On Writing,  publishing

Sales vs People vs Artistic Freedom

Sales: A Horrible Way to Think About Readers…

That’s my opinion and I wish I could say I always believed that, but I would be lying. When I was working traditional publishing, I only looked at sales numbers, copies shipped, and numbers on royalty statements.

About eight or nine years ago, right at the start of the indie movement, I did yet another count of the numbers of books I had sold.

Just over seventeen million.

That’s right, I had seventeen million copies of my books in print as of eight or so years ago. And I have been selling steadily since. Both the traditional books still sell and my indie books chug right along as well.

No clue what that number is now because in the last five years it suddenly dawned on me what that number meant. Seventeen million people had bought my books at one point or another.

People. Not numbers. People.

People spending money.

Since I realized a sale was a person, I have stopped counting. Now my focus is on the readers on the other side of the screen. And Kris and I teach that focus a great deal in our workshops. An awareness of the reader.

So now back to the topic of artistic freedom and the choice that many writers make to write to a market.

Money drives that choice. Money gets into the front part of any creative process and colors it like a bad stain. Impossible to get out once let into any project.

Now I love that writers have the artistic freedom these days to convince themselves they know more about publishing than anyone else and write what they think is selling.

Selling equals sales numbers.

Sales numbers equal money in your bank.

And if it works, good for those writers. And if they can maintain it for longer than few years, even better for them. Talked all about that in previous posts on this topic.

So now, the same writers who write for money give a ton of lip service to making sure readers are happy, telling readers about their books, and so on. You know… self-promotion.

So on one hand indie writers push sales while on the other hand they talk about readers. Not necessarily mutually exclusive, but conflicted.

But I don’t think many writers, especially those chasing “markets” with their artistic freedom, actually understand what a sale means.

For example, I heard a writer the other day complain that he had only thirty sales on a new book in its first month. I said nothing.

But I really, really wanted to get thirty people to line up in front of that writer, be happy about buying his book, and hand him their money for his book. I really wanted him to see what thirty sales really meant.

It meant that one person, one human being per day liked what he had done enough to spend hard-earned money on it.

And this writer was complaining. Luckily, none of those readers could hear him being ungrateful for their support.

So, in my opinion, artistic freedom gives a writer the freedom to write for money or to write for love. Sometimes, on a project or two, the two cross, but rarely.

There was a great comment on a post a few back. This writer was quoting another writer who said basically they write for an audience of one. That audience is themselves.

Yup, I have made the artistic choice to write to entertain myself. I put the story out for sale when done, but honestly, the reason I write is to create worlds and characters that no one else is creating and entertain myself in the process.

So do I let those seventeen million readers who have bought my books into my creation process? Nope. I cherish the fact that they supported my writing in that way over the decades.

But I write for only me.

Not for money, not for readers, not for anything else. My artistic choice is to entertain myself.

Surprisingly to the old traditional writer in me, that’s more than enough.



  • Vera Soroka

    I want to write what I love and entertain myself but I also want to make money at it. I always aspire to those artists that make a living from their chosen art. They did it through hard work and persistence. I don’t see anything wrong with wanting to make money from your art as long as you don’t lose the focus of why you are doing it in the first place.
    If you chase a trend, I think you will burn out and end up killing your dream.

    • dwsmith

      Nothing at all wrong with wanting to make money from your art. Nothing at all. Never said there was.

      And I am not saying that for the short term writers can pretend they know marketing and write to market. It’s artistic choice.

      All I am saying that for long term, to make a living for a long term, if you write what you love you will be better served in my opinion. Writing to market almost always seem to burn out a writer and hurt writing skill and advancement.

  • Elise M Stone

    Sometimes I think you forget what it was like to be a relatively new writer, where each sale (and dollar) is of major importance. That author who sold 30 books in the first month–how much did he earn from that? $100? $150? A professional cover and proofreader probably cost him more than that. So he’s still in the red, when he was probably hoping to pay a bill or put aside some money for that vacation he hasn’t taken in five years.

    And it’s not like you didn’t write to market in the not-so-distant past. What are all those Star Trek novels? Sure, you’re a fan, but I’m pretty sure the income from them went to pay the bills. When you’ve sold over seventeen million books and have a steady income from all your hard work over the years, you can afford to make choices based on artistic preference.

    I also don’t think writers ever forget those readers who buy their books. We’re grateful for every single one of them. At least, most of us are. I’ve got a very few loyal fans, and it still thrills me every time one of them writes that they can’t wait for the next book. But the books most of them are waiting for are ones I decided to write because I thought they’d sell better than the first series I started that began with a book of the heart. Sometimes they have and sometimes they haven’t. Which is ironic, of course. But I don’t regret starting the second series at all, even though it wasn’t a purely artistic choice.

