Blogger: Wendy Lawton
Don’t Believe Everything You Hear
Part 3 of 3
Several of my client phone conversations this week centered around sales. I’ve never seen such anxiety over sales numbers. Some of the things I’ve heard lately went something like this:
- [Author Name] told a group of us he’s sold [bookoo numbers] of his self-pubbed ebooks.
- [Publishing professional’s name] said that everyone’s sales– across the board– are down 40%.
- Where do I fit in on the scale of author sales? Am I an A-list author? A B-list author? How do I compare to, say, [author name] or [author name]?
- I heard at a writing conference that the average sale for a book in the CBA market is under 4,000, so that means I’m doing good, right?
- [A certain blogger] collects royalty, advance and sales data from dozens and dozens of authors and publishes it. She said the average made from self-pubbed ebook sales is [bookoo bucks].
- A number of my writer friends were talking about their sales numbers and . . .
All I can say to all of the above is don’t believe everything you hear.
Fishermen have long been accused of spinning tall tales about the size and ferocity of the fish that got away. Their exaggeration pales in comparison with writers talking about sales numbers. The sad thing is that conscientious writers compare their own sales to claims that are at best inflated or taken out of context and at worst, downright lies. It leads to worry– to a severe case of writerly performance anxiety. Nothing steals creativity like hand-wringing. Our artistry and imagination shrivels in the face of worry.
Let’s take apart some of the statements above.
Author claims of sales and income— Take these with a grain of salt.
- I’ve noticed that even honest people have a tendency to highlight the best statistic even if it was skewed for one reason or another. If one book sold 60,000 copies over the life of the book, does that author then use that figure as his “brag” even though his books normally sell about 20,000?
- Or I’ve heard an author say “My last advance was $60,000.00.” The itty bitty detail they omit is that it was a three-book deal.
- And some publishers work in all kinds of “bonuses” that don’t amount to real money yet all that play money will be claimed as part of the advance.
- When authors talk sales numbers they sometimes forget to factor in returns. If a book went to one of the big box stores, those returns can be significant.
- Or were those gigantic sales going to direct mail readers– a whole different animal?
- How about e-book numbers? Were free downloads included? 99-cent books? There are all kinds of ways of positioning numbers even if an author is generally honest.
Comparisons— We long to know how we stack up next to everyone else. Usually this is innocent. We want to insure we are meeting the publisher’s expectations but it can lead us into trouble. The humorist Harold Coffin once said, “Envy is the art of counting the other fellow’s blessings instead of your own.” Here’s the problem with comparisons:
- There is no quantitative scale for measuring an author’s success. What would be wildly successful at a smaller publisher would be a dismal failure at one of the bigger houses.
- No chart exists for ranking authors. You don’t reach the A-list when you hit a magic number.
- Sales numbers are proprietary numbers. Publishers do not share these with anyone except the author and agent. All we have to compare is anecdotal evidence. And you can’t believe everything you hear.
General pronouncements— What do we do with statements like “sales are down 40% across the board?”
- What sales? Print books? The next question would have to be, what about audio books? ebooks?
- Was that figure referring to one month? One royalty period? What if it’s due to extenuating circumstances, say, a paper shortage or a teamsters strike that impacted delivery?
- A statement like that does not give enough information to do anything other than worry.
Statistic Collectors— So what about those industry watchers who collect statistics? Here’s the problem:
- Some of the bloggers who collect data are simply taking the word of authors. To see how reliable this is, see Author Claims of Sales and Income above.
- Too often we compare apples to oranges. When authors talk about book sales they often give the lifetime sales. When publishing professionals talk sales they usually refer to first year sales. Authors often cite “books in print” numbers. Professionals care about books sold.
- Mark Twain said it best: “Figures often beguile me,” he wrote, “particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.'”
A word to the wise: Be circumspect about revealing information regarding specific contract terms and sales numbers. Aside from being in poor taste revealing this proprietary information may very well be prohibited by contract.
All that to say: Stop worrying about comparisons! You simply don’t have enough information to engage in this counterproductive activity. Take all that energy and invest it into your writing. Nothing will affect your sales figures and your standing like a stunning book.
Perhaps there is no advice as wise as this from the Bible: “Live creatively, friends. Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don’t be impressed with yourself. Don’t compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life.” Galatians 6:1a, 4-5 (Message)