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.