October 13, 2011

What Does It Take to Sell Books?

Old-fashioned cash register

Subtitle: Über Blogging, True Fans, or ???

In case you haven’t heard, recent statements by agents have started a kerfuffle over whether blogging is a waste of time for most writers.  The first I heard of it was through agent Wendy Lawton’s post, What’s Not Working, where she says:

“I wouldn’t recommend a writer start blogging in order to publicize his book in today’s climate.”

Agent Rachelle Gardner followed with her post on how big an author’s platform needs to be to do the job (bold text is hers):

“[S]hoot for … 15,000 monthly page views to your blog. …

You only need a platform if you want to sell a lot of books.

Wow.  Talk about pressure.  That makes it sound like if we don’t have a blog with 15,000 page views, we won’t sell a lot of books, and therefore, blogging is a waste of our time.

Most of us don’t get anywhere close to that volume of page views, and most of us never will.  Should we be worried?  After all, I respect Rachelle’s no-nonsense blog.

Then agent Andy Ross followed up with numbers that are enough to make us choke:

“It is going to take quite a bit to impress a publisher on how many hits you get on a blog. Probably 100,000 unique views a month is the ball park.”

*waves arms*  Hold it!  I’m calling a time out.

Ignore the Numbers (and Not Just for Our Sanity)

First of all, let’s all acknowledge that everyone throwing out numbers of “what it takes to be successful” is pulling them out of you-know-where.  The fact is that success can never be predicted in a by-the-numbers way.

90% (or some crazy percentage like that) of the books put out by NY publishers don’t sell enough to make their money back.  That’s an insane losing streak.  And it just goes to show that no one knows the secret of success.

Secondly, we know from our own experience that we don’t buy fiction books the same way we buy toothpaste.  The awesome-dipped-in-glitter (TM) Kristen Lamb explained the disconnect between traditional marketing and book selling by pointing out that although books are cheap in price, they are expensive in the time required to read them.

Fiction Author?  Über Blogging Is Not the Answer

Non-fiction authors have to pay attention to the marketing idea that only some percentage of people exposed to our message will follow through with a purchase, because their books are trying to solve a problem (education, how-to, etc.).  However, fiction books merely solve the problem of a reader wanting to be entertained.

Then the question becomes why would someone choose our book when they want to be entertained?  Either because of us as a person, or because of the type of story they’re in the mood for.  The more books we have published, the more options we have available for the variable moods of those potential readers.

In other words, being an Über Blogger might be the goal for non-fiction authors, as their platform is essential for their success, but that approach is not necessary for fiction authors. And beyond that, chasing big follower numbers takes time away from why readers come to us: our stories.

Okay, What about True Fans?

A year or two ago, the big marketing trend was to find 100 to 1000 True Fans.  Those numbers look like the opposite of an Über Bloggers’ goal, don’t they?  (This is why I ignore trends and bandwagons. *smile*)

So are True Fans the answer for fiction authors?  Not in the way the marketing people explain this idea.  The True Fan concept is about trying to find 1000 people willing to spend $100 on you every year so you’d make $100,000 per year.

Hmm, that might work for musicians who can sell concert tickets and whatnot.  But even the most prolific author doesn’t publish $100 worth of books every year.  And of course, those numbers don’t include the percentages taken out for the publisher/distributor/agent/what-have-you.

Also, this marketing idea fizzled after people discovered it was more difficult to find True Fans than they thought.  Imagine that.  The idea of wanting to take without giving anything in return didn’t work in the long run.  *rolls eyes*

So What *Does* Work?

Let’s take the commitment of True Fans and mix it with the broad reach of the Über Blogger and what do you have?  What Kristen Lamb has been preaching about the power of tribes.

Unlike the True Fan, tribe members support each other, giving as well as taking.  In return, we get to tap into our tribe members’ networks, expanding our reach.

Kristen started the #MyWANA hashtag on Twitter (WANA stands for We Are Not Alone), and writers have been using it to forge connections.  Yes, most of the members are fellow writers, but we all know those elusive non-writer readers in our real life.  If we feel a connection to another writer and their book is something to crow about, we’ll spread the word on and off social media.

