How to Screw Up a Triumphant Bestselling Debut

I’ll preface this by noting I think Milo Yiannopoulos is a real piece of shit human being who I’d be delighted to see tossed into the metaphorical oubliette of uncaring oblivion. But, when I saw some people having schadenfreude over Yiannopoulos’ book sales of Dangerous, which were reportedly only a fifth of his self-asserted sales numbers, I had a moment of “well, actually,” as in, “well, actually, that real piece of shit human being might not be lying about his sales.”

Here’s the deal: Yiannopoulos has asserted his book’s opening week sales were on the order of 100,000 copies. Contrasting this, Nielsen Bookscan, the service which tracks physical book sales via many (but not all) booksellers, including Amazon, has his first week sales as 18,268 in the US (and — heh — 152 in the UK). As most of us probably know, 18,000 is less than 100,000.

Or is it? Because here’s the thing about Bookscan — it doesn’t in fact track all sales of a book. It doesn’t track eBook sales, for example, nor does it track audiobook sales. Nor does it track sales from some small independent booksellers, who might have not signed up to be Bookscan-reporting retailers. As a result, depending on how much you sell in other formats, and where you sell your books, Bookscan can massively underreport your total sales.

I know this because that’s what Bookscan does with me. A couple of years ago I tracked the sales of the hardcover era of Lock In (which is to say, all the sales reported while the physical book was only available in hardcover). For the time it was in hardcover, Bookscan reported 11,175 hardcover sales in the US. However, overall the book sold about 22,500 copies in hardcover and about 87,500 copies across all formats (hardcover, ebook, audio).

In all, Bookscan recorded roughly 12.7% of my total sales. Which is not a lot! If Yiannopoulos were seeing a similar sort of ratio, based on his physical copy sales, he could indeed have sold something on the order of 100,000 copies of his book in the first week. He might not be lying.

With all that said, on further examination, this is why I very strongly suspect that Yiannopoulos has not, in fact, sold, 100,000 copies of his book in the first week:

One, my sales numbers included audio; cursory examination of Yiannopoulos’ Amazon book page shows he does not have an audio version of the book available — important because Audible, the major audiobook sales channel in the US, is owned by Amazon, and would definitely have the audiobook noted for sale on the Amazon sales page. That eliminates an entire sales channel.

Two, I suspect (but have no evidence) that Yiannopoulos is strongly relying on Amazon to sell his book, rather than having some large percentage of retail sales come through brick-and-mortar book sellers, and specifically does not have an advantage that I and other genre authors have, which is specialty bookstores selling our books. My Bookscan numbers skew low precisely because I sell a lot through indie and specialty book stores, which don’t report to Bookscan. If Yiannopoulos is relying primarily on Amazon — which would make sense, given the push to preorder there, the online nature of his alt-right audience, and the fact that it’s easier to set up sales through Amazon than through the distribution channels of physical book stores — then his Bookscan numbers would capture a far higher percentage of his sales than, say, it would of mine.

Third, there’s this comment from Yiannopoulos’s camp:

It’s true that the major booksellers only managed to ship out 18,000 copies to retail customers by the list cutoff. But that’s because they didn’t order enough ahead of time, and have been scrambling to play catchup ever since. The real news is that we’ve received wholesale orders and direct orders of such magnitude that our entire stock of 105,000 books is already accounted for.

This is a little bit of publishing inside pool which apparently Yiannopoulos is not aware of (or is trying to fudge), but: You don’t count wholesale orders because wholesalers will eventually return books if they don’t sell them. The publisher has to make them whole for that, either by shifting credit to other books (which in this case Yiannopoulos as a self-publisher of a single book does not have), or by refunding the money. Yiannopoulos may have shipped 105,000 hardcover copies of the book, but that’s not the same as having sold them. I don’t know in this case what “direct orders” mean — it could be sales to individual book buyers (in which case that would be a sale) or to individual booksellers (in which case they are probably returnable, as book stores are loath to stock anything on a non-returnable basis), or to organizations which are making a “bulk buy” for their own reasons, say, a conservative organization who wants to hand out copies to employees or on the street or whatever.

