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Gigi Will Know: Help! My books don’t sell

Is writing just a very expensive hobby?

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Here’s my problem: my books don’t sell. I’ve authored six nonfiction books and co-authored two, all of which have been published by well-respected publishers and have great reviews. Before COVID-19, I had many well-attended speaking engagements and book signings. I have an engaging website and have hired a publicity agent, who has set up almost 30 media interviews, plus reviews in blogs and e-zines. An article in USA Today also featured my latest book. What more could I possibly do? I’m glad I’ve been able to get my books’ messages across, but I’ve concluded that writing is A VERY EXPENSIVE HOBBY.

—Well Published; Just Done?

Dear Well,

You’re not wrong. Publishing can indeed be a VERY EXPENSIVE HOBBY. Some of this has to do with the publishers that publish nonfiction books. If you’ve gone with university presses, it’s harder to make inroads into the consumer market, since university presses’ marketing budgets just aren’t set up this way, and even their distribution mechanisms may not loan themselves to distribution in everyday bookstores. (You’ve probably experienced this, since you hired a publicist.)

Related: One way for nonfiction books to sell more copies is to get onto university reading lists. You might consider reaching out to academics who work in fields that might be interested in using your books and having you in to speak virtually.

Related to that: You also mentioned that you had well-attended speaking engagements and book signings. That’s fantastic! But the rest of the book world is going on to book some virtual events, and I think this would be a good move for you, too. In fact, I’d say it’s probably of import at this point. So, if you haven’t yet booked any virtual events, why the hell not? Get up. Let’s do this thing.

Since I started writing the answer to your question, I’ve been considering the chicken-egg aspect of it. You say that writing has become, for you, an expensive hobby. But you also say that you’ve gotten speaking gigs out of it, and clearly you have some platform in the subjects you’re covering, so ostensibly you’re either able to earn a living from your books or your living has allowed you to write these books. (I’m assuming that these gigs are paid gigs. If not, I’d say you might want to rectify that.)

For folks who are academics, the books they publish may be only a part of their platform. For folks who want to be writers but are academics, welp – that can, indeed, be frustrating. You don’t say which you are, so I won’t pass judgment, but I will say that you could just be right on track for your peer group. Having gotten your books’ messages across seems like a really, really great thing.

But your question is not about the overall success of your professional life or career; it is about book sales. Apart from what I’ve said above, I’ll also say that I had a poke around your website, which you call engaging and which I call, well, not. Engagement is measured by whether or not folks who visit your website can interact with you in some way. Your website doesn’t allow for much of that. There’s no running blog feed that demonstrates what else you’re working on; there are no social media feeds; I don’t see a place to sign up for a newsletter. Your contact form doesn’t suggest why we might contact you: Is it for speaking engagements? What else can we do with you or with your expertise?

The website feels static and a little out of date, especially since your most recent book was published a year ago. Without an update, the site is nothing more than a landing page.

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Finally, when I do a quick Google search for your name, I don’t turn up any of your other work – articles and essays and guest blog posts, say – within your area of expertise. If you can re-cast yourself as a subject matter expert by establishing some bylines linked to the subject matter of your book, that will help you to sell books as well.

Engagement and constant new content, whether at your website or in a consumer’s newsfeed, demonstrates that you’re engaged in your subject matter beyond your book – and those two things will lead to increased sales.

Write on and never give up,

—Gigi

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