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What publishers won't tell you about book sales

Frankly, the whole range of elements that makes up the publishing industry is beyond fascinating. Of course, an unrepentant book junkie would say that. Perhaps we should all have our own TV program: “A&E Presents: Book Intervention.” Then our friends would tearfully gather in a room with a professional counselor and read letters to us explaining how they’d lost us to books.

In any event, the whole process is colorful and, at times, thrilling. The concept, the outline, research, writing, editing, marketing, distribution and so forth. The list is almost endless.

Yet, one element in the publishing game stands above all others, at least for a good number of those involved in the business:

How many did you sell?

This question usually comes from friends and family after you’ve smugly listed a few facts that point to the very real possibility that you make Mark Twain look like a rank amateur:

All superb accomplishments. But, how many sold?

Now, keep in mind, book insiders don’t ask this question as often as “outsiders” do, simply because most know the reality behind the numbers. An editor friend might mumble into a glass of wine at a book launch, having been asked what the first print-run is, and how many have presold, but usually the truth is so painful, no one wants to talk about it.

As we’ve discussed before, a gargantuan number of titles never sell through their first printing. The average consumer doesn’t know that. Many people assume that quite a few titles sell in a healthy, brisk way: 50,000 … one million … 300 sextillion.

How comical.

Michael Hyatt of Thomas Nelson has said that perhaps 90 percent of books never sell through their first printing (usually around 5,000 copies). I had previously heard that the percentage is 70. This is probably pretty accurate and represents a virtual scandal. If that number is close to being true, publishers should stop publishing so many books.

They won’t.

Which leaves us mumbling at book launches and dodging author questions about sales, much like Ali’s “rope-a-dope” tactic in the ring.

Amazon has just announced a sales feature on Author Central.

(By the way, a modest subscription to Publisher’s Lunch will enable a writer to have access to all sorts of fascinating information, including the tracking of sales.)

According to an announcement by Amazon: “To add to your holiday cheer, we’ve added several new features related to your books’ sales on our new Sales Info tab. Sales by Week & Sales by Geography.

“We’re happy to announce that for the first time ever, you can see weekly updates of your print books’ sales trends,” Amazon boasts. “Sales by Week breaks out your weekly sales reported by Nielsen BookScan. Sales by Geography displays these sales across a U.S. map, shaded according to their geographic distribution.”

We are then told that although BookScan doesn’t report every book sold, “it’s still widely regarded as the industry standard for tracking print book sales.”

This can be a great tool for authors, because if you are relying on data directly from publishers, then you likely also believe Christmas toys are made by frosty little people at the North Pole, rather than sweaty little people in Asia.

Publishes are notorious for withholding sales reports from authors. Isn’t that quite ironic?

I recently spoke with a friend who has published with a highly successful company. He actually told me (he’s a very nice man) that his publisher’s business practices are “criminal,” and he has to hire an attorney to find out how many books he’s sold!

This week, I visited with a mega-selling author, and we were discussing this problem of publisher reporting.

I said, “I assume you don’t have a problem in that area?”

He agreed that he doesn’t … now.

“But when I was starting my career, I couldn’t get any figures from the two publishers I was working with,” he said. “After two years of that, I began threatening to fulfill my contract [which called for right of first refusal for subsequent projects] by producing English translations of 18th century Russian military training manuals.”

He got his sales reports.

Traditionally, publisher sales reports are rarely forthcoming. There are nuclear codes for a president, and then there are sales reports from publishers. It’s a toss-up as to whether one is more secret than the other.

Why is this? Why are publishers so reluctant to disclose?

Well, first of all, publishers are reluctant to release sales figures to two different audiences: their own authors, of course … and then to the wider public, i.e., the book world.

There are two main reasons for this.

The painful fact is that on one level, there is some number of publishers who find every loophole available to avoid paying royalties to authors. This happens too often. I’ve heard the wildest stories about the lengths publishers will go to avoid full disclosure with authors.

Secondly, like everyone else, publishers crave good publicity. It’s pretty easy to let everyone know that Volume 16 of the Harry Potter series has pre-sold two million copies. Pre-sales are the obsession of publishers, with good reason; it’s a gauge for what the book will do in the market.

But if your high-profile author tanks with a title, and you are sitting on 47,232 copies of the first print-run of 50,000, you as a publisher will mumble into your wine glass when asked about sales, and you’ll change the subject.

So, greed and an extreme aversion to embarrassment (am I describing the qualities of a narcissist?) affect how and when a publisher releases sales figures.

Of course, for an author, the solution to all this unpleasantness and frustration is to self-publish.

Just remember to be vigilant in demanding transparency from the publisher, lest you have to sue him for his criminal practices.

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