Home » Fantasy/SciFi, Self-Publishing » Self-Publishing Confession: I have no idea why this book is selling.

Self-Publishing Confession: I have no idea why this book is selling.

22 August 2014

From author Sean Cummings:

My book Unseen World has had a wild ride since it first became available to purchase back in 2009. Lyrical Press, then a startup ebook publisher and now an imprint of Kensington Books was its first home.

. . . .

Anyway, the darned book didn’t sell. You couldn’t give it away, which is weird, because it’s really a pretty fun read – but then I’m biased. Anyway, Lyrical Press gave me my rights back – more publishers should give the rights back to books if, for example, that publisher closes their doors less than two years after opening to great fanfare. That was a pretty classy move on Lyrical’s part.

Unseen World came back two years later – this time in print with Snowbooks in the UK.

. . . .

Guess what … it didn’t sell. I think it actually sold worse than it did when it was published by Lyrical Press. But … to Snowbooks credit, they too gave me back the rights to all three of my books published by them.

. . . .

Flash forward another three years. I’ve just learned that Strange Chemistry Books is closing its doors. I’ve had two books published by them and I’ve got three books with the rights back. So I said to hell with it … I’m going to self publish Unseen World with a different title via Kindle Direct Publishing and with this cool new cover art that I whipped together.


And the strangest thing is happening … the frigging book is selling. For the life of me, I have no idea – maybe it’s that I’m selling it for 99¢ that people are deciding to take a chance on it. There haven’t been many reviews either on Amazon or on Goodreads, but there are a few more five star ratings so that’s nice.

. . . .

I really don’t know why it’s selling, but Marshall Conrad has been in the top 50 for Superhero books for nearly two months now and in the top 100 Dark Fantasy for nearly thirty days. It’s up there alongside big name authors like Stephen Blackmoore or Charlaine Harris. It has to be the price, right? Maybe? Okay, I’ve experimented over the last month and raised it to as high as $3.99 and it still held its own, remaining in the top 100 for Superhero fiction. I keep raising and lowering the price but it still seems to sell.

What kind of voodoo science is this? I just have no idea why it’s selling. I’m grateful though, you have no idea. Because after Strange Chemistry closing and my sales for Poltergeeks and Student Bodies being fairly abysmal, I was wondering if I should just walk away from all this. Very simply, the strong sales for Marshall Conrad have been a ray of sunshine in an altogether crummy year for me professionally.

Link to the rest at Sean Cummings and thanks to SFR for the tip.

Here’s a link to Sean Cummings’ books

Fantasy/SciFi, Self-Publishing

74 Comments to “Self-Publishing Confession: I have no idea why this book is selling.”

  1. I’m going to go out on a limb here. “Unseen World” tells you nothing about the story and I googled the original cover – it’s a close-up of a guy wiping his nose on the back of his hand, from what I can tell.

    • Yeah… That first cover looks pretty amateurish, to me. The new one at least gives a mood.

    • Cover and title. Absolutely. I was repulsed by the handwipe — was the unseen world in his nose? I don’t want to go there. And the first cover — it’s tiny so maybe I’m missing details — had weak typography and a generic image. The title has to do all the heavy lifting, and the title is potentially promising a pretentious plot versus a good story.

      The final cover has a better title, it’s atmospheric, and you’re promised a story about something cool. Not really a mystery why readers would flock to it.

      • A search for “Unseen World” yields a whole bunch of religious books and non-fiction/spriritual books.

        I love articles like this one. It really shows you how the right packaging is everything.

        • My first thought – before reading any comments – was “The Title.” UNSEEN WORLDS is dull. The hero’s name and the subtitle promise an interesting story. Wishing you more good luck and sales.

