When book sales are slow… how to keep motivated

hare tortoiseThis morning I was scratching my head for a post to write, so I asked on Facebook for ideas. Immediately, Vivienne Tuffnell volunteered this great question: ‘How do you keep motivated when your books aren’t flying off the shelves?’

Before I could even type a reply, Zelah Meyer had countered with: ‘delusional optimism and a long-term view’!


Which is about what I would say (at least, the second bit).

We’ll assume for the moment that you’ve done everything possible to ensure your books are up to scratch, with appropriate covers, well-honed descriptions and sharp metadata. You know the book’s good. You’re doing all you can, as your promotion budgets and tastes allow. But those sales aren’t stacking up.

How do you take courage?

Build volume

Keep calm and build a body of work. Actually, I see this as the only possible plan. Writing is a lifelong thing anyway. If you’ve had the gumption to start, and stick with it, it’s a default habit built over years. Having ideas is as usual as taking breaths. You finish a book and you don’t settle until you’ve got another under way.

Also, building a portfolio makes business sense. Whether we’re the Big Five/Four/Three/Two/AmazOne or an individual writer, this is what we’re doing. With more books we get more chances to be found by readers. And when we are found, we look like more of a presence.

Does this mean you have to churn them out? No. We are taking a long-term view. Write and publish fast if that suits your nature, your material, your market. If it doesn’t, you’re still building a body of work. However long the book takes, once it’s finished, it’s out for ever.

But everyone else…

What about all those posts on Facebook, G+ and Twitter where people share a stellar sales rank or triumphant sales numbers? Some days that can be like a big wet slap. Even though you know how sales ranks surge and plummet by the hour. What can you do, apart from congratulate them – and write?

First, remind yourself it doesn’t reflect on you or mean you should ‘do more’. (Except write. Did I mention that?)

And second, there is something you can do. Keep making meaningful connections, fishing in the internet sea for the other people who think like you, write like you, read like you. Writing is all about connection anyway.

Also, remind yourself how the ebook jungle has changed. I published Nail Your Novel when there was far less competition, and clocked up a good 10,000 sales with so little effort I couldn’t be bothered to count any further. I now can’t believe it used to be so easy. Now, with all the books clamouring for readers, we have to work so much harder for each sale.

Jessica BellCould you write non-fiction?

Author/editor/songwriter/poet Jessica Bell (left) wrote about this recently at Jane Davis’s blog. I hit on this strategy myself, completely by accident, when I wrote Nail Your Novel. In fact, if I hadn’t got those nonfic titles I’d be feeling pretty discouraged, simply because selling literary fiction is hard, hard, hard. My novels sell only a fifth as many as my Nail Your Novels. But that means I’m five times as thrilled by a fiction sale as I am by a Nail Your Novel sale (though I’m still quite thrilled by those, thank you very much).


What if you only have one book?

A significant number of writers have just one title, and feel no desire to write another. Creatively that’s fine. One book might be all you need to say. Ask Harper Lee. But you are likely to feel this sales problem very keenly. Especially if it’s fiction.

fordI do know writers who made a big splash with just one novel. For instance, John A A Logan with his literary thriller The Survival of Thomas Ford – but he published at that goldrush time, when a free promotion could work miracles. It was many years before he released another book, and the momentum he got with the first kept him going nicely. He also supplemented it with a lot of hard work on Kindle and Goodreads forums. Now, though, it’s rare that one book will get you noticed enough.

In this situation, your best bet is to go for volume (again). Team up with other likeminded one-book authors and form a collective. Perhaps release a box set.

If the book is non-fiction, you could use it to launch a speaking or tutoring career, which gives people more chances to encounter you. It’s the volume principle again – but you’re producing performances instead of books.

It’s not all about sales

Let’s remember we don’t write simply to chase sales. Except for a few stellar bestsellers, there are more lucrative lines of work. But the satisfaction factor? Every new comment from a reader, every email, every new review, tells me I’m writing what I should be writing. It’s worth the struggle.

Stop this relentless positivity, please

So this probably all sounds very well adjusted. Do ever stop being so darned positive? Certainly I do. I had a towering strop recently when I saw a report of a speech at a publishing conference where the delegates were discussing how much credibility to give indie authors. It all hinged on sales; nothing else. No thought for originality, craft, quality. It reminded me that the publishing world does not want to give authors credibility if they publish themselves – and if we do, they assume we must be at some junior, paint-by-numbers level. Which is insulting for just about everybody – genre authors included. After that I was not positive at all. Measured in that way, EL James would have far more credibility than Henry James.

But we’re playing a long game. For some of us it is longer than others, but the answer is the same. Write more books, and write them well. And remember the main contest you’re in is not against other writers. It’s against your own standards and hopes; the struggle to do justice to your ideas and your talent.

This post probably isn’t startling information. But if you’re also having a crisis of confidence, I hope it helps. And I really hope my optimism isn’t delusional. This is Zelah, by the way. She really can do this. I’ve seen her.

 Thanks for the hare and tortoise pic CarbonNYC

Any thoughts to add? Share in the comments!


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  1. #1 by Grigory Ryzhakov (@GrigoryRyzhakov) on June 1, 2014 - 8:37 pm

    Great post, Roz. Good points raised. It’s much harder to make a splash post 2012 when everyone rushed to self-publish. And the only strategy is constant improvement and building your portfolio. The same about music biz. You don’t get popular with a first song. Normally, it’s ten years before things start brighten up. Survival of the most patient

    • #2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 2, 2014 - 6:25 am

      Hi Grisha! You’re right, it’s ‘survival of the most patient’ – and I’d add persistence too. There are many ways that authoring has become like the music industry.

  2. #3 by Lindsay Stanberry-Flynn on June 1, 2014 - 9:25 pm

    Thanks, Roz.This post has come at exactly the right moment for me. as depression about sales sets in. I saw the original question on FB this morning and wanted to mention the same thing, but was feeling too fed up to do so(!). Hope as I sleep on it, your post helps me regain equilibrium!

    • #4 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 2, 2014 - 6:30 am

      Hi Lindsay! I well understand your mood. In fact, after that conference I mention, I had to give myself a reading week because I’d really had enough. Clearly, though, it wasn’t that conference by itself but a drip-drip effect. I hope you feel a bit better!

  3. #5 by Viv on June 1, 2014 - 9:38 pm

    Someone I know via FB etc has had a superb month last month, having released a new book in a series. I was *so* pleased for him as things had been dire for a long while before that.
    I keep hoping one day I shall log on and see sky-rocketing sales.

    • #6 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 2, 2014 - 6:31 am

      ‘Sky-rocketing sales?’ Oh I hope for that too, Viv. In the meantime, thanks for a terrific question!

  4. #7 by Cate Russell-Cole on June 1, 2014 - 11:18 pm

    There are also global economic problems affecting sales, but we don’t factor that in. It’s a great time to write and market when people have more income to spend. We blame ourselves too easily for what may be partly outside our control.

    I love your relentless positivity. Thanks for a great post.

    • #8 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 2, 2014 - 6:33 am

      Hi Cate! You’re dead right. It’s not just about us. It’s not just about the publishing industry either. We should do what we can – but sometimes we just have to weather it.

      • #9 by Cate Russell-Cole on June 2, 2014 - 7:10 am

        Absolutely. Inaction in the worst of times is a mistake.

  5. #10 by Natalie K. on June 2, 2014 - 3:16 am

    Good entry as usual, Roz. 🙂 And ultimately good for me in the long run, as I have a ton of ideas to write about and I plan on writing them all eventually 🙂

  6. #12 by Author Jessica Bell on June 2, 2014 - 6:28 am

    Excellent post, Roz. And thanks so much for the mention. 🙂 I agree. We need to be in it for the long haul and keep producing. I probably sell even less than a fifth of my novels than I do my nonfiction when I average it all out. Sales fluctuate. A LOT. Just gotta keep writing and publishing. It’s the only way!

