The State of a Genre Title, 2015

Eighteen months ago, as Redshirts moved from its hardcover era into trade paperback, I did an examination of its sales to the point, across all its formats, and chatted about what its sales meant, or didn’t mean, and what we could learn from the numbers. Last week, Lock In, my most recent novel (until tomorrow), transitioned from hardcover to mass market paperback, and I thought it would be interesting and possibly useful to do something similar with it. So I asked for numbers from my publishers. Here they are, up to July 31, 2015. The numbers are rounded to the nearest 100.

For those who choose not to whip out their calculators, that’s total sales of 87,500 copies in Lock In’s hardcover sales era, in hardcover, eBook and audiobook. Note the hardcover/eBook sales do not include the UK edition of Lock In, published by Gollancz, nor any foreign language editions. These are North American edition sales (Audible owns world English rights for its version, and so the audio numbers may include sales outside North America). Note also that the audiobook numbers are sales, not downloads, important because Lock In had two versions, and the pre-orders included both versions.

So, thoughts on these numbers.

1. 87.5k is a pretty healthy number for sales here. If you want to do a comparison to Redshirts, the total sales numbers are up (Redshirts sold 79.2k in its hardcover era), although Redshirts‘ time in hardcover was shorter, so in all it may be a wash. The distribution of sales is also a reminder that all sales channels matter — if I were to lose access to bookstore distribution, for example, I’d lose roughly a quarter of my total sales for this sales pass. If I weren’t doing audio, in this particular case (I’ll discuss this more a couple of points down), I would have lost nearly half.

This continues to be my major concern with digital-only self-publishing, incidentally: there’s money being left on the table if you can’t address all these sales channels. Most self-publishers (or micro publishers) don’t have access to bookstores, nearly all of which continue to operate on a “returns” basis. This is not about the ability to create a physical copy of a book; at this point that can easily be done with print-on-demand options. It’s about having the book already on the shelves, attractively packaged and ready to buy, when the customer walks into the store. If you don’t have that, you’ve largely lost out in that sales avenue. Likewise audio if you’re not there.

At this point in my career, I’m a four-quadrant author, which means that at the end of the day my income as a novelist comes out of four areas: print, eBook, audio, and foreign sales. For any one book or project, one of these might be significantly out of proportion to others, in terms of sales. But over the length of time, they’ve all tended to even out as backlist sales kick in and other factors come into play. At this time, and I expect still for a while to come, the best way to address all these markets effectively and consistently is to partner with publishers.

This doesn’t mean people can’t and don’t make money addressing only one or two of these quadrants — people do, and good for them. But I tend to think diversity in marketplace access allows both the ability to hedge when one sales channel underperforms, and allows for the happy possibility of overperformance in one of those quadrants adding to the bottom line — for example, several years ago The Android’s Dream outperformed in foreign sales (it was a hit in Germany, where it won the Kurd Laßwitz award), or The Human Division electronic sales (when you add in the sales of individual episodes) swamping the sales in every other quadrant, or, in this case, Lock In’s audiobook sales being a substantial sales driver for the novel.

Which is to say a writing career is not at all unlike a stock portfolio — diversify for long-term success.

2. So obviously the audiobook is a major factor Lock In’s total hardcover-era sales — 46% of total sales through the end of July 2015. As a point of comparison, Redshirts‘ audio sales during the hardcover era were 21% of total sales. So what explains the surge in sales, both in raw numbers and as a percentage? My guesses:

a) Audible creating a marketing event around Lock In having two versions, each with its own celebrity narrator (Wil Wheaton and Amber Benson);

b) Audible gaining the ability to pre-order titles and offering both versions of Lock In to people who pre-ordered;

c) Strong, consistent sales of my work in audio growing the overall audience for my work in that sales channel — an audience which has overlap with, but is not exactly the same as, my print and digital audiences;

d) General, overall growth in the audiobook segment of publishing, led by Audible, who is the segment’s market leader.

Also, you know. The book’s pretty good, and Wil and Amber’s narrations were just great. Which helped.

Add it all together and you get a solid hit for Audible, as my audiobook publisher, and for me as the writer. Most writers would be happy to get 41,000 copies their work sold overall in their book’s hardcover era; to have those come out of audio, in a nearly 1:1 ratio with print publisher sales, is I suspect unheard of.

What does this tell us (anecdotally) about audio? One, that genre work can sell very well indeed in the segment, which should be immensely heartening to authors in genre; two, that audio as a segment is growing and it makes sense to get into it if you can; three, that audio has its own audience, with its own sets of desires and expectations, and that’s something you’ll want to factor in as you create you work. At this point I absolutely give consideration to how my work sounds as well as reads — I’m starting to use substantially fewer dialogue tags (“he said,” “she said”), as an example.

