Are you self-published, with a small house, or with a traditional publisher?
(If you're considering self-publishing, check out Seven Questions to Ask Before Self-Publishing.)
If You Traditionally Publish
See Noah Lukeman's exhaustive take on selling books the traditional way (hint: it's hard to know how many books you've sold, due to returns, not to mention hardbacks vs. paperbacks vs. ebooks, all with different release times). Even if you know how many books you've sold, it's difficult to know whether you are "successful," a term that is relative and driven by the size of your advance. In Lukeman's example, he cites 10,000 sales (in a year, single novel) as a "success" on an advance of $3,000 for the author, but a "failure" on an advance of $200,000.
Being a "success" or "failure" on your first book, in your first year, is important, because that can determine whether your books will stay on the shelves and whether you'll get a second book contract.
If You're With a Small House or Self-Pub
The game is substantially different. First, you know your sales intimately if you're a self-published author. Even with a small house, you will likely get monthly checks/sales records. There are (typically) no returns. With a small house, and especially self-pub, you are unlikely to go "out of print." Ever. (This is also part of the ebook revolution, where virtual shelves last forever.) Which means that one-year sales are less important, less of a driver of the measure of "success" because they do not determine whether you will stay on the shelves or get another contract. All of that is in your control.
So, "success" is measured by sales, which are directly related to how much money you make (unlike the advance model where you get money up front and, unless you "sell-through" your advance, more or less sales do not directly affect your income).
If you are with a small-pub, they will invest in editing and cover art. If you are self-pubbed, you should do the same. Either way, there are upfront costs that are borne by the small publisher and/or author: cover art, professional editing, book launch (giveaways, website, advanced reader copies), and marketing materials (bookmarks, posters for in-person signings). There will be ongoing marketing costs in the future (paper book giveaways, more marketing materials, paid advertisements), but those can be tailored up or down depending on your sales and how much you're willing to re-invest in the book. The upfront costs are fixed. While publishing your novel may be a terribly romantic thing (it is! The emotions run hot with this!), it is also a business. And if you plan to publish more than one book, each book needs to be able to recover its upfront costs in order for your writing to be a viable business and not just a tax write-off for your regular job (or your spouse) (or your small publisher).
Reaching Thousands of Sales
Selling hundreds of copies is a reasonable thing for a first-time author (small or self-pub). If your social network, including your hair dresser and your cat, totals less than 10, you will have a hard time even reaching the hundreds. If you have a wide social network, you might have several hundred people that will buy your book, just because they love you. But unless you're a bonafide celebrity, you are unlikely to have thousands of people that will buy your book based on their love of you alone (no matter how many FB friends you have). Selling hundreds of copies is also possible with concerted hand-selling. I know one FB writer friend who reached a 1000 sales in one year, hand-selling her book to book clubs and events across Ireland. It was a fantastic milestone for her, but it drove home for me that hand-selling is a time intensive way to sell, and not the best way to reach large numbers of sales.
Reaching your immediate social network to let them know you have a book for sale is a wonderful thing (launch party!), but it's just the beginning of the word-of-mouth that needs to happen if you want to be "successful," meaning selling enough of your book(s) to make it a viable business.
If you are selling in the thousands within a year of launch, it is a sign that you've moved beyond your direct sphere of influence to people that are buying your book because they like the novel (not the author). Selling in the thousands, at least for a self-pub author, also means you start to make some money. How much depends on how your book is priced (which in turn affects how many sales you will have, and not in a nice linear fashion, either). You make six times less with a 99cent novel as you do with a $2.99 novel, but you may sell 100 times as many. Or not. There's no way to know for your particular book at this particular point in the market (unless you experiment with price, another option for self-pubbers).
But either way, if you're selling thousands of copies, you will start to make money.
If you're selling thousands of a 99cent book (annual royalty $300 - $3,000), you can fund the start up costs for your next novel. If you're selling thousands of a $2.99 book (annual royalty $2,000 - $20,000), you can start paying the electric bill, or even your car payment, with your royalty checks.
You are doing well. (Interestingly, the royalty on 10,000 sales for a 99cent self-pub novel is the same as the $3,000 advance on the 10,000 sales for a "successful" traditionally published novel noted above.)
Reaching Tens of Thousands of Sales
Now you're cooking with gas.
