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Reader Request Week 2021 #2: Book Numbers

John Scalzi

Michael Doherty has a question about publisher practices around book sale numbers. Specifically:

I’ve never understood why publishers appear to be so cagey about the numbers of books they sell. Have your publishers ever asked that you not reveal how many copies your books have sold?

No, and honestly I would be surprised if they had. Also, I would be surprised if, at any one time, anyone knew the exact number of books I, or pretty much any other established author with a sales profile similar to mine, had sold.

Which is not to say publishers’ don’t know their own numbers, mind you. They get point of sale information from bookstores, and they know how many books have been ordered, and they know how many returns they have, and so on. They also have to accurately represent those numbers on the royalty statements they are contractually obliged to give to authors (and their agents). Also, usually, if an author suspects the numbers are being underreported, they can ask for an audit, which will bring a fuller picture of sales. So, if I called my editor at Tor today and asked him for the most up-to-date sales numbers for The Collapsing Empire, he could give me a reasonably accurate count of the number of copies of that title that Tor had sold.

What he would not be able to tell me is the number of audiobook sales, because Tor isn’t my audiobook publisher; Audible is. Audible, likewise, knows the number of the audiobook version of Empire it has sold, but not the print or ebook versions, as they do not hold the rights to those. And neither Tor nor Audible has the figures for the foreign language editions of the book, because those are published by other publishers, who have their own sets of numbers.

Who has the most accurate numbers for Empire’s sales (or indeed, for any of my books)? That would be my agent Ethan Ellenberg, to whom all sales and royalty numbers go first, before they are sent on to me. But note in many cases there are lags in terms of information because (I assume) neither Ethan nor the other agents in his company are constantly calling, say, my publisher in Estonia, demanding to know how many copies of my books have sold that week. They could, I suppose? But they don’t, because by and large our various publishers across the planet are honest (and if they are not, at least have signed legal contracts requiring disclosure).

So: If I wanted the best guess in terms of my sales for any one title, or indeed overall, I would ask Ethan to put together a report on that. Indeed he and his crew did that a few years back, in the wake of my Tor deal, so we would have some idea of the figures to tell new foreign language publishers, and also film/TV companies who had an interest in optioning work. The answer, because I know you’re curious: Somewhere in the neighborhood of five million copies of my work sold, worldwide, in all formats. If memory serves this was before The Interdependency series had come out (as well has Head On). That series has done very well and my backlist keeps chugging along happily, so I would expect the number has gone up somewhat since then. I don’t know exactly how much, though, because honestly, on a day-to-day basis, it doesn’t actually matter.

(And you say “yeah, but you could be lying about those numbers!” Well, yes, I could be — I’m not, but I could be. The reason I could be is, again, no single source has an accurate count from all my publishers in all formats, except my agent, and then, though him, me. And generally speaking, it’s not something that comes up frequently enough to care. Believe me! Or don’t, it’s all the same to me.)

There’s another issue to consider, which is that these days “sales” is somewhat fungible term. So, for example, I sold tens of thousands of copies of Old Man’s War as part of a “pay what you like” Humble Bundle a few years back. Some people paid a lot for the books in the bundle, and some people paid the absolute bare minimum. Do those count as “sales” if I don’t get paid my usual royalties? Likewise Old Man’s War has been used as a giveaway by Tor to get people to sign up for the Tor.com newsletter. I don’t consider those sales, but it was popular and I gained readers and sales for later books through that. Should that count in some way?

What about the Dispatcher stories, for which I was paid (well!) but which are part of the Audible Plus streaming package, which means that people listen to them for no additional cost beyond that of the subscription. If someone listens to that, does it count as a “sale”? A “listen”? What bucket do you put that in? Both Dispatcher books have been bestsellers on Audible’s charts, so there’s that to consider as well in the formulation. Along this line, lots of indie authors are part of a subscription model — they get paid for their work, but they don’t make sales in the traditional manner. How do you count sales for them?

Now, with all of that said, there is another reason why publishers and authors alike might be, if not cagey, at least, circumspect with raw sales numbers, and that is that most books, even bestsellers, don’t sell in what a general audience has been trained to appreciate as big numbers. Generally speaking, and not counting the books for which ridiculously large advances are given, if your book sells 25,000 copies over its commercial life, your publisher will be happy with you and might put the phrase “national bestseller” on the cover of your next book. On certain weeks and depending on the chart, a couple thousand sales might be enough to be a New York Times bestseller. “New York Times Bestseller” sounds more impressive than “Hey I sold a couple thousand books,” even if, in fact, selling two thousand books in a week is still pretty damn cool, since most books of any sort sell a fraction of that, ever. In any event, I don’t think most authors/publishers are actively dissembling. They are mostly just putting their work in the best possible light.

(Also, for the avoidance of doubt, I believe there are publishers who ask their authors not to break out their sales numbers publicly. I think this is a bad policy for writers, and for publishers, and as a practical matter this admonition is ignored the moment we all start hanging out in a hotel bar together.)

In sum: I talk about numbers if I feel like talking about book numbers, but as a practical matter it doesn’t come up all that much. I sell enough to make my publishers happy, and to keep my bills paid and my pets in kibble. From a business point of view, everything above that level is gravy. I acknowledge it’s easy for me to have that particular position on things, but even so.

(There’s still time to get in a topic request for this year’s Reader Request Week — go here to learn how to do it and to leave a topic suggestion!)

— JS

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Reader Request Week 2021 #1: Creative Kids in a Computer Age

It’s Monday, and that means it’s time to start this year’s Reader Request Week! To kick things off, Matt S asks:

Computers today are mostly consumption devices. Tablets, cell phones, smart watches… How do I make sure my young son will grow up having the passion to CREATE instead of only passively being entertained?

Well, here’s the thing: Lots of media-bearing technologies are mostly consumption devices, and historically more so than computers. Television is primarily a consumption device. Film is primarily a consumption device. Radio is primarily a consumption device. Books are primarily a consumption device. LPs, CDs, cassettes and 8-tracks: consumption devices. Newspapers and magazines: consumption devices.

Moreover, each of them in their day caused lots of handwringing about idleness and lives wasted by them. Go back to the 18th and 19th centuries and you’ll see lots of griping about novels and how they wreck the mind, especially when women read them. More recently, I don’t need to remind anyone over the age of 40 of how television spent decades as the “big bad” of the media landscape, promising endless hours of mind-wasting entertainment that sucked people’s will to live, or, at least, to go outside. No matter where or how you got your entertainment, be assured that at some point in its past it was viewed as an evil, something making people passive, complacent and uncreative.

What’s different about the computer? Mostly that as a technology, it is multipurpose where previous media technologies were single-purpose. Now your computer, tablet or phone — which are all of course just computers of varying sizes — can be the TV and radio and book and newspaper and a dessert topping and a floor wax (incidentally, if you got that last joke, you’re officially old). This gives rise to the complaint that all people do anymore is look into a single screen; this is not inaccurate, but also vaguely unfair. One device obviates the need for most people to have to apprehend several different things for their entertainment. When I’m looking at a computer screen I could be watching a video or reading a book or making a comment on social media, and so on.

And as a creator — well, look, I’m thrilled that computers have made it easier for people to consume. The rise of the cell phone and the rise of the audio book as more than a marginally popular creative medium are highly correlated, and at the moment audiobooks comprise a good third of my income. Likewise, much of my readership prefers the eBook format to print, and carry all my books with them wherever they go, as data on (or accessible by) that phone, tablet or laptop. And, of course, hello, you’re reading this on my web site, which is entirely dependent on a computer screen. Thank you for staring into screens, people! You’re feeding my pets!

Another thing: The computer is indeed mostly a consumption device, but it has also made it much easier for people to create as well. Once again: Hi, welcome to my web site! For twenty-two years now I have been self-publishing here, and in that course of time I’ve written millions of words with no more effort than it takes to type them and hit a “publish” button. Likewise, I can create photography and present it electronically, with far less effort and cost than photography would have required in the film era. Equally, I can create a video and present it to the world in minutes. Or record a song! Or whatever!

Whether that ease of creating and publishing is a good thing overall is an entirely different discussion, mind you, and not one I’m going to essay in this discussion. However, I can say it’s been good for me. I wrote my first short stories as a teen on a computer. I’ve never had a creative or professional life where a computer of some sort or another has not been actively involved, either as the primary instrument of creation or as a major component of its publication.

So with respect to your kid having the urge to create in the age of computers, Matt, I would say: Don’t worry about it too much. If your kid has the urge to create at all (some people don’t! And that’s okay!), then the computer isn’t going to squash that out of him — in fact, it will give him tools to create, and he will use those as he will, in conjunction with or exclusive of, physical creative tools.

What you should be doing as a parent, I think, is to encourage that creativity when it arises. If your kid likes taking pictures, show him how to do it on your phone or a tablet and then let him run around taking photos of the things he likes. Drawing? Fire up a sketching program and let him play with that. Lots of kid-oriented video games have an explicitly creative component to them, encouraging the players to build their own scenarios and characters. And so on. If you make the point that the computer is for creating as well as consuming, then your kid will incorporate that into his worldview. Now, it also means you will need to be actively engaged in how your kid is using those creative tools on the computer, but as a parent, you should be doing that anyway.

Should you be encouraging your kid to do creative things away from the computer? Sure, there is more to life than just staring at a screen. That said, in my experience the best way to encourage creativity in (most) children is, one, not to force it and, two, not to look down at the direction of creativity your child wants to explore. Do you want your child to be creative, or do you want him to be creative specifically in a way that hits all the “creative” checkmarks in your brain? If the latter, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment.