        • Strange. My college physics textbook had a terrible repulsive cover and it would sell thousands of copies a year 🙂

    • I’m a huge fan of titles, cover art not so much, but titles for some reason really get me going. I ignore blurbs. It’s genre and title for me (and author, of course). Unless there’s a spaceship…:-)

      So yea, much better title the 2nd time. Makes me think I’ll be reading about a person, and then the cover shows the person in turmoil. Sweet synergy buddy!

      Plus the subtitle tells me the genre straight off. Very nice.

  2. The cover and the title/subtitle. Subtitle caught my interest (huge genre I love) and the cover is AMAZING.

    • Totally agree. The cover and subtitle are key. Subtitles get over-used sometimes, not in this case. When I saw that, I immediately thought about reading it. I grew up on comics and would love to find a well-written adult take on those kinds of themes.

  3. Big congrats to you. Not knowing why it’s selling sure beats not knowing why it’s not!

  4. I’d be interested to know what genres you have to select in the KDP book settings to get it placed in the “Superhero” listings. I haven’t been able to figure that one out myself. FIC063000 is the BISAC listing for “Fiction > Superheroes” but KDP Select doesn’t actually list that options, so placing my Curveball serial has always been a blindfolded knife throwing act from my perspective.

  5. And this is great timing for superheroes, what with Guardians breaking box office records. Good for you!

  6. With comic books running $4 these days, superhero novels at most prices will get more attention than in the past.

    • Is it just me or are comic books these days also slimmer? Whenever I pick one up, I feel like the storyline has progressed 15 minutes. And I’m $4 dollars poorer.

      • The $2.99 ones are 17 pages, just as in the bad-old-days of the late 70’s before the move from newstand to comic shop.
        The $3.99 ones run 22-23 pages. Both formats are very liberal with splashes and two-page spreads.
        So, no; it’s not you.

        Most series are actually planned as graphic novels and some are following the old CROSSGEN model of laying out the pages with an eye to the graphic novel edition.

        I suspect floppies are not long for this world.

        • I yearn for digital editions. Check out Max Landis’s 2 issue run on Superman recently. Formatted for digital. Very interesting stuff. It was online before it went to print, can’t be sure but I think most people waited for print. 🙁

          I’m no expert but it seems DC is out in front on making e-editions. I read some good Injustice and Harley Quinn online in my ‘cloud reader’.

          Comics are not as easy to transfer over, comics are tall, monitors are wide.

  7. Title goes a long way. Both unseen world and marshall connor are ciphers as far as titles go, but marshall makes me more curious to look at a description.

  8. Superhero fiction is an underserved genre. “Soon I Will Be Invincible” (Knopf) is an incredible book, read several times by my wife, myself and our son, as is the “Black and White” series by Kessler / Kitteridge.

    • Those sound interesting.

      Shame that the 7 year old “Soon I Will Be Invincible” is still $11.99 on the kindle while the 5 year old “Black and White” is still at $9.99.

    • It kind of makes me crazy that DC does not publish the novelizations that it owns in ebook format. These companies are entirely focused on movies now, and letting the books wither on the vine.

    • Good one.
      I found the Black Stiletto trilogy a lot of retro fun.

  9. Thank you for your feedback. I kind of liked the Unseen World cover – the guy was wiping his bloody nose from brawling … something my protagonist Marshall Conrad does a lot of. Also, the back cover was really cool as it looked like a tabloid cover.

    I might well write the second book seeing as how it seems to be doing well, time will tell. I’m also hoping my new work THE NORTH gets a nudge from this as it’s got zombies aplenty and a few other surprises. I’m really pleased with that cover as well. If anyone wants cover art done, drop me a line. I love doing it.

    • Ooooo! Zombies! I’ll definitely check it out. (Yes, Sean, I have issues. 😆 )

    • I look forward to reading. It sounds like it has a Jim Butcher quality – which I intend as a compliment.

    • I didn’t mind the font so much — it did lead me to think of comics — but the title and picture didn’t give much clue as to what to expect inside (although I think the title might have worked with a different graphic). Covers really are everything these days.