This connection idea is the true purpose of blogs (and social media in general) for fiction authors.  Blogs for fiction authors aren’t about direct sales but about giving us a home base to form connections and create opportunities.

Both Anne R. Allen and Roni Loren had fantastic posts in reaction to the recent pressure to be Über Bloggers.  Anne listed all the ways her blog has opened doors for her.  Roni pointed out that she wants to be a writer who blogs, not a blogger who writes.  Those posts are both must reads for any writer who questions whether they should blog.

One last bit of proof that all those numbers are bogus for fiction authors.  Two years ago, YA author Bree Despain assembled a Street Team to get the word out about her debut book, The Dark Divine.  She ended up on the NYT bestseller list.  Guess how many members she had on her Street Team?


I don’t mean to imply that it was easy.  Bree’s Street Team literally hit the streets with events to take advantage of potential readers attending the Twilight New Moon premieres.  Street Team members had to apply for the job by coming up with a promotion plan.

But my point is that it’s not about the numbers.  It’s about the quality of people who are willing to do something for us.  And how do we “make” them want to do a favor for us?  First, by writing a book fabulous enough that people are dying to tell others about it.  And second, by forming connections and becoming friends.

I know I have nineteen friends from Twitter and blogging that I’d be willing to go above-and-beyond for.  And if I honestly 5-star-loved their book, I’d go way beyond the basics.  I hope to eventually reach the point where I have nineteen people willing to do the same for me.

It’s about quality, not quantity.  And that’s why the pressure to aim for some arbitrary number is completely unhelpful.  *smile*

Had you heard of the recent Über Blogger pressure?  Had you heard of the True Fan concept before?  What do you think of those approaches?  Do you consider yourself a member of a tribe?  Do you have nineteen writer friends you’d be willing to go above-and-beyond for?  Do you think you have nineteen friends who’d be willing to reciprocate?

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Comments — What do you think?

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Marc Vun Kannon

I formed a bookstore. When I realized that the bookstores on LI (mostly Borders outlets) wouldn’t carry my book I made my own. I go to craft and gift fairs, and lately cons and book festivals. When I found that lots of people wanted to read but not fantasy, I started carrying every book my publisher made, so I’d say I’ve gone above and beyond for far more than just 19.
It was many years before I got into blogging and twittering, and I never tried to go for the uber notion of either. Like my writing, I say something when I’ve got something to say. I don’t post a lot, but when I do I want it to be interesting.

Nicole Basaraba

Jami quick! Make an small edit, its Rachelle Gardner not Rachel.

I read both Roni’s and Anne’s blog on the topic. I think I’m part of the tribe of writer bloggers who support each other and find an online network of buddies to talk to, share information and opinions as well as cheer each other on in our work.

I think having high numbers in the blog stats could be helpful, but I also think 15,000 hits is pretty high and not an easy task to achieve. I think if you have 19 quality/dedicated followers, they have the potential to achieve a lot more than say 1,000 not-so-dedicated followers.

A great debate Jami!

Lynette Benton

Thanks for this thoughtful post.

Are these agents trying to tell us that the author of The Help had 100,000 unique page views before she got a publisher? Or that the doctor/author of How Doctors Think (nonfiction) had 15,000? I doubt if he even had a blog. (Too annoyed to check right now. These agents’ random numbers are insulting to our intelligence. It’s a reason so many, even established authors, are bypassing agents these days.)

Anyhow, I appreciate your putting all this in perspective.

Susan Sipal

Jami, I think this is one of the best posts I’ve read on the argument of why and how to blog for writers. You’ve pulled together some great links and resources. And I love your idea/summation of how we can support each other.

Count me as part of your Street Team! 🙂

Lisa Gail Green

Awesome as always! YES! I value the relationships I’ve forged online. Yes, I honestly dare to think of many as friends. And you know what? I’m no uber blogger or anything, but I have noticed that the bigger the following, the harder it is to keep up with the personal replies and such as I used to, so there’s also that catch 22 factor. I do it because I love it and I love other writers. They get me. 😀

Bob Mayer

I agree that people are inventing these numbers. Everyone’s situation is unique. Also, social media really doesn’t sell books. It builds platform. the two are different although connected.

