Monday, 25 July 2011

SELLING BOOKS IS NOT A BONUS

Those of you who have heard me do talks about Write to be Published recently will have heard me say this. It needs saying again. It is fundamental to getting published.

A few weeks ago, I put a message on Twitter, asking something like, "Aspiring writers: what is your goal, your personal definition of what would be success for you?"

Replies came back along the lines you'd expect, comments such as, "I want to move people with my words," "I want to see my books in print," "My dream is to go into a bookshop and be able to buy a copy of my own book." But one reply struck me:
"I want to hold my published book in my hands. Selling copies would be a bonus."
Noooooo! Selling copies is not a bonus - the ability for your book to sell copies is utterly central to its chance of publication. If your book won't sell enough copies, a publisher will not publish it. End of. And how could we expect it to be otherwise?

Yes, we're artists, and the idea of selling, of commerciality, can be something that makes us uncomfortable. That's fine. We don't have to lose that passion for our art. That's why we write. But, if we want to be published, we must, unavoidably, aim to write a book which enough people will pay to read.

So, yes, hold onto your dream, but don't forget that your book must sell copies. It's not a bonus.

28 comments:

catdownunder said...

I will aim really high then and say I want to see more than one of my books published - because that would indicate the previous books had done well enough for a publisher to be interested in publishing the following books.
It would be even better if at least one of those books were translated into a second language because someone believed it was worth the effort.
Is that aiming too high? Am I doomed to failure? All I know is that I have to try.

lyndawrites said...

Call me a Philistine but, personally, I want to sell books by the clappers and make shed-loads of money. The bonus, for me, would be that people liked my work and thought it good enough to want to buy it.

Alison Morton said...

I probably fall between catdownunder's and lyndawrites' comments, but veering more towards the latter.

Unless you sell lots of books, then you won't achieve recognition amongst the general public, I think?

I'm not a literary writer. I'm commercial and probably a tad shallow. But I definitely want to sell my books. In thousands. And thousands.

Miriam Drori said...

Selling books is not a bonus. It's a big step towards my ultimate goal: raising awareness of social anxiety (and making lots of money).

Nina said...

As Samuel Johnson said 'no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.' I've always thought that was a bit harsh, but his point has endured over 250 years, and he has other less stringent suggestions such as 'read just as inclination leads you, for what you read as a task will do you little good'. I think he's definitely on the side of the more commercial novelists!

Dan Holloway said...

"the ability for your book to sell copies is utterly central to its chance of publication."
And actually selling books is essenial for staying published and getting a second book to hold in your hands

rodgriff said...

You are absolutely right. selling is important because it gives value to the words. I think someone is more likely to read a book if they have paid for it than if it is given away. many years ago a group I was in ran an underground newspaper. We always insisted on selling it, even though it was very cheap. We knew that those who bought it, read it, whereas when we tried giving it away we found copies littered around the canteen.
I really want people to read what I write, so it would be tempting to give it away in order to push up the numbers. I don't because I am pretty sure that would just make a pile of wastepaper, or electrons, in the case of ebooks.

JO said...

It is the aspect of writing that hits home most painfully for self-publishers. All very well holding a book in your hands, but surely it must - at the very least - pay for itself. We don't have to like the marketing-hype, but we do have to do it.

HelenMHunt said...

I've always wanted to make money from my writing. Not just because I need to pay my bills, but because it gives me validation. If someone likes my writing enough to pay for it then I think I must be at least doing *something* right!

David Griffin said...

So true; I relatively recently underlined the fact to myself (in a post on my ailing blog... poor blog) that a novel - whatever its genre - is, at the end of the day, a product to be sold.

Like most writers, I also would like a ton of my novels to be read and the financial rewards would be the bonus. No really, to actually be read (widely) for me is my writing raison d'etre.

:-)

Ms. Yingling said...

In the same respect, I don't understand authors who write what they want to write and don't care that no one wants to read their particular story. There is a lot of that in middle grade fiction, hende the lack of skateboarding stories!

Jim Murdoch said...

I think we need to separate writing and publishing in our minds. We write because we have to, most of us anyway, without any real regard for who will read us but simply to get the words out of our head. Then one day we realise that what we have created might actually be something we could market. It then becomes a product and we need to view it as such, not our baby. I understand totally wanting to hold a copy of your book in your hand. It’s feels like evidence that you are a ‘real’ writer. It’s actually no such thing but the heart wants what the heart wants. So enjoy the moment, sleep with it under your pillow, do whatever you need to do to get it out of your system and then start thinking about how you are going to sell the damn thing.

@ Ms. Yingling – Just to answer your point. It’s not that I don’t care that no one reads my work, it’s just that that is not my primary concern. I believe if I write a book I want to read then there will be others out there who will likely appreciate what I’ve written. The reviews of my books to date prove that to be the case.

Nicola Morgan said...

Miriam - tbh, you will probably raise awareness more by your blogging and other work. After all, the book would be read mostly by people with the condition already.

Cat, Lynda, Alison, et al - Doesn't really matter whether you aim to sell many thousands or a few thousands (the former is not "better" than the latter), only that a) you know what you should expect from your sort of book and b) that it sells "enough", and the definition of enough is different for different publishers and different books.

Rod - I very much agree. Thank you for your point.

Mrs Yingling - bit of a contradiction there because it's the publishers who published it.

Jim - very good points well made.

Thanks, all - sorry not to mention each of you separately. Sometimes nothing more to be said!

Nadia Damon said...

Personally, I view book sales as crucial – because I know that I don’t have a hope of becoming a full-time author without them. It’s a symbiotic relationship that I’ve learned to accept as a journalist, because if the money stops rolling in on a publication, then the writing – regardless of how good it is – will always follow… When it comes down to it, publishers care about the numbers and anything else is a bonus.

And besides, I can’t think of anything more satisfying than seeing countless commuters missing their respective stops because they can’t put my book down (something I’ve done more than once or twice myself!) rather than ending my days trolling around in the wake of J.R.Hartley et al.

I think any author/would-be published author who wants to make a living from this business has to treat it as exactly that – although I don’t believe that means that you have to betray your writing in order to do that.

Ghostie Girl said...

Selling books is key but I don't care what the numbers are, I just want to be able to make a living from it.

Miriam Drori said...

Nicola, I'm going to reply to that on my blog. Hope that's okay.

Scooter Carlyle said...

I was shooting for universal adoration.

Margaret Morton Kirk said...

I'm commercially-minded enough to want people to buy my books - I agree that I write what I would like to read, but I'm definitely trying to do it with a slightly larger target audience in mind!

I'm not a 'literary' writer, but if I can write something well enough, with a decent enough plot to keep people interested and entertained, that'll do for me.

(And with any luck, it'll do my chances of building a writing career no harm at all :) )

Nicola Morgan said...

Ghostiegirl - unfortunately, the great majority of writers don't. I don't - not from writing, I'm afraid. And that's after 90 books...

Scooter - verty wise :)

Margaret - ooh, are you the Margaret Kirk who tried to leave a comment on one of my Write to be Published pages, abaout my Stirling event? I' sorry - I'd forgotten to click the "disable comments" button as I don't take comments there (too many places to find comments!). The Stirling event has a link near the top right of this blog - can you find it?

clarekirkpatrick said...

I want to sell books, not so that I make lots of money - do you think that's what that tweep meant? - but because it means that people value my writing enough to want to invest money in it!

With my non-fiction, though, I am also desperate to actually help people and genuinely feel, as a specialist in something, that there's a gap in the market for this...but then that goes along with selling books, because if it's needed (as I am sure it is) then people will buy it.

Inkpen said...

Love this post - and agree, of course. Stories of any kind are there for telling and sharing and passing on - that's the human experience, surely? A story you write isn't completed until someone else reads it - the two coming together make the experience. (This was something said much more articulately by critics I read on the Children's Literature MA course at Roehampton.) I always want to write, and do it well, but it's pointless to me unless it's being read. I'm not literary fiction: writing short stories for women's magazines is never going to get me reviewed in the weekend press. But if I can sell them, then it validates the fact that I'm doing my particular job well. I want readers to curl up with the traditional cup of tea and read, enjoy and feel an affinity with their own lives. Next week, the magazine will be in the recycling or the doctor's waiting room; it's a very disposable medium! You can't get precious about it but it doesn't matter as long as it's read. I think it is commercial AND artistic sense to ensure that what you write will sell, to complete that circle of writer and reader that forms the text.

Regina said...

I like this post. I write for me first, to make sure I get clarity in my mind. I hope for it to be published someday, but as long as I am writing I am very happy.

Dan Holloway said...

I'm slightly unclear on one thing - people want to sell their books because it shows people value their writing enough to invest in it.

But surely this is only the case with a second book, not when we go into the process of putting our books out there. No reader buys a first book by a writer because they value that writer's prose - aside from the opening page they don't really know much about the writing - they buy the book for a multitude of reasons. Having your first book bought shows you have a great pitch/cover/internet reach/appeal to other people who've reviewed the book and inspired readers. Having your second book bought shows people treasure your writing

Nicola Morgan said...

Dan - it's a fair question but I think misses a point and oversimplifies. People buy a writer's first book partly for the reasons you suggest (the premise etc) but also because they trust (rightly or wrongly) the opinions of reviewers, whether established reviewers or blogs that they trust, for example. So, yes, people may buy the book before a non-publisher-led judgement has been made on the writing, but if the writing is not good enough or doesn't match the spin or the blurb or the genre expectations (eg) then that book will fail. Publishers can't sensibly con us all the time but publishing crap and pretending it's not. (Given that sometimes they seem to - but that's genuinely when they think there's a market for it.) So, I think that if it's a reader who values prose, he will buy the book based on judgements about whether that prose is likely to be consistently good enough after the first page.

Julie Nilson said...

I would like to sell enough that the publisher is willing to take another shot on me and let me write more books for them! If I could sell enough that I would never have to write another nonfiction book on hospital management, that would be icing on the cake.

Sarah Duncan said...

Selling my work was always top of my list because being paid validated its worth. But that's my personal take, and I wouldn't push that on anyone else although I take your point that publishing is a business and if you want to get published you have to embrace the business.

I've never been fussed about seeing it in bookshops or bothered if no one reads it (so long as they've bought a copy). It always annoys me when non-writers say things like, writers just want to have their words read. No I don't - I want to be paid!

BTW I'm half way through WTBP and really annoyed cos I keep thinking, yup, I agree with that. You've written the book I was vaguely thinking of writing and done it better, dammit.

Nicola Morgan said...

Sarah - "I take your point that publishing is a business and if you want to get published you have to embrace the business." Yup, that's the point. Writers can write for all different reasons and with different goals, but if we want publishers to pay us (in effect) we have to write something that they can sell.

By the way, you were Vicky, Rodney's girlfriend in Only Fools?? WOW! *bows*

Sarah Duncan said...

A million years ago, Nicola, a million years ago...