We write our words, we create our stories, and we want to be read. (Not all writing is to be read, of course, but for this post I assume the “we” here to refer to those of us pursuing a career in fiction writing.)
So, we write our words.
We submit our story to an editor, an agent, a publisher.
The dream is that our novel/short story collection is published, right? That we might get to see our book on the shelves of a bookshop and available online? That sometime we might earn money from our talent? We’re not talking about writing as a hobby, we’re talking about craft and graft, years of experience, reading and learning. We’re very good at what we do. We’ve won short story competitions, prizes, awards. We’ve been published extensively in quality literary journals online. Our work appears in anthologies. And now we are ready to be published in book form.
Who is going to pay money to read our words?
I work in a large bookshop. I get people asking me to stock and/or review their books. I know several authors who have been concerned that they won’t get their book stocked by Waterstones and it becomes a holy grail. If only they could get their book on those shelves their book would sell. But would it? I ask again, who will pay money to read y/our story? Why would they?
Who are you? How have they heard of you? How many people walk into a bookstore and browse the spines of all fiction titles until something looks appealing? Who will see you there, spine on, an unknown author, and choose you?
Or, what if a bookseller displays you face out? Will people buy your book then? If you get a bookseller recommendation, that’d help, right?
Except I can tell you from experience that sometimes it can, and sometimes it just doesn’t. If the book is good; unknown and yet enticing, then a bookseller review gets it into a customers hand for that all important, albeit brief, look. They’ll scan the blurb on the back and then flick the pages letting them open in random spots and speed read some prose. They’ll decide, fast.
I have displayed similar positive reviews on two separate collections of short stories on display for over a year. We have sold way more of one than the other. Both are good in my opinion. Not all time favourites, but solid works. The big difference it seems is the cover. One is unexciting, nothing that hasn’t been seen before, whereas the other is intriguing and striking. Can it really come down to the cover? Yeah, I think so. And the quality of the paper. People shy away from those that look self-published.
If you’re a short story writer maybe you’ve been prepared for slow sales. The common wisdom is that short stories don’t sell (except they do), so let’s turn to novels: I put 5 copies of a novel face out on our shelves over a year ago. No review. Over a year later we have not sold a single copy. The writer of this novel has a high online profile, is a good writer, actively engages with promoting his work and has received decent reviews on various blogs and sites. The theme is relevant, and I have little doubt that were it by a “name” author it would sell. If it was placed in our 3 for 2 promotion and available in every branch it would sell. If someone from The Guardian or The Telegraph reviewed it positively then customers would come in and ask for it. If it were discussed on TV or radio it would attract customers.
The truth is that you can be a good writer and achieve your dream of being published and yet not sell many books. One book does not automatically lead to another, talent doesn’t automatically lead to sales and neither does having a book on the shelf of a bookshop.
What can you do? I’m not sure, but there are a couple of things that I’ve seen work well. I’ll write a follow up post soon.