Selling books is harder than writing them!

A group asked me to talk about publishing my own books, and I heard myself saying to them ‘Publishing is the easy part, selling is much harder’. For me, that’s true, because getting my work into the hands of readers is part of what motivates me to write in the first place. I’ve been struck recently by the number of people who claim to be writing just for the amusement of family and friends, and don’t appear to be interested in reaching readers beyond that group. That’s not enough for me. Maybe because I’m older, I want something to leave behind me, in the memories and on the bookshelves of as many people as possible.

So how do you sell, and how many is enough? As I write this, James Rebanks ‘The Shepherd’s life’ has been in the best seller charts for weeks and must have sold many thousands. It’s a great book, and I’m not begrudging him that success, but he seems to have had some things going for him that the rest of us might not have. Even before the book was published, for example, he had 40,000 Twitter followers, which has since risen to 60,000. If only 10% of those followers bought a book, that’s still a lot of sales! And either through Twitter or his publishers or agent he’s had massive media coverage, which must have helped too. 

So how do we lesser mortals sell our books? One way that works for me is to sell directly, usually after doing a presentation or visiting a book club group. People like to buy from the author they’ve just heard from. Fortunately, I really enjoy that side of the business. As a professional presenter in education for decades, I’ve had plenty of practice in marshalling ideas and facts quite fluently without notes and love the stimulus of responding to whatever questions people may have. I can also offer ‘deals’ as I think fit, which makes buying the full trilogy an attractive prospect. I love selling the full set, as it means they may read all three books in the right order and get the reading experience as it was designed to be.

Another route to market for me has been through a local wholesale distributor, Hills of Workington. They take a 50% discount, but they service almost every book retailer and tourist outlet in Cumbria, apart from the south-east corner, and selling to them by the carton is more efficient than trying to reach each outlet myself. The first orders were on sale or return, but that’s not really necessary any more as the three books in my trilogy, all set in Cumbria, sell steadily, and do well in the tourist season. The beauty of historical fiction is that it has an almost infinite shelf-life. The books will have the same appeal to visitors in ten years time as they have now.

Listing the books in both paperback and ebook formats on Amazon and Kindle brings in a steady trickle of orders, and the big national and international distributors Bertrams and Neilsen contact me for books too, but it’s a cumbersome business. I’ve done the workshops about how to increase your ebook sales with promotions, manipulating the ‘best seller’ lists and reducing the price to less than a cup of coffee, but I’m not thrilled about that. If writers like me produce something of worth, it demeans the process if we sell our work for peanuts. And I can’t be bothered obsessing about selling as much as possible if it takes too much of the time I want to spend writing. Some of my time obviously must be devoted to marketing and promotion, but not too much.

So I totter along, wishing I could sell more, longing for the feedback from readers that so rarely comes, thinking about how, where and when to organise my own promotions. Most of the time I enjoy it. I dream of being ‘discovered’ and selling the TV and film rights, not to make a fortune but just to see my stuff reach more people. That would be fun. I need to invest in new ways of doing things, using video on my website for example, or making this blog more entertaining, but that would use creative energy that seems to be constantly diverted into the next book. What I really need is a savvy publicist who’s prepared to work for nothing. Dream on.

How many sales is enough? If I cover the costs of self-publishing to my own high standard, involving proper professional help, that’s enough. My accountant reckoned I should aim to make as much profit over five years as I would done if the money had stayed in my current account, and with interest rates at rock bottom that’s not much. ‘Back yourself’, he said, and I liked the sound of that, so I did.

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