It’s An Unsolvable Mystery

Don’t you love to curl up with a good mystery? You turn the pages, jump in the footsteps of a detective and follow the clues.   There is also some mysteries in publishing that may be unsolvable. Why do some books sell and some books fade out of print?

It happens (and has happened) to many authors—you would instantly recognize their names. Their books are out of print.  As the Acquisitions Editor at a publisher, I had access to the list of books which had been put out of print (over a several year period). The decision to take a book out of print was made on the basis of the sales—and seemingly little else such as the author and their rise in the market. This particular list included names like Bill Myers, Luis Palau, Ross Campbell and other best-selling authors. While maybe these particular titles had been in print for some time, the sales were not in enough volume to maintain the book in print. As some people tried to point out in some comments about my post from yesterday. Whether you go the traditional route or the self-publishing route on the books, it will take hard work for your books to be sold, in demand and in print.

As I’ve mentioned in some past posts, an interesting book for writers to read and study is Making the List, A Cultural History of the American Bestseller 1900–1999 (Barnes & Noble Books, 2001). Korda is the Editor-in-Chief at Simon and Schuster and studies the bestseller lists for the last century. When you read the book, you learn the complete unpredictable nature of what makes the list and what doesn’t make it.

I’ve heard best-selling author Bruce Wilkinson (Prayer of Jabez) talk about how he had decided not to write any more books at one point. He had a successful teaching and seminar ministry and had not found much success (read sales) in the book area.  Then he put together a little book about Jabez and people began to talk about it. Pastors began to buy cases of the book and hand it out to their congregation. It took off. Bruce has been speaking about the prayer of Jabez for many years. I heard him in 1977 speak about it and he had written a manuscript on the topic which was over 200 pages—and never published. It was finally the right time and the right place for that particular book.

Several years ago I acquired a book from the pastor of a mega-church. The publisher worked on a promotional campaign and the author did almost 100 radio interviews when the book released. He also produced a short tract with an excerpt from the book (and the cover of the tract matched the book cover). He and members of his church handed out over 50,000 copies of this tract. Yet when he received his royalty statement with the accounting of the sales, he called me to ask about the numbers. When I investigated I found the numbers were true. A small number of books were sold through the stores and the majority of the books this author had purchased through his ministry. Something broken down somewhere in the sales process. Despite an active and successful publicity campaign, it wasn’t reflected in the book sales.  It is an unsolvable mystery to me.

Within a traditional publishing setting, the decision about keeping a particular book in print will boil down to the sales. There are some solid things that you as a book author can do to help this process:

*Don’t hold back on the author promotion of your book. Jump into it and while you are writing other things, keep marketing your book. Here’s a great article from Lissa Warren about what to do if your book isn’t getting media attention.

*Keep marketing your book even after the first initial months of the release. Some books are slow to take off and become bestsellers. I’ve read that This Present Darkness didn’t sell many copies during the first year but then through word-of-mouth marketing, the book began to take off and gained the best-seller status.

*Understand the importance of the backlist and steady sales to the publisher.  The May 16th issue of Publisher’s Weekly includes an article about business books. Seth Godin’s Purple Cow was published by Portfolio two years ago and now has more than 150,000 copies in print after 23 printings.  Or Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point (2000 release) is on the current paperback bestseller (trade) list in Publisher’s Weekly with over a million copies sold.

*Sell through multiple channels. Readers like plenty of choice to purchase their books.  You can see more in this article.

Life is full of unsolvable mysteries. I’ve often heard this quotation about prayer: We are to pray like it depends on us and live like it depends on God.  I believe the same holds true for book marketing. We live with the uncertainty of the market but we continue because we know that books (and magazine articles) change lives. So we keep on even in the midst of something unsolvable.

One Response to “It’s An Unsolvable Mystery”

  1. Steve Goble Says:

    Interesting advice – cheers Terry!


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