But however you slice it, by Yiannopoulos’ own words (and by his apparent lack of understanding of how bookselling works), he probably has not in fact sold all 100k of the hardcover books. Also, with regard to the wholesalers and other booksellers, I do hope someone in his organization is keeping money in reserve to deal with returns when they (inevitably) happen. I’m also curious as to how he as a self-publisher is dealing with long-term storage and shipping of the books; I really don’t see Yiannopoulos himself handling that. I don’t picture him as a detail-oriented person. Perhaps this will be a job for the interns.

With all of this said, and again with the reminder that I find Yiannopoulos a hot feculent mess of a person, sales of 18,000 hardcovers in one week is pretty darn good. It was enough to land Yiannopoulos at #3 on the USA Today list and at #4 on the New York Times Hardcover Nonfiction list (and #2 on the paper’s print/ebook combined list). He’s a legitimate bestseller. And those 18K sales don’t cover ebook sales, which given his audience demographics I suspect are pretty high. Most authors would be absolutely delighted to have 18k in hardcover sales in their first week. People exercising schadenfreude about all this are thus advised to temper their glee somewhat. The book is not a failure in any manner except in contrast to Yiannopoulos’ industry-specific hype, and also (if the professional reviews are to be believed) as a book worth reading.

(Incidentally, the first week sales also show that Simon & Schuster, who were to publish the book until they didn’t, had really rather accurately priced the book when they offered Yiannopoulous a $250,000 advance on it. An 18K first week would have put it on a sales track to zero out that $250k advance in a year or two, depending on eventual paperback sales. It would have made money for S&S, and possibly broke even for Yiannopoulos.)

Can Yiannopoulos sell 100,000 copies of his book? I suspect so in the long run, especially considering that Yiannopoulos can now have it as a rider for speaking events that whomever is having him speak will be obliged to purchase a certain number of the book in order to have him appear — and speaking events and appearances are the actual bread-and-butter for a creature such as Yiannopoulos, for which this book is mostly advertising.

Has he sold that many in the first week? I doubt it. The actual number, in all formats, across all retailers, is somewhere between 18,000 and 100,000 copies. Which, again, is not at all a bad number of books to sell in the first week. Had Yiannopoulos been smart, he wouldn’t have alleged selling 100K books in his first week at all, he simply would have taken those USA Today and NYT list rankings and waved them about happily, and built PR around those.

But apparently he’s not really that smart. Now most of the stories are about how he only sold 18,000 copies in his first week, rather than the 100,000 copies he alleged. Well done him.

53 thoughts on “How to Screw Up a Triumphant Bestselling Debut

  1. Notes:

    1. Contentious subject matter, so remember the Mallet is out. Play nice with each other, please.

    2. As I’ve already established that Yiannopoulos is a garbage human, I don’t think it’s necessary to gild that particular lily, so please keep that invective about him to a minimum, and stay on topic (which in this case is the sales of his book). Do not use this to get on a soapbox about all the other horrible things he ever did. Also, any comment about Yiannopoulos disparaging him because of his sexuality will get the Mallet. Save us both the time.

    3. My comments regarding sales/distribution/etc regarding publishing are based on my own experience and knowledge of the field, and I am making some suppositions (which I tried to note in the piece). There may be some particular knowledge about Yiannopoulos’ distribution set-up I’m not getting, or some aspect of publishing/distribution/sales that might work differently than represented here. If you have publishing industry-specific knowledge that counters what I’ve noted here, and you’re actually in the publishing industry, great. If you’re not in the industry and you assert something I’ve said is incorrect, be aware I’m going to value my own close-to-two-decades experience of actively participating in “Big Five” publishing over your asserted knowledge.

    4. I really am interested on how Yiannopoulos is handling his distribution and warehousing. If indeed he’s run off 100K of his book (which in itself is a mark of inexperience; he’d’ve been better off with a lower initial print run and then coming out whith additional printings if needed), that’s a lot of physical books to store and ship, and doing both will cost money.

  2. That man is so incredibly toxic, that I was reluctant to read this post, even though it contains valuable information about the publishing industry.

  3. He should have allowed the news outlets announce his sales numbers. It is more impressive when other people do the announcing for you, and also, he does not comprehend the book industry as you note above.

    p.s. one large wholesaler has sold about 10K so far

  4. …and I sit here, extremely excited that I’m still making about $20/mo. from ebook sales on Amazon.