    • dwsmith

      Haven’t been reading these posts, huh? (grin) Just reacted to what someone told you was in it. So I will pretend to not be insulted by your condescending comment.

    • dwsmith

      Elise said…”When you’ve sold over seventeen million books and have a steady income from all your hard work over the years, you can afford to make choices based on artistic preference.”

      Want a real number, Elise, from what I made this last year from those 17 million books? I know exactly because I get royalty statements from the ones still in print. $18.62 cents. For the entire year.

      Three years ago I started into indie with a bunch of short stories and one novel. Nothing else. Nothing. I make my living from my writing because I write more than most, I’m a decent storyteller, and I write what I love.

      You really need to read the posts before you go popping off. (grin)

    • dwsmith

      Sorry, everyone, for letting that Elise post through. Normally posts like that I just spam. Just wanted to show you all the kinds of letters I get all the time, both in comments and in email. And I got to respond to this one with sort of what I was thinking, which I thought some of you might enjoy as well. I tempered it and didn’t laugh as much.

      I just wish I knew who the “us” is she is going on about. (grin)

      • Becca

        This is SUCH a strong reaction on her part. I’m a bit speechless. Thank you for wading through whatever-this-is to bring the rest of *US* a pragmatic perspective on writing, the creative process, and publishing.

      • Kate Pavelle

        Hi Dean,

        I am not sorry you let Elise’s post through, and I am sorry it hit you in such a bad way. I think you have worked hard enough to elevate yourself to a position of both ideological and economic privilege over the last few years. In this you are an inspirational figure and a valued teacher.
        But please, I beseech you, don’t take it personally that many of us aren’t there yet, and are willing to say so in public. Instead of boring you with sales numbers, let me propose the following concept:

        *** Ideological purity ***

        You are on one way of the spectrum: “Write what you love and if people don’t like it, too bad. Keep doing it anyway and people will eventually come and discover you.” This runs counter to what I hear from the other camp: “If you don’t write to market like I do, quit bitching over poor sales. If you just bit the bullet and wrote what your readers want, you’d make a living.”

        I respectfully submit that most of us are somewhere in-between those two diametrically opposite positions. Just like in politics or diet or exercise, there is no such thing as being ideologically pure. The very concept quashes discussion of how to make things a little better.

        As for me, I won’t apologize for writing either kind of a book, and I won’t apologize to either camp. Lots of us who are inspired by what you have to say, Dean, still struggle the way you have struggled. Having my writing cover new tires or a part of my kid’s college tuition is an achievement I take pride in, and yes, I am grateful to every single individual reader who spent *their* hard-earned money to be entertained by me. I’m thrilled it happened by me writing something people want to read.

        P.S. I have released 13 titles in 2016, and will be up to 14 or 15 before the year is done. The 4 that are to-market constitute 85% of my earnings to date. That’s the bad news. The good news is, they saved me from having to get a third job.

        • dwsmith

          Elise’s post didn’t hit me at all. Normally I just shrug at posts like that, but thought it would be fun to let it through and respond.

          I would never take anything personally. Trust me, I’ve had some pretty good enemies over the decades. New writers don’t bother me when they try to pull me down to their level.

          And if I took it personally that people weren’t at some imaginary perceived level that people think I am at, I sure wouldn’t be spending a ton of time trying to help newer writers with workshops. I like helping writers who want to be helped. And I don’t expect people to do things my way. I just put out the information.

          So no worries and I honestly didn’t need the lecture.

          What puzzles me is why everyone thinks I don’t understand the problems of being a newer writer, or a writer not making much money. I went seven straight years and never sold a thing. Trust me, you don’t forget that. I had my career burn out from writing for money and disappear to the point I had to go do something else for money. Trust me, you never forget that.

          Yet newer writers lecture me all the time about how hard they have it. Newer writers don’t know hard.

  • G

    I think this post touches on a number of super interesting topics.

    The first is being grateful for every single sale and realizing what a privilege it is to have anyone care what we write. It’s easy to forget.

    I still remember how I felt over decades of writing when NOBODY wanted to read my stuff–not even a single person gave a hoot. And then for a long time it was just an agent and maybe an editor who then said “not for me.”

    I came into self-publishing in 2010 when it was still so new and I didn’t expect to get many sales. When I sold like five or ten books, I was beyond thrilled. I couldn’t sleep for a month! (This was before I switched to writing to market)

    I wish I still had the perspective to find that gratitude, but after years of selling lots of books, I honestly don’t keep that in mind much, which is a damn shame.

    The other point you’ve made is about pleasing readers. I actually feel like the way I personally write to market is that my own interests and wants and needs are basically nonexistent. I try to get in the minds of my audience, see what they enjoy and respond to, and give them as much of that as possible. So in that sense, I really do care about the reader–but it’s more of a global sense of “caring.” I care en masse, that I’m reaching and fulfilling what they want.

