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Who is going to pay money to read y/our stories?

We write our words, we create our stories, and we want to be read. (Not all writing is to be read, of course, but for this post I assume the “we” here to refer to those of us pursuing a career in fiction writing.)
So, we write our words.
And then?
We submit our story to an editor, an agent, a publisher.
The dream is that our novel/short story collection is published, right? That we might get to see our book on the shelves of a bookshop and available online? That sometime we might earn money from our talent? We’re not talking about writing as a hobby, we’re talking about craft and graft, years of experience, reading and learning. We’re very good at what we do. We’ve won short story competitions, prizes, awards. We’ve been published extensively in quality literary journals online. Our work appears in anthologies. And now we are ready to be published in book form.
Who is going to pay money to read our words?
I work in a large bookshop. I get people asking me to stock and/or review their books. I know several authors who have been concerned that they won’t get their book stocked by Waterstones and it becomes a holy grail. If only they could get their book on those shelves their book would sell. But would it? I ask again, who will pay money to read y/our story? Why would they?
Who are you? How have they heard of you? How many people walk into a bookstore and browse the spines of all fiction titles until something looks appealing? Who will see you there, spine on, an unknown author, and choose you? 
Or, what if a bookseller displays you face out? Will people buy your book then? If you get a bookseller recommendation, that’d help, right?
Except I can tell you from experience that sometimes it can, and sometimes it just doesn’t. If the book is good; unknown and yet enticing, then a bookseller review gets it into a customers hand for that all important, albeit brief, look. They’ll scan the blurb on the back and then flick the pages letting them open in random spots and speed read some prose. They’ll decide, fast. 
I have displayed similar positive reviews on two separate collections of short stories on display for over a year. We have sold way more of one than the other. Both are good in my opinion. Not all time favourites, but solid works. The big difference it seems is the cover. One is unexciting, nothing that hasn’t been seen before, whereas the other is intriguing and striking. Can it really come down to the cover? Yeah, I think so. And the quality of the paper. People shy away from those that look self-published.
If you’re a short story writer maybe you’ve been prepared for slow sales. The common wisdom is that short stories don’t sell (except they do), so let’s turn to novels: I put 5 copies of a novel face out on our shelves over a year ago. No review. Over a year later we have not sold a single copy. The writer of this novel has a high online profile, is a good writer, actively engages with promoting his work and has received decent reviews on various blogs and sites. The theme is relevant, and I have little doubt that were it by a “name” author it would sell. If it was placed in our 3 for 2 promotion and available in every branch it would sell. If someone from The Guardian or The Telegraph reviewed it positively then customers would come in and ask for it. If it were discussed on TV or radio it would attract customers. 
The truth is that you can be a good writer and achieve your dream of being published and yet not sell many books. One book does not automatically lead to another, talent doesn’t automatically lead to sales and neither does having a book on the shelf of a bookshop. 
What can you do? I’m not sure, but there are a couple of things that I’ve seen work well. I’ll write a follow up post soon.
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17 responses »

  1. Excellent post. But its amazing anyone would think it was otherwise. We like familiarity, but we also like novelty. In a house without books we might read anything we come across, but in a bookshop we're assailed by choice. I used to head straight for the Picador white spines, knowing that there would be some interesting books published there. Wonder if there's an equivalent nowadays?

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  2. Good post. It's a bit like somebody said, "Publishing a volume of poetry and waiting for the response is like dropping a feather into the Grand Canyon and waiting to hear it land" or words to that effect.

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  3. Nice one, Sara. Its nice to know that short stories do sell, despite the negative publicity – but quite apart from that, I just want to say long live the bookshop.Many is the time that this butterfly brain has been into a bookshop to get 'Book A' because I read about it somewhere. Then been distracted and mesmerised by the other books… 'ooh – there's this thing on psychology, philosophy, geology, the Antarctic, there's how to take photographs, and how not to bodge the supper, and and and – so although I went in for Book A, a fiction work, I've often come out with Books B and C and not had enough left for A.That never ever happens on Amazon. I buy what I looked for. End.It works both ways. I doubt whether the hordes visit a real live bookshop much for my stuff – GB or SW or SC – but if they did, and got distracted and ended up buying someone else's book, I'd think – oh, OK. Another shitty day in the tropics. But at least they bought a BOOK. You know?vx

