Monday, February 6, 2012

How Many Book Sales Equals "Success"?

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).

Breaking Even
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 .

Very nice.

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!

70 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing Susan. What a terrific breakdown!

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  2. Great post, Sue. For me, I considered it a success when I out-earned a traditional midlist advance. :D

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    1. That's a great benchmark, Megg! Especially since you reached it in less than a year!!

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  3. It's great to read the success stories of others. I'd be happy with selling a few copies. To me, it's not about the money. It's about the dream and happiness with writing.

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    1. That's awesome, Miranda! Knowing what makes you happy, what will feel like success to you, is KEY in this business. Which is why I write mine down (in a Mission Statement) - so I don't forget when things get crazy!

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  4. Thanks for this great article, Sue! (and for the shout-out!) I am not sure I had a clear goal or expectation when I first uploaded Beautiful Demons, but I do know that the series has far surpassed anything I dreamed in the beginning. Self-publishing has opened so many doors for me and given me an opportunity for success I'm not sure I could have found anywhere else.

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    1. Planning everything out is my personality type, but sometimes it takes a leap of faith to find success too! I'm so impressed by you and your journey, Sarra!

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  5. Great post, Sue! Unfortunately not everyone can make it to the end of this list, but those examples show it is possible. :D

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    1. Fortunately, everyone has their own definitely of "success" - and not everyone wants to be Amanda Hocking (really!). :)

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  6. This is such a great post. And very timely, too. As the release date for my own debut draws closer, these kinds of things become more and more important for me. It's great to see it all broken down like this. :)

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    1. I'm so glad it helps! That was the main reason for this post - I've never been keen on sharing my numbers, but so many people have helped me by sharing their numbers, that I wanted to at least pay that forward once.

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  7. My success was determined last week, when I sold 100 copies of my novella (priced at .99 cents) in 5 days. Last month it took the whole month to reach 100 copies. As of 15 minutes ago, I had sold 35 more. (Since checking the stats at 6am.) It boggles my mind that people outside my fan base have found this book. It's also been flirting between #14 and #10 on the best seller list (but not for my genre so that is the weirdest part of my whole experience.)

    As for the novel priced at $2.99, that has basically sold a book a day since its release last October. However, the number of books sold this month (Feb.) are climbing by two a day (so far).

    I think pricing plays a lot of importance in sales, also offering free for a short period gets other readers in to your corner. If they like one for free, they may eventually buy the others.

    Also, I think in getting more books out to the "audience" is a really great way to boost sales. I started with one novella and one novel. Now I have two novellas and a novel. By the end of next week, I'll have three novellas and two novels. By the end of April that will rise to three novels, possibly four. (I have an extensive amount of books under the bed that I'm polishing so that's why I can get them out so quickly.)

    I also think success is what you make it. No, I'm not paying the bills yet, but by the end of the year, I hope. That would be a good measure of success for me. However, I also feel that writing books that people want to read, and keep coming back for more is the true pinnacle. Someone "wants" to read my stories. It's a head rush and continues to blow my mind.

    Thanks for a great post, Susan.

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    1. Anne - thanks so much for sharing your success with us! I'm so excited for you that you've gotten so high on the bestseller list! #awesome

      Your point about having more than one work out is tremendously important. I focused in this post on evaluating the success of a single novel, but really we need to look at this as a career and be in it for the long-haul. Which means many books.

      And I have no doubt you'll be paying the bills soon! :)

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  8. For me the greatest measure of success is the enjoyment of the readers, especially when I get great feedback from someone I don't know.

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    1. So true. It seriously rocks my world when readers say they love my book, or spend three paragraphs in a review dissecting the book. #ReadersRock

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  9. great post! Congrats on your success!

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    1. Thank you Terry! (You helped make it happen. :))

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  10. Congratulations on 1,000+ sales, Sue! May the sales keep racking up. Educational post.

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    1. Thanks so much Jennifer! It's just my perspective, but I hope it helps people to see.

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  11. this is the greatest post ever. Thanks, Susan, for being so willing to share and help other writers. YOU rock~ :o) <3

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  12. My expectations are so low :) I'm mostly hoping to break even and maybe have a little left over to buy a cowboy hat and some boots. That's my immediate goal. Keep it basic and simple and then I won't be disappointed with my sales. A big part of me doesn't even want to look. (So flippin' nervous. Book come out in March. That's like NEXT month. Oh boy).

    BUT, I'm keeping myself busy writing more books. Keep my head in the game and everything else will work itself out.

    Great post. Glad to see many authors having great success. That means people are reading and that's always a good thing :)

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    1. Good luck with your launch! (The worst part is definitely before the book launches.) And writing is the anti-dote to every problem, so you are WIN there.

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  13. Susan - you're awesome! Great post. Along the lines of what you said, it's one reason I am so happy with the choice to GO INDIE - I set my own measure of success.

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    1. Exactly! I'm convinced happiness comes from aligning your expectations with the reality you can accomplish with your own efforts. Indie publishing is definitely reinforcing that belief! Thanks for stopping by!

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  14. Great post! My goal in 2010 was to be able to buy my kids Christmas presents and pay off the credit card bill in January. In 2011, my goal was to make enough so that my husband could quit a job he hated. I met both goals - although my hubby has a job he likes now - so, my goal for this year is to pay off my mortgage.
    Thanks for the shout-out! I better get back to writing!!

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    1. Oh, Stacey, that's just awesome! And yes, get back to the writing!! Thanks for stopping by!

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  15. It's a really tough call, because for me I think just getting traditionally published was always how I defined success, but of course, as you've eloquently laid out here, not selling through your advance could mean certain failure for your entire career. So I think at this point the whole thing requires a lot more thought.

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    1. Matt - I don't think not selling through spells doom for your entire career. Although it could mean you don't stay on the shelves or get that second book optioned. Then you're back to trying to sell a new book/series, with the publisher (maybe) less likely to take you on. Or your next book could be irresistably fantastic and they'll fight each other to have you. :) The thing, I think, is knowing what's important to YOU, and working towards that. Knowing what will really satisfy you (i.e. give you the feeling of success) is important not just to set the goal, but to know when you've achieved it (and not always be looking for the next thing and the next, always unsatisfied).

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  16. This is an awesome post, Susan! I am getting my first two books in order now to go Indie with them sometime this year. I read the David Gaughran book (per your recommendation). It is so positive. I'm in the middle of Zoe Winters' book right now, which contains good info, too. I am so impressed with all The Indelible authors. I wish you oh-so much success!

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    1. Yay! Best of luck with your upcoming books! I've peeked at Zoe Winter's book, but haven't had time to read. #toomuchontheTBR Working with the Indelibles authors has been an amazing eye opener to what is possible. And look for more from them next week with the Anthology...! :) Thanks for your well wishes!

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    1. Thanks for stopping by - and for letting me include you in my list!!

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  18. Thanks for sharing all of this, Susan!

    "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."

    This pretty much says it all for me. Thanks for the encouragment. ^_^

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  19. What an awesome post! Thanks so much for breaking this down! (And for the shout-out! Woot!) :)

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    1. Thanks for letting me include you in the list! It's so helpful for people to see what's possible (IMHO). :)

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  20. Great post, Susan! I had one book out in 2011, one more out so far this year with four more planned after that. We'll see what that does. My goal is to eventually (hopefully this year) replace the part time wage I gave up to pursue writing full-time. The bar isn't low, but it isn't high either.

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    1. I have faith in you, Elle! And that's a wonderful goal, not unlike mine (to eventually make enough from my writing that it would be more than returning to engineering work). Practical and meaningful. Nice!

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  21. Oh, you know, I just want to sell seven or eight million copies. Personal friends, family, small colonial countries.

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    1. I'll get Dark Omen on it. He's been reading "How to Start Your Own Country." I'm pretty sure he's going for a dictatorial model wherein we could enforce a One Book, One Country rule. ;)

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  22. excellent post! i believe knowing what you want out of the publishing process is the first step to being successful, and for each of us that goal is different. (and a positive attitude always helps!) thank you for the breakdowns and sharing to help other writers.

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    1. I'm glad it helped! Thanks for stopping by!

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  23. Susan - I cannot tell you how amazing these posts are! They take some of the confusion out by putting simple reality out there for us. Thank you for that. And for sharing so openly.

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    1. Thanks! I hope that they held demystify the process somewhat. Of course, all of this is subject to change at any time, as the industry evolves. *still riding the wave*

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  24. Great post, Susan. It's always interesting to hear how self-pubbers are doing, and to get real numbers moving. I think you do a fantastic job of tapping and building your audience. I'm curious (perhaps for another post at another time!) what your time investment looks like in your book--obviously, a big part of the "money" in self-pub is the time spent marketing when it's not done on your behalf.

    The one critique I would have of this post is that you skate the details of trade publishing, and have some of the standard "scare tactic" language in your comments about future book deals. The real truth is that most agents go in for a two-book deal at the get-go, and that most publishing houses are ready to sell through the number of copies they need to sell to make the book a "success" in their eyes by the time they even offer the contract. (I just did a post on this the other day.) Though Lukeman is a great and informative source, your comparison would be stronger if that ground were more firmly established at the outset.

    Congrats on your successes. They're phenomenal.

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    1. @JS I'm speaking from my personal experience for most of this post, and I haven't (yet) traditionally published. Which is why I relied on Lukeman's post, and my general observations of friends' experiences. I certainly hope that publishing houses are ready to "sell through"! In fact, I'm fairly certain that the advance they offer, along with the publicity dollars they put into a book, are directly related to how many sales they think it will achieve. It wouldn't make much business sense if they weren't! Since you worked in a small publisher, you've seen it in the P&L calculations. The problem isn't that publishers don't intend for the book to succeed, but that they can no more see the future than anyone else. And sometimes a book doesn't meet its sell-through. This is just a simple fact, not a scare tactic. I personally know mainstream published authors who haven't sold-through. It happens. What happens after that will depend a lot on the particular situation, but books do get pulled from shelves and second contracts don't get picked up.

      I'm not trying to "scare" anyone into self-pub (or away from traditional publication)! :) (Which would be silly anyway, considering I'm doing both.) While this post may seem more encouraging to people to self-publish, my Seven Questions post was taken by lots of people as reasons NOT to self-publish. Getting solid information in this business is often difficult - and sharing it was the main point of the post. What you do with the information, which path you decide is best for you - that will depend on you and your goals.

      Best of luck with your writing!

      p.s. I'll have to think about doing that post on the sweat equity that goes into marketing self-pub vs. trad pub. :)

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    2. I certainly didn't mean that you were trying to scare anyone into self-pub, and if I implied that, I apologize. I think your seven questions post is spot on. Publishing is a business, even if it's a business you're going into for yourself, and it has to be approached that way.

      But I also think a lot of misinformation gets thrown around about what constitutes success in trade publishing. Many, many books are acquired with the understood expectation that they will neither earn out their advances nor sell entirely through their print runs (in fact, the latter is almost never true--otherwise, you'd end up with no books in the store. A book nearly always goes out of print before every copy is in the hands of a customer). Neither one means the book has not been profitable or successful.

      I think the best approaches to self-publishing are, like I think you're espousing here, ones which take a similar approach--figuring out what success is going to look like, and then making sure that one can make that happen.

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    3. Ok, so I have to ask: if a book is "profitable" and "successful" then why does it go out of print? I can see the book reaching profitabilty before selling through the advance or selling the entire print run. Maybe I'm misunderstanding your definition of "out of print" - which I take to mean "no longer available to the customer." If print copies are still available, but they're not being sold to the customer (i.e. they're returned or remanded), and the publisher still thinks that's "successful" then I guess they won't mind extended another contract. But being pulled from the shelves would probably not make the author feel "successful."

      Maybe I'm wrong, but I think there are lots of books that get "remanded" because they are not selling quickly enough. It's not that they won't sell eventually, it's that they're taking up shelf space and are moved to make room for quicker selling books. Again, I'm not speaking from personal experience here. Maybe if/when I traditionally publish, I'll understand the complexities of the print side of the business.

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    4. Yes, a dead-tree book goes out of print basically at the point that the costs of storing it exceed the revenue it brings in, which I suppose one could call selling too slowly. At that time, remaining copies are either remaindered (sold at very near to, or under cost), or they're pulped.

