Sixty second writing tips: does being known sell books?

This week’s revelations about J K Rowling’s pseudonymous detective book The Cuckoo’s Calling – as Robert Galbraith – highlights the point that no writer worth their salt writes because they ‘want’ to be famous…but celebrity sells books. Unfortunately.

The cover of my book Fantastic Pasts (Penguin 2008). I won't say 'buy this book' because you can't - it's been pulped and taken out of print. I got the license back last week, in fact.

The cover of my tank – er – book – Fantastic Pasts (Penguin 2008).

I’ll explain. I was having lunch at a cafe earlier this week with another writer when we were interrupted by a passer-by who knew him and enquired after his books.

My colleague wasn’t famous. I’m not famous. But New Zealand isn’t a large place. Wellington is a small city by world standards. That’s ‘being known as a writer’.

On my experience ‘being known’ is a consequence of persistence and brand – but it doesn’t guarantee sales. I’ve been writing books for years. The majority have been published by Penguin and Random House and consequently backed by their publicity machines. It hasn’t meant fame (which, truth be told, is my worst nightmare) but it has meant ‘being known as a writer’ in some circles, which is OK. It means people buy some of my books in series and I get review comments like: “If anyone is best equipped to pen a definitive study of one of, if not the, greatest military leader in New Zealand’s history, it would be Matthew Wright” (Mark Taylor, The Southland Times, 20 April 2005).

However, it hasn’t translated into a rising pattern of sales. Each book varies radically.

My worst seller was a science fiction history, Fantastic Pasts, which tanked.

My best was a general history of New Zealand which sold – and sold – until it went out of print temporarily (watch this space – soon).

The bigger factors are a heady mix of market desire for content, price-point, presentation – and competition. Timing is crucial. Get that combo wrong, and the book will tank even if you’re known. Get it right – and nobody can quite anticipate how – and you’ll shift stock.

I think luck plays a part, too. Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

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3 comments on “Sixty second writing tips: does being known sell books?

  1. I agree. You can do everything right, but timing equals luck, be it positive, negative, or neutral. When you’re releasing anything for public consumption you can suffer if the public’s attention is drawn elsewhere. At the same time, events elsewhere can serve to focus attention on your efforts. The world is like that: no guarantees. Frustrating and exhilarating at the same time.

    • Absolutely. What hit ‘Fantastic Pasts’ was that another publisher released a book to identical concept about a month ahead of my release, which snagged the market. And yet I had another book which I didn’t think would do well – ‘Big Ideas’, which shot into the top 5 best selling non-fiction list in New Zealand and stayed there for weeks – and even when it fell below that level, it was still sailing along in the top 30. The publishers, Random House, ran multiple reprints.

  2. I know the name means a lot to most readers, but I’ll buy a book from an unknown if I like the cover and/or description. I have completed books that I didn’t particularly like only because I kept hoping it would get better. Other times, when I thought the book was terrible, I threw it away. If I don’t like one book by an author I generally wouldn’t buy another of their books.
    My first book was a disaster. It had a great cover which peaked everyone’s interest, but when they opened it and saw the tiny print (9 font) they put it down. The few that read it gave good reviews. I know my next book is better, but wonder if it will get a fare shake. I’m in the editing process, but have hit a block with finishing it.
    At the rate I’m going, I will be a one-book wonder. :)

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