Additional Thoughts on Emperox’s First Week

Because I have them! And this is my site, where I can talk about them! In no particular order:

* I’m still a little stunned by where Emperox ended up on the NYT list. Bluntly and honestly speaking, given the global pandemic, which makes the getting of books rather harder than it usually is, I had pretty much written off being on the NYT lists at all this time around. Then the early sales reports came in, and I was all, okay, this looks good, but don’t get ahead of yourself, bucko. And then shortly after 5pm yesterday (which is when the lists get sent off to publishers), I got an email from my editor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, subject line of which was, simply, “DUDE.” And then I was finally, okay, maaaaaaaybe. But at that point I was still expecting possibly something like #15, which is where The Consuming Fire had landed when it came out. So getting to #6 was… unexpected.

And also, as I discovered when I suddenly had a huge adrenaline dump of relief after seeing the number, something I had been denying to myself I had been worried about. Because, you know, look — if you ever get to the point where you expect to show up on a best seller list as a matter of course, you might need to calm your sassy boots down a bit. At the same time, the previous books had done well, and it’s okay to hope that your work finds an audience, even (and especially) in a rough moment for the world. I wanted the final book in this trilogy to do well. And it did better than I expected, by… well. By a bit.

I have to say in the moment, I was completely and giddily uncool about it, which is to be expected because I am completely uncool generally. Krissy was tolerantly amused with me for most of the evening, which is also to be expected. But, hey, as an author, if you can’t lose your shit about a top ten placing on a New York Times best seller list, when can you? You should never expect to land on that list. But when you do, it’s okay to geek out about it.

* Especially as a science fiction writer, I have to say. A quick check of the NYT Hardcover and Combined Print & E-Book Fiction lists shows that three science fiction books have debuted on those lists so far this year: The Rise of Skywalker by Rae Carson, Agency by William Gibson, and then mine (Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments is also about, but it debuted last year). There’s been rather more fantasy books, including N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became, and Sarah J. Maas got to #1 on both lists with House of Earth and Blood. And it seems certain that other science fiction will hit the list later this year. But for now, in 2020, it’s the most popular science fiction franchise in history, an acknowledged Grand Master of the genre, and me! I can live with that very fine company. Also, Rae and Bill and I thank you for your support.

* Now, in the interest of nitpickery, let’s acknowledge that placement on the NYT lists is both a combination of book sales and also whatever strange alchemy the NYT uses to judge what books qualify for its lists, and also that best seller lists aren’t just about numbers sold but also numbers sold relative to other books in a particular time frame. In another timeline, where there isn’t a global pandemic and everything went as we more or less expected things to, Emperox might have placed higher, or lower, or not at all, depending on how well other books did according to the NYT criteria. It’s useful to acknowledge that.

This is why it’s nice that to have the NYT ranking supported by positioning on other lists; for example, the #14 slot on the USA Today list, which uses a different criteria entirely (it covers all frontlist books, which is why on that list this week, the book at #13 is an Instapot cook book), or the Apple Books Science Fiction list, which covers titles sold via the Apple Books store (Emperox at #1! Also, The Collapsing Empire at #9 and The Consuming Fire at #12!). The National Indie Bestsellers Hardcover list has it at #28, which suggests that Emperox probably sold more in eBook than hardcover, which is supported by the book being on the NYT Combined Fiction list but not the Hardcover list. Other best seller lists will come in through the week and month, which will give us a triangulation of the books’ sales profile.

* I also know the first week sales numbers from Tor for additional context. As noted earlier, it did better out of the gate than either Empire or Fire. Which is great — If you have a trilogy of books, you want the last book’s numbers to reflect the pent-up excitement of the readers, rather than, you know, them going “Oh, that series, I guess.” I suspect it also helped that we primed the pump a bit earlier in the month with a one-day giveaway of Empire and a one-day $2.99 ebook sale of Fire, and had some good early promo via NPR and other outlets. Those starred and other positive reviews didn’t hurt, either. PR and marketing matter! No matter how you slice it, however, the book did what it was supposed to do, in terms of sales and presence. Hopefully it will continue to do so as we go along.

(“It was a good book, too!” Some of you will say (and have said already, thank you). And yes, it is. I was very pleased with the book for itself and how it fit into the series. But here’s the thing: The book being good or bad doesn’t mean that much for the first week sales for a third book in a popular series, or for the first week sales of a popular author. There is usually sales interest in those cases regardless. Where it being a good or bad book matters for sales is in weeks two through infinity — because that’s where word of mouth and other factors that contribute to “long tail” sales kick in. A book being good is the difference between the first week being 50% of a “bestselling” book’s lifetime sales, and it being 5%, or even a smaller percentage than that. As authors, we should all hope for the latter.)

* So, yeah, basically I was surprised and relieved and happy that The Last Emperox had such a good first week. And maybe you think it might be silly for me after all this time to still have those jitters, but — I still have them! Especially in the face of a global pandemic! This is completely uncharted territory to release a book into. Literally no one in the publishing world had any experience with something like this, or knew how to predict the effect it would have on a new book coming out. In a whole lot of ways, for Tor, and for the genre of science fiction, I got to be the proverbial canary in the coal mine.

The verdict: We’re not dead yet! And we may even get through this. If we do, it will be because of all of you. Thank you again.

45 Comments on “Additional Thoughts on Emperox’s First Week”

  1. A couple of additional notes:

    1. The lists (so far) do not reflect audiobook sales, which have been significant in the first week. Audible releases its own weekly bestseller list and the NYT also has a monthly list, and we’ll see if the book shows up on either. I expect possibly for the weekly list, and less so for the monthly, because the book was released in the middle of the month.

    2. While I didn’t want to address this in the main piece, because it’s not that important, and even this notation will cause a bit of “Senpai noticed me!” handflapping in their circles, I will note that there continues to be a small contingent of dickheads out there who keep declaring my career to be in freefall, and then something like this happens, and it delights me that they have their faces rubbed in it. In fact, it delights me even more that two of the bestselling speculative fiction authors in the country right now are me and NK Jemisin, who they’ve also spent years spinning themselves up into a shrieking terror about. I mean, don’t worry, they’ll find a way to explain away both of us selling millions of books and hitting bestseller lists and getting film/TV options and all that. They always do. And they’re always wrong.

    3. Oh! And! Did you know there used to be a superstition that books with green covers didn’t sell particularly well? SUCK IT, SUPERSTITION.

  2. Watched you grow as a writer for years and am so happy for you. You deserve it. Play hard to get for the movie rights or Netflix etc. a lot of them will want it!

  3. Delighted to see your exceedingly fine tale-spinning finding such a broad audience! You write excellent books, sir, and have every reason to be giddy about their success.

  4. Let’s say you had never had a NYT book. And then this was your first one. At what point do you get to say “NYT Best-selling Author”? When you crack the top 10? Or when you hit #1?

  5. Chris Shorb:

    Literally the very first time I ever hit a NYT list (Mass Market Paperback! Extended! Number 33!) my editor said to me “You have a new first name: New York Times Bestselling Author.”

  6. Now this is a strange new world for me, what actual published authors notice. Serious and heartfelt congratulations on starting so well and feeling so good about it. .

  7. Much congratulations! I’m about 2/3 through and am enjoying it so far. I would effuse further, but shall not for fear of giving away a spoiler.

  8. Still waiting for my copy to arrive, along with the first 2 books in the series which I was hoping to have in hand a couple of weeks ago! Preordered through our local bookstore, which is doing delivery. (Shout out to Raven Books in Lawrence Kansas.) I really prefer physical books… Not sure whether the delay is due to supply chain problems or the staff just waiting until the full order gets in. (I also preordered Martha Wells’ latest in the Murderbot series, which is not out until May!)
    I’ll check in with Raven later today.
    But do you have any info on distribution difficulties? I’m getting increasingly desperate to find new ways to avoid grading online freshman assignments!

  9. Congrats on the NYT and other bestseller lists. I imagine that means that your kitties don’t need to be concerned about their kibble supply…. (although, I should note, I’m apparently in the batch of Subpress copies that you are signing at home, so don’t yet have it in my grabby hands….)

  10. Happy for you John. As an “essential” worker with an unexpected new second job as after-hours homeschool teacher I don’t have much time to read, but I picked it up on release day and have really loved the first 4 or 5 chapters I’ve managed to get in so far.

  11. “* Now, in the interest of nitpickery, let’s acknowledge that placement on the NYT lists is both a combination of book sales and also whatever strange alchemy the NYT uses to judge what books qualify for its lists, and also that best seller lists aren’t just about numbers sold but also numbers sold relative to other books in a particular time frame.”

    Is this going to stop you, or more correctly Tor, from printing “NY Times Best Seller” on the paperback?
    Spoiler: I already know that that answer is “Hell no!”

    Congrats, Scalzi! Thanks for putting out another entertaining book!

