Book Sales Are Nothing to Write Home About: What is going on?

Guest Post by Irene Watson

What IS going on?  Every day I get at least two emails from authors expressing concern that their books aren’t selling. They’ve done everything right:  marketing, publicity, social media, blogging, website, signings, promotion, promotion, and more promotion but it just isn’t happening.  It’s very discouraging.  Some blame it on economy and others blame it on availability of cheap (99 cent) or free e-books.

The economy may have something to do with it – I don’t know.  In a recent discussion with author Theodore Jerome Cohen on this topic he said:

It’s difficult to say. But if ePublishing is the future, and it’s so easy to bring a book to, say, Kindle, the market will be flooded…with junk! Without good reviews, the ‘indie’ book market will flounder as readers abandon it and move to the more established writers, where there is some pedigree.  Not a good thought, is it?! I certainly don’t want to put out the effort and money in the future if the response to my latest book, House of Cards, , which has only seen moderate sales, is what I have to look forward to. My earlier novel, Death by Wall Street, had a much bigger jump in sales right out of the gate just a year ago. Importantly, its release was heralded by reviews on Amazon.com from Reader Views, Pacific Book Review, and Feathered Quill. Now, these three reviews have been removed by Amazon management, and no such professional reviews, though available, have been allowed on Amazon.com for House of Cards. Which doesn’t make sense, because if my books don’t sell, neither Amazon nor I make money.

I can’t disagree with Ted, but I’m also wondering if sales are down due to the fact that we are just inundated with books right now.  For example, in 2010 near 3,100,000 (yes, that’s three million) titles were published.

In 2005 the total was 282,500. Comparing that to 2010 it’s eleven times more over a period of five years. It will be interesting to see how many titles have been published this year because it almost tripled from 2009 to 2010.  Will we see four or five times more for 2011? It’s very possible. Could it mean if we published in 2011 we are in the mix with 6 to 9 million other “new” titles?  If that’s the case, it’s not much wonder sales are low.  We end up being a tiny pebble on a huge beach and it’s only by luck that we get picked up because someone notices us. (The stats are available from Bowker.)

Not long ago I saw a book on Amazon.com that was ranked over 8 million so that means they have cataloged over that many books for sale.  But, not all books are on Amazon.com.  There are many online sites that offer e-books not available on the major sellers’ sites because they haven’t been converted for Kindle or Nook. So, taking all that into account it’s possible there could easily be 10 million or more books on the market right now.

So, what is the alternative? How do we get noticed? Is it really worthwhile publishing a book when there are no readers for it?

Irene Watson is the Managing Editor of Reader Views, where avid readers can find reviews  of recently published books as well as read interviews with authors. Her team also provides author publicity  and a variety of other services specific to writing and publishing books.

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Posted on November 6, 2011, in Publicity & Writing, Writing & Publishing. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Now launching my third independently published book, I must say that I have grown to expect that reviews from any source would be available on amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, etc. What I have discovered in the five years since my first independently published book was launched is that sadly, the reviews and awards don't really mean much in terms of sales. The publishing of good books requires an attitude that goes beyond money. If one expects to make a living from writing, one is going to be sorely disappointed. Imagine that all three million writers who put out last year's books were to gain about $30,000 each for those titles. Is that about 90 billion dollars? No such economy exists that could support us that way.The present enjoyment of our writing career must come from the pride and honor of producing the best possible book that we can, and leaving our names on something that may help somebody, or entertain somebody, now or in the future. Awards and good reviews are a form of payment — sometimes the only profit we may see from the work. Demand for our work is neither predictable nor guaranteed, no matter how good the reviews. Something else drives that, and if we are fortunate enough to catch a wave of demand for our work, then all the better. I am sure in time that amazon.com will change its policy regarding reviews. They are a corporation in flux, which may be a good thing for the future if the right decisions are made. ALL reviews should be posted, regardless of whether by professional source, individual reader, or illiterate buffoon. Customers are smart, they can figure out which reviews work for them.