Lena Corazon

Jami, this is another insightful and excellent discussion of the whole blogging-for-writers kerfuffle. You, Roni, and Anne have all made some valuable points, and inject a bit of sanity into the debate.

I love the idea of tribes, and slowly but surely, I feel like I am forming one. Yes, I think I definitely have 19 writer-reader friends who I can (and will) promote the heck out of once their books launch, and I think they’d do the same for me. As writers, honing our skills and our craft is always the number one priority, but it does help to have a support system of people who are positive and encouraging along the way (which is, of course, the entire concept behind Kristen Lamb’s #myWANA project). I’ve been seeing other indie authors mobilizing similar efforts, too, like Sarah Ketley’s #authorlove project, which encourages people to leave comments and show a little love for indie authors who have written good books — simple, but I think it’s incredibly effective for morale and, hopefully, for sales.

Sonia G Medeiros

Love this post! 5-star love it! It’s stressful and discouraging to hear the big numbers. 15K hits a month? Umm…I’m barely past that after 9 months of blogging. I can’t imagine hitting that monthly. It reminds me of the whole thing about how “you” will never be a published author because “everyone” wants to be one and it’s a one in a million shot. Love how Kristen Lamb shot that one down. Yeah, a million of us may say we want to be authors but how many will actually hold on to the very end of the ride? The numbers dwindle rapidly as the work gets harder.
It seems to me that maybe that 15k hits is true in the sense of, if you have 15k hits a month, you’re much more likely to reach those folk who’ll love your stuff enough to tell all their friends. Buuuuuut…you only have to strive for 15k hits/month if you’re shooting in the dark. If you know how to build a solid community/platform, you don’t need nearly that many. Your reach can be smaller but much more focused.
I still want to believe that, if your inentions are in the right place (build community, reach out to people, and encourage others), you’ll build the “right” platform. I hope that’s true anyway because I’d much rather genuinely cheer others on than try to go on a hunt for “true fans.”

Laura Pauling

Great post, summing it all up. I’m actually getting burnt out on the whole issue. The focus really should be on our writing, even though these hot topic issues are fun to discuss. Because no matter how great our social media is or how many followers we have- if we don’t have a great book – it won’t matter. There are too many big sellers with little or no platform to make me think social media can make that much of a difference. And too many big bloggers that didn’t make it, even with their platform.

So that tells me it’s the book.

But I wouldn’t trade the social media experience for anything. I do believe in it. I do believe in making connections and the giving and the taking, even if it’s peripheral to the success of our books.

I think after a writer develops a fan base then the social media allows interaction and increases the loyalty – and that’s wonderful.

Jacquelyn Smith

It’s crazy some of the stuff you read, telling writers to publish blog posts every day, follow aggressively on Twitter, etc. to gain a following. I’ve always been skeptical that all that excessive blogging and following leads to high-volume sales. (When do these people have time to write, anyway?)

I love the idea of having a tribe and I’ve definitely made connections online. People who come up with these wild numbers obviously aren’t taking into account the power of synergy.

Anne R. Allen

LOVE the idea of the “Street-Team 19.”

Quality, not quantity seems to be a foreign concept to publishing industry marketers. They don’t know what makes a book a bestseller, so they are trying to work it backwards–“if you’re already a superstar, then we’ll publish your book.” But it doesn’t work that way. JK Rowling wasn’t a superstar before she published. Neither was Suzanne Collins or Stephanie Meyers. That’s why I think right now is a good time to stay away from the big 6 and the agents who still feed at their trough (not all do.) Get your core ‘true fan” readership first through indie or small press publishing–NOT through trying to become an uberblogger.

Great piece. Thanks for adding to the discussion. (And thanks for the linkage!)

Roxanne Skelly
Roxanne Skelly

I kinda wonder about whether blogs and twitter really have that much of an impact. 15000 hits a month translates into probably 5k blog readers, if that, depending on how often you post, how often they check whether you post and so on. They probably buy your book, and get a number of other to buy your book, so that may make the publisher happy and sell 10k books. Still, that ain’t much money in your pocket. If you write 5-6 books a year, then maybe you can talk about making a living.