  12. I bought the first two books when they first came out, but at my age I had to re-read them before starting TLE. I assumed that ebooks would sell well precisely because of SARS-Cov-2. People have more time, bookstores are closed, and the folks who are fortunate to have sufficient money outnumber those fucked by COVID-19 and far outnumber book buyers in general.

    On a sad note, the two mathematicians whose ideas seem to be most used in science fiction both died to COVID-19. The world is far poorer without John Conway and Freeman Dyson. I hate this virus.

  13. Congratulations for some well-earned recognition,

    Thanks again, for the conclusion of a great trilogy, and for the smile brought by your reaction to your placement on those Best seller lists,

    … and courage to Krissy and Athena who may have to suffer a smug author for the foreseeable future ;-)

  14. I too would think this would be a good time to release books. What is disappointing is how many libraries shut down. This could be their golden moment and if there is an essential business right now, entertainment would be it. I’ve heard some libraries are allowing you to order online and when you pick up your order they will come out and toss it in your trunk. Unfortunately ours is not one. We can order e-books via Overdrive but that’s it. I imagine the librarians would appreciate the income as well.

  15. I’ve been seeing quite stellar reviews on various blogs, and it made me wonder: Do you have a Google alert on your name or the book title in order to catch reviews beyond the “big guns” like NYT and Locus, or is that something for which you rely on your agent?

  16. Congratulations on reaching new heights!

    I’d argue that those jitters make sense even *more* now, when any emotion in that range gets a jolt of extra energy thanks to the uncertainty of, well, everything. It’s not every day you have a global pandemic playing the role of a leadfoot on the accelerator of your limbic system.

  17. Am I the only one who keeps confusing Patrick Neilsen Hayden and Neil Patrick Harris, and trying to remember which is who? (Yes, probably I am.)

    Oh yes, Congratulations! It couldn’t happen to a more deserving author!

  18. There’s one aspect of this I would like more information about (most of which you can’t provide). Yes, your bookstore sales are severely depressed, but so is everybody else’s. For example, #2 on the list is now on week 62. Where would its past week sales numbers and other NYT secret formula inputs have ranked it three months ago? #1000? That hurts the current bottom-line, yes, but not the bragging rights.

    In other words, the bar for sales to achieve bestsellerdom has been lowered, but roughly the same for all books. So maybe you were fretting above and beyond the appropriate amount of new book fret?

    PS-Congratulations. This isn’t sports. There is no asterisk on yet another Scalzi glory.

  19. Meanwhile the USPS is still taking their sweet time getting my pre-ordered copy to me. I can’t even peek in the ‘spoilers’ topic. Sigh, first world problems, mumble, mutter…

  20. Never heard the green book superstition! Did you know you’ll get yelled at for bringing a banana on board a boat?

    Congrats on the book’s success.

  21. Congratulations! (And, back when I was a bookseller in the 1990s, the hex was on *yellow* book covers, fiction in particular. Green must’ve come later. I recall rudely cracking up at a visiting sales rep who, pointing out something in the catalog, said, “Eh, this won’t sell, they’re putting a yellow jacket on it,” because for a second I thought he was talking about an insect.)

  22. Just finished The Last Emperox. Really liked it, but have one snarky question: Were you paid by the F-bomb? ;) .

  23. John, congratulations on your great open for “Emperox” — I’m really glad for you and your success. Keep up the good work, you uber-geek ~!!~

  24. Congratulations ! I just finished “Lock In”, need to start “Collapsing Universe” in the next year or two.

  25. Dear John,

    Mondo congratulations! In my (ever humble) opinion, that’s an even better showing than you said. Along with the other lucks of the draw — or should that be luck of the draws? (inquiring English majors want to know) — who you end up matched against makes a big difference whether or not you appear on the list and where you are on it. Every author above you is a seriously heavy hitter: The weakest is Jeanine Cummins, and her current novel has been on the list for a full quarter.

    You not only made the list, you’re pushing right up to the Majors. That’s fabulous, and pulling it off with a non-franchise science fiction novel is even more impressive.

    Again, bravo.

    I’m going to be very interested in seeing where it lists next week.

    Related, but something of a redirection… do you have any real (as in data-based) sense yet whether the current economic crisis has hurt book sales? The assumption that it will/has is not at all an obvious one to my mind. Which doesn’t mean it’s not true, but I’d like to see numbers.

    – pax \ Ctein
    [ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
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  26. ctien:

    So far it doesn’t appear that books sales have been hurt, but “book sales” in this case seems to mean “front list that people already knew they wanted to get.” We have to see what it means for mid-list and back list yet.

    I’ll also be interested to see where it lands next week. I suspect “off the NYT list” will be the answer, but it’s possible it might still be at the bottom. Likewise we’ll see if it holds on at USAT.

