How to Sell 10,000 Copies of a Book

Brennan Morton published DYING FOR STRANGERS only on Amazon, and despite zero publicity sold 30 books a day over the first several months.

Brennan Morton published DYING FOR STRANGERS only on Amazon, and despite zero publicity sold 30 books a day over the first several months.

In my 20 years at Publications International, I edited books that generated more than $15 million in revenue. They never made the literary circles, but they did stack high on tables at Costco and Sam’s Club—and to a lesser extent they lined the shelves at Borders and Barnes & Noble. We were in the “bargain book business”; i.e., we published attractive coffee table books on subjects with wide popularity—Players of Cooperstown,America’s Lighthouses—and sold them for a relatively low price. They often made nice gifts for Junior on his birthday or Grandpa on Father’s Day. We’d easily sell 10,000 copies of a book, and sometimes we’d sell in the hundreds of thousands. My book The Love of Baseball sold close to 300,000 copies.

Unfortunately for Publications International, people don’t buy bargain books anymore. They’ve lost their wow factor in this era of smartphones, tablets, and online videos. Every publisher struggles to sell books nowadays, and 10,000 copies is usually an unreachable goal.

But it can be done, and you don’t need to be an established author to pull it off.

One way is to choose a subject that’s immensely popular and strike when the time is right. Triumph Books, which specializes in sports, struck gold with books on New Direction, which hit stores just as the boy band was rising up the charts and girls’ hormones were raging. These books were by far Triumph’s biggest sellers in recent years.

Another example is Derek Jeter #2: Thanks for the Memories, authored by my colleague David Fischer. David understood that a tribute book on the legendary shortstop would sell like hot dogs at a Yankees game if it came out around his retirement. Yankees fans would want a keepsake of their hero, and—since he would retire in the fall—it would make a perfect Christmas gift. Fischer pitched the idea to publishers about a year in advance of DJ’s retirement, and Skyhorse bought it. The advance was low but the royalties were high, because the book sold more than 10,000 copies from October 2014 to January 2015.

Now, a traditional publisher won’t just let any shmoe write their books. Fischer, for example, already had several baseball books under his belt, including tomes on the Yankees. You typically need to be a skilled writer and build a body of work before a publisher will put its faith in you. However, if you have a great idea and a winning proposal, you could consider partnering with an established author. You’ve got the goods; they’ve got the cred.

Through rare, it’s also possible to sell thousands of copies of a self-published book. Recently I edited the raw manuscript of Dying for Strangers: Memoirs of a Special Ops Operator in Iraq. Author Brennan Morton, a highly descriptive writer, provides little-known, fascinating insight into the Iraq War. Here he describes his emotions after a general told his platoon to, for PR and political reasons, release Iraqi aggressors: “Fat tears burned down my cheeks as I gripped the steering wheel so tightly I thought the tiny bones in my hands would finally shatter. I cried so hard that I could hardly see the road. My anger choked me until I gasped and screamed as the men seated around me dealt with the anger in their own way.”

Brennan not only enchants readers with his writing ability and subject matter, he also writes to a large, underserved audience: those searching for unfiltered truth about U.S. military operations. Brennan published the book only on Amazon, and despite zero publicity he was selling about 30 books a day over the first several months. In other words, he was on a 10,000-a-year pace.

Writing skills. Subject Matter. Timing. If you get it all right, you could be on your way to 10,000 copies.

Make More of Beginnings: Falling in Love

As writers, we’re so often told that the beginning of our story is make or break. It’s what we show our critique groups, our workshops, and agents when we query. It’s the first thing that readers see; it’s the first chance that they have to fall in love.

I want to look at this idea of falling in love with a story literally. Structurally. Because if it’s true that we fall in love with stories, that can tell us a lot about how to make our beginnings work.

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The other night, I was watching the movie Music and Lyrics. As the two characters in this romcom got to know each other, they revealed little bits of their personalities and their pasts, leaving larger questions open. There were little mysteries, patterns, things that we knew would resurface. (Her current employment as a plant waterer had to have a backstory—right? He was definitely going to do the cute eighties dance move again—right?) These two wanted to know more about each other. They had to see each other again, to find out what happens next. Every time the characters talked to each other, they were building a relationship, and even within the neat timeline of a romcom, they couldn’t do it all at once. They were leading each other forward, step by step. That’s not just how we fall in love with each other. That’s how we fall into a fictional world.

At the beginning of a story, a writer can’t unload everything on the reader all at once. That results in dreaded info dumps. Instead of thinking of the beginning as the place where you have to makeeverythinghappenrightnow, try thinking of it as a first date. I think there are two elements of a successful first date that mirror the balance that we strive for in a story opening.

First—there’s what you put in to your beginning. That’s like the first date itself. The events (plot), the chemistry of the people involved (characters), the conversation, (voice), the physical attraction (maybe that’s about genre, or premise—I don’t know, but I could do this extended metaphor thing all day!)

