Monday, September 29, 2008

what constitutes good sales for a literary novel?

I got the following note a couple days ago.

Dear Moonrat,

A couple of months ago, my literary novel was published by a major trade publisher. I have a rough idea of how many copies I've sold, but not how that compares to my publisher's expectations. What constitutes good sales for a literary novel? No one will give me a straight answer.

Thanks.


Ah yes. I will give you a straight answer, because I'm a sucker, but I'm sure others will argue with me.

The opening line to this discussion is probably (of course) "It depends," but I won't insult you with that. I'll give you a number.

7,000.

If you sold 7,000 or more copies, in hardcover, of your literary novel, you're a star. (Some people sell much more, but 7,000 is a serious threshold. Who knows why.)

If you've sold between 4,000 and 7,000 copies, in hardcover, of your literary novel, you did a damned good job. You're what they call a "strong seller." You're also in a good position to place your second novel well, with your current publisher or elsewhere.

If you sold between 2,000 and 4,000 copies of your literary novel, you sold pretty strongly. You're still in a good position to have your publisher want to take on your second project, or to comfortably find a home elsewhere.

If you sold below 1,500 copies, your publisher is probably disappointed, although they will never tell you that. Instead, they will tell you that debuts are hard, and literary fiction is nearly impossible. Both these things are true.

These numbers are specific to literary fiction--"commercial" fiction is going to have slightly higher expectations behind it. Your publisher might also be happier or sadder with your numbers depending on how much they paid for your novel, but odds are, if it is in fact literary fiction, they bid with these kinds of specs in mind. But regardless of how your publisher feels, if you break the threshold, you'll still look good to other publishers.

These numbers are, of course, my opinions. I'd be interested to hear other industry professional opinions, and also reader's opinions--are you surprised? Did you imagine that fewer or more copies constituted success? (Sometimes, stuck in my ivory tower, I lose perspective.)

39 comments:

cindy said...

thanks, moonie! i'm surprised. i'd expect it to be a higher number, to be considered a success. i wonder what the number is for commercial fiction?

i also read somewhere about a expectation sheet the editor fills out before making an offer. do houses actually have "formulas"? and i wonder if it works?!

Julie Weathers said...

I'm amazed. I thought the numbers would be much higher, even for literary.

Jude said...

Terrific answer, thank you!

Steph said...

I personally have idea, but I was wondering if you could maybe talk about other genres / reading levels? Like YA, MG, etc?

Steph

pacatrue said...

Nobody's gettin' rich on literary, apparently. In fact, they're only gettin' about one month's rent.

JohnO said...

For what it's worth, I read a similar number somewhere else (prolly because I read too many editor/agent blogs and don't do enough at my day job).

I thought it would be higher too, but if you think of the tens of thousands of books your literary masterpiece has to contend with, it doesn't seem all that high.

Janet said...

I'm surprised too. I would have expected higher numbers.

moonrat said...

JohnO--this number isn't based on any data at all, only on my experience. Literally, I made up a number based on what people I know have been happy with. That's why I find it VERY interesting that someone else agrees. If you ever find the other source, please come back and let me know!

Steph--I really know almost nothing about children's/middle grade/YA. It's unfortunate. But I do have the feeling that that's a wild territory and almost none of my advice applies!! I bet Editorial Anonymous would have an interesting take. I'll drop her a note.

Cindy--houses do have formulas. What we offer on a book is almost always based on what we anticipate the book will sell (unfortunately often for us in a best case scenario), so you can just about figure out what your publisher thinks/hopes YOU'RE going to sell! Basically, work out using your contractual royalty percentage how many copies you would have to sell in the first year to equal your advance.

Charles Gramlich said...

Interesting

Kitty Bucholtz said...

