Selling Books—The Struggle is REAL but Not New & What to DO!

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Lane Pearman

Image via Flickr Creative Commons, courtesy of Lane Pearman

I know a lot of authors feel overwhelmed in the digital age of publishing and that is perfectly understandable. But today I would like to pan back and maybe offer a refreshed perspective to keep you pressing.

Today we face the challenge of creating a brand. But you might be thinking, “What exactly is a brand?” There is a lot of misinformation floating around so that is a reasonable question to ask.

A brand is the power of a name to drive sales. Our name alone compels action.

No easy task. Overcoming inertia is critical for any author who wants to make a living doing this writing thing. In an age of instant? This is going to take a while, but hopefully I can help 😉 .

But first…

The Struggle is NOT New


Publishers have always struggled to help authors create a brand. This is NOT a new thing. I have mentioned this before, but it bears repeating. According to the BEA (Book Expo of America) statistics of 2004, writers had a 92% failure rate. Only one out of ten traditionally published authors ever saw another book in print. 92% of all books published sold less than a thousand copies (traditionally and nontraditionally published).

Why I like using 2004 statistics is this is two years before most of the major social media platforms gained traction. Facebook, You Tube and Twitter all emerged in roughly the same two year period.

But before social media? It was a nightmare for publishers to help authors create a brand (unless they were non-fiction authors). Nonfiction authors had far more access to platform building activities—public speaking, conferences, media, newsletters, or their own personal practices. The local news was far more likely to interview a doctor about his new weight loss program than they were to talk to a novelist about dragons or spaceships. Media was almost solely the domain of the NF expert.

Why this was so vital was that audiences suddenly had direct access to a writer who might be able to make his/her case and influence behavior. Maybe you weren’t normally a “reader” but that interview on NPR was so cool you just had to buy the book and learn how Hitler really escaped the bunker and the Russians lied about finding him.


But for fiction, more often than not publishers had to rely on some confluence of the stars to hope that a new book sold at least respectably. Sometimes writers could launch successful grassroots movements as was the case with The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood. But, many writers tried this and most of them failed. Grassroots movements are lightning in a bottle even today.

But sometimes it worked. And that was cool because then publishers could offer the writer another contract and the brand slowly was built with a volume of titles. Go to any used bookstore and who takes up most of the shelf space? Writers with multiple multiple titles.

All of this to say that brands were excruciatingly difficult and slow to build.



I know a lot of writers get discouraged today, but we must learn to balance reality and expectations. If we go back to the “good old days” what we have is this.

A book written on a typewriter. Revisions involved scissors and tape. Then we had to research at libraries. That little detail you need for your story? No opening a new tab and googling real quick. Nope. Back to the library. Want to learn about police procedurals? Yep, call the department you are writing about and see if you can schedule an interview. No tweeting, Anyone here Atlanta PD? I’m an author with a question #LEO

Then we had to buy a Writer’s Market every year and pray the information hadn’t changed, but most of the time it had. I swear agents changed agencies more than my mom changes her mind about where to eat lunch. Then we had to type out a stack of queries, put in mail…then wait.

Out of fifteen queries, likely five would be returned with, No longer at this agency. Three might come with No longer looking for X type of book. Another five just would never respond and the other two? Well one would probably be a form letter misspelling your name and the other would be a handwritten note suggesting we stop writing altogether.

Oh and every agent would demand “no simultaneous submissions”, but they could feel free to take six months to get back to us…if ever.

Just getting published was about as close to an act of God as we could get. And even then? That wasn’t the end of it. Generally it took about a year to eighteen months for the book to be in print. We got paid once, maybe twice a year.

If we add up the sheer volume of TIME involved in the old way, why are we griping that we have been self-published three years and aren’t yet J.K. Rowling?

I have mentioned the problems with Millennial Authors (these are writers who have “come of age” during the digital revolution and they could be 22 or 67). I know the “old way” wasn’t better, but it does lead me to believe that writers of the “old days” have better tenacity because they didn’t enter the profession in the Age of Instant.

Yes, our first book might only sell a handful of copies. But guess what? In the “old days” odds were we would only sell a small number of copies as well (refer to statistics above). But, unlike the “old days” we can keep writing more books. We can keep at it until something sticks or until we decide to move on.

Back to the Brand


Brands take time to build. Only now, with social media, the task is far easier than it used to be. We can build our own platforms and create our own brands and we don’t have to pray for lighting in a bottle the same way we used to. Oh, don’t get me wrong, we are still working toward that magic, only now we have more control.

