Awhile back, Mark Lawrence invited me and a bunch of other fantasy writers to share book numbers for an informal poll on the relationship between Goodreads ratings and actual sales. Being a numbers nerd, I was happy to participate, as were some other authors, many of whom shared hard numbers.
I missed the final result, as it was posted during crazy promo week for Empire Ascendant, but you can check it out here:
A couple of things: first, note that yes, God’s War is the only book of mine even to rate a call-out on that scale, and that’s because it’s had since 2011 to rack up its 20,000 or so sales. Mirror Empire isn’t far behind it, but as you can see, compared to, say, Brian McClellan and even Django Wexler, I’m pretty far behind the leaderboard, here. Empire Ascendant is selling about the same as Mirror Empire right now (I should be pleased to keep 90% of my audience from book 1 to book 2, as keeping 60%+ is the goal for any continuing series, but of course one always hopes to see a massive spike. Let’s keep our fingers crossed for all those completionists waiting on The Broken Heavens).
This is a great illustration of the “sales vs. perception” phenomenon that I see a lot. Folks assume that because I win awards and have a high online profile that that’s translated into big numbers, and then wonder why I keep my day job.
Folks: you are looking at the reason I keep my day job.
The real takeaway here for me, though, was the 7.7 number. That is, as a general rule based on this small, limited sample of fantasy authors, you can take a fantasy author’s Goodreads ratings, multiply them by 7.7, and figure out about how many books they’ve sold.
But Does the Formula Work?
I applied it to every one of my titles, and it worked for all of them within about a thousand copies or so. Rapture has sold about 1,000 less than the formula would imply, Infidel about 1,000 more, and God’s War is about right, so it evens out across titles. As Lawrence points out in the post, of course, this is only broadly applicable to fantasy titles, and should probably only be used to compare titles that came out in the same year (there are more people using Goodreads now than in the past, so it likely won’t work in the same way for titles prior to 2011 or so). Also, UK readers use Goodreads less than US readers, so if you sell a lot in the UK, that won’t be reflected here. It’s a rough estimation with a severely limited data pool, so is a fun party trick as opposed to Science.
That said, the first thing I did, of course, was start looking up the books of colleagues and determining who should be buying the drinks at the next convention, and who I should be buying drinks for. Of course, doing this to something like The Name of the Wind just makes you want to cry into your cornflakes, so you may want to avoid that.
What Makes Books Sell?
This, of course, leads us to the broader conversation of why some books sell and some books don’t and some books (like mine) just kind of bump along there in the midlist slowly building steam while others sell 2 million copies their first run out the gate. The broad answer is, nobody knows. I know one author who went from selling a few thousand copies a year on their self-pub title to making nearly $100,000 in a single year when Amazon.com changed its algorithm. The next year, after the algorithm changed again, they went back to making about $10,000. I know others who received huge marketing pushes from their publishers – generally folks who were paid a lot up front anyway for a book that was pre-empted or went to auction. When you pay a lot for something, you invest in it.
There’s also the simple prose, engaging story style that’s immensely popular. I know for a fact that I’d sell more if I wrote simpler stories that were more plot driven. And I’m certainly working on the plot part, but the simple part: simple story, simple prose, doesn’t appeal to me. So I’m looking for ways to be a better, more engaging writer. That said, the complexity of one’s story isn’t everything: the first book in the Malazan series has reportedly sold over 1 million copies. So it’s not just about complexity. There’s a lot going on when a book comes out. As with “We Have Always Fought” sometimes you’re just writing the right piece at the right time (I was amused to see that Zoe Quinn has a memoir coming out in September next year; my essay collection comes out in May. Jumping on a cultural moment with a collection at just the right time doesn’t hurt). Though I admit I’ll be pretty annoyed if what finally hits is the gendered work. The essay collection has a good cover, and is with the largest publisher I’ve worked with thus far, but yanno, I was not paid billions for it, and marketing budgets are notoriously tight everywhere. So I anticipate another long personal haul on this one, too.
All that said, Myke Cole’s book Control Point, which came out about the same time as God’s War, hasn’t sold too much more than God’s War, and he too was a debut author. Unlike mine, his book came out from a solvent publisher who could reliably print some copies, so it’s not all sexism and strife out there, it’s just tough for everyone (though sexism can indeed be a factor in sales, as women writers know, most casual readers assume I’m male, so I think that needs to be taken into account in any talk of sexism in the genre and how it applies to me. To casual bookstore audiences, I am passing for male).
Basically, every book you write is – for lack of a better term – a lottery ticket. You spin the wheel, you write the best book you can, you partner with the best publisher possible, you shepherd a good cover, you market the hell out of it, and you get back to work.