Why Many Books Don’t Sell

What’s more important — your book, or the person who wrote it?

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I’m surprised at how many aspiring writers say their biggest struggle is marketing their work.

This surprises me because I’m a very author-focused consumer, personally. If I haven’t heard of you, or someone I follow hasn’t recommended your book, I’m very unlikely to purchase your book.

People focus so much on their product — for our purposes in this post, we’ll just stick with books — that they forget the other half of the equation: the person publishing that book. The writer.

Who are you? If a consumer doesn’t know, they probably won’t care about your paranormal YA romance novel, if we’re being honest here.

My theory — and maybe the theory of many others — is that it’s hard, maybe even impossible, to sell a book without an audience.

If you’re a debut author backed by a major publishing company, maybe you’ll be fine. Your chances of success are much higher, anyway.

Let’s be clear — I am not an expert here. I’ve self-published some novellas and I created this blog and I write for a media company and I know a lot about how writing, in terms of craft and online publishing, works.

But I have not worked in the publishing industry. I don’t know anyone personally who does. I haven’t even sent out my first query letter yet.

The reason I’m sharing my theory is because I see writers’ imbalanced focus on what’s important when promoting their work. And I think these words might help some of them.

If even I were to try to self-publish and sell a novel right now, I’d most definitely fail. Whatever failure means in the publishing world, if there’s a metric. At the least, some members of my audience might say, “Sure, I’ll support you.” But that’s about it.

There are so many books out there — especially now that self-publishing is a mainstream route for aspiring writers — that people are highly unlikely to pick yours up if they don’t already know who you are.

Sure — a title, a cover, a good synopsis, all these things increase your chances of selling.

But they aren’t guarantees.

What you need, if you want to get published, is an audience.

How do you get one? You write stuff. A lot of stuff. And this is why so many aspiring writers are struggling. Because they refuse to write for free, even though that’s literally the only way you’re ever going to get published no matter what kind of writing you do.

As a beginning writer, you need at least a healthy host of freelance clients. If you don’t have enough experience for that, you need a day job and a side hobby (probably involving writing). If you keep turning down writing opportunities because they’re unpaid, honestly, what do you expect? That someone is just going to come along, see that you have zero experience or work to prove your worth, and hire/sign you?

That’s not how it works. This is, of course, coming from someone who blogged for three years (for free) before even getting a low-paying stipend job as a student journalist. (And by the way, it took until five years after that to get my first full-time writing job. Yeah, this stuff takes awhile.)

If you want to sell a book, you have to build an audience. And if you want to build an audience, you have to write a lot. Many things for free. Many things you would rather not write. Now that so many people have access to publishing tools, a following is, in my experience, pretty much a requirement if you want to accomplish anything as a writer.

I could go on about this. About consistency, about responsiveness, about how to treat your audience well — and I will, in a separate post.

But I just want you to understand that yes — literally anyone can publish a book. There is nothing stopping you from doing that.

If you keep holding yourself back because you’re afraid of failing, maybe writing isn’t for you. Writers fail. All the time. It’s part of the job.

If you want to succeed, your personal/professional brand matters a lot more than you think.

Instead of focusing on marketing your book, you need to tell people why they should care. And that often involves telling them why they should care about you.

An audience develops slowly over years. I know that’s not what you want to hear. But it’s the truth.

How does all this start? By sitting down and writing. You can talk about how much you want to be published all you want. But if you never write, well … good luck with that.


Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a nine-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.


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5 thoughts on “Why Many Books Don’t Sell

  1. Well said. A big problem these days is for authors to ‘float to the top’ in a sea of millions of books out there, in order to become visible. An odd thing I’ve noticed, that ties right in with what you talk about here, relates to my blog on writing. When I wrote about the writing craft, I had followers, but it wasn’t until I added stories about my life, that I started getting more comments and feedback from people. It’s that personal touch, like you talk about here. I think readers and writers not only want, but need, to be part of the story community. And also like you point out, it doesn’t work to just talk about writing. The difficulty facing many writers who go the indie route in particular, is finding time to write, to market, and to not just be seen, but to be known. We truly have to love the world of stories to do all this work, don’t we?

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