      This new cover is dramatic — atmospheric. And the font treatment works better. That the title is more informative as well (a good decision) is icing on the cake. Best of luck!

  10. The price could have something to do with it.

  11. Looking at the packaging, it goes toward confirming my theory that online, a book has only one or two seconds to answer the reader’s question: Is this what I’m looking for?

    Pity Sean persisted so long with publishers. Lucky, lucky, lucky that his rights aren’t entangled until doomsday.

    • User experience (UX) research says Jaye is right. People make a very quick about the quality and “fitness” of a product. Finding the cover that hooks the readers who will like your story is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition of success.

  12. A huge thanks to Sean for blogging about his experince and to SFR for sharing.

    There’s so much we can parse from this; the value of being able to make changes to an IP or it’s presentation and the value of the flexibility to give a title time to perform or to find its own niche. We could easily make a big list but I think everyone should get the point.

    And now some notes from the other side of the fence:

    – The “expertise” in book packaging and design?
    – The business saavy bought to the table by the experts, IE: pricing?
    – Tireless and unequaled marketing and promo efforts?

    All attributes Mr. Kensington himself repeatedly swears are worth all the submission waiting, the contracts, the limiting and punitive clauses and the pittance in royalties. I Guess not. Again, we could probably make a big list but everyone should get the point.

    That his publisher gave him back his rights says what they thought of the IP’s after their sales run. Or maybe they’re just really nice folks, I dunno. Regardless, operating solely under the Legacy model this guy is probably marked as a “failure” and, as he admitted, was about to hang it up.

    I guess it’s a good thing that EVIL Bezos and his SOUL-SUCKING, PREDATORY monopoly corporation had another option available. It doesn’t matter that OP isn’t making 5-7 figures a month or is on his way to becomoing a household name. This story is a victory.

    • “I have no idea why this book is selling” is the normal mindset of trad-pub too. I won’t say they haven’t got a clue, but no one really understands why some books are popular and others (with apparent appeal) aren’t. Readers seem to have a sixth sense and manage to find stuff they like. It helps if an author has a popular backlist, but that’s only part of the story.

      The growing number of bean-counters in trad-pub see books as generic “product”, whereas each title is unique and needs a unique presentation and promotion. This is probably one of the many reasons trad-pub is going down the plug-hole …

  13. No doubt, the cover matters. However, Brilliance came out last Summer and has set the stage for other superhero books to succeed. Undoubtedly, there will be many books crowding the field in the coming months and years.

  14. The cover is important. (Doesn’t hurt that it has echoes of Unbreakable.)

    But there’s a bigger issue here. The business model adopted by the big publishers and generally forced upon indie bookstores and big chains, doesn’t serve writers or readers well. Particularly fans of that particular genre. The big publishers want to limit the number of books available, and they want to push a lot of books that people aren’t interested in (literary fiction because they are snobs, and political books because they are influence peddling).

    For somebody who loves superhero type stories, wandering into a typical bookstore is a frustrating experience. Most of the space in the store is devoted to what amounts to paid advertisements for books that publishers are promoting. If there is any superhero type fantasy, it’s probably buried in the back, limited in number and overpriced.

    So those customers are trained not to go to bookstores. And, until Amazon, they probably avoid reading because they aren’t interested in The Goldfinch or Hillary Clinton’s bio and may not even consider that there are books that would interest them.

    The beauty of Amazon is that fans of very specific genres can find books (cheaply) that directly appeal to them. And once they get hooked, they can easily search for more of them.

    In other words, Amazon is servicing a market that big publishers (and most bookstores) abandoned/ignored. Theoretically, it is taking nothing way from the trads by servicing these ignored customers.

    Except for power. It’s like having a Soviet era run grocery store sitting next to a Walmart. The Soviet store has what customers are supposed to buy. The Walmart has what people want. How long before people stop going to the Soviet store altogether?

