Why your book isn’t selling

Victorine Lieske is an author who has set up a blog called Why is My Book not Selling? It’s open to self-published authors seeking input from other writers on the first three hundred words of their books, their covers and their product descriptions. I think it’s a good way for writers to get free feedback. If you have this problem and you want feedback, have a look at her site.

Of course, I could save you some time by telling you right now why your book isn’t selling—it’s the same reason the books there aren’t selling: none of them has been properly edited.

When I say “properly edited,” I mean actually edited by an editor. Having your book and product description proofread for typos (whether by friends or pros) is useless if the prospective buyer can’t make sense of the description and the first three hundred words consist of clotted, awkward prose. It’s an inescapable fact that no one will look at the sample of a book if the product description doesn’t make sense. It’s also a fact that no one will buy a book if he can’t read the free sample as easily as a newspaper or the back of a cereal box.

Now, I can hear the common objections being raised in your mind, so let’s go through them:

1. “Maybe the books have bad covers?”

Sure, some do have bad covers. But not all. Some have good covers, some mediocre covers, some just need tweaking. In short, there’s too much variation to blame all the problems on bad covers alone.

No, the only common denominator is cursory to non-existent editing; and almost every comment says or implies as much. Of course, you have to read between the lines. Most of the comments come from writers, after all, and diplomatic, helpful people like Victorine are not going to come right out and say, “Look, your prose is terrible! Get an editor!”

2. “Maybe the genre isn’t popular? Maybe there’s some luck in it too? After all, well-written books don’t always sell either.”

No doubt some people do have these problems. But here’s the reality: you can’t blame bad luck or the tribulations of breaking into a niche market until you actually produce a book that can’t be blamed on poor editing and a nonsensical product description. Sure, no one in his right mind would claim that a well-written book guarantees success; but no one in his right mind would dispute that a poorly written book guarantees failure.

3. “Aren’t you ignoring the obvious? Maybe the stories just suck.”

That’s always possible. Good prose doesn’t make up for a boring plot or an uninteresting premise. But it’s equally possible that poor writing is concealing good stories. Not every good storyteller is also a proficient writer. The skill sets don’t naturally overlap. Poor pacing or structure, for example—neither of which belongs exclusively to storytelling—can wreck a good story by robbing it of tension. So before chalking up poor sales to poor stories, one should be sure that the more likely and more easily fixed culprit has been ruled out.

4. “Of course you’d blame editing. You’re an editor!”

If you find it comforting to believe that the whims of fate are the reason your book isn’t selling, then by all means, blame fate. But which possibility is to you the more depressing one: That you’re the victim of unfriendly fate? Or that you just have a technical problem that can be fixed with a little know-how?

Yeah, I know, even after all that drama you’re still on the fence. Good editors aren’t cheap and, what’s more, you don’t know whether the one you choose will make the difference. But the other side of the perennial dilemma abides: unedited books don’t sell.

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3 thoughts on “Why your book isn’t selling

  1. Ultimately, self-publishing will come around to a hard reality: great books need great editing–and lots of time for development and revision.

    Unless you’re Joanna Penn, for example, whose breathless advice is typically “hurry up and write something this fall so you can publish it by Christmas!”

    Ugh.

  2. James,

    Publish before Christmas is a good imperative if you’re trolling for unsuspecting buyers. Maybe not so good if you’re trying to make a living selling stories…

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