All About Sales: a rant

A couple of conversations I’ve had that left me wanting to slam someone’s head against a wall, possibly mine.

Me as author

Friend: But why write romance? Don’t you want to write something more literary?

Me: No. I like writing romance. And people buy it, which is more than you can say for a lot of literary fiction.

Friend: Well, I suppose, if you want to make money. I guess you can just knock them out for a quick buck, can’t you?

Me as editor

Me: Sorry, but you’ve delivered your MS much shorter than we agreed. I don’t think buyers will see it as value for money at the current length, and I think sales will suffer if we don’t make it a more substantial offering.

Up Himself Author: I think there are other, more important concerns than just the number of copies we sell.  I don’t feel I can compromise on the quality of my work by padding it out.

For the avoidance of doubt: I do not just write for the money. Very few people are in that privileged position. On a time and motion analysis of effort vs reward, I think most authors would agree writing is a lot less lucrative than hanging around on junctions with a squeegee. I don’t publish books with nothing but a balance sheet in mind, either. To publish in the niche that Up Himself Author writes is a constant struggle. The list is constantly teetering on the edge of financially unjustifiable. I still do it, because it ought to be done.

Notwithstanding, I want my list to be profitable, and I want to make a living by writing. That means writing and publishing books that plenty of people will pay money for. Apparently that gives people (who presumably expect to receive a salary for their work) the right to sneer.

But the fact is: Yes, it is about sales, because sales are people reading my books, as author or editor. Sales are royalty cheques that will cover my childcare costs while I write in the afternoons. Sales are paying a good designer to do a great cover. Sales are my salary as an editor. Sales are what allow me to make a business case to publish the author’s next book.  Sales may be what allow me to rejig my life to more writing and less paid work, rather than stealing writing time from my sleep and my family. Sales are what gets everyone else’s next book published. The extra 200 copies we’ll sell if Up Himself Author’s book comes in at a non-padded decent length will probably make a pass/fail difference when it comes to getting his next book accepted for publication by the editorial meeting.

You don’t have to care about sales. If you publish your stuff for free as a life-enhancing hobby and the fact that people read it is enough reward, that’s lovely. You are probably a deeply content person. But if someone – you, or a third party publisher – is paying money to get your writing out there, paying for editorial and cover costs and overheads and maybe an advance to earn out, and you genuinely don’t care about how many books you sell, you’re an idiot.

As if an author caring about sales somehow compromises the value of what they wrote. As if there’s something shameful about making something good enough that you can legitimately ask people to pay money for it. As if  creation loses value when it’s given a price.

I do not think anyone is or should be above sales. ‘Commercial’ is not a dirty word. Book buyers are the most precious thing in the world: people who give their time and money for books, thus keeping writers and the publishing industry alive. Sneering at sales is sneering at book-buyers, just as much as not caring about quality of content and value for money is sneering at book-buyers.

And the next person to imply that I ought to write or publish without hope of financial reward had better bring proof that they work for free, or I will have words. For which, no charge.

13 replies
  1. Josephine Myles
    Josephine Myles says:

    Yes. Just yes. I used to be one of those idiots who sneered at more commercial fiction. Then I grew up, and now I write it. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with aiming to make a living from our work. All other professions do so, so why should we feel ashamed of it?

  2. Sirius
    Sirius says:

    OOOO I would like to comment as a reader :-). The rant of the sort to follow, apologies in advance :). Of course commercial fiction is not a dirty word and I want my favorite writers to make good money and make a good living, for sure – writer is a profession just as any other. Having said that, I *may* use and did use “she only does it for the money”, or something similar as a criticism, but only on the following occasion. Several of my formerly auto buy m/m writers recently (and not so recently) seemed to join “book of the month” club (to use somebody else’s awesome expression :)). I get the pressure to crack out the backlist books asap, but if you produce a new book every month or couple months, there is absolutely no way you can write something original that fast. Obviously I am not a writer and I am speaking as a consumer of your work (anybody’s work), but I am speaking from a very long reading experience – you may not see it, you may think your characters are original enough every time you crack a new book super fast, but sorry, they are not. Examples are And of course I am not qualified to speak about technical side of the writing (being an ESL reader and reviewer), but I am qualified to say this – if you write that fast, your book may be technically just as proficient as your previous ones if you are skilled writer, but you cannot come up with something new that fast.

    So in that sense yes, I would say you (generic you) are only in it for the money as a “dirty word” and will add that you (generic you) are disrespecting me as a reader and I am going to leave your books behind and never look back :(. Thanks for listening.

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      Well, absolutely. Sales are a good thing but that doesn’t justify the cynical pursuit of numbers at the reader’s expense.

      That said, there’s another phenomenon, which is experienced authors coming to believe they don’t need editors, they’ve done enough that they can judge their own work, they can write a publishable first draft etc. That’s a surprisingly common delusion, as you can see by the numbers of people who reach a certain stature and then the quality drops like a rock. So it’s possible that in some cases when you see the ‘book every two months’ thing, it has to do with misplaced confidence rather than cynicism. It’s still not OK for the book buyer, of course!

  3. Nicole Kimberling
    Nicole Kimberling says:

    Hi KJ

    Me as e-romance author who has actually won a literary award:

    Yeah, I too found it depressing to realize that all writers (and civilians) not involved in the romance industry thought that I’d taken up writing romance out of some sort of cynical money-making plan rather than out of a genuine interest in the genre. I once addressed a workshop of new science fiction and fantasy writers on the topic of ebooks in general and romance in particular. At one point a student said something along the lines of, “You know when you talk about writing these you just light up.”

    To which I replied, “Well, yes. They’re fun and I like doing the work.” Then, sensing snobbery I added, “And they sell about 20 times the copies that the award-winner sticker does, but that’s beside the point.”

    Me as editor:

    This kind of author attitude used to really piss me off and baffle me. But I’ve come to the conclusion that “I don’t want to dilute my work” is code for “I don’t know how to do what you asked me to do and I’m either too proud or too lazy to learn.”

    That’s just my take on that line, though.

  4. Becky Black
    Becky Black says:

    I wonder if people make this leap because there have been some huge selling books which some people consider badly written. This seems to lead to the idea that quality and success are in some kind of inverse relationship. That higher sales are actually evidence of poor quality, which makes no sense at all!

    • KJ Charles
      KJ Charles says:

      There’s that but the low sales=high quality and vice versa is quite a prevalent cultural idea I think. If you dismiss the popular as bad, you have a cast iron excuse for why your book isn’t popular, it’s too damn good for the plebs, that’s all. I actually once had someone explain to me that Mills & Boon rejected their romance submission because it was too good for them. Mate, I really don’t think that was the problem.

      • Josephine Myles
        Josephine Myles says:

        I often take pleasure in thinking I’ve probably now sold far more books than any of my creative writing tutors at university. They all wrote literary novels and none of them were bestsellers–probably not even midlist. I’m guessing that means they might have shifted no more than a couple of thousand units per title?

      • KJ Charles
        KJ Charles says:

        If that. 2000 copies would be a pretty respectable number for a literary novel by nobody famous. I read somewhere that the no.20 bestselling literary novel by a debut author sold 120 copies last year.

      • Josephine Myles
        Josephine Myles says:

        Dear God. That’s far worse than I ever expected. It’s no wonder most first time novelists never earn out their advance, and that publishing is such a difficult business to make a profit in.

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