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?


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.



  1. Thanks for this well-documented perspective. I’ll share this with my writing students–and to reading your work (I just downloaded to my Kindle–the reviews were terrific and the opening sentences and voice caught me. So glad to have been pointed to this article by a FB friend!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks for sharing and your honesty. I self-published my second book, a labor of love, not having any idea how hard it would be to get distribution. I feel less bad about the boxes of it that currently sit in my living room after reading this. People really don’t understand how hard it is to sell books. Congrats on getting yours published!

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Wendy, as a debut nonfiction author, I absolutely loved your post. I get asked that ‘how many books have you sold?’ question every other day. I don’t answer the question because I liken that question to asking someone how much they make. My book is actually doing quite well – but not a bestseller :-), and I’m okay with that, too. My editor said something beautiful to me in a message the other day. I should focus on the effect my book is having, that the message is getting out there. I have been reviewed by many of the biggies and had op-eds in major places, and yet I totally hate that sales question! Thanks for writing something that explains the many layers of all of this. … I also cringe sometimes when someone say, ‘Oh, your book sounds great. I’m going to buy it, then loan it to x, y, and z…” There’s a part of me that wants others to understand that this is how we’re trying to make a living.

    Liked by 6 people

    • Oh, Linda, thank you! I have loved your journalism for years. It’s heartening to know that even folks with nationally recognizable names run into the sales hurdle. I’m going to buy your book and then tell x, y, and z they need to get it in hardcover.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Hi, Wendy.

    First, I appreciate your openness and willingness to share actual numbers. That’s brave, and something that most authors are not willing to do.

    I am an indie author, and I have to disagree, however, with one section of what you wrote:

    “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.”

    As an indie, I am also able to hold my own, bound words in my hands and had the experience of writing something kind to my friends. When I find a typo, be it in my blurb, or inside the book, I can fix it immediately, because although my book is in print, it is printed on demand. As soon as I fix it, the next copy sold has the correction.

    I don’t say this to be argumentative, but just to say that although there might be reasons to be traditionally published, having a print copy really isn’t one of them. All of the serious indies I know have print copies of their books.

    On more common ground, I also love short stories and will look into your collection.

    Liked by 5 people

    • I hear that, Shawn. That sentence was not meant to be disparaging to ebooks nor electronic publishing. The print piece of publishing was something always important to me, on a personal level. The important thing is that we do the work, and that the work gets out there. I think we agree. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  5. There’s a lot of negativity about loaning books in the comments. I’m a big supporter of libraries and sharing books as a way of sharing a feeling. If the borrower loves the book, he/she can buy it, too. People do the same thing with other products, too: clothes, movies, perfume, etc.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Thanks for a realistic view of what life is like for us (and it feels really strange to say “us” right there). Congratulations on your sales so far, and best wishes for many more!


  7. Love this post. The first time I ever did my taxes as an Official Adult was when I realized maybe I should keep better track of my book sales. And then I faced cringe-worthy embarrassment when I ended up hiring someone else to do my taxes, and was asked about my yearly income. My first book was published in 2012, and was a prime example of how not to self publish. I canned that edition and re-published it in 2014, and it became an Amazon bestseller for a hot minute (and then tanked). But as authors know, building a solid platform takes much longer than two, three, now four years, and it will likely take another five or so before I can give a more concrete answer to the tax man besides “I’m not sure.” Yeah, that was awkward 😉


  8. I am a first-time author too, traditionally published, and I am finally getting over the concern about sales.

    Now, I would far rather write my next books than worry about sales, about reviews and all that jazz. Though it has taken time to reach that place of relative equilibrium, I’m glad I made it.

    I’ll look out for your book, Wendy. 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

  9. Hi Wendy. I related to your article on many levels. The dreaded question of “How many books have you sold” comes up often in my circles. Fortunately, my number is above average, but (sigh)…I’m still not satisfied. Each day I send out a tweet, post to my Facebook Fanpage or head over to the Francophiles Group at Goodreads hoping to gain more traction. Oh, and don’t get me started with the promotions I set up throughout the year. Someday, when someone asks me about book sales, I just want to be able to say “they’re okay,” and mean it. Time will tell 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

  10. Wendy I applaud you for this post. It rings so true. I faced that question on my last book. I honestly wasn’t sure how to answer. I truly didn’t know when I thought about the giveaways, promotions, and other ways my book was distributed. Initially I had to battle the inner voices as you did, trying to place some imaginary number on book sales to validate my work and call it a success. Then I chose to focus on the people who actually bought and read my book and the positive feedback I got from them. I had to remind myself why I wrote it, that it actually was published, got some award recognition and what I had accomplished. I determined with this framework it was a success. I find it interesting when you queery publishers or agents they do often ask how many copies of previous books you have sold. Is there no escaping this in this industry?

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Thank you for this reality check and wonderful perspective.

    My debut novel will be published by one of the Big 5 this summer. My brain is split between delusions of bestseller status and sales so abysmal that my publisher will silently curse my name–a literary version of Schroedinger’s cat, I suppose.

    This post is very grounding for me.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Reblogged this on sherryleveck2 and commented:
    The world of Publishing is a very difficult place to be. One would think that world-wide sales would make it easier; however, that is one thing that doesn’t make much of a difference. Nothing seems to work and the only one ho really even cares about the sales numbers is the author. I have sold way fewer than I ever dreamed I would. I thought everyone read, not so true.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I think it has a lot to do with the literature/commercial writing dichotomy. If you are writing something with literary or philosophical value, 1000 is a big number. But if you are in commercial writing, the whole regime, from your approach to the choice of your words, changes. So it’s not a simple equation and you can’t say all writers do badly, but yes, there’s a common pattern: all writers letting in literature or philosophy into their work are doomed. Maybe the people have become fed up with all this, or they simply don’t have the energy to try and understand complex ideas when they have a million problems of their own.


    Liked by 2 people

  14. Had to reblog this as well. Great post and thank you for the insight. My Novel just came about a month ago and friends and family keep asking, “How’s book sales?” I published through pronoun so I can know exactly every day how many I’ve sold in a month. 25. And I’ve been freaking out that it’s only 25. I mean it’s been out a whole month! Thanks for the reality check. I needed it!

    Liked by 4 people

  15. I think this is the best blog article documenting the realities of writing in the modern days whereby people are more on social media than books. But its a great article and I learnt alot from it

    Liked by 2 people

  16. As a self-published novelist, I don’t get that many sales either, though I do have a few dedicated fans. And while I would like to make a living selling fiction (and I think that could happen someday), for now it’s enough for me to know that people enjoy what I write and they want to read more from me. That’s a much better feeling than seeing a thousand dollars a month or something like that (though I imagine that would be pretty nice too).

    Liked by 4 people

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