Wendy J. Fox: Reconciling book sales as a debut author


Wendy_J_Fox  The_Seven_Stages_of_Anger_cover

When I found out my first book had been accepted for publication, I did not have dreams of a bestseller or fame; I mostly experienced relief. While I’d published in magazines and anthologies, suddenly there was a book of my own.

There was the sheer, beginning thrill of finally feeling like an author, and then there was the reality of how other folks, people who are not writers, ask about it.

“So, how many books have you sold?” a typical conversation might start.

It’s a hard question to answer. It’s tempting to tell the truth (south of a thousand), and it’s tempting to dodge, oh, it’s not so much about sales, and it’s also tempting to outright lie and say something about how the publisher handles all that, how you’re not really involved, how you only think about it when you get a royalty check.

I don’t blame anyone for the question.

In the current culture, where books are understood as content, where consumers believe that “information wants to be free” and forget that information also has value and wants to be expensive, people understand success in terms of compensation. The paradigm of cheap/costly, rather than an argument for open-source, in the way that it is used today, was actually a continuum proposed by the writer Stewart Brand in the 1980s.

Yet, since 2009, according to Author’s Guild, there has been a 30% decrease in the income of writers, with more than half of the 2015 respondents earning less than $11,670 annually (the set point of for the US federal poverty level). Even those who are up for big awards, like the Man Booker, might sell fewer than a thousand copies of their books annually.

Depressing as it is, within this context, my own numbers don’t look so bad.

My debut collection of short stories owes its existence to a prize, and then it was shortlisted for another prize. More than one reviewer said something nice about it. Still, stories add another layer of sales challenge. In January of this year, Megan Lynch, editorial director at Ecco Press in New York said “There have always been a few collections that have taken off, but most don’t succeed commercially.”

So, how many books have you sold?

At press time, BookScan (the Neilson rating agency, the same group who compiles TV ratings) says I have just 105 reported sales from bookstores. They gather this through POS (point of sale) data. If my book, or another book, was purchased at a retailer, including Amazon.com, it’s going to be reflected in this number.

Fox BookScan

My POS high point is 34. Those are sales reflected from two readings—readings I traveled for, on my own dime, and readings at which I had a great time, but readings that were certainly not covered in cost from selling 34 copies at $14.95.

There are also the 79 books my publisher sold in presale. There are the 90 (as of my last royalty report in June of 2015) that have been sold since. There are the 89 books I have sold myself. There are also the 76 I have given away to reviewers, to friends, to friendlies, to prizes entries and other longshots. There are the 18 copies that are out in consignment.

So, how many books have you sold?

457.

Well, maybe, if the consignments move.

439 if they do not.

363 if I subtract the giveaways (which I should, because those were not actually sales, they were only books that left my possession).

I could add in here another 3, for Kindle—remember how ebooks are supposed to be such a thing?—getting me to 366.

Even I’m shocked by the low numbers. When people have asked me, I’ve estimated, not having done the actual addition for a year. Recently, a long-time friend who has his first book coming out asked about sales, and I told him what I thought was the truth, giving him the “just shy of a grand” number, and I didn’t even realize how off I was. (Mostly, I over-reported what I personally have sold and under-reported what I have given away.)

In October, on the anniversary of my first book’s publication date, I was at a corporate event for my day job, and writing came up. My coworkers looked me up on Amazon, and they were interested, in the way we are interested when we find out new dimensions to our colleague’s lives, but they didn’t add the book to their shopping carts, and I doubt either of them have purchased it since.

A month prior, in September, the least-selling of the Man Booker dozen short-list clocked in at 604 copies. This title, Sleeping on Jupiter, belongs to Anuradha Roy, whose first book, An Atlas of Impossible Longing was reviewed by everyone from Ms. to Publishers Weekly and translated into 15 languages—an impressive debut by any measure. (Sleeping on Jupiter just won the DSC prize for South Asian literature, which will net Roy $50K and likely—hopefully—bolster her sales numbers.)

So, how many books have you sold?

75.3% as many as a short-list for one of the most prestigious English-language prizes.

0.0000806667% as many as the Harry Potter franchise.

With 840 million English speakers worldwide, by volume second only to Mandarin, breaking a thousand in sales should not be so hard—but just like my coworkers, zillions of lookers never get the book into their cart. And to be frank, zillions aren’t even required. The best-selling English-language book of all time, A Tale of Two Cities, has had since 1859 to reach 200 million copies. Modern titles like The Hunger Games and Fifty Shades of Grey that have topped bestseller lists have only approached (or in the case of Harry Potter, exceeded) Dickens’ numbers as an aggregate of a series; single titles, like The Fault in Our Stars which has done remarkably well at 18.5M approximate sales, still only represents 5.52% of the native-speaking population and 2.20% of the total English-speaking population overall.

Of course, a true creative life is not about selling, and readers certainly do not have to purchase literature to engage in it. Indeed—in the United States, there are more public libraries than there are McDonalds [PDF], Americans check out an average of 8 books a year, and well over half of U.S. adults hold a library card.

Given that books sales are slumpy even on major publishers, it’s worth thanking those fewer than 500 who have welcomed The Seven Stages of Anger and Other Stories to their shelves.

So, how many books have you sold?

