The Business Rusch: Watching The Numbers
I should never read the comments on other people’s writing information blogs. The comments discourage me, generally for one of two reasons. If the blog is about traditional publishing, and the authors are traditionally published only with no desire to change, I get discouraged at the amount of misinformation. If the blog is about indie publishing, I get discouraged because successful indie publishing writers think so short term. Both groups think small.
I understand small. I grew up in a small town. The big city was either Minneapolis, which frightened my mother, or Milwaukee, which had changed since my father went to school there.
The outside world came to me only via television and radio, and even then I was naïve. It wasn’t until my first trip to Los Angeles in the 1980s when I realized that the saying in the beginning of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show—“live from beautiful downtown Burbank”—was meant to be a joke.
When I started traveling to non-English-speaking countries, I realized that most people in those countries believed that part of being an educated person was not only speaking English, but reading it as well. In fact, on my second trip to France, I had the rather shocking realization that the folks I spoke to at book signings and at restaurants had read more widely in the mystery genre than I had. And all of us were reading in English.
Yes, I was visiting book people. Yes, I talked with book people. But then I spent more than a week traveling around, often alone, and I’d strike up random conversations with people in my bad French (or when I was in Germany, my terrible German). Eventually others would chime in, discover I was American, and we would conduct a multilingual conversation, all of us talking in our non-native languages for practice.
When these folks discovered I was a writer, we discussed books. And books, and more books. People I met on the train. People I met in cafes. These folks would want to share writers they loved, and I’d want to share writers I loved. On my last trip to Europe, which was to Germany in 2009, most people would haul out their brand-new iPads and look up the authors’ names, to see if the books were available and in what languages.
Yes, I know. Anecdotal information isn’t always helpful. But I’m offering it to point out how I gradually learned that I wasn’t just a citizen of my small town, my county, my state, and my country. I was also a citizen of the world, and the world is both very small and exceptionally large.
So, as I began this, I decided to go for the numbers. I went to Google to discover the number of English speakers worldwide, and I encountered this: It’s the English Proficiency Chart, done in 2011, showing which countries have the most proficient English speakers. According to that chart, in my recent travels, I visited one country with high proficiency (Germany, ranked number 8 in the world), one country with moderate proficiency, (France, ranked number 17 in the world), and one country with low proficiency (Italy, ranked number 23 in the world).
My travels did not back up those ratings—I always found people with more than a little bit of English in those countries—but my Kindle Direct Publishing sales do back it up. My KDP English books sell best in Germany, pretty well in France, and rarely in Italy. I have not sold a single title in Spain (ranked 49.1) since that market opened up.
All of that means nothing, however. Because if you look at the Kobo statistics, my work sells well in Japan (ranked 14 with moderate proficiency). If you look at Apple, you’ll find a few Scandinavian countries (all ranked between 1 and 5 with very high proficiency). I’m not surprised by the Kobo sales in Japan since Kobo has pushed hard in Japan. Nor am I surprised by the Apple sales in Europe since it seemed to me in 2009 that there was an Apple store on every single corner of every single town and village I visited.
But let’s get back to English speakers. Just because people speak English doesn’t mean they want to read in English. But a lot of folks do read to practice their English. Just like a lot of folks watch English-language programming on the web to improve their comprehension and knowledge of idioms.
My little search found a zillion ways to measure the number of English speakers. The native English speakers number around 340 million, according to one statistic. I poked around the statistics for a while, and found that anywhere from 1.2 billion to 1.8 billion people had some English language proficiency. (Anywhere from 24-30% of the worldwide population.) Of course, not all of them read in English. Nor do all of the native English speakers. But a lot of people who do, and my quick study showed no answer as to how many of them read English for pleasure.
Why? The worldwide marketplace for English language books has changed dramatically in the past three years. Yes, books sold overseas and many companies bought worldwide rights to sell books in the English language. Only one company, to my knowledge, exploited those rights in as many countries as possible, and that was Harlequin. I’ll wager that somewhere in Harlequin’s parent company (Torstar)’s vaults are the statistics I want on worldwide English language sales.
