Paperback Tailspin

I haven’t quite known how to say this, so I guess I’ll just say it: the paperback sales on Sunborn have been terrible. The worst I’ve ever seen. Distribution is awful—the book isn’t even being stocked by many bookstores I would have expected to carry it, like Borders or my local Barnes and Noble superstore. Or if they carried it, they stocked one copy. Not six or eight, like in old days, but one. How can you launch a book like that?  And why is this happening?

The reasons are legion. And these are just the ones I know about.

For starters, there was a long interruption in my output, and the first three books of the Chaos Chronicles were long out of print. I tried to address this by offering free downloads—and that certainly helped stimulate interest, but clearly not enough. At the time the paperback was published, I was in a family crisis and slow off the mark in doing the usual promotion I would have done. Worse, promotion from the publisher was indifferent, and their declining to bring the first three books back into print spelled trouble.

These are the obvious reasons, but not the only ones.

According to my editor, slumping sales are bedeviling a lot of authors and a lot of mass-market paperback books. The biggest factor is that the distribution of paperbacks has gone to hell—not just in bookstores, but in places like newsstands and drugstores. There used to be hundreds of wholesalers, each knowing their own territories—the guys who drove the trucks and put books on the racks, and who knew from experience what kinds of books tended to sell where. Now it’s all consolidated, with a few huge outfits covering most of the business. And they’re doing it by computer from central locations, making decisions that literally make or break national distribution of a book. Books that once might have found a modest but respectable audience are now cut out of the loop; they simply are not carried by the wholesalers that would get them into points of sale outside the traditional bookstore. As a result, what was once a major avenue of sales—to the casual browser who came into a convenience store looking for soap or a candy bar and stopped to thumb books on a rack—is now limited to the guaranteed bestsellers. So, you can find a book like Sunborn easily enough online, but only if you’re looking for it. Your bookstore can order it, but only if you know to ask for it. But many potential new readers will never see it

Did my posting of free downloads help or hurt? It definitely helped make a lot more people aware of the books. Did it sell books or prevent sales? Will ebook sales make up some of the difference in paperback sales? Without a parallel universe to use as a control, there’s just no way to know. 

“How can I help?” I hear you saying. (Maybe I’m imagining. But let’s assume I’m hearing it.) One thing you can do, of course, is to head to your local bookshop if you haven’t already and pick up a copy—if not for yourself, then for a friend or relative. Another is simply to encourage your local bookstore to carry the book. If you special-order it, that’s one sale. If you can get them to stock a few copies, that could be several sales and a ping on their radar. And tell people. Word of mouth is the most effective single way to promote a book. And only you can do that.

I don’t intend to sit around doing nothing but complain. I’m in the process of rethinking and retooling promotion for the future. More and more these days, that job is left solely to the author (unless you’re already a bestseller and don’t actually need the help.) I have a bunch of ideas, and I’ll be writing about them from time to time and will definitely be interested in your feedback.

“The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the “curiosity” level.” —from the rejection slip for Diary of Anne Frank

0 Responses

  1. Beau
    | Reply

    Sorry to hear about this!
    I just started Neptune Crossing and have really been in to it. It's exactly the kind of scifi I love.

    Found your book on MobileRead a few weeks ago. I appreciate you uploading it there.

    I plan on reading all the books,so I'll head to my bookstore and see if they have it. If not, I'll request they order it!

    Good luck on the sales!

  2. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    Thanks! That's exactly the kind of help I need!

  3. Felix
    | Reply

    Sad to hear that sales don´t go well. I´m following your blog for several years now, having waited long time for Sunborn to come out and thus know how hard you worked on the book. And I realy love it, as I do all of your books which I´ve read so far. And I´m sure there are many many people out there who would too if they just knew about the book. I think to put the first three novels up for free download was a very clever decision and I really expected it to pay off.
    I don´t really know how to address this problem and I imagine the reasons and interests of different parties are numerous. I´m sorry I can´t do much to help as I´m living in Germany and there´s not even a German edition of the book yet.
    I hope you will find ways to improve sales and spread notice of the book!

  4. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    Thanks. I hope there will be a German edition at some point–as there were of the first three books–but that might have to await the completion of the rest of books 4-6. I appreciate your support, though.

  5. Robert
    | Reply

    Disappointing news about the paperback sales. I expect your analysis about the weakness sales channel in general is correct and that gradually online sales will become dominant.

    I purchased a Sunborn on yesterday, and I look forward to reading it on my new Kobo.


