On Writing,  publishing

The New World of Publishing: Counting Numbers

I’ve been wanting to do this article for some time now, but figured at the beginning of the year would be a great time to actually do it, as indie publishers are setting up new patterns. This is actually part five of the series I did through December. Bet you didn’t know there was going to be a part five. (grin)  Please read the first four first because this one will build on those four.

Part One: Some Perspective on 2012.

Part Two: How to Get Started Selling Fiction in 2013.

Part Three: Goals and Dreams.

Part Four: How to Keep Production Going All Year.

Now to Part Five: Counting Numbers

I bet a few of you wondered what happened to me the last week or so. Well, I’ve been enjoying myself reading all the year-end articles. And it has been fun, to be honest.

One moment I’m reading an article about how traditional publishing is crashing, the next moment I’m reading an article about the profits traditional publishing is making.

Or I read an article about how B&N is failing, the next I read a report on how solid they are.

Or I read a report about how some indie writers are booming, and then I read articles about how everything is flat.

Or I read a report about how books sales in bookstores are down, then read another where bookstore sales are up some huge percentage.

(And I flat refused to read any of the silliness that comes with any mention of Amazon. I don’t even bother with that stupidity. Hate them or love them, I could not care, but take your comments about Amazon somewhere else, please.)

So what really is happening in publishing, both traditional and indie and in the bookstores?

— More indie bookstores are in existence at the start of this year than last year and the number has grown for the last four years. (From the ABA.)

— More writers are indie publishing and more writers are using indie publishing to get to traditional publishing. The battle between indie and traditional published writers was short-lived (only a couple of years) and only writers with heads stuck deep in the sand now miss that you can do both indie and traditional and should do both, depending on each project. And major writer’s backlists are flooding into the market finally.

— A large share of traditional publishers had years with growth. There are a few large publishers in trouble, but that’s normal and there are mergers, but that is also normal. In other words, traditional publishing is in a state of normal. They must make some changes as time goes by, but most are already on the move.

— International Electronic sales are exploding. Kobo and iBookstore swept out over the planet and now have stores in at least 50 countries each. Both have very deep pockets. Amazon is slowly expanding out around the world, but in the States their ebook sales have decreased in percentage of total ebook sale to just over 50%. B&N lags behind sadly internationally, moving only slightly into England.

— Dedicated ebook reader sales are declining as tablet sales increase. The hoped-for boom in electronic sales of ebooks did not happen this holiday season, instead only advancing at moderate levels, meaning normal levels.

We are in the new normal for publishing and it’s looking like ebook sales will level around 30% of all trade sales. Stunning growth considering it happened in five-seven years. About twenty years faster than it took the mass market paperback to hit the same percentage. (The percentages will, of course, change with genre and type of book, some higher, some lower.)

— Kobo is moving into indie bookstores with a very unique program that might be a game-changer for both indie bookstores and Kobo in the States. They have already rolled out the first stage in some of the biggest indie stores. Smaller stores coming online early this year. This will benefit everyone, traditional publishers and indie publishers, if it works.

— Some indie distributors are springing up to help indie publishers get books into bookstores. I have heard of three, but in a month or so I’ll talk about a special one to me. Stay tuned.

— A huge caution to indie publishers. Exclusive, no matter in what form or for what reason, is your enemy in this new world and this new year. The world has become a place to sell in hundreds of different markets and forms. Distributors (both paper and electronic) will try to rope you into exclusive agreements. Don’t go for any of them. And don’t let a traditional publisher rope you into a contract that will force you to write only what they want when they want it. The phrase for 2013 should be “Spread Out.”

So I have a few start-of-the-year suggestions

for Indie Publishers.

1… Stop thinking of this as a gold rush. We are now in the new normal.

2… Price your electronic books so that they look like traditional publishers, only slightly cheaper. Meaning get your price of your electronic books to the $5.99 to $7.99 range.

3… Do trade paper books for your novels, short novels, and collections. (A $17.99 trade paper makes your $7.99 electronic book look downright cheap.)

4… Make sure you learn how to do professional book design for all your covers and professional interiors on paper books. (It is not that hard, honest.)

5… Think ten years or more. For every project. Why? Do the math. You want to make $10,000 on your book. (If you sold it to New York with an agent for $10,000, you would make $8,500 and the publisher would own your book for at least ten years if not a lot longer.)  So if you want to keep your book in your control and make $10,000 in ten years on that book, it needs to sell an average of $1,000 per year.  That means you need to make about $84.00 per month on your book from all sites around the world, including your paper copies. If you make about $4.00 per sale, you need to sell 21 books in all places, including paper, per month to make $10,000 in ten years.

6… Write the next book. Always focus toward the writing and stop the silliness of promotion. Your next book will sell your previous books better than any Twitter blitz. Again, think long term, at least ten years, and keep learning.

7… Learn how to count your sales like a publisher… see below.

Counting the Numbers

Over the last number of weeks, I’ve talked with a lot of writers who think their sales are bad. Meaning really bad and they are depressed. So for the first couple of these writers talking to me wondering what was wrong, I asked the question, “How many copies of all your books did you sell over the entire year.”

I knew full well that because of Smashwords ancient accounting practices, those numbers will not be complete until the middle of February for 2012. But after every writer I asked didn’t even know the start of that answer and looked at me with a puzzled look, I stopped asking that question.

— Writers think in terms of one book and one month.

— Publishers think in terms of all of their inventory sales over either a quarter or a half-year or a year.

So, for one more part of this series of articles I have been putting together this December and January, let me give my suggestions as to how to count your sales numbers in 2013.

Factors to take into account.

1) Short stories and collections do not sell as well as novels of varied length. They sell, but at lower numbers and much slower. Adjust your expectations.

2) Some genres sell better than others. If you are comparing your science fiction novel sales to a friend’s erotica novel sales, all you will do is be upset at your low sales. Again, adjust your expectations.

3) Quality professional-looking covers help. Good blurbs help. Good formatting and proofing help.

4) Quality storytelling is everything. If you are not constantly working and learning and trying to become a better storyteller and entertainer, give it up now.

5) Numbers of products are everything as well. Again, think ten years out. Traditional publishing did not build those huge buildings in New York on a few books. Work to get as many titles in print in as many forms and selling in as many places as possible. That can’t be done in a month.

How to Count?

— Total up every sale on every book from January 1st to December 31st.  That will get you a total sales count for your entire indie publishing business. It might surprise you.

— Total up how much money you made for the same period of time. (Divide that number by 12 to see your average monthly income.)

— Divide the total number of sales into the total amount of money to get an average of income per sale.

Then for 2013 stop looking at your numbers, keep track of your money every month, and look at it again at the beginning of 2014 to see how you have improved.

Yeah, right, every indie publisher reading this shouted “But…!” So at least hold it to a month check-in and total all your sales for ALL YOUR BOOKS for the entire month. Record it and forget it.

And don’t break apart your genre books from your nonfiction books from your erotica book. Just count them all.

Some factors to keep the disappointment in perspective if your numbers are very low.

— If you are a new writer, let me simply say, duh. Of course they are going to be low. You only have ten or twenty things out and you haven’t learned how to tell a story yet that a ton of people want to read. Keep writing and keep focusing on learning, you’ll get there if you keep working at it for a number of years. Realize that most of us in the old days made NO MONEY at all for years and years and years. Consider yourself lucky you have this new world and you are making even coffee money.

— If you have been writing for a a number of years and your numbers are still low and you have between 50 and 100 things published, check these questions:

— How many pen names did you spread your work out under?

— How many of your total inventory is short fiction?

— How do your covers and blurbs really look?

All of those will be factors. (Another historical perspective… I sold my first novel in 1987 and about fifteen short stories and made just over $7,000 that year. So low is relative to a growth pattern.)

Check to see if you are only selling on a few sites. If you don’t have paper editions, if you are only on Amazon and Pubit and haven’t yet gone direct to Kobo or iBookstore, you are cutting your sales. Maybe, just maybe your low sales are a self-inflicted wound.

Check your electronic book pricing. If you are still buying into the garbage of the discount 99 cent book or story, you are causing your own bad sales. Wake up. That was so 2010.

And finally, check your expectations with ten year accounting calculations. A decent genre advance these days is between $3,000 and $8,000 in traditional publishing. And they will hold the book at least ten years. Do the math if you are writing genre books.

If you think selling 20 books average per month of all your titles across all sites is bad and your average price is $5.99, you really need to have an attitude adjustment. Get a friend to tap you gently on the top of the head until wake you up and realize your sales are just fine and you need to keep writing and get more books out.


2013 is the first year of the new normal.

Indie books are on shelves right beside all other books from quality small presses to medium publishers to the big publishers. You must be able to tell a great story, have enough product, and have the book look good and be priced right.  Otherwise, your book gets skipped over.

And if you are thinking right now, “I should do more promotion to get my books noticed.” Or “How will I get my books noticed among all the other books?” My answer to you is simply this:

Write better stories.

Keep learning how to write better stories.

And write more of them.

And write stories readers want to read.

The readers will find you. That’s the way it has always worked if you act like a professional publisher with your own work.

Now total up your numbers for 2012, file them away, and work on the next story or book.

Keep learning. And don’t forget to have fun.


Copyright © 2012 Dean Wesley Smith

Cover art copyright Philcold/Dreamstime

This chapter is now part of my inventory in my Magic Bakery.  

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