We don’t have to pray our local paper writes about us, or we score a radio interview so the outside world can encounter us. We can start cultivating our audience on our own. Yet, we still have the challenge of creating a brand.

Remember, a brand is when our name alone compels action whether that action is buying a book, commenting on a blog, reading a blog, sharing a post, RTing a tweet. The more we can compel action on the part of others, the stronger our brand will grow.

Traditional marketing, advertising and direct mail operate linearly. I send X to Y. Best Buy doesn’t expect that when I get a coupon in the mail I will then share it with all my friends.

Social media, conversely, operates algorithmically using the power of exponentials. Content flies out along countless vectors as opposed to ONE (which is why it is all but impossible to measure efficacy of social media in the same detailed way).

Someone reads my blog and tweets or posts to FB and that post then travels along infinite vectors I may never see.

Why is this important? Because our goal is to have a dialogue with others, generate interest and excitement that compels others to share. The problem is that a lot of writers are treating social media the same way as direct mail.

Buy my book!

Please retweet!

Sign up for my newsletter!

Instead of giving, they are taking and we are frankly worn plum out from takers. Every one of us has an inbox filled with newsletters we didn’t sign up for, ads, marketing, and on and on and they all WANT something. We feel like we’ve fallen into some swamp pond and staggered out covered in leeches.


Thus, if we default to generating self-serving content (ads, marketing, self-promotion), we shouldn’t be surprised when creating a brand feels like trying to perform brain surgery from space with an egg beater. If we engage in traditional marketing tactics, we have use of ONE vector (us to other party).

This means we are beholden to the same dismal ROI (return on investment) numbers of all direct mail which is about a 1%-5% ROI. This means we better have 100,000 twitter followers to get any traction since we have to reach those people directly instead of with the help of a network.

If we don’t want to be on every social site and spending our time building up massive numbers (instead of writing), then we need to go back to the content. We can create stuff others want to share because social media is basically Show and Tell for adults 😉 . If we do this, then reaching 100,000 people is far easier since we are not singlehandedly reaching them via one road. Additionally, content will be viewed at a far higher rate since it is “spoken for” by a third party people know, like and trust.

Do this long enough and your “following” might be smaller in overall numbers, but those followers will be engaged which will make all the difference in the world. These are the followers we have cultivated to look forward to hearing from us because we are a brand.

Ads, marketing and promotion have little momentum without the engine of the BRAND.

In the end, don’t get too frustrated. Publishing has always been a slow business. Only now? It’s just slower in different ways. It also feels slower because everything else (besides writing the actual book) is pretty close to instant. So make sure you aren’t being unreasonable in your expectations. It is a heck of a lot faster to publish that book on Create Space than it is going to be to build the audience dying to read it. Just keep improving and keep pressing and keep perspective.

What are your thoughts? Do you think we have gotten a little spoiled with instant? That maybe it makes us unreasonably hard on ourselves? Do you want to set fire to your e-mail?

If branding and blogging and all that jazz has you overwhelmed, please pick up a copy of Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World or check out the classes I have below. I even have a Social Media Master’s series where you get three classes for the price of TWO. All you need to know to ROCK your book brand.

I love hearing from you!

And to prove it and show my love, for the month of JANUARY, 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 Upcoming Classes

Remember that ALL CLASSES come with a FREE RECORDING so you can listen over and over. So even if you can’t make it in person? No excuses! 

All you need is an internet connection!

Branding Master’s Class Series with Kristen Lamb THREE social media classes, ONE low price. Only $99. It is literally getting one class for FREE!!!! 

Craft Master’s Class Series with Kristen Lamb THREE craft classes, ONE low price. Only $89. One class is FREE!!!! Includes my new class The Art of Character.

Individual Classes with MOI!

Pitch Perfect—How to Write a Query Letter & Synopsis that SELLS January 28th

When your Name Alone Can SELL—Branding for Authors February 10th, 2017

Social Media for Authors February 11th, 2017

NEW CLASS!!!! The Art of Character January 27th, 2017

Blogging for Authors February 3rd

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


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  1. Building brand is slow, and I think we get trapped into the myriad of thoughts that if I do X and Y, then my email list will grow and grow! Then, when it doesn’t happen immediately after doing X and Y, we look for the next advice…and so on, and so on. We think, well of course it’s slow and takes time…but it’s been half an hour, or two weeks, or a year…why hasn’t it happened yet?