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  4. If you read The Guardian or The Telegraph on the day they choose to write the review. It’s a lottery. Since I do virtually all my shopping online these days I’m not usually swayed by cover art because all I get to see is a tiny graphic anyway but I am influenced by reviews primarily, I’m sorry to say, reviews on Amazon. You won’t find any of my books in Waterstones but there have been some quite decent reviews online but even though people make positive comments very few translate into actual sales. The reason? Because if people don’t buy there and then the odds of them remembering you in five minutes time, let alone a week or two, is virtually nil. The one thing the Internet is good for is distracting people so if the reviewer doesn’t include all the right links and make buying the book easy then forget it. The key to getting people to buy your book is being able to hook them quickly before they can get distracted by the next link or the next book on the shelf. I have a post just written about book covers and just how long people take to decide: 3 seconds. No one can assess the quality of a book in 3 seconds – a plate of food, yes, a dress suit, yes, but not a book. I get books sent to me by a few publishers and I would honestly like to know how many books they sell on the back of my reviews. I bet most of the time they’ll be lucky to recoup the cost of my copy. And yet they tell us that online reviewing is the future.

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  5. Fascinating piece, Sara. I like to think all my book-buying choices are born from reviews by those I respect, or a love of the author. Covers, I'm realising, play a big part.I was initially unsure about my own cover, but my publisher asked me to sit with it for a week, ask people their views – and almost all said it would make them pick it up, read the back. And so it stayed.

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  6. Bournemouth Runner – It *is* amazing to think anyone would think otherwise but I have met countless authors who have the attitude that being published is the finishing line. They've run their race, now their book will miraculously sell just because they have written it.I think that people browse the New Titles and the Recommended Reads first, then glance at 3 for 2's and offers of the week. Ossian – fabulous quote. Sad though.Vanessa – Yes, it's fab that people buy books in a bookshop, and that blissful happening upon a title that you didn't know even existed is just one of the cool things about browsing in-store. Jim – All true. I was posting about selling from a bookseller perspective. Covers *are* important, people do make snap judgements. And reviews too, drive people to the shop where hopefully they'll happen upon other titles that appeal to them too. I'm wondering how it is that one can get noticed in a bookshop when one does not have reviews/deals/promotions. Tom – I love the cover of your book. It is so striking and will hopefully get the book in a customers hands for that all important flick. You say that your own purchases are based on reviews or a love of the author. So how do you ever discover a fresh voice if there are no reviews? How would you sell your collection to yourself?

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  7. Good question. And one about trust, I suppose. I always imagined, though you'd have a much better idea than me, that a book needs a certain amount of noise in order to sell. I'm not sure I would discover a fresh voice absent of any reviews. But such appraisal can take the form of four words on the cover from someone I respect. This said, I bought Damon Galgut's The Quarry the other day based, I believed, entirely on the cover and synopsis. Not a new writer, but I'll confess to not knowing him. And it's brilliant, thus far.

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  8. Just when I was beginning to feel less anxious!Excellent post.I am drrawn to covers and I analyse titles but I have noticed that my choices vary depending on which book shop I am in. I am influenced more heavily by price and offers etc if I go to one of the chain stores – interestingly (to me), if there's an offer, I'll pick two things I've been on the look out for and then I always choose one I wouldn't have picked for myself. I'll either ask another customer or staff or just pick something rather randomly (though I realise there's no such thing as random in a book shop!). However, if I shop in a smaller store, and my favourite store is in the CBD and it's small and the shleves start immediately as you squeeze in the door and then you're forced around a set route and the books are so close that you see titles next to other titles in a way you wouldn't necessarily notice in a bogger store and things become intriguing…so, for me, it's more about the experience I'm offered which influences my purchasing. I'm a visual/emotional/kinetic buyer…I would dearly love to design my own covers when/if the day ever comes for me to get a book published! I guess that writers have to reconcile themselves with also being sellers. Rambly now 'cause my brain's gone into deep thought mode..

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  9. good points! very interesting as I work in a library and is trying to promote ALL books, not just the bestsellers … it's funny how it works though … you can put anything on the shelf "recent additions*and people will take the books out even if they were published two years ago …And sometimes we do colour-coordinated displays with books with only blue covers and that works quite well no matter who the authors are ..*recent doesn't mean new

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  10. Good post. This is definitely something that concerns me. Covers are what makes me pick up a book. Sorry, but if I don't like the cover, I generally don't buy the book. I think I can manage the great cover, but reviews in places that count (TV major newspapers ect) to get large numbers of people interested- if the publisher doesn't get me into them, then what can I do? As a new author, I have no sway. INternet is fine, but you have to have masses of reviews done because each reveiwer has a relatively small number of readers.

