Book Sales Aren’t Everything

Has self-publishing lost its way? The reason that I got interested in self-publishing was because of the traditional publishing industry’s obsession with marketing over the quality of books. It seems like the vibe around self-publishing these days is echoing trad publishing’s marketing obsession. I understand wanting to sell books. I’m desperate to sell books as well and I check my KDP account more than is healthy. But: book sales are not the only reason to write, and it’s also not the only reason to market a book.

JA Konrath has a post about how publicity doesn’t lead to book sales. David Gaughran wrote this comment, which acts as a kind of companion piece to his post,Why is My Book Not Selling?

I was interviewed by two national newspapers here in Ireland over the last few months. As luck would have it, the interviews ran on Saturday and Sunday – two huge double features on self-publishing, with big chunks of quotes from me, and mentions of books etc.

I suspected it would do little for my sales, and it did exactly nothing. Now, it’s nice for my friends, and especially my family – this stuff is important to them, and maybe it will open some doors for me – who knows. And maybe it gets my name out there a little too, so the next time somebody comes across my books, they might be (slightly) more inclined to check them out. Maybe.

But there is no sales spike from this stuff. I couldn’t attribute one extra sale to being featured in the two biggest weekend papers in Ireland (that are read by pretty much everybody who reads books). Zero.

They’re right, in part. Press doesn’t always move books. Back in the day, my novel was reviewed by the biggest self-publishing reviewer going (back when there were 5): Poddy Mouth. I was mystified and sort of heartbroken that the post didn’t lead to many sales. Read that as: zero sales. It did eventually: her selections were picked up by Entertainment Weekly:

In all, because of that small piece, I think I sold 50 books. Cool, nice, but not earth-shattering. I also got an offer of representation from a high-caliber agent. But that’s not even my point. Here I am 5 years later referencing that review, which may cause someone to take a look at that old book. Reviews are accumulative, just as new books are accumulative.

More than that, however, is being a part of the discussion. An interview or review is as much an artform as writing. Here’s an interview I did recently, and I’m proud of it. I like what I have to say. Did that interview lead directly to any book sales? Not that I’ve seen. But I’ve condensed some of my ideas from the novel, and gotten the word out about some things I believe in. This has value beyond book sales.

Putting too much of an emphasis on marketing is a cousin to saying: if it doesn’t sell, it’s not worthwhile. This has been the mantra of the traditional publishing industry, and it would be a shame to see this taken on by self-publishers as well. Everything is writing: a review, an interview, a guest post, even a Facebook post. It’s all self-expression of some kind. And even if it doesn’t lead to direct sales, it’s just plainly fun to be a part of the discussion.

A later comment on the “Publicity” post says:

Joe, the crux of your point here is shocking, but absolutely true in my experience. I was on an east coast book tour when I got the opportunity of a lifetime…er, so I thought. I appeared live on national tv: Fox Morning Show with Steve and Gretchen. It was a great segment. The Washington Post did a front page story on me, suggesting that I might be the “Next Harry Potter.” Holy SNOT, you’d think my sales would quadruple overnight. Nope. A two day bump in sales is all that happened. I was so frustrated I could barely sleep. I used to think that the press was an excellent way to meet readers.

This is eye-opening, but how many sales did he have for that two-day period? Looking at his books, he has hundreds of reviews, so it looks like he’s getting read. I don’t really want to single out an individual writer, but have self-publishers gotten greedy, now that they’ve heard stories of Konrath, Hocking, and Locke making millions? It seems to me that the experience of going on TV should be gratifying in some way. So it didn’t lead to permanently heading towards the best-seller list – it still seems like a pretty cool thing to have done.

Maybe writers need to take a step back and revel in all that’s available to them, and what’s possible. I’m speaking to myself as well because, believe me, I look at my own sales sheet and all the success stories and think, why not me too? But I’m a writer first, marketer second, and I’m proud about what I’ve written and published, even if it isn’t a goldmine. I have faith in what’s possible.

So saying something like “All my marketing efforts have been futile” only makes sense if you’ve landed zero reviews or interviews. But if you’re being discussed in some way, this is a start. Ask yourself, does it feel like a book sale when you get a good review even if you’re not selling any books? For me, it does: it’s fun, it’s exciting, even on some blog with 20 hits a day.

For some people writing is purely a business, and so if a book’s not selling, it’s a failure. That’s fine for those people, but I imagine for a majority writing is also about self-expression and conveying ideas. If you’re writing, you’re doing that even if you sell nothing. So what you’re doing has value before money changes hands. We’d all love to sell thousands of books – but if you don’t you’re not a failure, unless you believe book sales are the only measure of a book’s worth. And if that’s the case, then there’s not a lot of difference between traditional publishing and self-publishing except for the royalty percentage. I don’t think that’s true, but money isn’t everything.

