Tuesday, September 8, 2009
How many copies must a book sell to be considered a success?
"I would be curious what it means to 'sell poorly' at a major house. Isn't this subject to interpretation? Okay, we can all agree that selling 500 or 1000 books from a major house means that a book did poorly. But a first novel by a first-time author except in some rare cases) isn't going to sell 50,000 copies anyway, so what kinds of numbers do big houses expect? And how do those numbers change depending on the genre?"
This is a sophisticated question, and to answer it thoroughly will require a sophisticated response, one which first takes a step back and educates you on the mechanics and realities of how book sales truly work.
To begin with, one must know precisely what they speak of when they say “copies sold.” That term is used too loosely, often by authors who don’t truly know what it means, and as a result, publishing professionals are skeptical of any declaration of how many copies a book sold until they’ve have a chance to review all of the information for themselves. To accurately gauge book sales, the publishing professional needs to actually know four factors: 1) the number of copies printed; 2) the number of copies shipped; 3) the number of copies returned; and 4) the format of the book. For example, a publisher can print 100,000 copies of a book, but might only get bookstore orders for 10,000 copies, and thus only actually ship 10,000 copies. This would leave 90,000 copies sitting in the warehouse, and would be a disastrous (and extreme) scenario for a book publisher. A more likely scenario is that a publisher prints 15,000 copies and ships 10,000 of them to start. Thus, to begin with, we have the (important) difference between copies printed and copies actually shipped.
Further complicating matters, bookstores retain the right to return unsold copies of books to publishers, and these “returns” start to trickle back within a few months after a book ships. (Nearly every book suffers from returns, and the average return rate for a book is approximately 25%. This is why publishers will hold back money due you at royalty time, as a “reserve against returns.”) Within 6 to 12 months of a book’s shipping, most returns will have come in, so it usually takes at least 9 months from the time a book is published to know how many copies the book “netted.” If a publisher prints 15,000 copies of a book and ships 10,000 copies, and six months later 8,000 copies are returned, then that book has only netted 2,000 copies. That is the real number. In this scenario, an author might unknowingly boast that his book sold 15,000 copies (based on the print run) or 10,000 copies (based on the copies shipped), but in reality, after returns, his book has only “sold” 2,000 copies. It is all about the net.
Finally, to complete the picture, a publishing professional must also know the format of the book. A book might be published as a $50 coffee table book, or a $25 hardcover, or a $14 trade paperback, or a $7 mass market. If a book sold 2,000 copies at $50 or at $7, that makes a huge difference. 30,000 copies sold of a hardcover, for example, could be a huge success for a publisher, while 30,000 copies sold of a mass market edition might amount to a huge loss. So getting a complete picture of what a book truly “sold” is all about the net and the format.
Additionally, many books are published in multiple editions—often first as a hardcover, then a year later as a paperback—and it may be that a book only sold only 2,000 hardcover copies, but later sold 60,000 trade paperbacks. So to get an accurate picture of how many copies any book “sold,” one must tally up and take into account all of the editions of that book.
Now that you know what it means to accurately talk about how many copies a book truly “sold” from a publishing professional’s perspective, let’s look at some actual numbers.
We would all love to have that magic number, to know that, for example, 14,000 copies is the number you need to assure success and a life of future book deals. It is only natural that any author, after being published, would want to know how many copies he or she would need to sell in order to be considered a success. Yet if you ask your editor or agent this question, it is quite likely that they will hesitate in giving you a response. It is easy to gauge if a book is a huge failure, selling only 100 copies, or if it is a huge success, selling 100,000 hardcovers—but what if it falls into that gray area? What if it sells 7,000 hardcovers? Or 11,000 trade paperbacks? Indeed, this is one of the hardest questions for any publishing professional to answer. Most won’t even try to answer it, for fear of quoting a wrong number, or simply because even they don’t know how. That said, let me attempt to give you an answer here.
The most important factor in considering whether a book is a success is comparing the size of the advance to the number of copies sold. If a publisher paid a $3,000 advance and netted 10,000 hardcovers, then that book was a success. If a publisher paid a $200,000 advance for that same book, then those same number of copies amount to a failure.
Interestingly, for this very reason, some agents could argue that it is best not to negotiate too large of an advance for an author, thus assuring that the author will always be profitable for their publisher and will thus publish as many books as possible—and thus have more chances to land a major hit. These agents would reason that the author will make up the money on the backend, through royalties. Other agents could argue that what is most important is landing the largest advance possible—whether or not their author lands a subsequent book deal—since the majority of books won’t earn back their advance anyway.
All of this still begs the question: if you sold 7,000 hardcovers or 11,000 trade paperbacks and have to go out and find a new publisher for a subsequent book, would that sales record be sufficient to impress? What is the actual number of copies that will assure success? Here are some real numbers:
Most debut literary story collections net approximately 2,000 hardcover copies. Most literary first novels net between 3,000 and 7,000 hardcover copies. Most commercial first novels net between 5,000 and 10,000 hardcover copies. Non-fiction is genre specific, so one would have to take into account whether one were dealing with relationships, parenting, dieting, health, business, history, memoir—or whatever the genre—before one could offer approximations. That said, netting at least 20,000 hardcovers in any genre will usually be enough to make any publisher pay serious attention to your next book.
This is not to say that if one sold only 2,500 hardcover copies of a literary first novel that he is a dismal failure, or that if one sold 7,500 hardcovers of a literary first novel that he is guaranteed a subsequent book deal. Again, publishers will look at the whole picture when making a decision, including the number of copies you sold relative to the publisher and to the advance paid. If you sold 7,500 hardcovers after a $200,000 marketing campaign, it will not bode well; and if you netted 2,500 hardcovers after being published by a tiny press with no reviews or publicity, then that may bode well.
To further complicate matters, the concept and quality of the writing at hand might just make all of these numbers irrelevant. If a publisher falls in love with your new concept, he may very well want to buy your next book, even if your previous book sold miserably. I recall a situation where I had an author who didn’t earn back his $15,000 advance with one publisher, yet I sold his new proposal to a new publisher for a $200,000 advance because they loved the new concept so much. Conversely, you can sell a ton of copies and not land a subsequent book deal if no one likes your new concept, or if they don’t feel your writing is of the quality that it was in the past. I have seen situations like these, as well.
Obviously, if you are selling 100,000 hardcovers, you have little to worry about. Excluding that, there really is no magic number that will guarantee you a life of successful publishing. As I discuss at length in my book How to Land (and Keep) a Literary Agent, there will be always be so many factors taken into account, in addition to past sales figures, when trying to land a new book deal, including timing, the current market, and personal, subjective taste. Unfortunately, even selling well will not necessarily assure you a solid future in this precarious business; yet the good news is that selling poorly will not necessarily seal your fate either.
The most important thing for you, as an author, is to try not to pay attention to any of this, to keep writing, to keep querying, and to never, ever give up—whether it’s after one book, or after ten.