# 3 – How many books have you sold?

In my series of posts on what not to say to an author, the third is: How many books have you sold?

This is a question I get pretty regularly from co-workers, book clubs, and strangers. Interestingly, it’s a question that’s almost always asked out of context. None of them know what the measure of success would be (1,000 books? 5,000 books? 10,000 books? 100,000 books?) but they seem to want to know anyway.

Some authors will find the question a little rude. Others won’t know what to tell you because they don’t know themselves. In most cases, even their publishers won’t have firm numbers.

So let’s provide the framework around that question and explain why, for the author, it’s problematic.

As I pointed out in my previous post, there’s an assumption that however many books are sold, the author takes home all the profits.  In reality, an author earns a royalty of probably 7 to 10% per book, less a 15% agency commission. If a book sells for $20, they’re making $ 1.70 a book. Asking the author to disclose sales is essentially asking them to tell you how much money they’ve earned. Some find that awkward.

A couple of authors, by the way, do post their income figures in their blogs. Interestingly, I have only ever seen one post the number of books  sold along with those royalty figures. That’s probably because to do so would disclose the amount of royalties their publishers are paying and that is information the publisher would like to keep confidential. (These authors, however, were all Americans who’d hit the bestseller lists and were earning $25,000 to $ 40,000 per quarter. You won’t find too many Canadian authors making a tenth of that income from sales here).

A bestseller in Canada — the volume of books sold that will get your books into Costco, for example– is 5,000 books. That isn’t a lot of books; even so, few authors achieve it. Whether they’ve sold 100 or 800 or 2,000 copies — as far as the author’s concerned, they probably didn’t do as well as they’d hoped. When you ask them how many books they’ve sold, if they tell you, they’re going to lose face.

By the way, sales have nothing to do with the quality of the book, the reviews it got, or the author’s (or publisher’s) marketing efforts. I have an author friend who wrote a brilliant book that got rave reviews; she marketed it like a fiend. She confided in me that she’d sold 40 copies one year.  I’m sure she cringes whenever she’s asked the question.

I have another pal who’s been let go by her publisher because of low sales (and this despite starred reviews  in Publishers Weekly and crazy marketing). She doesn’t know what the breaking point was; her publisher won’t tell her. All she knows is that she’s looking for another publisher for the fourth book in what she’d hoped would be a long-lived series.

Often, the author doesn’t know how many books have been sold because the publisher can’t tell her. The publisher knows how many books they’ve shipped to bookstores but this is a strange business where unsold books can be returned by the bookseller at any time for a full refund. The number of books shipped can tell you how much interest there is on the part of booksellers but not how many people will actually walk in the door of those stores and pick up the book. 

The other problem is that many independent bookstores don’t report their sales to Booknet, which is the agency that keeps track of sales. Authors don’t have access to this database by the way: it’s available only to publishers and agents on paid subscription. And Amazon, which accounts for roughly  10-15% of sales, reports only quarterly results to the publishers, and then, under terms of strict confidentiality.

I used to ask my agents how many books I’d sold every few months. Now that I know the business a little better, I don’t even bother.

So if you have an author friend or acquaintance, I think you should avoid asking them this question.

If their book is racing up the bestseller lists, you know it’s doing reasonably well. If it’s a huge bestseller, like 50 Shades of Grey, the media will be reporting how many hundreds of thousands of copies the author has sold; you won’t need to ask. If it’s on the Globe and Mail bestseller list, you know it’s sold at least 1,000 copies that week; if it isn’t, it hasn’t.

When you ask how many books an author has sold, you’re asking an intensely personal question. You’re asking them to tell you whether they’ve succeeded or failed at something they’ve put heart and soul into. Don’t be surprised if they don’t want to tell you.

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10 Responses to # 3 – How many books have you sold?

  1. MishaBurnett says:

    I don’t know the answer to that question myself. I could find the information, it’s available from the outlets where my book is available. When I first launched Catskinner’s Book I checked the Amazon website every day, but I burned out on that pretty quick. If I had to guess, I’d say fewer than 500, and that includes the free downloads I’ve offered from time to time.

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    • Peggy Blair says:

      Well, the thing with Amazon is that their sales are really skewed. A few book sales can rocket it from the lower end of the spectrum to the high end.. I’ve seen two books (which I purchased) take me from #64,000 to # 38 in mysteries. So you really have to take them with a grain of salt. They make their money on volume of many millions of things, and so tiny shifts on any one item have a disproportionate effect.

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  2. This is the question that most shocks me, Peggy, and I probably get asked it once a week. Would people ever go up to someone and ask: “Exactly what is your yearly salary?” Of course not! Yet they seem to feel it is perfectly okay to ask the same thing of authors.
    When asked, here’s what I now say: “I couldn’t live on the amount I make writing, but it sure improves my lifestyle.” Great post.

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  3. Peggy Blair says:

    I got asked it again last night at a book club but this time I explained that I’d just blogged about it and explained why I thought it was verbotten. It was obvious they just didn’t know much about publishing and hadn’t thought about it. It’s not intentionally rude, I’m sure!

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  4. If you’ve written a book, you’ve succeed. If you’ve been published, it’s icing on the cake. How many books you sell determines whether you can afford the cake. (As in: Let them eat…)

    I think people are trying to show interest when they ask this question. (“Kind of you to ask, by even my publisher doesn’t know for sure…”

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    • Peggy Blair says:

      How many books you’ve sold determines whether you get to stay published or not :-).
      I’m sure they are expressing interest. I’m not sure that changes the discomfort felt by the author when it’s posed. (Some, clearly, don’t mind disclosing this information as you can see from the comment thread; others find it rude.)

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  5. Ross Brown says:

    Great post. I find that being asked how many books I’ve sold is similar to being asked how much money I make.

    I agree with the statement that if you’ve completed a book and have published it (whether with a publishing house or on your own), you’ve achieved a great accomplishment.

    Cheers!

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  6. Stephanie says:

    Can I ask an author for them to give me a copy of a certain book if I have good reason. For example: “I’m a 16 year old with no money to buy their book and ‘m extremely desperate to get their book. I’m dying on the inside to get my hands on their book.”

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    • Peggy Blair says:

      I think you’d be better off signing it out from a library. People don’t realize we have to pay for our books, so we tend to only give away books to reviewers. But libraries are a great way to explore all kinds of authors for free!

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