59. Publishing 101: Sales & Success
This week Kelly and JJ talk about SALES & SUCCESS, or Keep Your Eyes on Your Own Paper. We're kind of a downer in this episode, but we want to keep things real for you. Also, we know these are trying times, so remember to take care of yourselves too.
It can be really hard to gauge your level of success in this industry, mostly because there is a lack of transparency about hard data. People's advances, how many copies they've sold, etc.
How a publisher defines success: it's really simple, but honestly, a book is considered a success if it makes the house money (i.e. they earn more than what they paid for it in terms of advance, marketing, and publicity).
Our last episode about money: Publishing 201 Advances & Royalties
Authors will generally get hard numbers twice a year with their royalty statements, one covering the accounting period from January through June, and another from July through December.
Authors can access their Bookscan numbers through Amazon's Author Central, which accounts for POS, or point-of-sale copies. This mean Bookscan tracks actual copies purchased and rung at the counter (of stores that report to Bookscan).
You are, however, paid on the number of copies shipped. (To bookstores, to libraries, to other retail outlets.) This is why many authors say that Bookscan accounts for anywhere from 30% to 70% of total sales.
This is also why you are paid every six months, because the publisher is always withholding a certain percentage of your earnings for "reserves against returns." Every vendor will have some arrangement with the publisher where they can return unsold copies after a certain period and get a refund (hence the "reserves against returns"). The withheld percentage will be released to the author the following period if there are no returns.
Factors that go into making a book a financial success:
Size of first print (determined by how many copies the different accounts—BN, Amazon, Target, Walmart, etc.—have ordered)
Sell through rate (how much of your print run you've sold at the end of a year)
Obviously these factors are all connected; for example, the size of your advance may dictate the size of your first print (the larger the advance, the more pressure publishers will put on accounts to take more copies).
However, even if your print run is pretty high, it doesn't really mean anything if you only sell through 20% of it. For example, you have two authors. Author A has a first print run of 10,000. Author B has a first print of 5000. After a year, Author A and B have both sold 4000 copies. Even though they've both sold the same number of copies, Author A has a sell through rate of 40% whereas Author B has a sell through rate of 80%. Author B would be considered a success, while Author A would likely be considered a "disappointment." (Please refer to our previous podcast about sales, specifically about remainders.)
Because it takes about two accounting periods to get a true picture of how the book is doing, it is very difficult to gauge whether or not a book is successful out the gate. Some books may start strong but fizzle out. Others may be slow and steady.
How the author determines success...well, that depends on the individual. Some consider earning out a success. Some consider hitting the New York Times bestseller list a success. Others consider winning an award a success.
Success is what you make it. You determine that. But also understand many external markers of success are out of your control: the tours, the marketing, the publicity, etc.
Okay, so what makes a book a bomb or a flop?
Basically, a book is considered a disappointment if it doesn't live up to expectations, however low or high they might be. However, a bomb or a flop is a book that drastically underperforms expectations, and unfortunately there's more potential for a book to flop the bigger the advances get.
Warning signs that you may have a potential bomb: when the book is received with a resounding "meh." As we said in last week's podcast, nothing kills a book faster than indifference. Better to be hated than ignored.
It will be harder for the author to sell another book if their previous one flops, and the reason isn't necessarily because your publisher doesn't believe in you. When ordering for their shelves, bookstores will look at an author's track record. If they ordered 5000 copies of your first book but had to return 3500 copies, then they will be much more cautious about taking copies of your second. They may only take 2500 copies the next time around. Remember, the size of your print run is tied to your advance as well as how many copies the accounts take. (This is often why an author will start publishing under a pseudonym; their pen name will not have the sales track of their first name.)
Expect the worst but hope for the best. Managing expectations is crucial to longevity in this business.
What We're Working On
Kelly signed her first client!
JJ has been swamped with pre-release promo stuff.
Books Discussed/What We're Reading
Mattimeo by Brian Jacques
13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher
The Shadow Land by Elizabeth Kostova
The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova
The Crown's Game by Evelyn Skye
Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
Off Menu Recommendations
That’s all for this week! Next week we’ll be going back to Writing Mechanics with a discussion of POV. As always, if you have any questions, please leave them in the comments, or reach out to us on Twitter with the hashtag #askpubcrawl.