Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Posts Tagged: why your book isn’t selling

Why is it so many new novels are—to be blunt—crap? How can we find an author we love with one book, then all the love goes away with the next? What’s going wrong? What’s missing? Where did everything go wrong?

How can we learn and do better?

First and foremost, to be an author it’s imperative to embrace some healthy sadism. We’ll chat briefly on this so the “wrong turns” in story can become far easier to spot.

We MUST Go Against Our Nature

Humans have all kinds of intricate biological wiring that propels us to AVOID CONFLICT/PAIN. Now this is great namely because our desire to avoid pain is what keeps us alive and gainfully employed. It’s also how many of us are able to endure the holidays when forced to see family.

This said, it is human to avoid conflict and to smooth everything over and civilization would implode if we didn’t heed our biology. We feel the rising anxiety and our nature steps in to “fix” everything and return to a nice comfortable homeostasis.

Avoiding conflict and pain can be healthy in life, but it spells death for fiction.

So here are a couple reasons your story might suck. Btw, remember while I have one finger pointing at you? Three are pointing back at me. I use these guideposts in my own work when I sense it’s starting to seriously suck.

#1—We Have Decoration Devoid of Substance

I’m going to let you in on a little secret. Novels are not pretty sentences or even pretty words. Sure, it’s nice to have them, but they’re not entirely necessary.

It’s like a cake. Some cakes are so intricate they’re literally works of art, but cake is meant for people to EAT. So I’d much prefer a plain cake that is so yummy angels sing than to bite into a work of “art” and get a revolting mouthful of sugar-laden lard.

Same with stories. Stories, too, are meant to be ingested, to FEED us emotionally.

Fiction is about one thing and one thing only—PROBLEMS.

PROBLEMS are the “cake” of story.

I don’t emotionally connect to a cerulean sky or a painstakingly accurate description of a forest or an 18th century tea setting. I have zip-nada invested in an outfit, a garden or the layout of a room (that’s “icing”). Most people prefer cake with icing and readers like stories with description, setting, superlative prose etc. (though to the degree varies with reader preference).

All that “stuff” can make a story better, but they are NOT story, just like icing is not cake.

#2—We Have No Plot

Plot is basically a fancy way of saying we have a core problem in need of resolution (cake) and a plan (recipe) to do just that.

I cannot connect emotionally with a detailed description of a designer outfit, but I can connect with the woman who’s wearing this outfit. I don’t care all that much about the outfit, I care about the woman and the why behind the outfit.

What is she hiding? What is she up against? What must she face to become whole?

Is she in this outfit because she desperately needs a job? Because it hides the bruises from her emotionally and physically abusive husband who controls her life? The one she must find the courage (and job) to escape?

This is why I’m a huge believer in writers being able to articulate what their story is about in ONE sentence. If we can’t do that? Odds are we have icing and no cake. Or maybe a cake that’s half-baked or missing key ingredients.

#3—We Have No Clear Plot Goal

All stories have ONE CLEAR FINAL goal. And I don’t want to hear the BS copout of:

“Well, my story is literary and character-driven. Her goal is she wants to find out who she is.”

Aside from the fact that literary and character-driven stories don’t automatically get a pass on a plot, why do we care? What happens if the protagonist doesn’t find out ‘who she is’? Why is it important? What are the stakes? Why should I (the reader) root for her?

Besides that is the wrong question entirely.

Regardless of genre, the protagonist is never finding out who she is, rather what she is made of.

For that to happen? We need a PLOT PROBLEM.

Clear plot problems offer context. If I (reader) have not been clearly shown the story problem, then I’ll be quickly bored because I lack context that makes any setback a setback.

It’s like showing me a guy driving off for a destination and not telling me where he’s going. Yet, if I know he’s driving to Canada from Texas, then accidentally turning down I-35 South because he’s arguing with his ex on the phone MEANS SOMETHING.

I can clearly SEE he’s headed for MEXICO, not Canada. The wrong turn means something and so does every setback which creates bigger and badder problems (which turns pages, btw).

By DEFINITION a setback can only happen when there is an actual goal.

We need a Death Star, a Mount Doom, and a Labyrinth or….meh.

Same in character-driven stories. We root for Evelyn Couch in Fried Green Tomatoes because we know the final goal is her growing a spine. We know she has “won” when she stands up to her bullies and to the husband who’s disrespecting her.

Bad situations are not a plot. It’s soap opera writing. Soap operas get forty years and go into infinity. Novels don’t have that luxury.

#4—Too MUCH SUGAR

We’re being way too nice. I see way too many new manuscripts and the reason they’re boring the paint off the walls is nothing is happening and everything is too easy. Everyone gets along is super sweet and lots of colorful pretty descriptions and empty calories that make us sick.