Thanks for the interesting info! I, too, would love to know if you have any ideas on other areas - romance, fantasy, mystery, etc. But also I'd love your opinion on this: if I could sell my first book to a house that gave a $2000 advance or one that gave a $7000 advance, and sold X number of books, is it better to be with the smaller house with the smaller advance and earn out, or with the bigger house and hope they're not disappointed with the numbers, hope I earn out? Or is there more to it than whether you earn out? Asking as a former accountant-turned-writer. :) Thanks for any thoughts you have!

Anonymous said...

as an aside on sales, are offers going to start drying up even more than they already have? especially on literary fiction? are the great majority of the books out on submission pretty fried at this point? thanks in advance and for all the great columns!

Kristi said...

pacatrue, how high is your rent? Am I calculating incorrectly that 7000 hardcovers * $25/book * 10-15% commission = between $17,500 and $26250 in royalties. Not exactly living the high life, but probably 6 months pay for most middle-class American jobs. Then again, I'm from the midwest, so what do I know of rent and housing prices...

Colorado Writer said...

Hmmm. Thanks Moonie.
I have a feeling the # is similar for YA/MG.

ggwritespoetry said...

WOW, these numbers are alot smaller than I thought. But I have heard before that your advance pretty much is based on what is expected for your first year's sales.

Thanks again Moonrat.

cindy said...

moonie, thank you for the "formula". it is sad that i don't have the head to figure it out? haha! i'm going to have anxiety math dreams again...

ah, ignorance is bliss. i'll worry when the book actually comes out. eeee!!

JES said...

Thanks so much, Moonie.

One of these days I might, might encounter a publishing-related statistic to which I can't apply the adjective "sobering."

Emily said...

Wow those numbers are a lot lower than I expected. But then again, I don't know anything about literary novels. Thanks for the perspective, moonrat!

Anonymous said...

Moonrat, I'm one of your (several, btw!) Australian devotees and also an editor. What surprises me is that these figures are pretty much the same here, where we have a population of about 20 million. I guess the costs of printing, distribution, etc aren't affected much by the size of the market, so the number of sales needed to cover basic costs will be roughly the same... but in a much smaller market, reaching those sales figures is (presumably?) tougher.

All of which is not very relevant to most of your readers! But for those of us Down Here, it's useful to be reminded of this. We really shouldn't be too hard on a literary author whose first novel sells, say 2000 copies -- but unfortunately we usually are.

moonrat said...

JES: ...yeah. me too.

Anon: VERY interesting! I also have UK experience and know that there's are... about the same. I'd say if a literary novel sold 7,000 copies in the UK it would be quite a coup, but you're right that the numbers aren't proportional. Thanks for the input!

Jennifer L. Griffith said...

Moonie,

And then there's the "how do you define literary" debate...for another day, eh?!?!

Anyhoo, in your opinion, what is considered "good sales" for commercial?

moonrat said...

anon 4:34: sorry, I didn't mean to skip your question. I do think that the age of huge advances that don't earn out is over. Some of that still happens, but less and less these days, since book prices don't rise at the inflation rate (they rise considerably more slowly) so publishers are working on slimmer and slimmer margins each year.

That said, I don't think this is a bad thing--instead, we should be investing in literature that backlists, that lasts... A number of novels that earn some royalties over the years can actually turn out to be a chunk of change, if you're a talented author with a devoted following that keeps coming back for more. If I wrote books, that would be my goal--to be a good enough writer to sell over time.

Jennifer L. Griffith said...

BTW, thanks for always giving US your best!!!! You are sooo appreciated, just so you know.

ChrisEldin said...

I was surprised to. Thanks for sharing and your honesty!

McKoala said...

Very surprising. Also the downunder comment. My novel may never be so widely read as my blog blatherings, sniff sniff.

wheelmaker said...

Kristi - keep in mind that royalties are usually based on what price the book was sold to the store at, not the retail price that the consumer pays.

anon 4:34 said...

Moonie, thanks for the reply on advances. Good information. I was also going in the direction of the credit crisis and how it might already be affecting yours or others' ability to make offers, especially on literary fiction. Thanks!

