Book Sales By the Numbers

It may seem like an odd question, but when do you know your book’s a success?

The question is a lot harder to answer than we might think. If you’ve published with a mainstream publisher, the answer is somewhat obvious: When the book makes money for your publisher. That threshold is also the point when they might consider publishing another book by you.

But, more and more authors are publishing with small and niche presses, subsidy publishers, or self-publishing. That begs the same question yet again. As someone with experience in both the mainstream and subsidy publishing world, I’ve developed a couple of rules of the road for my books.

1. I don’t worry about my publisher. I want them to make money, of course, but it’s up to the publisher to decide if they’ve made enough off my books to warrant printing new editions or picking up another book.

2. I want my books to cover my out-of-pocket costs. I love to write, but I can’t afford (or I’m unwilling) to shell out cash for books that don’t attract enough readers to at least break even from my personal checking account. (Note: I’ve given up on compensating me for the time I put into writing.)

Okay, these aren’t really rules; they’re principles. What does this mean in terms of cold, tangible, measurable numbers?

I got some help on this from Grael Norton, the acquisitions editor for Wheatmark, an independent publisher in Tuscon, Arizona (and publisher of my most recent novel A Warrior’s Soul) during on on-line publishing and marketing workshop for authors (their “Authors Academy,” of which I’m a member). I’m going to embellish his insight gained from practical experience with my own thoughts. Here are his thoughts in numbers with my embellished commentary:

One. By at least one very important measure, the physical sale of the first book is a major success, particularly for first-time authors. We often wonder if anyone will buy our book. That first sale gives us the confidence to go out and sell (or promote) the second copy. As I’ve discussed before, authors are the most important marketing tool for their books. So don’t under-estimate the importance of the first sale. But, of course, you haven’t come close to recouping out-of-pocket costs.

100. This, according to Grael (and I concur from my own experience) is a crucial threshold because this level of sales implies you have broken out of your inner circle of friends and family. Many people can leverage their good graces with their inner circle to sell 50 or 75 copies of your book. But, that’s about the limit for most individuals unless they are celebrities or have something near celebrity status. One hundred is a good number, but you are still far away from covering your out-of-pocket costs, let alone make money for your publisher.

500. At this point, you have broken out of the small, inner circle and really begun to sell a decent number of copies. This still isn’t a high enough threshold to sustain your writing career on its own, but if you have sold 500 copies, you have probably covered your out-of-pocket costs if you have used a reputable subsidy or self-publisher. (Notably, this is still not enough to make real money on your book, but at least your not draining your savings or checking account.)

1,000. Once you have crossed this threshold, Grael’s experience at Wheatmark suggests your book has tapped into a niche market. In short, it’s financially, and most likely literarily, sustainable. I would concur based on my experience with nonfiction and fiction books. You still aren’t selling enough to attract the mainstream big boys in publishing, but your making more than your out-of-pocket costs and subsidy-publishers are pretty happy.

2,000. At this level, you’ve tapped into a bonafide niche market and have a successful book. Indeed, this threshold might be sufficiently large that additional books will leverage the first into a sustainble series where you might be able to make some meaningful money. At this level, authors are approaching the sales range where mainstream niche and small presses can turn a profit on your work as well. (Notably, this is also the threshold for Wheatmark’s Great Expectations program where authors have access to a more complete array of publishing services similar to larger, mainstream presses.)

5,000. (My number, not Grael’s.) In my opinion, this is a threshold for a book to establish itself through the conventional publishing market. These sales volumes are high enough for an author to become attractive to agents and established mainstream presses (but still below what is increasingly necessary for the publisher or agent to make money). If your book is selling at these levels, a wider distribution system may well take it to a much higher level of sales. Your book will be noticed. You will develop a cadre of loyal readers that becomes your base for future books. You will be making money if you’ve signed with a decent publisher and have a decent publishing contract.

I’m interested in hearing your thoughts and experiences. Because of spam, I’ve turned off the comment function on my blog, but feel free to email me at [email protected].