The average indie book sells 250 copies. In it’s lifetime! Trade publishing isn’t much better at 3000.
While I couldn’t find what I would consider a reliable source for the above numbers, this is what is propagating all around the internet. And I believe them. It’s hard to sell books. I also see reports that if we discount the outliers (J.K. Rowling and the Bible), the average book sells around 2000 copies overall, for its lifetime.
While there is no guaranteed way to get your first 1000 fans, this article will attempt to showcase the importance of finding fans over unit sales.
A note about “sales”
Sales means something different to different people and different markets. For instance, a traditional publisher might print 10,000 copies on the first run, and report this number to the author. More likely, they’ll report the number of books they have placed in bookstores.
When a bookstore “buys” a book, they get it at a discount, usually 45-55% off the cover price, and are able to return them within six months if they aren’t selling, or the store thinks that they won’t sell. So for the example above, the publisher might report that they “sold” 8,666 copies, when these “sales” were actually bookstore placements.
Next up, actual physical copies sold directly to readers through the stores. This number is tracked on Bookscan, but not all sales are tracked. Most major chains report sales, and these numbers are used by the NYT and other media outlets as raw input for their weekly bestseller lists. Publishers rarely report these sales, and part of the reason is that they cannot track them. They can track the Bookscan list and the orders placed by bookstores, but as I said, this doesn’t account for every unit sale.
The Actual Sales numbers.
The numbers vary, and most sources can’t even tell you which numbers they are looking at. They rarely get them from the publisher. But there is one truism about book sales that penetrates every report on average book sales. That is the conclusion: not enough.
For the sake of argument, I’m going to stick with the number I quoted above for indie sales: 250. Indie authors sell in various ways. Local authors who are willing to hustle can easily reach this number in direct distribution to a local audience, but gain very little momentum across the rest of the world. Clever marketing people can secure enough online sales of ebooks to make the quota. But the sad truth is this:
I don’t know who came up with that number, or how they got it, but I assume its a mean average, based on my limited experience and communications with other authors. I imagine that if we looked at the median, if we were able to look at the median, the number would be much more dire. My guess would be around 50. I know authors aren’t always good at math, so for the sake of clarity, mean is the total number of sales divided by the total number of books in any given sample. Median is sorting the books in a line beside each other, and picking the one in the middle to see how many it sold. Again, this is for indie authors.
Now that I have your attention
Do I have your attention? Okay, then read carefully, because this paragraph is important. I’ll put it in one of those quote block things to emphasize the point:
"For an independent author, your lifetime sales for any book are directly dependent on the size of your platform, i.e. your fans and readership."
This might seem like a curse at first glance. You might be wondering why the hell you bothered to become an author. But this statement comes as a blessing in disguise. It means that as your readership grows, so will your book sales.
This is also true for trade published authors. Yes, they get the cool shelf space and a little media push, but publishers are doing less and less to push debut authors, which means at a certain level, it’s still on the author (specifically their platform) to make the book sell. They are further constrained by deadlines. In most cases, if you don’t earn out 12 months after release, your book goes out of print. (I have a friend this happened to, and it took years for him to get his rights back and self-publish his books)
Ever wonder why books are sorted by author name at the library? Because established authors are selling new books on their own reputation, not on clever marketing, or even that wonderful front table at Barnes and Noble. That table is for people who already have an audience walking in the door, who wish to say, “Hi, nice to see you again. I released another book. You should check it out.” Success with debut novels is much less, even on the new releases table.
But how do I build an audience?
You get off your ass, and get your book in as many hands as possible, by any means possible. Most often I get this question from authors hustling for every local sale they can get. “Most of my readers prefer buying the signed copy straight from me,” they say. That’s awesome, but by settling into that state of mind, you are automatically limiting your readership to those you can meet in person. And you’re spending your weekends sitting at a table instead of making use of your most available writing time to crank out more books. Your readership will grow, and indeed this is how a lone author attacked the process for years. Orwell is one example. Selling books out of the trunk of your car becomes your ONLY source of sales, even if the book is available everywhere online.
There’s a billion ways to build an audience, but these days, EVERYTHING is online. Like it or hate it, that’s where the waiting bookworms are. I can’t tell you what will or won’t work for your books. Every individual book, regardless of author/genre/etc has its own audience. Just because Joe liked your first book, doesn’t mean he won’t hate your next.
Historically, authors stuck to one genre, and it worked well to ensure that readers who already liked the author would continue to buy similar books. I’m probably wrong, but I don’t stick to that. I write across genre, perhaps intentionally, because my “ideal reader,” the target audience I wish to grab isn’t as influenced by genre as they are by my future forecasts, grit, and ideas to speculate on. My ideal reader wants to finish a book, and then think about the deeper context for the next three days. That’s who I write for. A niche audience. The biggest moment of my writing career to this point was when I found him.
One reader I’ve been communicating with (who I’ve never met before) reads books for the same reason that I write them, and now I think about him every time I sit down at the keyboard.
ONE reader. Your ideal target audience. Friends and fams are great, but finding that one true rabid fan who will assault his friends and family with your work is an irreplaceable asset.
Going from 1 to 1000
This is a long discussion. I gave one tactic in my prior example when I hit 61 on the Kindle Bestseller List for free ebooks. According the the updated history of that book, Amazon now claims it hit 58, but I didn’t get any screen-shots of that…so…
The point here, is regardless the audience you have now. Imagine there were 1000 people out there who bought everything you put out, forever. Each time you released a book, you immediately sold 1000 copies. Compare that idea to what you are doing now. Building a platform is more important than unit sales at a given marketplace or signing. It’s ALWAYS been more important, for EVERY product.
Here are some general ideas. These shouldn’t be seen as a to-do list, but rather a spark of ideas. You bring the tinder. Start with any one of them, and then figure out the best way to reach your ideal reader, and do whatever you can to ensure they read the book.
You might wonder what that weed is in the picture at the top of this post, or what it’s doing there. The plant is called mullein, or often “witch’s torch,” “devil’s torch,” “poor man’s flannel,” or any of fifty other common names. It grows like a lot of weeds, forming a basal rosette of leaves it’s first year after germination. The next year, it sends up that spike of flowers, quite aggressively. It builds a platform first, and then launches like crazy. One plant can spread as many as half a million seeds.
When I think about marketing, I think about that plant. It’s cozy, warm, comforting, and incredibly helpful. Smoke from the leaves has been said by some to alleviate lung conditions, and the flowers can help with ear aches. When mixed with other herbs in, say, a tea, it is said to enhance any medicinal effects, giving a boost to your soothing chamomile. (some people are allergic to the fuzzy stuff on the leaves, so I’m not recommending any of this directly)
The point here, the big picture, is that one plant, one book, or anything else can go viral, just like a tweet. Books take longer, as the virus has a long incubation period (they take a while to read). But a good book will spread, and it’s that spreading that we should be trying to facilitate, not one-off sales that must be repeated over and over. It’s not one plant in a garden that we should seek to be, but a noxious weed that keeps coming back, year after year after year.
Selling one/two/ten books per day, every day, all year, isn’t a marketing trick. No marketing platform exists that could sustain sales over time indefinitely, and operate at a profit. But, when your average rate of sharing (i.e. so and so recommended this, it’s awesome, you should read it too) is high enough to overcome diminishing returns from a marketing push, new readers will be seeing your book every day. Eventually it will find your target reader, and they’ll shoot you an email (or tweet, or message, or whatever). THESE are the fans you want, and the ones you should focus on.
You won’t find a thousand all at once, but gain them one at a time, and they’ll continue to support your work as long as you continue to put out books at the same level of awesome. And you will, because if there is one consistency I’ve noticed among authors, it’s that they get better at writing and storytelling with each book.
It isn’t going to happen overnight. Most creators work their ass off continually for 10-20 years before becoming an “overnight success,” if they get that far. When you find that wonderful reader who loves your book, welcome them with open arms. They are the best person you could ever hope to meet, and bonus: if they love your writing that much, it means you have something in common already. You have a common ground to forge a lasting friendship.
For the few “true fans” I have, I would do anything for them. We chat back and forth via email, and it isn’t always about books, or even anything literary at all. These are the people that see my vision and simply “get it.” Friendship comes easily.
So, to recap, here are the steps.
Write awesome book (and package it well – cover/blurb/etc)
Tell your existing audience and release book.
Make a push to get as many copies out over a short window as possible, even if it means giving the electronic version away for free. On trick is what I did in the post I mentioned earlier.
If it spreads (you will see residual sales start to trickle in on their own without additional advertising), then your book has some degree of awesomeness, and it is hunting for true fans so you don’t have to.
When your fans reach out to you, don’t be afraid to make friends. You’ll actually find it incredibly easy. Your book already broke the ice. A great book is the ultimate wing-man.
Hope you enjoyed the post. I think the scope on this one was a bit bigger than I prepared for, but if you gained some nuggets of wisdom, and the post was helpful, then I’ll call it a success. Lots to think about here, so feel free to ask questions in a comment or email, or just let me know what you think.
Originally published at writefarmlive.com on June 21, 2018.
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