There are some questions I get asked so regularly as a publisher that I’ve decided it’s best to answer them on my blog so I can point the enquirers to the answers, and also I think these must be the questions in many people’s minds.
Published authors from large and small publishing houses ask me why their books aren’t selling well enough – although the question is always framed to put the blame with their publisher.
What they want is to move to a publishing company they can see puts effort into promotional activities and also actively approaches bookshops to try to get authors on to their shelves.
These authors will often say their sales figures stick at about 100 books and they ask me if they should change publisher seeing as that figure isn’t high enough.
The answer depends on what exactly has been done by both the publisher and the author and why the figure has stuck at this level. Sales figures for poetry are known to be low, but authors can be surprised at how low the sales figures can be for a debut novel, even with a major publisher.
A literary agent and a literary publicist told me a debut novel with a major publisher may typically sell about 500 copies. Hopefully with subsequent novels that figure should grow, or the publishing house may need to end the contract. An independent press would keep an author on their list with sales at this level.
Authors can think that their publisher isn’t repping the books to shops if they don’t see them on the shelves, and they may think the publisher hasn’t promoted enough if the books don’t sell. But publishers often do a lot of this work without giving the authors details, particularly when submitting books for prizes as it could cause bad feeling among the authors if it’s known who was and who wasn’t put forward for an award.
The first thing an author may know from a major publisher could be that they have been shortlisted. Should publishers keep authors more informed? Or might it be more disappointing to know how much work is done if the results are not too good? I keep our authors well informed about everything we do. But I wonder if, for authors in general, it can be nice not to know the massive promotional effort publishers put in so that the publisher can be blamed for low sales.
The main publishers do also have a whole process for preparing Advance Information sheets and sending reps round to bookshops to show them what’s on offer (you can see examples of AI sheets on each author page on our website - they all have AI sheet links). The bookshops turn down most of the books repped to them. It’s incredibly hard even for a major publisher to get books into shops, where customers are likely to go in looking for the main names and titles.
But managers are likely to take books by authors who have a connection to the local area, and the automated system for ordering means you can just show them your book and they can click and order it at their till. I know I’m repeating this, but it’s less daunting than you think to take your book into bookshops and talk to the buyer. I’ve never been turned down yet if there’s a reason why a book is relevant to the shop I’m approaching.
If a book sells that first hundred then the publisher has launched and promoted it, but the publicity department will stop after a while and move on to the new season’s offerings. They will also be asked to focus on the books that seem to have most chance of taking off. So it does become the author’s task to focus on keeping the sales momentum going. At this point, authors write to me to say their publisher isn’t organising enough events for them. I’ve heard this about both large and small publishing companies.
It surprises me that so many authors feel this is something they should wait at home for until the publishers arrange events and send them the bookings. As an author I had always assumed this was my task, and it is down to authors to keep themselves as actively involved with events, book groups, talks, literary festivals and so on as they can.
A publisher will help out with this. I do contact the literary festivals and will try to get bookings for our authors. But as an individual author it’s likely you’ll do much better by contacting directly – if the publisher phones event organisers and festivals they will get bookings for the authors on the list who catch the eye of the bookings manager and that might not be you.
At Ward Wood we do hold very regular events both for our authors and for authors from other publishers for mutual support, and this does help out as it can be difficult and expensive for authors to get bookings and venues in London. The promotion around an event also helps an author’s name get known. I heard this week that one of the main independent presses (with books in many bookshops) gets 90% of all sales at events, so this shows how important they are.
Even if sales are low at events – and bookselling is hard anywhere – getting articles about each event into local newspapers and on listings sites does get your name seen regularly so that people know that you and your book exist.
I’ve concentrated on fiction in this piece because poetry has its own particular difficulties but as it has always been hard to sell there are also ways to help your book along. I’ll write about poetry soon in another post. However, many of these points are equally true of poetry.
One main difference is that poetry mainly sells at events with few sales from other sources, and sales at events aren't high either, so the effort is much greater. For those with stage fright it is possible to get involved in other ways, perhaps organising events for others (which I like to do)or a very good blog could help.
The fact is that, no matter how great the promotional effort from a poetry press, the sales figures will be in the low hundreds and about 90% of all books sold will be at events. There's no strong reason to move from one poetry press to another as you will be responsible for this 90% of sales no matter which publisher you choose. However, if you have other reasons for leaving a poetry press then it's a good idea to be with one known for good promotion because your name will be more widely seen. It's not just about sales, but also about building a reputation.
The brief answer to people who approach me saying their publisher has only sold 100 copies of their book, hasn’t got it into bookshops and doesn’t arrange events for them, is simple. As this usually comes with an approach to me as a potential publisher the fact is that the sales figure worries me, and not because the other publisher might be to blame.
I would be worried that the author hasn’t found ways to approach bookshops, to organise events, to create a popular blog, to build a Facebook following, to answer posts on high traffic websites (they let you link your name back to your own website which really helps), to do every single thing that helps a novel make that leap from being in the lower hundreds to 500 or more.
And maybe with enough effort a novel could make that magic leap and really take off. But not if the author is saying ‘Why isn’t somebody doing this for me?’ I work extremely hard to promote our authors and to rep their books to shops and organise events. I expect authors to work just as hard at it because it’s a collaboration.
Some authors are lucky and a debut novel is the one a major publishing company puts a massive promotional effort into and it takes off. Everything is done for the novelist. But for most of us getting up above the lower hundreds in sales takes a phenomenal effort and getting published is only the first hurdle. Getting the book to sell is the hardest part – harder even than writing the book, which we all know is extremely difficult.
I’ve been impressed by the mid-list authors from major publishers who have approached me when moving down to an independent seeing as their sales figures don’t reach the high targets expected. They have a real focus on approaching bookshops and giving events, and getting into the press and media.
I know it sounds like hard work and impossible, but writing a book feels like that too, and so does attracting a publisher. We can try to increase our sales figures with the same determination we put into the other tasks needed to be an author.