How do authors sell books? Why write?

I just had a discussion with a friend who is a manager in the music industry and is lately lamenting how her profession has drastically changed. Gone are the big bucks, in many ways, she says. Moreover, she recently had a discussion with her writer brother-in-law about publishing. He has a sizable following for his blog and his recent memoir is very good (in fact, he’s gotten some great reviews). Yet, he had trouble securing an agent and so self-published. Now he’s having trouble selling books.

My friend’s relative was once a college English instructor and, after that, had a highly successful (lucrative) marketing career. So successful, in fact, that he retired quite early and is basically leading a divine life with a beautiful wife and two extremely successful adult sons. We can’t pity him, yet many authors can relate to his pain about not being able to reach the masses with his book. Though he has a marketing background, he can’t seem to come to grips with how to sell books.

What do you do when you have a quality creative product, but not enough people know about it? My friend asked me if I thought her brother-in-law would’ve been better served by waiting it out for an agent and traditional publisher.

Here’s what I told her: even if he had an agent/publisher, he may be in the same position as he is now. They really don’t sell books for you…an agent might get you a decent advance and sometimes the publicists at the publishing house get you an interview or two, but by and large it’s up to you and, it seems, fate to sell books.

With Fearless Pregnancy, the nonfiction book I coauthored, we received an advance for the first edition and we sold books but we certainly haven’t seen royalty checks rolling in. When it came time for us to do a second edition, my coauthors pressed for using Lulu, which we did. At first I balked, but because of the exact circumstances I decided ultimately it was a good idea. The doctor who is one of my coauthors paid the fee (not exorbitant) and reasoned that the main thing was to ensure that people had access to the book. At that point, our original publisher had been bought out and all our contacts there were gone. And, to be honest, one of my coauthors had been embroiled in some legal matters that had nothing to do with the book but did impact both the promotion of it and the chances of securing a second publisher for the revision. With the first edition, I still feel we may have made one promotion (rather, non-promotion) mistake. We trusted the in-house publicist at our publishing company a little too much. He told us he was almost certain he could get us on some major television shows such as The View or The Today Show. In the end, he came through with two interviews at local stations in San Diego! Then he told me that the reason he couldn’t get The View or The Today Show was because I didn’t use my hands enough when I was interviewed in San Diego. Well, alrighty then! I’m sure I don’t talk with my hands nearly enough.

I learned a lot from that experience, not the least of which was that I would continue to write but perhaps dismiss my dreams of one day becoming a television personality. When our book came out I had a relatively new baby to take care of, a monthly column to write and other freelance work. Since I had my hands full (though, as mentioned, don’t talk with them nearly enough), it would’ve been wise to hire an independent publicist for our book. Other authors had warned me not to rely on the in-house publicist for the publisher. At the time, I talked it over with my coauthors and they both elected to wait it out and see if he came through as he promised. I went along and adopted the “what’s meant to happen will happen” attitude. Perhaps I’ve taken too many years of yoga to be a relentless marketer!

On the other hand, I have a friend who also wrote a nonfiction book. She didn’t go with the flow one bit. She’s traveled the world – literally – giving packed workshops on her subject matter. She had a great agent and publisher and has sold lots of books, but has also recently told me she hasn’t received a dime in royalties. She has, though, launched a career as an expert in her field and makes money not necessarily as a writer but as a speaker and one of those people who sell motivational CDs, etc.. She has a lot of new friends too  — something like 5,000 of them on Facebook.

As for my novelist pals, well they don’t usually have as many Facebook “friends.” Most of them take opportunities to teach (for example, at UCLA Extension), host workshops and do readings where they can/when they’re asked. Some have built sizable followings through adoring students and readers. Some have created their own community writing/reading programs.  Others write journalistic articles and blog. One innovative novelist I know took part in a series of house parties around the country. Her friends in different cities threw her cocktail parties where she read. But she’s a former television star so I think that helped draw a crowd. All of these measures help sell a few books, but they don’t move thousands or millions of them. Even getting your book favorably reviewed (Fearless Pregnancy had lots of good reviews!) doesn’t ensure it’s a best seller.

Yet, other than these strategies, I’m not sure how authors really sell books. It seems many don’t. I have a suspicion that what’s meant to happen just does. When I told my friend this, she asked a good question: Why write then?

My answer is because I want to. And this is really what it boils down to: you have to want to write. It’s a labor-intensive, usually not extremely lucrative j-o-b. However, it’s not as back breaking as the jobs I grew up watching people do in my small Midwestern town. You’re not putting bolts on cabs in a tractor factory eight hours a day or working outside in 20 below zero winters. I don’t even think it’s as difficult as teaching 23 first graders to read. Of course, the factory worker or the first grade teacher might not agree. I truly believe that while you can do many things in your life, writing is an abiding compulsion and a privilege. Many of us would do it even if we didn’t get paid. Unfortunately, the business of selling books is part of the writing life. A somewhat sucky and frustrating part.

If you’re a writer, I’d love to know what you’ve done to promote your book(s). Of course, you may not like even talking about sales. Go ahead, you can tell me that too.

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