To begin with, I’m sorry for being so late.  Real life got to me this morning, before I was awake enough to defend myself.

Now let’s talk Sale-ability, that which causes a book to sell well, which is not the same as being a good book, or being a bad book, or really being anything but saleable.First, I wish to stress that there are writers who don’t write for money.  They write for self-expression, or for their grandchildren to read.  Some write so people will know what they did or thought.  Some write to share stories they were told, or to promote an ideology, or, yes, to gain power and adulation.

Me? I’m not an author.  I’m a writer.  I work for a living.  Sure, I’d probably be creating something even if writing hadn’t been published, but dear Lord, there are better ways to hit your head against a wall.  I’d probably be doing something like stuffed dragons, because at least they’re cushy when you hit your head against them.

As you see by the “hit your head” I had mixed success through the years.  I don’t remember which letter I’m on in Larry’s chart, but it’s the spot where “you make enough to live a middle class life if you were single.”  Which I realize isn’t bad.  And since my husband also has a job, we both live a middle class life, or will once the sons are off the payroll.

I am not, however a mega seller blockbuster.

Part of this is that I didn’t even understand what I was writing for, what I wanted to do, or how to get there until maybe five years ago, and the last five years have been a mess health wise.

First thing, find out why you’re writing and what you want from it.

Second, monetary success is not a measure of quality.  No, please, don’t quibble.  It is not.  Partly because there is no defined measure of “quality” for writing, beyond a certain level.  Sure, you read books you feel are intensely artistic, but sometimes when you’re a professional you understand that the most artistic books are those that hide it, and bury their art under the plot and the experience, making themselves like glass, so all the reader experiences is the story.

So which one is the “good” one.  Neither. Both.  It doesn’t matter.

Sure, the second one tends to sell more (not always.  There’s a tons of other factors in saleability than just “easy to read” though by damn if you want to sell a lot, you’d better start there.)

But there a ton of books that were massively popular in their day (a lot of Victorian novelists) which have been completely forgotten, and even when you want to read them you have trouble getting into.

So, by the only definition of “quality” we have — is read a century or more after author’s death — selling very well now is not a definition of quality.  Much is being acclaimed now (truly.  It makes no difference.)

Second thing to know is that if you’re not selling a ton, it doesn’t mean you’re bad, or even mediocre.  You might be, but you won’t know from that.

Third – Books that sell well are easy to read.

You have no idea how many times I borrow a book from KU because it has a great description, and I want to love it and immerse myself in it, and it kicks me right out, into the cold store, to look for another book.

Things that kick me out, in order of the most to least egregious:

1- I can’t make any sense of the first two or three pages.  Remember to ground your reader.  He comes into your world looking for a place to be while living the story.  Give him character, place and problem right up front.  Or, from my days  of journalistic training: Who, where, what.  Later you can give them the why and the how, but it’s very important for us to know who is doing what to whom and in what setting right upfront, okay?

But most importantly, make sure what you have on the page isn’t word salad, intelligible only to those who are in your head and seeing what you see.  I’ve been known to start books with the description of a storm, to set the mood, but at least you can follow what I’m saying (and it’s usually a camera pan closer and closer to the character.)

What am I talking about?  Well, I don’t have an example, but it would be something like:

The which where place where monastery was filled with people on a hill.  This goes on for pages, and I skim three pages to make sure it wasn’t some weird glitch in the beginning, then return the book.

2- I can make sense of the first three pages, but I’m completely trapped inside someone’s head.  And this person is like your grandfather when he talks about his war experiences.  He talks of people you’ve never heard and situations you don’t know, as though you’d been right there with him, and you’re just reminiscing together.

Make sure your characters have a body.  Make sure you give us where their body is while their thinking.  And make d*mn sure that whatever is going on around their body is at least somewhat interesting, while the mind is running on its treadmill.

3- EMOTIONS.  Yes, I’ve told you that a novel is a unit of emotion and that the medium we work in is emotion.  This doesn’t mean we can understand or certainly not empathize with free-floating emotion.  Give the readers a reason to know what the character is feeling.

“Bob was frightened.  His hands sweated. His mouth was dry” is not a bad gambit, provided you ground it in the next sentence.

BUT “A knife touched his throat.  Bob’s hands sweated. His mouth was dry” is FAR MORE grabby.  BTW remember to put the cause before the emotion.  Yes, I know you want it to be a surprise.  Trust me, it works better the other way around.

4- You’re not me.  I just checked and you weren’t.  However this is a problem I have, and a problem that conversely doesn’t affect me when reading: Tone down your vocabulary.

You’re presumably a person of your words.  It would appall you to find out how short most people’s vocabularies is. When your friends say you send them to the dictionary, it’s not praise.  It means you wont’ sell as well.

So, if you want to sell a ton of books, make it easy to read your books and hard to put them down.

Fourth — and I fall down in this a lot — make sure you write things that appeal to a vast number of people.

I fall down in this because I have strange tastes, starting with liking science fiction.  The genres in order from most to least popular are something like, off the top of my head: thriller, romance, mystery, fantasy, science fiction.

It doesn’t mean you can’t make more money than Croesus in science fiction.  You can.  The market, particularly indie, seems to be more vast than anyone is aware of, judging by the fact I know people making seven figures that none of you (or me) ever heard of or brushed against as authors. What writing science fiction means, though, is that the chances are lower.

But then within the genres there are things that sell better than others.  And it’s not always by subgenre, either.

Look, no one knows how to tap into this.  It’s a matter of plugging in to the “spirit of the times” and some people are completely plugged into it, and some are not.  And no one can tell you how to get that.  This is why traditional publishers kept going from imitating one bestseller to imitating another bestseller, trying to tap into that zeitgeist.

So, I can’t tell you how to do it, but I can tell you how not to do it: don’t write mostly about obscure things, that you know for a fact most of your audience has no interest in, or even don’t know exist.

An example of this would be the gentleman who came spinning onto my blog very upset that I wrote BRITISH history novels, but not Portuguese history novels.

Leave aside the fact that the outright historical novels I wrote were both commissioned and I wasn’t picking the subject.

If you saw a book on the shelf with Dona Leonora, a strong and tragic woman, chances are you’d go “Who?”

And if you opened and saw “Queen of Portugal” you’d go “what?” particularly because most people think Portugal is somewhere in South America (no, I’m not joking.)

So, even if you bought it, you’d think it was about some pre-discovery American Empire and be sorely disappointed.

But if you see “Anne Boleyn, strong and tragic woman”?  It might not be your cup of tea, but at least you know what the books is about.

(Not saying, btw, there’s no place for all the history I know, like the king whose brother deposed him and married his queen, by claiming the king was a lunatic and imprisoning him in a bedchamber the rest of his life.  I mean, that will show up somewhere, but a space empire, or something.)

So, to begin with, try to APPEAL to your readers.  Remember you’re running a business, not a university.  If you try to “educate” people, they just won’t read you. On the other hand, if you appeal to them and reward them with fun, you can slide any number of “knowledge” and “improvement” under the camel’s nose and into the tent.

Finding out what appeals to people is more difficult.  Reading bestsellers won’t help.  The reason they appeal might be something other than what you notice. BUT at least try not to make them work too hard and not to repulse them up front.

So, fourth, remember you’re selling this to people, and that you can choose what your product looks like and how much it appeals, at least to an extent.  Don’t go out of your way to write stuff you know will make most of your prospective readers mad (this can range from not having people eat meat if you’re trying to appeal to vegetarians to not having mistakes if you’re trying to appeal to history buffs.  Even if you’re sure that your history is better than what’s out there, don’t violate what the readers “know” without explanation.)

And that’s about it.  Making it good (or bad) is entirely up to you.



97 thoughts on “Sale-ability

  1. I don’t remember which letter I’m on in Larry’s chart, but it’s the spot where “you make enough to live a middle class life if you were single.” Which I realize isn’t bad. And since my husband also has a job, we both live a middle class life, or will once the sons are off the payroll.

    I don’t see that particular one on there, but probably somewhere between I and K inclusive. 😉

      1. Somebody should post the list so people know what people are talking about.

        Eschew Obfuscation. 🙂


          A sample: K List – Welcome To Mid List =$$$$

          The average professional author with a writing career.
          Authors making enough money to be really tempted to quit their day job except their spouse won’t let them.
          Authors who are still really happy when anybody shows up to a signing.
          Authors who are still terrified that their fans will realize they’re a talentless fraud any minute now.

                1. I believe that the “eh-lister” is defined as a writer who can’t believe their place on the list (whether they think it is too high or too low).

                  1. The real question is do you get the highest one from which a description is accurate, or the lowest?

          1. Thank you for the link–I thought I was missing something. Hum… I’m a lowly ‘S’, but I’m working on fixing that.

          2. Weird. I think I’m somewhere in the M-O range, despite having written all of one book. And some short stories. (I need to get a bunch of them into publishable form, that would be good.) Though part of that is a total lack of compulsive Amazon checking; sometimes I remember that I’ve written a book. No, really. I keep forgetting that it’s out there. (Did I mention my brain is weird and no, I’m not really a writer?)

            (Another “eh?” lister. I swear I should be further down.)

  2. “Second, monetary success is not a measure of quality. No, please, don’t quibble. It is not.”

    Excuse me, but who are you to tell me that I can’t quibble? It’s a free country and I can quibble if I want to!

    In all seriousness, I do think there’s something to be said for the link between monetary success and quality. Not “quality” like the literature professors mean, not even “quality” as you and I mean in that it can speak to multiple generations. But none the less, a written work that can convince millions of people to hand over their beer money in exchange for it has its own sort of quality, and I’m willing to respect that even if I personally hate the work. “Twilight” for example…I tried it. Not only was it bad, it was bad and boring. But obviously a whole bunch of people felt differently, and I would love to understand why people invested so much into it or became convinced that the bland beige stalker was their dream man. Meyer’s ability to make that happen is, in my opinion, “quality” even though I hate everything she’s written.

    1. I tend to think that “What about that worked for people?” is an important and useful question.

  3. “And if you opened and saw “Queen of Portugal” you’d go “what?” particularly because most people think Portugal is somewhere in South America (no, I’m not joking.)”

    Portugal should have been in South America. I seem to recall that there are 208 million people in Brazil, a Portuguese speaking country; while there are only 10 million people in Portugal. Used to be more, but then you moved to the U.S. Of course if you were from Brazil, odds are you’d be just as much of mixed ancestry as you are already, just different. But then your experiences would be different, and you’d probably not be the you we know and like.

  4. So I’d best figure out how to start off my seriously alternate universe Ecuador story on the right foot, so my readers know what to expect.

  5. Vocabulary.

    Last night at dinner I mentioned that I thought I’d call the next Applied Topology book “A Shadow of Djinn.”

    Daughter and son-in-law: Huh?

    Me: You know, d-j-i-n-n. Like in the Arabian Nights.

    D and s-i-l: The what?

    Two takeaways: (1) I should have homeschooled daughter, and (2) need to think up another title.

    1. I know. I keep running headfirst into this stuff.
      Not #1 son, who recently taught me my first new word in decades: esurient.
      But his brother… And he’s still on the 95% for vocabulary for his generation.

      1. I did some testing a couple years ago (to measure the Oddness) and part of it was a vocabulary test. You had to say the meaning of the word they gave you, and the other part was to find a word to fit the definition. Things like “alleviate”, or “disruptive”, more than one syllable type thing.

        It wasn’t hard, as far as I was concerned. They all seemed like normal, everyday words to me. (Doesn’t everybody know “alleviate”? They use it on TV, right?) So I knew all the words. Got 10/10 on that section. No big deal.

        I’m not a walking thesaurus by any means, but it turned out that I scored better than the testing lady had ever seen. (She was young though, so not that impressive a performance.) Three sigmas north of Normal.

        That’s bad. It means that my modest vocabulary, pilfered from SF books for 50 years, puts me in zebra territory when everybody else is a pony.