On the website, Harlequin tells me that it has published “over 110 titles a month in 31 languages in 111 international markets on six continents” and has sold (as of 2010) 6.05 billion books. Billion. Books.
But Harlequin/Torstar’s numbers are proprietary, just like Amazon’s are, just like yours are. No one has done a study of how many books sell worldwide, let alone how many English language books sell worldwide.
Yet we know the worldwide box office of various movies, for example. We just don’t know it for books—not even our blockbuster bestsellers.
What we do know is pretty simple: more people than ever read books for pleasure. Brick and mortar bookstores have never penetrated all of America. Many, many, many small towns, even in the heyday of the bookstore, did not have a bookstore.
When Amazon came along in the 1990s, it made money selling books to people in rural areas or small towns who did not have access to books on a regular basis. (Many of these communities didn’t even have libraries.) Then, add to that the rise of the ereader, which has brought even more readers into the fold, partly because of convenience (no walking into a bookstore, no waiting for the mails), and the readership/buyership has grown yet again.
I want to plant all of this in your head as writers because we were all trained to think small about our work. Even (especially?) traditional publishers. The problem with book sales has always been getting the books to readers. The old distribution system left out more readers than it found. There were even shooting battles in the streets in the distribution wars of fifty years ago (I’m not kidding) over who controlled what area to distribute magazines and books. (This was when distribution was controlled by the Mob. This kind of publishing history is fun and colorful, and mostly no longer necessary to understand except in a very vague way.)
Am I ever going to get all of the world’s English speakers to read my books? Hell, no. I’m not even going to get a statistically meaningful percentage of them to read my books. But already, my books are being read in countries where they were previously unavailable, not only because of Amazon, but because of Kobo, Apple, and a bunch of other small companies that partner with Smashwords and such places. My biggest problem as a business person right now? Keeping up with all of the developing markets for my fiction. Making sure my work is available in as many places as possible is something I’m continually falling behind on, as more and more and more markets appear.
Why do I want to do that? Because my audience always surprises me. Last week, I mentioned the surprisingly good sales of my story, “The Moorhead House,” on Barnes & Noble only to have someone chastise me in the comments on someone else’s blog (not mine, of course) for failing to do the data mining to get the reason behind the numbers. Why haven’t I done data mining on that book? Hello, folks, I have more than 200 titles from various companies, not counting the ones I’m working on for other companies. “The Moorhead House” is an award-winning short story that I put up for a few extra dollars, not one of the novels I focus on. I never planned to data mine it, and I’m stunned at the number.
(And let me say to the people who claim that I don’t know who is buying my books and I don’t do data mining, bullshit. I’ve been doing it for a long time. I know where my audiences are and who they are and how they’ve changed over decades. I also know that it’s impossible, in the arts, to predict sales on any project, even the fifteenth book in a bestselling series. Because tastes change, the audience moves on, or somehow your topic becomes trendy and grows. Often the data mining is irrelevant to future projects, particularly the short-term, minute-by-minute data mining.
(So you data mining folks who believe that writers should examine every number inside out and sideways, leave writers alone. Let them write and publish. That’s how they’ll gain success. We can talk targeted marketing later, and will once I have some new numbers [probably in February]. Until then, stop assuming you understand how I and other successful writers run our businesses.)
We’ve had discussions here on the importance of Kindle Select to people, and I get it, I do. But we’re talking at cross purposes. Because folks who defend Select as more than a business tool, as the only place to put their fiction, are looking at very small numbers over a very short term and thinking that the changes they’re seeing are significant.
Let me say here that all writers are different, and what you choose to do with your career is your business. I put my opinions out here so that you can understand them, not because I’m trying to make you into me. We all make our own choices. It’s better that way.
My perspective comes from 30 years in the business, a long-time career filled with more downs than ups. If a publisher could find a way to screw up one of my books, most of my publishers did. I’ve had two books ship at less than 500 copies because of publisher screw-ups. (I’ve detailed one here.) I’ve had publishers fail to capitalize on success because they had already written off a title that shipped at a few thousand copies, but then had orders which the publisher did not fulfill for double that amount. Why didn’t the publisher fulfill? Because the orders came in after the in-house command had gone out to retire the novel.
And on and on and on. Believe me, I understand the importance of small sales and the importance of big ones. Because of my career and my ups and downs, however, I also understand the importance of looking at the long term.
I hesitate in writing this next part, because so many of you will dismiss what I have to say because of my long career. You’ll say I have a built-in audience, that I don’t know what it’s like to be a new writer (because, apparently, I was born fully formed from the forehead of Zeus), that things are different now, and I can’t possibly understand.
No traditional publisher has ever capitalized on my built-in audience. Not one. Once upon a time, I was a new writer, the kind who had to struggle to get published just like many of you have. But more than that, I was a new writer—the kind who had only one book out—not once, not twice, not three times, but more than a dozen times under various names. In fact, in March, I was a new writer all over again with my Kris DeLake novel, Assassins in Love. DeLake had never published a book before, so everything she’s done has been built off that book.
I understand both kinds of new writer, and the second kind better than those of you who are just struggling with your sales because I’ve been that new writer in every five years since 1991.
It is precisely that experience that leads me to point out something only a long-term perspective can give you. Companies come and companies go. If you don’t believe me, let me quote from an article on just this topic from Vanity Fair. “How Microsoft Lost Its Mojo” by Kurt Eichenwald in the August issue [link] explores how Microsoft went from being the largest tech company, the one no one messed with, to a company that has sales smaller than those of just one Apple product (the iPhone). (From the article: In the quarter ended March 31, 2012, iPhone had sales of $22.7 billion; Microsoft Corporation, $17.4 billion.)
Here’s the important quote from the article—at least as it pertains to this blog post:
“I see Microsoft as technology’s answer to Sears,” said Kurt Massey, a former senior marketing manager. “In the 40s, 50s, and 60s, Sears had it nailed. It was top-notch, but now it’s just a barren wasteland. And that’s Microsoft.”
If you don’t like that comparison, then look at the comparison to IBM, also in the article. In 1980, when IBM approached Bill Gates and Paul Allen to design operating software, IBM was the largest tech company in the world. Microsoft eclipsed them by the 1990s, and now Microsoft is getting eclipsed by Apple.
We can argue cause and effect for days here, and I don’t plan to, except to say, yet again, that companies come and companies go, and sometimes they disappear or lose their mojo with startling rapidity. Look, for example, at the Blackberry which, in the last election cycle, was being called a Crackberry because so many people were addicted to it. Now Blackberry’s parent company is revamping, because sales are so bad.
This will happen to Amazon. Right now, in the United States only, Amazon is the company to beat. It’s the one that moves the most e-books, it’s the one that most people order from, and it’s the one that dominates the market.
But the buying public is fickle and if another e-tailer or retail store or online distributor comes up with a better way to sell e-books—a cheaper, faster, nicer device; a better interface; nicer customer service—the buying public will flee Amazon and go to this competitor. Right now, Amazon Corporate knows this and is acting upon it. Once upon a time, Microsoft Corporate knew it too, as did IBM and Sears.
What this article shows (despite its flaws [and I think there are many]) is that management is important. The vision at the top will keep a company going for years, but if that vision stagnates or changes, then the company will stagnate too. Right now, Amazon is doing well in the United States. But will it do well ten years from now? Only if it remains innovative, ahead of the competition, and flexible. So many large companies haven’t.
That’s one part of the long-term: Companies come and companies go.
And sometimes they disappear fast. In the real world, four years is nothing. Companies often disappear faster than that, seemingly with no warning. Just because a company looks healthy on the outside does not mean it’s well managed. You can’t always predict who or what will go down in any economy, particularly this one.
The other part of the long-term? Your writing career isn’t about this month or next month or last month or even five years from now. If you do this right, your career should last for your entire working life. We’re all different. I’m 52, and I hope to have as many more working years as Jack Williamson had. He was still writing up to his death at the age of 98. That means I get another 46 years of a writing career. On top of the thirty I’ve already had.
I’m planning for that. And, as I’ve said before, I’m planning to have the work survive me, so that my estate will handle it.
And in the long-term, numbers add up.
This past week, J.A. Konrath posted his numbers for his entire career. Fascinating stuff (thank you, Joe!). He’s selling about what I expected, given what I knew of his career and how long he’s been in the business. I’m a bit surprised at how low his electronic sales are, given the hype. However, his sales are in line with the kind of writer he is at the moment, and with the expanded market.
Let me explain the word “low.”
Joe’s lifetime sales of all of his books are over 1,032,612 copies (e-book and paper). I say over because he can’t divulge the sales from Amazon’s proprietary imprints. So let’s say 1.3 million sales. (It might be more, it might be less. We can agree at over 1 million.)
Joe’s lifetime sales for all his books (every title, e-book and print) are about where John Grisham’s sales are for the hardcover of “The Litigators,” released last year. This does not count Grisham’s e-book sales on that book or the sales on the newly released paperback. If you look at the Publisher’s Weekly list that shows these sales figures, you’ll see Stephen King’s 11/22/63 in the same ballpark, and along with those of half a dozen others. In hardcover only.
Realize these numbers are down from the heyday of traditional publishing, when traditional publishers dominated the market. And before you all start screaming at me, I know that I’m comparing name writers against a midlist writer, writers whose publishing companies put the books in every venue against a writer who indie-published everything and did very little promotion to places that actually sell books, like bookstores. (In other words, he [to my knowledge] doesn’t offer the usual price breaks that traditional publishers give bookstores or develop a catalogue so bookstores have something to order from.)
Joe’s numbers are good, given all that, but they’re small for a lifetime average. Of course, he hasn’t been publishing for ten years yet, so he’s still—by the career standards I mentioned above—a new writer.
I’ve never had the kind of break-out success that King or Grisham have had, and I’ve never had any push from a traditional publisher. My lifetime sales (since 1991) are more than 9 million paper books. How many more? I have not a clue for a variety of reasons. One of them is that I haven’t counted overall sales since about 2007 when (to be fair) Dean counted both of ours because of something another writer said.
Another reason I don’t have a clue about the actual number is because back in the dark days of publishing, when traditional publishers held all of the cards, knowing my numbers was extremely hard and mattered very little. Joe mentions this when he discusses the fact that he doesn’t have his 2012 traditional publishing numbers “yet thanks to publishing’s reporting system being back-asswards and archaic.”
Trying to figure out accurate numbers using that system is nearly impossible. For one thing, many traditional publishers’ royalty statements are designed to obfuscate the numbers not to elucidate them.
Be that as it may, until about 1998, you could sell books to a traditional publisher by convincing the publisher that he could do better than your previous publisher. In 1998, the buying to net began to occur from chain bookstores (now mercifully dead), and that meant that if your book sold 5,000 copies in their chain, they’d only order 5,000 copies of the next book, no matter how big the publisher’s push was. That destroyed many a writer’s career under a particular name, because there’s no way to build, no hope, and no possible better sales from a different, better written, better plotted, or better designed book.
(In other words, one bad cover, one bad sales experience [like mine with Hitler’s Angel] and after the year 2000, your career under that name would have been over.)
Those 9 million books I mentioned? Those are Kristine Kathryn Rusch books, published in the United States only. Not the UK numbers or the in-translation numbers. Not Kristine Grayson numbers or Kris Nelscott numbers (which would be laughably small, because of how frightened my publisher was of those books. And by small, I mean maybe 100,000 copies. Maybe).
These are also paper books, and doesn’t count the 500,000 copies I’ve sold in e-book (according to Amazon’s list of writers who’ve sold more than half a million copies) nor do they count e-book sales in other venues. Or audio books or…or…or….
