How many copies sold to get on “the list”?

In a comment on one of my blogposts, Struggler wondered how many copies would I have to sell to be happy?  (The truth: NEVER will I sell enough to be happy!)  But that leads to another, more concrete question: “How many copies do you need to sell to get on the NYT bestseller list?”

It’s a hard question, because the answer is: it depends.  It depends on which time of year you come out, and who the competition is.  If you’re released in October, for instance, you’re up against the really big releases, and you have to sell a lot more to be able to place on the list.  If you’re released in January, it will take far fewer copies to be a NYT bestseller.  My only experience is in the months of August and September, so that’s all I can really talk about.  And even then, I’m not completely sure about the real numbers, because I only get reports on a small segment of the market — mainly, the big chains and some of the wholesale clubs.  Of course, you can also go by Bookscan numbers, but I don’t always have access to those.  It depends on whether someone’s generous enough to slip those numbers to me.

 But here’s what I know.

When the hardcover of BODY DOUBLE came out, it was released the week of 8/17/04.  It debuted the first week on the NYT list at #12.  It debuted on the Wall Street Journal List at #11 with a sales index of 14.  It had the great fortune of getting one row on the B&N stepladder display (along with three other titles) during the very first week, which meant it had a really good first week in B&N, which skews the numbers somewhat.  Bookscan reported about 14,000 copies sold that first week.  This includes the major chain bookstores, the wholesale clubs, and Target.  It does NOT include Walmart or many distributors or sales to the library market (which can add another 10,000 copies.)  Bookscan is said to report about 65% of the hardcover market.  If we accept the 65% number, then the real sales would be around 21,000.  So that’s what it took to get to #12 on the NYT list, the week of 8/17/04.  It says nothing about any other week.  It’s just good for that week, in 2004.

Ironically, I sold about the same number of copies of THE SINNER during its first week in hardcover the year before, yet that title debuted at #4 on the NYT list.  Which is a good illustration of how selling  the same number of copies can land you at wildly different places on the list.

So there’s no definite number of sales that will guarantee a slot on the list.  In October, you may need to sell 25,000 copies to get on the list.  In January, maybe only 10,000 copies in a week will do it.  What you really want to see is growth — a steady increase in sales from title to title.  But so many things can interfere with that, from world events to a bad cover to a blockbuster title coming out at the same time.

This is the part that most frustrates me — and fascinates me.  I love to mull over the numbers.  But I also fret and stew when the numbers don’t grow the way I want them to.  I wish we writers could just write the books and not worry about how they’re selling.  We didn’t get into this to be business people.  For the most part, we’re NOT good business people.  We just want to tell stories.  Yet the market forces us to pay attention to these things, and that skews the whole creative process.  Instead of writing with an artist’s sensibility, we have to write with sales and marketing in mind.  Publishers aren’t patrons of the arts; they’re business people, which forces us to be business people.

And that just gets in the way of the storytelling.

13 replies
  1. struggler
    struggler says:

    Thanks Tess – and for the record, I have sales and marketing at the very front of my mind as a hope-to-be writer, because I have already taken the step out of employment and committed myself to writing as a full-time career. My background is in finance and in 1994 I started up what became a successful company in Japan, selling out 6 years ago to ‘spend more time with my family’ as they say, and that has proved to be the greatest investment of my life even if my bank account has shrivelled as a result. Now it’s back to business: I have to start all over again from a fragile financial base and build it all up from the creativity of my own mind. Your own story – the past 20 years – has moved me away from my previous thoughts of self-publishing / self-marketing and into the conventional alternative : getting a publisher to back me. But to date no-one anywhere has been able to come up with an answer to a simple question….how many books will I need to sell in order to earn a before-tax income of (for example) US$150,000? I was earning this level of income 20 years ago and I would like to set it as an annual target in the near future as a writer. I honestly believe that I have a powerful story to tell, as it is based on extraordinary events, so I have been very lucky to have that as a foundation on which to build. It can also be ‘serialised’ in much the same way as your Jane Rizzoli character has been – what I would give for but a fraction of that success!