  5. It does seem of a piece with the strategies I’ve observed from the alt-right (or to use the proper name for them, neo-Nazis): assert something as true, denigrate anyone who contradicts, and keep pushing the Big Lie until it gets imprinted in the subconscious of people who haven’t had a chance to do exhaustive research.

    If Yiannopoulos is indeed self-publishing, it might be instructive to do a comparison with the sales and printing numbers of a self-published author with a less fragile ego. Howard Tayler’s Schlock Mercenary trade paperbacks come to mind, from reading his blog on the issues of storage of print runs and the like…

  6. An “Inside Publishing” question: If bookstores buy books on a returnable basis, why do big booksellers (B&N, etc) usually have tables piled high with deeply discounted books? Is the deep sale price still a profit-generating price?

  7. Hammerslag:

    Those are “remainders,” which are excess (usually) hardcovers that weren’t sold at full retail prices, which are then sold in bulk — sometimes literally by the pound — to booksellers, who then put them on those “cheap!” tables. Having a book remaindered doesn’t necessarily mean the book in question was a failure; it can mean (for example) there were just some hardcovers left over when the book switched over to paperback, and the publisher wants to clear out warehouse space. Authors don’t make much (or sometimes anything) from remainders.

  8. When I saw Milo on TV I found him an intelligent and engaging guy obviously troubled and just flailing about for attention. I think he expounds ideas that one would not associate with his demographic (nor probably his actual beliefs) just to get this attention. I may be wrong, but I think he’s just preaching to a choir which shares those beliefs and is having no real impact on individual’s beliefs as a whole. I think he’s quite harmless.

  9. I’m a little confused about what this means:
    “An 18K first week would have put it on a sales track to zero out that $250k advance in a year or two, depending on eventual paperback sales. It would have made money for S&S, and possibly broke even for Yiannopoulos.”

    I just don’t know how advances work in publishing; if the sales were poor, would Yiannopoulos have to return money? If huge, would he have gotten more?

  10. @ron, September 29 1930 newspaper summary of Hitler: “the ranting clown who bangs the drum outside the National Socialist circus”. Today’s clown or [insert diminutive here] might become become tomorrow’s fuhrer (or president).

  11. I’m still confused about book sales, but now feel I’m confused at a higher level than before. So, that’s progress.

    I’m not sure why anyone would buy a book by that guy; he’s not a particularly good writer, and I’ve never heard him say anything insightful.

    Note: It’s “who” if it’s a subject; “whom” if it’s an object. Remember “Who’s that knocking at my door?” and “For whom the bell tolls.”

  12. It is highly plausible that he has in fact sold the 100K+ copies. It is a well-known form of wingnut welfare for sugar daddies to buy entire print runs of unreadable screeds, for free distribution via various methods.

  13. To add to Aardvark’s point, it’s also common for any politician to publish a book since it basically allows anyone who wants to give that politician money to do so by mass-buying their book. This is probably not used quite as much any more in this age of Citizen’s United, but the sad fact is that there are plenty of millionaires out there who love what Milo does. A bulk purchase of his book not only puts money in Milo’s coffers but it inflates his sales numbers, which in turn inflates the astroturfed numbers of people who supposedly love his message of rampant bigotry and trolling as a lifestyle.

    Lest you doubt that secretive rich people are already keeping Milo afloat, Buzzfeed got a whole bunch of leaked documents revealing that the billionaire Mercer clan has been funding Milo’s operation for awhile now. https://www.buzzfeed.com/josephbernstein/leaked-documents-suggest-secretive-billionaire-trump-donors?utm_term=.ynPOOQ7zP#.ptKYYb1lN

  14. This book seems destined for a quick trip to the bargain bin to me, since I suspect a majority of the people who are interested already bought it.

  15. Amusingly, Russians actually use A, not У, to transliterate Trump’s name. Трумп would sound like Troomp, so they spell it Трамп. Which is funny back transliterated :-D

  16. I dont understand why ebooks are not tracked by bookscan. I think virtually all ebooks are sold by amazon, barnes and noble, and apple. 2 of those vendors report physical book sales.

    Virtually all audiobooks are sold by Audible right? I am surprised bookscan has not added them as well.