I’ve had a solidly midlist career under a variety of names, and I’ve sold over the years millions of copies. I’m not alone. The longer your career, the more lifetime books you will sell.
Traditional publishers never ever ever look at lifetime sales for an author. It’s a big mistake in their business model, imho, and one that they should (but never will) correct. So as a long-term person in this business, it’s taken me quite a while to wrap my brain around lifetime total sales. The idea of trying to figure out my lifetime traditional book sales is a nightmare. So, quite frankly, are the e-book sales, considering so many of them came out of traditional publishers who keep awful records.
I’m starting, however, to keep lifetime sales figures of books outside of the traditional publishing system, and I hope, someday, to do more than estimate the traditional books published. Because we all need to understand our lifetime sales.
Here’s why: if you’re looking at the vagaries of Kindle versus Kindle Select, this month’s sales figures versus last month’s, you’ll go crazy. You’re operating on a teeny tiny scale the way that traditional publishers do. If you use that data to judge how to conduct your career, you will make the same mistakes that traditional publishers do. You won’t wait for a series to take off. You’ll write in the series that sells ten copies per month instead of five. You’ll think that Amazon’s numbers are more important than all the other numbers out there, a mistake that Joe makes in his blog.
Right now, Amazon is the big dog. But we have no idea if that will continue. I see many signs that Amazon’s dominance will be successfully challenged. Joe mentions it in his blog when he calls Kobo a player. Up and coming, of course.
Camille LaGuire has a great post about Amazon and the numbers game. She believes that Amazon’s immediate feedback on sales numbers makes writers more likely to use Amazon rather than less. I think she has a point.
What’s impressive about Joe’s numbers to me aren’t his sales figures. It’s his income. The huge potential earnings on indie-published books even at numbers that are small by traditional publishing standards should have all writers sitting up and taking notice.
At our weekly professional writers lunch on Sunday, we talked about Joe’s numbers. The newer writers were impressed by lifetime sales of 50,000 copies, forgetting, of course, the size of the sandbox they’re playing in.
But the thing that surprised even me was this figure: one of the writers mentioned that her friend earned $17,000 in one year on one indie-published book. In the bad old days of traditional publishing, earning 17K in royalties on one book was astonishing if you weren’t a bestseller, especially in some of the genres like sf. It means you earned out your advance and the publisher managed to calculate the royalties to give you $17,000 at 6 or 8 or 10 percent of the cover price.
You sold a lot of books.
However, if you do the math on that $17,000 indie writer, you’ll realize the sales are—in traditional publishing terms—extremely small. For the sake of my math skills, we’ll say that this author earned $5 on each copy of the book she sold over all the various platforms.
That means, in one year, she sold 3,400 books. That’s all.
If you had sold the same 3,400 books in traditional publishing, they probably would cancel your contract. You certainly wouldn’t be earning back any advance. The genre here was romance, so figure a $6.99 cover price which at a charitable 10% of cover means she would have earned $2346 toward her already paid advance on the same 3,400 sales.
Wowza. That’s a significant difference.
Here’s another difference. The indie book will have made its sales in fits and starts over that twelve-month period. A traditionally published book sees the bulk of its earnings in the first month, and if that month’s sales are slow, then the book will be off the shelf a month later.
The indie book has the capability of selling 3,400 more copies the following year. The traditionally published book might do that now, with the rise of e-books, but the traditionally published author will get an even smaller fraction of the pie from the e-book sales, since most of those are on net amount received rather than cover price.
In other words, the indie book will have continual lifetime sales and significant lifetime earnings. The traditionally published book is generally done with all of its earning potential (for the writer anyway) within the first few months.
From a traditional publishing point of view, Joe’s numbers are extremely impressive in money earned, but extremely unimpressive in numbers of individual titles sold. As it stands, right now, by traditional publishing’s standards, Joe is a pretty standard midlist author. He’s not a bestseller even though he’s earning bestseller royalties.
