A Sales Team reason for rejection

It’s tempting, sometimes, to think that just being published is enough for success in a writing career. Unfortunately, there are times when being published can actually be an obstacle to getting published. This is particularly true if you decide to pursue self-publishing as a shortcut to jumpstarting your career. 

Here’s a rule of thumb: Any book of yours that sells less than 10,000 copies is going to be considered a failure. 

That seems harsh, I know. Especially considering the general opinion is that most books will only sell around 5,000 copies anyway, and most often selling those 5,000 copies will still be enough for a book to be reasonably profitable. But even a book that sells 10,000 copies isn’t necessarily considered a success, it’s just not thought of as a failure anymore. 

As an agent, if you send me a proposal and tell me you’ve published in the past, I’m going to ask for specific unit sales figures on those previous books. Why? Because I know any editor worth her salt out there is going to ask me for that same information. I’m hoping to see one or two books that sold over 20,000 copies (generally considered a success in publishing), but I’ll still be OK if you’re typically selling 10,000 copies of each book you publish. If none of your books gets close to that, I’m going to have to decline the opportunity to represent, just because your track history has proven that people aren’t terribly interested in buying your books.

This is one of those rules of publishing success that I hate, and which hits home for me. I represent someone I believe to be an immensely talented suspense novelist. Her fans think she’s the next Dean Koontz, and she’s actually won a national award for her writing. But she’s published three novels to date—two of them with publishing behemoth Simon & Schuster—and none of her books has sold more than 9,000 copies. 

That’s just not enough in a crowded marketplace like fiction publishing. I can’t sell her fourth book, and S&S dropped her even before her third novel released, citing low sales of her second book as the reason. 

So you see, sometimes a little success in publishing is worse than no success at all.

What You Can Do About It

1. Omit what you don’t like. 

If you’ve published in the past, and unit sales numbers from those previous endeavors isn’t impressive, then just don’t tell me about those books. Don’t mention them at all—maybe I won’t notice. You’ll still have to deal with the perception that you have no sales history to speak of (see Reason #56), but that’s better than telling me that your sales history sucks. 

Some authors think that any published book is a something to be proud of, and they insist on listing everything they’ve ever done. This your ego talking, so ignore it. You be sure to tell me about only the books that make you look good. For instance, I’ve published over 60 books myself, but if you read any bio of me anywhere, you’ll see—at the maximum—that I list only about half of those books. And most often I’ll just list three to five of my top sellers. Why? Well, obviously, the ones I’ve omitted were, um, a bit less than successful in the marketplace. Some books you trumpet, others you bury. So be sure you bury the ones that don’t flatter you.

2. If you just can’t avoid talking about it, then highlight what you learned from it about making a book successful.

If you’re pressed by an editor or agent who wants to know why your book (or books) failed in the marketplace, don’t try to shift the blame to others. (Hey, we all know your books got no marketing support, but we won’t accept that as an excuse anyway.) Instead, present it as a learning experience which will make your next book’s prospects that much better. 

Talk about the inexperience of youth, the carelessness of innocence, or whatever. And tell a few specific ways you’ll “change” in order to help your publisher sell your next book. Make it clear you want to avoid going through that poor sales “learning experience” again. 

For instance, you might say something like this, “With my last book, I was still early in my writing career. I took the idea of success for granted—and I paid the price for it. From that experience, I’ve learned that I really need to be a strong partner for my publisher, both in the writing and in promotion of my book. So for this next book, I’m planning to do a much better job as a publishing partner. Specifically, I will…” 

Make sense?

3. Cultivate ways to increase sales of your existing books.

This is so hard to do without the assistance of a big-pocket partner (like, say, a publishing house’s sales team), but since current sales affect future opportunities, it may be worth your while to stop writing for a year or so and invest your time and money into bolstering sales of your books that are already on the market. 

No, this won’t be easy. And you may fail miserably at it. But if you succeed, it will definitely help your chances for the future in the eyes of my Sales VP.

Free Reprints Logo

Looking for more? Check out these links: