There are many reasons why so many independently published books do not sell. The most obvious reasons are that the publication may not be up to standard for whatever reason: uninteresting subject matter, poor writing, lack of editing, less than professional design and typesetting, bad printing, lack of distribution channels, lack of planning a marketing process etc.
Sometimes authors need to be brutally honest with themselves. Why did you decide to go the route of self-publishing in the first place? Is it because you were turned down by traditional publishers? (Or did you perhaps not even approach them, instinctively sensing it would be a dead-end?) Some of the books I see are really heartfelt efforts by the authors, but unfortunately, there is not much of a market for the particular type of publication, especially if it is about overcoming personal struggles or philosophies about life (unless the author is a celebrity of course!).
I think it is important to remember that traditional publishers are not just ‘trying to be nasty’ by being extremely selective about which books they decide to back. It is all about staying in business in a very tough and competitive market. Selling books is their livelihood, and they have to make it their business to understand market needs. A lot of research is done worldwide with regards to what sells and what the readers’ market is looking for. As with any other new product that goes onto the market, traditional publishers have to be reasonably confident that a market exists for the particular product before investing in the development and marketing of this product. Even then they probably have to anticipate that only a few of the titles selected may turn out to be good sellers.
Publishing a book by any means remains a gamble. This especially relates to general non-fiction and books such as poetry or children’s books. I have seen some ingenious authors doing a lot of groundwork in order first to understand if there is a reasonable indication that there may be a responsive market for their unique offering, and then work hard to grow and develop this market/platform (usually through social media) until their followers are practically begging for the book. Only then the book is released and if it meets the expectation that has been created, it will sell!
It is not very wise to simply go and publish your book based on the great feedback from family and friends, and assume that there will automatically be a market eagerly wanting to buy the book. It is easy to underestimate how hard it can be for friends or loved ones to give an honest opinion of someone’s writing. No-one wants to be the bearer of bad news. It is so much easier to tell people what they want to hear. But eventually, when the penny drops and bookstores turn out to have no interest and sales are dismal, the author feel very disappointed and perhaps a bit resentful that his or her brilliant talent is not being noticed. In many cases, I am very sorry to say it; it may all have based on unrealistic expectations.
On the flip side, there are some really great independently published books out there that offer a worthwhile read. In fact, there are quite a number of such books that sell really well, whether it be through the author’s own marketing efforts and channels or established book distributors. I know of at least a few authors who can hardly keep up with the demand for their books. Sadly, they are the exception. But in most cases this success did not come accidentally – it was planned and worked for very strategically. Of course, often a little bit of luck may also have played a role.
I have a lot of respect for authors who put in the effort and expense into publishing their books themselves. It is a very brave thing to do. Great sales numbers are great, but it should not be your only measure of success. Because even if you do not manage to dazzle the market with your book, you have still achieved something of personal value. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Just don’t be too hard on yourself, and also – don’t blame the book industry.