How do we make the all-important decision of what to put in, though? This is where the individual story comes in, as well as writing style and taste. Often when we hear the “rules” of how you’re supposed to start a story, they feel flat, prescriptive. Imagine if you tried to follow the steps in a first date manual in order to find true love. The process has to be organic and personal—it’s about what you and your story bring to the table that no one else can. Focus on what makes your story unique. I’ve heard a hundred times never to start with a long description of setting in kidlit—and then there the opening of Tuck Everlasting. We’re often warned to get straight to the story, but there are so many great books that start with character-focused monologues. Anything can work—if it’s what makes your story special, what pulls the reader in and leaves them enchanted, delighted, a little bit in love.

And then there’s the second element of the date, which is a little more intangible. It’s what you’re leaving out. The more I read, the more I’m convinced that we are sucked into stories by little mysteries. This is the not the mystery genre I’m talking about—I mean any question that the narrative plants in our minds. The same is true with people. After the first date, we might like what we know—but we have to want to know more!

Recently, I read an interview with the YA author Laini Taylor, author of the Daughter of Smoke and Bone series. She admitted that when she started out writing about her main character, she knew that Karou had blue hair and hamsas on her hands, but she didn’t know why. She was writing to find out what happened next. The beginning was about what Taylor didn’t know—and now those same questions pull readers into her story in huge numbers. (And yes, get them to fall in love!)

Make Your Prose “Pacey”: How to Engage with Expectation, Silence, and Surprise

“The prose needs better pacing, better rhythm” How do you begin to solve that kind of intangible issue? If chunks of your prose feel dull or plodding, consider Ze Frank’s words about the “rhythmic trinity.” Ze Frank is not a writer, but he is an endlessly creative maker and humorist. His groundbreaking 2006 vlog “The Show” profoundly influenced current mega-hit vloggers like John and Hank Green. In Ze’s 3:23 video about “the rhythmic trinity of expectation, silence, and surprise,” he talks about how that trinity helped his music–and how it applies to humor in the classic joke’s setup, pause, and punchline:

“Watching younger comics, you can learn a lot by seeing what’s broken. They might be good at building expectation and delivering surprise, but they haven’t figured out silence yet, and they blast through their lines so fast you don’t have room to laugh. Or they’re all surprise and pauses without building any patterns for the audience to relax into. When it’s all surprise, it stops being a surprise. The craft of it is in the matter of all three: expectation, silence, surprise.” 

Writers use expectation, silence, and surprise to create rhythm on both the micro, sentence-to-sentence level and the macro, story level. I’ll save story for a later blog. Right now, I’ll talk about how the rhythmic trinity works on the ground, in your actual prose.

 

Expectation: Ze says that creating expectation means building patterns for the audience to relax into. So that might mean

  • A stretch of quick-paced dialogue popping along
  • A series of sentences of similar length, which can create a nice train-wheel rhythm
  • A series of short action paragraphs
  • A series of brief descriptive passages that take us (for example) from the exterior of the house to the interior
  • Any of these creates a certain expectation, one you can then have fun disrupting.

Silence:

  • Slow down prose with a lingering descriptive passage,
  • Give any moment more air and breath by using a longer sentence, especially one that follows a series of short, brisk sentences of roughly the same length.
  • Insert a sudden break into the dialogue, in which one person literally falls silent

Surprise: 

  • Sometimes breaking a short sentence out in its own own paragraph makes it more arresting
  • Zoom in on a tiny physical detail—or zoom out suddenly to a bird’s eye view of your scene
  • Insert a bit of new information that turns the scene on its head 

How It Might Work (A Brief, Highly Simplified, and Pedestrian Example)

He said, “I tried.”

I said, “Not hard enough.”

He said, “But I can’t try harder.”

I said, “Well, you you have to.”

He said, “You’re asking too much.”

I said, “I’m asking for what you promised.”

[So now we’ve set up the expectations.]

And then, without warning, as if something had just occurred to him, or as if he’d had a sudden and interesting idea, he frowned and glanced up at the ceiling.  for a moment, his eyes rolled up even higher, till I could see their whites. [that string of clauses functioned as a kind of silence or hesitation] 

Then he fell face down on the table, quite dead.

[there’s the surprise element, made more surprising by the new paragraph]

More on using the rhythmic trinity on big story issues in my next blog. Meanwhile, I’d love to hear more ways you play with rhythm and pacing in your sentences.

 

Make More of Voice: Where Language Meets Character

Voice is one of the most difficult things to talk about in writing. We often hear that it is mysterious and impossible to define–a matter of instinct and intuition and writerly magic.

 And while that all sounds nice, it leaves us with the problem that voice is still very much a part of writing craft. I love coming up with the voice of a new story, and while it’s true that some of it does happen by instinct, there are also distinct choices that I make as I go.

I make word lists in my head. What words does my character love? What words would my character never use? A character who uses the word “eat” and one who would say “gorge” are not the same person.

Are there parts of speech that stick out as important? I’ve had characters whose verbs are always strong and active, characters who are very noun-driven, focused on what’s in front of them. Characters who have adjectives for everything in their pockets, and others whose language is stripped down to the barest essentials.

