My first published book was commissioned. Lucky me? Hah, but I was in the employ of the publisher and I was instructed to write the book as part of my job. I had an enjoyable few months away from routine work. The volume was part of an overall publishing campaign, and the publisher promoted it vigorously. It had several reviews, one from Kingsley Amis even. It was put into half a dozen different formats and repackagings. You could get it cheap off the back of the Sunday newspaper. It was translated into Russian. There was a second edition. The book sold unknown thousands of copies. It must have earned a lot of money—but none for me. I’d already been paid.
Book 2: 39,702 sales
They asked for a follow-up, so I suggested book number two: I thought the subject would be interesting and fun to write about. I had a co-author, so the royalties were split. I can’t remember much promotion or many reviews. It did modestly well. It’s now been rewritten by a third author and reissued. A few royalties are still dribbling in.
Book 3: 11,414 sales
The next book was an abridgement. I didn’t much want to do it. My publishers begged and pleaded and cajoled, and because the original author (deceased) had been eminent in the field, they persuaded me. I buckled down to a year of evening and weekend toil, rearranging, reformatting, re-indexing. Followed by—minimal publicity (why?). No reviews. No response from the profession. Modest remuneration. It has now vanished, replaced in the list by a freshly planned work on the same subject.
Book 4: 8,105 sales
The fourth book was a dream. When my publisher (still my employer) asked if their idea for the book would be viable, I thought briefly and said no. I was urged to think again. Three of us got together on it, and it was a joy to write. The subject, we thought, had a vast potential fan audience. Even though the royalties would be split three ways, we were surely going to hit the big time. When the cover design arrived, we were appalled and had to throw a wobbly to get what we thought would catch the readership’s eye. The book was duly published, with the redesigned cover. The reviews, many of them on fan websites, were positive. But sales were disappointing, I don’t really know why. Maybe lack of promotion, maybe the cover wasn’t right after all.
I have been lucky. I’ve been commissioned and haven’t had to persuade anyone to accept my book proposals. I’ve had enjoyable books to write. All of them have been high-quality pieces of work.
Lessons? Well, the book that succeeded best was the one that paid me nine month’s salary in advance, the one which the publisher was commercially motivated to promote. But just because a publisher gets you to write a book, it doesn’t guarantee sales. Nor does excellence in what you write. In fact, I don’t think ‘proper’ publishers have any better idea of what book will sell than the rest of us.
Perhaps I’ll publish independently next time—if there is a next time!