Random Numbers?

July 20, 2016 § 1 Comment

The Brevity staff tabulating our returns from Amazon Smile

The Brevity staff tabulating our returns from Amazon Smile

More and more, the business of book sales is something authors need to understand. Whether you’re self-publishing and doing all your own publicity and promotion, or a mid-lister at a Big Five publisher, doing almost all your own publicity and promotion, or a successful best-seller urged by your publisher to do more publicity and promotion, it helps to know what numbers are out there and what they mean.

Headlines like The novel is dead! Reading lives again! E-books are killing print! Print is not dead! conjure up the image of a zombie literature army without a compass, lurching toward the latest pronouncement.

At Electric Literature, Lincoln Michel discusses the problem of sales number murkiness:

This lack of knowledge leads to plenty of confusion for writers when they do sell a book. Are they selling well? What constitutes good sales? Should they start freaking out when their first $0.00 royalty check comes in? Writers should absolutely write with an eye toward art, not markets. Thinking about sales while creating art rarely produces anything good. But I’m still naïve enough to think that knowledge is always better than ignorance, and that after the book is written, writers should come to publishing with a basic understanding of what is going on.

And he goes on to break it all down, starting with the way-more-confusing-than-it-sounds question, “what is a book sale?”

…one of the things that makes the conversation about book sales so confusing is that there are several different numbers thrown around, and often even people in the publishing industry completely confuse them. Here are four different numbers that are frequently conflated:

1) The number of copies of the book that are printed.

2) The number of copies that have been shipped to stores or other markets like libraries.

3) The number of copies that have been sold to readers.

4) The Nielsen BookScan number.

These numbers can all be wildly different.

Fortunately, Michel’s excellent essay not only explains what counts as a sale and why, but how these numbers are conflated to make other numbers, and who is using what statistics to count “sales.”He discusses what constitutes “good” sales for large publishers and micropresses, and for literary books, genre fiction, and story/essay collections. He points out that royalties aren’t the sum of an author’s earnings, which include “money made from freelance writing, speaking engagements, teaching classes, or other author income streams.”

His very best point? That “even getting a thousand strangers to read something you poured your heart and soul is pretty okay.”

Lincoln Michel’s piece is a terrific, understandable explanation of something every author should know, no matter how much or how little of your own sales are your responsibility. Go read it.


Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.

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