The “Why isn’t My Series Selling?” Lament

Every time I see someone asking forum members for help for a poorly selling book or series, I’m tempted to stick my rude two cents in and say “Maybe it just isn’t very good.” I never do, but it’s pretty darn tempting. The beleaguered author lists all the things they’ve done right that should suck readers in and keep them coming back for books two, three and four. Is it really necessary to say that they usually haven’t done everything right? And even if they have, that’s no guarantee of success.

Every so often, I take a look at the book that is supposedly perfect and can see plenty of reasons why readers might not even finish reading it, much less go on to the next one. In this case, the cover was okay, the blurb was too brief for my liking, and wasn’t entirely clear, but we’re trying to find out why people do buy the book, but don’t finish it or enjoy it enough to buy the sequel. I’m well aware that most readers aren’t turned off by poor grammar or typos unless they’re bad enough or frequent enough to be distracting. I was skimming the sample pretty quickly, so I might have missed a few boo boos, but the only thing that really struck me was that invisible bugbear, the repeated word — (“that that”).

So what was the problem? Even a slow start might not be enough to turn readers right off, if it’s a genre they like, and the blurb has led them to expect an interesting story. But this was supposed to be an action novel, with a tough heroine, and it dragged, and the heroine immediately sounded like an idiot. If that wasn’t bad enough, the author was apparently trying for a literary touch, and sprinkled in irrelevant and awkward metaphors when he should have been concentrating on the action. Continuity problems? Oh yes. Like the villain saying he was going to take his time about killing our heroine so she could appreciate it, and then, just a few paragraphs later, saying he was in a hurry to make an appointment and could only take two minutes to finish up this little job.

All of that might not turn the average reader off right away, but it’s a safe bet that the flaws of the first dozen or so paragraphs are going to show up again and again. After a while, a little bell is likely to go off in the reader’s head, and she’s going to notice that something’s rotten in Denmark. All the lame metaphors, and the details that don’t work, will have a cumulative effect just below the conscious level. It’s when they reach consciousness that the reader is likely to sign off.

I read some of the Amazon reviews, noting that only 47% of readers gave the first book five stars. And 16% of only 19 reviews gave it one or two stars. Another 16% gave it three stars. Most of those poor reviews were spot on, even for the short excerpt that I’d read. So maybe the real problem for the author — the most important thing that he did wrong, was to not pay any attention to the reviews.

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10 thoughts on “The “Why isn’t My Series Selling?” Lament

  1. I think you CAN go by your reviews. If most are positive (4-5*), and you have one negative review, a 2*, which is actually better than it appears because the reviewer is very clear about her expectations (which don’t fit the book), then I’d say you’re doing well (that’s out of 18).

    Now if I could just figure out how to get more readers, I’d hope the ratios hold.

    It isn’t that hard, especially for writers, to see that something is clearly wrong. But writers who have put out four books of the same don’t want to hear what’s wrong.

    I use those books – when I run into them – to do a quick check of whether I’ve somehow allowed myself to do the same. Mostly, I’ve already figured out what I can safely ignore from the description, cover, and a couple reviews plus the Look Inside – if I even get that far.

    I’m sure people who look at my books are just as capable of doing the same for their own tastes. I need to figure out how to attract those who share MY tastes.

    I’ve recently come to the conclusion that they are NOT on FaceBook or Foodreads or Wattpad, at least not in quantity. I’ve met wonderful people at all those places – but I’m not catching on. I’ll figure it out.

    1. From my observations, I’d say that a lot of writers really don’t see what is wrong, and don’t even understand that the editors they’ve paid have barely touched on the problems. Reviews can be very illuminating, but writers generally see them individually — as likes or dislikes, and don’t see them as useful critiques. So the writer has several problems besides a lack of insight into his own work — he doesn’t know how to judge the quality of the editing he’s paid for, and he doesn’t know how to take advantage of reviews.

      Facebook seems to be a waste of time for writers unless they’ve already built a large audience. And Wattpad caters mostly to the young and restless. The amount of time that you have to commit to to get anywhere on Wattpad makes it very costly for the return, unless you’re writing in a popular genre.

      1. Those people who can neither write nor see that their writing is BAD are not going to listen to anyone else.

        It’s the people who know they haven’t managed to write fight scenes properly, for example, or do world building, who may benefit from advice or self-study (reading a lot) or the passage of time.

        I started my writing career innocent, took a couple of brief editing sessions with the community college teacher I took a short course, ‘Writing the Mystery,’ with (Mary Elizabeth Allen), and quickly realized that my problem was that the sparkling scenes in my head, in Technicolor, weren’t making it to the page.

        That’s all it took.

        From then on, I would identify a problem, find writing books and blog posts on how to solve that particular problem, and keep trying until I figured out why I needed to do.

        After you’ve covered every possible list of craft components, AND if you have a lifetime of reading the classics and modern books, you find that your writing and your standards start to get closer together.

        Then you branch out into style and voice – and you’re there.

        It has been twenty years of work, 15 on Pride’s Children, and I’m satisfied for now.

        1. “After you’ve covered every possible list of craft components, AND if you have a lifetime of reading the classics and modern books, you find that your writing and your standards start to get closer together.” That’s a big part of the problem. So many people who want to be writers have spent more time watching tv than reading. And they don’t seem to have the capacity to do a deep analysis of the problems. As for their standards …!

          1. I am not going to complain about other people’s standards – I’m not selling mine!

            Hope if I ever take off, it will make a difference.

            So far, when I’ve had PC on sale, I’ve been told it was the best 0.99 novel the reviewer had ever read.

            I’m not sure I’m honored.

            1. Yeah, not sure that’s much of an honor. It seems that .99 has become the hallmark of low quality. Even 1.99 for a full-length novel has degenerated into bargain basement, in readers’ eyes. Trying to keep up with the changes in expectations is one of those things that consumes too much of writers’ attention. I can’t be bothered. If someone doesn’t think my book is interesting enough to pay what I’m asking, so be it. I hardly ever put anything on sale, and only on Smashwords, because they make it easy.

              As a reader, though, I appreciate sales, usually on books I’ve been considering, but that are priced too high.

                1. I don’t have any experience with series, so I didn’t really feel I could comment. But if the first volume can truly stand alone, it would be worth trying. (I hate cliffhangers.) You would still be at the high end for an 80k novel. Not that I like the idea of pricing by amount of content, but it tends to be how readers judge. I often skip books that I would have liked to read, but they are overpriced simply because their authors are so well known that they can demand the higher price. Even if they’re indies.

                  1. Five years from now (I hope), when the whole trilogy is finished, I won’t have to worry about all of this – but right now it’s very hard putting in the effort to finish Book 2 when Book 1 isn’t moving at all.

                    It’s like I’m a fish, and the water has been shocked, and I’m not able to move.

                    I know it’s partly ‘learned helplessness’ and that it is probably temporary and that almost anything I do is better than nothing.

                    It’s just that everything is one-of-a-kind, and I don’t do those well under the best of circumstances (new is much harder than routine), and every single thing on the To Do list requires learning.

                    Aargh!

                    1. That learning curve is a bitch, especially if it isn’t something you’re going to do regularly so that it eventually becomes easier. It’s the necessity of learning one more new thing that I won’t remember the next time that frustrates me the most.

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