Mark Terry

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

How to Sell Books

September 6, 2006
Over on Paul Levine's blog,, Paul notes that his publisher has taken out TV ads for his latest book, KILL ALL THE LAWYERS, to run during "Good Morning, America" this week. Now, truth is, since school started up, I have been watching bits of GMA, but my youngest, when not otherwise eating breakfast, flips the channel to watch Spongebob Squarepants or whatever else is on Nick, Disney or Cartoon Network. So, as a result, I've seen no ads for Paul's book.

Paul writes:

"I don't know if my fellow bloggers agree, but I think a single appearance on network or cable television sells very few books. Different story if you're saturated on all the networks, plus Larry King on CNN, plus "Fresh Air" on NPR. Which usually means you have the hottest non-fiction book around. (For a while, that meant having "O.J. Simpson" in the title).

How, then, do you sell books...especially if your name is not known to the general public? A great title helps. What's the best title in the history of publishing? I think you'd be hard pressed to beat THINNER THIGHS IN THIRTY DAYS. Tells you all you need to know And alliteration, too. "

It seems that all novelists at all levels of commercial success--and probably all levels of literary success as well, I suppose--are obsessed with this question: What sells books?

Some writers seem to think they have a lock on this: Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath come to mind, although I wonder if the confidence they show to the world is mere bravado on their parts.

Is it book signings? God no, would be my response. They don't sell books unless you're already well known and your book is hot. Even Stephen King noted that, saying something along the lines of, "Sometimes they go well." Janet Evanovich has mongo signings and she hires a band and caters food in, but I'm sure she didn't do that early on. She does that now that a couple thousand people show up for her events, fed (no pun intended) somewhat by the Catch-22 of food and book signings--people show up for the party, not the books. They're EVENTS.

Flashy website? Maybe. Sort of. Good reviews? Hmmm. How many books have you bought simply on the basis of a good book review? Who reads those damned things, anyway? Handselling by a bookseller? Hey, I've heard this, but you know what? I'm 42 years old, have been haunting bookstores with the intention of buying for a good solid 22 of those years and have never, NOT EVEN ONCE, had a bookseller handsell me a book--or even make a recommendation. NOT ONCE.

So what do I personally look for? What makes me buy a book?

Sad to say, but having good display site on an end cap or on the NEW TITLE tables will get me looking at them. Name recognition. What have I heard? (From Mystery Scene Magazine, book reviews, word of mouth, or through some strange combination of all of the above). Flashy cover of some sort. Good title. (By which, Mark muses, the expression, "promisingly lurid" comes to mind).

I rarely read all the way through the jacket copy. If the jacket copy doesn't catch my attention in the first sentence or so, it's useless. Blurbs? Ha! I used to buy books on the basis of a good blurb, but I'm pretty skeptical now. I read blurbs to see if I know the people blurbing and try to figure out if:

1. They're friends.
2. They have the same publisher.
3. They have the same agent.
4. They blurb everything that comes across their desk.

If I'm debating on a variety of books to pick up, the cover (as shallow as that might make me seem) can help. I read the first paragraph or so. That's almost always a tie-breaker. Something about the first bit has to catch my attention. The story, the voice, the style, something. Here, for example, is the first paragraph of "Dead Run" by P.J. Tracy, which is on my bookshelf awaiting to be read:

"Four Corners hadn't been much of a town since October 17, 1946. That was the day Hazel Krueger's father set the Whitestone Lodge on fire and danced naked through the flames in some sort of sorry recompense for all he'd seen and all he'd done in a place called Normandy."

The first sentence didn't do it for me, but the second one sure as hell did.

Now, I've never read anything by Andrew Vachss, although I've been hearing about him for years. I've got his latest, "Mask Market" on my bookshelf and I'll be reading it. Here's the first paragraph:

"I'm not the client," the ferret seated across from me said. He was as thin as a garrote, with a library-paste complexion, the skin surrounding his veined-quartz eyes as papery as dried flowers. He was always room temperature. "You know me, Burke. I only work the middle."

Very promising, that beginning.

So what sells books? Beats the hell out of me. I just hope some of mine sell.

Mark Terry


Anonymous Ron Estrada said...

No matter how much science we put behind it, marketing will always be a crap shoot. It's the same in any industry, more so in publishing. In reality, most books are probably sold via word of mouth, and the only way to make that happen is to write a great book. The web pages and blogs are just to keep your current "fans" feeling like they've got a connection with you. Same with the signings, though you might pick up a few more, certainly not enough to pay for the gas. It's a huge up front investment with the hopes that those few people will love your book enough to spread the word. If it's bad writing, it'll die on the vine regardless of the marketing effort.

8:56 AM  
Blogger JA Konrath said...

I don't think that advertising is all that effective.

Look at Snakes on a Plane. Huge ad campaign. Lots of buzz.

Visit and see how little money that movie has made.

Just because someone knows about your product doesn't mean they'll buy your product.

7:57 PM  

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