  • Henry, I agree with 100% of this post. I’m not saying this to suck up to you because you’re a far better known writer than I am. I say it because I believe what you say is true. My first book garnered great reviews and some awards but few sales. Am I glad I went through the effort to publish and promote that book? Without question. I feel I’m in the discussion, and “it’s fun, it’s exciting.” And nobody with a brain leaves the future out of the equation.

  • Hi Henry,

    I agree with part of what you are saying. There is a focus on money and sales in self-publishing. No doubt about it. My blog certainly talks about that stuff a lot. But there are logical reasons for that. I’m not making enough to live off and I would very much like to build up my audience to the point where I could – and I think a lot of my blog readers are the same.

    The comment on Joe’s blog (quoted above) was in direct support of his claim that publicity in traditional media – like being featured in newspapers – doesn’t really shift books. You shouldn’t draw any inference that I assigned no value to it. In fact, being interviewed by national newspapers was a wonderful experience, and I couldn’t give two hoots if it shifted any copies for me. Here is a quote from one of the interviews:

    “Since I started [self-publishing], the joy has returned – and my productivity has soared. I’m a much happier person, and that’s worth more than any advance or any number of sales.”

    That, to me, is what’s really important. Happiness.

    However, I’m also pretty sure that the day I can say “I’m making a living from selling books,” will be a pretty special one – if I am lucky enough to get there. It has been a major life goal for quite some time. I work very hard towards that. Maybe, if I keep working hard and I get a couple of breaks, I will get there one day. If I’m really lucky, maybe it will happen in the next few years. Who knows?

    I like crunching numbers. I like analyzing the market. I enjoy the business side. It doesn’t really feel like “work” to me. But I don’t think a focus on marketing needs to come at the expense of a greater focus on telling great stories. I don’t think it’s either/or.

    I talk about the craft infrequently on my blog. Partly because my writing is largely instinctive and I’m not that capable of having an intelligent discussion about the mechanics, and partly because such conversations make my brain turn to soup.

    Writing a good story is much much harder than any aspect of publishing or marketing. More fulfilling, but infinitely more demanding. There may be some naturals or prodigies (or old hands) that will disagree – but for me, it’s certainly the trickiest part of the equation.

    Commercial considerations never enter into my head when I’m crafting a sentence or deciding which story to work on next – if they did, my first four releases wouldn’t have been in four different genres. No marketing takes place at my writing desk, aside from a desire to only put out my very best work.

    But when that sucker is finished, I see no conflict in combing my hair, shining my shoes, and getting up on my soapbox to the world about it.


    • Sorry if it seems like I’m singling you out. It was really a reaction to the chorus of support for Konrath’s claim that publicity is meaningless, without anyone saying: but wait, I like publicity.

      I would absolutely love to make a living writing. In fact, I really need the money. It’s just not entirely realistic for me right now, and in the meantime I’ll find sustenance where I can.

      • No offence taken. And I think it’s a point worth making. Most of us are desperately chasing the same dream: to make a living from telling stories. Sometimes we don’t take the time to mark our achievements along the way – I know I’m guilty of that on occasion – or forget to take pleasure in the simple fact that *someone* is reading your stuff and enjoying it. Because that’s what makes all the struggle worthwhile. Nothing puts a bigger smile on my face than a killer review, or an email from someone saying that they enjoyed my work. That feeling is unbeatable. Although, I would also like to know what it’s like not to worry about money!

        • David, I’m one of those who isn’t “desperately chasing the same dream: to make a living from telling stories.” Although I made a living doing other things, I can imagine how you feel. If you’ve written a realistic historical novel with seven main characters, I’ll get around to reading it — and reviewing it, but only if I can give it 4 or 5 stars. (I don’t believe in dumping on fellow indie writers, no matter how much they might yet have to learn.) I’m sorry to know that you need “to worry about money.” So did I, back in the day. But I agree with you it doesn’t matter as long as “someone is reading your stuff and enjoying it.”

          • Hi Ron,

            It’s not so much “worrying about money” as having to plan very carefully. Like most writers, I don’t make enough to live off, and I need other sources to supplement my income. I’m not whining – I’m pretty happy with the way things are going – but it sure would be nice to just write for a living.

            I’ve had good jobs and I’ve had terrible jobs. I’ve had high-powered jobs for international corporations, and I’ve done all sorts of manual labor. I’ve been a freelancer, a contracter, and a temp. And I’ve had jobs that paid very, very well, and those that paid poorly. But all I’ve ever wanted to do was write.