  17. @Hammerslag, something Scalzi did not mention: if you look at deeply discounted bargain table books, you will find they all have a mark on the bottom edge, or their price has been clipped off the flyleaf, or they have a hole punched through the front cover, or some other permanent mark has been made to indicate that the book is remaindered stock. The marks are made to prevent fraudulent returns, i think. It’s pretty unusual for a new book to be sold at bargain tables for 2/3 or 3/4 off cover price without it having a remainder mark.

  18. Guess,

    Nielsen would love ebook numbers; getting Amazon et al to share them is a matter of some continuing negotiation.

  19. Milo is a childhood abuse victim by his own description and hasn’t ever done his own healing work. He enjoys the persecution attention — being a victim feeds a lot of his theory of mind and theory about the world. Much as he thinks his contingent should be powerful, they have an incredible dog-chasing-car problem, and wouldn’t know what to do if they actually caught the brass ring of power. Like the current GOP in office, wouldn’t know how to govern their way out of a paper bag if they were ever in a place to do something.

    I would recommend Stephen Porges work on trauma as really groundbreaking neurological research new in this generation which would make a great foundation for some SF on changes in society possible if we actually dealt with the sociology of trauma and its sociological impacts. We have basically three nervous systems in our brains layered on one another dealing with “fight or flight” crisis — our “lizard brain” shuts down and does exactly that — makes us bolt in a crisis.

    But starting with little furry critters, we have a circuit that shuts down thought and makes us freeze in place in a panic. Think about rabbits or fawns or mice — any prey animal who freezes when a predator is near in order to not excite the predator to notice and spring at them. Respiration shuts nearly all the way down, we don’t really hear, our time sense nearly shuts down, there’s a sense that everything has gone into slow motion and we’re paralyzed.

    Some people, in crisis, have the same circuits as a predator. Time speeds up. They get each second cut into many slices and can react in what seems like superhuman speed — you can even train this through martial arts and meditative disciplines. Attention can seem to have more than one second per second attention, compared to most people.

    As a result, in a crisis, people can genuinely have different memories of the same event, since in a crisis, our memories will be sharply colored — particularly if we go into lizard or bunny panic modes where certain memory-transcription circuits and sound and vision inputs are marred — by anxiety and previous trauma associations. So if you had previously been frightened by being beaten or abused and thrown into a panic, you may think that the person who threw you into the current panic was about to beat you, or did beat you. In the panic, you will relive prior memories and conflate them as flashbacks if you have PTSD you haven’t dealt with.

    This is not victim blaming — but it’s the confusing landscape we deal with when we don’t provide healing to abuse victims, or give them a good path to healing, with dignity. It means we create a landscape of distrust, not compassion.

    So how do we create a society where kids like Milo get help, rather than create victim cults? There’s something worthy of the SF of ideas.

  20. Dear John,

    Oh sure, seduce me with the data mining, you evil evil man, you.

    Another data point on Bookscan versus actual sales, ’cause I happen to have numbers…

    As of a few weeks ago, Saturn Run had sold about 220,000 copies, so sez my editor. That won’t take into account any recent returns, but I suspect the return rate on John’s (Scalzi *or* Sandford) books is pretty low. About 10% of those sales are “miscellaneous media” — Audible, audio CD, etc. The other 90% divide evenly between hardback, e-book, and paperback editions.

    [Note to readers: don’t try to draw any conclusions about the relative health of subsectors of book publishing from those percentages — my editor says it varies from book to book.]

    I just checked Bookscan and it reports total sales of 70,000 — one third of actual sales.

    Even lopping off 10% from my numbers for the miscellany and another 30% for e-books, which we know Bookscan doesn’t track, that still leaves Bookscan reporting only little more than half of our hardback and paperback sales. A pretty major shortfall.

    Between your numbers and mine, MY’s claim isn’t at all implausible, especially since he’s reporting raw orders, not sales.

    Hey, a question! Do you (or anybody else here) know whether any of the airport stores report into Bookscan? I’d be guessing not, but I’m guessing based on zero information. This doesn’t affect most authors, but pretty much every little convenience store at airports (not to mention the actual mini-bookstores) has a prominent rack of that week’s bestsellers and other “hot” books. Sure, it’s not their main business, but there are an awful lot of those stores and the exposure is great — eye level, impulse sale marketing and you’re only competing with a few dozen other books.