I even wonder how many people read book review blogs.

I’d focus on putting books where people buy books. Amazon. B&N, Book stores. Used book stores (which may translate into real sales once you release more books.) Airport newsstands. Grocery stores.

That’d get your book in front of many more people.

Get your book to come up in the ‘also bought’ or ‘you mike also like’ parts of Amazon. Have your street team sneak your book into prominent positions in bookstores. Convince bookstore employees to read your book and recommend it. All old-school, but it’s all about getting your book in front of as many eyes as possible.

Christine London

Absolutely agree that having a street team can do wonders. The trick is finding those folks who are willing to tear themselves away from their own life and concerns to go to bat for you and your book. This is the elusive special soul we all hope for.look for as authors. HEck–anyone trying to sell a product want those types. The problem is finding them. In my experience they do not generally lie among friends and family. Most of them already think we are slightly unbalanced for spending the time we do to launch our writing into the universe. It’s a case of chicken and the egg. If our little eggs would hatch and do even a bit of work on behalf of the chicken, she would have so much more time to lay the golden egg. Most people are trying to lay their own eggs and might talk a good game, but when the rubber meets the road, they are not even willing to buy a book (they want a freebie because, after all, they know the author). *sigh* If this street team were to become known they would be smothered by the hordes of author wanting them on their team. It is a quandary for sure. I applaud Kristen’s #MyWANA and hope it grows more than authors wanting to find the team. We can’t all be chiefs. We do indeed need some Indians. If we chiefs would crow a bit more about our fellow chief’s work, that is…  — Read More »

Ava Jae

Lovely post. You’re so right about the importance of connections–not only is it what makes putting time into social media worth it (whether it’s your blog, Facebook page, Twitter, etc.), but the connections enhance the entire experience even further. The friendships, the support groups, they’re all so immensely helpful not only after you publish, but before.

I don’t remember where I read it, but I read recently an answer to some talk that writers shouldn’t blog about writing because then you’re reaching out to other writers rather than readers–but writers read too, and not only that, they love to support each other.

We’re all in this together–traditionally and independently published and those who aren’t published yet at all.

Breeana Puttroff

What a great post, Jami. This is the first post I’ve read from your blog (so all of the links on Twitter aren’t a complete waste of time, at least). 🙂 I think that most of these people who are throwing out these random numbers are doing it because they need to have a strategy to sell. And I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you say that it’s about the book, and it’s about the connections – and those two things are inextricably linked. And, it’s mostly about the book. If you write a book that really connects with someone, they’re going to be willing to go to the mat to help promote it, but even that is based almost purely on human connection — a reader promotes your book for you because they want to share the world they’re mentally inhabiting with someone else. If they truly love the book, the story you’ve told and the characters you’ve created, they’ll nag their friends to buy the book (have you read it yet? I’m dying to know what you think about such-and-such character). If they don’t really love it, the most you’re going to get is “so this person I know wrote a book. You should buy it.” We have to be writers, first and foremost. Not promoters. Then (and only then), as authors, if we’re open and accessible, and we respond to comments and e-mails, and join that community WITH our readers, we become a…  — Read More »

Roni Loren

Great wrap-up and thanks for linking to my post. 🙂 Obviously, I dumped my on feeling all over my blog yesterday, so I agree with you. And my agent agrees with this too, so not everyone is expecting those crazy ass numbers.

Be real, connect, communicate, and write great books. That’s all I’m going to focus on.

M.E. Anders
M.E. Anders

Oh, yes. I’ve read all those articles about the recent pressure for and against blogging. Funny how these trends start out with one blog post/idea, which has usually been in the background of our collective minds.

I think that writers who really dislike blogging should…not blog.

Those writers who enjoy creating community through social/online media should…keep blogging.

