The Questions To Ask BEFORE Asking “How Do I Sell More Books?”

“How do I sell more books?”
“How do I get an agent?”
“How do I get published?”

While these are fine questions, they are often asked too soon. There are OTHER questions you need to answer before you should ask those listed above.

For instance, before you ask “how do I get published” you need to ask questions such as:

“Is the work good enough?”

And before you answer “YES! I spent 3 years on it,” you have to consider the concept of empathy. In other words: if your path to publishing requires others to partner with you (an agent to sign you, a publisher to give you a deal, a bookstore to give you placement) you have to consider their goals and motivations.

I want to be clear here first: if you are writing this book SOLELY for yourself, then when you say it is “good enough,” it is 100% done. As I have said before, not everything needs to be shared. But if you REQUIRE partners in this process, you may need to consider how your goals align with theirs, better understanding their needs and motivations.

When an agent rejects a book, why is that? Well, let’s consider their motivation for signing an author (and this is a made up list by me, I’m not an agent, so I am just guessing here):

  1. They LOVED the book. They got hooked, couldn’t stop reading, and it spoke to their heart.
  2. The book perfectly aligns to a niche market they focus on, and they feel they won’t have a problem selling it or that it will find a readership.
  3. You already have an audience, have established credibility and a platform with an existing audience. You are someone that people have already proven they want to hear from and would buy a book from.

There are likely many other reasons, and motivations would be different for each and every agent.

My friend (and client) Miranda Beverly-Whittemore shared a brutally honest post this week about FAILURE in her life as a writer. The list is astounding, and she was clear to point out that her upcoming release was rejected by everyone, before she revised it based on the feedback she received, and was able to sell it. In other words: even though she is a seasoned author and crafted a book she was proud of, she had to continue learning what would speak to the partners in her publishing process.

She even shared this exact process for her efforts writing her next novel:

“The powers that be have let me know that they think my next book isn’t exactly, 100% right, that maybe the vehicle by which its aboutness is delivered is off. It’s a funny thing, to go from writing in relative obscurity for years, to suddenly having people—professional people, like not my loving and supportive husband, for example—care what is coming next. A younger version of my self might have resisted such suggestions, but I’m older and wiser, and dammit, I want my publisher to be as in love with this next book as they are with BITTERSWEET.”

Another question I hear more often than I would like is: “I heard an agent/publisher say that they won’t consider signing a book unless the author has 10,000 followers on Twitter. Is that true?”

I always chuckle at that. But I also shiver, because it can easily send a writer down the wrong path – searching for a “magic number,” not the things that really matter: crafting good work, finding the right partners, and connecting with ideal readers in meaningful ways.

So what is the question you ask before “How do I get 10,000 Twitter followers?” Well, let’s dig back into empathy, and consider why would an agent or publisher ever say that? What are they really trying to say? My guess:

“Can you prove to me that their is an audience for this book, and for you as the author?”

Now this is a more simple straightforward question. And when you realize that, the Twitter number has a context, but more importantly: you become EMPOWERED to know how to ensure your goals and the agent’s goals align.

It allows you to ask questions such as:

  • What would be a “win” for this agent? How do they define success, and how does that relate to what I offer them?
  • What are her/his challenges in selling a book to a publisher?
  • If they want to see there is an audience for my book, what OTHER metrics can we use? EG: a newsletter list with 1,000 people, a certain number of media mentions, affiliations with large organizations, previous book sales, speaking engagements, etc.

It gives you a wide range of options to work with, instead of one silly naked number: 10,000. Which really, you can’t do much with, and I would be willing to bet is not at all the magic number folks make it out to be.

I have been considering this idea of “asking the wrong questions first” in a variety of other contexts. One is the age-old question for runners and those who workout: DO YOU STRETCH BEFORE YOU RUN, OR AFTER? My friend Donna Flagg is a dancer and runs Lastics, which is all about the value of stretching. She wrote this article that put things into context: When to Stretch.

An oversimplification of the article: you have to ask different questions FIRST:

  • Where you are on a continuum of flexibility?
  • Have you been injured? Are some muscles naturally tighter than others?
  • What type of workout activity will you be doing?
  • How do you feel (when you workout and otherwise)?

Why ask these questions? Because everyone is different, and the answers help determine
how to provide the maximum benefit of stretching with your workout.

Another example about asking the right questions first is in how to brew a really good cup of coffee. This has been a little hobby of mine recently, and it is fascinating what I have learned. Too often, we focus on the wrong question first, which for coffee is about the brewing method. Everyone seems to have their favorite: Keurig, drip, french press, AeroPress, Chemex, etc. And because you have to buy that equipment, you tend to do this research first, and then validate that decision later on by saying things like “I LOVE MY FRENCH PRESS!”

But the brewing method is NOT the right first question! What are the right questions? Here are some:

  • How fresh are your beans – when were they roasted?
  • Tell me about how your beans were grown.
  • How do you store your beans?
  • How and when do you grind your beans?
  • What is your water source?
  • What ratio of water do you use?
  • How long do you brew?

For the most part, these questions align to nearly ANY method of brewing. And they make a profound difference in the resulting cup of coffee. In other words: timing and balance matters more than the object you use in brewing.

At least, that is what I have found so far after reading lots of articles, watching tons of YouTube videos, and of course, tasting lots of coffee at home and at different cafes. Your mileage may vary.

So how do you sell more books? Maybe these questions should come first:

What you are looking to do here is to not place an unreasonable burden on others – such as expecting MAGIC from Goodreads, Facebook ads, your literary agent, your publisher, or a publicist. All of these communities and individuals are partners in a larger process, one where you need to come to them with some answers before you ask these bigger questions.

For your career as a writer, it all begins with the source: your writing.

To connect that writing to others, it is about developing your ability to know, understand, and engage with the right audience, the good folks who have access to them.