How To Sell More Books: Write More Books

Prolific writers sell more books! Here’s how you can too.

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie’s bestseller status is no mystery: she wrote lots and lots of books  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Listening to an inspiring talk in my local public library by M C Beaton, crime writer and Regency romance novelist (an unusual combination!), I was vividly reminded that any writer increases his or her chance of becoming a bestselling author –  and just as importantly, a regular seller – simply by writing more books.

We can all name writers who have secured literary immortality with a single, shining bright novel, such as Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, never out of print since it was published in 1960. But it’s far easier to name bestselling authors who have written many books.

Who are the most prolific authors of all time?

In this list of the all-time best-selling fiction writers, the number of books each had written leaps off the page:

  1. Agatha Christie – 85
  2. Barbara Cartland – 723
  3. Danielle Steele – 120
  4. Harold Robbins – 23
  5. Georges Simenon – 570
  6. Sidney Sheldon – 21
  7. Enid Blyton – 800
  8. Dr Seuss – 44
  9. Gilbert Patten – 209
  10. J K Rowling – 9

With just 9 books to her name, J K Rowling, who we tend to think of as being an all-time, record-breaking phenomenon, has actually sold only (ha!) 350 million books, a small fraction of the more productive Agatha Christie’s total sales of (wait for it) 2 billion.

Profilic author M C Beaton giving a library talk

Thriller writer M C Beaton tells a group of fans how to sell more books

Of course, quantity alone is not enough. There must be quality, to entice the reader to keep coming back for more. But your work doesn’t need to be all in the same genre.  If you plan to straddle different genres, it’s a good idea to write under different pseudonyms so as not to confuse or mislead the reader. A writer’s name is effectively a brand, and the reader has certain expectations of that brand, which need to be met. Somebody picking up an M C Beaton, for example, expects a thriller, and not the 100+ historical romances which this highly prolific author has published under her real name of Marion Chesney and various pen-names (Helen Crampton, Ann Fairfax, Jennie Tremaine, and Charlotte Ward).

M C Beaton: A Role Model for Would-Be Prolific Writers

Now in her 70s, M C Beaton still produces at least two thrillers a year, one in each of her most popular series about her unconventional detectives, Agatha Raisin and Hamish Macbeth. Her many fans (of which I am one, as you’ve probably guessed by now!) snap them up the minute they’re published, because they know they will enjoy them. They don’t care what the title is, they’ll simply buy it because they are confident in the brand. “Oh, good, it’s a new Agatha!” or  “I’m so looking forward to the next Hamish!” comes the cry. Many readers, once they find an author they like, will work their way through that writer’s entire works. I’m sure you have your own favourite authors that you treat this way.

An avid reader herself, M C Beaton gave a vivid example of the power of an author’s brand.

“I bought ‘Fifty Shades of Gray’ by mistake at an airport,” she admitted, “because I wasn’t wearing my glasses. I thought, ‘Oh, here’s a P D James I haven’t read!'”

A writer who follows up a successful novel with regular new books of similar quality will gain more sales.  Of course, these books still won’t sell themselves: they will require active and effective promotion. But any book that follows in the wake of a successful predecessor will have a greater chance of success.

And never has it been easier to promote your books effectively than in our digital age. Whenever you publish a new book, you can blast out publicity via social media and online bookshops for next to no cost, other than time and effort – an advantage never enjoyed by Agatha Christie.

There are terrific tools for boosting serial sales available to all self-published writers. Here are three top tips:

  • To the end of each book, add the beginning of the next one in the series, with the planned publication date, to whet the reader’s appetite and  allow them to make a mental note to buy it as soon as it comes out.
  • Create your own mailing list of your fans by embedding a sign-up form on your author website, so that you’ll be able to contact them directly as soon as the next book is published.
  •  Offer free downloads of the first book in a series to hook new readers, and if they enjoy it enough, they’ll buy the rest of the series.

Try not to liken yourself to a drug-dealer, but bear in mind that you’re aiming for addiction! A more comfortable analogy is to aim at writing the literary equivalent of the proverbial Mars bar: a strong product to which people will want to return regularly, rather than working their way through the rest of the sweetshop without a backward glance.

How to Write More Books

When you establish yourself as a writer of a series, or as a serial writer of a specific kind of book, the trickier task is actually not to sell more books, but to write more books in the same vein that your established readers will love. Again, as writers in the digital age, we have so many advantages over the prolific writers of the past. Can you imagine the sheer physical labour for Leo Tolstoy of writing War and Peace with a quill pen? It would certainly put me off redrafts.

Here’s how M C Beaton, now 74, still manages to turn out at least two books a year – an impressive feat even in a much younger author:

“I get up in the morning and look for opportunities to distract myself from writing, such as defrosting the fridge. I have to force myself to write, but once I start, I do it in a very focused way, for two hours at a time, in a very concentrated manner. That way I write five pages EVERY DAY.”

By making this regular, achievable appointment with the blank page, she has turned her writing into a habit. It’s a part of her daily  routine. For her, to keep writing is the norm. Any writer who really wants to write more books would be well-advised to follow her example. It’s obviously easier to achieve this if, like most writers, you’re not also having to hold down a day-job, but it shouldn’t be impossible to find at least half an hour each day to produce one page and so produce 365 pages a year. Even a single appointment with yourself to write for two focused hours just once a week would produce five pages and an annual manuscript of  250 pages – a perfectly respectable book-length manuscript. If you’re not able to commit to that practice, and have so many other things in your life that you’d rather be doing, you have to ask yourself how much you really want to write more books.

