book-sales

Every debut novelist asks “what are good sales figures?” and every seasoned novelist/agent/publisher replies with “it depends”.

While this is undoubtedly true, it’s not very useful to the novelist trying to work out where they fit in the world of books. We know who’s at the top – bestsellers are determined by The Sunday Times, The New York Times, USA Today and more recently Amazon. These folks are selling 2000+ copies per day, depending on the season.

Newsflash: most novelists do not sell thousands of books per day.

Reports on author earnings can be useful, but they are difficult to apply on an individual level. Also, earnings =/= sales.

Traditional publishers pay in two main ways – advances, where you get money before you sell anything, and royalties. Some publishers, like my publisher Carina Press, don’t give advances but give higher royalty rates. However, royalties are only paid once you’ve “earned out” your advance (i.e. accumulated royalties are more than what was paid upfront) and they’re paid on a schedule, when the publisher receives money for sales.

For example, Carina Press pays royalties four times per year. The next royalties are due in September, but the accounting period for those ended May 2014. As my debut novel Binary Witness was released 5th May 2014, I will be paid for the first month of sales in September. Except Amazon usually operates around a three month delay, so I probably won’t see those payments until December. Confused yet?

My second book Code Runner is released in September. Therefore, finding out how well Binary Witness sold in December is a little late to know if my various marketing strategies worked. I’m fortunate in that Harlequin, the publisher that the Carina Press imprint sits under, gives me sales data on a weekly basis – however, this only represents 80% of North American sales. As I’m a UK-based author, this is again of limited use.

Which returns us to the original question: how do I find out my sales and how do I know if they’re any good?

Enter NovelRank.

example-book-sales-rank

NovelRank uses Amazon Sales Rank to calculate book sales. It’s main limitations are that it only accounts for Amazon and it is by its very nature not particularly accurate, but for our purposes it is good enough. Theresa Rangan has helpfully made a chart that allows folk to estimate actual sales from Amazon’s rank, if you don’t want to add your book to NovelRank.

Not only does NovelRank help you estimate your own sales, it allows you to look at other people’s. For me, this is the most useful part of the exercise and helps to answer the second part of the question. Because when we ask “are my book sales good?”, what we’re really asking is “how do they compare to other novelists’?”.

Comparing yourself to every other novelist is pointless. I am not going to sell like Stephen King, because a) he writes in a different genre and b) he has a few more decades of writing and motion picture deals on me. I’m also not going to sell like top self-publishers, because certain marketing options are limited by my publisher – e.g offering free/cut-price books to encourage growth of my fanbase.

Therefore, the best comparison is other novelists in my genre and with my publisher. Luckily for me, several Carina Press mystery authors are also signed up for NovelRank, so I can peruse their sales figures for the past few years.

This was a very interesting exercise. I looked at authors who wrote series and I went back to their debut novel sales. I then looked at the sales of subsequent books in the series, and how the sales of that book increased relative to the first book AND how the previous books also experienced a bump. Which makes sense, as marketing for Book Two will probably make new readers look for Book One.

What I found was very encouraging. Authors starting with tens of sales per month have now reached hundreds of sales per month, including an increase in pre-orders and backlist sales. I also found my debut novel sales to be comparable to my peers. This gave me increased confidence when approaching acquisitions, knowing I wasn’t starting at a significant disadvantage.

Do you track your book sales? Do you compare yourself to other authors or do you set personal targets? What tools do you use?

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