        Can a zebra write for a pony? I guess we’ll see. If I get any one star “too many big words!” reviews, I’ll know what happened.

      2. I never heard of “esurient” as an English word, but could guess from the Latin 🙂

        You’d think unfamiliar words would be less of a problem these days though, as so many people are using e-readers, and – on my Kindle, at least – you just have to touch a word to bring up a dictionary definition. I’ve learned a few new words that way.

        Admittedly I don’t want to have to look up every other word, or feel like the author is just trying to show off their vocabulary for the sake of it. Maybe obscure words work best when put in the mouth of a character, assuming it’s “in character” for them.

        1. Dislike of the “vocabulary show-off,” I understand. I don’t care for it either, any more than I like “literary” pretentiousness and those who luxuriate in it instead of telling actual stories. But I maintain that there have been changes as regards readers’ (and editors’) attitudes that aren’t for the better.

          If you’ve read B. R. Myers’s “A Reader’s Manifesto,” you might recall him lamenting the disappearance of “good Mandarin writing” in the fashion of Woolf and Joyce. I feel similarly – but in this connection, I lament even more wistfully the decline in educational standards and the acceptance of that decline by just about everyone. The most important aspect of that decline, as usual, goes all but unremarked. It’s the difference between two attitudes: “I don’t know that word, so I’ll look it up” versus “What right does he have to use a word I don’t know?”

          Unfortunately, editors have elected to accept readers’ educational and characterological decline as unopposable. Rather than maintaining their own standards, they’ve agreed to follow the downslope toward a de facto illiteracy in which readers will tolerate only the simplest prose, thus rendering the wealth of centuries inaccessible. Present trends continuing, comic books will be soon filled with pictures alone; those irritating “word bubbles” will have softly and silently vanished away.

          (Yes, I’m quoting Carroll with a purpose:
          “He had bought a large map representing the sea,
          Without the least vestige of land.
          And the crew were much pleased when they found it to be
          A map they could all understand.”

          My favorite among the “agonies.”)

        2. My idiot older son used that in speech. He just likes WORDS. And it never occurred to him I didn’t know it.
          I work hardest at keeping my writing transparent. I know I fail, but I try.

    2. I sympathize. Lord, how I sympathize!

      There is nothing that frustrates me quite so much as the vocabulary limitations of the supposedly educated person in the 21st Century. I’ve had endless run-ins with my editors about it. Here are some of the words they insisted that I must not use:

      Trajectory (yes, really!)

      And there is absolutely no help for it, as the average reader simply will not use a dictionary while reading an item of fiction.

      1. Back in trad publishing days, Francis, my dream was to make enough money to be able to give away copies of the Oxford English Dictionary. I would send one to every copyeditor with the note, “The answers to all your queries are in here.”

      2. My vocabulary is as big as it is, not because I EVER picked up a dictionary for anything other than the fun of it, but because most words are understandable from context or are explained in the next sentence. Usually.

      3. My favorite was the editor who changed stolid to solid, but then complained it didn’t make sense. And ALSO scolded me for “reaching beyond your vocabulary.” Eh.

        1. They’re like that, dear. Remember what Heinlein said: “You have to give an editor something to change, or he gets frustrated. After he pees in it, he likes the flavor, so he buys it.”

          Lawrence Block told of an editor who failed to read a story he was editing! It was a humorous story about a vegetarian vampire. The final sentence was approximately “I killed him with a steak through the heart.” The editor changed steak to stake, never realizing that he’d removed any value from the story in doing so.

          1. Arrrgh. One of my grad-school instructors opened a journal to discover that the editor had reversed his conclusion. After the prof had approved the galley proofs! Much anger ensued.

        2. “And ALSO scolded me for “reaching beyond your vocabulary.””

          I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to put up with that. Seriously, stolid to solid, and he’s an -editor-? Nope. Buddy would be fired. With extreme prejudice, and possible defenestration. That one’s a #walkaway before you #chokeabench.

        3. One of my happiest copy editing memories is the time I found myself about to change “protean” to “protein” (in my defence, this was a biochemistry text about ACTUAL proteins) when fortunately some more-awake part of my brain said “whoa, wait a minute…”

          As it happens, proteins to tend to be rather protean. I’m not even sure whether the pun was intentional (though I like to think it was) or how many readers (a) noticed, and (b) thought it was anything other than a typo.

      4. This is why I love my Kindle! At least 95% of the words I am curious about are in its default dictionary, and clicking to get a definition hardly breaks the story flow at all. Often I know what the word means, but take the opportunity to verify the pronunciation (e.g., viscount or marquess).

        I do wish it was linked with an encyclopedia, tho. I will have to check that out. And I dearly wish the Overdrive epub reader app had the same dictionary capability.

        1. Eep! Bad enough when I spend thirty minutes in the rabbit hole (or beyond the looking glass) bouncing around in the dictionary. “Oh, that is a new word in the synonym list!” or “I have never heard that one used as an antonym?”

          I think that one thing that gave me the large base for the vocabulary I have today is that I “graduated” straight from Dr. Suess to the Oz books. Not that they had an extremely large vocabulary for when they were published – but certainly a much larger one than even I was exposed to by my 1960s elementary schooling. (I’m not looking, but I’m pretty sure that “stolid” was most likely used in at least one or another characterization.)

    3. Long long ago, I (mercifully briefly) worked in customer service, handling account corrections that involved writing letters, so I had to explain some pretty complicated financial stuff and it was frowned on to go more than a page long. I also wanted to make it clear enough so that the customer could read the letter and understand everything, because otherwise they were going to call me. I decided I could write with a complicated vocabulary or I could communicate difficult concepts, but I couldn’t do both, and high vocabulary would get a phone call either way.

      Overall, I’d rather have a complicated story with a more basic vocabulary, ideally so that people won’t even notice the words at all (unless you’re Pratchett or Peter Beagle, or such, which I’m not).

    4. I once mentioned that I had seen Marcus Aurelius’s Mediations sold as a Gladiator tie-in, to garner the startled reaction: you mean that stuff was real?

    5. 1) Is there anything in the plot line that would let you title it “Djinn and Tonic”?

      2) Yes, you should have home schooled the daughter. (Although mine can at least recognize the word. The son, not – he gives me a very strange look when I told him I had the hots for Barbara Eden at his age…)

        1. I love it! Much better.

          And… I just asked one daughter what she thinks of it. Blank look – “What’s a jigger? Oh, wait, it’s that thing on top of Mom’s pressure cooker, right?”

          Facepalm. It’s too late for home schooling, alas.

  6. There’s a reason so many war stories start off with, “No s*, there I was…” It’s the basic toolkit of interesting beginnings. Naturally, you can’t follow a line like that off with “feeding the dog.” It demands something crazy and unbelievable, or you wouldn’t need that opening line.

    So… don’t use that line, unless you’re really telling a war story or something like it, but perhaps have it in the back of your head?

  7. I might not have the best vocabulary in the world but it’s up there in the single digit percentages. And I often find myself bouncing off a book because it’s written “hard” rather than written “easy”. Science fiction seems pretty bad at this. Sure, sometimes, you want “hard” but most of the time my brain has been wrung out over the day and the need to work at reading means that I’ll go find a romance that I’ve read before and already know what happens.

    I got a science fiction book from the library once, a hardcover. I don’t recall the book or author but it was someone that I read and enjoyed and I read the book and enjoyed it. What was funny (or perhaps tragic) is that I opened to the front page and started reading and noticed that a couple of times every paragraph a simple synonym for a term was penciled in, super small, above the word. Several on each page.

    I picture some poor soul looking up each word they didn’t know and then continuing onward. The most amazing thing was this continued to page 27.

    1. yep. Same thing. I have a massive vocabulary, but make your sentence structure too complex, and hit me with too many Sunday words, and I think you’re trying to impress me, rather than entertain me.
      Yeah, some people make it look easy — John wright comes to mind — but most people who are trying to write “literary”?
      I CAN SEE THEM SWEAT. It’s not attractive.

