May 20th, 2011


What is success...?

Earlier this week, Publisher's Marketplace chose to include in their newsletter a follow up on last years big BEA Buzz books. Apparently, they do this every  year. In the newsletter, they revealed bookscan #s for each title.

And boy, did I cringe.

It's not that these numbers aren't fairly easy to get a hold of-- most publishing professionals have access to bookscan, either themselves or through an associate. But I do think a lot of PM users don't, in fact, have access, or if they do, they wouldn't have thought to run to bookscan and look up these specific numbers.

Alas, the numbers were served up on a silver platter to anyone who paid this month's $20 membership fee. The numbers weren't all that impressive for most of the titles. In fact, PM led into the YA titles by saying, "There were fewer standouts among last year's YA buzz panel selections..." A couple of the titles did well, but the other three had what appears to be low numbers.

The thing is, though, PM gave these numbers little to no context. We don't know what they sold for, advance-wise (or we may have just a vague idea of it via the deal listing), we usually don't know what the print run was,  and they also didn't point out that while these books were "last year's" buzz books, they actually all released between September and November, so they've only been out 6-7 months. We have no idea if the sales are increasing and building or dropping off.

In any case, the whole thing prompted a discussion in one of my writer's groups in which someone asked... are those numbers good or bad? What IS a good number?

To which I said... it's all about the context.  One of the maddening things about being an author is that you rarely actually KNOW what your publisher is hoping or expecting out of your book. You can draw your own conclusions based upon your advance size, the print run, the publicity (or lack of)...  but it's unlikely anyone will ever voluntarily come out and say, "hey, we really need this title to sell 20,000 copies." 

And that is crazy making. It's like going on a date with a guy who plays coy and all you can think is DOES HE LIKE ME? Or did he expect me to be prettier? Funnier? WHY DOES HE HAVE TO BE SO MYSTERIOUS? Maybe I should ASK him if he likes me. Then at least I'll know. But what if I don't like the answer? Then I can't go back and unask the question. Then i KNOW he doesn't like me.

And that's it... really. You want to come right out and ask your publisher... "So, are you guys happy with the sales, or what?" but you'll be afraid to because.... what if they say no? Will that one word answer define you, and the way you feel about your career?

There are some books that are pretty clear, runaway successes. I believe John Green once said his advance for LOOKING FOR ALASKA was $7,000 (someone correct me if I'm wrong!). He went on to win the printz and become... well... John Green. When he sits down with his publisher, I rather doubt he's wondering DO THEY THINK I AM PRETTY? (Okay, I should drop the metaphor...).

It's the enormous grey area that is harder to understand, harder to come to terms with. If you get a $25,000 advance and sell 10,000 hardcover books that first year, netting around $15,000 toward the advance and the paperback is coming out soon.... is that good? Or bad? Are they disapointed or pleased? 

If you got a $500,000 advance and you sell 100,000 hardcover copies the first year out of the gate... is THAT good? Or bad?

The short answer is... I can't tell you, and maybe YOU won't even know either. Some editors may be forthcoming and helpful about this information if asked, but others may not be allowed to share key details, or may simply not have the information readily available.

The eventual goal is to earn out, yes. But it's more than that. It's to grow with each book. For sales to continually improve, for you to keep finding more and more readers.

And that's why I cringed when I saw five authors' sales blasted widely. Because there wasn't enough context to know if those books were successful, and because behind those five books are five authors who may not know either.