Why is selling books so hard?
It was while working at DragonCon, one of the largest fantasy and science-fiction fan conventions in the world, that I first truly contemplated this question. I was staffing a booth there in 2016 while selling my award-winning book, The Wrath of Brotherhood. A shopper attending the event asked essentially this question of me with the unique wording: “What is the main difficulty or difference you find with selling books?"
Perhaps it was his particular phrasing, turning this question into something no one had ever asked me, or perhaps my mind finally put all the pieces into one clear picture, but it came to me then and there even as the response fell from my lips.
The issue is really that all art forms pose 100% risk for the buyer until they are consumed.
I went on to explain that, when you see visual art, it is effectively zero risk. As soon as you look at it, you've consumed it. You know exactly what you're getting. I have a friend who makes and sells scented candles. If you pick them up and smell them, you think, "This will probably smell similar when burned," so you've sort of consumed it...and therefore minimized the risk. If you make and sell music, sure there's a slower consumption rate: people have to listen to a minute or two of a song or a few songs, but it's still pretty quick to consume, so that risk is mitigated.
But books have the slowest consumption rate of all the arts, so they retain the most risk for the longest time.
Not to mention, selling fiction is harder than non-fiction because non-fiction tells you what it is, whereas fiction tries not to spoil the story before you consume it, and the last ending can make you completely dissatisfied with the entire story. Even children's books, which sell relatively well, have a very fast consumption rate for the purchaser (invariably an adult) and can be partly or completely consumed right at the register prior to purchasing. So even among books, adult novels retain the highest risk for the longest time.
I'm sure one might find an art form that takes longer to consume than books, but it was pretty obvious to this guy that what I was saying was more or less true, and I was just as surprised by this new realization as he seemed to be. I continued talking to the shopper while I delved (in real time) into this newly-articulated reality of the book sales obstacle.
"That's why book covers matter so much," I told him as I showcased one of my beautifully-designed hardcovers. Book covers are visual art, and as such, are effectively zero risk as soon as you look at them. By attaching a zero-risk item to a high-risk item, you reduce the sense of risk for the overall purchase.
I refused to do print-on-demand because, at the time, those services wouldn't do the color endpage printing of my maps. I eventually chose an offset printing company that could include those in my hardcovers, because again, any attached visual art reduces that sense of risk. I had made the decision about my endpage maps before I ever articulated any of this line of reasoning, even to myself, yet it was still true: I had made the decision because it was a "selling point," prior to my realizing what exactly that selling point was: the quelling of risk.
Even my decision to go with hardcovers, which was really driven by my desire for the color endpage maps, remains a selling point for my books. Most other self-published books tend to be in trade paperback format. In a hall of independent books, the decision to have hardcovers (as well as my other decisions) made my books stand out. And since I did hardcovers, I decided to add on these little options like the dust jacket design, the blurb on the dust jacket, the silver foil embossing on the actual cover and spine. All of those visual touches are risk reducers.
I began to think of and expound on other risk reducers as the conversation continued.
I won an Editor's Choice award from the Historical Novel Society while the book I was selling—the first volume of my Brethren of the Spanish Main trilogy of historical pirate novels—was still only in eBook format. When I designed the hardcover, I put that award graphic on the dust jacket. I did the same with prominent reviews I had received. Awards and reviews act as a quality filter to reduce the sense of risk for buyers, particularly when there is no publishing house to act as that (supposed) quality filter. Showing buyers how my book has been received and approved by others helps them feel safer in their own selection.
I hired professional help for the art and design, included the reviews, the synopsis blurb, the award, the endpage maps, and the silver foil stamping on the hard case not because I'd had this realization. Rather:
It was all a way of showing that my physical books would not have less than my eBooks, which had color maps.
It was all a way of showing a professional-looking design.
It was all a way of showing that my books looked just as good as anything published through the larger publishing houses and everything that goes with the traditional publishing route versus my self-published efforts.
Why? Because professionalism reduces that sense of risk too.
Then I brought my book out into the market with me to meet face to face with the public. After all, even having a conversation with me or listening to me speak on panels or podcasts reduces the sense of risk, because if you like something about me, you're more likely to enjoy something about my books.
When I attend conventions and sales events, I notice what draws people into those risk reduction filters most often. The book display is a start, so I create a visually engaging one that attracts customers. I once idly rearranged the Rice Krispie bars at an office building convenience store while I stood talking to the cashier for a few minutes—I made them into little Stonehenge-like arches. The next time I came down, she said she had been selling them all day, and people actually asked her, "When did you start selling Rice Krispie bars here?"
It's the same principle at work in other sales venues. I could slap a pile of books on a table, and people might walk right by without noticing, but a display can get their attention. It's no different from a book cover that way, which is the next thing people usually notice. The appearance of the book, the design, even the title pulls them in. Maybe they pick it up and notice the feel of it in their hands. They look at the back panel or sometimes the inside flap of the dust jacket. If I luck into the opportunity to pitch it or answer questions, I'm halfway to a sale, but I've already employed so many risk reduction practices by then just to get them to that point.
The rarest behavior I notice when I'm there selling directly? A shopper opening up the book and reading a little. In other words, actual consumption—in even a tiny degree—is one of the rarest factors that I see in that process of deciding to buy a book. And, without consumption, no one really knows if they're going to enjoy your book.
That conversation I had with the DragonCon shopper was the first time I’d put into words what makes selling books different from selling any other forms of art. I don’t even remember if the man actually bought a book, but I do remember that he said, "That is the most sensible and clear explanation of marketing books that I've ever heard."
All art forms pose 100% risk for the buyer until they are consumed, and books have the slowest consumption rate of all the arts, so they retain the most risk for the longest time.
I've thought about this maxim quite a bit since that day. This is why so much of the marketing advice by artists of other media is less effective with books. This is why graphic artists at conventions can sit at their tables drawing and still attract interest, while authors usually do much better when standing alert, attentive, and ready to pitch their books or have conversations with potential buyers. This is why it's so much harder to get a bookstore to carry your book if no one has heard of you, and if they aren't guaranteed the right to sell it back to the distributor if the public isn't buying it. This is why someone will spend $6.95 on a birthday card with 10 words in it without hesitation yet will throw up their hands at the idea of spending that much on an eBook.
Since initial sales have more to do with risk reduction than quality, it does happen sometimes that a book will sell far beyond what its quality might justify. This disconnect between quality and sales may seem unfair to all those great writers who feel the cognitive dissonance of an almost objectively terrible novel breaking sales records, while their own masterpiece remains comparatively undiscovered. But that's what all authors—independent and traditionally published alike—have to contend with. Once we have that realization, just as I did standing in a packed dealer's hall at DragonCon, we can begin to navigate our own paths through this convoluted maze of risk-reduction marketing that is almost unique to the literary industry. How can we best crack that code? I'm working on it. And as I truly believe that we all do better when we each do better, I hope you are working on it too, now.
-Ozgur K. Sahin