap printing) but at $75.00 they made a LOT of money.

      3. Books that are specifically printed to be remaindered but publishers won't admit it to anyone. Hardcovers with a high market appeal are sometimes printed in quantities enormously over and above what is actually going to sell to the public at full price, specifically to put them on the remainder tables in the front of the store and keep the author's name in everyone's face at a later date. Two examples of this are Danielle Steele and James Patterson; go to any book store and look at the sale table of fiction hardcovers and you have a very good chance of seeing these names... maybe not Danielle Steele so much any more but this happened all the time in the 80's and 90's. This is not to say that these authors don't sell hardcovers at full price when they come out; they definitely do, and thousands of people have enjoyed them. But when they release, a book store will get 100 copies of Danielle Steele's newest hardcover knowing they might sell five (most people wait for the paperback), that they will ship them back to the distributor, and that the book store will get them back with a sale price six months later.

      4. Oops. Yep, publishers sometimes think they will have a hit on their hands and they don't, and they try to dump the books for anything they can get. But it does not happen as often as you think. Those other three categories of sale books make up the bulk of remainders.

Stripped books: You won't see these in a full-price retail bookstore, but occasionally they make their way into used book stores or flea markets. When a mass market paperback does not sell or gets a price change, most of the time the publisher does not want the book back. The retailer rips off the front cover of the book, throws the book away (or the employees take them home), and sends the cover back to the publisher for credit. This is why you rarely see mass market paperbacks at a sale price in a book store.

Dump: a cardboard display that holds many copies of the same book, or many copies of a book by the same author, or many copies of books from one publisher. Book sellers hate these because they are a pain to set up, fall apart easily, usually look like crap within a month, and usually contain books that are not going to sell. But they look pretty for about a week so publishers love them, and they are usually sold at a discount meaning distributors will buy a dump to increase the profit margin on sales.

How a book store is set up

The vast majority of books in a book store are not going to sell. The book store knows it, the publishers know it. The books are there to fill shelf space so that the book store looks good when you go in there to get the latest Stephen King book. Of course the book stores want all the books to sell, that is their business; so the shelves will be stocked with books that they hope will appeal to at least somebody someday. But they know that most of those book sections – travel, how-to, gardening, games, etc. might sell two or three books a month if they are lucky. Most of their sales are going to come from the fiction-type sections.

And of those, about 40% of the sales are by the big boys. They're the authors that you have all heard of, the latest hit, have an established brand (like Harlequin Romance), or are the authors that have been around since the dawn of the dinosaurs and have a solid following. 

Another 40% of the sales come from books that are just like the first 40%. Before someone even picks up a book to see if it is interesting, it has to catch their eye. The books most likely to catch their eye are the ones that look similar to books the reader has enjoyed before, and book publishers and cover designers know it. They use this to get you to pick up a book and turn it over and read the back cover, even if you don't realize that is what made you pick up the book. Ever think to yourself that every book that came out after a hit looks just like the hit book? It does, and it's because the marketing tactic works. Look at your own book shelf and compare the covers between books that you bought during a fairly close timeline. Note: on occasion being the odd duck out works simply because it looks different, but you have to have something to compare it to for this to really take effect. I'll get into that more later.

The last 20% are made up of books that either the buyer went in specifically looking for (it was recommended or they need it for a specific purpose, such as a gift or training their new puppy) or much more rarely, random purchases. Big lesson number two: your book is not going to sell unless someone has a reason to pick it up off the shelf first; either they need it, they heard about it, or it looks like something they would like. This also applies to e-books; the shelf is the search engine, or that “recommended books” list on the bottom of the page of another book. A reader is not going to click unless they have a reason to.

How Best Seller Lists Really Work

There's currently two major kinds of best seller lists: those such as the famous (or infamous) New York Times Best Seller List, and those generated by a specific retailer such as Amazon. They share some characteristics, but work very differently. We'll start with publication (like a newspaper) best seller lists by going over something they don't want you to know:

Publication best seller lists have almost nothing to do with what people are actually reading.

I'm not kidding.

Best seller lists from major publications are not generated by the number of end sales from retailers to readers; they are (mostly, because some now incorporate e-book sales numbers) generated by the number of books sold by publishers to retailers and distributors. This means that if a publisher sells three million copies of their books to retailers, the book goes on the best seller list even if the book stores do not sell a single copy. In reality, because the best seller lists have a good reputation, if a book gets on that list it generally sells. But this is how publishers get people to buy books from new authors that they want to push: they sell lots of copies to book distributors or chains, usually at a discount, so that the book will appear on a best seller list. You will see the list, think the book must be good, and go buy it. Viola, a new author is a hit. If you don't buy it, the publisher can still claim it is a best seller.