  15. The cover is a bit angst-y. Maybe the potential audience likes that. The font might add to that.

    Or maybe it is just the result of random chance, that we mortal refer to as a run of good luck. In any sufficiently large dataset, there will be surprisngly long runs of “luck”.

  16. OK. Here’s why it’s selling.

    1. The price, currently at 99 cents.

    2. The description, which covers a lot of genres, so many readers will find it.

    Readers searching for something to read in all of these genres will find this book:

    * serial killer fiction/ thriller genre

    * “super powers” — super hero fiction

    * paranormal genre — a witch, ogres, netherworld

    * something different: Siamese cats (I bet people search for “cat” books)

    3. The title: “A Superhero Tale”

    4. The author can WRITE

    Lots of fans of superheroes… 🙂

    So, in summary, the description and the title mean that this book will come up for readers in lots of searches. The title helps. The price helps too.

    The author says he sold books at $3.99, so the price isn’t as important as the book’s discoverability.

    The cover is fine, but no reader buys on cover alone. The author did a wonderful job on both the description, and the title.

    The description’s a gem: something for everyone. 🙂 I haven’t read the first few pages, but judging by the description, the author can WRITE, so that’s the fourth reason it’s selling.

    • You’re so right. I wasn’t going to look at the book from this post because I don’t have much interest in superheroes, but now that you’ve mentioned that there are serial killers, witches, and ogres… Well, I might not be able to resist!

  17. I wonder if Sean had continued writing and publishing other books since the last time it was published?

    Sometimes there is a critical mass you need to reach before a book takes off even if you do everything else right.

  18. I know another Lyrical author who got her rights back, self-published the book with a new cover and a slightly lower price, and doubled her sales. She writes about it here:


  19. Good call on that subtitle. Your old cover looks fun, but more for teenagers.

  20. This made my day. Kudos, Mr. Cummings.

  21. This story gets me pumped up, too. You never know.

  22. I knew I remembered the name. Sean Cummings was, to put it mildly, skeptical of self publishing right here on Passive Voice!


    “At least with traditional publishing, for me at least, I get an advance on royalties and some marketing support as well.”

    He even poo poohed Howey’s Author Earnings. Chalk one up for another embittered trad pub author finding success in self publishing!

    It’s my opinion that high prices are what’s hurting non- brand name authors the most. For brand name authors, I think they can command higher prices. I’m glad Mr. Cummings is finding success.

    • There are a lot of crummy self pubbed books. Some people that buy my books might think they are crummy. Similarly there are also a lot of crummy traditionally published books as well. My sense is the two methods of publishing can compliment one another and there should never be “this way is the only true way” approach. I am still pursuing traditional publishing and there’s still a lot to like there as well, namely the support one gets from an agent or an editor to help you grow as an author. Are prices too high for ebooks? Absolutely! I think everyone has a “wish figure” in terms of how much they’re prepared to spend. My wife who reads more than I do (if that’s possible) pegs it at about $5.00 and I’m inclined to agree with her.

      • Hi Sean, did you come up with the title Unseen World or was it your publisher? I’m asking because your current title is tons better than your old one because it helps your reader know it’s about a superhero.

        I also think your cover is a whole lot better than the one your publisher gave you. From your old cover, I thought your book was about an MMA fighter or something like that. I wouldn’t have known it was about a superhero at all judging by the old cover.

  23. This post speaks to one of the less-touted benefits of self-publishing, namely, the ability to relaunch a book that does not do well on its first launch.

    In traditional publishing, if a book tanks on its initial launch, it’s done. It will gather virtual dust with the cover, title, price, and blurb that failed to move it in the first place.

    But in self-publishing, if your book tanks, you can give it a second chance, and a third, and a fourth. You can start by tweaking price and categories and keywords–those changes are easy and free. You can try a new blurb. If those changes don’t help, you can change the title and/or cover, which could run you anywhere from a few bucks to a few hundred, and see if that helps.

