The Cold Publishing Equations: Books Sold + Marketability + Love

I want to talk a little bit about book numbers here.

I have before, but it’s time to do it again, because I’ve been watching a great crop of hungry and talented debut novelists throwing themselves out of the nest recently, and it’s on my mind.

I don’t want to talk about the big, bad book numbers that all of you see in the media and know are good: so and so hit book sold 2.5 million copies in 2 months. So-and-so sold 100,000 copies this year.

Those are outliers. That’s not the lived experience of the 99% in writing and publishing.

I want to talk about the reality of being a debut author, because nobody actually talked to me about those numbers. What defined success? What should I expect? Was I a failure if I sold fewer than 80,000 copies? Fewer than 20,000? I know selling 100 is bad, but outside that….?

The average book sells 3000 copies in its lifetime (Publishers Weekly, 2006).

Yes. It’s not missing a zero.

Take a breath and read that again.

But wait, there’s more!

The average traditionally published book which sells  3,000 in its entire lifetime in print only sells about 250-300 copies its first year.

But I’m going indie! you say. My odds are better!

No, grasshopper. Your odds are worse.

The average digital only author-published book sells 250 copies in its lifetime.

It’s not missing a zero.
If you sell fewer than 1500 copies at a traditional publisher, you’re generally considered a commercial disaster by any publisher but a very, very tiny one who paid you an advance less than $1000.

So: hope you sell more than that.

But this also greatly depends on how much your advance was. If your publisher paid you $100,000 and you sold 5,000 copies, well – they didn’t make money, did they?

Contrast this to my first book, GOD’S WAR, which I was paid $6,500 for and which earned out its advance and started making money in its first 6 months – after selling only its first 5500 copies. It has since gone on to sell over 20,000, and I just got a nice little royalty check about the size of the one I got for it when it was only 6-12 months old. We continue to have some… interesting interest in this series, which is fun. Go-go little book.

I actually knew we had to sell about 5,000 to be successful because I’d done the math. I was making a good royalty split on digital rights back then (50%! OH THOSE WERE THE DAYS), and I sat down and figured out how much I’d make if half my sales were digital and half print. We ended up selling 60-70% in ebook, so I made out very well.

One of the reasons it’s tough to talk numbers and success is because every contract is so different. Your advances will be different. Your royalty percentages will be different. And your subrights will be different. Did you know that if you bundle audio/foreign rights in with your publishing deal that when they sell those rights you get whatever percentage of the sale that’s in your contract and it’s applied to your advance? Audio money helped all three GOD’S WAR books (INFIDEL, RAPTURE) earn out, too, as did rights to the Science Fiction Book Club for GOD’S WAR, still the only (and out of print) hardcover edition of the books (foreign rights would have helped, too, but I’ve never been paid for the UK version of this series – I’ve been in an ongoing dispute with Night Shade about this since 2012 that even the SFWA couldn’t resolve to everyone’s satisfaction, and now lawyers are involved. But we’ll save that for another post, which is coming soon. People think I melt down easily, but I understand this is a business. In this instance, we’re talking three years of non-payment).

MIRROR EMPIRE did even better, with a $7,000 advance and sales in excess of 13,000 copies already. It’s in its second printing and now has a mass market version as well. It’s also sold audio rights and foreign rights to Germany and the Czech Republic. It’s not making me or my publisher millions, but it’s keeping the lights on. Whether or not this is a fluke, well, we’ll find out when EMPIRE ASCENDANT drops October 6th (THREE WEEKS EEEeeee). I’m told pre-orders are “strong” but what that means, as ever, is anyone’s guess.  “More than 100” I’d hope.

So while all this sounds mid-list rosy, I want to talk about the not-so-rosy stuff, because I have seen sales numbers that would leave you sobbing your guts out on the sidewalk (ha ha if you’re already sobbing at the ones I’ve shared YOU ARE IN FOR A SURPRISE). There are authors – authors you may have heard of – who have sold a couple hundred copies of a title in its lifetime. I’ve seen publisher spreadsheets that show some authors selling just a dozen copies over eight months. I remember one author had sold four copies in twelve months and I thought for sure it was a typo but it wasn’t.

These things happen. They happen to great writers, and exceptional books.

And they fuck up people’s careers. Many of us don’t come back from it.

I nearly didn’t.

In the case of numbers this bad, there are usually a lot of things that go wrong all at once – publisher fuck-ups, poor timing, bad pitching to bookstores, no author-driven marketing, bigger books moving to the top of reviewers’ piles, big news events that drown out signal, and yes, sometimes it’s just not a great book either, etc. Just as sometimes you get lucky and your book is right book, right time, right place, right content (“We Have Always Fought” is a great example of this), sometimes all the luck reverses at the same time, across every vector, and you’re just fucked.

