Blogger: Wendy Lawton
Location: Books & Such Central Valley Office, CA
First Published: February 10, 2009
Yesterday I wrote about book advances. I briefly touched on the issue of numbers and how they can affect advances. Today we’ll delve more deeply into an author’s book sales numbers. As agents, the one question we can always count on getting from a publisher as they review a new proposal is, “So. . . what kind of numbers does the author have?”
Some of you were dismayed by my addressing the crasser aspects of writing in yesterday’s blog. Things like advances vary according to author stature. We prefer to think about the art and ministry of writing but, by covering these business issues, I am not negating those. That is where the magic happens. And, of course, there is always that wonderful project that succeeds beyond our wildest dreams even when everything seems stacked against it. Those are the miracles in publishing that make this business a delight.
But the truth is this: publishing is a business. Yes, even Christian publishing. The publisher and the business team at each publishing house are called to be good stewards of the resources with which they’ve been entrusted. In order to take a risk on a brilliant book, they need to have a foundation of solid projects in the pipeline. So if these kinds of discussions depress you, I urge you to sit this one out. But for those of you who are fascinated by the business side of things, here goes.
As a writer, your numbers stay with you much like your school transcripts. This is one of the reasons your agent spends so much time chewing over every potential career move. Part of our job is to make sure each project is a success. But what constitutes a success? I’m afraid I have the same answer I gave yesterday to the question of advances. It depends.
At almost every writers’ conference someone raises his hand to ask, “So what would be considered good sales numbers for a book?” You’ll always see the editors looking around sheepishly before they begin back-peddling. Here’s the reason: the number is different for every project and for every publishing house. And those numbers are proprietary– editors don’t share them with each other and agents don’t share them from publisher to publisher.
I’ve heard freelance presenters at writers’ conferences say things like, “The average book sells only 1200 copies.” Huh? Those numbers are probably meant to set writers’ fears at ease, but they are meaningless. I always long to question the statistics. Do they take into consideration self-published books with a print run of 150 copies? Are personal family projects added into that number? Who knows?
Each publishing house has a different threshold for success. The bigger the house, the more books they expect to sell. The smaller houses, with a more modest overhead, can make a profit on a much smaller project. Comparing the two is apples to oranges. To analyze your success you can only compare your numbers to the projections your editor made when he acquired your book. The only problem is, you’ll never see that projection. So how’s anyone to know?
The rule of thumb is that your advance should roughly equal the royalty a book is projected to earn in the first year of publication. Let me repeat that. Your advance should roughly equal the royalty a book is projected to earn in the first year of publication. When a book exceeds that projection–earning back the advance in less than a year–that book is a success. We say your book “earned out” when you’ve earned back the whole advance and you begin to receive royalties. There are always exceptions to each rule, like the book that starts slow and hits the charts in its second or third year, but if you earn out before the first year, you can probably breathe a little easier.
And comparisons don’t work. Say you sold 5000 copies in the first year against an advance of $2000.00. That book may be a great success to your small publisher, while another book may have sold 40,000 copies against an advance of $100,000.00 and be a huge disappointment to a major house.
When an editor asks us about your numbers, it’s up to us, as agents, to put it in context for them. We often do it by giving the number but adding how many months it took to “earn out,” saying something like, “the book sold 5,000 copies but we were happy that it went to second printing in four months, earning out the advance within the first few weeks.”
Don’t you wish it were easier? But hopefully this will give you some tools to analyze how you’re doing against expectations for your book. It can be confusing, so please feel free to use the comments section to ask your questions. And tune in Thursday when we’ll talk about what happens when we have less-than-stellar numbers in our publishing history, and what we can do to redeem them.