Editorial Anonymous said...

Hi, Moonrat. Happy to chip in.
Speaking as someone in children's publishing, I don't agree with that 7,000.
Acceptable sales vary greatly from book to book, but here's the answer from my desk: good sales for the first year is most of the first print run.
Did you publisher print 7,000 copies? And you sold 7,000 copies?
Great.
Did your publisher print 50,000 copies? And you sold 7,000 copies?
Shit.

--EA

moonrat said...

Anon 4:34: That's a pretty many-textured question, and I'm sure I can wax on and on and on.

To start with, publishing companies need to keep putting out titles, since that's our income. In terms of what we will be choosing to publish, WE won't choose to stop publishing literary fiction--from our end, we almost always lose money on literary fiction regardless of how many copies sell (with overhead, salaries, freelance costs, cover design, etc etc worked it, we often publish even the books that earn out at a 3-digit profit). We make our livings off of nonfiction books (most places, at least; some imprints do specialize in commercial fiction and make a lot of money there), and people always need nonfiction books, because people always need information. Also, most people who work in publishing houses struggle with underpaid jobs because they have always dreamed of being able to work on literary fiction, and a lot of higher-ups don't abandon that romance even when they're choosing to make sacrifices in order to keep those titles on their lists. So from the publishers' standpoint--no, we're not going to stop publishing literary fiction. At least, not right now.

However, there is the future. The pressure there is coming from the national accounts, which are increasingly putting pressure on publishing companies to place paperbacks instead of hardcovers. This is because paperbacks move faster in bookstores and make the vendors more money. However, publishers have a problem here. We need to sell literally 4-5 times as many paperbacks of a book to make the amount of money we would have off of a hardcover, and while MORE books sell in paperback, in the case of MOST books the discrepancy isn't that great. That means that if national accounts are denying us hardcover placement, there ARE going to be books we're not going to be able to afford to publish.

That hasn't quite happened yet, but the squeeze gets harder and harder every season.

But seriously, publishers don't want to cut out literary fiction. I speak on behalf of... I'd guess... 8 out of 10 of us.

moonrat said...

haha. thanks, EA. some very valid points.

Anon 4:34 said...

Thanks for taking the time to respond! I feel better :)

Ed Ass=best blog ever (or tied with Snark)

Anonymous said...

Re: EA's comment (printed 50,000, sold 7,000 -- shit!) : isn't this called sell-through and isn't this another good way for us to look at whether or not expectations were met? But I think -- Moonrat, correct me here -- that few publishers expect full sell-through. Isn't 50% or 70% or something more the norm?

pacatrue said...

Thanks for doing the math, Kristi! Yeah, if your math holds up, that would be 17-26 months of rent. Much better.

Editorial Anonymous said...

For the newbies: sell-in refers to the books we get stores to put on shelves.
sell-through refers to the books consumers buy from stores, and that never come back to publishers as returns.

50% sell-through is not so good. 70% I could live with.

Marie said...

I think my comment didn't make it yesterday--basically wanted to say thanks so much for posting this!

Dan Hoyt said...

Kristi and wheelmaker, there's far more than just the price to be taken into consideration here. You make it sound like it's easy money -- I can assure you it's not.

First of all, there's typically a tiered structure of royalties; depending on the genre and the deal you made (which can depend heavily on your agent), a first novel may only start at 8-10% for hardcovers, and not go up for 10K copies. Being generous, let's say it's 10% for the first 5K, then 12% for the next 15K. The cover is $25, which gets discounted roughly 25% on average, so the selling price averages $18.75. That means the author's income comes to $13,875 (but only eventually, as you'll see later in this post).

But, wait, there's 15% to the agent ($2,081) -- who deducts that before cutting you a check -- and roughly 7.5% ($1,040) going to self-employment taxes that you wouldn't have to pay if you were getting a W-2 instead of a 1099 (the other 7.5% is the equivalent of Social Security taxes from a "normal" job). And then there's federal and state taxes as well; being generous, we'll say 20% combined ($2,775). The author's income just shrunk to a shade under $8000. (There are ways to mitigate that so you retain more, but this isn't the time for that explanation.)

