I occasionally run workshops on self-publishing a novel and in every class there’s at least one set of eyebrows that shoot up at the point where I start to wax lyrical about the importance of sales, and how to better construct your book in a way that helps it sell.
That means thinking about things that lure more buyers in—like word length, cover design, price point and so forth.
“You want to sell as many books as you can,” I say, “because the more books you sell the more money you make and the more chance you have to go on and turn more of your wonderful stories into books.”
For some students it’s as though I have just said, “Now go out and prostitute yourself.”
Invariably, their eyebrows begin to squish together and a scornful voice below them says something like, “But surely we shouldn’t be publishing books to make money.” And my reply is usually a variation of, “And why the hell not?”
Do J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, Toni Morrison and Ian McEwan all knock back their royalties?
I then go on to say something to the effect of, “Why is it okay for certain professions to shamelessly make a motza and be lauded for it—like inventors and scientists and internet gurus and actors and entrepreneurs and sports people and, well, you get the drift—yet writers must cling to this antiquated idea that if we are to be true artists, we must struggle?”
“Why must we ignore sales to have any kind of credibility?”
At this point their eyebrows often settle down a bit and they concede the point and wave me on. That’s when I start discussing how to actually sell more books, and lo and behold things turn squishy again.
Because selling your book doesn’t start the minute you write ‘The End’.
In fact, I tell my students, if you’re writing commercial fiction (because I’m not talking about literary fiction that delibrately pushes boundaries) and you’re hoping to sell e-books (because unless your name is Barnes and Noble, sites like Amazon are your marketplace) you’re going to need to consider certain factors before you’ve even penned the prologue.
Like word count...
Did you know, for instance, that in some genres less is best (like mystery and non-fiction), in others the more the merrier (like literary fiction)? Certain readers gravitate to certain book lengths whether you like it or not. That means, if yours is a crime novel, a little less waffle might be good for your wallet. It might also be better for the book, but that's a whole other workshop.
Like the first few pages..
Did you know that online buyers usually only read a small (free) sample and if you don’t grab them fast they flick on to the next book? They may download the full 20% sample but chances are they won't even read a quarter of that. It's still a lot more than they're likely to read if they stumble upon your book in their local book shop. In any case it means you haven't got time (aka pages) to waste (see earlier comment about waffle).
Not to mention all the things that come afterwards like cover design (it’ll be the size of a stamp so it needs to work doubly hard) and price point (you could sell your ebook for $39.95 but the only one who’ll buy it is your mother), and so on and so forth.
By this stage the sceptical student's eyebrows are so wedged together, they could hold up a set of Encyclopedias. Yet I ask you: what’s wrong with creating, writing and marketing your books so they actually find buyers (aka readers)?
Is that really any more cynical or any less artistic than writing books so that some guy in a suit can give you a publishing deal or a literary award or a good review in a newspaper?
Better yet—and this is really what I'm arguing here—is it any different to the way other artists go about their work? Like producers of films, albums, plays, opera, broadsheets and so on? Every single one of those artforms works within certain externally dictated constraints in order to lure and satisfy an audience.
So why not books?
Let’s take a closer look at some of these.
When did you last see a movie—even an ‘art-house flick’— that cost, say, $30 a ticket or went for five hours? The likes of Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese may feel they deserve higher ticket prices or want to make a ten-hour movie but they know that very few people will see it and so they edit it back. And they do this even before they've finished the first take. It's part of the pre-production process.
That’s showbusiness. That’s common sense. That’s their very survival. Whatever the filmmaker's motive for making the movie, be it to entertain, challenge or take us on a journey, none of those things will happen if we don’t first buy a cinema ticket.
In other words: Sales.
• Opera, Ballet, Theatre...
How many plays, operas or ballets have you attended that were performed at, say, five in the morning? Or after midnight? I’m gonna guess that, if you've attended any at all, the answer is none. Instead the production is usually performed over a few digestible hours after work or as a weekend matinee. Because that’s when people are available to see them and that’s when they’re more likely to buy a ticket. Did the reviewer criticize the fact that the opera or ballet was deliberately held at a convenient time for the masses?
Were they selling out? I think not.
• Feature articles
When you read a brilliantly written article in a magazine or newspaper, like a literary book review perhaps, did you know that the writer was most likely asked to stay within a certain word count? And that the word counts for these reviews are getting smaller and smaller thanks to the internet and our diminishing attention spans? Do you criticize the reviewer and tell them they have sold out because they kept their review to, say, 500 words instead of the 1500 they wanted to write? Do they criticize themselves?
Of course not. It’s just business. It means the reader (remember them?) is more likely to read the whole review, the paper is more likely to sell more copies, and the reviewer is more likely to be asked (and paid!) to write more reviews in future. Ka-ching! all round.
So is that selling out?
Stories should never be compromised. That’s NOT what I’m on about.
Let me repeat that because I know some of you are already formulating your scathing comments about true art and selling your soul and blah blah blah.
Stories should never be compromised. But the way you present and package your stories can be carefully tweaked and modified to lure more readers in, just as they are in other areas of life.
More readers = better sales
Better sales = more financial freedom
More financial freedom = more chance of giving up your day job and telling more of your wonderful stories
Hell, it may even give you the financial freedom to throw everything I’ve just said out of the window and write that 200,000-word tome you’ve been dreaming about.
Just don’t expect to sell many.
Happy reading (and writing) everyone!