  2. R. Farrington Sharp

    In my view the problem is self publishing. Anyone with twenty dollars can have their book published regardless of its inherent merit. It is an ego thing and a short cut to the hard work that being published by a commercial publisher takes. In days gone by bad writers for the most part did not see publication because they were culled out by agents and editors. Not so today. I personally know a dozen or so people that have self-published using Lulu or one of the other vanity presses and while some acknowledge that they did it just for themselves or their families, there are those who tell others who ask that yes, they are published authors, forgetting to mention that they paid for the privilege. So we are swamped with millions of crappy books and their authors complain that they aren't selling well, even though until recently they wouldn't have been published at all.I don't feel sorry for these authors and frankly am annoyed that they have cheapened the title of published author by claiming it, most of the time unworthily, for themselves.

  3. As an author and graphic designer I grew up in the traditional typography and print world and those industries have already gone through huge transitions (1985-1995) the book typography transition to desktop publishing and printing companies moving into the digital world – the same thing is happening now to authors. Yes, the market seems temporarily infected—but it eventually shakes out in new and different waves. I do get weary in riding these economic tsunamis and sometimes get dunked in programming and marketing strategies. It's hard to keep learning the new swim strokes. Thanks Irene for keeping the industry moving forward.

  4. Thanks for saying what needs to be said, Irene. "So, what is the alternative? How do we get noticed? Is it really worthwhile publishing a book when there are no readers for it?" Oh. I'm stopped in my verbal tracks by those questions. My first books were published in 2007 and 2009. They each won six awards and got excellent reviews. Sold pretty well, too––and are continuing to sell, better than my new books.We brought out two new books this year, which also won a passel of awards and got rave reviews. Their sales haven't taken off. They're better written and produced than the first two, I think. How do we get noticed? Beats me. I'm on FB, Twitter (9,487 followers as of now), Goodreads (1,215 friends), Kindleboards, Myspace, and I don't know what else. I've got 2 websites and 4 blogs. If I keep posting and churning the waters, I do get comments and mentions. And my sales do seem to rise, a bit when I do. For an instant.I have the eBook versions of my books priced at 99 cents. I can't blame low sales on competition from cheaper books. I agree with Irene––it's the deluge of new books (the majority being self-published) that are making it hard for us to attain the sales levels we're used to. This isn't going to get any easier. What are we to do? I have no idea. I had an underlying belief that readers were smart and could tell a good book from a bad one. I thought they could tell a beautiful cover from a distasteful mess. So why don't they go for award-winning books with 5 star reviews and magnificent covers? It's a mystery.I have some large peeves. Several of the million or so Facebook pages I follow have extremely active communities behind them, drenching viewers with book news. The books' authors circulate lurid, semi-pornographic covers and descriptions of volumes about zombies, werewolves, vampires, romance, and sex, intermingled in various combinations. These authors advertise sales, give-aways, contests, and every manner of sales activity. They crow about making their 50,000th sale.Maybe I'm wrong about readers' discernment and intelligence. If this dreck sells, I'm doomed. Probably everyone reading this is doomed.Bright spots do occur. I'm negotiating a couple of deals right now. People come up to me in public and say, "Congratulations on all your wins." That's nice. So something's happening. Money may happen.Why continue if it doesn't? I love telling stories. I love seeing my books in print. I love winning awards. I can't ride my horse all the time. And overarching all of this, we have John Locke, who exists in exactly the same milieu we do and sold 1 million eBooks this year. Here's my blog analysis of his achievement:http://www.yourshelflife.com/?p=997

  5. In round numbers, there are roughly 500 million people who speak English well enough to read a book in English worldwide. If 10 million new titles are published in USA markets in 2011, and that is quite doable, that means one book for every 50 English speakers in the world. If every English speaking person buys an average of 5 books per year, that means the average book will sell 250 copies per year.

  6. Victor, thanks for those figures! However, as we know not every English speaking person buys books at all so the end result, on the average, could be as little as 100 copies per year sold. I guess this really shows why sales seem to be down this year.

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