02 Mar How to Sell a Book in America

Producing about 275,000 new titles a year, the U.S.A. publishes more books than any other nation. The United Kingdom is next, at about 200,000. This does not include self-published books. Such numbers are encouraging — because, heck, that’s a lot of books, so why couldn’t you or I publish a few? But discouraging too because, heck, that’s a lot of books, how can anybody sell even one with all that competition?

Who’s reading all of these books? A recent Associated Press poll found that about 57% of American adults read at least one book a year. This is far more than I suspected and, sorry, I have to wonder if the respondents were voicing their wishful thinking. One quarter of adults in this country don’t read any books. And 70% of adults haven’t seen the inside of a book store in five or more years. That’s no surprise.

Although sales have been flat in recent years, they amount to more than $25 billion annually. So, yes, there’s money to be made in publishing. But get this: 70% of the books published don’t turn a profit. So it’s a gamble. Still, the possibility of hitting it big, really big, J. K. Rowling or James Patterson big, keeps the publishing industry invigorated — and drives the agents and editors mad with best-seller fever. The lotto-like allure of publishing probably explains why 80% of Americans express a desire to write a book. If you’ve published a book (or written one), chances are that somebody you know — who’s never put pen to paper or finger to keyboard in a decade or more — will say to you: “Hey, cool, I want to write one of those someday,” as if it were as easy as that.

If you have published a book this year — like me — you’re facing a question that’s as daunting as any a writer may face: How do I sell this thing? A review in the New York Times Book Review would help tremendously. A recent study showed that even bad reviews helped sales of lesser known authors in the NYT Book Review and had virtually no negative impact on better known authors. But reviews, good or bad, in the major review outlets are scant and hard to come by. The New York Times Book Review averages about 20 reviews a week, for a total of about 1,000 reviews a year. It receives about 50,000 books annually. These are better chances than winning a lottery but that’s not saying much.


Authors fare no better on radio or in other traditional review media (like magazines), Nonetheless, if the author and publisher scramble, they’ll scratch up some reviews. I’ve got two so far: one good and one tepid. by “scramble,” I mean sending out review copies to prospective reviewers nation-wide. You and your publisher might send out 50-100 copies of your book. Free. In recent years, we’ve seen a huge increase in non-traditional review outlets: blogs. Take Goodreads, for instance: anybody can sign up to review books on GoodReads. You get your own review page and profile and then you go read till you’re groggy and then write a review. Some amateur reviewers on Goodreads have huge followings and review ten books a week. It could make a difference to your book sales if the right Goodreads reviewer picks your book. There are hundreds of other blog sites that review books. You just have to find them, then send these bloggers your book in the most respectful, quasi-cool (no fawning) manner.

But watch out because if you send out too many books to would-be reviewers, pretty soon those unread books will show up on Amazon used book sales for half the cover price of your new book. What did you think those would-be reviewers would do with the hundreds of books they receive a week? That’s right, they sell them wholesale. Then you discover that you’ve just flooded your own market with your own book, which is now being sold against your publisher’s stock. Fortunately my many review copies are now being sold used online for just about the same amount as Amazon’s deep discount. If the used copies get cheap enough, I’ll buy them up.

Amazon, by the way, has a reader review section that allows anybody – your family or friends or former students — to write a review of your book. And why not? I’ll take any review I can get. Mom, are you reading this?

If you’re an author selling on Amazon (and who isn’t?), you can track the actual number of sales right down to the city. All you have to do is activate your author page. This allows you to tell who is and isn’t buying your book. (Cousin Ed: your assertions to the contrary, Amazon tells me that it has sold no books in your hometown.) The worst part of Amazon sales tracking is that it will drive you crazy as you keep checking it, morning and night, only to see how poorly your book is doing in spite of your frantic efforts to publicize it.


My publisher and editor — the fine people at Ig Publishing — tell me that for a small press book, it all comes down to word-of-mouth. That means the author has to work it and work it hard. When I had dinner with them just before the book’s release, they told me cautionary tales about the “vanishing author,” the writer who does nothing after the book’s release. Time is of the essence, they reminded me. You get a year and then nobody cares about your book because it’s old already. Did you know that some book stores won’t sponsor an author’s reading if the book has been out for six months or more? When the publisher and editor were done orienting me to all I had to do to be a good author, I was chewing the insides of my cheeks and wishing I had a klonopin.

Things you’re supposed to do:

  1. make a website
  2. make a Facebook page
  3. make a book mark
  4. get an interview (as many as possible)
  5. make promotional items
  6. make a book trailer
  7. write entreaties to friends — kind of like writing a fundraising letter to donors
  8. make a book tour

My book tour for Kiss Me, Stranger begins on Saturday. On this first leg, I go from Seattle to Minneapolis to Milwaukee to Chicago. I’m excited about it. I love to travel and meet new people. And, hey, I’ve got a book to sell. It occurs to me that the book tour is the quaintest part of trying to sell a book because, really, it’s so old fashioned. In the early days of mass-marketing books, a salesman would ride through the country signing up subscribers for the book his publisher wanted to produce. It was a matter of taking the goods to the far-flung people. That’s what a book tour does to this day.

It’s also kind of like a sideshow. My readings will try to capture that spirit, as I show enlarged illustrations from the book and give away posters I’ve made and candy. I’ll do everything but stand on a table and sing. But, wait, now that I think about it, I could be induced to do even that.

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