      1. Why I quit reading John Updike. Every sentence screamed, “Look how clever I am!”

      2. I honestly just don’t like literary as a style. It makes me feel like I am standing on my head.

        1. Its -boring-. They’re spending weeks with each “finely crafted sentence” and the result is me saying to the book: “Okay dude, I get that Main character is a depressed douchebag who cheats on his girlfriend, is anything going to HAPPEN here?”

          Flipping through chapters waiting for something to happen, finding some torture parts and skipping those, finding some sex scenes and skipping those, you get to the end of the book really fast.

          That’s literary.

    2. I did the looking up words thing when I read Dragonflight, my first english fantasy (Dragons on the cover=fantasy) book. Worked like a charm, not nearly as many new words when I got to Dragonquest.

      1. I’ve hoped that the person looking up those words was doing it as a way to learn more English vocabulary because they were ESL and that at about page 27 they got caught up in the story enough to just read it.

        The idea of someone just giving up is so sad.

        1. For me there was a rather sharp threshold.
          After two weeks in an international school, writing down every unknown word in “sorta-phonetics” and going home to look them up, I only encountered about 2-3 new words every day. I still looked them up cause new words are cool.

          The exeption was the word “ubiquitous” that I encountered every few months for a couple of years without looking it up or understanding it. I recall a sentence along the lines of “the ubiquitous Cindy Crawford” which was when I decided that the word was something people threw in there to sound more erudite or up to day.

          1. “I recall a sentence along the lines of “the ubiquitous Cindy Crawford” which was when I decided that the word was something people threw in there to sound more erudite or up to day.”

            Penultimate… and I swear I can never remember what the *real* definition is.

                  1. I know that. I had for a long time had a recollection of someone using the line “her antepenultimate (something)” Then someone posted the song from which those lines come:

                  2. Let us leave “preantepenultimate” as an exercise for the readers.

                    Besides, they have search engines.

      2. That’s how I’ve learned geologic German, and architectural German. The things you don’t learn in college German.

      3. Ditto. I did it at 14 with Dandelion Wine, my first non-abridged book. Took me 3 months to read. Next book took a month. Next one a week. And then I was flying.

  8. In one Big Book o’ Story Writing Advice I read way back when there was a term the author called “narrative drive” which was defined as that quality of a story that made the reader want to see how the story ends, even if the story was so bad that the reader periodically threw the book against the wall. I imagine narrative drive would also factor into a book’s sale-ability… although ratings of “horrible story but I had to see how it ended” are probably not the low bar of success one should aim for.

  9. “Books that sell well are easy to read.”

    Mickey Splaine, Donald Hamilton, Robert Heinlein, Robert E. Howard, Larry Correia,
    Ilona Andrews, Marion Harmon, Patricia Briggs, Modean Moon, Steven F. Havill, E. M. Foner, and the list goes on.

        1. And he breaks the rules about covers. The entire series has the same scene done in different colors.

          His Union Station books are light, easy reads about aliens and humans and robots. Nothing deep but fun SF.

          1. Reminds me, I need to check whether there is a new one out.

            The covers did change at about number three or four, from the bar scene to the “what does she have written on the back of her dress this time.”

            Does make them distinctive, but harder to tell whether you’ve already seen that one or not.

  10. What is easy? I have a decent vocabulary, for an ESL, but I struggle with certain books despite the language not being chock-full of strange words. I’ve made several false starts with Peter F Hamilton’s “The reality dysfunction.” now, and my tentative conclusion is that my vocabulary is better than my ability to process concepts. More words than smarts, aint it sad.

    1. This is going to post weird because I’m on the downstairs computer, so, if it has a weird handle, it’s still me, Sarah.
      Misha, while those are useful, and are covered by my first comment here, they’re ALL — all of them — copyedit issues. Every single blessed one. Not writer issues.
      So he’s obsessing about poor copyediting, which is fine, BUT it could be covered under “get a good copyeditor.”
      I also wonder if he applies the same standards to trad pub books, because I had the exact same issues with them.

      1. Interesting. I consider those all to be issues for the writer, having never had a copyeditor. I suppose it would be easier to write if I could afford to pay someone to fix my mistakes.

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