Making these decisions is not arbitrary—they’re hugely telling about who this person is, and how they see the world, how they interact with it. Does your character ask endless questions? Some are always declarative. Others need to wander a bit and look around at the scenery, taking a roundabout and metaphorical path before getting to the point.

Voice tells us about individual personality, but it also relates to groups and identities. There are anchors in where a person comes from, how old they are, what social class they’re a part of, how they were raised and educated. It’s an indicator of their interests, their obsessions.

It’s also a powerful way to reveal relationship. What words and rhythms of speech does this character use in dialogue? How does it shift when the person is the more powerful one in the exchange? The less powerful one? How does the language change when he or she is in love?

In the story I’m currently working on, there is an omniscient narrator, which throughout the story becomes inflected with different voices. MANY different voices. Whenever I drop into a scene, I need to remember how my character talks, how my character thinks and relates to others. I have one character who prefers short sentences. One who has a hard time not being vague. One who loves to swear and use brisk metaphors. Another who tends toward the lyrical, the lilting, the poetic. All of these things are more than just choices to keep them distinct in my head. They’re ways that I get to show character.

We always say this—show, don’t tell. But often, I think we forget that one of the easiest and most basic ways to show character is through the use of language. It’s right there on the page, whispering to the reader about who a person is.

Maybe voice IS a kind of magic. But it’s one that we get to control even as we channel it onto the page.

What Spell-Checkers Don’t Catch

By Yellow Bird Editor David Aretha

Before I edit a manuscript, I always inform the author that I’ll be checking the text for spelling. “That’s something you can skip,” one author told me. “I already ran it through the spell-checker.”

Ah, yes, the infallible spell-checker, invented in the 1970s and honed to perfection over the decades by multi-billion-dollar software companies. Given that a flash drive the size of a Bic lighter can safely store ten thousand book manuscripts, surely the spell-checker is bullet-proof when it comes to recognizing all the words in the dictionary.

Well, it isn’t. For example, it didn’t catch multi-billion and bullet-proof in the previous paragraph, which should be multibillion and bulletproof.

Unfortunately, the spell-checker is about as effective as this winter’s flu virus. It catches simple words and correctly leaves misspelled ones underlined in red, but it sheepishly tiptoes out of the room whenever it comes to certain compound words.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, the word bible that most book publishers follow, loves to smash compound words together. According to this dictionary (and others), many words that we think are open compounds or hyphenated compounds are actually closed compounds. According to Merriam-Webster,boarding house—which slides through the spell-checker unscathed—is actually boardinghouse. The spell-checker will give the green light to first-hand, even though M-W spells it firsthand. When authors look at my edited manuscript, they are often surprised to see that I changed the spellings of dozens of their compound words in order to adhere to Merriam-Webster.

If you’re looking to self-publish without hiring a professional editor—or you want to appear as professional as possible when you submit your manuscript to a publisher—you should scroll through M-W and get a sense of all the smushed-together compound words. You’ll find stomachacheschoolteacher, andtransatlantic.

I have long come to the realization that I should scrutinize all hyphenated and open compound words. If I think such words have even a remote chance of being closed compounds, I drop them into the search box of www.merriam-webster.com. Very often, my hunch is correct.

Below are some surprising closed compound words, according to the publishing world’s favorite dictionary. You don’t need to memorize these spellings, but I suggest you take two minutes to study the patterns. You’ll see, for example, that counter- and -up words may not always have a hyphen, and that the spellings of waitperson and congressperson indicate that other job+person words are also closed compounds.

absentmindedness

afterburner

antiaircraft

beachcomber

bedsheet

bloodsucker

bookmobile

bullheaded

butterfingers

cheesecloth

concertgoer

congressperson

counterclockwise

counteroffensive

counterrevolution

countertop

crackerjack

crewmen

cubbyhole

deathbed

deathblow

extracurricular

farmhouse

flashlight

footlocker

freestanding

freethinker

freshwater

gearshift

ghostwriter

gumdrop

gunpowder

hairdresser

halfhearted

handcart

hardheaded

headfirst

headgear

homeowner

hotbed

icebreaker

jobholder

kindhearted

landfall

laughingstock

levelheaded

lifelong

lighthearted

longtime

makeup

matchbook

moneymaker

mouthwatering

officeholder

offshore

openhanded

otherworldly

outdistance

overabundance

overaggressive

overcompensate

overgeneralization

painkiller

pawnshop

pigheaded

pincushion

plainclothes

plaything

policyholder

praiseworthy

racecourse

racetrack

ringleader

roundabout

rumrunner

saltwater

sandblast

schoolhouse

seacoast

secondhand

shipbuilding

shorthanded

shortsighted

sledgehammer

sleepwalking

stepdaughter

stockbroker

straightforward

summertime

sundress

sunup

tagline

thundershower

townspeople

troublemaker

turnaround

underdeveloped

underemphasize

uppermost

waistline

waitperson

washtub

wavelength

weatherproof

wholehearted

windowpane

windowsill

workstation

waitperson