            I made $100 from writing in 2010. I made a lot more in 2011. So it’s going in the right direction.

            I’ve always been a restless soul, though. As soon as I achieve one goal, I started working towards the next. Most of those goals involve writing stories or finishing novels, rather than making money or hitting some arbitrary sales number. I can’t control how many people will buy my book on Amazon, but I can control the quality and quantity of my output.

            Writing a novel with seven main characters presented all sorts of challenges. I walked away from it many times. I started it in 2006, and published it just before Christmas. That was some feeling.


  • I agree with you too, Henry. There are two different types of self-publishers: those who see it as a business and money is the measure of success, and those who see it more as an art-form or an avenue for self-expression. If they sell a few books, they are happy, because of course, all writers want to be read. The latter tend to give away more of their work than the other. I’m not saying either group feels less passion for the writing; it’s just that the litmus test for success is very different.

    As for book reviews, they don’t generate much in the way of sales because most buyers don’t read them. When I worked for the PodPeople, I would spend weeks reading indie books and writing extensive thoughtful reviews. The authors appreciated the work, but it didn’t really ever amount to appreciable sales. That’s why I stopped doing it — the book reviews. I wanted to take a more active role in the community, and so I decided I wanted to publish new authors, not just review them. I started — with a few partners — a flash fiction ezine, which will eventually produce digital and print anthologies. We’ve found that getting the work out there no matter how short, long, or whatever, generates buzz around the author, and that is what sells books. For the average consumer, they look at the cover art, flip through a few pages, listen to what a friend said about it, and they buy or don’t buy. Crap covers and poor editing will definitely hurt you more than a review will help.

    I could be wrong, but this has been my experience so far.

    • Cheryl Anne,

      Isn’t that a little too black-and-white? Can you at least allow the possibility of a third category: writers who see it as and art-form AND a business? Certainly, that’s how I would classify myself, and I don’t think I’m that unique. When I write it’s an art-form, and when I’m setting my prices, choosing my covers, writing my blurbs, composing effective back-matter, buying ISBNs, and building a website, it’s a business.

      I see zero conflict there. I never write with my business hat on (and vice versa).

      I would also take issue with your assumption that writers who exclusively view it as an art-form will be more likely to give their work away. I clearly view this as a business also, and I gave away 12,000 short story e-books in the last 48 hours.

      That achieved two goals. My two (under-loved) shorts are now in the hands of a whole bunch of new readers (hooray!). But those shorts also contained a sample of my new novel – which some of them will hopefully enjoy enough to purchase.

      Again, art and business can happily co-exist.


      • Sure Dave, there are always variables, third categories, fourth categories, categories unknown … would take too long to list all the types of writers, so I was speaking of the main two in broad strokes, though it didn’t come off that way. I should have worded it differently: said the main two categories of too many to count. Sorry for the offense.

        I do all those things too, as I own my own imprint, but I do not consider my writing a business, to my own detriment, of course. Many writers who are focused on the business end of it, in fact, do write with their business hat on, as in, they write for the current market. For some writers, the current market is what they love to write, and for some, they do it simply because they know that market sells.

        I also said the latter have the “tendancy” to give their work away for free more readily, again, that was broadstrokes. There are always exceptions to everything. The tendancy is simply greater with the latter group I have found in my four years experience as an indie book reviewer.

        So yes, art and business can happily co-exist — for some. For others, it really doesn’t work. Each writer is an individual with different goals and different measures of success. I’ve met a few writers so into the art definition that they refuse to put a price on any of their work, preferring to let the world apprecite it for free sans all corporate bureaucracy, almost like a political statement.

        It takes all kinds, but to discuss each and every type of writer would take a decade or more, I think. Henry’s point here of Book Sales Aren’t Everything is also a broad stroke, because for some, they are.

        • Oh, no offence taken whatsoever. My views on self-publishing were largely forged in a variety of flame wars around March/April last year when the big topic in the writing community was whether this was a viable path or not. And I probably still view things largely through that prism – still fighting that battle, even though it’s over, I suppose.

          • No worries. I saw my share of flame wars over on Lulu back in the day when I started out, which is a large part of why I left Lulu and all community forums for that matter. I got into book reviewing because there were so few sites out there at the time, and I was tired of the crap product being bandied about in the pat-my-back forums. I wanted to showcase the good stuff. The stuff where it was obvious the author cared about the writing and the presentation. I’ve lost count of how many SP titles I have reviewed, and reviewed well because they deserved it both from business authors and from art authors and everywhere in between.

