Book Sales & The First Five Pages

Book-Proposals-That-Sell-coI’m one of the almost 48,000 people on Mahesh Grossman’s e-zine list. Like many of the things that come across my desk, often I read it, then delete it. If you don’t get his newsletter, then use the link in his bio to subscribe. Yesterday’s newsletter included a couple of interesting articles from him and his newsletter gave permission to reuse them—as long as you included his bio (and I added his byline). It’s another reality check for writers in several areas—the number of book sales—and the type of effort you have to pour into your book proposals and submissions to get any place in this process. I was discussing this very topic yesterday with someone I’m working with on one of my own book proposals in the process. He said to me, “Terry, if it was easy, then everyone would do it.” It’s true. It’s not easy and takes hard work and solid storytelling skills to pull off a successful book.

I hope you will enjoy and benefit from these articles.


by Mahesh Grossman

I get a lot of calls and e-mails from the subscribers to this newsletter that start off with a comment like ‘My book is a guaranteed bestseller.’

If you say that to me on the phone, my response is likely to be curmudgeonly. If you write that to me in an e-mail, it decreases the chance I will respond to you.

Nobody actually knows that a book will make the bestseller list, especially by an author who isn’t well-known.

Here are some sobering statistics from Nielsen Bookscan, a company that in 2004 tracked the sales of 1.2 million books in the United States:

  • Of those 1.2 million books, 950,000 sold fewer than 99 copies.
  • Another 200,000 sold fewer than 1,000 copies.
  • Only 25,000 books sold more than 5,000 copies.
  • Fewer than 500 sold more than 100,000 copies.
  • Only 10 books sold more than a million copies each.
  • The average book in the United States sells about 500 copies.

(The above info is reprinted from the Levine Breaking News, one of my favorite e-zines. To subscribe, send your email address to:

In other words, almost 80% of the books tracked sold less than 99 copies. And more than 95% sold less than 1,000 copies.

Now you know why The Authors Team doesn’t work on a book for part of the profits. 99% of the time we’d starve.

Here are the two main lessons you can take from this:

1) Agents and editors know these statistics. Because of that, you look like an amateur if you say your book will be a bestseller in your query letter or when you meet with them. They will then look for reasons to turn you down when they read your manuscript or proposal, rather than keeping an open mind.

2) Writing a book just to make money doesn’t usually work, unless you’re already famous. If you’re writing non-fiction, particularly as a way to promote your business, a book needs to be part of an overall strategy that includes publicity, developing a mailing list, and creating other products (paid newsletters, teleseminars, CDs, DVDs, boot camps, coaching and training programs, etc.) for which you can charge higher prices.



By Mahesh Grossman

Here’s the truth about how it works when you submit your novel or a book proposal to an agent: Typically, yours is one of about two hundred submissions the agent gets in a week.

With that kind of volume, the agent or his assistant is not reading carefully. Though they have a goal of finding new properties to sell, at this stage of the process agents have a different mission: rule out as many manuscripts as possible so they can spend more time reading the best stuff.

In real terms, unless your manuscript is one of the top few in a given week, you’ll get a polite rejection letter.

Most agents will take five pages along with a query letter. And one of my agent friends says she skips the query altogether until she reads the sample five pages.

But–and this is really important–since an agent is looking to rule out manuscripts that aren’t ready, if your first page (and sometimes even your first paragraph) isn’t strong enough, you will land in the reject pile.

Literally every unpublished manuscript I have seen in the last few years has suffered from this problem. Even the best, which recently landed an agent, needed a complete re-do of the first two pages.

Maybe it’s because most people start their novels at the beginning, and they don’t know their story or characters well enough until later in the book. Maybe new writers write better as they get further into the story.

Whatever the case, you can’t afford to wait until page three (or seven or fifty) for your best writing. It has to start with page one, sentence one, and continue with sentence two, sentence three, etc. Otherwise your manuscript is bound for the reject pile.

What’s the biggest reason agents get turned off by a writer’s first page? Instead of starting where the real story begins, with the juicy stuff, writers fill their first pages with either dull, unnecessary scenes or background information that can be skipped. I’ve seen manuscripts that begin with the equivalent to the words that appear on the screen before a movie begins–the stuff that’s too boring to waste money filming. Obviously, this is not the kind of writing that will make a great first impression on an agent.

One of my favorite examples of a great beginning is from Jennifer Weiner’s novel, ‘Good In Bed’. It starts with a big event that propels the story. The first four words of this novel push you right into the story–the main character’s best friend simply asks, ‘Have you seen it?’

The ‘it’ in question is an article by the protagonist’s somewhat ex-boyfriend (they’re taking a break), in a national magazine, titled ‘Loving a Larger Woman.’

Her reaction to this article is entertaining and keeps you reading for a long time to come. Eventually Weiner fills you in on the story between the ex and the main character on a need to know basis, but she doesn’t let it get in the way of the important material that’s happening right now.

This novel starts with the event that changes the main character’s life–which is where most stories should begin. (There are other ways to start a novel, but this is a very good one.)

Where does your novel start? And what can you cut from your beginning without hurting your story?

My advice? Be ruthless.

Here’s to your bestseller!

MaheshgrossmanMahesh Grossman is the author of Write a Book Without Lifting a Finger ( and President of The Authors Team (, a company that helps credible experts become Incredible Authors, through ghostwriting, editing, coaching, and publishing. He can be reached via e-mail at: For a free list of more than 400 agents as well as a newsletter with tips on how to find an agent, get published, publish your own book and get publicity for it, go to or ©2006

This link to the agent list is a way to get the list of the Association of Author Representatives. Many other agents follow the ethical standards of the AAR but don’t belong to the organization. The list can be a resource—but it can also be overwhelming. If you are going to use this list, understand that just like approaching any publisher requires research, it also requires research to approach an agent and make sure you are pitching something of interest for that agent. If you don’t use this list of agents with wisdom, then you are simply throwing more material into the system, clogging it and going to reap a lot of rejections. Information is power but how you use that information is critical.

3 Responses to “Book Sales & The First Five Pages”

  1. R. K. Mortenson Says:

    Last weekend I saw part of Dumb & Dumber…again. (This movie makes me laugh, I’ll admit.) Your post, Terry, made me think of the scene where Jim Carrey’s character asks the girl, “So what are the odds of a girl like you getting together with a guy like me?”

    She says emphatically, “A million to one.”

    He purses his lips and nods. “So you’re saying there’s a chance…”

  2. Terry Whalin Says:


    Funny stuff and thanks for your comment.

    Yet when it comes to publishing, many people haven’t put the right information into their book proposal or their pitch. Because of basic lack of effort and mostly lack of education, they are doomed to struggle.

    It’s why I’ve devoted such effort to these entries about the writing life, my personal teaching and my Book Proposals That Sell.

    Firsthand, I know that education is making a difference. As people understand what editors want and put it together in a compelling fashion–then you can find success.

    Book Proposals That Sell

    The Writing Life

  3. Norman D Gutter Says:

    So, actually, we are not writing for a reading audience, but only for an editor (or an agent if we go that route). Why bother figuring out who the reading audience is?

    At least for the first five pages.

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