Please note: This article was not written with Tom Clancy, Bob Woodward, Danielle Steele or Sheryl Sandberg in mind. Rather, it’s for the other 99% of the authors out there. If you are part of the blessed 1%, congratulations! Please just ignore what is written here and turn the page.

Why Most Books Fail

Most books fail. I became interested in why this happens after observing so many of my friends and colleagues write truly insightful and impressive books. I have also hosted and attended numerous book parties across America. Although my friends’ books often received strong reviews from elite media such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and NPR, the books quickly disappeared from public view. Frequently, within weeks or months, they ended up being sold on Amazon for a dollar.

Authors often spend years conceptual­izing their books, writing them, working with editors, hiring agents, and engaging with publishers. The amount of energy and time that goes into producing these books is often monumental.

It’s a sad state of affairs when a book is judged a “critical failure” (minimal sales and little recognition). When the books didn’t end up on the New York Times Best Seller List, my author friends typically had feel­ings afterwards of depression, anger, frustration and embarrassment. Most of these negative emotions were inappropriately focused on their publishers.

Similar to many relationships in life, my clients often had unrealistic expectations. They expected that the publisher would take care of the all important but often ignored details such as marketing and outreach.

Publishing houses have very small publicity and mar­keting departments. Publishers have to make life or death decisions about which will be “The Big Books” of the season. “Lesser books” are often turned over, if at all, to an overwhelmed and undercompensated newbie who is still learning the tricks of the trade.

Authors: what did you expect? Even Herman Melville’s Moby Dick only sold 3,600 copies while he was alive. How many Dreams From My Father or Lean In success stories are out there?

When it comes to publishers and their relationships to most authors, I am often reminded of the title of the book and movie called He’s Just Not That Into You. So what? Move on!

My Recipe for Successful Book Marketing

A couple of years ago, I was retained to craft a market­ing strategy for the author of a serious public policy book. Here is the strategy that was successful:

Rather than being a prisoner of other people’s expectations, we came up with a realistic and sober expectation for defining success. Selling an enormous number of copies was not the primary goal. If it happened, it would have been like receiving a winning lottery ticket, the proverbial frosting on the cake.

First of all, we agreed that quantity of book sales was not our primary goal. If that is your goal, please stop reading now. Realistically, very few public policy books sell a lot of copies, especially if the person is not well known.

Second, we recognized that having an established and respected agent makes a big difference in representing the author. The agent was able to do the outreach, which led to obtaining a highly regarded publisher. We are eternally grateful to the publisher who was delightfully supportive throughout the entire process.

Was the publisher a household name such as Simon & Schuster? No. That was not going to happen, nor was it necessary for what we wanted to accomplish. How­ever, the publisher was considered to be one that published serious authors.

In terms of targeting your potential audience, is it really necessary to reach your dentist and your cousin the kindergarten teacher? Of course not. I recently asked an author whom he wanted to reach with his arcane public policy book. He answered, “Everyone across America!” Wrong. One wants to find the specific groups and subcultures which will value your book and care about the subject matter.

We came up with three ways to define success.

  • The first was introducing the author as a national thought leader in his subculture.
  • The second was cross-branding with his organiza­tion and helping it to achieve greater recognition as an important address for “building the movement.”
  • The third was impacting public policy and making measurable change in the system.

We were wildly successful in achieving all three goals.

We defined the book as a “vehicle” and a creative version of a giant “position paper.” It was not meant to be a fun read, nor was it meant to reach a wide audience. We were all about “narrowcasting” and not “broad­casting.” We wanted to make sure that all of the leaders of the movement/subculture were aware of the book and understood its seminal importance.

Yes, the book was meticulously written, had a compelling narrative, and was edited numerous times. This is a given with any serious book. However, “optics” is a very critical concept.

  • The book had to have a highly visual cover. Avery talented graphic designer created it.
  • “Third Party Validation” is a second essential com­ponent. We wanted the absolutely best names we could obtain to “blurb” the book (give us quotations of endorsement). We found a United States Senator, major leaders in the author’s field, a head of a foun­dation, a public intellectual with a widely recognized name, etc. People care who endorses your book. Obtaining “opinion makers” is critically important for a public policy book and those names impact people’s viewpoints and behavior.
  • Acknowledgements are also important. The author was very generous in acknowledging hundreds of leaders and visionaries who had helped him in his career. All of us are human, and we all appreciate rec­ognition, especially in a book.
  • Given that it’s the 21st Century, having a robust web-site is naturally a must, and we were very proud of the professional website. We also produced an excellent ninety-second video that demonstrated how articulate the author was. Media and influentials could easily check out the author and the concepts articulated. It was a wonderful resource. In addition, Facebook Ads and Google Ad Words helped drive a large amount of traffic to the site.

We organized book parties attended by thousands of grasstop activists in most of the major media markets (New York, Washington, DC, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis, Miami, etc.). We hired a full-time organizer who was early in her career, and not terribly expensive, to manage all of the logistics. The author drew on a wide network he had built up over a distinguished career, and he called and recruited co-chairs and co-hosts for the committees hosting the promotional events we held in public spaces.

I also recruited PR professionals to help in six of the ten major media markets. Rather than hire a national firm to do country-wide outreach, which realistically would have resulted in modest results and gotten lost in the white noise of infinite media opportunities, we focused on key local media figures who were very interested in the specific content of our issue. People value their local media outlets and have a very per­sonal relationship with them.

O.K. Stop! Doesn’t this cost a huge amount of money? The answer is contained in the name of the classic jazz tune called “Compared to What?” There are many people out there willing to spend significant sums of money on a $3,000 espresso machine, a fancy kitchen, that trip for four to Italy, or a summer home in the country.

Each author must ask the key question: How important is this book to me?

What is it worth to achieve the goals I articulated above? Is it to impact public policy and make a dif­ference in our society? If so, I would assert that a sophisticated book marketing strategy is a proven game-changer. There is a great deal more to say, but it’s my hope that this gives the author a different lens in which to approach the daunting but not impossible challenge of having your book move the public policy agenda.