That said, I do think we as authors have the opportunity to turn a book that COULD tank like this into a mid-list book with the power of smart marketing and positioning. No, doing events and guest posts won’t make you a bestseller – you need reader magic, cultural zeitgeist, good timing, for that – but it will keep you swimming. And I say that as someone who very nearly wasn’t swimming there for awhile, after RAPTURE sold just 2,000 copies its first two years out the gate (it’s selling more now – MIRROR EMPIRE’s success is driving people to pick up my backlist. The GW books are good. I say that in a no-bullshit way, as I’m aware of my flaws as a writer, and my strengths. It was a matter of reader awareness: I never marketed the second two books in the series, and my publisher had imploded by then and was no help).

calculus_circles_equation_equations_mathematics_m79618We have a tendency to blame outside forces for failures, but say that it’s our own inherent awesomeness that created a success. This is a real, documented phenomenon. One of the things I’ve learned in publishing is that yes, the only thing you have TOTAL control over is the words on the page. Your cover isn’t up to you, though you may have limited input (and covers are a HUGE driver of sales. Those MIRROR covers move books. The GW covers… less so). Whether readers like and/or want to share/talk about your book isn’t up to you either.

But I get frustrated when authors whose books don’t sell TOTALLY blame outside factors on its failure, while if they have a success, they say it’s just that it’s a great book.

Lots of great books fail to make more than a few hundred dollars for their authors.

Lots of shitty books sell millions.

This business is not a meritocracy. It’s… a business. And as with any business, yes, hard work and a great product will improve your chances of success by miles, but they are no guarantees.

BIG SECRET REVEAL HERE: I don’t think the MIRROR books are objectively better books than the GOD’S WAR books. You’re supposed to love your children equally, but I don’t. Yet the MIRROR books had better covers, more publisher support, and a more-or-less solvent publisher, in addition to a massive marketing push from me. I’ve been told, often, that MIRROR selling out its first printing and going out of print its first month out and staying out of print for several months REALLY impacted potential sales. I know. I know. But it was shitty publishing business I couldn’t control.

I did everything I could control, though, to help make it as successful as possible.

And on the upside, think about this: We don’t actually know what my full potential is as an author when everything on the publishing side goes right.

This leads me to contemplate the next couple of books out the door, which have similar advance numbers: THE GEEK FEMINIST REVOLUTION and THE STARS ARE LEGION. Both will come out in hardcover next year.

I did some vague math on LEGION, and in order to earn out my $20k advance I need to sell a mix of hardcover and ebook amounting to about 8,500+/- copies, and I’d like to do that its first year. Which is… doable. Comparing it to my other SF title, GOD’S WAR, which cleared almost 7,000 its first year with me as an unknown author with major publisher fuckups: WE CAN DO THIS.

As I ponder all these numbers, of course, I’m reminded of the anecdotal stories I’m hearing from other authors who’ve read my publishing advances post who are selling less than me and making bigger advances. Most of them are guys. If you want to make money as a woman writer, you’re still more likely to get that writing YA, or, to a lesser extent than in the past but still on occasion, Urban Fantasy.

But you all know me: I love it when you tell me I can’t do something.

All I have to negotiate with are my numbers, which is why I muscle hard to get them up and share them freely (publishers looking at Bookscan would run away. I still sell the majority of my books in digital). If I earn out a $20k advance in a year, I have negotiating power to demand my real worth as an author. But I have to prove I can do it. I have to prove there’s an audience for it. The same as I’ve been doing for the last ten years. We need to show growth.

You gotta be a rising star. Not a comet.

One of the most frustrating things about talking numbers, of course, is that sometimes none of it matters. Sometimes publishers make decisions that don’t have to do with the numbers. If they’re carrying a big-selling author up top, they can afford to take on writers who aren’t selling as much because they like them and their books. If your editor has pull, you can keep writing longer than if they don’t, or if they just don’t like your work (or you, it’s true!) as much as someone else’s.

This is the “cold” part of the Cold Equations, the part that has nothing to do with numbers and everything to do with who you are and what you write. It doesn’t happen often that you’re impacted by this personal metric, but it does happen. Don’t let it get to you. If you’re a dick, or unloved, or they just don’t see your market potential, you have to prove yourself with numbers… probably by starting out self-publishing or at smaller presses like I have.

There is a marketability + project love + numbers equation happening behind the scenes. And there is this: the more editors who want to work with you, and your work, the more likely you are to drive better advances.

For the most part, I am grimly optimistic about my career. I’ve been through (and am still going through) some of the worst publishing has to offer. But that also means that I don’t know how things will go when everything goes off without a hitch. I have a core audience now. I continue to work to level up my craft (I can plot my way out of a paperbag now!). I’m working hard to partner with a variety of publishers (something has to go right at ONE of them… right?). And I’m getting smarter about the business side, too. We’re also increasingly getting interest outside of publishing, which is nice. Diversify your income streams, folks.

In the meantime, I’m turning in three books this year and not quitting my day job. I complain about that a lot, but as I was reminded when insisting on some contract language this week, what’s nice about that is that I have the freedom to maintain some artistic integrity, still. I’m not starving. I don’t need to take a shit deal and compromise on something that matters to me.

I tell people often that you need to have your own metric for success. I’ve had people tell me that I could write Dinosaur p0rn for Amazon for $40k a year and wouldn’t that be great and I give them the side-eye because I make way more than that writing corporate copy and if I’m going to write something I don’t want to write, I’ll take the type of writing that pays me more.

My metric for success is staying in this game. It’s continuing to get contracts. It’s not compromising on the things that matter. It’s building an audience. If I can make a living at it someday or start pushing these narratives up through the bigger media channels and help change the world, all the better.

But being here, right now, is a success. It’s further than a lot of people get.

Staying in for the long haul will be an even bigger achievement.


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