All of the things discussed in this series - incompleteness, the Zeigarnik Effect, blurbs, pitches, cover designs and all the rest - why should you have to bother with them?
Aren’t they the province of publishers?
Don’t writers just write and then hand everything over to someone else to get it to readers?
That’s the way it used to be, and still is to some extent. Traditional publishing is still alive. Publishers are still in the business of creating books and selling them to readers. As we have said, most writers consider book sales an almost mythological subject that is full of mystery and magic: writers tend not even to know when they are selling well and when they are not, or even what constitutes ‘good sales’. ‘Sales’ and ‘art’ don’t sit together well in many people’s minds. And methods vary as to how to measure how a book is doing. Should we look at
• the number of copies of the book that are printed?
• the number of copies that have been shipped to stores or other markets like libraries?
• the number of copies that have been sold to readers?
• the Nielsen BookScan number?
What is the Nielsen BookScan? If you read about book sales it is the BookScan number you will see, because while publishers and authors have access to the real numbers, they are almost never released to the public or to other publishers. The Nielsen BookScan is an industry tracking tool that records point of sales based on ISBNs, giving a general sense of what books are selling, and thus the health of the industry. But Nielsen BookScan counts cash register sales of books, immediately excluding Amazon and other major ebook vendors. While ebook sales vary wildly from book to book (and genre to genre), and are typically less than 30% of sales, for certain genres, especially science fiction and romance, ebooks can be as much as 50% or more.
A publisher may print 6,000 copies, but only sell 4,000 copies to bookstores, of which maybe only 2,000 copies are actually sold to customers. Meanwhile, BookScan shows 600 copies sold.
The actual number of books sold is a combination of the above.
A publisher sells books to retailers like bookstores, but also to some other places like libraries. Retailers normally have the right to return unsold copies. So some copies that are ‘sold’ to retailers will eventually be unsold. Author royalty statements include an amount of money that is always withheld as a ‘reserve against returns’.
How much do traditionally published authors actually make, then?
Author royalty rates vary, but the industry standard is about 8% of the cover price for paperbacks and 10% to 15% for hardcovers. Why isn’t this higher? The majority of the cover price doesn’t go to the publisher: over 50% goes to the retailer that sells books to customers and the distributor who gets the books to retailers.
Most traditionally published authors do not make any money from actual book sales because most books do not cover the advance fee paid by the publisher. Traditionally published authors are paid money up front, before a book is released, out of future royalties. The book needs to sell enough copies so that the total royalties (not the total sales) match up to that advance fee, thus providing a trickle of royalty money to authors for all sales thereafter.
For example, let’s say you write a novel and a publishing house pays you £10,000 as an advance. The cover price of your book is £4 and your royalty rate is 10%. If the publisher sells 10,000 copies of the book, the total sales are £40,000 and you will have earned £4,000 from royalties. But you were already paid £10,000 so you actually have ‘negative £6,000’. The publisher takes this loss - you don’t have to pay it back - but if the book sells 25,000 copies, then you would have earned back your advance and at copy 25,001, you would start earning 40p for every book that was sold.
How can publishers possibly survive on these numbers?
Well, just like Hollywood film studios, they get by on a few hits.
A Harry Potter here and there covers for a lot of low-advance books that don’t sell well. But it’s largely about luck, timing, and unpredictable trends in the world of traditional publishing. A book can sell anything between 100 and 100,000 copies. Most novels published by a traditional publisher BookScan somewhere between 2,000 and 40,000 books. Most short story collections issued by traditional publishers get between 1,000 and 20,000 sales. Independent publishers average more like 500 to 10,000 for novels and 300 to 2,000 for story collections. Tiny publishers are more likely to achieve 75 to 2,000 regardless of book type. Once you get down to this scale, your author platform really comes into play: a good total sales-wise would be 5,000 after a year of sales.
If you go into your local bookshop, most of the books you see might get between 2,000 and 40,000 sales after a couple years on the shelves. More famous authors will get between 100,000 and a million. Wild variables.
What are the barriers?
• Most books struggle to find adequate distribution, much less coverage.
• Most do not get placement in displays.
• Many never get into bookshops at all.
The majority of traditionally published novels sell only a couple of thousand copies, if they’re lucky, over their entire lifetime. But 5,000 copies of a short story collection on a small press is a massive success; 5,000 copies of a novel from a big publisher that paid a £200,000 advance is a disaster.
A new writer at a traditional publishing house who sells more than 10,000 copies of a novel is in very good shape, depending on how much their advance was. More than 5,000 is good. Less than 5,000 will probably mean they won’t get offered another book.
Independent publishers do well if they sell 1,500 copies, with 3,000 being very good.
‘Top name’ books vary wildly, from 1,000 to 1.5 million, with an average of just over 75,000 copies sold per book. But a best seller might sell over 1.5 million copies; next in line might only sell 200,000. Anywhere between 25,000 and 50,000 is more realistic.
John Grisham, James Patterson, or Danielle Steel can sell a lot more than these numbers, but there aren’t many of those. Science fiction, romance, fantasy, all are in similar ranges to those given above.
So that’s the world of traditional publishing. A bit of a mess, isn’t it?
How does the self-publishing approach compare?
Publishing your book through a traditional publisher guarantees a certain level of professionalism, distribution, and hopefully marketing coverage for your book. Self-published authors must spend time and money marketing their books and self-published books sell far, far less.
The big difference is that the author’s cut of each sale is much higher.
So what can a writer do in the face of all this?
Learn to use the real secrets of marketing.
Using the required skills to full advantage, a writer can at least hope to score in the upper range of all of this, excluding the stellar celebrity writers.
It takes persistence and brightness, but if this is depressing, please recognise one thing: these figures are all based on conventional marketing, the ‘shouting from the rooftops’ kind of marketing which wastes energy and resources and looks like background noise to 97% of the public.
The role of the traditional publisher was vital in the pre-social media era. How else could potential readers be contacted except through ‘rooftop shouting’ methods? Look at the waste involved, though: advance fees based on speculation, print runs based on hope, copies shipped out to retailers based on wishful thinking, sales based on numbers of people wandering into bookshops…
Occasionally, an author would come out with the one book which met an unforeseen need with sufficient people for money to be generated, a ‘J. K . Rowling Moment’ would occur, and all the publisher’s bills would be paid. But that would cover all the errors, misalignments, misjudgements and wastage along the way.
Instead, using affinity marketing and being realistic about dreams, an author could cut out all this extravagant and excessive recklessness and focus on the things that matter: a selected group of warm prospects, motivated into action by vacuum power, and fulfilled by a well-crafted story. Social media has made it possible to contact such people directly without having to shout from a single rooftop.
The power to market is in your hands.
It’s part of the Golden Age of Independent Publishing.