Quality vs. Sales

Inspired by a post by Laramie Briscoe on the subject. Also Gayle’s epic post about writing as a business.

It’s a debate that has gone on in the writing world for some time: sales vs. quality of a written story. And this is an interesting debate, indeed, especially as book publishing had evolved with the advent of e-publication as well as self-publication as a viable – and successful – medium.

The sides to this debate are as follows.

1. Quality should be the marker of a successful book irrespective of sales.

2. Sales make or break the book

3. It depends on the publishing medium, in conjunction with any of the above.

Let me be the first one to point out an unpalatable truth for many aspiring authors: quality doesn’t put food on your plate. If you want to write for a living, you have to consider where your paycheck will be coming from. And if you want to write for a living, then you need to generate sales. Plain and simple. You can view writing as an art and a calling, but you must harness its business aspects if you want to earn a living from it.

Now, let me touch on Aspect 1 of this: quality.

If there’s one thing I have learned as a self-pub author, and as someone who has an ongoing series, it’s that quality is crucial to making or breaking the book. I’ve gotten bad reviews (ABNA 2010). I’ve gotten good reviews (Amazon). I’ve gotten eh reviews (also Amazon). I have faith that I’ve written a great story so far; it’s character-driven, suspenseful, very funny at times, but not without its foibles. This is exactly why I hired a professional editor: while there will always be foibles, just like there are foibles in a traditionally published book, I would rather make sure that someone’s eyes other than mine take a look at it. Because I was going via self-publication, I felt that I had an onus on myself to prove that I could write a good, strong story.

While I had the story written, I believed for the longest time, erroneously so, that it was enough. The plot was rich and could stretch over more than one book, the characters were great, but I had the belief that just because it was great, people will buy it, and that would’ve been enough for me to live off my writing. Looking back now, I know that that mindset was as naive as all get-out. The book was also rife with conventions errors, and it was something that I did not rectify until recently. You may’ve seen a post here, some months ago, that I was doing that, and the reason was that, after some living and learning, my opinion about my own story had changed. I wanted to make sure that it was good on all aspects. If it meant taking it offline, doing an overhaul, and re-publishing it, then that was what I was going to do, hands down.

Look, bad stories get published too, and they not only sell well, but reach the level of success that sparks the dreams of every aspiring author out there. After all, look at Twilight. That story is not good. Point blank. It’s poorly written, even more poorly plotted, and deeply anti-climactic. But it sold. And it got turned into film. The reason for that is marketing, and that’s aspect two.

In truth, marketing and quality cannot be separated. If your marketing plan centers around the quality of your book, then it really needs to stand up to muster, and pass it. Five-star reviews? Mentions in another blog or journal? Recommendations? All of those are the signals that your book is good. But how will it get to those reviewers, bloggers, etc?

Point blank: authors, you absolutely must market your book. How else will it garner a fan base? How else will you get honest feedback about where the story has gone, where it’s going, etc? How else will you, as an author, improve your writing? Without a fan base, without a targeted fan base, you will not get any of those things. And they are a crucial reflector of your work, and your progress in your further work depends on the feedback you will get.

This is also where the publishing medium comes in. Time for aspect number three: the publication medium making the difference in the above.

Self-published authors are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to the marketing aspect of their writing. Why? Because they’re on their own, mostly. In a trad-pub setting, the publishing house’s marketing department takes care of the nitty-gritty of getting the book out there. The reviews, the promo copies, the signings – all of that is taken care of by the publisher. Some publishing houses had even moved into the social media, taking care of the Twitter/Facebook presence for the book. Self-pub authors, of course, have to take care of all of that themselves. And a lot of the time, their resources are severely limited, and something will have to give. Whether it’s the writing or the marketing, that’s another matter altogether.

Nonetheless, this is not an indicator that an author cannot become successful. On the contrary, right now, it’s a much more accessible goal than ever before. Self-publication is, usually, at no cost up front. Or, if you’re e-publishing, no cost at all. But the marketing is twice as hard, and before an author uploads the book file, there is only one question to ask: are you ready to put in the innumerate hours required to make the book a success?

And of course, define success. If you mean success in the framework of, “People read it and liked it” – then great. I will not rain on the parade of anyone who wants their book to be liked, and for whom the income from it is secondary. But if you’re defining success as, “Selling well enough for me to make money from it” – then the answer to the above question should be nothing less than an immediate yes.

Looking back three years ago, I have to make a singular confession: I had absolutely no clue what I was doing. None. Zero. Zip. I had faith in the fact that I’ve written a good story, a free proof copy code, and little in the way of actual knowledge of how much work was involved. It was a nonstop series of stumbles, pitfalls, etc. as I fought to get the book some recognition. I had no idea that the book festival I had entered and placed an honorable mention in was red-flagged by Preditors and Editors because of its entrance fee, or what sorts of scams were out there for authors. I had no idea how to market a book. I honestly, truly, did not know what to do. But through copious reading, researching, and researching some more, I learned. And most importantly, as technology evolved and the idea of self-publication had grown more mainstream, I had to learn how to work around it.

The thing is this: you can write the best story in the world, but unless it sells and garners any sort of acclaim, it’s still just between you and whatever medium you had used to write it, especially if you’re independent. You have to market your book. You have to grow your presence. You have to grow your fan base. Giveaways, sneak peeks, previews – all of that opens up your work to a prospective audience. And the most crucial part of it is to stay relentless. Giving up is always a temptation, especially when you see that you’re not selling as quickly or as well as you would like.

Yes, I think that this post does designate me into the school of thought closest aligned with Option 2 of the above, but this did not come without a hands-on learning process, and a shift of thought. I will admit, once again, that I didn’t know what I was doing at first. I also had a highly idealistic belief about writing. I had a story, and believed that I could make a living off it if I put it out there easily. I did not know how much editing I would have to go through before my good story would actually be good. I definitely didn’t know how much work was involved in making something sell, and the fact that I had opted to self-publish shifted that work onto my shoulders. Which, in turn, had left me with two options: learn how to market on the fly, or give up on the idea of a book series being successful.

Also, my definition of success as an author had shifted as well. When I was starting out, my definition of success was a “well-liked book”. I wasn’t doing it for the money, and to an extent, I’m still not putting as much of an onus on the financial rewards of the books as I put on the financial rewards of my other endeavors, namely my graphic design business. The glaring difference between then and now is that right now, well-liked is simply not enough. I want a series that sells well, and I want to get enough from my book royalties to do more with them than just buy a nice dinner with once in a while.

At this point, with six years invested in the series from concept to publication, I want them to start working for me.


And, of course, please show some love to my Amazon page, containing all works in paperback and Kindle form. Other formats available; see the column on the right.