Trends go up and down, and nobody can predict the future. Focus on your strengths and unique outlets to connect with your audience, whomever they may be. 🙂

Gene Lempp

Apparently I have a penchant for missing bad trends because I’ve never heard of either of these doomed schemes before today. They seem more bent on discouraging people to write in order to leave the market open for their clients or themselves. 100k hits a month? This is using carpet bombing to hit a fishing hut, maybe hit it that is. The numbers I’ve seen show what Kristen Lamb and others have been preaching which is that social media is about building relationships and when we have sufficient depths of titles (like Bob Mayer) then we will begin to see some results. Brand/Platform over mass. Klout is a good example of this. On Klout you can see how many of your followers actually act off of your advice on say, retweeting blogs. For me that is about 40%. So if I put a tweet out to my 1800 followers then it would be expected that 720 will do something with it. Add this to Kristens tribe-influence concept. Let’s say one of those acting on my tweet is Elizabeth S. Craig with 11k followers. If her influence was the same as mine (and it is greater) then 4400 people will act on it. Add in Kristen and Piper Bayard and we have between 8k-9k people influenced from just our four circles. (Note these are general numbers and will obviously vary). The point here is not that we have 15k blog hits a month, it is that by working together in a…  — Read More »


Thank you so much for this post. I have only been blogging for two weeks and I’m already feeling like a whore. I hate talking about myself to strangers, I don’t want to waste people’s time, so I’m still learning how to create content that reflects who I am, what I have to say, without sounding like a pompous ass.

I agree, it is the only way to create buzz and word of mouth. Seth Godin says that the big publishers are trying to sell your books to strangers. Why don’t you sell your books to your FRIENDS. That means we just have to make more of them. Treat them well and remember we are all in this together. Thank you so much!


Melinda Collins

Hi Jami! AWESOME post!!! This is honestly one of your best — in *my* humble opinion *smiles*

Blogging for me was a way to make a connection with the community of wonderful writers that are out there. It was never a way for me to ‘sell’ books when I became published. Similar to Roni, I’d prefer to be known as a writer who blogs vs. the other way around.

The friendships I’ve forged via blogging and twittering (is that a word now?) are ones that I cherish. I also have several writers out there that I would go to bat for any day of the week and I consider to be great friends – you would be one 🙂

Stacy Green

Thanks for such a great post. I’m trying not to get caught up in the blogging numbers and approach it as a way to make friends and hone my writing. The idea of marketing my book – whether I manage to go trad or self-pub-is the most intimidating to me, so thanks for giving us some great marketing examples.

Todd Moody

I have a total of less than 7k hits for a year, but I feel like that’s not horrible considering a year ago I had a big fat zero. I never started blogging to sell my books, I started blogging because I wanted a space to share with any fans I might get once my book is actually out. I know I like being able to connect with my favorite authors. It morphed into a sorta-kinda writing blog because that’s what interests me. I love how Roni put it, I want to be an author who blogs. I try not to sweat the numbers, but I do look at them. I do love it when people comment, then the connection becomes a conversation, not just me monologuing. I try to post a minimum of once a week, just to keep the few readers I do have, more when I can. I’m hoping when I quit my 50 hour a week job I’ll have more time for blogging on top of writing. I love the concept of creating a network of friends to help each other, and I’ve tried to do that, by RTing links to posts and buying their books. I also give book reviews when I like them, which actually helps sales I think. The friends I’ve made on twitter and blogging are the best part of it by a long shot, even if it never helps me sell a single book. As always, you hit it out of…  — Read More »

Shannon Mayer

Fantastic post! Loved it and will be RTing it momentarily. 😀

Debbie Johansson

Hi Jami. I also read this post regarding those figures and couldn’t believe it. That’s just madness! I know an author who published her book to critical acclaim and only began blogging and joined social networks afterwards because her publisher recommended she did so. It just goes to show that writing the book is most important.

I’m an unpublished author who blogs and is involved in social networks. I do this because I enjoy it, meet other writers (and make friends) and learn by their experiences. If my fellow writers think my work good enough, then they may eventually help spread the word to other non-writers and I’d be sure to do the same.

Thanks for an informative post and some more great links. I’ve enjoyed the discussion.

Jemi Fraser

Those are some scary numbers! For me blogging has been about building connections with other writers, learning from them, sharing the bits & pieces I know, and finding out about this whole publishing biz. It’s a fascinating journey.

I don’t have a book to sell yet, but I’ve bought at least 4 dozen books by blog buddies, so I think blogging is at least a little effective for selling! 🙂

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