Why Is It So Hard To Sell Fiction?

A comment from a reader reminded me of something I teach in my book publishing seminars–it’s harder to sell fiction than nonfiction. Many who attend my seminars write fiction and become frustrated when they hear how difficult the market is to sell fiction to publishers.

Granted, success stories such as J. K. Rowling and Stephen King exist, but they are not the norm.

Why is it so hard to sell fiction to a publisher? The answer begins with a field trip to your local brick-and-mortar bookstore. Look at all that precious real estate and what populates it. Assuming 100 percent is the total for books available, what percentage is fiction? Nonfiction? Remember, nonfiction includes everything from biography to reference to special interest to technology.

Seminar attendees typically say 30/70–30 percent fiction and 70 percent nonfiction–and that’s a pretty good guess. Why do you suppose the bookstore populates its shelves primarily with nonfiction? Because that’s what people buy!

A second exercise you can do to determine why it is so hard to sell fiction takes place in your own home. Look at your personal library. Look at your own behavior. When someone asks to borrow a novel from your personal library, you’re probably willing to hand it over (especially if you’ve already read it). However, when someone wants to borrow a nonfiction book (cookbook, history book, whatever), you’re probably more likely to suggest that person buys his/her own copy (even if you’ve already read it).

What does that mean? Every book you pass around to someone else is another book that doesn’t get sold. Publishers don’t get any money and neither do authors on books that aren’t sold new (even the sales of used books don’t generate any income for authors or publishers).

Book publishing is business, not dream fulfillment. Given that readers are less apt to purchase fiction and, thus, so are publishers, you can see that it’s difficult to sell fiction to publishers.

Yet, we love to read a good novel and many are inspired by successes like Rowling and King, so continue to write in pursuit of creating a great novel. Selling fiction is hard, but not impossible.

Happy writing!

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7 Responses to “Why Is It So Hard To Sell Fiction?”


  1. 1 josh1340 August 15, 2010 at 8:27 am

    Great post. How true. I now feel guilty about loaning books to others. I always thought that it was a good thing.
    -Josh

    • 2 expertbookpublishing August 15, 2010 at 9:51 am

      This reply is for Josh and all the rest of us may feel a bit of guilt about sharing books we’re done with. Please don’t feel guilty. Yes, I said neither the publisher nor the author receive any money from books passed around or sold used. BUT, by sharing a book (and author), you could be introducing someone to a new author whose other books the new fan will purchase.

      This happened with our daughter. She was at our cabin and searched my library there for a book. She chose Anne Perry because our daughter likes historical mysteries. Anne Perry has a new fan and now our daughter buys her books. If she hadn’t found the original “free” one, that may have never happened.

  2. 3 Carol Ann Hoel August 15, 2010 at 9:25 am

    Yes, I can see your point. I have written a novel. If it is not good enough to be one that will be sold and read, then so be it. If it is, may it be published and inspire many readers. Thank you for sharing that information.

  3. 4 Dr. Tom Bibey August 15, 2010 at 11:49 am

    It’s like the old bluegrass joke: “How do you make a small fortune in bluegrass?”

    A: “Start with a large one.”

    Doesn’t matter much to me. I persist in what I do; country doc, bluegrass mandolinist, and physician bluegrass fiction writer, and toss business concerns aside as I always have.

    I plan to make it all the way to finish line and never go to work for a living. I might not have that much money, but I’ve had a great time and made a bunch of friends. That’s more than good enough.

    Dr. B

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