I’m pretty sure that traditional publishing insiders took one look at Joe’s lifetime sales numbers and immediately dismissed him as a player. They had thought he was, but now the numbers—by the standard that traditional publishers use—prove he’s not.
They miss the most important numbers to their business. He’s earning $37,000 per month on his indie titles. He’s earned nearly 1 million dollars on his indie books since 2009—on sales numbers that traditional publishers will dismiss.
When—and I do mean when—his sales increase, his earning potential is off the charts.
Why am I convinced his sales will increase? Because all of our sales will increase, if we exploit the rising distribution market.
As I said in the beginning of this piece, we were all trained to think small. Regional is small, and regional these days is the United States. The market has expanded and will continue to expand, not just because more people are reading, but because more people have access to books. This access is brand new. E-readers were the big new thing last Christmas in the U.K., just like they were in 2010 in the United States. Other countries are just getting their e-readers and the access to millions of published books.
How, in this mass of stuff, is anyone going to find you? The way they always have, through word of mouth and browsing. Does that mean you should give things away for free? On some platforms, sometimes, maybe, if you can make sure you’re not exclusive forever. But as we all know, most people don’t read the free material when it’s offered. Sometimes it takes years to read a free book.
Better to write and write and write, so that the reader of English in Japan will find your super-hero adventure and the reader of English in Germany will find your mysteries. Put up the outlying short story just because and don’t worry about it. My bestseller in England on one platform isn’t selling a single copy on another British platform. “The Moorhead House” only sells in large numbers on Barnes & Noble, which means only on one platform in only one country. My bestselling book in Australia at the moment is through the iBookstore and is nonfiction. My bestselling fiction in Australia is through a traditional publisher who is having trouble shipping paper books there. I can’t wait until WMG releases a book in that series correctly.
Writers have entered a world where they can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars on sales that are a small percentage of what traditionally published books routinely sell at. Writers have also entered a world where patience is rewarded.
So what are writers doing? They’re goosing numbers that don’t need to be goosed, making short-term decisions to go exclusive, either with a traditional publishing house that limits what they write and who they write it for or with a single distributor like Amazon, whose terms in Select are getting increasingly restrictive on what Amazon considers to be a competitive work.
Writers are thinking small and short-term and hurting themselves in the bargain.
They also fail to realize the implications the worldwide marketplace and the continually expanded distribution through dozens of platforms.
A commentor on one blog complained about how long it took to upload books to the various platforms. Yep, that’s time-consuming, but once the book is uploaded, it’s done. Take the time. Take the time. Slow down. Have patience. Remember that you’re in this for the long haul.
Stop trying to tweak your numbers on one platform in one or maybe two countries on a daily basis, and write more books. Publish more books. Use all of the opportunities available to you.
Stop watching the sales numbers and start watching your personal production numbers.
I wrote one million words last year, despite a pretty serious illness, some major personal setbacks, and problems of others that my husband and friends are still dealing with.
The million words are under my control. The number of sales, once a book is released, is not under my control. Not when you look at the worldwide market, at all of the distribution channels. I can get the work out there, then I have to trust it to sell.
Write more. Fret less. Stop watching your sales numbers. Beat my million words this year.
Because I completely disagree with one of Joe’s conclusions. He writes, “Talent and hard work can help you get lucky, but it still all comes down to luck. Keep at it until luck strikes.” As my friend, the New York Times bestselling writer Kevin J. Anderson says, “The harder I work, the luckier I am.”
Yep. Write more, improve your craft, publish on all available platforms. Rinse, repeat. You’ll have success—in the long-term. If only you’re patient enough to get there.
I hope you were patient with this blog post which went waaaaay longer than I had planned. So I’ll just thank you all for reading it and remind you that the blog must remain financially self-sustaining. As is usual when I write about contract and monetary items as I have for the past few months, my donations drop off. So please, if you got anything of value from the last few blogs, leave a tip on the way out.
“The Business Rusch: “Watching The Numbers,” copyright © 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.