Not so bad, you say? Sure, except that you got an advance against royalties when you sold the book, remember? $4000 is pretty standard in SFF for a first novel these days, and the publisher probably split that up into 3 payments: signing, delivery&acceptance, publication -- which meant spreading that payment over 12-18 months at around $1300+ a pop.

But you're still getting that $4000 now, right? Nope. The publisher has what's called a "reserve against returns," -- an insurance device that publishers use to make sure they don't pay out more than they should before the book's lifecycle is complete -- and most, if not all of that $4000 is tied up in the reserve until the book drops below about 100 sales per quarter. Oh, yeah, and they only report (and cut your agent a check) twice a year.

Eventually, that other $4000 net (from the $10,000 gross before the 47.5% to agent and taxes) makes its way to you, but not for a couple more years. You may be able to pay 8-12 months rent (depending on where you live) with your $8000 net, but your total timeframe was closer to 36 months -- I don't think your landlord or mortgage company would carry you for the other 24-28 months!

For a more detailed explanation of the financial life of a writer, see http://danhoyt.livejournal.com/2006/07/22/

Dan Hoyt said...

One minor clarification about the math in the second-to-last paragraph: that amount should have been 42.5% (sorry!), and it's paid on the entire $13,875 gross, not just the roughly $10,000 ($13,875 - $4,000 advance) I mentioned.

On further reflection, if I'm not going to include the other 7.5% SS taxes that the W-2'ers pay (which would bring the net down to less than 7%), I probably shouldn't include fed and state taxes either, so I'll give you back 20% ($2,775), so you now make almost $11,000 "net" (before the same taxes you would have paid on W-2 income) for those 36 months. That should get you to 11-16 months rent/mortgage -- which is still not nearly enough to keep you from getting evicted/foreclosed on.

Anonymous said...

I find it offensive that all you serious and hard-working writers would allow agents and publishers to whittle you out of the bulk of your book's earnings. I often hear of agents getting 15% while the author gets 7%. ONLY 7% for YOUR BOOK! You wrote the book people, not them! In today's economy, agents and publishers are not signing anyone less than Stephen King anyways. And your book will take at least a year or two to see the light of day, even if a miracle happens in this and a publisher decides, regardless of their own economic duress, to take you on an invest in you as a new author...

In short, if you really want to see your novel in print, the markets have changed and so YOU should also be adapting. Forget the agents and publishers (unless you already have quite a bit of clout around your name or previous sales). I recommend to self-publish instead. You will pay perhaps $800 up-front total, but that way you will get about 35% of your royalties off of each book sold at face value. Read: if your book sells for $20, you will get $7 PER COPY! Brick and mortar bookstores sell far less than online sources such as Amazon anyway. They are all closing down or dragging behind the onlien retaalers.

So if you really belive in your title, but it seems like agents and publishers do not, screw 'em - the new self-publishing economy is quickly leaving them in the dust anyway.

DIY, self-publish, even start your own imprint, and never look back!

[This comment has been provided by someone with absolutely no personal afiliation with self-publishing houses. She would like to think it is sage advice for fellow writers who are being gouged and duped by middle-men agents and the entire 3rd party industry that has grown out of WRITERS' works!]

Come on people, don't be an indentured servant! (And I don't mean a butler with dentures). Let's take control again of OUR art and earnings!

Janet said...

Sorry, I don't intend to take business advice who doesn't understand the fundamentals of the business. An author's 7% and an agent's 15% are not taken from the same numbers. The agent still gets way less than the author. If you don't even know a fact that basic, you have no clue what you're talking about and no credibility except with people who know even less.

Michael Fowke said...

@Janet - Yes, the agent would get 15% of the author's 7%.