    It has made me wonder if I should create a different story altogether for my debut novel, and save the blockbuster until later! I already have the seeds of the sequel in my head but I could do it the other way round. If I may be blunt, I thought The Sinner lacked the quality and excitement of The Surgeon or The Apprentice, and it makes me wonder how things would have panned out for you if The Sinner had been the FIRST in the series (with some obvious amendments of course). I’m on to Body Double now and it’s superb, I love it, but this topic is all about numbers and in turn the actual revenue those numbers convert to for the writer – so is it better to have a 5 year plan along the lines of the Rizzoli novels, accept that income in years one and two will be social-security standard and bank on the real money flowing in towards the end of those 5 years? Sorry Tess but you’re the best person I can think of to advise people like myself – and I’m not the only only one on your blog who’s in a similar position – so any tips or ‘don’t dos’ would be really appreciated! Of course I would appreciate comments from Tess’ blog community too!

  2. LLBartlett
    LLBartlett says:

    As a small press author, who will likely NEVER get on the NYT list…well, it’s depressing to see what you have to sell in one week to get there. My first book has been out 10 months (without benefit of any national reviews–my bad luck the ARCs went out too late) and I haven’t even sold out of my miniscule print run.

    Depressed? You bet. But my next book will be with a NY publisher and I’m hoping to have much better sales. Not in your league, but…better.

  3. Tess
    Tess says:

    struggler,

    you ask a question (“how much can one make?”) that really can’t be answered with anything as precise as a number. Because the range of writers’ earnings is all over the board, from poverty wages to multi-millions per year. It’s a bit like going into acting — there are some who’ll forever play bit parts, and then there’s Tom Hanks. There are no guarantees in the business. You can’t put together a five-year plan and expect it to bear fruit, because reality will invariably screw up whatever plans you’ve laid out.

    I never had a 5-year plan for Rizzoli. She just happened, and I’m delighted that the series has been so successful, but there was no planning involved. I just followed my instincts and wrote the books I wanted to write.

    No one sets out to write a bad book. You always write the very best book you can, even if the audience doesn’t agree with the result. (As you felt about The Sinner.) As for judging which book is going to hit big in the marketplace, you can scheme and plot all you want, but even publishers get it wrong. They’ll throw tons of money into marketing a book, yet it flops. No one really understands what makes a book a mega-seller. I’ve read wonderful books that didn’t make a blip in the charts, and mediocre books that hit the bestseller lists and stayed there.

    As for what can authors expect to earn, any novelist who consistently hits the top-10 in the NYT hardcover bestseller list is probably earning seven figures a year, based on North American sales alone. And if he’s also selling well overseas, it can significantly increase his earnings.

  4. Jude Hardin
    Jude Hardin says:

    Tess is absolutely right, Struggler. There’s no way you can plan on making a bunch of dough as a writer. It might take you five years just to find an agent willing to represent you. You do know that’s the first step, don’t you? Well, of course the FIRST step is honing your craft and writing a great book. That in itself can take years. Think about how long it took you to learn about finance and then build up to the level you were at. Just learning how to write a book will take at least that long, if you have some talent, and then there’s no guarantee of success.

    I’m not trying to discourage you, but we write because we love it. If you go into it hoping to make a mound of cash, you’re probably going to be very disappointed.

  5. Jude Hardin
    Jude Hardin says:

    Oh, I forgot you wanted some numbers, Struggler.

    For hardbacks, authors earn about $3.00 in royalties from each book sold. For paperbacks, fifty cents. So you’ll have to sell 50,000 hardbacks or 300,000 paperbacks every year to reach your goal. Most debuts fall far short of those numbers.

    Here’s what might really happen, if you have a good book and a good agent and are extremely lucky: A publisher will pay you a $150,000 advance for three books to be published over three years. Just to “earn out” the advance (which you’ll need to do for a chance at contract renewal), you’ll have to sell around 17,000 copies of each book in a hardcover deal. If you sell more than that, you’ll start getting the royalty rate I mentioned earlier.

    Hollywood is where the big bucks are, but you’ll probably have a better chance at hitting the lottery than having a movie or TV show made from your book.

    Like we said before, it’s a very tough business and there are no guarantees.

  6. struggler
    struggler says:

    At last – some numbers. Much appreciated, even if is a little depressing, particularly for paperbacks. But I do have confidence in my finished product, and of course at the end of the day if the product sucks, so will the reward. I’m hoping that if the product is excellent, it should be discovered – and that’s the responsibility of the marketing people isn’t it, to make sure that the message is getting across.

    As for planning ahead, it might sound naive to the seasoned and battle-weary among you but I remember the words of a mentor many years ago (when summarising a loser) – “He didn’t plan to fail, he just failed to plan”. Might sound corny but there’s some common sense in there.