Also, here is a real thing: While you absolutely should make time in your child’s life for creativity and play, and encourage both without a goal in mind other than “hey, let my kid have fun,” also realize that before every creator was known for their creations, they were consuming media and entertainment — lots of it. That’s how we learned to create: By seeing what others did and then gradually seeing ourselves doing the same. If you saw me at eight years old, or fifteen years old, or, hell, at twenty-five years old, you would not have seen someone who appeared to be destined to become a best-selling novelist. You’d see someone staring into a lot of screens, watching what other people had put on them. Consuming media is not inherently a problem! Creativity is not inspired in a vacuum! People’s creativity is on their schedule, not anyone else’s!

As they say: The kids are all right, in this era just like the ones before it. As a parent, realize you can use the computer to create as well as consume, and make it part of your parenting plan to get your kid to realize it too. Then let him explore and play and find what interests him creatively, online and off. And if all he wants to do right now is watch things, don’t panic. That’s part of creativity too. It’ll pay off in his own creativity, or not, but in the meantime you’re supporting the creativity of others, and that’s not a bad thing, either.

(There’s still time to get in a topic request for this year’s Reader Request Week — go here to learn how to do it and to leave a topic suggestion!)

— JS

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Big Idea

The Big Idea: Dorothy Winsor

Family. Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em — but it seems that in one way or another we return to them. This seems to be the case in Dorothy Winsor’s newest speculative fiction novel, The Trickster, both for the characters and the author. Follow along in her Big Idea as she explains how the themes of familial relationships inspired her writing.

DOROTHY WINSOR:

Not long ago, I realized that I always wind up writing about family, whether I intend to or not. That may be because I write YA and my characters are breaking from their birth families. But themes of family can work even with adult characters.

We humans generally need the support of other who love us, most commonly in the form of a family. But family expectations can confine us in limiting ways. Many adults have gone home for a visit to find that parents and siblings prod them into roles they had gladly abandoned. Despite their best efforts, they are still expected to be the impulsive one, the shy one, the baby.

Given the way I can’t stop myself from writing about it, I decided to lean into the theme of family. The push and pull between the legitimate comfort of family and the equally legitimate limitations is the big idea behind The Trickster.

My Characters’ Dilemmas

In The Trickster, the point of view alternates between Dilly and Fitch. Dilly is an orphan who’s thrilled to find herself living in the lord’s household as an attendant to his daughter. But she has to hide everything she’s learned and done as a street kid lest her mistress throw her out. She has to smother some of what makes her unique in order the please her makeshift family.

Fitch has been raised to serve his family of smugglers. He lives on an island where he’s related to every single other person and they all smuggle. But smuggled drugs killed his girl the previous year. If he leaves, he has no idea who he is or what his role in life could be. But how can he stay?

For me as a writer, the issue was how to develop the family theme in as rich a way as possible. Luckily, speculative fiction provides us with tools that allow us to make an issue concrete. I once heard Connie Willis talk about how spec fic allowed us to literalize a metaphor. I did something like that with The Trickster.

Primarily I was able to create a family-centered culture that affected both Dilly and Fitch. I also used magic to sharpen the dilemma, particularly for Fitch.

Create a Family Centered Culture

First it occurred to me that I could make the culture dependent on clans, which I called “kinships.” I wound up using that idea primarily for the several families of smugglers rather than in general, but I decided some of the same exaggerated family loyalty had to have carried over to the mainland. In the push and pull of the kinships, I was able to concretize the issue.

I gave the islanders a saying: “Blood of my blood.” They use it to proclaim their loyalty to the kinship. Fitch’s father also uses it to prod his son to keep acting for the kinship’s benefit.

Dilly is a mainlander, but she still feels the same cultural conditioning. As she tells Fitch, “When it comes to family, you’re a rich boy, Fitch of Rhale Island, and I’m dirt poor.” She feels that absence and struggles to find an excuse to say in the Lady’s household even when she realizes that something treasonous is going on.

Use Magic to Increase the Stress

The “magic” in this book is low key but crucial. Fitch has trained as a healer who functions by laying hands on someone and using his energies to strengthen and correct theirs. He discovers that during a healing session, he also has the ability to nudge his patient’s feelings in a direction that should be useful to their well-being. When Fitch’s father hears about this, he demands that Fitch use his nudging ability for the well-being of his smuggling family instead. So for years, Fitch nudged buyers to pay a higher price. Or perhaps he nudged the Watch to look the other way.

The problem for Fitch (and his father) was that the more he nudged other people’s emotions, the more aware he became of them, and the worse he felt about using them. As Dilly says, “How unlucky for your father that your gift made you useful but at the same time gave you insights so you didn’t want to use it. If that’s not the Trickster at work, I don’t know what is.”

For me, in this book, speculative fiction turned out to be a productive resource for writing about an idea that’s apparently fertile for me.


The Trickster: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Kobo 

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow her on Twitter.

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