For an example of how this works, we'll look at the best selling book that you have probably never read: Dianetics by L. Ron Hubbard. You may not have even heard of it, though it has sold over 80 million copies, which translates to this: almost as many of you should have read this book as have read any Dr. Seuss book according to the reported sales numbers. Dianetics is the book that launched the Scientology movement (now I bet you know it) and has been off and on the Number 1 place of best seller lists since it came out in 1950, and gone through around 60 editions.

The reason it is on the best seller list is very obviously not because the public is actually buying and reading it. It's because the publisher sells these books in bulk at an enormously discounted rate to distributors, who then sell them in bulk at an enormously discounted rate to book stores (in the case of the mega-chains you can cut the distributor out of the mix), who receive them in bulk, rip all the front covers off, throw the books away (except maybe one or two copies), and send the covers back to the publishers for credit. The book hits Number 1 because the publisher sold so many of them, and you the reader ignore it because it's Scientology, for crying out loud.

Another example that actually shows this system working would be the release of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, which many of you may have read and I'm sure most of you have heard of. The book released in 1989, and was again, sold in massive quantities to distributors and chains. Massive quantities. When we got these in at the book store, we got in about 300 copies, which was more than our entire self-help section held at the time. No one had heard of Stephen Covey, the self-help movement was tiny, and we hated the book because it was flimsy and would not stay on the shelves. Seriously, we despised this thing. But because the publisher sold so many, it went immediately to the Number 1 slot, people thought it must be good, and it sold. And then it became a hit with the readers. Not before it appeared on the New York Times Best Seller List, after it did. That is how these lists work; the publishers make the sales rank, and then you read it. Not the other way around in the vast, vast majority of cases. There are of course exceptions, but they are rare.

Amazon, B&N, and other online retailers of course can report their sales directly; what you see is what is actually sold by that vendor. Therefore if a book is listed as the Number 10 bestseller on Amazon, you know it really is ranked Number 10 in sales at that time; note the caveat at that time. The sales are still manipulated by publishers through various means, but they really are accurate in their own way. However, you have to remember the golden rules of how books sell: 40% big guys, 40% books like the big guys, and 20% everyone else. This makes the numbers exceedingly deceptive.

There are well over 2 million e-books listed on Amazon alone; I actually think it is over three million right now but I can't find current numbers offhand. And indy authors, your book is one of them. Do you know how many book sales it takes in one day to break the Top 100,000 out of over 3 million?


Not tens, not twenties, not hundreds. Five books on average. Just one day at that number of sales and you'll be at a pretty good rank for a week.

That is because 80% of the book sales are going to a very, very small percentage of authors. There's millions of books out there, and an enormous percentage of them on Amazon are never even going to be seen, never mind read, and this includes your freebies and .99 cent'ers. So here's your rule for retailer best seller lists:

The person who is doing “much better than you” probably only sold a few more books than you did, unless they are in the top one thousand or so.

This is no exaggeration. The difference between being ranked at #2,000,000 and number #200,000 is around two sales in a day. If you're at the two million mark and your buddy is at the two hundred thousand mark, and both of your books are .99 cents, they definitely are not getting rich while you aren't. So don't feel bad about it. Also, the book sales numbers are generated during a very small time window, so it is easy to be misled (or to mislead) by quoting the numbers to show popularity. For example, as of this moment my own book Heartkeeper is ranked #118,146 in the Kindle store. Nerd Do Well: A Small Boy's Journey To Becoming A Big Kid by Simon Pegg (that guy from Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) is ranked #138,945. So technically right now I could say I am more popular than Simon Pegg which does make me feel good for about three seconds, but it simply really is not true. No, actually it doesn't even make me feel good because I adore Simon Pegg and now I feel guilty. You see how it works now, though. By quoting just those numbers I could say, accurately, that I am selling more books than this pretty big-name actor. I am; today. But in the long run I'm not even close.

By the way, my book is also doing better than some of Wil Wheaton's books and I am also almost as popular as Jon Stewart (as of this very second per very deceptive sales figures). Two thumbs up for me!

How This Translates To New Authors On The Market

Like it or not, the e-book revolution has not completely taken over book sales; you are still up against major publishers who will glut the market with whatever they want to sell. And chances are, what they want to sell is not you. Here's another harsh reality that most authors do not realize while dreaming of signing with a major (note I said major, many small publishers are not like this at all) publisher:

If you are a newly published author, you are filler.

You are the last of the marketing department's concerns. You are the packing in the box. Sure, they might make up some posters and send them to book stores, they may even make a dump of your book if the cover looks nice. But they don't really expect you to sell. They hope that you will sell, and they hope enough people will try your book that you will sell more when your second book comes out, but they don't expect it to, so neither should you.

It takes time, word of mouth, more of your titles on the shelf, and familiarity in browser's minds from seeing your name out there for a few years before it begins to click with most readers that you are an author worth spending money on. Don't believe me? How about A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin? There's no doubting that it and the whole series is huge right now.

The first book in the series came out in 1996. 

Did you buy it then? Didn't think so. Your book is probably not going to be any different so don't expect it to be, and be thrilled if you are wrong.

Get To Why My Book Isn't Selling, Already!

Okay, okay, it's now time to get to the rest of the title of the blog post, and focus on why any particular person's book is not a hit. (Obviously I can't speak for your book specifically, but you are likely starting to see how your book fits into the broad scheme of things.) Now that you understand how the basics of the book market really works, we can get down to the nitty gritty with the Top 10 Reasons You're Not Getting Book Sales.

      1. Facebook Likes Do NOT Translate To Book Sales. Period.

“OMG, that goes against everything I have read and heard and done and as much as I don't want to admit it you are right.” I know. Here is what I see new authors doing, and I did it myself: they set up an author page on Facebook, they join a bunch of author groups in their genre, they trade likes with other authors, they get all excited that their page has so many likes, their book comes out and nothing happens. Why? Because those other authors are not your market. They did the same thing that you just did; they boosted your numbers and you boosted them back. But you are probably not going to buy their book, so why do you expect them to buy yours?

Unless your Likes are made up entirely of real readers, who really want to read your book, and know that they are going to have to spend money to do so and are willing to do so, your Likes mean nothing. Court your readers, not other authors.

      1. You're Marketing Too Broadly.

Remember the second 40% of book sales? People buy books that are like other books that they have read and enjoyed. If someone reads and enjoys true crime, they are most likely to buy other true crime books, not your historical romance. But many new authors try to convince anyone and everyone that their book is worth looking at. It's not going to happen. I'm sure that when you go to a bookstore, you do not look at each and every section equally and give every single title equal consideration for your purchase; you go straight to the sections that interest you most. That is where you should be spending your time trying to sell your book: with the people who are most likely to buy it, not anyone who will possibly listen to you.

      1. You are just like everyone else.

Today's major avenue for independent authors is social media. We all know it, we all use it, we all rely on it to get the word out. The leading theory is that if you can sell yourself, the book sales will follow, right?

Now look at your own news feed, which for many of you I am sure has a good number of other indy authors on it. They talk about their books, they talk about giveaways, they talk about Like milestones, they talk about sales, they talk about blog tours, and they talk about everything else that you are also talking about with your own book. People are paying about as much attention to you as you are to them, which frankly probably isn't very much because it's the same thing over and over with a different icon next to it. Yes, of course you want to talk about your book or no one is ever going to know you wrote one, but if you're not standing out in the crowd somehow, no one cares. Your posts mean nothing and are not going to sell your work if people are just skipping it because they read the same thing on 50 other author pages this morning. Find a way to catch their attention.

      1. Your Book Is Just Like Everyone Else's Book.

Obviously it really isn't, but people don't know that because it looks and sounds just like everyone else's book. Especially on social media, people have only two or three sentences to grab someone's attention, and usually only one visual (the front book cover) to impress them with. So you do what authors do: you post a couple of sentences explaining how the main character has a problem, raise the question of if they will resolve it, and post your book cover of Photoshopped stock images of attractive people with a link to Amazon to buy it. Does this sound like one of your posts? How about other people's posts?

Remember, people will not buy your book unless they pick it up first. This translates to ebooks as well; clicking that link to look at the Amazon listing is the same thing as picking your book up off a shelf and looking it over while considering to buy. Writing a two sentence liner is very, very difficult to do well, and if your cover is using the same hunky model that five other people's covers are using, they may not specifically remember it but subconsciously they are very likely to be thinking “seen it, skipped it, skip it again”. The balance between being familiar enough to be comfortable, but different enough to stand out is not easy to get, so be thinking about it and talking to your cover designer and beta readers very early in the book process.

      1. Ebooks do not sell themselves.

In order for an ebook to sell, someone has to see the page first. And just putting your book on Amazon is not nearly enough to get it to appear on people's computer screens; it's not like a bound book in a brick-and-mortar where maybe someone will walk past it and think “hey, that looks cool”. The opposite end of the indy author who goes overboard about their social media marketing is the indy author who thinks that once the book is formatted and posted, their work is over. My friend, it has only just begun. Get out there and hit the pavement and sell.

