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.
Posted by Noah Lukeman at 11:49 AM
Subscribe to: Post Comments (Atom)
Thanks for this thoroughly informative post.ReplyDelete
How long does it take for publishers to make a decision on a MS? My agent has had my MS to some publishing houses for almost a year.ReplyDelete
Fantastic post. I've always been a huge fan of yours. You go out of your way to make something complicated both interesting and understandable.ReplyDelete
Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions! And I can't agree more with the final words of your article. Ultimately, as writers, we must remember our first love--writing--and not let the things we can't control (e.g., how well our books do once they hit the big, bad world) stymie us in our literary pursuits.ReplyDelete
I love how you answered this with such detail. Thank you!!ReplyDelete
Clear as a bell. Thank you.ReplyDelete
I can understand that a well-established literary agent with a strong clientele and a successful track record could rely entirely on referrals to find new authors. However, there are many well-known agents who spend time every day sifting through queries and unsolicited manuscripts.ReplyDelete
Of the unpublished novelists who approach agents out of the blue, how many of them do you think have manuscripts that would be of great interest to major publishers? Are great debut authors very rare or is there just not enough room in the industry for them?
This is a heck of a good and detailed answer, most of the time you just cannot get a straight answer out of publishers or anyone else. Thanks!ReplyDelete
Thanks so much for putting in the time and effort to REALLY explain it. I have been searching for this answer for a while and keep getting a bunch of numbers from different sources, none of which are the same, which has left me totally confused. Your response was refreshing and insightful and has set my mind at ease that even if a first novel doesn't make the best seller's list, that there is still hope. Thanks again!ReplyDelete
Hello to everyoneReplyDelete
Well, I'm a big fan of all kinds of books, magazines, comics and order all kinds of readings ... I love collecting unique pieces .. Its publication is really interesting
love the last line...totally not paying attentionReplyDelete
A Question - Let's say I have a book published by a well-known press and received an advance against royalties - if the book does not bring in enough revenue to cover the advance - do I have to return the advance - ever - down the line.ReplyDelete
(e.g. $20,000 advance, the book "nets" $10,000 - am I going to owe them $10,000 back??)
yep....pretty much, if you don't have a contract that expresses differently...however, if you do have a contract, then they'll likely deduct the advance from your next work...and even then, they can simply shell it all together, and let it all work itself out when the ink's dry...just keep writing!Delete
Thank you so, so much for this post, and for your blog more generally. I was just recently signed by an agent for my first fiction novel, and I've been in a state of high anxiety, plagued with a multitude of questions (about a very mysterious process). I haven't wanted to harass or micromanage my agent, who just sent the manuscript out. Reading your posts has helped me understand the process and manage my own expectations. Thank you for taking the time to put all of this together so that those of us fumbling along on the other side of things can get a better understanding of how the industry works.ReplyDelete
Would you consider a first-time author selling 24,000 hardcover and 26,000 Trade paper (same title), and half a dozen foreign rights deals, to be a success? Or would you need to know the amount of the advance?ReplyDelete
thnks so much, u hav no idea of just how much ur info has helped meReplyDelete
Extremely helpful as well as cautiously encouraging. Just what I needed.ReplyDelete
Once one has an agent, a good agent in NYC, does one just sit back and let the agent take care of things, or is there something else one should me doing?ReplyDelete
Thanks,very informative and it also leave room for creativity.Author Ty Forest. new book"My wife in prison"ReplyDelete
A really good explanation of a tricky subject for new writers.ReplyDelete
The literary industry is so subjective that it's good to have someone prepared to put up some objective numbers for discussion.
My novel is being considered for publishing, and the publishing house wants to know how many copies of my own book will I buy as an investment. Is that normal? How much would be an okay offer, I'm not making a ton of money and as most families we are suffering with this economy, so I'm hoping for something reasonable if this is an okay thing for the publisher to ask. I don't have an agent, could not find one of my genre although almost all told me something positive about my story. Do I need an agent?ReplyDelete
Have you heard of Tate Publishing? Do you think they are a reputable publisher? I submitted a children's book series and they said they wanted to publish it and sent out a contract. I am just worried because I have seen things on the internet saying that they aren't reputable and I am worried about risking the $4000 they ask for as a retainer fee. They said the $4000 is refundable once 1000 copies sell.ReplyDelete
Never pay a fee to a publisher—or anyone—to publish your work.Delete
Unfortunately, there are many companies and services and “publishers” out there that prey on unpublished authors and are merely out to make a profit. They will entice authors to publish in all sorts of ways. Sometimes they will request an upfront free; sometimes they will claim they have no fees, yet later present you with hidden fees, such as “editorial” or “reading” fees; sometimes they will claim they have no fees whatsoever, yet request you buy a hundred copies of your work at a high price; sometimes they will pretend to be running a contest or competition, and request an entry fee for that contest. Later, they will claim you are a winner, and request you buy multiple copies of your published book. Legitimate publishers and literary agents will never charge any upfront fees.
I always advise authors to never pay any upfront fees to publishers, reading or editorial services, or literary agents who charge them. This is especially true in this new day and age, where authors who wish to self-publish can easily use print on demand (POD) services like CreateSpace or Lightning Source. POD services are not masking themselves as publishers. They let you know upfront that they are just printing and distribution services. With POD services, you will pay a small, one-time setup fee, and then have control of your title’s pricing and receive royalties from the first copy sold. This is not to say I advocate every author go the POD route—but rather that if you wish to self-publish, this is a much better route than paying some “publisher” an exorbitant fee upfront.
Keep in mind, too, that most authors going the self-publishing route tend to earn more money on sales from ebooks than from their paperback POD editions. In many cases, the income earned from paperback sales can be just 10 or 20% of what is earned on the ebook sales--especially in popular genres like commercial fiction. And with ebooks, there are no setup fees, especially if you can design your own jacket and convert your own file. Thus, depending on your genre, it may end up costing less time and money to focus on your ebook edition instead of the POD.
Hi! I was surprised in a good way the moment I loaded this page of your resource. What was the leading aim at that moment when you followed the intention to organize your website?ReplyDelete
Very helpful. Thanks for taking the time to explain.ReplyDelete
Thanks for this informative and sincere advice. It clarified a lot of things in my mind. I will try and lay my hands on your book. I will need it.ReplyDelete
My friend has a self-published book that she is selling online, as she can't get distribution in stores without being published by a publishing company that is part of the Big Five (Penguin and Random House are now one).ReplyDelete
Her literary agent loves the book and said he would be able to get her a publishing deal with Random House if she can sell 5,000 copies of her novel. Well that is the question: how can you sell 5,000 copies of your novel if you can't get your book into book stores and can't get a publicist because you're not yet really published?
1) Learn the art of publicizing booksReplyDelete
2) Be your own publicist.