On Writing,  publishing,  Topic of the Night

Topic of the Night: Blaming the Reader

Topic of the Night: Blaming the Reader

I got a letter from a very angry person about how his books weren’t selling at all and it was all because readers were too stupid and couldn’t find his books in all the crap on Amazon.

Now normally, I just laugh and delete letters like that as hopeless. With this person, I should have done that, but instead I wrote him back a letter basically saying that the readers were never at fault, more than likely it was his covers or blurbs or writing. He might not like what I would say, but I offered to look at them if he sent a link.

Yeah, you know what’s coming just like I did, but alas, I had to see if I was right or not. Call it standing in front of an oncoming train just to see the pretty light.

He sent me the links.

And I looked.

Oh, I never should have, but I did look, heaven help me.

He was doing everything he could completely wrong for discoverability, including only having five or six books. Everything he did was aimed at making sure no reader would pick up the book.

Not kidding..

Let me list some of the problems…

For fiction books, he had taken photos of mostly naked women himself (clearly) and put them on the covers, with no design at all. None.  Title in bad font and his name in bad font.

Blurbs were as you would expect, dead dull and passive.

He had them shelved in genres like mystery and thriller and so on, not in porn where they clearly belonged (from the cover at least).

I opened up three of the books, and there was no design on the inside, not even a title page, other than the first words you read were “Smashwords Edition.” And this was on Amazon.

And his stories started with people talking, nothing else. White room. And normally I never see typos, but the openings were riddled.

So except for the typos, I told him all this.

I got back a letter still blaming the readers, that too many books were being published, and that readers could never find his work. That he was proud of his work and his covers and that was that.

So, as I expected, I should have deleted the letter with a laugh instead of wasting my time on someone with no hope at all.

But this attitude of blaming the readers sort of stuck with me.

Folks, let me be blunt right here. It’s not the reader’s fault your books are not selling.

Writer/publisher carry all the responsibility completely.


Here are main reasons your books don’t sell even a few copies.

… Your covers looks like they were done by an indie writer. (And you haven’t even bothered to imitate with your covers the cover of a bestselling book in your genre. That would be study and you would never want to do that, right?)

… Your blurbs boringly tell the plot of the story instead of actively telling the readers why they should read the story.

… Your openings start with no depth, meaning no character, nothing, and putting that in on page three or ten won’t help you. Readers will never see it.

… You have too few titles out to trigger any sort of discoverability and readers following you.

… You think you know how to write because your English teacher praised something you wrote so have not bothered to take any craft classes or even read any books to learn how to be a better storyteller. After all, your words are golden.

… You haven’t spent any time or effort letting the larger world know your books are even there outside your few Facebook and Twitter friends.

… And even worse, you put your book in the wrong area, wrong genre, with bad tags, so even if someone does find it, they would never buy it. Ever.

And so on… like you are too cheap to find a copyeditor.

Folks, readers are never, ever to blame. If you don’t have the amount of sales you want, take a hard, cold look at what you are doing to not attract readers.

For example…

— If you only have a few titles, just put your head down and keep writing and learning covers and blurbs and better storytelling.

— If you have over twenty titles out, how many are branded with each other? Covers, blurbs professional or do they give away plot? Or are under three names?

— Have you had someone else read your book and tell you what it is? Authors never know what they wrote. None of us do. So have someone tell you what you wrote and listen to them and get the book on the right shelf.

— Get word out to more places. If you draw a blank on this past Facebook, Twitter, your newsletter, and Goodreads, you have found one reason right there.

— And lastly, are your expectations in the right place on sales? Are you selling enough to get a 10% ROI and still upset?

When you find yourself making some excuse about how hard it is to get your books found these days, or how readers don’t appreciate your little niche or things like that, step back and shift that blame squarely where it belongs.

Back on you.

The fun of this new world is that you are in control.

You can’t blame others if you are in control. You can only look at your own business and figure out the problem and move forward.

Just saying…


  • Irina

    Wow… And even if everything is done professionally, the reader is still not to blame. For what? For taste? For interests and lack thereof? Nobody owes me to like my stories. I owe nobody to like theirs.

    • dwsmith

      Exactly, Irina. Taste is a critical things when it comes to what readers like and don’t like. There are no perfect books, just perfect books for each reader’s taste.

      But the world is so large that if you do most things correctly, there are enough readers with similar tastes that you should do fine, given time. What I didn’t talk about, of course, is the fact that the guy was in a hurry, wanted it now, thought he deserved it now. This all takes time.

  • J.M. Ney-Grimm

    — If you only have a few titles, just put your head down and keep writing and learning covers and blurbs and better storytelling.


    Something else to consider is the length of your works. No, I don’t mean you should do anything other than let each story be the length that is right for it. But length does affect how well a title sells.

    All of my titles sell at least a few copies, and the readers seem to enjoy them, but the short stories and novellas (or short novels) sell a very few copies.

    Until November 2015, I had only 2 full length novels out. Now I have 4 full length novels out. And the difference in selling rate between my shorter works and the novels is marked. For every ten copies a novel sells, a short story sells one. I suspect the ratio is different for every writer – maybe my shorts just aren’t as good as my novels – but length is a factor.

