Writing a book is hard. Like, really hard. And the reward for all your hard work, is very often that only a few people will ever actually see or even hear about the writing you poured yourself into. Most books sell less than 250 copies per year and the average self-published author can expect to earn less than a couple thousand bucks.
That’s the bad news.
The good news? Well, it’s all your fault. I mean that, in both ways. It’s good news because most of the reasons your book will fail are totally avoidable.
No one seems to want to talk about this, for obvious reasons, but I’m happy to, because this is what I do. I’ve worked on countless books and book campaigns, more than a dozen of which became New York Times bestsellers (including multiple #1s). Both traditionally published and self-published, my clients have sold well over 5 million books. The books I wrote and published under my own name have sold hundreds of thousands copies, have over 3,500 combined reviews on Amazon and been translated in 17 languages. Of course, you don’t have to listen to me, but I hope that you will: because I’ve also seen plenty of books that flopped and I’d like to think I have a pretty decent breadth of experience to help explain why. So let’s talk about why your book is set up to fail and what you might do about it.
The first thing that almost every author does wrong is write a book for an imaginary audience–or more commonly, a book for an audience of one (themselves). This mistake can come from a good place or a bad one. Good: I’m so enthusiastic about this topic that I haven’t stopped to think if other people like it too. Bad: I’m a blowhard writing a book about myself so I can feel important. In either case, the book is set up to fail because they have no idea who or where the audience is. When asked, they always say their book is for “smart people.” Or better yet, they think it is for Malcolm Gladwell fans. When they can’t even explain what their book is about because it is so esoteric or uninteresting, they resort to the Hollywood model of pitching: it’s David Foster Wallace meets Jonathan Safran Foer in a science fiction world, or some rubbish like that. And please don’t tell me you wrote something you don’t have any actual credentials in. If foreign policy is foreign to you, save it for your blog.
Writing is marketing, you need to realize. Too many books fail because it was written in a vacuum, without ever considering anything beyond your own immediate tastes and needs. You wrote without ever thinking: How the hell are people going to hear about this and why would they care if they do? You thought about why you wanted to write it, but not why anyone else needed it. Without product market fit, a book will never succeed. Significant research has to go into the potential reader, their needs, your abilities, your message, your desires and how to connect all those things. Of course, art and vision has to dictate what you produce, but other considerations must have sway as well. What if the potential audience is only 500 people? What if it’s 5 million? The answer is going to determine not only your strategy but whether success is even possible. Without thinking this through, without knowing what you’ve set out to do and for whom, how will you possibly know whether you’ve hit the mark you aimed for? Sure, sometimes ignorance works out for an author. But only when luck, fate and the gods of art intervene. If this is what you’re counting on, then your strategy is all hope. As they say: wish in one hand, shit in the other, see which one fills up faster. I’m sorry, but the odds are just not in your favor here. And if you’ve already submitted it to your publisher or to Amazon, it’s too late to do anything about it.
Finally, a book better be damn good if you want it to succeed. If it isn’t, you will fail. Whatever yours is right now, I promise it could be better. Maybe even much better.
Authors tend to be egomaniacs. It’s probably what powers them through the lonely days and nights of writing and helps them push past rejection, doubts and being misunderstood. The problem is that once the book is finished, when it comes time to develop a marketing campaign, those delusions and self-assurance become major liabilities. Your book will fail because of your inflated self-importance. Do you know how many people are eagerly anticipating your book? Unless your last name is King, Lewis, Evanovich, Gladwell, Patterson, Kingsolver, Child, or R.R. Martin, the answer is next to nobody. And why would they? There were something like 300,000 books published last year–and god knows how many movies, apps and free high definition pornography. We live in the golden age of television here guys! The fact that you have a lot of Twitter followers or were once featured on Fox News Business is not the same as having a loyal following. It will not translate into massive sales–every book fights for itself. But you won’t listen to anyone about this because you know better, right? Because you’re the expert, genius and no one can reach you.
This is the real problem. Delusional authors lose their connection with reality. They want to spend money on Facebook ads, but never bother to think if they’ve ever bought a book from an ad. They want to do a big pre-order campaign but don’t even question whether this is the kind of book that people pre-order. They spend hours and hours chasing down impressive, gratifying blurbs–because those go right on the cover–but don’t actually know whether blurbs 1) help sell books 2) are the best favor to ask of their most important connections.
Most insidiously, delusion makes you feel like you’ve got the whole thing in the bag, so you don’t work as hard as you might if you were starting from the bottom or if you were truly hungry. You don’t run a proper pre-mortem, thinking through how this whole project can be a massive flop and preemptively address its weaknesses. Your delusional expectations for this book–debuting at #1, appearing on TED’s main stage, getting reviewed in the New York Times–set you up to fail by your own ridiculous standards. Not just because of the vanity and self-absorption but because instead of focusing your effort on the really difficult task(making a dent in the universe) you’ve decided to fill your head and your team’s head with superficial fantasies. And therefore assured that you will be disappointed when the real, objective response of the market comes in on launch week with thundering silence.