    NOBODY knows why certain books sell and others don’t. NOBODY. We all know that cover matters, and title, and genre, and blurb. We know that it helps if the book is “good.” But we can all name examples of good books that didn’t take off, and not-so-good books that did.

    Traditional publishing has a missed opportunity here. They have a lot of failed books. If they relaunched those failed books, all of them (at least in the digital space where it’s cheap to do so), with new price points and new covers, they would be showing more respect to those authors (“we KNOW this book is good, we KNOW it can succeed”) and offering them a better value. As it is, they sit on the rights to those failed books for 35+ years, doing nothing with them while denying the author the opportunity to relaunch the book.

    Traditional publishers throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks. Self-published authors do the same, except that the self-published author can pick up the spaghetti that didn’t stick and throw it again and again until it does. Because damn it, she has faith in that spaghetti. 🙂

    • Following agents, editors and publishers on Twitter has taught me a lot about the fact that our entire traditional model is based on the whims of personal tastes for those decision makers in publishing. Sales figures might back why an agent or editor is saying “this is dead” or “don’t send me any more paranormal books” but I suspect they’re not taking into consideration the sales figures for those self-pubbed books.

      Very simply, I can’t think of an industry that is so fickle anywhere on Planet Earth. I still like traditional publishing but I’m of the feeling that for me at least, the hybrid approach is best. (Now back to formatting MARSHALL CONRAD for CreateSpace.)

      • The industry by design, or at least evolution, is not about selling books but controlling the distribution of books. What is important is that printing presses keep printing books, books are loaded into trucks, and bookstores place those books at the front of the store. What is in the books is a secondary issue. In fact, books that don’t sell are cheerfully destroyed to make room for others.

        And, by design or evolution, the most important thing is to provide jobs for middle people who are not writers, executives, editors, layout people. These are the people with steady salaries, perks, pension and health benefits.

        The distribution machine has the ability to push the sale of certain books when the middle people want to, through prominent display, advertising, etc. What is in those books is again somewhat irrelevant, what is important is that the middle people want that book to sell more copies, whether because of taste, ego, influence peddling or nepotism.

        Writers, except for the few chosen by the middle people, are more of a problem than a solution. Because some of them write better than others. And that can gum up the works if a writer not chosen for greatness begins to sell too much. That can lead to the writer making more and more demands on the system, which is not really there to serve him. Therefore, making the system as confusingly unpleasant as possible for writers helps keep writers from understanding what is going on and looking for alternatives.

        Readers are also a problem, because they like some books over others, even if they aren’t the one’s displayed at the front of the store. They can empower an individual writer (or a genre) that is not in favor of the middle people. Therefore, it’s alright if readers who won’t buy the books in the front stop reading all together.

        It is fickle by design. That way top executives can make impulsive decisions based on their own whims without clear consequences. That trickles down to junior executives making impulsive decisions on their own whims (so long as they don’t interfere with their bosses whims).

        If the system was designed for maximum profits (rather than control of distribution), serving writers and readers would be critical. And that’s the threat of self-publishing, writers can directly connect to readers and get around the entire machine.

        • Writers, except for the few chosen by the middle people, are more of a problem than a solution. … And that can gum up the works if a writer not chosen for greatness begins to sell too much. That can lead to the writer making more and more demands on the system, which is not really there to serve him.

          Readers are also a problem, because they like some books over others, even if they aren’t the one’s displayed at the front of the store. They can empower an individual writer (or a genre) that is not in favor of the middle people. Therefore, it’s alright if readers who won’t buy the books in the front stop reading all together.

          If the system was designed for maximum profits (rather than control of distribution), serving writers and readers would be critical.

          This is a really interesting angle. A systems approach to analysis, and it has a lot going for it. Thanks, Mackay, for sharing your perspective. Gives me furiously to think!

  24. This is awesome Sean and kudos to the previous publishers giving you the rights back. Wishing you continued success. I love the new cover and title and find myself intrigued enough to one click

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