    I’d been thinking that because I have 19 titles out, I should be seeing an increase in sales. And I am, actually, but not as dramatic an increase as I’d hoped for. Of the 19 titles, 15 are shorter works or collections of shorter works (5 shorts, 7 novellas, 3 collections/anthologies).

    Since I have only the 4 full length novels out, I am clearly in the “head down and writing” mode. 😀

    • dwsmith

      J.M., yeah, about right on the ratio of sales between short and longer works. And collections only sell slightly better than single short stories, even though they are longer.

      But interesting how the math does work on that. 10 five thousand word short stories equals one 50,000 word novel.

      So say you have the novel at $4.99, so you get about $3.50 each sale and sell 10, you get about $35.00

      10 stories, each sells one copy at $2.99, so you get about $2.00 or about $20.00

      You have all ten stories also in a collection selling $5.99 so you get $4.00 and make two sales in the same time period as the others, bringing your total up to $28 for short vs $35 for a novel. Similar.

      But also short fiction helps in the discoverability equation a lot. So the difference in sales value is made up somewhat in value in advertising and free use in promotions and so on. With the ten stories and a novel and a collection, you have 12 points of discoverability. A ton better than one novel.

      • Gnondpom

        And short stories can be sold to magazines, which helps with discoverability with brand new readers. In fact, that’s how I discovered Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s fiction: I read one of her short story in a magazine I subscribe to. I loved it so much that I searched for more of her work, and now I’ve read loads of her novels and short fiction, as well as her non-fiction (and boy I’m I glad I discovered her, I still love reading her words!).

        Oh, and shall I mention her husband’s fiction and non-fiction that I discovered through her blog? (grin)

  • Kristi N.

    Sometimes I will drive myself (more) nuts by looking at the stats on some free practice writing I have up in a very small niche world and wonder why people prefer one story over the other. Is it the story? The writing? The ending? The characters? Then I slap myself upside the head and remind myself that it may just be where their taste is running this month and get back to writing. Small niche world on a free site does not equal eternal judgment on my ability to tell a story. And the only hurry I can allow is the one where I absorb information like a sponge. Listen, learn, assess, adjust. Or as my dad and granddad modeled for many, many years: mouth shut, ears open and let the elders talk. Best and quickest way to learn.

  • David Anthony Brown

    Sort of reminds me of an old John Cleese TV show… Faulty Towers or some title like that. He plays an incompetent hotel owner/manager. Not only does everything go wrong for him, he also lashes out at his own guests. Makes great comedy, but wow in real life such train wrecks are painful to watch.

    At least this writer ranted privately instead of exploding and going down in flames on his blog, give him credit for that. I wish him luck. But, writers just can’t get away with being divas any more than in other professions.

  • Sean Monaghan

    I have around one hundred items up. Smashwords, Kindle, Nook, Kobo, Apple, in print, etc.. Stories. Collections. About fifteen novels. My sales amount to pin money. I’m not giving up the day job anytime soon.

    I circulate stories around the pro mags for about a year before I shift the each story to indie. What I notice is that after a year, my writing has changed so much, that frankly I’d be surprised if anyone would go ahead and put money down for that old dog. (Over the last year especially, much of that change comes from taking courses here).

    My stories from even just a few years back seem like they were written by a different person. Fumbling, enthusiastic, bone dry, unreadable. Some of my early covers look like my worst attempts at competing in a pre-schooler art contest. Blurbs like muddy rivers.
    I have things to do. Go back and redo covers (I’ve took that covers course with Alison). Go back and scratch out those pen names (must be about a quarter of my titles). Go back and write better blurbs (reference: Writing Fiction Sales Copy).

    But also, go forward and write better stories. Make new consistent covers. I know I’m getting better. The process is slow, and I spend most of my time writing new material (goal: ten new novels out this year, ten new novels next year, etc.).

    I’m clear that readers aren’t to blame for my sluggish sales. And I can see a way forward.

  • Chong Go

    I had a good laugh as the image popped into my head, “Stupid readers, not acknowledging my greatness (grumble, grumble)…,” but that reminded me of something I came across years ago.That statement is (or used to be) a key trait on the scale that diagnoses narcissism. To a true narcissist, *everything* is someone else’s fault, and trying to get them to even admit they may have played a role in the failure is like trying to push the south end of two magnets together. It will seem like you’re getting closer, and then they’ll pop off to one side, and then go on about how somehow it was the fault of this other situation. But most of us fall somewhere along this scale, just hopefully not at the further end of it.

    Pretty hopeless in his case, but a great teaching moment for the rest of us who are (hopefully!) in a little better place to take it in.

    I was reading “Heaven Painted as a Cop Car” and loved it! It got me going back through all my Smith’s Monthlys looking for any Ghost of a Chance stories I might have missed. (And I found a couple!)

    • dwsmith

      Thanks, Chong Go. Yeah, I think there have been three Ghost of a Chance novels in Smith’s Monthly issues. And one has Poker Boy with them. I really have fun with that series. So thanks!