Wednesday, December 23, 2009

How to Tell If Your Sales Rock... or Don't

Is there an average number of copies a picture book needs to sell before it's considered a success? How about a MG or YA novel? Or can a book's success be more accurately judged by whether it has earned back its advance? Or simply sold out its first printing? Please do not infer from this question that I've spent a lot of time lately staring at my royalties statements, as book sales mean not half as much to me as the smiles of my readers blah blah blah etc.
You can think of a book's success as based on sales numbers. Certainly a book earning out its advance is something to be desired, but the advance and the print run are linked, and the print run is an idea of how many books the publisher hopes to sell in approximately a year. So the advance comes back to sales numbers, too.

Past that, though: No, there isn't an industry average for any type of book. Sales goals vary widely publisher-to-publisher and within publishers book-to-book. The thing to compare your sales to is the first print run.

1st year:
sales are 1/2 or less of the first print run: This is a disappointment to your publisher. If the book was a small investment, the attitude in the office may be "ah, c'est la vie"; if the book was a very large investment, the attitude in the office may be "whose mistake was this, dammit, and whose neck is corporate going to wring?"
sales are around 3/4 of the first print run: Publisher response may range from "that's not so good" to "hey, that's not so bad".
sales are approximately the first print run: Publisher response ranges from "nice work" to "go us!".
sales are above the first print run: Publisher response ranges from "that's great" to "OMFG! Wearegeniuses!!".

2nd year:
sales bottom out: with the exception of a few very topical books, this is not expected and not appreciated.
sales dip, but are above 1/3 of the first year's sales: that's pretty normal.
sales are close to the same as the 1st year: awesome.
sales are above the 1st year sales: holy shit! quick, how did we do that? do it again!

5th year:
book is still in print: congrats. have a bottle of champagne, because this is getting less common.

10th year:
book is still in print: congrats! have a case of champagne, and invite all your friends over.

20th year:
book is still in print: shh. stop celebrating, you'll just make the other authors bitter and envious.

(Also note that if your book's sales were not quite as high as your publisher hoped, but the book got some very positive review attention, that may still be chalked up as a "win".)

Let us remember, however, that one of your rights and privileges as someone not working in a publisher's padded cells is to distance yourself from the capricious mood swings, self-congratulation, and finger-pointing of the industry. Unless you fought your publisher through every step of the book-making process or in a fit of hubris took an advance that no book without an endorsement from God himself would ever earn back, then you can at most take a small fraction of the blame for a book's failure.

And unless the publisher is run by total jerkwads to whom panic and recrimination are as the air they breathe, your book's sales history will eventually be viewed with equanimity and perspective.

So as long as your books don't tank over and over again, things are probably just fine.


Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Thanks for the great info! I'm nowhere near having a "book deal" much less "book sales" but this one is tagged for future reference. Also, puts into perspective what to expect if things ever get to that point.

Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, EA. You are such a fount of hard-to-find info.

My last book was reprinted in the first year, but didn't do spectacularly after that, perhaps because the Great Recession happened right then. So I guess that means my sales rocked, till they were hit with a rock?

CJ Omololu said...

Great post! Thanks for the hard and fast info in an industry where that is hard to come by.

working illustrator said...

This is a great set of guidelines. Not always easy, however, to get the number they depend on: the first print run... or the size of subsequent print runs.

In a sane world, royalty statements would begin with Total Books Printed and the sales and reserve numbers would break down from that. Alas, this is one of a great many numbers publishers are very, very hesitant to share with authors.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the post! *delicious-ing for future reference*

Cat said...

Great post - I always find myself wondering where the goal posts are in this industry. On the one hand, I've heard going into multiple printings is great, but on the other hand I always wonder what happens if the original print run was decreased because of diminished expectations since the sale -- does going into a 2d or 3rd printing still mean a success?

And when you say sales, do you mean bookscan or royalty statement?

Thanks, as always, for your great insight!

Christine Tripp said...

Not always easy, however, to get the number they depend on: the first print run... or the size of subsequent print runs.

Working Illustrator, I too have never been told the print run but have to admit to never having thought of asking.
It can sound good for me to say the books always far surpassed their advances but what does that really mean, as the advance could be so low it would be almost impossible to NOT exceed it with sales:)
Obviously the print run would give the author and illustrator a more accurate history of their books sales. I must ask, I'm more then curious now.

Corey Schwartz said...

Thanks so much for posting this! I have been trying to get an answer to this question for ages!

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