Do Book Sales Mean Anything?

Authors should care about their book sales. That’s obvious. Strong sales provide income to authors and validation for the work. The work must have value if so many people buy a writer’s books. But is the converse true as well? Does the work have no value if few people buy it? Not necessarily.

When I published my first novel, Small Change, in February through the Kindle Direct Publishing program, my expectations for sales were low. I was an unknown author with a blog, but no real platform. The redoubtable Jane Friedman, in an article in Writers Digest, advised writers not to self-publish their work until they had built a significant market for it. That makes perfect sense, but a writer could only wait so long. How long should a writer continue to dispense his alleged expertise and advice without delivering the goods? So I launched my novel before I built my market, even though I believed Jane Friedman’s advice was right on target.

Why did I do it? Writers must take the long view. Their first book may not sell. It probably won’t sell. Their second and third books may not sell, either. What’s most important in the early stages of a writer’s career is to produce the best work they can. The rest is in the readers’ hands, which begs the original question: do sales mean anything? For me, what was more important than the sales of my first novel was the feedback from readers—and not just friends and members of my critique group (though, to their credit, my critique group members are brutally honest and not afraid to tell the truth). Here’s what I want to know: does the average reader, who knows nothing about me as a writer, like my work? Why does the reader like my work? What are the strengths and weaknesses of my work?

If you buy the argument that sales don’t matter for the first-time author, then what should the writer expect? Here are a few suggestions. A writer’s first novel should:

  • Create awareness. Bob Mayer has blogged about the importance for new authors of creating awareness as an essential first step. A friend of mine enrolled his novel in the KDP Select program, in which Amazon can manipulate the price. During a free promotion day, readers downloaded 5,000 copies of his book. Though he didn’t realize any income, what an audience he has built. If half of those people pay $2.99 for his second novel, that’s a significant amount of income.
  • Build loyalty. When a reader has a positive experience with an author’s work, she will want to read the next book. And the writer needs to make sure the second book is much better than the first one.
  • Gain insight into your audience. Who bought your book? What else do they read? Engage in a dialogue with your readers. Get them to come to your blog.
  • Obtain feedback. Those reader reviews posted on Amazon are like gold. Read them. Take them to heart—not the mean-spirited, nasty ones, but the ones offering constructive advice. Learn from those reviews.

That adage, “it’s a marathon, not a sprint,” is the way I look at the writer’s career. Don’t get hung up on sales, especially if you are an unknown author who has just self-published a first novel. Do the work it will take to create awareness, build brand loyalty, and gain insights to help with your future work.

How important are book sales? Would you sacrifice sales to build a following?



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5 responses to “Do Book Sales Mean Anything?

  1. You know, my editor told me early on that word of mouth is the best way to “sell books” — that if you write a good book, you will be read. If you keep writing good books, then people will keep coming back!

    I try not to worry about sales – I don’t read reviews or my rankings on Amazon — I may check out rankings on a rare occasion if there is a big promo going on – but, sometimes the negative voices come in and say “You aren’t successful – you aren’t raking in millions!” Well, dang! how many writers are there, really, who are raking in millions? *laugh* – But since there are some who are – a very small percentage – it seems as if we can be failures if we are not – or if we are not noticed by New York reviewers and such.

    So, I look at my reader mail/email/fb friends, and my blogger friends (like you!) who have enjoyed my books and that brings back to me a feeling of joy.

    I’ve already said how I enjoyed SC – and I hope it has legs to run a far distance!

    • Kat,
      Thanks for your comments. I think you are right about word of mouth. I used to check my sales every day, but I’ve stopped obsessing about it. All you can do is write the best book you can and market it. I do believe it’s important to engage with other writers and to be useful and supportive of others. Thanks again.


      • Yes! Checking those stats and reviews can heap upon the shoulders a lot of stress – at least for me . As it is now, I have fond memories of TG’s reviews –when I used to read on my first book — so I never saw the not good ones! I know they must be there, but I don’t have to see them -haw!

  2. I take the long view, absolutely. Critical praise would be nice, but I’m of the opinion that a book can take a long time to bloom.

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