Writing a Book vs. Desiring to Sell Copies

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With the explosion of indie publishing and self-publishing, there’s a conundrum that was avoided through traditional publishing because there were gate keepers. Now, indie published or self-published authors need to ask themselves the tough questions hopefully before writing, and certainly before releasing.

You have a story to tell and you can’t bear not to tell it. It’s burning inside of you and you’ve always considered yourself a pretty good writer, so why not?!

Well, what some people feel compelled to write many more people do not feel compelled to read. If you don’t want to be encumbered by any “rules” or “gatekeepers” who annoyingly want you to conform to practices that have proven successful for other books and authors, then fine. But, be aware. Be very aware. Just because you write it doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll read … and certainly doesn’t mean they’ll buy it.

Recently I’ve had conversations with several authors who are determined to write exactly the book that they want to. And those same people often are determined to sell a lot of copies. Here in lies the problem.

Consider other industries. A self-trained musician who took some music appreciation classes in college may want to write a song, or many songs. That’s fine. But what do you think the chances are that the musician, working alone in her house without the guidance of Quincy Jones or another tried and true producer of hits, making it BIG? What about a kid who plays basketball on his driveway—every day for hours—but never against anyone else on a team and without a coach. What are his chances of making it to the top of the NBA? There are flukes. But I think we all agree that someone working with a mentor who has already made it in the big leagues probably has a better shot of selling more records, or tickets to a basketball game, than someone who is going it totally alone.

I believe that there are books that people have to write. Are compelled. But, and especially when it comes to writing about personal experiences, determine why you are writing and be honest about what your goal is. If your goal is to make a permanent statement or capture a time gone by, do it! If your goal is to sell as many copies of a book as possible, consider finding a veteran mentor. Surround yourself with other people successful in the business (go to author events at your local bookstore, follow and study your favorite authors and figure out what makes them successful, find a killer editor who has had success in your genre). Just as parents encourage kids on the basketball court—“Honey, you are really great at shooting that ball!”—recognize that family and friends don’t have a financial stake in your success. They love you, so they’re going to say your book is great. I promise, I’ve seen it literally hundreds of times. I get calls, “Twenty of my friends loved my book! One said it should win a Pulitzer!” I’m much more interested in what someone who doesn’t know the writer, doesn’t care about the writer, thinks of the writing. How can you get an unbiased opinion? I loved the ingenuity of one clever author that told me she gives her manuscripts to family and friends and says, “A friend wrote this and gave this to me to read. Let me know your thoughts.”

Lots of kids play little league baseball. Fewer kids play for their high school team. Really great kids play college or farm team baseball. The minutest number of those terrific baseball players ever makes it to the big leagues. And how many baseball players playing today can you name? My point is that there is a place for everybody on that baseball scale, but very few will become famous. It’s the same odds for writing a book. There are authors who will delight their family and friends. Some will go on to make an impression in their community or field of work. The really great ones who get some breaks along the way will sell 100,000. And of the millions of people who write books each year, many less than 1 percent will become household names. In baseball, the current players don’t have to play against Babe Ruth and stars of the past. In the book world, you’re still competing for the attention and time of readers against every book ever written as well as all the new stars coming up through the ranks this year.

Set realistic goals while reaching for the stars. Understand that if you choose to go it alone, then that doesn’t mean that you also necessarily get to have the luxury of demanding that others purchase and read your book.

Whether you’ve written a book that 2,500 people buy and many hold close to their heart or you become an overnight sensation like JK Rowling (and how many have there been since her?!), celebrate what you have done. You’ve created art that has its place. If you’re determined to rise to the top, make sure you’ve got a coach and team surrounding you that gives you a pretty good chance to showcase your talent on a national stage.


7 thoughts on “Writing a Book vs. Desiring to Sell Copies”

  • Well yes that is a conundrum now isn’t it? Writing the book is only half the battle. Getting it into the hands of readers, now that is a different (and much more difficult) thing altogether!

    I’m one of those indie authors you mentioned that had a story burning inside that I just HAD to tell. One day I woke up from a dream so vivid and compelling that I immediately began writing it down before I forgot. That was almost a decade ago. Now, my book is published, on audiobook too, and I’m learning all about book marketing with some limited success.

    I remind myself to set reasonable goals, for example, to sell my first hundred copies. Another goal is to sell enough audiobooks to pay myself back for the production cost. These are reasonable goals. Of course, I too, like any starry-eyed fledgling author, have hopes and dreams of being the next J.K Rowling, but even her success wasn’t overnight.

    In the coming weeks I will be focusing my attention on getting my book into public and school libraries. I have registered with the ALA and will be teaming up with other indie authors. Strength in numbers, they say!

    • Those small goals are so important, Brandon! Keep up all the hard work. Learning the ins and outs of the book industry can be such a challenge, but you sound like you’re well on your way!

  • So glad I read this whole article, it has given me a better insight into the whole book industry, I am still glad that I wrote Non-fiction, and a subject which has never been covered in the depth that I have. Pearls are back in fashion and my unique book has a comprehensive cross-referenced A-Z in it making it a useful hand book for all.

  • This was a wonderful read, and I’ve been singing this same song to aspiring writers for many, many years.

    I could write for hours on so many aspects of this piece, but I’ll focus my words on the idea of mentorship and community. True, honest mentorship is an art; it’s a gift. I’ve had a steady stream of mentors throughout my creative life. And just a step or two beyond mentorship is the concept of community. Being a part of a literary community has been an essential ingredient to any modest success that I may have experienced as a writer and editor. Not long ago, I presented a lecture at an area college on living a proactive literary life. I wrote up a MS PowerPoint to go along with it. I think most of it stands alone without the need for narrative. I cover my thoughts on community in it a great deal. The below link should pull it up, if anyone is interested in viewing it. And if not, no hard feelings. 🙂 Happy Holidays everyone….

    Roy B.


    • Roy, you are a perfect example of someone who embraces all aspects of creating a book that others want to read! You are a mentor of the first rate! You support authors and readers through your literary magazine and we admire you greatly!

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