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 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

7 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2021 #2: Book Numbers”

  1. Yeah. Even as an independent author with access to distributor data, there’s some murkiness about numbers. Well, yeah, I have this number show up on my Draft2Digital dashboard. But. That also is dependent on reporting from outlets, and as the Barnes and Noble crash last year demonstrated, those numbers can be off temporarily due to site problems and hacking.

    I don’t do Kindle Select (which pays out per page view) but I have heard complaints about tracking from that end of things as well. There apparently can be problems with accurate measures of page reads.

    And then there’s just the keeping track of sales per outlet. Even if you work through a distributor there’s more than one. And oh yeah, then there’s the bundle distributor and that dashboard. Ingram Spark and that dashboard.

    I’ve gained a bit more perspective about what would need to go into a publisher audit as a result of being indie. It can be fascinating…and clearly illustrates the complexity of book sales today.

  2. Sounds like you could (or would have to) put together a spreadsheet with entries for all possible sales outlets for each work in print, keep every field updated as best as possible, and then the grand total would still be a guess.

    A lot of bean counting, which is wonderful if you enjoy that sort of thing.

  3. I worked briefly for a book publishing company, and was astonished at how the business was run. I imagine that a big part of the reason that publishers are “cagey” about sales, is that sales to physical book stores are not actually sales until customers take them home. Many book stores basically order books on spec, and return all but a few to the publisher after the initial splash is over. So, in the first few weeks, sales look amazing. Then the returns start coming back.

  4. Do Audible pay a flat fee for putting a book into their streaming service, or do you (or Tor) get extra money if the audiobook is popular?

  5. Even before Audible started their Audible Plus service, I wondered whether authors(/publishers/narrators) got paid the same regardless of whether I bought an audiobook at regular price or member price or sale price or with a credit. Now with some audiobooks available to listen to at no extra cost via Audible Plus, I wonder how authors/publishers get paid/credited for them: just a flat fee no matter whether anybody actually listens? paid by the “Add to Library”? Paid by the actual listen?

%d bloggers like this: