Mar 02 2011

How to Sell a Book in America

Published by at 2:07 am under Kiss Me Stranger,writing & arts

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 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 . 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 have huge followings and review ten books a week. It could make a difference to your if the right 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 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 ’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 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 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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7 responses so far

7 Responses to “How to Sell a Book in America”

  1. Michael Boxwellon 02 Mar 2011 at 6:18 am

    There are lots of things you can do to promote your book sales and build up a healthy following for your work. It takes hard work and it takes dedication – plug away at it for about six months, doing a little bit every few days and eventually your book sales should start climbing through the sales charts.

    We’re living in the world of the virtual bookstore, where there is unlimited shelf space and the ability to print a few books at a time. Whilst the big publishers with their huge budgets can ‘buy’ the top ten best sellers lists with huge advertising, in-store promotions and the like, the smaller players can afford to play the long game and slowly plug away at promoting their books bit by bit.

    Creating a web site is all very well, but how will people find it? The same with social media, most people use social media for their friends and don’t take kindly to being sold to every few minutes.

    The first thing to do is find your ‘key words’ – these are the keywords that people might use if they wanted to find out about your subject when searching on Google. Come up with a dozen of these and then run them through the Google Key Words tool to find out how many people actually use them. The key words tool will then suggest better words for you to use.

    You then incorporate these key words in your sales description on Amazon, and on your web site and on all your social media sites. Get them into your press releases and make sure that you get picked up by other blogs and information sites that cover your particular topic.

    There are lots of other things you can do as well, but that’s a good start. If you want to find out more, follow me on Twitter – @MakeAnEbook – as I post up simple book promotion ideas every day. A daily 30-second podcast follows in April.

  2. […] More here: Ron Tanner » How to Sell a Book in America […]

  3. Pro Blogger Newson 02 Mar 2011 at 9:23 am

    How To Sell A Book In America…

    […]A review in the New York Times Bok Review would help tremendously. A recent study showed that even bad[…]…

  4. rtanneron 02 Mar 2011 at 10:35 am

    Michael: great advice. Thanks! Ron

  5. Jim Milleron 02 Mar 2011 at 6:05 pm


    I loved the article. I’m a book marketing representative for a publishing company, and there is so much of what you tell people here that I tell my authors every day.

    The truth of “big publishing” is that they only spend those thousands (millions?) of advertising dollars on their A-list authors. In other words, those who don’t really need it. The fact is that publishing has become a game of finding the biggest name you can and selling books to their fans. Yes, it really is as pedestrian as that.

    There is one thing that stands out as a glaring omission, and that is the place of niche marketing. The problem with a book tour for an author who is not yet famous is that you’re now going to the 30% of the public that does darken the door of bookstores occasionally and hoping they’ll buy your book instead of the one they came there to buy. What about the other 70%?

    There are a lot of readers among those who don’t go to bookstores. Niche marketing is, in essence, finding those people where they gather and meeting them there. Think about it this way: If there were no such thing as bookstores, where would I go to sell my book?

    At the rate bookstores are closing, this is not a hypothetical question anymore. If you don’t make a plan based on your answer to this question, you will struggle to sell any books at all.

  6. Janice F. Bacaon 02 Mar 2011 at 7:22 pm

    Great information! This is very helpful as I have published my first book and am looking for opportunities to market it – the right way.
    Thanks for this great article!

  7. ronon 14 Mar 2011 at 10:56 pm

    Thanks, Jim:helpful observation — you are so right, as my next post will bear out.
    Thanks for reading, Janice.

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Ron Tanner is an award-winning writer of fiction and nonfiction, author of A BED OF NAILS, KISS ME STRANGER, and other works. For more on his latest activity, click here. Or go to: