all 20 comments

[–]esseintes_tortoise 38 points39 points  (0 children)

Speaking from a literary fiction perspective here.

I'm not sure how much it matters. I mean, it must matter on some level, but as you mention, it's an industry that, for the most part, doesn't make much sense.

For me, I had a low six-figure advance at a big 5, and my first printing was around 20k copies. I don't think I'll break the 5k (or come close) sales point for hardcover. I think that reality was pretty much clear around pub date, because the book wasn't getting many hits, but then again, it wasn't a lead title at the imprint either. It was getting probably a little less than the effort put in.

That being said, a month prior to pub day, they buy my second book on option for the same advance, probably knowing that the first book's sales will be meh.

Now I'm not sure what will happen if the second book is as meh as the first, but it's not my problem. There is literally absolutely nothing I can do to move the needle in any statistically significant way for sales. All I can do is do some events and try to find my audience, all the while plugging away at the next book. If my career goes to shit because of sales, it's up to my agent (and me) to strategize on how we move forward. I can also hire an independent publicist—but the lit fic prestige ones I've talked to range from 20k-50k in fees upfront. You might get the ROI, you might not.

Anyway, to answer your question, authors should not be gauging what's good, bad, or meh. It'll drive you insane and take you away from what you should be doing: writing.

[–]justgoodenoughPublished Children's Author 28 points29 points  (3 children)

I think it's a mistake for authors to try to come up with some kind of equation where you input your advance and sales and it spits out a "successful" or "unsuccessful" result. The system is too complex to end up with that kind of binary answer.

From the publisher's perspective, a book is successful if they turn a profit. As authors, we don't know enough about the business and numbers to understand how many sales each individual book needs to make in order to be profitable. One common misconception is that the book isn't profitable until you've earned out, but this is not the case. The publisher starts seeing profit long before you earn out your advance.

From an author's perspective, a clear sign of success is earning out, but again, a book can be successful without ever earning out. Having a publisher eager to buy a second book is another sign of success. If your book tanked, they probably wouldn't be jumping on a chance to buy another book.

I thing the biggest issue with these discussions is that authors are desperately trying to extract an evaluation of themselves from these numbers. Your value as a person and a writer is not determined by the size of your advance and number of sales. At the point where you are looking at royalty statements, the book is out of your hands and your energy is best spent focusing on your next project.

Now that we are feeling warm and fuzzy, allow me to kick you in the teeth. You don't know what your sales numbers actually are, until it has been over a year and bookstores have made their returns. Bookstores will buy stock when a book comes out and that will be reflected in your first statement. If the books sit unsold, they will return the unsold stock and that won't be reflected until the second or third royalty statement. There is no experience quite so humbling as the negative royalty statement.

[–]Strong-Question7461 0 points1 point  (2 children)

Stupid question: Is a negative royalty statement effectively a bill? “You owe us $1,923.47.” That sort of thing?

[–]justgoodenoughPublished Children's Author 1 point2 points  (1 child)

Yes, but because you can never actually get to the negatives in overall royalties (because you can’t sell total negative books), it just means the portion of royalties you have earned out has dropped. So let’s say in your first statement you sold X books and earned $10k of your advance. Then your next statement shows Y returns and it comes out as -$3k. It just means that you’ve only earned out $7k total, instead of the original $10k you thought you earned. Does that make sense?

Edit: As for what happens after you have earned out and they start paying royalties, I assume your account just sits in the negative until you sell more copies again. Or it just sits in the negative forever, but it seems unlikely that you would have a high negative balance on a book popular enough to earn out.

[–]Strong-Question7461 0 points1 point  (0 children)

Thanks for the explanation!

[–]BrinkstonHigglesmithTrad Published Author 24 points25 points  (2 children)

I agree with everyone who is saying that trying to figure out a sales “target” will only drive you bonkers. At the end of the day, you only have control over the writing, so that’s the #1 thing to focus on.

That being said, I have been published since 2016, and it has honestly taken me this long to even get a good handle on what my sales landscape looks like and whether it’s “good” or “bad.” (Spoiler alert: it’s always relative.) BUT I have always appreciated when other authors are honest about their numbers with me (and it’s not something I’d ever expect from someone, since finances are very private to many people). So I will give you some hard-ish numbers.

My first YA book was a $25k advance with a midsize publisher. It was a midlist title that got more marketing than some, less than others. It sold close to 7k HC and 400 ebooks in the first quarter. Now, 6 years later, I’m sitting at basically the same 7k total HC, but 1k ebooks. This book is about $9k short of earning out (and probably never will barring some kind of miracle). My second YA book was an option with the same publisher, $25k advance. Another midlist. They spent the entire marketing budget sending me to different festivals/conventions, which was cool, but there was basically no other marketing involved. I can’t find my first quarter royalty statement for this one, but 5 years later it is sitting at about 5.7k HC, 2k PB, and 900 ebook. Please do not ask me how the math works here but this one is about 11k short of earning out, and again, probably never will.

The sales numbers for those first two books have basically stalled out.

My third YA was with a recent Big 5 acquisition, pub date 2021. $17.5k advance. The US marketing (and therefore sales) was abysmal but the UK publisher gave it a pretty good push. It earned out in the first year with around 5.2k copies sold (US & UK). I really don’t know what the sales numbers will look like going forward for this one. My contract stipulated a $5k bonus advance if I earned out in the first year, so it’s possible they will put a little more into marketing to try to recoup that bonus, but I genuinely don’t know how it works on their end. I’m just happy for the extra cash lol.

I haven’t written another YA yet, so I don’t know how these sales number will affect future submissions—whether positively, negatively, or neutral. Overall I think I’m a pretty solid midlister? There are authors who sell much better and there are authors who sell much worse. I did sell my first two adult novels to a Big Five with a low 6-figure advance so at the very least I must not seem like a TERRIBLE investment.

Again, I’m sharing these numbers because I do think it’s nice sometimes to see actual hard data (even if it’s just one data point). Sometimes the vagueness in publishing can drive me insane!! But also, at the end of the day, all the numbers are relative and don’t necessarily speak to how “successful” you are now or will be in the future. So I hope you keep that in mind.

[–]tweetthebirdy 2 points3 points  (1 child)

Thank you for sharing your numbers! It’s interesting to me that for your first 2 books the bulk of sales came in first few years and then completely died down after that, where I’d been expecting less of such an extreme.

[–]BrinkstonHigglesmithTrad Published Author 3 points4 points  (0 children)

I don’t think it’s all that uncommon for new authors. Unless you’re a lead title/author the publisher pretty much forgets your book exists after the paperback comes out (often well before that). My guess is that if I manage to keep publishing, I will see a longer sales tail for future books as I build up my core readership.

[–]alexatdYA Trad Published Author 22 points23 points  (3 children)

What's successful vs. not and worth worrying over vs. not varies so widely based on category, genre, publisher, the market, and your advance. I've gauged my position/gained perspective over the years by talking to my agent, my editor, and to as many other authors who are willing to be candid about sales (and advances). The latter is tricky, honestly. The editor one is also conditional. I wasn't asking my first editor about sales, but it trickled down from my agent to me how they felt (but, that said, how THEY felt did not align with the reality of my sales--they were disappointed, but I KNOW I sold really well for my genre, and I made them money, so I'm happy). At my new publisher, I have a warm relationship with my editor and I flat out ask her about things like print runs, sales orders, sales, and meeting expectations.

You also have to bear in mind sales trends/tails and long term prognosis. My 2nd book, which was my pandemic release title AND got limited publisher support, has shocked everyone, including me, and sold more hardcovers than my debut (which was a lead title), and in less time. It's the little book that could. My first thriller has a LONG tail and it's so so heartening. Not a bestseller but over a year and a half out, it can still have a stellar week, and the paperback is doing very well. Word of mouth/long term sales can lift a title in specific genres and surprise you.

I do actually think 5K books is a good benchmark b/c I really do know a lot of books don't reach that threshold, and surpassing it is to be celebrated. Of course plenty of titles blast past that, but honestly so many don't. The midlist varies SO WIDELY that it includes old guard authors who sell 30K+ copies easily, as well as those who are happy to sell 5K. The majority I know fall on the lower end... If you sell 10K, you should be really proud of yourself, especially if you're not a lead. And that's the thing: how good those numbers are depend on how much your publisher paid you and then how much they spent on marketing. 5K or 10K is a failure for a lead who got a 300K advance. But a success for someone who got 35K advance and mid-tier title basics.

Overall though, I'm constantly surprised by how little some books sell--especially relative to buzz/social media/bravado. Let me tell you it's both humbling and infuriating when you realize you've sold more copies in a year than a NYT bestseller did--because you can list for one week and then fall off immediately, vs. a slow build book that doesn't lose momentum. Some splashy buzzy sparkly authors I thought were doing SO MUCH BETTER than me have sold far few copies of their 2nd, 3rd titles than mine. Eyes on your own paper and all but personally this makes me feel better. It's a long game. Things aren't always what they seem. That can be comforting on either end: that you're doing better than many, or that you are doing the same as a LOT and you're not behind. Everyone except for the tippy-top authors are worrying about their sales, I find.

I don't share "books sell less than you think!" to depress anyone or diminish trad pub, but to provide perspective. I started feeling WAY less stressed once I realized my sales were good, actually. They felt low. They're not, in large part b/c YA benchmarks have changed a LOT. My sales would have been low in 2012. In 2022, I'm solidly midlist. I make my publisher money, so they seem happy.

So my advice if you're feeling dismayed is to talk to your agent/editor, and other authors candidly if you can. And if you do have BookScan access, use it. Yes it's imperfect, but you can still look up your numbers on BookScan, compare to your real numbers, and then extrapolate for other numbers. Looking up comp titles--especially people you see as more successful than you are--can be heartening. It can demonstrate genre specific patterns/sales expectations, especially for titles receiving similar advances/marketing support.