    – Pax \ Ctein
    [ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
    ======================================
    — Ctein’s Online Gallery. http://ctein.com 
    — Digital Restorations. http://photo-repair.com 
    ======================================

  21. Thank you for the excellent information about numbers and sales and the always interesting tidbits of how the publishing industry is worth.

    And at least Milo is good as a bad example (in this case how to talk about your sales).

  22. I also note that public libraries are generally NOT ordering the Yiannopoulos title until a patron/resident requests it. We are not a huge market, of course, but there are about 16,000 of us in the U.S. Wikipedia says that BookScan does not track “non-retail” sales such as libraries. And of course, we buy regular print, large print, audiobook, e-audiobook, and e-book versions. Our consortium owns 37 copies of Lock In alone, for example.

  23. @ron — Milo is not harmless, but in deference to John’s request not to go into other things he’s done, I’ll leave this here.

  24. I have 17 girlfriends who preordered. Thus far, only one has received.
    A few days ago, my 61 year old, Boston Trial Lawyer husband drew a meme on a lark. When Milo reposted the meme on his Facebook page, it took off, and became a great joke in our family. I went back to Amazon and ordered another dozen copies of “Dangerous” as Christmas gifts for intolerant northeastern inlaws. I did receive notification they books were “back-ordered”, which comports with this author’s mention of possible shipping problems, and I ordered all hardcover copies. It’s okay though, we will wait.
    I’m sure “Dangerous” will be fabulous.
    Simon and Schuster = big mistake. BIG!

  25. Dear Daugh

    Yup, I’m believing every word of it, because y’know, we’ve never, ever had anyone show up here before to troll us.

    But, really, with 17 girlfriends, how do you find the time to read!?!?

    most sincerely yours,

    Ctein

  26. It galls me that an animated shitpile can sell in one week what I dream of selling in a year, and I am happy just to get past 140 copies of my own book in 2 weeks…

    There are other authors who do better through other sales channels than Amazon, so cutting off potential sources of income is generally not a good idea. Sad to say, though, if he is selling print copy through other vendors, then he has a sweetheart deal with ‘Zon that top selling authors/publishers generally get when sales are expected to be really high.

    Yiannotworththeefforttolearntospellitsname is in for a very unpleasant lesson if it doesn’t understand how buybacks work. I will personally find it very amusing if that bill comes due and the yianpopshitsicle team isn’t prepared for it. That can spell financial ruin.

    I find it funny how they worded their statement very much in the same way that trump words his own claims: “…because they didn’t order enough ahead of time, and have been scrambling to play catchup ever since.” Considering the tendency towards hyperbole demonstrated by that camp, I suspect very much the opposite is true.

  27. If the Unspellable One is exaggerating his numbers to stroke his fragile ego (which I think he is), I think it says more about the man than the industry. This would be far from the first time an arrogant self-published jerk with a fragile ego massively overestimated their audience and got stuck with a warehouse full of expensive wastes of paper, I’ve seen everybody from racist idiots to rich dudes from Florida with too much time on their hands and overly-spoiled kids they’re trying to promote pull the same stunt and claim that they’re really important because they “sell so many books” when they’re really just sitting on a warehouse full of useless paper.

    Frankly, though, I couldn’t give less of a shit about the guy other than to wish that he’s getting professional help, but since he seems to be writing books about how it’s totally OK to lust after children, I doubt he’s doing that. It’s a pity, because despite the fascism and the pedophilia I almost feel sorry for him.

  28. I’ve read that large number of “political” books–autobiographies written for campaigns, the books written and timed to be released in concert with a run for office, books espousing a particular political position that closely aligns with a specific interest group–are purchased in bulk by groups and handed out at various events as “party favors” to those attending. I’d suspect that might be the case with this author. Would books purchased through such a non-traditonal sales chain be accounted for in the numbers that track booksellers’ sales? If not that could also feed into the difference.

  29. re: John’s Note #4, the impression I’ve gotten as a non-publishing-industry person who pledges to Kickstarters for tabletop RPG sourcebooks is that print run costs per book are inversely proportional to the size of the print run. So if MY had only printed 10,000 copies, he would have had to set the sale price much higher to make a profit. A 100,000 book print run is more money up front to the printer, but each book’s share of the printing cost would be lower and he can set the sale price lower. Is this in error?