  6. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    Great! Let me know what you think! I'd interested in how you like your Kobo, too.

  7. Jeff Quest
    | Reply

    I've really enjoyed your books since I've found your website and am sorry to hear about the poor sales.
    If you haven't already been there, I highly recommend checking out JA Konrath's blog. He's a thriller writer with great financial success with low priced ebooks. As in, on track to make over $100,000 this year!

    I hope you see an uptick in sales! I'm looking forward to the next books in the series.

  8. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    Thanks for the good thoughts, Jeff. I have indeed read Konrath's blog, and one of the things on my list is to put a few of my current freebies up for cheap on Amazon, etc. However, the thing is, Konrath already had a large audience for his books that were published by mainstream publishers. It's unlikely that his model is universal. Still worth a shot, though.

  9. substandardTim
    | Reply

    Well that's no good. The industry sure is in a state of transition right now.

    My suggestion as far as promotion goes would be to learn a good deal about internet marketing. If you can master that then you can get your books in front of the eyes of thousands of new potential readers.

    Also, been meaning to ask you for awhile, what do you think about renting books online? Your books are available from one of the major book rental websites. has some info on the various book renting sites.

  10. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    I didn't even know about those book rental places! Hmm. On the one hand, I suppose it's no different in its effect on me from having libraries lend my books, and I'm all for libraries. On the other hand, I felt an instant negative reaction to the idea that someone was buying one copy of my book, then making money passing it around to readers. I guess I'll have to think about it. Does the possibility of new readers outweigh the potential loss of sales?

    So I found some of my books at, but it was an odd selection–two of the four Chaos books (the more recent two), BSG, and a couple of my nine ereads books. I wonder how they choose.

  11. duncanmac
    | Reply

    I'm sorry to hear your (paperback) book had such poor sales.

    From my viewpoint, just obtaining a copy of a book I am interested in is a challenge. Another author just came out with a book in the SF genre … but no bookstore anywhere near to me has it in stock. Worse, almost all drugstores and supermarkets have stopped stocking books entirely; there are no books available from them at all in this neck of the woods. With bookstores also closing, obtaining a book in the old-fashioned sense may become very hard indeed.

    This is not to say that I couldn't order it off the Internet (or obtain as an e-book the same way). But I really like old-fashioned "dead-tree" format; e-books just do not appeal as much. I am also concerned about licensing issues with respect to e-books; many of their formats are proprietary. The fuss caused last year by Amazon's decision to remove e-books dynamically (however justified it may have been) left a poor taste in many readers' mouths.

    That said, are we likely to see the sequel to _Sunborn_ coming out anytime soon? How goes the writing? I hope you'll pardon the curiosity, but there are those of us who are looking forward to the last two books in the _Chronicle_ series.

  12. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    Hi Duncanmac — Yes, availability of books (especially mass market paperbacks) is getting to be more and more of a problem. Online may be the only way to go if you don't have a good bookstore nearby–or even if you do. As for DRM and proprietary formats on ebooks, I couldn't agree more. That's why a lot of ebook enthusiasts learn how to remove DRM from books–and it really isn't with any intent to violate copyright, but just a desire to protect their purchases, and to move books from one device to another. New software like Calibre makes the conversion process much easier than it was, even a year ago.

  13. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    Sorry, I forgot to answer your question about the next book, The Reefs of Time. It's coming, slowly, but still in first draft. I'm afraid it's going to be a while. Sorry about that. Please hang in there with me!

  14. JJ
    | Reply

    I've never commented on your site before but I just wanted to say that the first three Chaos chronicle books were a big part of my adolescence and I'll do what I can to help promote the book in my community. Just don't stop writing!

  15. Jeffrey A. Carver
    | Reply

    Thank you, JJ!

  16. bizzybody
    | Reply

    One thing you could do for promotion is an e-mailing list for people to sign up on to get a notice when you have a new book ready to buy. Add the info to the e-book downloads, at least the freebies on your site.

    Put that info in all new dead tree printings too so that everyone who picks up one of your books will see it.

    I dunno if it'd cause issues with Tor, or what you'd have to sign with Baen, but putting a couple of your freebies into the Baen Free Library would reach their large customer base. Baen's e-books have never had DRM and they're available in several formats. Their business model for e-books has made Baen a lot of money, even though almost 300 of the books they've published are available legally to download and redistribute for free. Turns out that NOT treating all potential customers as thieves in waiting is good for the bottom line. 😉

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