    And I’m not trying to earn a mountain of cash, but I do need to support my family!

  7. Jude Hardin
    Jude Hardin says:

    Marketing is another story, Struggler. Check out jakonrath.blogspot.com, the recent posts and archives. Much of the marketing falls on the authors shoulders, and it ain’t no glam affair.

    Your quote is good, but you really have to know the business and have a product out there to start thinking about an effective plan. My advice for now would be to concentrate on the writing.

    The harder you work, the luckier you’ll get, but luck is definitely a factor. Many a brilliant scribe has died broke.

  8. struggler
    struggler says:

    Strangely enough, my mentor taught me that line as well, or at least a variation of it – apparently it was said by Arnold Palmer back in the 1960s who, when asked how he was so lucky at golf, replied “You know, it’s funny – the more I practice, the luckier I get”.

    I think that in the commercial world you need two things for success, in addition to luck: a great product and great distribution. You can’t have one without the other, although after a period of sustained success the onus is more on the distribution than the product. Whatever Dan Brown writes next will sell in the billions, they just need to advertise it.

    So OK, I’ll get writing, and when I’ve finished I’ll find myself a decent agent. I may die broke but it won’t be for the wont of trying….

  9. JA Konrath
    JA Konrath says:

    Thanks for this post, Tess.

    If memory serves, your first book to hit the NYT List was Harvest, right? Did it debut on the List, or did it appear there after a few weeks? Do you recall how big the first printing was?

    I’ve found that there are two types of books: the ones that the publisher ‘pushes’ onto the List by having a sizeable first printing and a major marketing campaign, and the ones that sneak up on the List after a few weeks and multiple printings.

    Reporting stores (the stores that give sales information to the NYT for the List tally) receive a pre-printed worksheet, which is sent out weekly.

    This worksheet is a few pages long. Here’s what it says at the top:

    “Hardcover fiction, confidential report weeks ending Saturday —-

    Below are 36 titles which, on the basis of our current information, are cotnenders to the best Seller List. Please tell us the number of copies sold, if any, of each. An asterik indicates a debut or a return to the pre-printed form. In the spaces provided below, please tell us about any other books that are selling well for you, and the number of copies sold.”

    Then there are lists of 36 titles each for paperback and hardcover fiction, along with a few dozen spaces for write-ins.

    Publishers know which stores report to the NYT. They’ll send their authors on tours, hitting these stores, so they have large numbers of sales there.

    Obviously, being pre-printed on this worksheet is advantageous. Write-ins are almost an afterthought, and depending on how busy a bookseller is, they might not even bother.

    In order to be pre-printed on this worksheet, your publisher has to convince the NYT that your book will sell in large numbers. If you’ve been o the List before, or if your publisher has announced a huge print run and big media campaign, you might be pre-printed (depending on the competition those weeks.)

    Many authors have sold in huge numbers but haven’t appeared on the NYT List, because of oversight, laziness, or perhaps even some foul play.

    I have no idea of the percentage of authors who make the list by being write-ins, but on the worksheet I’m looking at, the books lists were the ones that were on the List, and there are no write-ins that made it. Also, of the 36 titles pre-printed for hardcover, only 2 were debuts, and they were carry-overs from the previous week.

    While it’s easy to see that appearing on the List will get even more people to buy your books (those who watch the List), I can’t help but wonder if being pre-printed on the worksheet will alert bookstores to stock more of your book (anticipating demand), which in turn they’ll then sell, which in turn will get you on the List.

  10. Tess
    Tess says:

    Joe,
    you’re absolutely right that being pre-printed on the reporting store worksheet is really important. Booksellers don’t want to be bothered with writing in titles that aren’t already on the list. I don’t know the mechanics of which titles get on that list, but I suspect it has to do with print run. The larger the number of copies ordered and shipped, the higher the chance of getting the title on that reporting list.

    HARVEST (1996) was my first NYT bestseller, but it didn’t hit the list until its third week on sale. Its initial print run was reportedly around 150,000 but I suspect it was actually smaller — probably more like 120,000.

  11. Jaye Patrick
    Jaye Patrick says:

    Tess said: “Instead of writing with an artist’s sensibility, we have to write with sales and marketing in mind. Publishers aren’t patrons of the arts; they’re business people, which forces us to be business people.”

    So, how do you explain so-called literature? It ain’t art and doesn’t sell much. Heh, heh…

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