  27. Out here in the West ordered my copy from B&N the day it came out waiting for them to call so I can get my book.
    Thrilled for you. Your awesome kid!!!😎😎😎

  28. Congratulations, John.

    More importantly, thank you for giving your fans a few hours of literary escape from this increasingly terrifying reality.

  29. Dear John,

    My oh-so-educated (snerk) guess is that you’ll be on the list for another week, at the least. Not climbing any higher (looking at who’s above you) but I’m gonna put my chip on slot #12.

    pax / prognosticating Ctein

  30. Congrats and my first comment when it finally arrived, “I like the green cover”. Well done sir. Glad Krissy was amused and from the sounds of it is not going suggest you should try mowing the lawn as your new profession.

  31. It always freaks me out in a happy way to see two people whose work I love interact, in this case one being of course our esteemed host, the other Ctein! Hi! *waves*
    And John, I’m sure everyone is on board with you not playing it cool to land this high on the list! Again, well done and congratulations!

  32. @ Jim Gilbert: The green cover superstition (if that’s what it was) was extant in the UK when I became a bookseller in the late 1970s. (For clarification to non-booksellers, it applied of course to paperbacks, and to hardback dustjackets; actual green cloth covers under the dustjackets were common.)

  33. Starting my copy today (which I guess I should note is red in terms of its ‘cover’)! As (a) we’ve been in quarantine nearly 60 days here in France and (b) you rarely find English books in the stores anyway when they’re open (unless your name is ‘Stephen King’ or your title includes the words ‘Harry Potter’) and (c) amazon sales are halted here because they’re being doodoo heads with the safety of their workers, you’ll forgive me for purchasing it via Kindle (which was I’d note exactly 50% cheaper than GooglePlay which seems to assign random numbers based on nothing to their offers… very Flow-esque I guess one could say). Still the past 72 hours have been a real trip as I’ve devoured the first 2 books like a sheltered devoury thing!

  34. I should receive a discount for finding all of the typos I did. I am sure I missed many others. This just supports my belief that like homework turned in the last minute, the story takes a sudden jolt into a timeline that is rushed and underdeveloped. John, I will proof read your next novel for half the price. Keep that in mind.

  35. Jack Cummins:

    You are welcome not to read the books any more if the typos offend you that much, or distract so much from your experience.

  36. Dear Jack,

    I can’t tell if you’re serious or just being a wise-ass, because I’ve heard too many readers make such complaints in all seriousness. Consequently, I will treat this as a teaching moment:

    Gentle readers, complaining to an author about proofreading is like complaining to them about the typography or the cover or the cover blurb. Professional authors working with mass-market publishers do not have primary responsibility for copyediting and proofreading. The publishers have people with the necessary skills for that. (You think authors always spell or punctuate correctly? Hahahaha!)

    It’s customary to send a printer-ready copy (often referred to as a galley) to the author for a final read-through, in the hopes that they will catch any mistakes the copy editors and proofreaders missed or introduced (yeah, it happens). But primarily, it’s the publisher’s job, because people are notoriously bad at proofing their own writing. Especially if they are professional authors, who have likely read the text so many times that they *know* what it’s supposed to say. Authors who can reliably and perfectly proof their own writing are extremely rare.

    So, not John’s job. Tor’s job. If you really are a good proofreader, check to see if they’re hiring — it’s often work that is farmed out to independents.

    Finally, please don’t charge half-price, you’d be screwing other workers out of a decent wage. Solidarity!

    – pax \ Ctein
    [ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
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    — Digital Restorations. http://photo-repair.com 
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  37. Dude, face it already…

    Everything you’re gonna write from now on is gonna sell well. Unless you do something like produce three duds in a row. So far, you haven’t produced, or at least released, any…

    We’ve read how, well, challenging, The Consuming Fire was to write. it was still a kick-ass book.My copy of “The last Emperox” dropped in the mail just today, and I’m looking forward to reading it. I’m sure you can write a bad book if you try to, but I’m also pretty sure you’ll never fuck up by accident.

    You’re already a “well-established grand master” in SF. Did you ever write something as game-changing as Gibson’s first books? No, obviously not.

    Is your presence, past and present, as influential as his? It might be!

    A lot of women, and non-white people,,are now considered mainstream SF authors. The people who wanted to prevent that were too busy yelling at you to do so. To put it in MMO terms, you did your best to tank the raid for them, and it worked!

    Whilst constantly putting out quality yarns yourself.

    Grand Master Scalzi. Get used to it.