At Electric Literature, which is a fantastic blog about books and publishing, editor Lincoln Michel has put together a long piece about book sales, how they work and how they are tracked. It’s not so much about how to sell books (though along the way some practical advice comes up), but the more simple question of what constitutes a sale. He starts with The Basics:
Wait, you say, everyone knows what a book sale is. Ah, yes, but, what this section presupposes is… maybe you don’t? Actually, 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.
Recently more and more people have been coming to me with questions about how to track their sales, and how sales ranking works. Their objective is to maximize the likelihood of making the list at the NY Times, or to (more modestly) boost their sales rank at Amazon. If you want to do that then you need to understand how a sale at your own website (or “from the trunk of your car,” as I call selling the book directly to buyers, which is great for profit but doesn’t count as a sale) compares to a purchase at Barnes & Noble. Savvy self publishers need to understand how distribution works and how books move through sales channels because, in a time and place when over 300,000 books are published traditionally every year, with maybe another 500,000 being self published, the competition is steep. It pays to know exactly how sales work.
Lincoln Michel offers a lot of numbers, explaining how royalties work and how the financial aspects of publishing break down for all the groups who make money when a book is sold, from the publisher to the distributor to the bookseller (hint: the author doesn’t factor much). He also helps set expectations regarding sales numbers from traditional presses:
What constitutes “good” sales is entirely dependent on what type of book you are publishing, what size your publisher is, and what your advance was. 5,000 copies of a short story collection on a small press is a huge hit. 5,000 copies of a novel from a big publisher that paid a $100,000 advance is a huge disaster.
And he offers some related thoughts on sales for self publishers:
Like non-fiction, self-published books vary so wildly that they can’t really be generalized. If you publish your book through an established press, you can most likely guarantee a certain level of professionalism, distribution, and hopefully coverage for your book. Self-publishing, on the other hand, contains both professional full-time authors who spend time and money marketing their books as well as people who just think it would be fun to put an ebook up on Amazon and never spend any time marketing. Overall, self-published books sell far far less (in part because the majority of the market is still print, and it’s near impossible for self-published print books to get a foothold in stores), but of course their cut of each sale is much higher.
In the end, it turns out that book sales are a complicated mystery that can’t really be solved. I like that he he concludes, whimsically, that he’s “going to get back to work on a weird novel that will never sell, but, hell, is damn fun to write.” Understanding the complexity of the selling side, and setting good expectations, can free you to create your best writing, and that should be a big part of why you’re doing this in the first place.