But don’t be downhearted: even my high-achieving hero M C Beaton has her moments of weakness. I’ll share the endearing admission with which she ended her talk:

“The most beautiful words in the English language are ‘The End’.”

Good luck, keep calm, and keep writing.

 

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22 thoughts on “How To Sell More Books: Write More Books

    • Haha! Yes, Helena, and long may it remain so – I’d always rather M C Beaton wrote another book rather than had a frost-free fridge. Resisting the urge to go and defrost mine… Thanks for commenting! x

  1. Thank you, Debbie. I was drawn to your post because I’m *finally* poised to publish my second novel, and am hoping this might help lift things for me, both in the sales and visibility departments! I was glad to see you mention quality – it’s not all about quantity. Though I am in awe of those who manage to regularly publish well-written books.

    I’m glad you also mentioned the ‘day job’ factor. (Not to mention family, as well, of course.) Having a job is a big impact for me on my writing output – both time and energy wise. I am not happy if a day goes by and I haven’t put in some writing time, but I am also very committed to my social work profession (with schools).

    So, the only other thing I’d like to add is (as I’m sure M.C. Beaton and yourself would agree), it’s not just about how many pages you manage to produce in a year. That’s the easy part! It’s the time you put in to rewriting, rewriting and rewriting. That’s what really counts. Thanks again, though. Great post.

    • Hi Steven, thanks for your long and thoughtful comment.

      Re the day job – yes, most of us have them, as did some of the past great writers too, and M C Beaton has had her fair share of jobs, from bookseller to waitress to theatre critic. And I hate to think how dull a book would be written by someone with no social life or family life either. All of these thing inform and enrich the writer’s work, I reckon.

      You’re absolutely right about quality too. I did wonder how much time she spends rewriting each day, as her books are very well crafted (and professionally edited, too), but thought I’d keep the argument simple by not mentioning the redrafting time! I am so in awe of the masters of the pre-digital age when everything had to be redrafted by hand, in pen or by typewriter, requiring physical stamina as well as mental staying-power! I was horrified to see the other day that one blogger who I’d previously admired had plonked the first chapter of his next novel on his website to whet the reader’s appetite – in its first draft form! Aargh!

      Good luck with your second novel – I’ll be hopping over to your website to check it out! 🙂

      Thanks again for your considered response.

  2. I had no idea that Enid Blyton had written that many books – 800, an incredible amount.

    Making writing a daily habit does seem to be the key to productivity, even if it’s just 30 minutes a day – every little helps! A great post, thanks Debbie.

    • Thanks, Kate! I found the list of authors and book quantities really interesting too! I think I’ll have to break it gently to my sister just how many books Georges Simenon has written – she has been collecting vintage editions and expressing surprise each time she found another. Think she’s going to have to build some bigger bookshelves!
      Glad you liked it, Kate, and thanks for commenting. x

  3. Good advice, Debbie – but easier said than done! I can hear the call of the fridge, the freezer and the murky oven already …
    But seriously, it is that regular appointment at the writing desk that gets the words churned out. Thanks to you and MC Beaton for the reminder.

  4. Er…did someone say about writing books by hand? Still do. All 35+ of them have been non-fiction so I entwine physical writing with checking facts or sending emails asking for help (and answering pleas from colleagues/other authors). It is far easier to push an A4 pad to one side than to fiddle around saving everything when I may have half-a-dozen research items on the go at once. And I find correcting the text easier when I have it in ‘hard’ form – and this costs me next-to-nothing whereas reprints from the pooter (each textual item 3 or 4 times) cost like crazy in ink!

    I’m sorry Jean Plaidy/Norah Lofts isn’t on the best seller list as although she wrote fiction it was more like faction for she was a true researcher; she and my late wife batted items to and fro for years!!

    Finally, often overlooked is the fact that in the UK a good dollop of any successful writer’s income comes from the Public Lending Right payments – M.C.B. would be on the maximum ….. enough to pay for her coffee and bikkies every day!!

    • David, I must admit I do still push a pen now and again, especially when I have an idea on first waking and can’t wait for the computer to fire up (I keep a notebook and pen by my bed at all times.) Agreed about the prohibitive cost of printing too – trying to print as little as possible these days (it saves swearing as well as paper – my printer never cooperates!) But since I learned to touchtype many years ago, I find it much faster and easier than writing by hand.

      Did you know the great Roald Dahl always used the same brand of pencils and yellow legal pads, especially imported from the States. I guess we should all use whichever tools of the trade suit our muse the best! Old technology clearly hasn’t slowed you down, as you’ve written 35 books – impressive!

      Did you see the recent report that ranked MCB as the third most popular author for library loans? A great role model in that respect also!

      I’ve never read Jean Plaidy or Norah Lofts but have just joined the new southwest branch of the Historical Novelists Society so maybe that will now change!

      Thanks for all your comments, David!

      • Try Thomas Armstrong for real researched faction. “Crowthers of Bankdam” was one of a series, but he wrote another half-dozen in the days when Collins published real books. “The Face of the Madonna” would give anyone the shivers, with a good indication of the bad side of monastic life.

  5. Enid Blyton, Barbara Cartand were writing machines. Incredible they had time to shower! Very inspiring article. Thank you, Debbie.

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  9. Fun article and comments. I find writing anything helps an author’s platform. More books are great of course, but even blog posts, short stories, articles, etc can work wonders too.

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