    As far as pleasing myself with my work, I can’t say that it was much of a goal. Although I always tried to find ways to express my own sensibilities when I could, I knew that overall my main goal was to give the audience what it wanted, and try to find the place in myself where I could connect and draw on my own emotions and life experience to make that feel real for the reader.

    I’m proud of my “written to market” books and I’ve sold a lot of copies and made a lot of money. I still am, six years on.

    But…and it’s a big but…I don’t really enjoy or have much of a taste for writing anymore. I do it and I’m competent at it and the lifestyle it affords me is amazing. I love the business and find it fascinating.

    However, I don’t really enjoy and don’t feel entertained by my own work.

    So that’s where I feel that over time I have come around to a lot of what you say regarding writing for yourself. I’m just also fairly certain if I’d continued writing the stuff I enjoyed, I wouldn’t have had the financial and business success I ended up having by writing to a large market and delivering what I knew they wanted.

    • Teri Babcock

      Thank you for your frank comment, G. I think not very many writers are willing to be honest when they no longer enjoy their own writing, even when anonymous. My sense is that despite the cost, you don’t regret your choice and would make the same decision again.
      I have a question, if you’re willing to answer: do you know how long or have a goal for how long you’ll continue writing?

      • G

        Hey Teri.

        It’s strange because in a sense I’ve already stopped writing my “to market” books for the most part. I think I’ve only written a couple of them in the last 8-12 months. I have a few more to do to wrap up some series, and then…who knows?

        But as a part of my business, although I may not write entire books, I do tend to write scenes and sometimes entire chunks of books. So I continue to write, in part, as the way of making money and conducting my business. It’s just more of a side note, whereas before writing was the entirety of what I did.

        I don’t regret my choices at all. But that doesn’t mean there was no cost. There is a tradeoff to everything, and I think perhaps the tradeoff to some of my choices has taken me away from writing, and away particularly from the kinds of books that I grew up reading and loving…

  • Linda Jordan

    Thanks for this Dean. I’ve been doing an experiment this summer and fall, along with a group of other writers, and selling our paper books at bookstore events, craft fairs and other spots. Sales have been lacking,, thanks to the election year, we believe. Six to eight hours and half of us will sell maybe one book each, or none.Then I’d go home feeling dejected, because no one wanted my books, and have to find a way to keep all that garbage out of my writing. We won’t be doing this again. Last weekend though, we hit a sweet spot and I sold seven books. To five different people, many of them were very excited teens. It felt glorious.

    What you wrote hits home. It’s amazing to see actual people in front of you who paid cash to read your book. We just don’t get that connection when we’re uploading files to Amazon, Kobo, iBooks, etc. Even when we get some money dropped in our bank accounts.
    Thanks for your blog, once again!

    • dwsmith

      Yeah, amazing when a “sale” equates to a real person. But you are right, craft fairs and bookstores seldom are worth the time.

      Sadly, if you thought about the writing (that would last for seventy years past your death) you might have gotten done in those hours sitting waiting for someone to come by, you realize just how not worth it things like that are.

      • Martin L. Shoemaker

        I often envy visual artists. They can sit at those craft fairs and bookstores drawing; and customers will stop by to watch! Creating new art in public potentially grows their audience.

        Me? If I sit at the table and write, customers will walk by as if I’m not there. Maybe they’ll be curious why that guy’s typing at the table, but not for long enough to stop.

  • Big Ed Magusson

    Our comics site relies on Patreon and that’s a great reminder of the people supporting us. It’s not a sales number. It’s a list of supporters by name. Hard to overlook

  • J.M. Ney-Grimm

    But I really, really wanted to get thirty people to line up in front of that writer, be happy about buying his book, and hand him their money for his book.

    I love that image! Going forward, I’m going to use it when I do the bookkeeping each month. 😀

  • Chong Go

    Thanks for the great post, Dean! In addition to the power that gratitude has to make everything in life better, it makes sense that if we don’t love what we’re writing, why would anyone else? There’s a UK antiques program called “Salvage Hunters,” and the owner of the business made an interesting comment in passing, “I never started to make real money until I started buying what I enjoy, what makes me smile.” I can’t imagine that writing’s any different.

    • dwsmith

      Yeah, on the collecting side, I have the same exact feeling. I have no interest in china and glass and a bunch came in, three tubs of it. Billy just took it for free from this person and said something about it and I shrugged. I couldn’t care if he just tosses it away. He doesn’t much care either, but across the parking lot is a store that specializes in that sort of thing.

      But we got a wonderful collection of comics a few weeks back and I paid a bunch for them, drove hours to get them, and loaded them myself, all the while excited. I love comics. The work with comics didn’t matter. There might be a fortune in those tubs of glass, I would complain carrying them to the garbage. (grin)

      Money makes no difference, it is what I love. So yes, a perfect example of this entire thing. Might be a good post, actually. (grin)