    1. Worth the trip.


  2. Thanks again, good thoughtful article:)

  3. Reblogged this on Michelle Eastman Books.

  4. Great perspective. I always think back to Tolkien’s LOTR trilogy. He started writing it when he was 45 and it wasn’t published until he was 63! He took about 12 years to write the story and then another 6 years to be published. How’s that for perspective?

    The biggest key to building a brand is providing quality content, whether it be a blog, social media posts, articles, etc… Not trying to sell yourself, but giving people things they are interested in over a sustained period of time. Just like Mrs. Lamb does for all of us.

  5. Thank you for this Kristen! Great article and very encouraging to me.

  6. Good one, Kristen. You pin pointed a very important truth. The other day I paid to boost a blog post on facebook that had my name in it. It got more traction when I edited the post and took my name out. I haven’t reached the point yet where my name ‘sells’ but if the content is good, one day it will.

    • Melissa Lewicki on January 10, 2017 at 5:10 pm
    • Reply

    I love that Michelle Eastman illustrated one of your points!

  7. Building brand is slow. I had better learn to write faster!

      • Nan Sampson on January 10, 2017 at 6:03 pm
      • Reply

      Amen to that Deborah!

  8. Slow and steady wins the race! That’s what I keep reminding myself. Keep blogging, keep interacting with others on facebook, twitter and other social media sites.

  9. I’m sorry but just keeping it real, this post didn’t grab me the way others did. Does that surprise you? It did me but I think you can grab some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time but you can’t grab all of the people all of the time :>)

    1. Grabbed you enough to click and read 😉 . Better luck next time I guess.

    • Nan Sampson on January 10, 2017 at 5:59 pm
    • Reply

    Great comparison to direct marketing and how social differs. My evil day job IS managing direct marketing for my company (as well as social and other digital channels) so I know the metrics and the attribution nightmares. And yet when it comes to my own stuff, I flounder. “It’s different,” I whine. “Why am I not the next Nancy Atherton yet?” I kvetch. Thanks so much for the Gibbs-slap of reality. Needed to hear it today. And as always, thanks for all you do! Always get a smile reading your blog.

    • Nan Sampson on January 10, 2017 at 6:02 pm
    • Reply

    Reblogged this on Nan Sampson – Author and commented:
    Another great post from author Kristen Lamb. As a marketing professional in my “day job”, this hit home. THe post also gave me that shot in the arm I needed after looking at last year’s sales numbers. So no worries… I’m not giving up yet! Read on and I guarantee you will find yourself nodding your head.

  10. Reblogged this on Nancy Segovia and commented:
    The business end of writing

  11. Thanks for the slap of reality. This brand building stuff is hard work. Time consuming. And slow. And I don’t even have a book to try to sell yet!

  12. This is both daunting and a relief. I’ve been self-pubbed for a year now and selling books is even harder than everyone warned me it would be. Every time I hear of some overnight success who shot to the top of Amazon after a few months, I get frustrated and self-critical. On the other hand, I have a better handle on my craft than I did before, so there’s that. Thanks for the reassurance that building your brand–and readership–are things that take time. I have no intention of giving up now, though. I’ve come too far, even in just one year.

  13. Thank you. Thank you. Just when I needed this! Sometimes I get very frustrated Kristin! It seems all I do is ‘hurry up and wait.’ ~Elle

  14. Reblogged this on Mystery and Romance.

  15. Reblogged this on Writer's Treasure Chest and commented:
    Kristen Lamb provides us with an excellent article on book sales. The struggle is real, but not new and what to do. Thank you so much Kristen!

  16. Reblogged this on The Owl Lady.

  17. Just bought your branding/marketing book and can’t wait to read it! This is a great post — practical, yet inspiring, full of good information. I have a blog, but I have a great deal of trouble keeping up with it, despite my best intentions. I’ll link to your blog there anyway, as well as on my FB page and Twitter (I seem to do better with those two.).
    Pam Zollman

  18. Been at this three years now, and can definitely confirm, the only way to sell books and build brand is to write books people actually want to read. Thanks, Kristen!

  19. Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog and commented:
    Check out this great post from Kristin Lamb’s blog. If you don’t follow her blog, you should.