    • #13 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 2, 2014 - 6:35 am

      Hey Jessica! I know you’ve posted about this problem too. I think we all feel it. The first book I sold this month was a copy of Lifeform Three and that made me very happy!

  7. #14 by Debbie Young on June 2, 2014 - 7:53 am

    Hi Roz, what a great post with which to start the week! I love your line that every comment and email tells you “I’m writing what I should be writing” – that significant endorsement helps make it all worth while when sales are flat.

    • #15 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 2, 2014 - 8:18 am

      Thanks, Debbie! Sometimes I think we need to reset. Although we’re trying to be businesslike, we’re not selling cardboard boxes.

  8. #16 by CG BlakeCG Blake on June 2, 2014 - 12:54 pm

    Very useful insights, Roz. If I had it to do over again, I would have completed my second book before publishing my first. That way I would have been able to use my first book as a marketing tool and I would have done a lot of giveaway promotions. I also would have started my blog and become active on social media a lot earlier. I’ve made a lot of deep connections and I believe in doing favors for others without any expectation of reciprocity, but the connections I have made have taken a lot of time to develop. I am now in the throes of completing my second novel and I have cut way back on my blogging/social media. You are spot on when you write that the best strategy is to write a lot of high quality books. Thanks again for a great post.

    • #17 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 2, 2014 - 6:41 pm

      Thank you, CG. Although it might be wiser to wait until you have two books to publish in short succession, you’d need superhuman patience to keep one in the bank while toiling on the other. Hopefully it will all turn out well for you in the long run. And if you’re in the mood for a little more blogging, could I tempt you to The Undercover Soundtrack sometime?

      • #18 by CG Blake on June 7, 2014 - 10:52 am

        I’d love to do the Undercover Soundtrack. I grew up on the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and now my tastes tend to run toward alternative rock: Radiohead, Muse, Wilco, Fiona Apple. Depending on my mood, I can write with or without music.

  9. #20 by DRMarvello on June 2, 2014 - 12:59 pm

    Roz wrote: “And remember the main contest you’re in is not against other writers. It’s against your own standards and hopes; the struggle to do justice to your ideas and your talent.”

    Thank you for that bit of advice. As I look back at the sales roller coaster of the past two years, I know that releasing my next book is the one thing most likely to give me a boost. There are so many things we can’t control; the industry changes weekly and new books come onto the market daily. The one thing we can control is our own work. I constantly have to remind myself to relax, focus, and carry on.

    • #21 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 2, 2014 - 6:43 pm

      Hey Daniel! Glad you liked that line. I’ve certainly found that when the uphill part is getting too steep, a book that’s going well will put me right. Everything else revolves around that.
      Rather like the way every salary in the publishing industry comes from an author’s efforts 🙂

  10. #22 by johnaalogan on June 2, 2014 - 3:42 pm

    Thanks very much for the mention, Roz, great surprise! Interesting to look back, too, and realise that Thomas Ford’s release really did synch with that Goldrush Free Promotion period in 2012, when free downloads could generate paid sales…and how much Luck is a factor in how things go…
    Perhaps it’s already time for someone to write a Short History of Epublishing…the accelerated changes that have happened just in the last 30 months of it? You touch on some of the important evolutionary phases here…
    (P.S,..while in Darwinian territory…Love that Tortoise photo!)

    • #23 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 2, 2014 - 6:45 pm

      Hey, superstar John! You were definitely one of the trailblazers – and deservedly so, as my review of Thomas Ford will attest.
      A short history of epublishing? That sounds like a job for Authors Electric….

  11. #24 by Viv on June 2, 2014 - 4:34 pm

    I think that we’re too used to believing in a static situation when e-publishing is shockingly dynamic & complex beyond easy analysis.
    The advice that circulates is often related to previous situations and times; for example, the fact that making a book free USED to translate into masses of sales is still drawn upon as a valid reason for doing it NOW.
    What worked six months ago is not guaranteed to work now, if we’re relying on gimmicks and tricks. Ultimately, I am just grateful that books are still selling when the market has shifted and the numbers involved make discovery that bit harder. I think I *got in* at the right time; I’d be scared to start now.

    • #25 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 2, 2014 - 6:51 pm

      Hi Viv! You’re so right when you say we’re used to a static situation. And the publishing industry has found it difficult to move as fast as authors, so really we’re all learning.
      What we now need are better ways to reach readers, and a more egalitarian literary culture that will review books according to merit, not the old-boy network or the traditional publishing clique.

  12. #26 by sharonhughson on June 2, 2014 - 5:48 pm

    I hope I have to worry about book sales by this time next year. Just getting ready to query agents with my YA fantasy novel. Very scary, but I quit my day job in July 2013 and am determined to grab my dream of being a published author.
    Good news! The first draft of the trilogy (this book is the first) is already completed and waiting to be rewritten and revised once the first book is published. Better news: I have extensive notes for a new YA fantasy stand-alone novel and plan to start writing it as soon as this query gets off my desk.

  13. #28 by Ben Hinson on June 3, 2014 - 3:59 am

    Nice post! I agree with all your points, especially what you said on a need for a more egalitarian literary culture, and moving away from “cliquish” behavior. Couldn’t agree more.

    • #29 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 3, 2014 - 6:52 am

      Thanks, Ben! Good indie authors are almost calling the bluff of the literary establishment, especially critics. If they can’t judge a book purely on its merits, what good are they? And what kind of service are they giving readers?

  14. #30 by Tahlia Newland on June 3, 2014 - 8:10 am

    It’s been a bad couple of months for a lot of authors I know, and it is depressing. I simply can’t get motivated to write more when the 5 books I’ve already written are just sitting there, and they’ve won awards, so I know they’re good. Trouble is, if everyone just keeps writing, there’ll be even more books out there making it even harder for readers to find our books. I think it’s valid advice for the reasons you say, but it isn’t going to sell your books, it will just give you more books to sell. .

    • #31 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 4, 2014 - 7:53 am

      Hi Tahlia! You’re right; it is only going to get tougher. And you’re doing your best to raise the profile of indie publishing with Awesome Indies, so you’re in a better position than most to know what the climate is.
      This is where I fall back on the Zelah part of the equation – including the optimism. Even the delusion, perhaps, but I hope not. I have to hope that whatever I can do to raise my profile will work in the long term, so long as it’s honest and real. Also I can hope that long, sustained effort will pay off too.

  15. #32 by Glynis Smy on June 3, 2014 - 8:55 am

    Love this post. I delight in the fact that many of my friends are achieving sales. I also feel comforted by the fact that the majority are in the same boat as myself. Horrid thought but it does help me clear my mind of the self-doubt that darkens my days. February and May were good months for one of my books, and it gave me hope, and cash to get involved in more writing events. 🙂

    I try but I am a tortoise with marketing. I plod along with writing but fail to put myself out there. I do it for others but am shy with regard to promoting myself. I have had my knuckles rapped by folk we both know, ‘must try harder’ is my new motto. 🙂

    • #33 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 4, 2014 - 8:08 am

      Hi Glynis! Funny, I noticed an upsurge in February and March. Sunspots?
      I often feel I’m a tortoise with marketing too. There’s a lot that I don’t do because I don’t have the time or inclination. For instance, one of the ways to get attention for fiction is to blog regularly about its subjects and issues. But I don’t want to blog about reincarnation, global warming, loss of the countryside, dealing with a chronic life-changing injury. In any case, I’m not an issues writer. I don’t examine these subjects in the conventional sense. I use them as a magnifying glass to explore people. I do run The Undercover Soundtrack, but I enjoy that as a creative salon.
      I probably shouldn’t be saying that when you’re trying to fit more marketing into your regime!

  16. #34 by Misha Gericke on June 3, 2014 - 12:21 pm

    Hey, saw your link from two of my network contacts so I thought I should check it out. 🙂

    This long-term approach is definitely the one I’m taking, because I’ve done the whole getting onto the blog tour and twitter band wagon and really, none of it really makes a difference. However, it makes sense to build up a back-list and have it be there when we do hit it big. (My how optimistic I sound. :-D)

    Besides, I’m not really writing books to sell them. I’m writing books because I love writing books, and I might as well put them on sale when I’m done.

