Monday, October 29, 2012

Self-publishing numbers: keep calm and keep writing

I can't resist posting in reply to this pronouncement by literary agent Janet Reid, who claims that:

To get noticed, you have to sell a lot of books. By a lot I mean more than 20,000.

Notice that Reid doesn't give a timeframe here. She's talking, of course, about what a self-publisher needs to do to attract the attention of a traditional publisher; it always makes me chuckle that everyone in the traditional publishing industry seems to think that this is the Holy Grail of all self-publishers. For some it may be, of course; I know plenty of writers who begin to salivate when they hear the words "Random House."* For most self-pubbers, though, the real goal is simply to make their writing pay in a predictable and regular manner.

So which numbers are really important to a self-publisher? Here's my take on the numbers game.

The first important number: 1.
This is the number we try to achieve when we first put our book on the market. By 1, of course, I mean 1 in excess of the number of copies purchased by our mothers, friends and people who owe us favors. That first copy purchased by a reader who doesn't know you from Kevin Bacon but just thinks your book looks interesting. That proof, in fact, that your book has the ability to attract ANYONE but your mother, friends and people who owe you favors.

The second important number: the number you need to sell to be in the black.
This number = the amount you spent on publishing your book divided by your profit per unit. So, for example, if you spent $1,600 (a reasonable amount) on getting your book professionally edited, getting a cover design done, buying ISBNs, possibly formatting and a bit of initial marketing, and you put your book on the Kindle at $2.99, your calculation would be:

1600 ÷ (2.99 x 70% = 2.09**) = 766 books

So book 767 would be pure profit, as would every book thereafter. It's something to shout about. Obviously this figure is going to vary for every author.

The third important number: the first 1,000
"The first thousand sales are the hardest" is one of those phrases that gets kicked around the internet wherever self-pubbers congregate. It doesn't have any real-world significance imho, but it's a good example of a psychologically important number. Now you can count your book sales in four figures. You start feeling like a publisher.

The fourth important number: 10,000
Janet Reid aside, I think most publishers are going to pay a little bit of attention if you can prove you've sold (for real money) 10,000 units. Now, they may sneer if your selling price was $0.99, or they may not. That's going to depend on all sorts of factors including the overall quality of your book, the length of time over which the books were sold (there's a big difference between 10,000 over five years and 10,000 over two weeks, right?), your Amazon ranking, how well you do compared to others in your genre, the size of the publisher, and so on. It's also the point at which a self-pubber may well decide that she could care less if publishers come calling, she's making a decent income as it is. By the time you've sold 10,000 books, you're going to know a whole lot about what kind of marketing works and what kind of reader you attract.

The fifth important number: 100,000
Well hello, Random Penguin. The publishing industry being what it is, at 100,000 sales it WILL want a piece of you unless you're one of those bad boy/bad girl self-pubbers who's spent your entire career telling publishing exactly where to put its contracts. Whether you care or not is up to you, because you may have just paid off your mortgage.

And here's the kicker...
Apart from the first and second numbers, i.e. the first sale and what it takes to become profitable, the rest are all IMAGINARY NUMBERS. In fact, just about as imaginary as Ms. Reid's 20,000 because her number will apply to the sort of books she represents (the heavy-selling thriller/crime genres) and an agent specializing in niche books will not have the same figure. Playing the numbers game - in fact, listening to these people who knock numbers around the internet - is going to make you miserable and stop you from writing good books. Decide what number means success to YOU, not someone else, and plan your career accordingly. If your calling is to write fine literature that's likely to sell a copy a month but upholds your ideals and showcases your genius, don't feel called to write schlock horror instead so that you can hit that 20,000. Just accept the risk and keep writing what's meaningful to you.

Don't get me wrong, I'm well aware of Ms. Reid's solid credentials, years of experience and the quality advice on her blog, and how I'm a baby gnat in comparison. I respect her no end and would love to buy her a coffee/martini and listen to her wisdom. But is 20,000 the number on my whiteboard? I think not.

* Soon to be Penguin Random House, thus missing the opportunity to call itself Random Penguin and launch a truly great logo.

** Not quite accurate as Amazon also subtracts from your royalties the cost of downloading the file, which can range from just a few cents (I think my cost is 15 cents a book) to a LOT if your book contains plenty of images.

Photo credit: vierdrie on Stock.Xchng