Slow and steady wins the NYT bestseller list (or not)


While catching up with an old college friend one day, she wanted to know “How my books are doing” (I love when the question is asked like that, like they’re my babies). The books are always “fine,” it’s just a matter of whether anyone is buying them. But before I could answer, she asked, “Have you made the New York Times bestseller’s list yet?”

I’m 90% sure this was a serious question, and not sarcasm. I could be wrong. But it’s a question I’ve heard from others before, who were serious. They ask what bookstores (not which websites) they can find my book. Or if I can buy them a drink sometime, because I’m rolling in royalties and all (I wish, friends. I wish).

I’m glad that people are interested in my writing, but these questions demonstrate complete naiveté of how the publishing industry works. Anyone can write a book these days, thanks to the advent of self-publishing. Literally anyone. It requires no skill, just access to a computer.

The challenge is how to write a good book (whatever that means), but I still think that’s much easier than selling one. With thousands of ebooks flooding the market, simply putting one out there isn’t a guarantee it will sell. That was my mistake with my first book (which, I should mention, is being re-released as a second edition soon). I thought if it was available for anyone to purchase, it would sell itself.

That is one of the gravest sins of indie publishing: believing your book has some magic power to sell itself. It’s not impossible to sell consistently without any promotion behind it, but for most authors it’s highly unlikely.

Consequently, I am now more than just an author; I’m an entrepreneur. I’m a marketer. I am my own PR firm (with help every now and then from friends with popular blogs). When you aren’t traditionally published, you don’t have these resources at your agent’s disposal (but even then, you’re still never let off the hook when it comes to promoting your work). There’s writing – always writing – and then there’s marketing. Both are full-time jobs.

My readership on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and now WordPress has grown considerably in the last year, but I had to work my butt off to get this far, and I still have to work much harder to get to a point where writing pays for more than a latte. Problem is, because I’m not at a point where I can make a living off my books, I need to supplement writing with other forms of paid work. It’s all about finding a balance, and some people give up on publishing because it’s  just too overwhelming. They become obsessed with numbers, and forget the reason they wanted to write in the first place (seriously, no one becomes a writer for the money!).

I completely get it, especially because I am the worst millennial ever when it comes to figuring out technology: and technology, whether you like it or not, is one of the best and easiest ways to market because you don’t even have to leave your house (perfect for introverts like me). But just when you think you’ve mastered one form of social media, a new one comes out and the one you use the most falls into obscurity (remember the rise and demise of Xanga and Myspace?).

Just this last month alone, I spent 8 hours a day, 5 days a week writing and promoting: reaching out via Twitter (I love having a job that enables me to use Twitter all day!), connecting with readers (never neglect your readers or take them for granted!), emailing book bloggers, updating my Facebook author page. I sold 22 books that month, my best yet. But now it’s July, the sale numbers revert back to zero, and it’s time to do it all over again.

Somewhere in the middle of all that, my fiancé wanted to go on a bike ride with me. I missed a call from my mom. I just wanted a break.

Eventually I realized that earning a place on the Top Ten in the New York Times really isn’t the point. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love that, but setting the bar of success too high causes me to miss out on the joy of what I’ve accomplished so far. Twenty-two people bought my books last month: twenty-two strangers who then went and posted reviews both on their blogs and on Amazon. For someone who only started publishing two years ago, that’s a big deal. I may not be able to pay rent with my books (yet!) but a review or an email from a reader who was touched by what I wrote is pure gold.

So yeah, bestseller list or not, my books are doing just fine.


14 thoughts on “Slow and steady wins the NYT bestseller list (or not)

  1. Pingback: Mistakes of self-publishing: Cutting corners | Sarahbeth Caplin | Author & Christian Feminist Thinker

  2. Great blog post! I can relate to pretty much all of it. Although I have the feeling that a lot of my friends and family think I don’t sell any books at all and that this is some flight of fancy. On the occasion I tell them numbers (vaguely) they seem surprised that I’ve sold any at all.

    But I am definitely in for the slow and steady race of it all. Good luck! See you at the finish line–someday.


    • I had no trouble convincing family and friends that I sell…it’s just a matter of not selling enough. But I could retire tomorrow if I could count the number of times I’ve heard from my parents, “When are you getting a job that, you know, actually pays for stuff?”

      Liked by 1 person

  3. SB

    At least you are being realistic about the financial rewards in respect of writing. If you do it because you enjoy doing it or because you have a particular world view to shout out about, then that is what counts[1].

    Although to be honest as a writer you’ll probably benefit from another job, not necessarily for the money, but because it gives you contact with real life and other people, e.g. whilst I don’t have to do so, one of my jobs is working in a pub, pulling pints & serving customers. It gives a certain social interaction as you never quite know who is going to come through the doors next…


    [1] out of interest do you have a specific genre or are you going to write on various subjects, you mentioned liking British history, so would you write a historical/fictional piece? That’s a benefit of self -publishing because you don’t have to be boxed into a particular niche.


    • Just YA fiction for now. I’m revising my current memoir but I think I need to live a little more before contemplating another one, and my poetry book isn’t doing so well since hardly anyone reads poetry anymore (or maybe I’m just a sucky poet, but I choose to believe it’s the former).

      Surprisingly I’m not a fan of historical fiction. I’m very possessive of my favorite historical figures, and if someone portrays them in a way I don’t like, I get pissy (I’m looking at you, Philippa Gregory!). I’d prefer to know what actually happened rather than someone else’s interpretation.


      • Beth,

        Great stuff. YA isn’t my cup of tea, I’m more into science fiction, but I do actually like poetry (by contrast my sister Hannah will read pretty much anything fictional or factual & writes accordingly). The problem with poetry is not that people don’t read it, it is just that there are a lot of poets out there, so in one way even if you were Shakespeare or Milton you’d probably have a tough time selling this today. So doing poetry and publishing it is really for the love of it, but why not? The memoir sounds interesting. Judaism to Christianity, via a potential call to be a Rabbi.

        Well take care, Sam


  4. First of all, twenty-two books in a month is awesome! Congratulations!

    “That is one of the gravest sins of indie publishing: believing your book has some magic power to sell itself. It’s not impossible to sell consistently without any promotion behind it, but for most authors it’s highly unlikely.”

    Gosh, yes. People are constantly asking me, “Isn’t it kind of arrogant to promote your own book?” (As if self-published authors are the only ones doing it). And I always tell them, “It’s not going to sell itself.” No books sell themselves, traditionally- or self-published.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know at least one person whose books sell well without marketing. I’m thrilled for her but if I stopped marketing I’d surely have no sales at all. It’s very tricky and frustrating because there are no real rules to it, and often no easy explanation for why one book is successful, but a similar book is not.


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