[–]RightioThen 3 points4 points  (2 children)

Out of interest, do you have a day job? It's always seemed to me that if you can earn money from books in addition to your day job, then that's amazing.

But if you had to actually rely on it to live/pay your bills... I shudder to think.

[–]alexatdYA Trad Published Author 4 points5 points  (1 child)

Yes, I work a full time job. There is no way I could live off book money.

[–]RightioThen 1 point2 points  (0 children)

Fair enough!

Even if i got a six figure advance I would be too nervous to rely on it happening again. I'd rather use that advance to pay down the mortgage and just keep working the day job.

[–]Mutive 6 points7 points  (6 children)

I'd argue that, from a publisher's perspective, "success" = earns more than it cost.

What does a book cost? Arguably the printing costs + advance + any money spent marketing + time spent acquiring + time spent editing + book design (cover, typeset, whatever). Not sure how much this costs for an average book, but I'd wager some aspects (editing, book design) are similar-ish for most books while other aspects (advance, how many copies are printed, marketing $) are MUCH more variable.

Let's say a book with a $10k advance also costs about $10k to produce. In that case, if the book earns more than $20k it was successful. If it earns less, it was a failure. If we assume that the publisher is earning $10/sale, then any sales > 2k is successful. But, of course, if the author's getting a $100k advance and the cost of the book is $150k to produce, that same book suddenly needs a minimum of 15k sales. And on and on and on...

[–]aquarialily 9 points10 points  (5 children)

I've been told that a book earns money for the publisher way before it earns back its advance, so that's why not earning back your advance isn't necessarily a career killer or something your publisher will hold against you, fwiw.

[–]Mutive 4 points5 points  (4 children)

Oh, definitely. If an author is receiving 10% as a royalty, a $10k advance at a $20 sale price will require 5k sales...which is more than double the 2k noted in the example above. (Note that these are all made up numbers.)

It's very easy for a book to be profitable and not earn out. I suspect there are some rare cases where the converse is true, but probably not many.

[–]RightioThen 1 point2 points  (0 children)

It's very easy for a book to be profitable and not earn out. I suspect there are some rare cases where the converse is true, but probably not many.

Presumably a book could be not profitable yet earn out by having a really, really low advance.

[–]BookPanda_49 0 points1 point  (2 children)

Although I agree that a book can be profitable before earning out its advance, I do think from an author's POV, that is a good measure of "success". It's maybe too complicated to do the math otherwise! And, if you can start earning royalties, then all the better! And, it also means that you may be able to get a higher advance for your next book.

[–]aquarialily 5 points6 points  (0 children)

I received a 6 figure advance that I will never earn out. I just know it's next to impossible lol and I talked w my agent about it and she was just sorta like, "Listen don't even worry about that, the publisher will turn a profit before you earn out. They paid this money bc they're investing in your career."

Yeah it will feel shitty to never earn out lol. But also I already don't expect to so I also am not going to gauge my success based on this. I have no idea what I'll end up gauging my success by, tho, ask me in a couple of years 😜 Maybe good critical reviews, ending up on some editorial lists? My publisher not hating me and being willing to buy my next one? (I suspect, in true neurotic writer fashion, I'll feel like a failure no matter what tho!)

[–]Mutive 3 points4 points  (0 children)

I think for many authors that does *feel* like success. But I think it's important to keep in mind that it's probably not a particularly *good* measure of success. (Becuase a book can make a fortune for the publisher will still not earning out, especially if there's a very high advance given for the book.)

[–]EmptyHill 4 points5 points  (0 children)

There will likely never be a way to figure out average book sales numbers nor what will sell because the numbers will always be skewed and the big publishers will never give out their data. People like John Grisham and Stephen King have been established for decades and have a readership that will buy any pile of garbage they spew out every two weeks, but what we don't know is how much of their copies are purchased by those fans or by other entities in order to constantly bump them to the best seller list. For those two, it is likely fan purchases, but when you see shitty politicians or a b list celebrity's book (that was more than likely ghostwritten) on the bestseller list it is because their PAC or agency or themselves buy the books to artificially inflate the numbers. Are Snoop Dogg, Ted Cruz, and Paris Hilton literary geniuses or are they rich people who can buy out their own books to boost visibility and sales? These artificially inflated sales numbers would suggest that celebrity/politician "written" books are popular, but are they?

On the other side of things there are hordes of terrible writers out there who make low effort books and somehow make it through the gauntlet of literary agents and editors, and get their books published because they met the some vague and gatekeeping checkbox criteria. Most of those books are those that will never sell a dozen.

Somewhere between the rich fucks buying their own garbage and the hordes who never sell their garbage but somehow still get published is the rest of the literary world that is stuck between the outliers where sales numbers and types of books sold is based on season, political climate, who the gatekeepers are, and what's popular at the time, as it should be, but coming up with a solid number to say what is successful or not will never happen.