      1. You have not been out there long enough.

The original print run of Carrie by Stephen King was 30,000 copies and really didn't do that great until the movie came out. The first award he won was for 'Salem's Lot, from the American Library Association, which gave it an award in 1978 as the Best Book for Young Adults (wow, really?). And its no secret that King wrote for long before that, selling short stories to men's magazines. Even the authors who seem as if they suddenly fell down from the heavens into a pile of cash and millions of adoring fans struggled for a long time to get there. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was published in June of 1997 and hit Number 1 in August of 1999, for example, and we already talked about A Game of Thrones.
As you can see, these things do not generally happen overnight. The golden rule is that it takes three books published to start gaining a following. Though rules are made to be broken, it is pretty accurate; at three books you have been around for a while and people have seen your name on the bookshelves, you're still writing so they assume you must be at least half-way decent and they are more likely to give you a chance, thus probably buying more of your books if they liked what they read. Yes, this works for Amazon too. With one book you don't show up very often on the recommended feed, but with every book you publish there is a better likelihood that one of them will end up on someone's suggested reading list. Your real sales start when you have more to offer and can deliver quality work with everything you're putting out there.

      1. You're too negative/argumentative/impatient.

Recently, chef Gordon Ramsay took on a restaurant called Amy's Baking Company on his TV show Kitchen Nightmares. If you have not watched this series, in short Ramsay helps turn around a struggling restaurant by sorting out its problems and resolving business issues. Amy's Baking Company could not be helped. They did not want to hear anything negative, got downright nasty when offered constructive advice, and blamed everyone but themselves for not liking their food or business. I really recommend that anyone who is planning on working with the public in any respect look up the episode on Youtube; the whole thing is up there and it is a treasure trove of examples of what not to do when selling yourself and your product.

Unfortunately, authors can be sensitive people and when their book does not sell, or does not sell quickly enough or in the volumes they hoped for, they blame other people and sometimes it is very public and very accusatory. If they receive anything but a five star review or there is a criticism in a review comment, they fire back defending themselves or attacking the reviewer. I know, it can be difficult not to do this sometimes, especially for stuff like getting one star and someone says “too short, should have been free” or something useless like that. But arguing will not get you sales, complaining your book isn't selling is not going to get you pity, and blaming others for not buying it is not going to make them feel bad and give you money. Kill them with kindness and positivity, or better yet, just keep your yap shut and pretend everything is going exactly as you wanted it to. Read the criticism, think about it seriously, and learn from it, especially if you see several people saying similar things.

8.) Cheap does not equal sales.

Your book should not be free unless you have something else that a reader can buy if they like it, first of all; if you offer your work for free with nothing else to move on to, the reader is going to forget about you before your next book comes out unless it was REALLY memorable. And while .99 cents sounds like a great deal, many people will read “cheap” as “low quality”. Give yourself some credit and try to make a little profit per sale, because if you think its worth it, other people will too.

      1. You have to spend money to make money.

The old adage is very true when it comes to selling books. Unless you are an excellent judge of your market, a skilled artist, and perfect in spelling and grammar as well, you need to invest in a cover designer and an editor at the very least, and probably start sucking up to some really honest buddies who read your type of books to get them to beta read your drafts for you. A shoddy, unprofessional cover makes you look like a shoddy, unprofessional writer, and many people won't even give your book a chance if they don't like the cover appearance. The best cover won't fix a story that is full of errors that drive your audience nuts. And neither a great cover or professional editing are going to help a story that does not resonate with the reader.

Shop around and spend the money on the best cover and the best editor that fits your budget, and there are plenty out there for every budget. You won't regret it when the reviews really focus on your work rather than the little things that are easily avoided.

10.) And anything else I forgot.

As a new author, you are your biggest marketing tool right now, even if you are under contract. Do some real studying on marketing strategy, sit down, and make a plan that puts your book (or your link to your book) in front of the people that you most want to see it, make it happen, keep making it happen, and be extremely patient. Chances are you are not going to be raking in thousands of sales a month, but you should see some actual results in a year or two. If you don't, ask questions and start figuring out why. Simply asking “If anyone who reads this could please tell me what their reason is for not buying my book yet, I would really appreciate it because I am trying to figure out how to market it more effectively” will likely gain you a lot of constructive feedback as to what your watchers/likers/email list are thinking on their side of the monitor.

And finally, the typical disclaimer.

I am not a best-selling author, nor do I claim to be the ultimate authority on book sales. These are simply my observations placed into my experience from a couple of decades in business and marketing, much of it selling books and working in public relations-heavy jobs. My suggestions will not apply to everyone, nor will using any of my suggestions guarantee results. As one blogger said (and I wish I remembered who it was; if anyone knows please comment so I can give them proper credit), guessing what will be a best seller is about as accurate as a bunch of drunk frat boys playing darts, or something to that effect. But if even one of my suggestions helps one author make more sales, or the beginning part helps someone understand the book selling business a bit better, I will consider this post a win.


  1. Loved this post! Very Informative!!! The why my book isn't selling section should be it's own post and made into a poster! Great work.

  2. This is one of the longest yet most informative and helpful post I've ever read. Had no idea about the Remainders and the Best Sellers lists. Good to know all that stuff :)
    And thank god I did grab some coffee at the very start.