    • #35 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 4, 2014 - 8:12 am

      Hi Misha – thanks for hopping over. And joining the stream of optimism! Oh well, at least we all feel a bit happier…

  17. #36 by Tracy Cooper-Posey on June 4, 2014 - 8:52 pm

    Hi Roz:

    I’ve had NAIL YOUR NOVEL on my cellphone for nearly three years and keep going back to it. I just can’t find a reason to archive it. It’s been of tremendous help.

    I saw James Scott Bell’s tweet about your post and jumped over here to look. Very interesting timing, thank you. I had my nose tweaked yesterday by the Passive Guy’s post (http://www.thepassivevoice.com/06/2014/indie-authors-quitting-their-day-jobs/) where dozens and dozens of indie authors were proudly announcing the date they quit their day jobs. It was amazing to read all the success stories, and I’m passing it around to everyone I can think of, urging them to go read about exactly how good indie publishing is for writers.

    It wasn’t until mid-afternoon that I realized my spirits were sagging dreadfully because I’m not one of the “I quit!” brigade (and it really is a brigade now…if not a whole army)…yet.

    Thanks for this post. It helped.



    • #37 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 4, 2014 - 11:05 pm

      Hi Tracy! Wow, it sounds as though you were one of the first 10,000. Lovely to meet you. And I’m glad my post restored your spirits.

  18. #38 by Cate Russell-Cole on June 5, 2014 - 2:23 am

    Reblogged this on "CommuniCATE" Resources for Writers and commented:
    This is an encouraging post, that most of us need at the moment.

  19. #39 by ianmathie on June 5, 2014 - 9:41 am

    Selling non-fiction is every bit a hard as selling novels, possibly harder, so don’t run away with the idea that churning out a non-fiction book to support your novel is going to produce instant recognition and therefore sales. It doesn’t. I have six n-f books out there in the market, but due to the fact that not everyone is interested in Africa, or in memoirs, even really dynamic and interesting narrative memoirs like mine the market is not vast. So I can’t expect rapid sales.

    On the other hand, I keep finding new readers who pick up my books for other reasons and discover they have interesting stories in them that belie their genre classifications. So it’s all about marketing and finding new ways to offer and promote your work. I’ve done a number of radio broadcasts where the subject under discussion touched on a topic covered in one of my books. S subtle mention of this fact at a suitable moment and the following day the sales figures for that book spike as people interested in the radio discussion look for a bit more.

    So, in answer to the original question of what do I do when the sales figures go slack, the answer is to go off at a tangent, but make sure it is one that enables you to drop seeds for the birds to follow and be led round to your books.

    • #40 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on June 5, 2014 - 12:45 pm

      Hi Ian! You make an excellent point there, and I should have been more precise. It is relatively easy to sell how-to books based on expertise that is in demand and you can demonstrate. Other types of non-fiction, as you quite rightly point out, are less easy – almost as difficult as selling fiction. Thanks for sharing with us what works for you. Those are great tips.

  20. #41 by Harliqueen on June 5, 2014 - 11:45 am

    Great tips, thank you for sharing 🙂 Definitely going to have to remember these!

  21. #43 by Elaine Jeremiah on June 11, 2014 - 3:35 pm

    Thank you for a wonderful post. It’s so helpful to have such good advice. I’m gonna do what you suggest and keep writing! 🙂

  22. #45 by Judy Nickles on August 30, 2014 - 7:35 pm

    Timely post! My first series flew off the (Amazon) shelves in a dizzying hurry. The second series is limping along despite mostly five-star reviews. I’m philosophical about it–not ever book is a winner–but I’ve put in enough time and work on the books that I feel obligated to continue marketing and hunting for the magic formula to generate sales. So I especially enjoyed reading this post today and have shared it on several social media sites. Thanks!

    • #46 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on August 31, 2014 - 1:02 pm

      Thank you very much for the shares, Judy – and I’m glad to see my post helped. Good luck – and keep making the magic.

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