How can I make my self-published memoir a big seller?

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It’s doable but very hard. It takes a combination of good things, some not much in your control.

A starting definition is required: what is a “big seller”? Almost everybody will agree that if your book has “many, many thousands of sales; royalties in six-plus figures; a book-based movie, and spin-offs of book fame like Charlie Rose, the morning shows, and widespread name recognition, that’s a big seller.

All of that can happen, despite the self-publishing (which too often is linked to poor production and artwork, weak marketing, little or no selling pre-prep, and reluctance by book distributors to keep the book in stock and sight).

Your book is most likely to break out big if you are well known or you say things that lots of book buyers want to read—and repeat to their friends. Those sales can be quickly magnified if the timing is right—the topic excites readers eager to know more about what you are saying. (I’m presuming your prose is tight, true, and flawlessly professional.)

I think I heard you say, “Fat chance! No way my message will hit the headlines—and what would Charlie Rose, or even Tokyo Rose, ask me even if they could find me?”

Yet there are self-publishers who define being a “big seller” differently, though they’d be happy to be “found” if the world started spinning in reverse. They have already sold a few thousand copies, pushed through Kindle and CreateSpace. One suspects they are about as happy as they’d be if they’d won a Noble and Pulitzer Prize and Miss Spenser, the senior literature class teacher, had given them a posthumous “A.” Their books are well written, to the point, and spotlessly proofed. But the covers aren’t bookstore stuff: free artwork, Arial type, more cartoonish than befitting a true big-house tome.

They all did pretty much the same thing. They told stories, about themselves, their families, some friends. One book was sad. It was a true story. It was patched together with such gentleness and determination that it was hard to put down. A book you gave your spouse or your aunt even though none of you know the author. Or like your friend who told you to buy it—“you’ve got to read this.”

The other two popped with humor. Both worked because the dialog sounded true–and was funny; it was how men, the key protagonists, talk—one book, three brothers and an older sister in a tense, disintegrating family all sliding apart on strings of love; the other, a loose tale of a not-so-good magician working the subway, the bus station, and a bewildering corporate bachelor party, realizing that the weaker his magic was, the funnier was his patter.

Those are also paths to “best sellerdom” for the unchosen. There are as many, or more, winning paths in non-fiction too. I suspect there are thousands of writers of wee books who are puffing with pride just having the best they can do available digitally or in paperback. They’d take the fame and chat with Charlie but in the meantime they can scarcely hide their smile when somebody whispers, “I read your book. It was great.”

And what happens if only a handful of people buy or read your book. Don’t brag too loudly about your fan club. There’s no reason to say anything. Keep that book in your goods box to give your grandkids. You wrote and published a book. How many others in your family are in print? Or your friends? You count.

Best wishes,

Gordon Burgett

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