Three Painful Reasons Nonfiction Books Don’t Sell

As a professional ghostwriter, I am loath to post on social media sites. Discretion and confidentiality are built into my job description. I never reveal author names, titles, or even sketches of the projects I’ve worked on, and that reserve long ago generalized into personal habit.

But as someone who has helped transform hundreds of good books and great ideas into marketable literary properties, my heart breaks every time I come across yet another author who doesn’t understand why they can’t land an agent or publisher or capture more than a few dozen readers.

So, I’ve decided it’s time to share what few others will explain: the blunt truth.

I won’t go through the full list of 20+ nonfiction and nearly 20 fiction content disruptions that can torpedo a project. I’ll just address the three most prevalent ones: pride of authorship, rush-to-publish, and shortsightedness.

Pride of Authorship

Without doubt, pride of authorship kills more potentially great projects than anything else. Developmental editors can suss out structural issues. Copy editors can correct syntax and punctuation errors. But no one but the author can fix, “I want my readers to want what I want to share, the way I want to share it.”

Pride of authorship is what compels an author to write 45,000 words about their new discovery, their methodology, their political views, their corporate history, or the struggles they inspirationally overcame to get where they are today. And that’s fine. As one of the very first eBook publishers told me a few decades ago, everyone should have the right to see their story in print—or at least pixels. But the reading public adheres to the old Chicago mantra: “Where’s mine?”

“What’s in it for me?”

“What’s my takeaway?”

“How can I apply these ideas to my life?”

Even memoirs need to include reflections and insights that connect or resonate with their readers.

Intrusive “me-ness” is only one content issue with pride-of-authorship roots, but rather than belabor the point in a social media article, let’s cut to the chase: what can you do to keep pride of authorship from destroying your book’s potential? Here’s the painful part.

  1. Recognize your pride of authorship intrusions. That doesn’t mean don’t take satisfaction or pleasure in your work; it means realize your book has a life force of its own. Don’t let your ego interfere with your book’s potential wonderfulness.
  2. Let someone help you. No, not another editor. You’ve probably had editors up the wazoo go over your work line-by-line, even word-by-word. Editors are too close to the black marks on the page to catch how or what a manuscript radiates to someone who doesn’t know you, doesn’t really care about you, and won’t want to take the time to learn about you without getting some kind of satisfaction.

Instead, look for someone who understands creative analysis, who can take a 30,000-foot view of the work and see it as a commercial product, not merely a literary effort. Someone who understands that a first draft is all about what the author wants, and a second draft is all about what the reader wants.

Figure 1. From Ghostwriting Professional Designation Program

If you can’t find someone on your own, reach out to me. I’ll introduce you to a Certified Ghostwriter who’s been trained to do just that.

  • Accept that you may have to make substantial changes even if you’ve already self-published. You may need to refocus the book. A third of the text might need to be replaced. You may have to add substantial material that isn’t all about you, and you, and yours.

Told you it would be painful.

Rush to Publish

Agents, publishers, booksellers, and even publicists and event hosts have complained about authors’ lack of awareness since long before the digital revolution changed the course of how and what we read. Common grouses include:

  • Authors don’t understand what publishing really involves or how it works
  • Authors don’t understand that books are products
  • Authors don’t understand the difference between audience and market
  • Authors don’t understand how to title their book
  • Authors don’t understand what publishers expect them to do with their advance money

That’s a lot for authors to not understand, and it’s just the visible part of the iceberg. Most authors have zero frame of reference for any of those issues and as little interest in learning about them. Technology has leveled the book-business playing field to such an extent that the average person who sits down to write their book thinks production is the same as publishing and is a distribution channel.

Neither thought is true.

Exploring just the tip of that glacier reveals that, like any other multi-product concern, publishing is an elaborate business, requiring the diverse talents and skills of many separate departments. Pre-press, for example, involves

  1. Inhouse style-guide editing
  2. Permissions
  3. Classification
  4. Registrations
  5. Interior design
  6. Galley proofs
  7. Price and barcode embed
  8. Cover design

…to name just the obvious. Rush-to-publish authors typically skip steps b, c, d, and f either because they aren’t aware of them or don’t want to spend the time and money it takes to acquire them. But without adequate legal indemnity (b. permissions), broad and proper metadata (c. classifications), Library of Congress and CiP/PCiP notifications (d. registrations), and cover reviews (f. galley proofs), a book has far less chance of receiving serious consideration in the marketplace, attaining supply-chain representation, or, bottom line, selling well.

Each of the other publishing aspects (production, distribution, marketing, sales) are just as complex and thus require just as much time and attention.

Obviously, self-publishing isn’t going to cease to exist and, just as obviously, most pay-to-publish houses aren’t going to expand their businesses to include services they aren’t versed in and so cannot justify charging for. The urge to go from typewriter to print used to be tempered by the control publishing houses exercised over the industry. With that control no longer the law of the land, what can you do to prevent your rush-to-publish compulsion from destroying your book’s potential? More painful truth.

