I haven't quite known how to say this, so I guess I'll just say it: the paperback sales on Sunborn have been terrible. The worst I've ever seen. Distribution is awful—the book isn't even being stocked by many bookstores I would have expected to carry it, like Borders or my local Barnes and Noble superstore. Or if they carried it, they stocked one copy. Not six or eight, like in old days, but one. How can you launch a book like that? And why is this happening?
The reasons are legion. And these are just the ones I know about.
For starters, there was a long interruption in my output, and the first three books of the Chaos Chronicles were long out of print. I tried to address this by offering free downloads—and that certainly helped stimulate interest, but clearly not enough. At the time the paperback was published, I was in a family crisis and slow off the mark in doing the usual promotion I would have done. Worse, promotion from the publisher was indifferent, and their declining to bring the first three books back into print spelled trouble.
These are the obvious reasons, but not the only ones.
According to my editor, slumping sales are bedeviling a lot of authors and a lot of mass-market paperback books. The biggest factor is that the distribution of paperbacks has gone to hell—not just in bookstores, but in places like newsstands and drugstores. There used to be hundreds of wholesalers, each knowing their own territories—the guys who drove the trucks and put books on the racks, and who knew from experience what kinds of books tended to sell where. Now it's all consolidated, with a few huge outfits covering most of the business. And they're doing it by computer from central locations, making decisions that literally make or break national distribution of a book. Books that once might have found a modest but respectable audience are now cut out of the loop; they simply are not carried by the wholesalers that would get them into points of sale outside the traditional bookstore. As a result, what was once a major avenue of sales—to the casual browser who came into a convenience store looking for soap or a candy bar and stopped to thumb books on a rack—is now limited to the guaranteed bestsellers. So, you can find a book like Sunborn easily enough online, but only if you're looking for it. Your bookstore can order it, but only if you know to ask for it. But many potential new readers will never see it.
Did my posting of free downloads help or hurt? It definitely helped make a lot more people aware of the books. Did it sell books or prevent sales? Will ebook sales make up some of the difference in paperback sales? Without a parallel universe to use as a control, there's just no way to know.
"How can I help?" I hear you saying. (Maybe I'm imagining. But let's assume I'm hearing it.) One thing you can do, of course, is to head to your local bookshop if you haven't already and pick up a copy—if not for yourself, then for a friend or relative. Another is simply to encourage your local bookstore to carry the book. If you special-order it, that's one sale. If you can get them to stock a few copies, that could be several sales and a ping on their radar. And tell people. Word of mouth is the most effective single way to promote a book. And only you can do that.
I don't intend to sit around doing nothing but complain. I'm in the process of rethinking and retooling promotion for the future. More and more these days, that job is left solely to the author (unless you're already a bestseller and don't actually need the help.) I have a bunch of ideas, and I'll be writing about them from time to time and will definitely be interested in your feedback.
"The girl doesn't, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the "curiosity" level." —from the rejection slip for Diary of Anne Frank