Friday, 24 February 2017

Death of a book salesperson

This week's blog post is about the business of selling books. It's quite depressing. If you're not interested in why over 99% of authors make no money out of writing, enjoy this photo of a ferret and then come back next week when we’ll be looking at something more fun.

This last week I have had to pay rather more attention than usual to the sordid details of sales figures. They did not make me happy.

There's no doubt that e-book's have dramatically transformed the way that publishing works. The rules have definitely changed. The problem is that nobody knows what the new rules are.

E-publishing has changed the way that writers write, but it has had even more effect on the way that books are sold. There are so many e-books that it has become impossible to browse even a fraction of them. So how do you make your book stand out and be seen?

The books that are most easily picked up are those which Amazon recommends or which appear near the top of Amazon's charts. The easiest way to get recommended is to sell an awful lot of books. So books that are near the top of the chart tend to sell better than others – but, of course, that's why they were near the top of the chart in the first place. But how to get there?

The easiest way to get a book into the charts is for it to be very like a book that has done really well already. Hence the plethora of series novels that you see on Amazon. Mine are no exception. Burke in the Land of Silver was followed by Burke and the Bedouin, followed by Burke at Waterloo. If you haven't got your own book in the charts already, the next best thing is for your first novel to be very similar to somebody else's. Hence the massive number of ‘me-too’ books about. One year it's vampires, then it's were-wolves. This year it’s damaged girls, preferably on some form of public transport.

There are problems with series books. For me, it's simply that in order to build on the success of my first bestseller, I have to start with a bestseller. Burke in the Land of Silver did get sold, read and (according to its reviews) enjoyed, but it didn't sell in the numbers required to top the charts. Burke and the Bedouin sold OK, but it certainly wasn’t able to ride the coattails of the first book. For those authors trying to ride the charts on the back of somebody else's bestseller, the problem is that if a particular kind of book becomes fashionable, everybody writes it. If you sit down now to write a book about a girl who breaks away from an unhappy relationship and is then driven to drink/murder/faking her own death, by the time you've finished it it will be one of several hundred books with remarkably similar outlines. Why should anybody read yours?

Well, why should they? One answer would be because it's free. Giving books away free on Amazon used to be a very popular way of trying to get visibility. The problem is that people build up huge stocks of books that they haven't paid for and which they never get around to reading. If they do read them, because they're the kind of people who like to read books but don't like to buy books, the odds are that they won't buy your next book when there are so many alternative free ones. Free books used to be seen as a valuable promotional tool, but they have fallen out of favour. My publisher, Accent, no longer uses them, claiming that they just do not work. I'm inclined to believe them.

You can advertise, of course. The thing is that a proper advertising campaign – even quite a small one – is expensive. My books are not unusual in that the e-books sell for between £1.99 and £2.99. You'd have to sell an awful lot of books for the profit to pay for a small poster campaign or one advertisement in a popular magazine. One way round this is to design a nice ad (Accent are good at this) and then put it on Twitter and post about it on Facebook. Hence the banner that appears at the top of my pages on Facebook and Twitter. Some people will even insert your cover into photos of street scenes so that it looks as if you have a real poster campaign but without the costs of buying all those poster sites.

In order for it to be seen on Facebook you either have to pay for it (and we’ve already established there is no budget) or you just post it on your wall. So posting on your author page it is. Unfortunately, in order to see this, people have to have already "liked" your page, so they're probably aware of you and of your books. The advert might have some effect, but it is probably very marginal.

What about Twitter? Maybe the answer is to tweet it and to get as many people as possible to re-tweet it.

The easiest way to persuade people to re-tweet your advertisement is to reciprocate by re-tweeting one of theirs. The result is many authors whose Twitter stream consists almost entirely of re-tweets of other writers’ advertising. This is, of course, spectacularly boring and their streams are therefore often read, I suspect, almost entirely by other authors desperately reciprocating away with their own re-tweets. If an actual customer wanders into the stream by mistake, they still won't see your advertisement, as it is now submerged in a welter of ads from every other writer your writing friends know.

So what to do? I write this blog. Besides posts like this, which I admit is likely to appeal to a rather specialist market, I write a lot about 19th-century history. I'm wondering whether to produce a short book based largely around posts that I have already written on Waterloo. I produce over 50,000 words a year, which is a good part of one of my novels and thousands of people read what I write. Presumably some of them find it enjoyable or useful but there is no evidence at all that my blogs sell any books.

I took myself to the middle of Wales, which is always a pleasure, and gave a talk about James Brooke, but there was no sign of any significant increase in sales of The White Rajah. I have been to a couple of book groups in the London area and this, I think, does improve sales, if only by selling copies to the people who are members of book group. I'm happy to do this again (you can contact me at It does lack potential as a mass-market tool, though.

