What sells books, and why should you care?
Plus, why Melville quit writing, and a new series on how to sell more of whatever it is you’re selling.
Hey there. This is Poe Can Save Your Life, an occasional newsletter about the modern-day arts and the olden-day arts. If you’re new here, welcome! There’s been a rash of signups since my last post. Glad to have you.
Last time out, I finished up a series on how I got a traditional “Big 5” book deal despite the fact that I am not an influencer, or a PhD, or any kind of big-name media expert.
This post starts a new series about selling books to readers, rather than publishers.
As it turns out, this is just as bedeviling a question as the one about how to get published.
But the question of “What sells books?” is bigger than it first appears. It’s really a larger question of “What moves units in a crowded marketplace?” Which itself is really a larger question: “How can you have the artistic career you’ve always wanted?”
I want to suggest that getting more comfortable with sales and marketing can help us all answer that last, huge question. Maybe you’re in a plum position already. In which case, great. If not, then sales are still your problem and not someone else’s.
Now, obviously, I am not just the president of this newsletter, but a client, too. My own career prospects are not such that I can ignore them. If my first book does not sell, I may never get the chance to publish another one. And this when my little book about Poe has already outperformed Moby-Dick! Or at least outperformed it in one sense.
Did you know that, in Melville’s lifetime, only 3,715 copies of Moby-Dick were sold?
You have to think that Melville’s mom probably bought at least 5 copies, too, so that 3,715 total just gets uglier the longer you stare at it. The population of the U.S. was then much lower, of course, while some of those sales might have been lending-library copies. It’s possible Melville had more readers on a per-capita basis than we might guess.
But in its time, the book was regarded as something of a bomb (all the more so because Melville’s earlier book, Typee, had been a blockbuster, selling 16,320 copies). And in the wake of this “failure,” Melville gave up. He stopped writing big, ambitious books.
Many decades later, Moby-Dick caught on and became a massive cultural force, a big old name-brand whale. But Melville never got to see that. Eventually he stopped writing for publication altogether, took a job as a customs inspector, and died in obscurity.
Poe’s story is similar in many ways. His first and only completed novel—The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket—bombed, too. For payment, he received just a few copies of his own book. Otherwise he never earned a dime from it, even though he’d written it expressly for money.
The book which Poe thought his best and which he believed would make him famous during his own lifetime was Eureka, a galaxy-brained space opera that, nowadays, only academics read. It contains some of Poe’s all-time most beautiful prose. It also details his entire half-cracked-genius view of the universe in all its manifold physical, metaphysical, and existential realities. Projects do not get bigger: Eureka is Poe’s cosmology, his answer to why we’re born and what we’re doing here.
Yet of the 500 copies of Eureka printed in Poe’s lifetime, only a handful sold. Many were pulped. Not coincidentally, it became the last book he ever wrote.
Low sales don’t indicate a lack of literary or artistic merit. Not then and not now. By the same token, low initial sales don’t necessarily equal long-term failure, either. That’s the good news.
The bad news? Low sales do correlate with the end of careers (or with a “soft withdrawal” as John Updike characterized Melville’s career post-Moby).
If I don’t sell books, and you don’t move units of [whatever the product looks like in your creative discipline], then we may not be able to go on working in our respective fields. We may quit, or be forced to quit.
This is why I say that sales are our problem to try and solve, no matter how awful, capitalist and gross it may strike some people to care about these matters or even pay much attention to them. No—it’s not gross to sell your work. It’s a creative act, and the question of what moves units IS highbrow, IS professional, IS interesting, IS artistic. I will die on this hill.
The conventional wisdom goes that artists should ignore the marketplace. But the longer I go on, the more I’m convinced the best relationship between artists and markets is considerably more complex. Less a binary, more a duality.
The way we usually talk about the relationship is so reductive, too—as if the only possibilities were making art for money vs. making art to please yourself. What about the artistic possibilities that we discover when we kowtow, or simply play around?
Here’s Stephen King to make the point:
I’ve written more than once about the joy of writing and see no need to reheat that particular skillet of hash at this late date, but here’s a confession: I also take an amateur’s slightly crazed pleasure in the business side of what I do. I like to goof widdit… it’s not about making money or even precisely about creating new markets; it’s about trying to see the act, art, and craft of writing in different ways, thereby refreshing the process and keeping the resulting artifacts—the stories, in other words—as bright as possible.
A fresh perspective on one aspect of creative writing—the commercial aspect—can sometimes refresh the whole.
This series will look at how a fresh perspective on the commercial aspect of what you do can “refresh the whole,” and how we all might tap into that King-ian slightly crazed pleasure. I’ll be sending it out over the next couple of weeks. It’s free, as always, and if there’s any topic you want to see me cover, you can comment below or just email me.
My next post will be about timing and seasonality. So let me leave you with a little personal horror story what with Halloween in the wind:
Four or five years ago, I was close—oh my god, so close—to placing a story with a prestigious publication.
Big web presence.
Glossy print magazine you’ve seen for sale in Hudson News.
A name that makes people nod when you say it.
And a freelance budget to prove it all. This outfit pays north of $1 a word, so as freelancing goes, it’s big-league money.
Even getting to the pitching phase had taken some doing. A friend of mine met one of the editors at a random backyard barbecue in New Jersey, and told him about this fun pitch I’d been trying to place. That editor said it wasn’t right for him, but would pass it on to someone more senior.
The more-senior guy responded within ten minutes of me emailing him. He loved the idea, he said. We just needed to explore it a bit more before he could sign off.
He and I ping-ponged emails all week as we pinned down how I would report the story: locations, sources, data. Finally, he said he was ready to green-light it. He just had one more question.
As in, why should he rush to publish the story?
Believing the deal was basically done, I didn’t over-think my response. Well, I said, it’s a humongous trend, but no one’s done a piece on it yet. We’ll be getting to it first.
Not a good-enough answer, turns out.
Since there was no ultra-specific reason to schedule the story right away, his focus shifted to stuff more pressing. Then he stopped replying. And there went what would have been a really, really big byline for me.
It was a painful way to learn that—corny or elementary as it may seem—it’s crucial to think through “Why now?” before you place a pitch, publish a book, launch your new thing. “Why now?” is a question you must have a good answer for, lest some powerful editor stop returning your increasingly desperate emails!
Still, people don’t talk about this stuff—about how important timeliness can be, how much it can improve your chances of success and put some real juice into your launch. More on that in just a bit.
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A good link
John Updike, for an ’82 issue of the New Yorker, wrote a long, detailed account of Melville’s “soft withdrawal.” Nathaniel Philbrick’s Why Read Moby-Dick is incredible and a quick read, too. That’s where I got Melville’s sales figures.
I loved this Kathryn Jezer-Morton piece about why moms and momfluencers love fall. This You’re Wrong About episode about the evolution of email made me nostalgic for the aughts and the way we all wrote emails then—long, confessional, pretentious, overwrought (or was it just me?).
Lastly, my publisher has put Poe for Your Problems on sale for just $2.99, so if you’ve been thinking of picking it up, this is the two-buck moment to do that, wherever you get your ebooks.
Thank you for reading. Wishing you luck in your sales efforts,