Why didn’t my book sell?

by M.J. Hearle

Last week I wrote a post detailing my thoughts on having the unsold copies of my novels, Winter’s Shadow and Winter’s Light, liquidated by the publisher. I went to great pains to establish that I wasn’t seeking pity, that I was grateful for the luck I’d had as an author so far, and the same disclaimer goes for this post as well. The experiences I’ve had in the publishing world have been nothing but positive. I’ve met some amazing people who I hope to keep working with in the future and overall feel incredibly blessed.

To repeat myself, this is not a pity piece.

It is, however, an opportunity to explore some thoughts and theories as to why Winter’s Light , the sequel to Winter’s Shadow, didn’t sell as many copies as the first book. I would also invite any readers out there to put forward their own theories in the comments section. I’m genuinely curious.

Theory 1: The book was rubbish

Obviously, I am in no position to argue against this point objectively. I did receive enough positive reviews though, to suggest the book wasn’t terrible. In terms of notices, Winter’s Light had roughly the same amount of good reviews as the first book. My personal feeling is that Winter’s Light contains much stronger writing than Winter’s Shadow. Not only was I a more experienced writer when I attempted the sequel, I also didn’t have to worry as much about clogging the story with boring exposition because I’d already established the characters and world. The narrative moves faster and from a language point of view, the prose feels tighter and more stylish. This is, of course, open to debate.

Theory 2: Poor publicity

A lot of writers complain about their publisher not supporting their book enough. Not me. I was blessed with an incredibly passionate PR agent (Hi Charlotte!) on Winter’s Light and did even more radio and newspaper interviews than the first time round. Granted, I was not always the best interviewee (it’s damn nerve wracking being interviewed) but I warmed up as I went along and by the end of the junket could actually string a couple of sentences together without stuttering. I didn’t get the subway and bus side posters that some authors get, but I honestly didn’t expect to. Winter’s Shadow wasn’t a huge bestseller so there wouldn’t have been much financial sense for the publisher in spending money on a massive outdoor print campaign for the sequel. Would I have sold more copies of Winter’s Light if there’d been a bigger advertising spend? Yes, but I don’t know how many more. It would have been a gamble and in these tight economic times, publishers are less likely to roll the dice. You can’t blame them.

Theory 3: Generic cover

This theory actually holds some water. I was never overly fond of the cover for Winter’s Light. It looked far too similar to other YA paranormal novels. Absolutely, there is marketing sense in targeting a specific demographic with familiar imagery but I think we didn’t do enough to stand out from the crowd.  Another potential issue was that while the Winter’s Light cover looked the same as other paranormals, it deviated considerably from the style and colour palette established with Winter’s Shadow. Most book series (see Twilight/Hunger Games, Fifty Shades of Grey, etc.) retain visual similarity from cover to cover to identify them as part of a set. Browsing the shelves of a book store, a casual fan of Winter’s Shadow wouldn’t necessarily recognise Winter’s Light as a sequel as there aren’t enough consistent visual signifiers. If the publisher wasn’t interested in continuing the style of Winter’s ShadowI would have preferred they went in a completely direction. Do something quirky and unexpected rather than try and follow a visual trend. The Winter books aren’t like other paranormals; their covers should reflect this.

Theory 4: The story wasn’t YA paranormal-y enough

And now we get to an issue that concerned me even before the book’s publication. When I wrote Winter’s Shadow, I was well aware of the YA paranormal genre conventions and how I was honouring them with my story. I had the wide-eyed ingenue, the handsome and mysterious stranger, the tragic love story, the teen angst, the supernatural paraphenalia – all elements I knew fans of the genre would gobble up with relish. Unfortunately, I did something stupid with Winter’s Shadow – I killed my love interest. This meant, Winter’s Light, couldn’t contain a strong romance element. It also meant the book was shot through with a very real sense of melancholy and grief. Not the most commercial of themes and certainly not the sort of story material the YA paranormal genre is popular for. I tried to compensate for the lack of romance by ramping up the thriller and mystery elements of the book and in the process think I created a much more compelling narrative, but still the romance element was missing. I hoped that readers would respond to a different kind of YA paranormal, something a little darker and weightier than the traditional fare. However, even some of the most favourable reviews mentioned their disappointment at absence of romance in the story. YA paranormal fans are some of the most passionate in the reading community, but they also know what they like, and it seems, are wary of stories that stray too far from the established model. Ultimately, I feel like this was the main the reason Winter’s Light  wasn’t as popular as Winter’s Shadow. It was too different. Too unusual. Not romantic enough.

You know what? I don’t care too much about the book’s lack of commercial success. Sure, I feel bad for my publisher that they didn’t make more money but I like Winter’s Light. It’s the best continuation of Winter’s story I could have written. And I think it sets up what’s promises to be one helluva third book.