  1. Slow down. Give your book the 18-24 months traditional publishers set aside to produce each quality title they put their imprint on. That will give you enough time to determine the right metadata to attach to your ISBN; obtain a Library of Congress Control Number; acquire a PCiP for library sales; send out galleys to industry, publication, and personal contact reviewers and wait for their responses; offer pre-sale discounts to bulk and hi-volume buyers; submit to distributors and wholesalers, and launch a pre-release publicity campaign six weeks before the book hits the stores.
  2. Draw up a marketing plan to sell 30-50,000 copies in 12 months. Utilize every avenue you can think of to create bulk-sale orders, hi-volume tie-in possibilities, and continuous bookseller expansion. Make a list of the different types of outlets your title might fit into, such as airport gift shops, grocery stores, specialty stores, big-box stores (Costco, Sam’s Club, Walmart, and so forth). Research the best free and paid promote sites, such as Book Bub, Fussy Librarian, and Free Booksy, etc.

Get in front of as many audiences as possible, from Rotary Clubs to entrepreneur groups to talk radio shows to BlogTalk and independent podcasts. Schedule webinars, seminars, and guest blogs.

Check the five high-volume/low-margin display marketers for submission guidelines and deadlines. Participate in Independent Book Publishers Association cooperative marketing campaigns.

Make a list of corporations, charities, municipalities, non-government agencies, and state/regional/federal/military bureaus that might carry your title.

Author potential ROI
  • Spend the money to implement your plan. Yes, it takes money to make money, and yes, it’s true that the more people you make money for, the more money you’ll make. So don’t try to do everything at once; that’s counterproductive. Rather, draw up a schedule to initiate one thing at a time over the course of a year to maintain your focus, bring in funds to reinvest, and highlight what does work and what doesn’t for your particular title.


Toilet paper companies seldom go out of business.

Toilet paper is a low-cost/high-return product that costs $.04 per standard roll to produce and sells for anywhere from $1.00 for two thin rolls to $16.00 for eight plus-sized rolls. Yet toilet paper companies don’t settle for merely selling it direct to consumers at retail prices in dollar stores, convenience stores, gas-station stores, grocery stores, big-box stores, and every other kind of store in existence.

They also sell it wholesale to school districts, universities, corporations, hospitals, government agencies, military bases, and every other organization populated by humans. In other words, toilet paper is packaged and sold as an indispensable commercial product.

Books, on the other hand, which are also indispensable but comparatively high-cost/low-return commercial products, are too often offered only at retail or slightly discounted prices via direct-to-consumer databases (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Goodreads, etc.).

“Here I am! Here’s what I have to share!” the titles proclaim on those database pages—essentially giving license to those owners to take a cut of every sale, reserve your take for 30 to 90 days, and withhold the name and contact information of all your buyers.

And yes, you’ll pay income tax on your part of the sale, but you can only deduct the expense of each book as its sold. What kind of a ROI model is that?


Consider that all the ideas, processes, inspirational concepts, and new ways of thinking you share in your book are merely introductions to a reading public hungry for connection, guidance, and approval. Whether you’ve written a business book, a health-and-fitness guide, a self-help, a psychology title, or even a political exposé, if your title captures the hearts and minds of your readers, they want more.

They don’t necessarily want another book, although they’ll likely buy it when it comes out. They want more of you.

Readers who enjoy your written words are warm prospects to book you as a speaker, join your webinar, take your workshop, participate in your master class, or sign up for your off- or online program. You already have the material to share for those low-cost/high return offerings—it’s right there in your book.

Positioning your book as a marketing tool makes it more attractive to investors and loan officers, prolongs its shelf life, and makes the cost of its development and production a deductible advertising expense on the IRS 1040 Schedule C form.

Pragmatic, but yes, painful. After all the work and sweat to write and publish the book, most authors want to hand off the baton and let someone else finish the race. The idea they now have to essentially create a new business just to get their ideas out to a larger audience feels unfair.

It is unfair. Painfully unfair. Truth often is. On behalf of the multi-billion-dollar book industry, I apologize. But that doesn’t change the reality. So, what can you do you prevent your shortsightedness from truncating your title’s success?

  1. Make a decision. You are under no obligation to do what’s necessary to sell a lot of books. You are entitled to be content knowing how much hard work and devotion you already put into your book. You do not have to go for financial return, too. But if you want to make money on or with the title you’ve labored over, pull out any intrusive pride-of-authorship elements, address your reader’s needs and sensibilities, give yourself time to get everything in place before you release, and change your perspective to use your book as a marketing tool, not a one-off calling card.
  2. Make a plan. Suss out best avenues for bulk and volume sales for your particular title and find the buyers in those marketing departments. Draw up a plan or schedule to contact at least one organization every 3-4 weeks.

Draw up an action plan of speeches, webinars/seminars, workshops/master classes, and programs. Schedule them so people can advance from one to the next throughout the year. Rinse and repeat.

  • Do the work. Plans are worthless without implementation, so don’t let yourself get sidetracked. If you run out of time, energy, or money, rather than get discouraged and give up, step back, catch your breath, review and revise, and start again. You can give your plan as much or as little time as you like. All the results are on you either way.

Claudia Suzanne, The Ghostwriting Expert