Low Down on The Numbers

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Janet Reid, a literary agent, posted an item on her blog last week on the issue of self-published authors querying agents in the hopes of getting a larger publisher to notice them. She emphasizes  that basically you need to have sold more that 20,000 copies of your book to have even a remote chance of having this happen. She went on to stress just how daunting this can be (no kidding!) and though she states that it isn’t her intention to dissuade someone from self-publishing, her main point is that self-pubbed authors need to be realistic about what they can accomplish.  Needless to say this blog post got me thinking…

  • So for all of you our there considering the indie route – what numbers are you aiming for? Are you considering this a first step towards getting an agent and a traditional publisher, a parallel option, or are you solely going for the indie route? What sales figures would you be content with?

  • And for those who have already gone the indie route – what kind of sales figures are we talking about? (if you don’t mind me asking – I confess to being clueless on this front). Do you agree with Janet’s statement that you probably need to sell in excess of 20,000 copies to get the attention of traditional publishers?

Janet also states that self-publication cannot launch a mystery series and I must confess, I don’t see why not – but perhaps some of you TKZers would like to weigh in on this as well!

13 thoughts on “Low Down on The Numbers

  1. Well Ma’am, here’s some hard data for you. I published my first ebooks in 2010, 3 full novels and a short single that year, followed by a short story collection in 2011, and one more novel and a novella in 2012. I did it after attempting the traditional route, with varying degrees of success, from 2006 until 2010. In ’10 one of my books, 65 BELOW, had according to my agent at the time made it to the editorial board of Simon & Schuster but didn’t pass that year’s selection. That same title has also garnered a few second looks from Hollywood types but so far hasn’t yielded dollar signs from the movie moguls.

    So after 4 years of banging my knuckles on every agent and publisher I thought might be interested I went indie to knock these books out with a plan to get with trad publishers once my sales on indies got high enough and when I put one out they couldn’t resist.

    Am I at that point yet? Perhaps. If not I think pretty close. Here’s the hard data as it stands after last month’s reports:

    Karl’s Last Flight
    (2010 novel) 2014 copies sold
    65 Below
    (2010 novel) 39,689 copies sold
    Faithful Warrior
    (2010 novel) 5465 copies sold
    Geeks Rule
    (2011 short anth) 1538 copies sold
    (2010 short single) 556 copies sold
    Blade of Hearts
    (2012 novella) 138 copies sold
    Midnight Sun
    (2012 novel) 558 copies sold

    Total copies of Self Published novels: 49958

    As you can see, 65 BELOW is by far the most popular of my titles and continues to be. The Alaska winter theme seems to grab people’s attention. My next book will be in a similar setting albeit with different characters and quite a different storyline. That one I will market to trad pubs, or what system is around by the time I finish the book in the next year or so.

    Now, I will say this. I have done little marketing other than an annual Kindle giveaway and a few facebook adds. I also use the Amazon KDP Select feature and give away my books 5 days each quarter. After these 24 hour giveaways I also see a huge jump in cash sales for the next few days. Also when those giveaways yield a bounty of reviews a month or two after the giveaway there is a major jump in sales.

    While it’s not making me rich, it is paying a fair bit of my bills and for that I am grateful.

    Sorry, my post is longer than your original blog article, but I hope this data is useful to folks out there.

  2. On the issue of what number would impress a publisher enough to want to pick up an already self-pubbed book, 20k seems like a reasonable benchmark. It takes some of the risk out of the transaction. The question then becomes (for the writer) how to fashion an acceptable deal. It’s all about the terms, then. It may be a good contract, it may be marginal, it may be bad. Each decision will be individualized and, as I’ve stressed, should be creative. Less boilerplate, more cafeteria plate.

    This is not the same issue as self-publishing with a view toward landing an agent or contract for a book yet to be published. Here, self-publishing (with the quality controls I talk about in my book) is doing the very thing agents and editors (sometimes rather blithely) say a writer has to do: build a platform. The best platform is actual readers. Then, if you have a killer proposal, you’re an attractive commodity (and I use that term advisedly).

    As for numbers to “aim” at, I’d word it slightly differently. A self-published writer needs to think about adding quality content in order to create a steadily rising trend line of sales.

  3. I would suggest.that new writers start out by publishing the traditional way, and use indie publishing for additional works. This establishes a “multi-channel” distribution, as they say in biz. The publisher will help you build your brand and get your name known, and you can take it from there.

  4. Ah, but Kathryn what of those of us who did try for many years to go the traditional route with no success?

    My own eventual minimal success came after years of audience building via the podcast serialized novels. At every conference I got glowing responses from the agents reading manuscripts but it never percolated into a signing. I would have given anything to get a good contract early on, but apparently it wasn’t to be. In the meantime I tried hard to figure out why, hired editors to go over the books again, hired artists to create new covers, blogged, podcasted, tweeted and built communications with as much audience as I could and anything else I could think of.

    As of now, I’ve condensed my experience into these lessons learned:

    – write well
    – keep writing
    – if you are convinced its ready for an audience , try it
    -if it fails, fix stuff and try again
    -overnight success always only comes after spending hundred of nights pouring over the work.

  5. It’s interesting, the numbers game. What I would like to see is the sales for midlist titles in different categories for Traditional Publishing. We can guess what it takes to be a best-seller, but the midlist makes up the bulk of books–how do those sales measure up to a 20K benchmark in Self Publishing? An agent can say a SP author needs to have 20K in sales to even be looked at, but where does this number actually fall in the Traditional realm?

    Also, I imagine ‘the Is 20K a success or not’ depends on the publisher. A book that sells 20K is a larger deal with a smaller house than it would be at a big 5 imprint. So, it depends on who’s looking at those numbers and deciding whether it’s attractive enough to take on.

    For me what that 10 or 20K really means is that the author has a platform and readership in place…and isn’t that attractive to all publishers? I would think so, provided that it didn’t didn’t take 5 years to reach.

    Genre also has a lot to do with it–some sell like crazy as ebooks, others do not. I know a YA author who reached 10K in sales in a year for a single title. I think this is pretty good for this genre, considering kids and teens are not the bulk buying market of ebooks–their parents are.

    As you’ve stated, the big question all authors who reach these numbers need to decide what Traditional can offer that SP can not. With shelf space growing less important, and it being common knowledge that unless you’re a big name, you’ll likely be taking on the lion’s share of marketing and promotion…is the ‘added value’ worth going traditional? How much is traditional validation worth? How much is building an audience through traditional industry means worth? No one can answer this but the author themselves.

  6. I’d say it also depends on what price your books are selling for. Selling 20K copies of a $4.99 book is going to be much more impressive to a publisher than selling 20K of a $0.99 book. Plus think about the earnings differential, which would be about $69,000 for the $4.99 book, but only $6,900 for the $0.99 book. If you sold 20K copies of that $4.99 book, the publisher should be offering more than a $70,000 advance for you to take the deal.

  7. Basil – thanks for giving such great data and clearly you have worked hard to build your readership base. James and Kathryn, I agree that the current marketplace enables authors to adopt a multi-pronged approach that is much more tailored to their own needs. Angela, I think 20,000 is a pretty good number and many, many traditionally published authors would fail to reach that (by far!). Boyd, the price issue is another part of the equation though I’m not sure whether traditional publishers looking at Indie authors focus on just volume or also pricing when considering whether to pick up that author.

  8. In the traditional publishing world, there are two parts to the numbers game: 1) units sold and 2) in what period of time?

    According to the October 8 issue of Publishers Weekly, the #23 bestselling mass-market paperback was WHERE AZALEAS BLOOM by Sherryl Woods. It sold 3,924 copies in its fifth week on sale, with a total of 48,779 over the total on-sale period. The price point is 7.99, so assuming a simple 10% royalty, the had book earned $38,535 in its first five weeks, $3,100 of which was earned in that fifth week. Historically, the longer a book is on the shelves, the less it will earn per unit of time, meaning that it becomes less attractive to booksellers.

    Compare that to the book that was #21 on the list, DON’T BLINK by James Patterson. It had a price point of $9.99, and sold 4,203 copies in its 9th week on-sale, and a total of 127,117 copies over its life on the shelves. Assuming the same 10% royalty, the paperback has earned $126,000–this after a hardcover run that no doubt sold 150,000 copies at a $28 price point (and a 15% royalty). Because he’s famous and prolific, his sales remain relatively steady throughout.

    What’s the point of this math exercise, you ask. Publishers make money not off a single book by an author, but off a body of work by an author. The 20,000 indie sales figure is not doubt a soft number, but if the author is trying to use the fact of having self-pubbed as a marketing hook for his work, I imagine it would be a good tie breaker for an editor who is on the fence.

    To Angela’s point, the same calculus is involved when a traditionally-pubbed author tries to change publishers. What could have been a 5,000-copy bestseller for a small university press might mean nothing to a larger publisher, who may well look at the author (through the prism of the larger publisher’s priorities) as essentially unpublished. Agents run into this all the time when they try to move authors from one house to another.

    John Gilstrap

  9. Forgive me for being a bit snippy, but for an indie writer to take advice from the publishing business is like letting the Detroit Tigers pick the Giants starting line up. Or Democrats give advice to Republicans on how to run their campaign. (Nifty to be topical).

    Okay so the Gods in New York say I need to sell 20,000 copies at a minimum to rise to the level that will garner their majestic attention. Now my ebook is priced at $3.99 which means I get about $2.79 a book times 20,000 which is about $55,860 and I get to keep all my rights. I do have to have a cover, but I’m unusual, I’m good with Photoshop so my cost is zero. My primary editor charges from $600 to $1500 depending on the book. But I have to spend that anyway.

    Then I have to make additional changes, wait 2 years, and lose all my rights. Also, I have to buy by the unsold copies.

    So my question is, what is a publisher going to do for me (a newbie) that will sell enough books to make $55,860 that I can’t do?

    I believe that traditional publishing for fiction is a dying business and won’t help me sell books.

  10. I have nothing intelligent to add, just wanted to say that this is a fascinating post and I really enjoyed reading through all the comments. (Also I can say that Basil’s work is quite excellent and I’m really surprised he HASN’T drawn the attention of the big houses.)

  11. Okay, I had the pleasure of meeting Janet Reid in Houston and discussing self-pubbing with her.

    She encouraged me when we discussed my collection of reprints for short stories and she enjoys the vibrant self-pub world.

    However, back at her desk on Monday morning, she has to open a thousand queries peppered with “credentials” including Publish America memoirs and poetry collections pubbed through Lulu.

    Like Jeffery Deaver, four words matter, “it is a business.” If you want to claim your self-pubbed work makes you better than anybody else in the slushpile, you’d better have some numbers to back it up.

    And the statement about self-pubbing to launch a series meant, if you burned the first book on Kindle and sold 500 copies then convincing a mainstream publisher that the second book is the breakout will be a long steep hill.

    If self-pubbing is going to become the AAA farm team for trad pubbing, then, like in baseball, only the stars, who fit the team’s needs at that moment, are going to get called up.

    However, in the meantime, a lot of perfectly good players are going to entertain a lot of crowds and make some bucks for their effort. There are worse careers.

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