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Whose Fault Is It If Your Book Doesn’t Sell in 2013?

by Greg Johnson
WordServe Literary Group

After representing a couple of thousand books, I’ve seen average books go through the roof, and great books struggle to find readers. I won’t name names or titles, but we’ve all scratched our heads after reading a current bestseller, thinking Really? Naturally, I’ve seen hundreds of books sell just “okay.” And on rare occasions, I’ve even seen great books do very well. Imagine that?

So why are some books unable to find a foothold in retail and with consumers? The reasons are legion.

• No one has heard of the author, so they’re not looking for their book.

• A world event happened–war/disaster/crime/election–so the book and author who could have been talked about on media (and was booked on media), is no longer big news. (I’ve seen this happen more than once.)

• Bad cover. While you can’t “judge a book by its cover,” you certainly may not buy it if it’s awful.

• Bad spine. A consumer takes .8 seconds to look at your book spine as they walk down the aisles in bookstores, and if they can’t read the font/script/type, they won’t work hard enough to pick it up to see your great title, subtitle, endorsements and back cover copy. Sale denied. (So always make sure you are sent the spine to make sure it’s readable.)

• Interior type is too small or squished together. I’ve had several great books die because the publisher wanted to save paper so they put it in 9 pt. type. Even a great cover and big author name can’t save a book from people saying, “My eyes got tired of reading so I didn’t finish it.”

• Lots of bad reviews and not enough good reviews to counteract them.

• Retail doesn’t reorder. While a publisher will often get at least one book of yours on the shelf at most stores, they can’t put a gun to a retailer’s head and make them reorder. Complaining that “my book is not on the shelf” is rarely the fault of the publisher. Believe me; they ARE trying to sell books.

• No e-book marketing/sales strategy.

• No buzz. The publisher must create some buzz through TV/radio/blog reviews and all the rest. But it’s not only their job. The author must (MUST) be about the business of creating their own buzz, as well.

I tell my authors that a publisher can sell about 15,000 copies of almost anything if they really want to. (I only wish they really wanted to on every book.) But the book won’t sell more than 15,000 if it doesn’t get word of mouth. Good, bad or mediocre books sell well because groups of people start talking about it and telling their friends and neighbors. Think about how many times you’ve said, “You’ve got to go see this movie,” or “You’ve got to read this book.” That’s what sells tickets and books the most.

Bottom line: They heard about it, saw it, bought it, loved it, and then told others.

Do you agree with this conclusion? Are there other reasons you’ve seen or heard about why books sell or don’t sell (yours or others)?


Greg Johnson is president of WordServe Literary Group in Colorado, and has been a literary agent for 18 years.

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4 Responses to Whose Fault Is It If Your Book Doesn’t Sell in 2013?

  1. I select books by:

    Catchy title
    Interesting blurb (this is #1 for me!)
    Print size!–You are so right on with this one! My eyes are bad enough without adding small, squished print into the mix.

    Sometimes I go by word of mouth–depends on whose mouth it’s coming out of.

  2. Lynellen Perry says:

    I heard in a speech at the Blue Ridge Mountain Writers Conference this year that most books sell under 1,000 copies. How do I put that factoid together with the assertion that publishers can sell at least 15,000 copies of every book??

  3. I have started reading many new-to-me authors of the past 2 years just because I got a free ebook. Then I was hooked. As an unpublished author, I don’t know if that is a good idea to start off with or not. But I know I have found a lot of books that I love this way, and have read many others by those authors because of that.

  4. angela alston says:

    I agree with your assessment of why some books do not sell.I decided in 2012 to become my sons agent and market his graphic novel I have been rejected at every turn,we are self-published. I have sold a total of 50 books.We could really use some much needed advice.Thank you in advance.