Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Sales Don't Mean Quality: Why Bad Books Sell

The publishing world has a unique perspective on the products it sells. Although the industry might not come right out and say it, there is an implied message of sales equalling quality. In other words, if a books sells amazingly well, it must be a fantastic book. The problem is that these two variables are not necessarily linked together. 
Sales of a book focus only on one thing - how many people opened up their wallet and bought the darn thing. That's it. We cannot infer from the sales of a book that the book was actually good. 

In some cases, the sales of a bad book can simply come from people just interested to see if the book is really as bad as people think. My wife and I always joke about how people will open up the out of date milk in the fridge, taste it or smell it, and then proceed to ask someone else to taste it or smell it, even though they already know it is bad. 

Case in point. According to a Feb. 27, 2014 article in the Guardian, at that time, the book had sold 100 million copies world wide. But here is where it becomes interesting. According to a July, 2014 article, only 25.9% of the readers ever finished the book. When we look at the reviews of the book, we get comments such as:
  • The writing is just not up to par, the characters are unbelievable, and the sex verges on the comical.
  • I have been ignoring this book but it just keeps popping up everywhere I turn, and now it's #1, so I came to check reviews to see what all the fuss was about.
  • No way a teenager wrote this!! [the initial review described the book as having the quality of being written by a teenager] Today's teenage would have a strong voice, loads of experience and be shocking the "holy heck" out of us!!

Even when we get to the movie that should have improved things due to screenwriters and so forth, the reviews continue:
  • Limp and lifeless, Fifty Shades Of Grey lacks any of the raunch or controversy promised, and is instead tiresome, banal and as thinly plotted as a porno.
  • In the end, there’s nothing here we haven’t seen before. But there’s also nothing as agonizingly awkward as James’s prose.
I do have to say, I hesitated to use this story as an example, but it really was one of the best examples. For many, and yes, I did the same thing, we bought the book to figure out the hype (as in the second review above). My purchase, although I did return the book, factored into those sales. 

But there are other things that simply crank up those sales. How much marketing a person does or the name of the author will also factor into those sales. We often buy those books when we keep seeing the name or the cover all over the place. That aggressive marketing works. It is also the reason that the author's name plays a role. How many times have you bought a book saying "Oh, look so and so has a new book!" So you get it, only to find it is the biggest piece of you know what ever. 

Don't get me wrong. There are cases when a book is really good and the sales are clearly reflecting that quality. But, we cannot simply look at sales alone and know the book had to good. Remember, many authors who sell with smaller publishers have some really good books, but the distribution is just not there. Does that mean the book is bad? I don't think so.

Just be cautious of correlating those sales figures with quality. This just doesn't work that way all of the time. 


  1. Then there's the literary fiction literati who see too many sales as a sign the book is bad or common. Authors who have been literati darlings immediately become sell-outs or common/popular the minute they start selling bunches of books.

  2. Nice reminder. I have a few favorite authors and look for their books, but usually I browse in a bookstore and buy what grabs me, or I followup on recommendations by friends whose tastes are similar to mine. I'm not really guided by sales figures as a reader, but as an author I do worry about that aspect sometimes.