If you're reaching tens of thousands of sales (one title, in a year), you've substantially broken out. In the traditional world, 30,000 sales used to be approximately what it took to get on the NYTimes bestseller list (I'm not sure this is true anymore). As an Indie title selling tens of thousands, you are likely on the bestseller charts somewhere on Amazon (unless your category is extremely competitive), which boosts your visibility substantially and ensures even more sales. If you have tens of thousands of sales spread across several titles, you may have let one book go free and climbed the free charts on Amazon, but have carry-over sales from books 2 & 3 in your series.
Either way, you are rocking the self-pub sales.
At 50,000 sales on a 99cent book, your royalties are $17,500. For a $2.99 novel, you're looking at a cool $100,000. You're now paying the mortgage and possibly supporting your family on your royalty checks .
Reaching Hundreds of Thousands of Sales
If you're here, you're on your way to becoming Amanda Hocking, and you are too busy being awesome to read my blog. Congratulations!
But Do People Really Sell This Much?
Yes, they do.
You're probably wondering how realistic it is to attain any of these numbers, and certainly the number of people achieving each level goes down as you climb up the sales ladder. But you don't have to reach the Amanda Hocking level in order to be a "success." Maybe having your writing career support itself is a benchmark of "success" that you're happy to reach. Maybe funding your kids' college tuition with your royalty checks will be your benchmark of success (Dark Omen is hoping this one will be reached before he gets to college). This is the part you have to define for yourself.
(See this post about the myth of bestsellerdom.)
(Also see this post about the right way to think about Indie Publishing.)
I want to share my experience, so you can see that these numbers aren't ridiculous pie-in-the-sky dreaming. And because I have benefited directly from awesome authors like Arthur Slade, who have openly shared their sales numbers. Real people are selling these numbers of books, and I know them personally (through the Indelibles and my own experience). At the same time, hard-working self-pub and small press (and traditionally published) authors do not sell in these numbers, and it's no reflection on how hard they work, how good their book is, or anything else. There can be real reasons a book is not selling (price, cover, quality of the book, amount of marketing) or no reason you can discern (appeal is narrow, competition is fierce, solar flares, alien mind-control).
Whether a book is selling or not, you should always do the same thing: write another book.
For me, my first book (Life, Liberty, and Pursuit) was about the thrill and experience of being published and learning how the industry works. I was happy to be in the hundreds of sales that my social network would bring. For my second book (Open Minds), I had learned more and wanted to aim higher. I also had a book that I thought would appeal to a wider market. At a minimum, I wanted this book to Break Even, so that I could justify investing in future books. I wanted to reach that milestone in six months, or before the second book came out, whichever came last.
I reached the Break Even point in the first month.
My second goal was to reach the thousands of sales benchmark. If I was going to build a fanbase, it had to reach out beyond the people that read my blog or know me from FB or in real life. I needed the book to essentially sell itself, via reviews and the cover/blurb, to people who wouldn't pick up the book unless it was something they really wanted to read. I also wanted to reach this milestone in the first six months, but I would have been satisfied if I'd reached it in the first year.
I passed a thousand sales in the third month. (And I'm starting to slide on and off the bestseller lists for my categories.)
Within the Indelibles, we have authors who are still working on putting out their first book, as well as authors who have reached 50,000 sales (I'm looking at you Sarra Cannon). Others have landed movie/TV deals (rock on Addison Moore!). Some crossed the 20k threshold in 2011 (go Katie Klein!) and some are killing the bestseller lists (as of last night GP Ching's Soulkeepers Series was #808 on the Paid Kindle list - that's #808 out of ALL EBOOKS ON AMAZON. She was also in the top 10 on several Amazon bestseller categories).
These ladies are not alone in their success. In David Gaughran's ebook Let's Get Digital, he includes mini-essays from 33 successful self-pub authors (including Indelible Stacey Wallace Benefiel who went from 2,500 to nearly 40k in sales in 2011).
I have every confidence that one (or more) of my fellow Indelibles will reach the hundreds of thousands level (and soon).
How is this possible? The rise in ebooks is part of it. One reason self-publishing is losing its stigma is because authors are now making real money going that route (and real money attracts serious writers, which in turn raises the quality of self-published works). But like everything else in this business, it is some alchemical combination of hard work, luck, and perseverance. Write the best book you possibly can, and see if it will sell. Then write another one and another one. Learn as you go. Get help from your friends. Keep your expectations low. And never stop writing. If you do this, eventually you will find the "success" that's right for you.
If you're willing to share the "success" you're seeking in the comments, I would love to hear it!
UPDATE: The Taleist is conducting a self-pub survey! If you've self-published, please take a few minutes to take the survey and help gather some real data on sales in self-publishing!