      Very importantly, at that point, the rights revert to the author. In fact, that's one of the biggest concerns from authors' groups about e-publishing--there effectively is no lower bound at which the publisher won't recoup storage costs, since there really aren't any. So rights could be held in perpetuity when the book is selling only two or three copies a month.

      At any case. I think this is all quite interesting. I've followed your blog for some time, but I think I only last commented when you announced Open Minds. I'm glad to hear it's meeting your expectations of success for it--I recently added it to my nook.

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    5. That is true about ebooks, one reason to always read your contract very carefully (and negotiate)!

      Thanks for buying Open Minds! I hope you enjoy it. :)

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  25. Wow, Susan, this was a fascinating post. I read every word of it. Right now, I'm shooting for that first goal of being published--a small house would be fine with me. :-)

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    1. Sounds like a great goal! I'll be crossing my fingers for you the whole way! :)

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  26. Thank you, Susan, for such a wonderful post! I had a great first year of ebooks, both self-pubbing and with a small press. I'd have to tally up my sales figures, but I reckon I've sold almost 30-40,000 books? Somewhere in that neighbourhood. The real surprise for me was a Christmas short story I wrote under another pen name - it sold loads! Just goes to show you never can really tell what might take off and what not. Experimenting with price, length and lots of other factors is key right now.

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    1. Congrats on your success, Talli! I couldn't be happier for you. :) One of the things I love about the rise of e-books is the experimentation with new forms - shorts and anthologies and all kinds of things are finding success in the marketplace, whereas those things were very difficult to publish using paper. That you wrote under a pen name and it still found success is outstanding!! I wish you many happy future sales!

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    2. I'm replying to this thread because for some reason I can't get the regular comment form up. But this gives me a chance to say "wow!" to Talli, too for her success.

      Susan, this post is amazing!!! You are a treasure to share so much of your experience freely. I learned a ton from this and it's going on my Writing Tips page for future reference. Honestly, I hate numbers and dollar signs, but this was easy too read and really very encouraging.

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    3. Thanks Margo! That's exactly why I posted - in hopes that it might help someone else. :)

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  27. What a fantastic post, Susan. You're so on top of the marketing and the whole shebang, a great role model for the rest of us. And you so generously share your wisdom with us. Thanks a bunch!

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  28. Great advice here. Its nice to see things in such a clear, piece by piece way.

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

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  29. Excellent article, thank you. Really interesting to know "the numbers". I always appreciate it when a self-published author shares that kind of information.

    xx R

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  30. Super interesting! I hadn't really thought about the numbers. I'm still worrying about the ms, then the whole querying or selfpub decision. I'm learning so much from you wonderful folks who are willing to share your experiences with us! Thanks :)

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  31. The way you share your journey and break everything down into specifics is wonderful. Publishing is such a snarl to figure out, and you are making it comprehensible. Thank you.

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  32. Great post! I linked a blog post to a couple of yours--this and the one on e-book pricing. Very timely and very informative. Thanks. ; )

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  33. Before I self-pubbed, I assume my sales would be like a small business, starting low and then gradually building over time. However, I signed up with the Select program and did a free day in December, which resulted in thousands of sales of one of my books.

    I figured I would be able to duplicate the formula, but since then the effectiveness of the Select promo days has dropped, as more people get on board (and people's kindles are full of other freebies!), so I've been having roller coaster sales instead of the gradually increasing sales other people report.

    Sometimes I have to step back and acknowledge I've been at this thing less than a year, and I am working hard on more books, so I'm doing the "right" things and I have to assume that growth will happen.

    I've had a few nice emails from readers, and those feel like "success" for sure!

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    1. I think there's no formula for every writer - we're all going to have our own experiences. And promotions definitely give a roller-coaster feeling to the whole experience! But I think the best advice I've heard is to look at the long term: are you selling more this month than you sold this same month a year ago? If so, then you're making progress! If you've been in it less than a year, then you're definitely ahead, since last year it was $0. :)

      Also: readers rock!

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  34. Great information here, Susan, especially how you take the long view. And the reminder that producing more work is far more productive than fretting about sales numbers!

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