The dark secret behind better book sales

People buy books for a lot of reasons. The main one is the emotional response they get from reading. And that’s true of non-fiction as well as fiction.

The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them). I wrote this one...
The way books should be sold in shops, cover out (the best way to display them). I wrote this one…

But that isn’t the only reason. Why buy this book and not that? Why buy at all? A lot of it, it seems to me, flows from word-of-mouth. And that in turn boils down to one factor – discovery.

I would say ‘discovery’ and ‘quality’, but I can’t help thinking that Fifty Shades of Grey rather gives the lie to the notion that ‘quality’ is a factor.

Discovery is everything. Sometimes readers take a punt on an author they know nothing about, but have just stumbled across. But that still demands discovery. If your books aren’t known at all, they won’t sell – which sounds like one of those idiot ipso-facto statements, except it happens to be the biggest hurdle any author faces these days. Discovery. Going from zero to almost-zero.

It’s hard. Social media equips everybody with the same tools. It’s hard to be heard above the ‘noise’.  Everybody’s self-publishing, spamming themselves across Twitter.  Why should a potential reader click on this one – and not another one? Or any of them.

Combine that with the new age of e-convenience – where a lot of book-buyers buy even hard copy books from the comfort of their home PC – and you’ve got a lot of weight riding on whatever internet presence you can scrape up.

Advertising outside that paradigm helps. Sometimes. But that’s hard too. Back in the late 1990s, my books were being advertised on TV, in major print journals – even the Woman’s Weekly (it was a bloke book on engineering – the idea was that wives would buy it for their husbands). But even under that old model it was hard. Publishers back success. An established author will attract a good deal more advertising clout from their publisher than an unknown one.

That, I think, is why J K Rowling’s last ‘Harry Potter’ novel was splashed all over Wellington buses at around $6000 a shot, and my non-fiction history books weren’t.

Can you do anything to tip the odds? Sure. My take:

1. Professionalism counts. Sometimes, that also means paying for professional skills where your own skill set lacks – proof-editing or cover design, for instance.
2. A solid and positive social media presence. You’re an author. Your social media presence is your brand, and it takes a lot of effort to build up. Don’t break it by doing something stupid – like blurting what you really think of Politician X, or ‘flaming’ people, or pulling sock puppet tricks.
3. Actually, despite the way Fifty Shades of Grey burst upon us, quality DOES count.
4. Hard work pays off. No really.

And, of course, there’s always that indefineable – dumb luck. You can set everything up, get everything geared to go – and still, things have to go your way. But that’s life generally, isn’t it.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


Shameless self promotion bit: My Bateman Illustrated History of New Zealand is available as e-book from Amazon. Go on, you know you want to …

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Nook coming soon.

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12 thoughts on “The dark secret behind better book sales

  1. I am amazed when I think that I stumbled onto Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. I needed a thick book, either fantasy or, maybe, sci fi. I wonder how close I came to missing out. It’s scary, sometimes.


    1. Yes, finding those grest books can often be chance. I’ve discovered some wonderful tomes in bargain bins, which to me says how much chance is involved in a book selling or not.


  2. Good post, Matthew! I agree – quality and hard work are what is important. I still can’t believe some books are so popular and others, which I think are better, do not. It is word of mouth and also shock effect. People generally like books they can discuss and share with others.


    1. That word of mouth definitely counts. I had a book a few years ago that sold very well and I am sure it was because it was being talked about. I did a lot of radio promo work, organised by my publishers, which I am pretty sure was one of the factors.


  3. One thing I’ve learned is that gems may be found in the bargain racks at bookstores — not just overstocks, but authors you might never have heard of. Why haven’t you heard about this author, or that book? Lots of reasons, I’m sure, but it accentuates your point. As Walt Whitman (I think!) wrote, “Full many a flower blooms unseen.” This applies to authors of an earlier time period who aren’t necessarily considered “classic” (like Mark Twain here in the States) as well — perhaps you find them at used book stores, but how do you learn about them in the first place?

    For example, I learned about Nevil Shute quite by accident. I had a book of Richard Bach’s articles reprinted from Flying magazine, titled A Gift of Wings. Among the articles was one titled “The Pleasure of Their Company” wherein Bach listed books and their authors who had written something about aviation he found compelling. Thanks to that article I was introduced not only to Nevil Shute but also to Ernest K. Gann and Cecil Lewis, among others. Subsequently their works became favorites of mine — but absent that article by Richard Bach I might never have heard of them. Truth to tell I might never have given Shute a try otherwise, because the only novel by him you ever see is On the Beach, and I don’t like books about nuclear war. I would never even have cracked the cover — there to learn he’d written books like Round the Bend and In the Wet.

    I’m thinking some bright person will write search software that prowls the net and brings back recommendations for reading — someday, perhaps.

    Until then how does one become noticed in the first place? There’s the question. I admit it’s preying on my mind, more lately than ever before.


    1. Shute was an astonishing author. Very much of his time but far deeper than many. I always liked the way he wrote about what he knew and saw. Marked by the way the settings in his novels changed from England. to Australia, as his life did.


  4. 50 Shades of Grey is proof that quality isn’t 1-dimensional, I think. I haven’t read it, but I gather it’s high quality wish-fulfillment. Say what you will about what’s delivering those wishes, they were what the people wanted.


    1. I haven’t read it either. That sort of stuff has no appeal to me. But I have read odd passages from it and found. the writing pretty execrable. I agree entirely that it was wish fulfilment for wider society. Which is slightly scary when you think about it.


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