This also goes to my argument of why working with established publishers can continue to have its advantages for writers. Audible (in my case, other major audio publishers in the case of other authors) has the wherewithal to get the best narrators, an entire marketing and PR staff and the ability to push a title in the space, in a manner and with the wide-band strength that it would be very difficult for me, as an individual, to do. They do it well, which is a thing, and they also do it better than I would, which is another, separate thing. I benefit, and reach an audience I wouldn’t otherwise, through their competence and expertise. Which is why I’m glad to be working with them.

Which suggests this is a fine place to bring this up: Last Friday I signed a multi-year, multi-book contract with Audible, who will be the audiobook publisher for the books that are to be published by Tor over the next decade. I’m going to skip over the fiddly details of that contract right now, except to say that I’m very very happy with it, and also very happy to be working with Audible for the next decade. Like Tor, they are simply the best at what they do, and I like working with the best.

3. On the subject of Tor, how do I feel about the performance of Lock In, in the print and eBook editions? Short version: I am delighted with how the book did. Note well that the book is in many ways a departure from my standard science fictional remit, which is action-oriented space opera; even Redshirts has lasers and aliens and spaceships and explosions. Lock In: No lasers or aliens or spaceships. Relatively few explosions. Instead: a near-contemporary cop thriller with a gender-ambiguous lead and a heavy dip into issues of disability and social dynamics. And Tor’s marketing and PR helps it sell 46K copies in hardcover-era print, land on the NYT, USA Today, LA Times and Bookscan bestseller lists, get optioned for TV and earn a sequel? Hell, yeah, Tor rocked this one pretty hard.

I mean, I helped, too. Don’t get me wrong. But essentially I threw Tor a curve ball and asked them to hit it. They drilled it, and in the process both helped introduce me to some new readers, which is great, and to expand the parameters of my writing career, which is even better. Lock In was in many ways a case study of what it means to be John Scalzi, author. Now we’re sure that my name can sell more than just action-oriented space opera, and that Tor is good at selling me, not just a certain flavor of book by me. That knowledge is part of why Tor and I both decided that a long-term contract was in our mutual self-interest.

These numbers (along with the audiobook numbers) are also solid number to bring to the table when someone argues that science fiction “should” be about, or that the science fiction that really sells is [insert sub-genre of science fiction here]. I mean, guys: I sold nearly 90,000 copies, at a premium price, of a book that, again, has a gender-ambiguous lead and a heavy dip into issues of disability and social dynamics. Why? Well, because the book was fun, too, which doesn’t hurt. But also because the audience for science fiction and fantasy today is both diverse, in who it is, and diverse, in what it is happy to read.

This makes me happy as a writer. I love space opera, and trust me, you’ll be getting more of that from me — the 2016 novel from Tor, in fact, is currently scheduled to be a big ol’ epic space opera-y kind of thing — but I like the idea that I can write other things and that (with an assist from my publisher in marketing and PR) my readers will come along for those rides, too. It will keep my writer brain happy to mix things up. It also makes me happy as a reader, since it means that we have some more anecdotal proof that science fiction and fantasy doesn’t “have” to be one niche or another to sell. It can all sell. You just have to know how to sell it. Tor knows how to do that.

4. As a bit of inside pool, these numbers are again a reminder that Bookscan, the service that tracks book sales, is at this point a bit of rubbish when it comes to tracking sales across multiple formats and media. As of August 2nd, Bookscan has recorded 11,175 sales of Lock In, a number that is barely half of actual physical hardcover sales and a ridiculously small 12.7% of the book’s total sales.

Bookscan’s reporting of my sales is so wildly inaccurate, in fact, that it’s concerning to me as an author, because bookstores make orders based on its numbers. The general rule of thumb is that Bookscan captures roughly two-thirds to three-quarters of physical print sales, but in my case it doesn’t, and I have to suspect the same is also true of a number of genre authors, and not just science fiction or fantasy genre authors.

So, if you’re a bookseller: Hey! I sell pretty well! Stock all my books! Thanks. Genre authors: Check your actual sales alongside your Bookscan numbers. You may be surprised at what’s not there. And, finally, Bookscan: Please get your shit together if you’re going to continue to tout yourself as a reasonably accurate gauge of sales. Thanks.

(Also, and as an aside, the unreliability of Bookscan’s numbers mean that if you’re using them to snark on an author, you run a high risk of looking really very foolish. This comment goes out to all the Sad/Rabid Puppy partisans, who at the height of their silliness, waved around Lock In’s Bookscan numbers as evidence the book had failed and both Tor and I were in a panic about it, when in fact both Tor and I felt pretty damn good. We knew the actual number of units sold, and that Bookscan was capturing less than a quarter of Tor’s actual sales of the book.)

5. The really good news for Lock In? Everyone, including me, figures that its natural sales home will be in paperback. We’ll find out over the next couple of years if it’s true. In the meantime, these hardcover-era sales are give the paperback a healthy push out of the gate. Good luck to it.