What do we mean by selling? (A post for writers, not salespeople)

This post is targeted at writers who want to know more about the process of selling. I originally wrote it for the ALLi Blog, but at 2,800 words it was about 2,300 longer than it should have been so I’ve put a summary there – this is the original.

I’ve been a salesman most of my working life. The first book I ever published (in 1990) was Managing the High Tech Salesforce; last year I published The International Sales Handbook. I use the word “salesman” with pride. When the phone rings and the person at the other end begins with, ‘Let me say at the outset, I’m not trying to sell you anything,’ and it’s obvious that s/he in fact is trying to do exactly that, my response is, ‘Never say that to a salesperson.’ The reason some people try that line is because they think there’s something shameful about the activity of selling. There isn’t. Everybody is selling, all the time – but some are better at it than others, and some don’t admit to themselves that that is what they are doing. If you have ever proposed marriage, you were selling (and the product was yourself). If you manoeuvred so that some man or woman proposed marriage to you, that was an even better example of successful selling.

I remember years ago flying home from South America. The woman in the seat beside me had already asked what I did for a living and I had told her I was a salesman. Then she asked what I had been doing in the country we had just left and I said I had negotiated and signed a contract with that country’s Ministry of Transportation. She asked what the contract had been for, I told her and she said, ‘That sounds like a lot of money.’ ‘About $250 million.’ ‘Oh,’ she said. ‘You’re not a salesman at all.’ What she meant was that salespeople don’t do $250 million deals. Salespeople are grubby manipulators who sell things to people who don’t want them for more than they are worth but never in that sort of amount. She was, of course, English (as I am); other nationalities (and I include in that the Scots and the Welsh, both of whom have a lot more common sense than my own people) don’t take such a negative approach and I suppose it is mainly to the shy, retiring English that I am addressing this post. How did she think the Minister and his staff of knowledgeable engineers were persuaded to part with $250 million if not as a result of someone selling the idea to them?

So what, exactly, is selling? What sort of person is good at it? And how, if at all, does it differ from “marketing”?

What do we mean by selling?
Cliché time: selling has been described as “the gentle art of giving the other guy your own way”. And it is a cliché; but the important thing to remember about those is that they become clichés because they are true. I’d like you to accept that definition of selling, and I’d like you to agree that what we writers want is for people to buy our books. I know, because I’ve met them, that there are writers who don’t give a toss (or say they don’t) whether anyone buys their books or not. It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that a blog post (like this one) about selling for writers is not intended for those people.

What sort of person is good at selling?
Not all clichés are true. (See? I lied to you a paragraph ago. I expect that fits much better with your idea of what salespeople do). One of the commonest ideas about selling is that you have to be extrovert to be good. Rubbish! The best salespeople (and who better than me to tell you this?) are introverts who have learned to present as extroverts. If you don’t know what’s going on inside your own head, how on earth do you expect to work out what is happening in someone else’s? A cliché that is true: “The good salesperson is two ears and one mouth, in that proportion.” You have to listen more than you speak and when you listen it’s important that you HEAR. The general idea of conversation in this country seems to be that one person allows the other to talk at him or her and in return the other then allows the first person to talk at her or him. No one listens and it’s certain that no one hears anything. You have to detect what the other person’s needs are, what that person likes and doesn’t like and the reasons they may have for being drawn to or turning away from your sort of book. You’re not going to do that unless you hear what the person is saying. There’s more. In Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper, I have Billy say something that I’ve often said myself: ‘Good salespeople hear the words nobody speaks.’ You have to develop (and introverts can be good at this but extroverts are hopeless) the ability to pick up how someone is reacting to you, even though they haven’t put it into words – and then you have to decide what to do about it.

Writers are not, as a group, famous for being likeable and one of the things I enjoy about ALLi is the way the majority get on with and support each other. I said the majority. I knew within ten seconds of meeting one member that he had conceived an immediate and visceral dislike for me. We’ve met twice more and those meetings simply reconfirmed my immediate feeling. So; should I have done anything about it? My answer was (and is): no. A risk analysis says he could harm me if he chose – he could give my books poor reviews and, if he acted as a judge for any contests or evaluations of books, he could mark me down. But so what? That can happen anyway. The universally loved book no more exists than the universally loved person. If this had been the Minister of Transportation and a $250 million contract depended on his regard I would have worked hard to cultivate it, because the most basic fact you need to know about selling is: people buy from people. In this case, I saw no downside that I cared about and I let it go.

What’s the difference between selling and marketing?
If there is a difference, then for our purposes it is best ignored. When I was a sales and marketing director, I felt I had my sales hat on in face-to-face meetings with customers and prospects and my marketing hat when I was planning advertising campaigns. To that latter I would now add social networking, which we didn’t have in those days. From the point of view of the writer, selling is when you are in effect saying, ‘Buy my book’ (though for heaven’s sake don’t use those words) and if you want to you can regard your social networking as marketing. Ask yourself, though: does it really make any difference? I suggest the selling/marketing debate is irrelevant to indie authors. I know that some people swear by marketing plans, but I find them of limited value because the reality is: nobody knows what works and what doesn’t, and what worked for a writer starting out three years ago probably won’t be effective now. There is one plan you should make, however, and that is the plan that says how much time you are going to allocate to writing and how much to selling.

So how do you do it?
We’ve had a number of threads on the ALLi Facebook page recently on what it means to sell your books and I’ve contributed – indeed, I started one (A tedious, balls-aching journey). More than 30 people liked it, so I suppose it must have rung some sort of bell. I’ll suggest some rules; I’m sure others will have useful additions to suggest:

Write the best book you can.
Most of my career has been spent selling a premium product at a premium price. I could never see the pleasure in selling discounted trash. There are far too many books on the market and some of them are of such high quality that is difficult to see how we can compete – but, on the other hand, some are absolute dross. (I know that no one at ALLi ever likes to say that but they all know that it’s true). Put yourself in a position where you can be compared with the best and not with the rubbish. And while we’re on that subject:

An original, innovative product outsells a me-too and goes on doing it.
Everyone who has ever sold a me-too (a product offering no significant new features that is introduced to compete with one already on the market) knows that it will never usurp the original’s place as market leader and that the only way to sell it is by cutting the price. If you’re tempted to write another Fifty Shades or you want to be the new Lee Child, forget it. The market is happy with the Lee Child it already has and as for Fifty Shades – are you simply going to repeat whatever it was (I haven’t actually read the book) those rude people did there? In my view, this is one of the mistakes the big publishers make at present and indies don’t need to follow them. Write the original book you want to write.

You’re going to have to spend some money.
Make your mind up to that; if you’re not prepared to spend money on cover design, editing, print runs, business cards, bookmarks, flyers and other promotional material, you’re going to fail. I can hear now, because I’ve heard before, the protests that “I’m as good an editor as any professional and I don’t need to expend scarce resources in that way”. Protest away; I think you’re wrong. I’ve also heard, “I can’t afford to do that. I just don’t have the money”. Well, if you don’t have it you don’t have it. Bad luck. But don’t expect big sales. That’s how the world is: the rich get richer and the poor get trampled on. Believe me, I do sympathise. And I’ll go on sympathising until I see you with a coffee, or a glass of wine, or chocolate, or…well, anything other than a dry lentil roast. Examine your priorities.

Get “I need to sell my books” into your mind and keep it there.
Successful selling doesn’t come by accident. However callous it may seem, every time you meet someone you should be assessing whether or not that person is a likely purchaser of your book(s). If the answer is “no”, that’s fine – but if there’s any possibility that it might be “yes” then you must do something to put the idea of buying one of your books into her/his mind. And that means telling the person that you are a published writer.

Don’t be afraid to sing your own praises.
I’m not suggesting braggadocio. Just be prepared to take your space and say, ‘Yes, I’m a writer. Yes, people do read my books and you can order them from bookshops or buy them online if that’s what you prefer to do. Am I someone you should have heard of? No – but this may help.’ Then hand over your promotional material (see below) and settle down to answer the questions you are asked. After a while you’ll find you enjoy it. And be enthusiastic. Another cliché: Selling is the business of transferring your enthusiasm to another person.

Think about what it is that should make your book saleable and generate promotional material accordingly.
I’m talking here about what is usually called the USP, or unique selling proposition. You need to work out – from your own experience of writing the book and from what reviewers have said about it – what it is that should make someone buy your book rather than someone else’s. Then you need to incorporate that into your promotional material and your patter. What do I mean by patter? This:

Attend as many book signings, launches, literary festivals et cetera as you can get yourself invited to and work out in advance what you’re going to say to people who want to talk about your book.
When you’re at these functions, forget what a shy introverted person you are and go for it. Someone is walking past your table, looking at your books but not stopping? Pick up a bookmark and one of each of your flyers and press it into their hands, saying – for example – “You can never have too many bookmarks”. More than half of them will then stop and say something about one or more of the books you have on show. Tell them about the books – how you came to write them, what’s special about the characters, anything. After a while you’ll find you’ve developed a regular form of words that say what you want to say. This is your patter. You will find that experience changes the patter – the more you learn from people’s reactions, the better you will become. Never hesitate to change a flyer in the light of what you learn this way – if it’s important enough, change the blurb on the back of the book, too. Talk to everyone you can, and that includes other writers. At Indiefest 2015 I was on the next table to Clare Lydon. Her books are nothing like mine and straight old men like me are not her target market (we fail on all three of those words) but she is an engaging, likeable person with the confidence to present herself well and I learned quite a bit from watching and listening to her. (The day you think you’ve learned everything you ever will is the day I suggest you check into the old people’s home). And remember:

No-one else can sell your books as well as you can.
I was delighted by the number of sales I made at Indiefest 2015. I made almost none at Hawkesbury Upton Literary Festival. The only differences that I can see were: (a) my books at HULitFest were right in the corner behind others where it was difficult to see them and (b) we, the writers, were not standing behind our books and talking to the punters as we had at Indiefest – someone else was doing that for us. The difference that makes was clear when I had just finished speaking on a panel about historical fiction and a man who had been in the audience said, ‘I liked what you said. I’d like to buy one of your books. Which one do you recommend?’ So, do everything you can to make sure that you are the one making the sales pitch.

Carry your promotional material with you at all times and distribute it widely.
I gave an example of how I had used a bookmark and flyers in the A tedious, balls-aching journey Facebook post I mentioned earlier. Other people added to the same post wide-ranging examples of how they had done the same thing. I’ve given away bookmarks and flyers on trains and aircraft; in service station car parks; in restaurants and hotels and even on a park bench. (Never in bed, but I bet there’s someone in ALLi who can tell that story). For this to work, you have to be prepared to talk to people and I recommend “Do you read?” as a good introduction. If the answer is that they don’t, then you may as well find something else to talk about but if they do, say something along the lines of “Publishers don’t do this any more except for their biggest names so we have to do it ourselves” and hand over what you have with you. The shy may find it helpful to remind themselves that they are not actually selling their books when they do this – they are giving the person something. For example, the lady on the train was reading a book but had nothing to keep her place in it. My bookmark solved that problem – and she had a constant reminder of me and what I had written. People like meeting writers and talking about their work. All you have to do is let them know that you are one and to do that I’m afraid you really must initiate the conversation. After the first three or four times, it will come naturally. Trust me; I’m a salesman ;-).

Salespeople know that the person most likely to buy from them now is the person who bought from them before – even if the experience was not 100% good.
So what are you doing to capture your existing readers? When they finish one of your books, do they find the address of your website, a list of your other books and an invitation to subscribe to your newsletter? When you’re at a literary festival, do you have on the table with your books a form they can fill in in order to subscribe? (If you want advice on that, ask Clare Lydon – I watched her and she’s brilliant at it).

You build your customer base one name at a time – and that’s also how you lose them.
This is what I used to tell my salespeople and all you have to do is substitute the word “reader” for “customer”. Of course we all dream of the book launch that sells a million copies and makes us financially secure for life. Sadly, a dream is what it is. Building a reader base that will stay with us is a long drawn out affair – something we should expect to spend years on. Pay as much attention to that one reader who emails you, writes to you or stops you in the street as you would if you were addressing a hall of 1,000 people. S/he will notice if you don’t.

There’s a lot more I could say, but this blog post is already far too long and it’s time to give you, the reader, space to add your own comments. Fill your boots.

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39 Comments on “What do we mean by selling? (A post for writers, not salespeople)”

  1. Debbie Young
    June 15, 2015 at 4:42 pm #

    Fabulous post, John – thank you so much for sharing your advice and insight as a detached professional salesman. I’m now off to order some bookmarks – I love your idea of handing them out to people you see reading books and remembering that you’re giving the reader something, offering a benefit, rather than asking them a favour. Genius.

    By the way, as founder of the Hawkesbury Upton Lit Fest, I’m pleased to be able to tell you that the next Festival will include a free stall for each author to sell their own books directly. 🙂

    • jlmandrill
      June 16, 2015 at 6:58 am #

      Debs, I’m already looking forward to the next HuLitFest. The last one was great and the next will be even better.

  2. Adrienne Morris
    June 15, 2015 at 7:24 pm #

    Perfect. I am that introvert who needed to read what you just shared. Thanks so much!

    • jlmandrill
      June 16, 2015 at 6:56 am #

      Adrienne, welcome to the Introverts Club. I wish you success with your books.

  3. Pamela
    June 15, 2015 at 9:27 pm #

    Thank you for this insightful blog. As an introvert and new indie author, I will take your advice to heart!

    • jlmandrill
      June 16, 2015 at 5:50 am #

      Pamela, I wish you all success with your books.

  4. The Story Reading Ape
    June 16, 2015 at 9:34 am #

    Reblogged this on Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog and commented:
    By a retired salesman, so he KNOWS what he’s talking about!

  5. writeanne
    June 16, 2015 at 7:14 pm #

    Brilliant! I love this post, John. Some of what you suggest, I’ve been doing instinctively, but there are other tips here I hadn’t thought of. I’m not a natural salesperson but I think I just about mange to overcome my taciturn Scot thing and put on a reasonable ‘show’. Jus today I got two local book shops to take my books and have a provisional invite to the local book festival – all because I got out there. Now ready for a lie down. 🙂 Thanks for your inspiring words.

    • jlmandrill
      June 17, 2015 at 1:28 am #

      Hi, Anne. As a Scot you should have some advantages because the Scottish accent still conveys integrity. One of the best salespeople I ever worked with was from Glasgow.

  6. rasanaatreya
    June 17, 2015 at 10:50 am #

    “Attend as many book signings, launches, literary festivals et cetera as you can get yourself invited to and work out in advance what you’re going to say to people who want to talk about your book.”

    I love this advice. As one of the few (visible) Indie authors in India, I get invited to a lot of panel discussions at literary festivals. But I’m an introvert so I never talk about my own books (figuring people will look them up if they’re interested). Obviously this approach isn’t selling me any books, so thank you for this tip!

    • jlmandrill
      June 18, 2015 at 10:10 am #

      You must, Rasana. The easiest way to make sure you do is to carry one with you. When I sat on the Historical Fiction panel at HuLitFest I had A Just and Upright Man in my hand and I waved it around as I spoke about it. You can be an introvert without being shy or a shrinking violet.

  7. Tricia Drammeh
    June 19, 2015 at 2:34 pm #

    Thanks for this advice. I’m horrible at selling my books. Horrible. Most of the people I interact with on a daily basis don’t even know I write. How can I expect people to buy my books if they don’t know about them? I need to practice talking about my book.

    I also like what you said about re-prioritizing. Yes, money is tight, but I can shift my priorities to invest in some promotional materials. I don’t need to break the bank, but I can do much more than I’ve been doing.

    Again, thank you!

    • jlmandrill
      June 19, 2015 at 3:14 pm #

      You’re right, Tricia; if people don’t know about your books they can’t buy them. Start talking 🙂 It doesn’t have to come out of the blue; you can find a way to make a link between something people are talking about and something in one of your books. Good luck!

  8. philipparees
    June 19, 2015 at 5:06 pm #

    Brutally apt for me! I do everything I think might interest, divert, amuse… except sell. I liked this for its clarity and dismissal of ‘marketing’ which has always seemed a weasel word. My difficulty, after so many ‘oh you’re the poetic scientist writer, way above my head’is to feel apologetic and ‘no no look I can crack a joke or talk about the weather-if you like.

    I must devise better responses like ‘no , my book is all in your head, already’

    Lot to think about John! Very good post.

    • jlmandrill
      June 20, 2015 at 5:51 am #

      Thanks, Philippa. But don’t say your book is already in their heads or they’ll decide that in that case they don’t need it 🙁 Take a look at the reviews on your amazon pages and work from there — because they’re effective! I’ve learned not to tell ALLi members I’m reading their book in case when I finish it I can’t review it, but I just read the things people were saying about yours and it so fascinated me that I downloaded it immediately. The material is there — use it.

      • philipparees
        June 20, 2015 at 11:12 am #

        Wonderful news John, and generous. I do exactly the same, I review when I choose and its much nicer to gift it from spontaneous enthusiasm. If I can’t find it I have at least paid for the book! Yes you are quite right about the suggestion. A lot of progress to be made, but on the strength of your advice I started yesterday offering a talk to the Theosophists in Bristol entitled ‘Involution-Genius and Poetic Science’. Instantly accepted and booked for 27th October. You might like to come?

      • jlmandrill
        June 20, 2015 at 11:47 am #

        I’ve put it in the diary, but a lot will depend on the time of day. If it’s afternoon, no problem but if it’s in the evening, which I suspect it may be, that’s not so easy because I usually travel to Bristol by train and the last train leaves Temple Meads at 9.19 p.m. (and doesn’t reach Shrewsbury till just after midnight). Night closures on the M5 and M54 mean that what should be a drive of less than 3 hours takes nearly 5.

      • philipparees
        June 20, 2015 at 11:51 am #

        Don’t even consider it John! It is at 7.30 and I have to have my daughter drive me because my night-vision is hazardous ( for others). I am hoping to record it and start honing my presentation skills ( first have to master powerpoint!) so when I am more skillful I might repeat it on an occasion at Alli or Foyles ( who have already expressed an interest) if I bring the audience with me!