    I agree that the PR push of “hey, my book is going back for a second printing because it’s so popular” might have helped him. But if the book is too expensive, it may never get the second printing because it doesn’t sell out the first one.

  30. As you & I briefly discussed at the panel/signing in Berkeley, early returns can deceive. I picked up your latest at my local store and they said was their last copy, of 5–so good velocity; & they reordered. My Berlin Project seems to sell well, over 25,000 including ebooks so far–and for one golden day it ranked in top 5 for ebook sales. So life is good & devil take the hindmost.

  31. Leah:

    It’s true that the larger the print run, the lower the per unit cost; however, then there’s the matter of shipping and warehousing costs, which can eat up any printing discount (especially if one does not own the warehouse). So cost-wise it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other. Traditional publishers have gotten pretty good (er, most of the time) at estimating the optimal print run for a book so that there’s enough to fulfill demand without too many books needing to be warehoused.

  32. I never knew the bar was so low for what was considered a “bestseller”. I guess there are dozens (hundreds?) of different sales charts for every source (newspapers, Amazon, Bookscan, etc.) which can change daily if not more often.

    At this point, having “bestselling author” in ones bio means about as much as “award-winning”…by now, hasn’t almost everyone won an award for something? I knew one self-avowed “award winning author” whose award was one for their dissertation which had been written 30 years ago. So, I’ve become a skeptic because some honorifics are meaningless.

  33. @Guess, @nickmamatas

    Amazon is a black hole for information they deem proprietary, and this includes downloadable and streaming media like ebooks, music, and movies. I used to work for another large tech company which partnered with Amazon in some areas and competed in others (coopetition at its finest). My team was part of the partnering effort. We wanted to publicize usage information to demonstrate the reach of our technology. Amazon was at the other end of the spectrum and went to significant lengths to make sure that they did not leak any information that could be used to infer sales.

    There’s nothing wrong with holding information closely IMHO. Just don’t look for Amazon to publicize e-media sales figures as long as they consider this to be sensitive.

  34. It boils down to this: No one really knows how many books Milo has sold. Except Milo and maybe Amazon. And Amazon ain’t talking. Goodnight.

  35. “Yiannopoulos can now have it as a rider for speaking events that whomever is having him speak will be obliged to purchase a certain number of the book in order to have him appear”

    For the record, Milo does not charge a fee for his talks on university campuses.

  36. Milo is a “real piece of shit”. Now, I don’t agree with a lot of what he says and his style; but you, John, of all people should not be casting aspersions. Milo, to my knowledge, has not endorsed violent, political terrorism against his opponents; you have (recall “punch a Nazi”?).

  37. Doc Stat:

    You didn’t read that particular essay of mine closely, it appears, nor is your cherry picking argument here especially impressive (i.e., “I’m going to pick one thing he didn’t do and ignore this whole other pile of really shitty things he’s done and said”), nor is it really on topic. So let’s go ahead and table this feint of yours as a digression.

    Reziac:

    Yiannopoulos not charging colleges for his appearances does not mean he’s not being paid, however, nor that purchased books (or books heavily subsidized for cheap purchase) could not be part of any such future similar set-up. Nor does it mean that he does not or cannot otherwise charge speaking fees when his adventures are not being subsidized by conservative billionaires. I do think it’s sweet that you appear to think that Yiannopoulos tours colleges merely out of the kindness of his own heart, and subsists on air when he does.

  38. It’s a bit weird to be boasting of how succesful you are in self-publishing when you’re also suing a publisher claiming that the lack of promotion from the publisher has damaged you. Although, of course, it’s not weird at all if you’ve filed a lawsnit instead of a lawsuit.

    Mind you, part of his lawsnit is also that he deserves part of the extra money S&S will have made by not publishing his book and so avoiding losing business by maintaining good relationships with authors, book distributors, non-garbage people etc, which does make me dream that if he has been hugely succesful S*S should countersue him for all the money he made them lose. Unfortunately, publishers don’t tend to file frivolous lawsuits for shits and giggles. As far as I know. I’m happy to be corrected by people with insider knowledge.

    Adjacent weirdness: why do so many people who base careers around being anti-establishment care so much about establishment approval, and why exaggerate your boasts when the real achievement is something boast-worthy, if not praise-worthy, on its own (cf. One Of The Biggest Electoral College Wins In History),

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