Humans have fears and faults and failures that will collide, especially under pressure. I see far too many manuscripts where nothing is happening. People talking.

Description not friction. No friction? No traction.

#5—We’re Making it TOO Easy

Yes, your protagonist has ONE core story goal in need of resolution, but there should be a ton of hardship, suffering, setbacks and pain along the way. Our protagonist must work for everything and earn every reward, even the small ones with blood, sweat and sacrifice. NOTHING should be easy. Ever.

Authors deal in solid gold rewards, not plastic participation trophies.

If our protagonist is being spoon fed the answers (dreams, journals, letters, flashbacks, “super helpful” ancillary characters) that’s cheating. If the protagonist is rescued constantly by others and it never pushes any pain points? Where’s the glory in that?

When I was in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, most people don’t last a month. Most females never make it past white belt. It takes a YEAR to earn blue belt. I had to do this grappling men twice my size.

It took me a year and a half of busted lips, blood, bruises, and strains. It also cost me a broken nose and a dislocated knee…but guess what’s framed in my office?

I can tell you that had I been handed a blue belt for attendance, it would be in some junk drawer along with the piles of other worthless awards.

Same in fiction. We revel in the protagonist’s victory only when the title of “HERO” is earned.

#6—We Forgot to Turn on the Heat

The greater the stakes the better the story. No heat and we don’t have cake, we have batter. Same in fiction. Turn on the heat.

A friend of mine had a brilliant idea for a story, but her niceness kept killing it. She emailed me that her story is about an artist who has five years to make it in NYC or he has to return to his family’s house-painting business.

I replied: NOOOOOOOOOOO!

If our artist has five years in the beginning? We aren’t too worried. There’s time. But if we know he’s at the end of five years and has only one final narrow window? Everything changes.

If the stakes are he returns to an occupation close to what he loves (painting) and also limited seasonally (house painting in NY) it isn’t that big of a deal. He can dream away what he longs to create while on a ladder touching up eaves. He also will have seasons he can still create art.

But, what if he’s returning to a job that is not only the opposite of what he loves, but can potentially drain every creative molecule from his soul? A stressful occupation that might just kill him with seventy-hour work weeks (accounting firm)? Or physically endanger his hands/ability to paint (family auto repair business)?

And while we are at it? He’ll have to return to a family that never really was supportive and will be delighted he failed and relish rubbing it in.

NOW we have a story 😉 .

Crank up that heat. Shorten timelines and up the stakes, both physical and emotional.

If your protagonist fails, it isn’t simply a failure, it needs to be an extinction event.

In the end, I have a mantra: Make it worse until you make it weird.

What are your thoughts? Have you been too easy on your characters? Maybe indulging in flashbacks to “explain” why a character is a certain way instead of making the reader work to uncover it? Have you been too nice? Unclear? What ways can you wind that tension tighter? Shorten the timeline or up the stakes? We only will value what COSTS a lot. No one values free and easy 😉 .

I love hearing from you!

For the month of AUGUST, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

July’s winner will be listed next time I post. Sorry, lots to do getting ready for New Zealand and I am behind.

****And MAKE SURE to check out the NEW CLASSES classes below including the final class I will teach before taking off for NEW ZEALAND! I’m keynoting there for the Romance Writers of New Zealand, which while SUPER COOL….I’d be lying if I didn’t say the trip wasn’t making me more than a tad nervous.

Speculative fiction is an umbrella term used to describe narrative fiction with supernatural or futuristic elements. This includes but it not necessarily limited to fantasy, science fiction, horror, utopian, dystopian, alternate history, apocalyptic fiction, post-apocalyptic fiction.

Basically, all the weird stuff.

Gizmos, gadgets, magic, chainsaws, demons, fantastical worlds and creatures are not enough and never have been. Whether our story is set on Planet X, in the sixth dimension of hell, on a parallel world, or on Earth after Amazon Prime gained sentience and enslaved us all, we still must have a core human story that is compelling and relatable.

In this class we will cover:

  • Discovering the core human story problem.
  • How to plot these unique genres.
  • Ways to create dimensional and compelling characters.
  • How to harness the power of fear and use psychology to add depth and layers to our story.
  • How to use world-building to enhance the story, not distract from it.

All classes come with a FREE recording!

We’ve added in classes on erotica/high heat romance, fantasy, how to write strong female characters and MORE! Classes with me, with USA Today Best-Selling Author Cait Reynolds and award-winning author and journalist Lisa-Hall Wilson. So click on a tile and sign up!

Blurb - Cait Reynolds
BLURB BOSS: Writing Blurbs that SELL BOOKS. $45.00 USD. Friday, November 10, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
BRAND BOSS! When Your Name Alone Can Sell. $45 USD. Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017, 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
PLOT BOSS: Writing novels readers want to buy! $40 USD. Thurs., Nov. 16, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Bad Boys. $45.00 USD. Friday, November 17, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!

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Original image courtesy of Juhan Sonin via Flickr Creative commons.

The writer’s worst nightmare. You researched, you wrote, you finished, and then published your book. You wait for the sales and……….*crickets*. This is something that can happen to any kind of author, traditional or nontraditional. We think we have a hit on our hands only to later be checking it for a pulse.

What happened? Why is the book just not selling?

The Market

Remaindered Titles
Remaindered Titles

In the not so distant past, there was only one way to get published and that was traditional publishing. Though many authors cheered when they were finally able to cast off the chains of New York, let’s at least respect that agents and editors might have known a thing or three about the book business.

Writers would often get vexed at the stack of rejection letters, believing they couldn’t actually write well. This was not always the case. Agents make their living off books they know will sell, which means they just don’t have the bandwidth left over to take on pro bono work. Yes, the book might be lovely, but they are agents, not charities.

A large part of their expertise is predicting market changes and trends. They look at what is already out, what is to be released, what is selling, what isn’t, what is saturated, etc.

This is where it can get tricky for writers. Yes, write what you love. We shouldn’t write for the market…but we have to write for the market.

*bangs head on wall*

Sometimes a book might not be selling simply because there are too many titles that are too similar. Readers just don’t want yet another sparkly vampire.

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If you are traditionally published, this could still happen. Agents are making an educated guess and sometimes they miss the mark. For the self-published folks? If the book is good, just leave it alone and keep writing. The great part about the digital paradigm is the book can remain there indefinitely and when the trends change? So could the sales.

The Product

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Bad Pun Dog

I hate saying this, but sometimes it’s the book. Obviously this is more the case with indie and self-published books. The problem is that the market has just been inundated with amateur writing. I go into this in more detail in Five Mistakes Killing Self-Published Writers, but here are the Spark Notes.

Bad Writing

No one wants to hear they are not ready. Worse still? No one wants to hear the words, “You just are not a good writer.” Too many newbies want to skip the unfun training and go right to the title, “Author.”

Sadly, the slush pile has been handed off to readers. I can’t count the number of times I have gotten pages for a contest win and absolutely slayed the writing, only to get an e-mail back that the book was already for sale.

Shoot…me…now.

Even more common is that the writing is not per se bad, it just isn’t anything remarkable. Folks these days have a lot of competition for their time and attention and they simply won’t devote 12-15 hours of undivided attention to a blasé book.

Bad (No) Editing

Our story might be the best thing since pumpkin spice lattes, but if it is rife with errors it won’t sell. Additionally, editing is not simply looking for typos. That is line-editing. A good content editor will be able to help you shape the overall flow of the novel.

When I edit I can tell writers if they are starting the book in the correct place. Are there scenes that need to be cut because they are bogging down the momentum? Are there redundant characters? Are there plot holes? Is the ending a knockout or a fizzle?

Great editing can take a book from mundane to magnificent.

Bad Cover

There really is no excuse for a bad cover these days. Technology has come a long way and many experts offer fabulous covers at affordable prices. I would love to say people don’t judge a book by its cover, but that is untrue. Of course we do.

One thing many new writers don’t appreciate is that when you hire an expert, you are gaining a lot more than that one skill. Yes a graphic artist knows how to use Photshop (or whatever) but they also have a knowledge of what sells. 

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For instance, I have seen authors post images of their new book cover and cringed. The cover itself was lovely, but we have to remember how we are selling. That book isn’t going to be on a shelf where a potential reader is seeing a full-sized version. Likely it will be on Amazon and that beautiful full-sized image, when shrunk to thumbnail size looks like a Rorschach ink blob.

Do you see a butterfly?

No, I see Satan eating kale chips.

If a writer tells me they can’t afford to hire an expert, my response is they cannot afford not to.

Boring Title

This goes along with a bad cover. New writers are notorious for titles that we have to read the book to “get” the title. NO. The title is the hook and we will move on to other writers who don’t make us think.

The Platform

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Discoverability is a nightmare. There is a lot of noise and part of our job description now entails branding. This is all writers.

I recently had a distraught writer contact me. The author was recently dropped by a well-known agent because the book simply wasn’t selling. Yet, I could tell with a quick google search what a big part of the problem was.

The author didn’t have platform/brand capable of driving sales. Simply puttering around on Facebook isn’t enough. That isn’t a brand.