        Thanks for your interest and support. Means a lot.

      • jlmandrill
        June 20, 2015 at 12:29 pm #

        Well, make sure you get it onto the ALLi upcoming events notices, and let Debbie Young know about it so that she can spread the word among the Bristol people.

      • philipparees
        June 20, 2015 at 12:31 pm #

        Thank you John. You are already ahead of the curve!

      • jlmandrill
        June 20, 2015 at 11:47 am #

        But, anyway, well done with the approach to the Theosophists. Now make some more 🙂

  9. Tara Sparling
    June 26, 2015 at 9:54 am #

    What a superb post, John. It actually made me happy, which as you know is an odd condition for me. Bad bookselling techniques have been irking me too long and it’s not often so much sense is talked on this subject. You’d want to be careful or everyone might start doing it. All your points are essential reading but your bit on the ‘me too’ idea struck me in particular because it happens so often in publishing.

    It also struck me that there are lots of e-books out there puportedly telling people how to sell their books, written by authors who have had varying and highly disputable degrees of success, but I haven’t seen any proper advice from actual sales gurus – there’s a gap in the market, right there. You’ve written handbooks already – how about one specifically for indie authors?

    • jlmandrill
      June 26, 2015 at 10:11 am #

      Well, thank you, Tara — but I think indie writers will have to be content with this post.

      • Tara Sparling
        June 26, 2015 at 10:17 am #

        Of course you know that means I will have much more to rant about when they keep making horrible marketing mistakes.

    • philipparees
      June 26, 2015 at 10:39 am #

      I suspect just as only the author could have written their book, only the author can sell it. The ‘me too’ syndrome applies to ‘marketing’ just as much as the writing. The virtue of John’s post is to strip away any belief that there are generic solutions. I have spent three years taking advice, paying for promotion, following guides,offering free book downloads, blogging, etc etc and achieved exactly niente.
      Having expended energy and money in all the wrong directions the fresh air of this post has caused a pause.

      Whether there is any of me left to start afresh is too soon to say but for others this will save them grief, and money and energy. Still I suppose one only learns by getting it wrong.

      • jlmandrill
        June 26, 2015 at 11:16 am #

        I certainly believe, Philippa, that no-one can sell a book as effectively as the author can. As for starting afresh — of course you can. From my favourite book by one of my favourite poets: [We] Who are only undefeated
        Because we have gone on trying.

      • philipparees
        June 26, 2015 at 12:17 pm #

        Thank you for the gentle push John. Just temporarily tired, perhaps. Nothing brought it home better than a recent enquiry about (yet another) marketing/publishing initiative in which the statement that I had already published was followed by a ‘we will edit, write the foreword and you will keep all your royalties’ sales pitch!

        It had preceded your post but certainly underlined its truth!

  10. Jane Dougherty
    June 29, 2015 at 9:54 am #

    Reblogged this on Jane Dougherty Writes and commented:
    There is so much ‘advice’ chucked about willy-nilly on how to sell books, none of which I have ever found the slightest bit realistic. This the sensible kind of advice we should all heed.

  11. Jane Dougherty
    June 29, 2015 at 9:58 am #

    Thanks for this post, John. It’s a much-needed breath of fresh air—there is so much rubbish advice trotted out about selling books. I dived into this article and came out a little bit wiser.

    • jlmandrill
      June 29, 2015 at 10:26 am #

      There is, Jane — you’re right. Whatever we might like to think, selling books is like selling most things — and the important thing to remember (which should stand you in good stead) is that people buy from people. People they like, that is.

      • Jane Dougherty
        June 29, 2015 at 1:06 pm #

        Well, I’ve been pootling along being nice to people and writing decent books. I’m still working on how to force French people to take my bookmarks 🙂

      • jlmandrill
        June 29, 2015 at 1:18 pm #


  12. georgeforfun
    June 29, 2015 at 10:03 pm #

    Reblogged this on georgeforfun.

    • jlmandrill
      June 30, 2015 at 5:36 am #

      Thanks, George.

      • georgeforfun
        June 30, 2015 at 9:16 pm #

        My pleasure indeed ));<)))))
        many writers need to know more about the process.
        Writing words is just a small part if you want to be successful.
        I'm not a writer per se, but I know what I like to read, so I am thankful you are trying to help the new authors,
        MOre for me to find and read.
        ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)


  1. Selling for Indie Authors | Self-Publishing Advice for Writers - June 15, 2015

    […] in salesperson’s terms. If you want to see the expanded version putting flesh on the bones, you’ll find it here,  where you’ll also find my thoughts […]

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