By the Numbers: Earning Out the Advance on a First Novel

When I got my offer for GOD’S WAR, I was woefully ignorant of exactly how many copies I needed to sell to earn back my advance, or how to track those numbers. Every writer’s situation is different, so it’s hard to glean any data from other folks online – even the few who are willing to talk about it. Looking back, it would have been smart to simply ask my publisher or my agent directly, but nobody likes to look like a n00b… So there was a lot of worry and gnashing of teeth.

I had managed to find a book numbers post from exactly one author, and her advance was far larger than mine from a bigger press, so it wasn’t really useful for somebody like me with a book from a small press. The runs are smaller and the numbers I need are different. So I’ve mainly been sitting around gnawing on my nails for months waiting on royalty statements to see just how screwed I was writing a feminist science fiction novel with far too much religion and billions of expletives.

I’ve been running in professional writing circles since I went to Clarion in 2001. That’s… well, that’s a decade now. And though I’ve sold some short stories, this was the first experience I had with publishing an actual book of my own. I’d heard a lot of horror stories about never earning out your advance, about selling just 26 books in 6 months, or 300 books over four years. The thing is, every book has a different breakeven point. The advance for Fight Club was a whopping $2k. I’m sure Chuck Palahniuk is still laughing about that, though it wasn’t funny at the time.

When GOD’S WAR launched, I had access to Amazon’s Author Central, which gives you your Bookscan numbers for books. Bookscan says it reports about 75% of sales – but libraries, book clubs, independent booksellers, and most e-books don’t show up here. Still, it’s supposed to give you an idea of about how well your book is doing in a given week. This service is actually more hinderence than anything else, though, because there is, in fact NO ACCURATE WAY TO TRACK YOUR BOOK SALES NUMBERS outside of a royalty statement. The fact that it’s so incredibly difficult to get ACTUAL, real-time updates on what your publisher sold (why don’t publishers have an author dashboard of some sort that streams this data?) is… batty. But anyway.

I did some math before GOD’S WAR launched, and figured that if I was getting about $1.20 a book (my royalty on paper books), I needed to sell about 5,400 books in order to make back the $6,500 advance I got for GOD’S WAR (minus my agent’s 15%, then minus 30% in taxes, etc. Whatever, yes: if you think you will immediately retire on your first book check, you are very wrong. Luckily, running in writer circles as long as I had, I already knew this, so it was not hugely shocking to find that 5 years of work had made me a little over $1k a year… to start). For somebody with bigger, scarier numbers to earn back, your initial check looks much nicer, but I expect that your trepidation is much higher as books hit the shelves.

Believe it or not, I was really terrified about needing to sell 5,400 books. Again – feminist SF, new author, etc. If we could sell 5k over the next few years, well, that would be nice. I honestly expected we’d sell about 3k. My ultimate hope was that we could clear 10k. It was just… that kind of book. And again: I knew enough writers to know that I needed to be realistic, especially with all the economic weirdness going on.

Right before I got my royalty statement for summer, Bookscan said I’d only sold about 2,000 copies (at best) from January to August, and the way your numbers generally work is that you get your biggest push up front, and then they dwindle off into nothing (barring some big movie deal starring Michelle Rodriguez, Isaiah Mustafa, Gina Torres, Vin Diesel, and… what? Oh, sorry). So I went from selling 100 books a week in February to 20 books a week now (says Bookscan). It was looking, to me, like I’d be lucky to earn out my advance in 2 years (two years being the generally accepted time in which I could earn out with any hope of ever getting a contract again). Which was sad, but hey, I figured I could start another marketing push with INFIDEL and that might help get the GOD’S WAR numbers up.

When exactly I would get around to finishing the actual writing of book three while doing all that, I don’t know, but you do what you have to.

So you can imagine my surprise when my agent emailed a couple weeks ago and said I’d already earned out my advanced and was, in fact, owed money for GOD’S WAR.

I honestly didn’t believe this. How on earth was that possible? Had I magically sold 2,000 ebooks (which I get higher royalties on), or what?

When the royalty statement came, I boggled a little at the numbers.

Who had BOUGHT all these books?

According to the statement, I’d sold 5,968 paper copies of God’s War and 521 electronic copies and had not only earned out my advance, but was owed a check for over $1,500 (which works out to having made $1,600 per year of work on the novel. I’m rolling in it, folks! ROLLING).

So I was busily hopping up and down until some other writer folks pointed out to me that this first statement was BEFORE returns.

Yes, that’s right: bookstores often return 25-50% of the books they buy from your publisher. So though my publisher reports that I’ve sold 5,968 paper copies, odds are good that a quarter of those will come back, and I’ll end up -$200 or so in the hole. Which, by the next statement, I will hopefully have made up. That’s why you don’t actually get your first royalty check until nearly a YEAR after your book comes out… it gives bookstores time to return your books.

Yup.

BUT STILL.

Even if I end up with some wacky 50% return rate, that’s still more books sold than Bookscan reported – the same Bookscan I’ve been obsessing over since February. When I went back and looked at some other authors’ thoughts on Bookscan, people were saying that it could report as little as 30%-50% of sales (so much for that 75%).

So, if I learned nothing else, it’s to just fucking ignore Bookscan and bide my time for the fucking royalty statement, as nutty as that may make me. I had known this on a rational level – I knew I should only check Bookscan for a general idea on how a specific marketing channel went, not for actual numbers, but Bookscan being Bookscan, I gave it a lot more trust than I should have.

This is pretty good news for the future of GOD’S WAR and INFIDEL. It’s not runaway crazy success talk, it’s just sort of-did-OK success talk (which may not sound sexy but tends to be more the state of things in the publishing world than those $1M advances and 500,000 print runs you see in the news), which means that if anybody wants to see book three, RAPTURE, we should still move a few more copies.

It won’t hurt, folks.

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