My first royalty check would have covered dinner if no one super-sized anything. Why? My book came out before my platform could drive sales. Once my platform improved? My sales skyrocketed.

What does it say in front of every big author’s name? Best Selling Author. Not Best Writing Author.

The writing alone is not enough. Frankly, it never was. Before 2006, writers had a 93% failure rate. Most first books sold less than a thousand copies (even traditionally published books). Only one out of ten published authors ever saw a second book in print. Most were dropped.

In the old days, we just had no control over the brand and the platform. Now, we do. And authors want to complain that it is too hard. Yes, it is hard and there are many reasons this profession is not for everyone.

Less Marketing/More Writing

AHHHHHHH!
AHHHHHHH!

Traditional marketing does not sell books. Never has. For more on why, check out Why Traditional Marketing Doesn’t Sell Books. I have had to unfollow writers on Facebook who do nothing but promote one book over and over and over.

They tweet non-stop about their book.

They even dedicate their blogs to selling books (and that is never the direct objective of a blog).

They deluge us with newsletters we never signed up for and can’t figure out how to escape.

Thing is, we don’t care about you or your book. We didn’t want to see that crap in our feed, we sure aren’t going to subscribe to a blog/newsletter that is nothing but self-promotion.

Writers often become the equivalent of that sales clerk in the department store who ambushes us with perfume.

Here is the blunt truth. The odds of breaking out with our first book are about the same as being hijacked by a terrorist after we’ve been hit by lightning while holding a winning lottery ticket.

Most writers are not going to break out with one book. Or even two. An author might never break out, but the odds certainly improve the more titles we have. This was always true. It’s why you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a James Patterson title.

Marketing and building a platform/brand are two completely different activities. But writers believe they are the same. They aren’t. If you want to promote and market without a platform, I suggest piling money on the floor and setting it on fire. Same end result and you can get to the self-loathing and binge drinking far faster that way.

There are no shortcuts.

Obviously there are many many other factors to why a book might not be selling, but these are the top offenders. Good news is most of this, we can do something about. In fact, I have classes addressing most of these issues (listed below).

What are your thoughts?

I LOVE hearing from you!

To prove it and show my love, for the month of AUGUST, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Check out the other NEW classes below! Now including a log-line class! Can you tell me what your book is about in ONE sentence? If you can’t SIGN UP.

All W.A.N.A. classes are on-line and all you need is an internet connection. Recordings are included in the class price.

Upcoming Classes

Blogging for Authors  (August 26th)

This class will teach you all you need to know to start an author blog good for going the distance. Additionally I would also recommend the class offered earlier that same week (August 22nd) Branding for Authors to help you with the BIG picture. These classes will benefit you greatly because most blogs will fail because writers waste a lot of time with stuff that won’t work and never will and that wastes a lot of time.

I am here to help with that 😉 .

Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist September 2nd–September 2nd

All fiction must have a core antagonist. The antagonist is the reason for the story problem, but the term “antagonist” can be highly confusing. Without a proper grasp of how to use antagonists, the plot can become a wandering nightmare for the author and the reader.

This class will help you understand how to create solid story problems (even those writing literary fiction) and then give you the skills to layer conflict internally and externally.

Bullies & Baddies—Understanding the Antagonist Gold

This is a personal workshop to make sure you have a clear story problem. And, if you don’t? I’ll help you create one and tell the story you want to tell. This is done by phone/virtual classroom and by appointment. Expect to block off at least a couple hours.

Your Story in a Sentence—Crafting Your Log-Line

September 7th

Log-lines are crucial for understanding the most important detail, “WHAT is the story ABOUT?” If we can’t answer this question in a single sentence? Brain surgery with a spork will be easier than writing a synopsis. Pitching? Querying? A nightmare. Revisions will also take far longer and can be grossly ineffective.

As authors, we tend to think that EVERY detail is important or others won’t “get” our story. Not the case.

If we aren’t pitching an agent, the log-line is incredibly beneficial for staying on track with a novel or even diagnosing serious flaws within the story before we’ve written an 80,000 word disaster. Perhaps the protagonist has no goal or a weak goal. Maybe the antagonist needs to be stronger or the story problem clearer.

In this one-hour workshop, I will walk you through how to encapsulate even the most epic of tales into that dreadful “elevator pitch.” We will cover the components of a strong log-line and learn red flags telling us when we need to dig deeper. The last hour of class we will workshop log-lines.

The first ten signups will be used as examples that we will workshop in the second hour of class. So get your log-line fixed for FREE by signing up ASAP.

For those who need help building a platform and keeping it SIMPLE, pick up a copy of my latest social media/branding book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World on AMAZON, iBooks, or Nook