Picking the wrong topic is an obvious miss, but there are a few other critical choices that authors consistently get wrong and it dooms them to failure. They pick confusing titles, design weak or boring covers, write lame descriptions/copy, agree to bad release dates–all these things have marketing implications. Now we don’t have time here to get into what the difference between good and bad actually means for all these, but most of the time, it comes down to consideration, empathy and clarity.
I see this all the time: I’ll ask an author what a book is about and hear a very interesting story…but the title and the rest of the materials don’t reflect this at all. There are always a million excuses: Oh, it’s what the publisher told me. Yeah, I realize it’s confusing but I really like it anyway. Oh, I guess I just didn’t think about it. It’s not a big deal. Are you kidding? The cliche is ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ because that’s what everyone in the world does. That’s not the only thing they judge by: the title, the subtitle, the pitch of what it is about…these are the things we use to make snap decisions about what we read and don’t read. You have to make your choices accordingly. (This is my favorite example of a publisher killing an awesome title, and worse still the author doesn’t even realize what a mistake it was.)
It doesn’t matter if you hire the best marketing firm in the world (seriously, even I can’t salvage some projects), if you get front of store placement or tons of media coverage–if the positioning and branding of the book is off, it won’t convert. These are not decisions that you make based purely on personal taste. You must make them based on how they will sell your book to an increasingly busy, skeptical and distracted reader. Unfortunately, you’ve made all these decisions and boxed yourself in. No one can get you out of it. You have to blow it up and rebuild.
If you made this choice, you’ve probably also decided to hire Results Source or another such firm. I know how this story ends: It ends with the author spending hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own money and wasting endless hours of their time and the time of everyone else they’ve hired. For what? For a vanity spot on the New York Times bestseller list? To sell 10,000 copies your first week and 100 total your second? Bravo! Here’s some big news: appearing on a bestseller list by itself will not change your life. I say this as someone who has hit it (and also been skipped by the list despite selling enough copies). Without press, attention and real sales, it will hardly impact your speaking career. Appearing on the list for a week or two will almost certainly generate zero “sales lift.” You will take your eye off the ball and miss a lot of other opportunities because of it. I’ll say it again: the best way to drive sales and raise your profile with a book is to write and market something in a way that generates conversation and word of mouth. End of story.
Let me guess, your book is coming out in a few weeks and this is the first time you’ve started to think about this stuff. Or worse, you have a book idea and think your friend ‘who writes well’ can ghostwrite a fully polished, publishable hit for you. This is laziness. Books can take years to write, market and sell probably. They take hundreds of hours of work. They are not handed up to publishers or to Amazon or anyone and automatically made successful. They’re not handed up to publicists or marketers or social media experts either. You must be the CEO of this book, a hands-on, leads-from-the-front CEO.
This is true for fiction and non fiction. Authors who make a living doing this do it for a living. It’s work–they spend immense amounts of time learning, meeting people, experimenting, developing and laying the groundwork for each and every project. Platforms are hard to build, but they sell books. Yet, I am regularly shocked at how lazy and entitled prospective (or failed) authors are. Maybe it’s because writing is such a sapping task or maybe marketing and sales is just seen as unsexy. But the reality is that book sales come from hustling and if you’re not hustling, you will fail. This means that every media opportunity has to matter to you, every article has to be given 100%, and you can’t be turning up your nose at podcasts because ‘they’re too small.’ And most of the work has to come from you, because you’re the only one that can do it and the only one who can care the most. If that sounds awful to you then good– either don’t write a book or change your goals.
My final point is not a contradiction of the previous one. Passion is dangerous. It leads authors astray because it confuses energy with strategy and discipline. It’s the kind of thinking that loves the idea of being a writer, especially if it feels and looks like something out of a Hunter S Thompson story. I remember talking to an author who told me he planned to produce one of the ‘best books in his genre’ and that he was incredibly excited and willing to put considerable resources and time into doing it. Oh, I asked, ‘what other books do you like in that space?’ His answer: ‘I don’t know, I don’t read that much.’ This is insane! And ironically, this is the type of author who will obsess about tiny details of little importance–like fonts or the photo illustration on page 242 that eats up hours of focus.
Passion is not going to sell copies. Strategy is. Product market fit, a good marketing plan, a sense of the audience, avoiding dumb mistakes and distractions–these are the things that will get you across the finish line. Passionate authors are certainly better than apathetic authors, but simply being excited about something and spending lots of time on it is not sufficient. You have to work smart. You have to be objective.
I know this was probably harsh. But that was on purpose. Because publishing tends to be filled with nice people, and nobody wants to be direct or speak certain unpleasant truths. This hurts authors, and it will hurt you if you let it lull you into complacency.
Ignore the success stories–the authors who threw up a book on Kindle and made a million dollars. They are the exceptions, exceptions that prove the rule (in this case, that most books sell very few copies). Focus on the failures. Avoid their mistakes. Outwork them. Out-think them.
Wherever you are in the process, it’s not too late to fix it. It’s not too early to start either. But the sooner you wake up the better.
I wish you all the success in the world. I just promise you, that if you don’t get out of your own way, you won’t have it.
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