  • Thanks for this post; it’s thought provoking. I agree book sales aren’t everything, but I think those sales numbers have become our report card. I was a bit shocked over the last year when I saw other authors posting their sale numbers on their blogs, in detail. At first I thought it looked crass, but I’ll admit I began to follow them. In December I even shared my shares goals and results on my blog, Book Promoting 101. I think we’re all jumping up and down, excited that self publishing is working. And people naturally want to share their success.

    That relates to those author interviews and features. They’re fun. They make us feel successful and help us celebrate what we’ve done. I’ve been featured in my local papers and online quite a bit, and I’m not sure if any of it led to direct sales. But I have one up on the wall, and it’s very rewarding when people know about me.

    My opinion is that book sales aren’t everything, but they do reflect why we’re in this game: to connect with readers.

  • Amy

    Great post, Henry. And while I know that this is mainly a forum for self-pubbed authors, I would argue the challenge of selling books is certainly not specific to indie authors (I was on The Today Show and had a 3/4 page review in People magazine…it bumped sales, but not as much as you’d expect).

    The truth is, even if money weren’t involved, most writers want to know that their work is being read and appreciated. For indie authors its even harder, because its incumbent upon them to be able to do many things well…writing a good story (of course), but then being able to publish it and promote it. That’s a lot of hats to have to wear. It’s hard work, certainly, but just succeeding with the first part…creating a work that you’re proud of, for me makes it worth the effort.

  • v

    I think it is also important to realize that there is nothing at all about being all about the sales. People self-publish for their own reasons and no one else can tell you what is too import/not important enough for you.

    • I agree with you, v. I think it’s important for writers to know they can now publish their writings without have any gate-keeping approval of what they write. Not even the market’s.

  • This is very true. Still you have to market to some degree. I don’t expect millions of sales but after a few years and releasing more books, I think my work will speak for itself. I know I’m unique, I have been universally liked by everyone who has read me, though it is currently a small crowd, so there must be others out there.

    • Matthew, I like your attitude. Unsurprisingly, it’s very much like my own.

      • I actually hate to be so self-promoting but as a writer you have to be. So, I’m getting over it

  • I think there’s a point at which your novel reaches a natural point of critical mass, after which it either sells itself or fades to the back line. No amount of self-promotion is going to help it.

    I just wish the legions of book-spamming novelists would understand that their frenetic and obsessive activity does more harm than good. It’s not just the volume of promotional activity that gets me, it’s the total lack of originality.

    I had to turn to humor to feel better:

  • I’ve been following this discussion around the internet with interest. I write to be read, which entails promo, and ultimately (I hope) sales. I do know authors who write crap, and they’ll tell you it’s crap; some are so upfront they admit they do it for the money, not because they love to tell stories. Believe me, there is some excellent money to be made in crap erotica.
    I’d like to say this: when you boil this discussion down to bare bones, the book I write, the story I tell, is my best promo. Not true and I don’t think it was true.
    I agree with Joe Konrath – a lot of this is luck. The right book or concept, the right time, the right reader and you can, maybe, reach The Tipping Point. Pete (above) pretty much nails it.

  • Rebecca Burke


    Great post and discussion. I am resigned to being a low-sales author b/c of what I write–literary YA fiction that is all over the map in terms of subject matter–but hey, it’s better than not being published. All the years of putting up with snippy agents, arrogant editors, are happily in the past. Self-pubbing and being part of the books conversation from the pov of an author has given me the juice to write again. It is much more fun than “just” being an editor, the job that has paid the bills.

    Pete Morin: your video on YouTube about spamming is deLICiously funny. OMG. I’ll tweet the hell out of it (kidding, maybe once, though, just to take the discussion off myself, heh). I love it when she says to the author “Don’t be an obnoxious tool,” and he doesn’t hear a thing she’s saying–getting ready to spam the hell out of Australia while they’re “waking up.” Thanks for the laugh. And hey, it’s all true! Someone needs to write the Great Indie Author satire–maybe you!

  • After being desperately anxious to promote and sell my book, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve either got to spend more time and effort doing something I’m not so comfortable with, or I can go the other way and enjoy the writing for its own sake, self publish and hope that there are people out there who will enjoy what I’ve written. For me the decision is a no brainer. I’ll enjoy the writing and not stress about the selling.
    There are and always have been very few writers who made a good living totally from their books. I also happen to think that having to work at something else gives you a wider perspective on the world and often ideas for stories too. It certainly helps with writing realistic dialogue. As a writer for kids and YA it pays to listen to how my readers actually speak. Same too for my adult characters.
    For me the most important thing is to think of myself as a writer. The money side of it comes second.