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Tyranny of “The Numbers”

Photobucket [1]Therese here. Today’s guest is historical novelist Sandra Gulland [2], whose Josephine B. Trilogy–a trilogy about Josephine Bonaparte and the Napoleonic era–was published in fifteen countries and sold over a million copies. Her follow up to that popular series, Mistress of the Sun, a novel set in 17th century France about the Sun King–Louis XIV–and his mistress, required years of research and writing, and when published in 2008 immediately hit the bestseller lists.

Sandra, apart from knowing a thing or two about penning a novel, is also a former book editor. She’s with us today to talk about something we don’t often discuss–numbers. Selling books. And what those sales–or lack thereof–may mean for our careers in the long term. Enjoy!

Tyranny of “The Numbers”

N.Y. agent Donald Maass, in his excellent new book, The Breakout Novelist [3], devotes a chapter to “the numbers.” Don’t read this chapter if you wish to sleep.

The fact is that it’s hard to get published, but even harder to stay published. Success, in the guise of a large advance or an initial best-seller, has ruined many a promising writer’s career. Why? Because of “The Numbers.”

Say your first book is a hit. The champagne bottles are popping. There is nothing greater. For your second book, you will be offered a respectable advance, based on the expectation of another home run. A large advance can be an albatross, however, because if your second book fails to sell as well as expected—if it fails, in the words of the trade, to earn out—your career as a published writer is in trouble.


Because in considering your third book for publication, your publisher will only look at how well your last book sold. They know you’re a promising talent; they well understand that there are ups and downs in any writer’s career; they know your first book was a hit, but they are forced to this simplistic numeric model because bookstores—and by this read bookstore chains—will be putting in orders based only on that number: on the number of copies your last book sold.

If your last book did not sell well, or as well as expected, the chains will order fewer copies—consequently fewer copies will be displayed in their bookstores and fewer books bought . . . and so the cycle goes, for your next book, and the next, and the next, down and down and down.

“Listen to me carefully now,” writes Donald Maass, ” . . . there’s no bouncing back . . . . Computerized inventory tracking has changed the game.”

Photobucket [4]That tracking system is BookScan, which records retail book sales in the chains. It used to be that access to this database was exclusive to bookstores, agents and publishers—for a price—but now it’s available to authors free through an Author Central account on Amazon.com. If you have a book for sale on Amazon, you can see how many copies of your book sold last week, and where. You can compare the sales over four weeks or eight weeks. You can see the sales displayed on a graph. You can find out which edition sells best—Kindle? paperback? hardcover?—and how many copies sold in Chicago, Baton Rouge or Los Angeles . . . .

Author beware. The knowledge can easily derail you, either with euphoria over a sudden spike in sales, or depression over a plummeting dive. I’ve experienced both, and have concluded that it’s best not to look. With a few super-star exceptions, The Numbers for most writers these days are in a dive. As Donald Maass concludes, the only solution is to write well, and let The Numbers be damned.

At the risk of aiding and abetting, here’s where to go to set up an Author Account at Author Central [5]. Once you have that, log in and click on “Sales Info” and you’ll see your sales for the week before. The Numbers are posted each Friday.

For an excellent article related to this subject, read “The Business Rusch: You are not alone [6].”

Sandra Gulland [2] is the internationally-published author of the Josephine B. Trilogy and Mistress of the Sun. And yes, she’s trying not to think about The Numbers. Learn more about her and her novels on her website [7] and blog [8], and by following her on Facebook [9] and Twitter [10]. Write on!

Photo courtesy Flickr’s runran [11]