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  11. Covers will make me pick up a book I might not otherwise have picked up, but I usually go into a shop on the snout for a particular feel in the language, and ferret about among the opening pages to find something that sticks. I love anthologies because they can help lead you to new voices. Most of my favourite authors have been discovered in that way.I'm torn on this problem. With a book of short stories out this week (seems bombastic to mention this but since we're talking about letting people know the books are out there…) I can see how easy it would be to spend every spare minute churning out press releases and blogging and tweeting and ingratiating yourself in a way that makes everyone's flesh crawl, onto every guest blog known to lit-types. And what? Really? We might sell seven or eight more copies? I can't help feeling the time is better spent writing another, better book. None of us, not the writers nor the indie publishers, do this for money. Is it wrong to accept that most books are marginal profit, minority appeal purchases? Let the meerkat from the advert's autobiog outsell us, so long as he keeps the bookstores in business and they are prepared to give shelfspace to us too. I'm not saying marketing or success or advertising are dirty biz and we shouldn't sully our delicate artistic fingers with them, just that practically not every book in the shop can be a bestseller, or touted on posters in commuter stations. Small sales to appreciative readers, small sales of many authors can drip money into the business. Is this naive, Sara? Can it work on a wide but small scale commercially?

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  12. Aw bugger, that long one above was from Susannah. Didn't realise the incognito names crossed blogs! (We're blast-writing today.)

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  13. So good to hear that shorts do sell (if only publishers listened more…). The thing with covers, of course, is that you can have the best cover in the world but if your book is only spine-on no one will ever know. Reviews can be very hard for a new press or a collection by an unknown author, but I wonder uif The Guardian and Times are all they're cracked up to be. I mean, obviously if your intended reader is also a Guardian reader… but that doesn't apply in many places. What do your readers also read? Go there first – even if it's something weird like Dahlia Growers of Derbyshire Monthly – or those "guest publications" they have on Have I Got News For You – 1the editor is probably also a reader and more likely to take a peek out of interest. And 2, for all the lower circulation figures, you will find a lot more of your target audience. "Painting your patchwork pretty pink weekly" may have a circulation of 20 million, for example, but you will probably sell fewer copies of Zombie Arm Muncher Revenge than through a mention in the 500-readership Gross-Out Monthly.Which, taking up from what Jim said about lotteries, leads to another important cnsideration when placing books for reviews – shelf-life. A monthly is much less of a lottery than a daily.

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  14. Tom – yes, in the absence of that "noise" how will a book be found? Such a toughie.Rachel – yes, I think in small shops it's easier to see more of what's available. In a large store, like the one I work in, if a book isn't in a promotion we have the floor space to have tables with bookseller recommendations and all sorts of display cases. That affords us the opportunity to put some lesser known books out but in some high street stores the space is very limited. Louise – Hello! Yeah, I sometimes colour co-ordinate my display just because it draws the eye. Tahlia – I think that sometimes the internet (blogging/facebook/twitter et al) can make one feel that one is networking, but really, how many of those readers follow through and buy a book? And it tends to be writers reading writers and buying each other's books. How do we reach beyond each other to the reading public? And no, I have no clue how to be reviewed in a "place that matters."Susannah – you always, always make perfect sense to me. I love your assertion that your time is better spent writing more rather than "ingratiating" yourself online for a few extra sales. Hard to argue with logic like that. The ideal is surely that good quality literature is available alongside more popular fiction. But, my question is then, why can't popular fiction be good quality? It can. And a small indie publisher can produce books that go on to be bestsellers. It's all about visibility though because once a book is tagged "popular" it is more freely displayed, and the larger the display the bigger than sales (usually, but not always) and around we go.It's essential that bookshops remain on the high streets and therefore offer opportunities for browsing which simply do not happen online. And it's essential that book shelves do not become entirely chart based.Dan – I suppose the reason that I use the Guardian (which I do read) and The Telegraph (which I don't read) as examples is because the people who purchase literary fiction from me and who brandish cut out bits of newspaper or mention reviews tend to have heard about them from those papers. Also from the radio. I think their readers/listeners feel they can trust a good review from them which is a wonderful thing for a writer they endorse.

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  15. i made a 1.40 on my writing this month so far…watch out dan brown

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  16. I knew this was the case and I admit it's one of my fears – that even if I get published I won't sell too many books. I'll be pushing for an awesome cover.I've designed one myself in the meantime. I'd love to know what you think of it. It's on my blog along with ch 1 – Lethal Inheritance, YA fantasy

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  17. thom – if you're up on the month you're doing well, right? Yeah, Dan Brown money would be good.Tahlia – I popped over to your blog and would say that I don't really know about YA Fantasy but the cover looks totally appropriate to your genre. Best of luck with it.

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