  20. Hey, thanks for the post. I’m loving this blog so far. I’ve just published my first book, and I’m personally of the opinion that an author’s (self-published or otherwise) efforts should always go into writing more books. That’s not to say that you should ignore blogs or never use social media or anything like that. No, that’s all fine in moderation, and can help you build skill and platform at the same time. But most writers are *writers*, not bloggers or PR experts or advertisers; our efforts are most often useful while writing. And the more books you have out there, the greater the chances that someone will find and read and (hopefully) like your writing. My ideal ratio is probably 90-95% writing, maybe 5-10% blogging and social media. Does anyone have any other ideas?
    And also: Why do people, author or not, think advert-spamming is any productive way to earn readers/customers? In my house, we have a rule: if a commercial comes on TV frequently enough that you can memorize the voice-over, don’t buy the product. Same basic principle, right?

  21. When is your class on blogging for fiction writers coming back around?

    1. Friday February 3rd. I forgot to add it to my list. Fixing that now.

      1. *peers into hat* 🙂

  22. I remember the 80’s, when I was actually writing on a typewriter and bought the Writer’s Market one year. There were lots of rules that you had to glean from magazines. (remember those?) Bind it altogether with brass brads. Computer printing = verboten. (Dot matrix, remember?) But more houses did take unsolicited submissions. And they died in a slush pile without so much as a whimper. The end result for guys like me who just didn’t have an in was that getting a book published was simply impossible. It was a dream akin to becoming a rock star. I knew not to bother. Funny is the main thing was trying to learn the trade. It wasn’t really explained all that well. Put your hero in a tree and throw rocks at him. Sure, pick up that guitar and play a C chord.

    Fast forward to the modern internet, where you can reach out and find people who know how it’s all done and are willing to talk about it. If you’re willing to spend the time, the real truth behind the craft of fiction is at your fingertips. Barrier destroyed. Then you find out that your gaming buddies are also people who will actually read your book. Wall crumbled. You finish a novel, learn GIMP and create a decent cover. You have a book! Click click click and it’s sitting in an ocean of other books, but it’s there, a click away from being purchased.

    And then, it happens. Somebody you don’t know buys your book. It’s just one copy. But somebody somewhere plunked down real money to read your words. Wow. The impossible has arrived.

    And, even as the need for gatekeepers is proven by the tsunami of just horrid books that are now for sale (perhaps mine among them if I’m honest about it), there are many writers who have found an audience, but whose work would have never seen the light of day in the old world.

    Makes me want to join a church choir or something. Truly an amazing time to be a writer.

  23. Yes, some hard truths about how publishing hasn’t changed and what the real chances of success are. Another thing that hasn’t really changed is that money and prior celebrity is what counts, even in building platforms. Sure, it is possible to bootstrap your way to a platform… or it should be possible in theory. But it takes about 20 years, from my observations. I’m going to use a non-literary analogy but in branding it doesn’t really matter. Take Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Both had massive followings this time last year, huge numbers of vehement and loyal supporters. In many stats Sanders had higher numbers of hard core supporters. The difference? Sanders spent 20 years building his brand. I and many people I know have been watching him since the mid-1990s. His “brand” caught my eye then and I’ve never entirely lost the thread because he’s always around doing the same thing, never contradicting himself, always sticking to brand, always on topic. He is the perfect example of a bootstrap brand. Donald Trump has been around for 20 years too but he made no attempt to build a public brand until about two years ago. He did own a bunch of media, have some notoriety and have pretty much unlimited paid and free advertising resources. He built a very conscious, distinct and recognizable brand very quickly. And the proof is in the pudding. That sort of shallow brand will get you through the gatekeepers of media and institutions better than a bootstrapped, 20-years-consistency brand. That’s the part that gets under my collar. I’m not upset at the digital age, social media or Amazon. They’re all just in the toolbox. I am irritated at reality and human nature though. 😀 I worked in the traditional model before 2006. I had a top agent. She worked hard. We got nothing. She was told again and again that the only thing that matters is the wealth and prior celebrity of the author. “I couldn’t put it down but no one knows this author.” That is and was the bottom line.

  24. I always love reading your blog. You are such an inspiration especially when the doubt monster creeps in. I deal with millennial kids all the time (including my own!) the age of instant is certainly overwhelming at times I admit I sometimes fall prey to it myself. ugh!

  25. Great points regarding the “Old Way”– provides a bit of the developing big picture through the years. Thanks!

  26. This blog came to my attention just in time. My recently published book, What’s a Grandma To Do? got off to a decent start and then flagged, leaving me wondering if after all it was just a for-family effort. With time now, I will be studying marketing more and replacing my failed efforts with successful ones. Thanks Kristen.

  27. “Social media is basically Show and Tell for adults” NEEDS to be on a T-shirt!

  28. I’m relieved. Slow and steady she goes. And focus on the writing. Thanks.

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