Honestly, not so many as I would like.

Yet, I don’t think I would trade an ebook bestseller for being able to hold my own, bound words in my hands, for the experience of writing something kind to a friend on the front pages of it, for finding a typo on the back cover and then just having to accept this, because, well, it’s print. I can absolutely say I would not trade my little (short, poorly selling) book that I am very proud of for a big (long, blockbuster) book that I didn’t care about.

So, how many books have you sold?

Not as many as I would like. And also, enough.

But P.S., you should buy my book.

Wendy J. Fox received her MFA from the Inland Northwest Center for Writers, and her work has been published or is forthcoming in many literary reviews.

Her essay “Coming Clean in Kayseri” was included in the best-selling Tales from the Expat Harem, and one of her manuscripts was a top five finalist for the Minnesota State University at Mankato’s Rooster Hill Press short fiction competition. Her story “Ten Penny” was  selected as part of a series by The Emerging Writer’s Network for National Short Story Month, and her story “Maps of the Americas” was chosen as a semi-finalist for the Tucson Festival of Books Literary Awards competition.

Her debut collection, The Seven Stages of Anger & Other Stories is the winner of the Press 53 Award for Short Fiction and was published in October 2014.

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96 thoughts on “Wendy J. Fox: Reconciling book sales as a debut author

  1. Wendy,
    Thank you for the frank insight to being a writer. I’ve seen the figures regarding writer’s income, and I’ve seen the % of sales by the big name authors. But I’ve never really equated those numbers to book sales, nor how people would attempt to define an author’s personal success by # of books sold. Your honesty grounds me and opens my eyes to the struggles that other authors are going through. Your post is humbling, inspiring, and much appreciated. Thank you.

    Liked by 8 people

  2. I am also a debut author who has self published a book of poetry on ebook because I couldn’t afford to do it any other way. It scares me to think that there is a possibility that noone will buy my book because it’s free for 90 days and can be loaned out to whoever in that time. My poems are a collection of work written over a period of some thirty years and really are ‘Poems from the Heart’.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. Reblogged this on A Mum + and commented:
    Very interesting read! Reminds me that books are creative works not content to sell. “How many books have you written?” would also be a frightful question, as if we “only” write one, it has less value…

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Brilliant! Thanks for your honesty. Selling books is really hard these days, but writing one just gives us this feeling of completion that few things can. No matter how the sales are going, its a very rewarding experience! Cheers and good luck!

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I honestly haven’t counted how many books I’ve sold. This question is one that needs to be followed up with, How many people have felt inspired, connected or just relieved by reading your book? I rather for everyone of the people that have purchased my book to feel something after reading it than the sales. Your sales will pick up, it just needs to get in the right person’s hands.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. My first novel is about to be released; I’m tamping down my expectations while ramping up my marketing. Honestly, for me this is about crossing “published novelist” off the bucket list. I’m embracing the whole enchilada though, marketing and all, having fun with it so far. For me, that’s what it’s all about. Good post.

    Liked by 6 people

  7. Thank you for sharing this. I have spent much of this week dipping my toe into the world that is publishing, and I appreciate your honest perspective. I’d love to publish children’s books featuring children of color and other more diverse populations and I hope that I can find my way in!

    Liked by 3 people

  8. A post which mirrored a lot of feelings I have recently. My first children’s book was recently published and since then I dread the question “How is your book doing?” Because I honestly don’t know. What I do know is I received two five star reviews from people I don’t know on Amazon and it set me smiling like an idiot for a full day.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. As newspaper reporter since 1972 with fishing reports, writing a book was much different. I asked the Dixon Tribune, Dixon CA if I could go on the religious page 4 years ago as wanted to see if more people would start going to churches? Thomas/Nelson called after seeing over 100 columns on Faithwriters.com website asked if I would publish a book? So now have published two books and I never sold any. Gave over 500 away around the country and by mail to people reading my column Lens Lines –A Little Religion On A Positive Note.

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  10. Interesting. I’ve toyed with the idea of writing a book which I still will hopefully one day but its good to know the reality of sales. I guess unless one writes the next Harry Potter book one must keep their day job ( I always had the romantic idea the writers were mostly full time writers).

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  11. The most sales I’ve had of the books I published is about 2,500 for a book that was in print for 15 years and was owned by seven publishers over that time. I think it finally ended up owned by AOL.com for reasons I never fathomed. Eventually, after a couple years of no sales, I bought the copyright back for $1 and kept it registered in hopes somebody would want to buy the title rights. No takers so far. So now I’m content to publish in the e-world with hopes that some of the world’s millions of English speakers will get as much enjoyment out of reading what I write as I do in writing it.

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  12. I really needed to read this. My book was published October 2015 and I decided to give my book away to a number of family, friends and colleagues. I have sold 34 books in total but given away numerous copies on giveaways which resulted in over 200 people marked as want to read. I was ecstatic when a top amazon reviewer gave me 4 out 5 stars. I find it most rewarding when someone I do not know tells me my book was well written. It’s not always about being a bestseller but people appreciative of your work in which sometimes it takes a long time to achieve.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Thank you for this post. We hear about how many books Steven King and J.K Rowling sold, we rarely hear about the average every day starting author. Congrats on getting it published though

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