Thursday, October 6, 2022

How Many Books Does My Mother Need to Buy to Make Me a Bestselling Author? from James W. Ziskin

The latest wisdom is that trekking to bookstores with your new book isn’t the best use of time in today’s market. So, what do you think works to promote sales and get to the place where you’re receiving royalties?

For this week’s question, I’m going to go beyond simply earning royalties. I think most writers would rather make more than a couple of hundred dollars in royalties per year. We’d like to break out and make a real living with our books.

That said, let’s think about it.

Some Assumptions

First, let’s assume you’ve written a really fine book. Without that, your task will be a lot harder. How many mediocre books provide real income for writers? Then, let’s say you make a plan to promote sales of your latest book by organizing signings at ten bookstores in the ten largest cities in the US. That’s going to set you back a good deal in airfare, hotels, and dining out. But let’s say you’ve saved some money for just such a purpose. Next, let’s assume you get excellent turnouts at those ten venues and sell fifty books at each. That would come to 500 books sold. Pretty good. Unlikely but pretty good. (Let’s face it; we’ve all heard of or experienced book signings where NO ONE AT ALL showed up.)

Still, 500 books probably won’t earn back your advance. Even if you assume the 500 buyers love your book so much they recommend it to their friends and families, I still doubt sales will soar. More likely, the buyers will loan the books to their friends and family. But let’s say half of the 500 manage to convince someone else to buy your book, which is, of course, pie-in-the-sky dreaming. But let’s assume it anyway. Now you’re up to 750 books sold. At this pace, with the impossible assumptions that half the people who buy your book will hand sell it to someone else, you might reach a couple of thousand books eventually. But I doubt it. 

Plan B: Your mom will buy enough books to make you a bestselling author.

No, bookstore signings alone probably won’t get it done. What you need is real, organized, effective publicity to go along with your bookstore signings. And—most of all—some lightning in a bottle. Yes, you need luck. Everyone does.

Here’s what works

Big publishers can make books big. It’s reality. Smaller publishers don’t have the resources to achieve what the large houses can, just as a small liberal arts college football team—no matter how plucky and endearing—isn’t going to beat Alabama on any given Saturday.

Look at The New York Times bestsellers. This week, the hardcover top ten includes Nicolas Sparks, Stephen King, James Patterson, Elizabeth Strout, Richard Osman, Kyle Mills, et al. More big names in the top fifteen. These are talented, well-known and established writers, so it’s not surprising to find them selling tens of thousands of books. But there are also the names that follow the titles of their books: the publishers. Random House; Scribner; Little, Brown; Ballantine; Pamela Dorman (Penguin). These are the big hitters with worldwide distribution, large promotional budgets, and decades of building business practices and relationships. Even a mid-list novel from these publishers gets more attention from booksellers than a small independent publisher might. And their books reach outlets in every corner of the country. In every Barnes and Noble, hundreds of airports, libraries, and in the vast majority of indie bookstores. Authors higher on the food chain might even get travel budgets for signing tours. And, while it’s certainly possible for a book from a boutique press to get reviewed in major news publications, it’s much more likely to happen if it’s a book from a major house. 

Reviews in The New York Times or other major newspapers drive sales and can create buzz. Both of which are essential, of course, for a book to start earning real royalties for the author.

So, if you want to make a living writing books, you’ll probably need to get yourself a Big 5 publisher.

Well, that was depressing

No, not really. Imagine you played volleyball in high school. Or baseball, soccer, or basketball. You loved it. Were very good at it. But not good enough to play professionally or make the Olympics. So what? You’re not the chairman of the board of GE, either. Only a few make it to that level. And the same is true of the writers on top of The New York Times bestseller list. Sure, we’d all love to join that club and rake in real money for our work, and we will all keep trying to make enough to quit our day jobs. 

But I don’t write to make the bestseller lists. I write to write.

So my advice is this: 

If you love to write, write. Try to find the best publisher you can. If that’s one of the Big 5, great. You might make a living on royalties after a few books if they’re successful enough. But if not, remind yourself that you love to write. That you really have no choice but to write. It’s something you must do whether you get paid a little or a lot for it. The satisfaction of creating stories from nothing is actually the greatest reward in this business. At least I think so. Anything more is gravy. Enjoy the meager meal if that’s what’s put before you. Enjoy it even if there’s only a modest puddle of gravy on top.


Gabriel Valjan said...

It's an honest essay, though it makes me want to be that guy in the rain in Shawshank Redemption.....hoping for that bolt of lightning. Thank you, Jim.

Brenda Chapman said...

Candid and true. Well said, Jim.

Catriona McPherson said...

Ooft, wrist-slashingly honest, Jim. Cxx

badge # 979 said...

Thank you for the honesty. I've found writing is my passion and not everyone will like my style. The six figure authors have the marketing budget behind them, and the majority of people read titles they see multiple times in an ad or promotional video.-Lynn

Clea Simon said...

Yup, this. Thanks, Jim.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Good, honest article!

Susan C Shea said...

Sobering analysis, at least for this mid-list author. One thing I'll point out. I did get a NYT review, but my publisher never shared any data that might tell me if it helped sales of the first book in that series at all. I did earn out the advance for it, but there was a hook in the contract that said I wouldn't get royalties for the first book until the second book had also sold out its advance. And, unlike Jared Kushner, I don't have a sheik out there buying up thousands of my books, so it's good I like writing for its own sake.

विकास नैनवाल 'अंजान' said...

An honest take.

- Vikas Nainwal

greta garbo said...

Thanks for all the fish
(For those unsure, it's my favorite Douglas Adam's reference.)

Anonymous said...

The insight was very helpful. Not everyone gets into my writing but I love what I do.