Books are, of course, competing with all the various forms of electronic entertainment that vie for our limited leisure time. I have piles of books, both real and virtual, by people whose work I would really like to read, but which I haven't got round to yet. I know many other people are in the same situation. I even know friends who have bought my books but who simply haven't had time to read them yet. “I'm saving them for my holiday," is a fairly common refrain but, thanks to Kindle, even on holiday you have a whole library of books to choose from.

What's the answer? I really don't know. Self-publishing, recommended by many friends, has the advantage that you keep a higher proportion of the money your book makes and have more control over its sales. Because you are focused on just your titles you will probably give them more attention than a publisher who has a range of books to look after. But, on the other hand, you won't have the publisher’s experience and you presumably started writing because you enjoy writing, rather than because you wanted to become a bookseller.

You can concentrate on becoming famous. It's a fair bet that if I were on Big Brother or assassinated the Prime Minister or walked naked down Whitehall, some people would pick up my books out of curiosity. Tempting as some of these options are (particularly the second, if I'm honest), I don't think I'm going to go for them. What I do instead is to reveal rather more of myself than I'm particularly happy with here and on Twitter in the hope that you'll decide that I'm a nice person and be interested enough in me to read my work. Hence my posts about my Christmas holidays and my tango adventures. Some people make this work for them. Zoella famously became a bestselling author without actually writing a word herself simply because she is so attractive in her videos. I don't think it really works for me: I’m not nearly as pretty as Zoella and considerably less bubbly.

Over the next few weeks I will be thinking quite hard about the direction to go. If you enjoy reading my blog, now might be a good time to buy some of the books and convince me that it's worthwhile. If you don't have £2.99, you could at least write a comment to persuade me to continue with this.

I'll keep writing because, like most authors, I have an almost obsessive need to do so. How my writing is going to reach my readers, though, remains an open question.


  1. Some very interesting and valid comments here Tom, I am sure you are the voice for a great many good writers, most of whom are not comfortable with marketing activities !

    1. If you do a promotion that sells a good number of books in one week (I'm talking forty or more), your book becomes more visible on Amazon, so more people get to see it. If this makes it continue to sell, then it will continue to be seen (and vice versa). Amazon's algorithms work like Google's ~ the more you sell, the more visible your book is, and if you don't sell many, no one ever sees it; it doesn't appear on 'also boughts' or those recommended lists that you see underneath your own carousel on the Kindle app. Which is why most books don't sell many ~ it's simply because no one knows they're there. I know this sounds obvious, but I'm always surprised by how many writers don't understand it. I can think of one particularly fabulous author who said to his proofreader 'but if it's really good, it'll just sell, won't it?'. No, because he never promotes it. A good, paid promotion might sort it out.

      You're right about the free promotion, its heyday ended about five years ago. I just put Best Seller on free because it's slipped from selling a reasonable amount to not selling much at all, since Christmas, so I thought I may as well. As for the type of people who download a lot of free books, I don't think that necessarily follows. I buy all my books on Kindle, and sometimes download free ones. If I happen to find one I really like, I'll buy more by that author. That's all it boils down to, really; whether or not the reader likes what they've read enough to seek out another one. That's based on my own reading habits and observation of others only, though!

      Joanna Penn, marketing supremo, says that Facebook ads are on the way out because people are beginning to suss out that you're paying to advertise to people who've already heard of you. She reckons Amazon ads are the way to go.

  2. Your views are always interesting, Terry. It does make me see the advantages of self publishing. Unless I can persuade my publisher to organise a paid promotion, I put up all the money and they take three quarters of the profit. I clear 30 or 40p on most e-book sales, so a paid promotion would have to be very efficient before it was worth my while.

  3. I've read several pieces this month saying Amazon ads are the new IT place to spend your marketing budget. I did do a fb ad last December. And weirdly it seemed to work. It cost me $NZ28, got my book to #51 on UK amazon. Then on the 19 Feb it got to #15. But with no paid advertising. I had done a ton of posts everywhere about the launch of The Last Letter in Wellington. So either way, it proves if you put full time marketing in place, or pay for it, you will see movement. I of course can't sustain the level of marketing I did on & around the 19th Feb, and write my next book. So it's an interesting conundrum!
    Do you cross post your blog to Google+? Pinterest? StumbleUpon? I share my blog to all those sites. StumbleUpon seems to be a very big place for engagement. It should be a simple add on for your blog site. And if you're not on Pinterest with all your Burke references, consider yourself rapped over the knuckles with a Calvary sabre.

  4. I don't understand Pinterest and I've never used StumbleUpon. Because Blogger is run by Google, there is. G+ button on the blue bar at the top of the post.