Monday, April 20, 2009

The truth about having a bestselling paperback

I've been reading Lynn Viehl's novels for several years. No matter what genre she's working in her work is fresh and vital. This morning she published an excellent piece about how a recent novel of hers--one of the The Darkyn series, which is a rich dark fantasy series--became #19 on the NY Times list.

(Theanks to GenReality)

The Reality of a Times Bestseller

A few years ago I made a promise to my writer friends that if I ever had a novel hit the top twenty of the New York Times mass market bestseller list that I would share all the information I was given about the book so writers could really see what it takes to get there. Today I’m going to keep that promise and give you the stats on my sixth Darkyn novel, Twilight Fall.

We’ve all been told a lot of myths about what it takes to reach the top twenty list of the NYT BSL. What I was told: you have to have an initial print run of 100-150K, you have to go to all the writer and reader conferences to pimp the book, you can’t make it unless you go to certain bookstores during release week and have a mass signing or somehow arrange for a lot of copies to be sold there; the list is fixed, etc.

I’ve never had a 100K first print run. I don’t do book signings and I don’t order massive amounts of my own books from certain bookstores (I don’t even know which bookstores are the magic ones from whom the Times gets their sales data.) I do very little in the way of promotions for my books; for this one I gave away some ARCs, sent some author copies to readers and reviewers, and that was about it. I haven’t attended any conference since 2003. To my knowledge there was no marketing campaign for this book; I was never informed of what the publisher was going to do for it (as a high midlist author I probably don’t rate a marketing campaign yet.) I know they did some blog ads for the previous book in the series, but I never saw anything online about this particular book. No one offered to get me on the Times list, either, but then I was never told who to bribe, beg or otherwise convince to fix the list (I don’t think there is anyone who really does that, but you never know.)

Despite my lack of secret handshakes and massive first print runs, in July 2008 my novel Twilight Fall debuted on the Times mm list at #19. I’ll tell you exactly why it got there: my readers put it there. But it wasn’t until last week that I received the first royalty statement (Publishing is unbelievably slow in this department) so I just now put together all the actual figures on how well the book did.

To give you some background info, Twilight Fall had an initial print run of 88.5K, and an initial ship of 69K. Most readers, retailers and buyers that I keep in touch with e-mailed me to let me know that the book shipped late because of the July 4th holiday weekend. Another 4K was shipped out two to four weeks after the lay-down date, for a total of 73K, which means there were 15.5K held in reserve in the warehouse in July 2008.

Here is the first royalty statement for Twilight Fall, on which I’ve only blanked out Penguin Group’s address. Everything else is exactly as I’ve listed it. To give you a condensed version of what all those figures mean, for the sale period of July through November 30, 2008. my publisher reports sales of 64,925 books, for which my royalties were $40,484.00. I didn’t get credit for all those sales, as 21,140 book credits were held back as a reserve against possible future returns, for which they subtracted $13,512.69 (these are not lost sales; I’m simply not given credit for them until the publisher decides to release them, which takes anywhere from one to three years.)

My net earnings on this statement was $27,721.31, which was deducted from my advance. My actual earnings from this statement was $0.

My advance for Twilight Fall was $50,000.00, a third of which I did not get paid until the book physically hit the shelf — this is now a common practice by publishers, to withhold a portion of the advance until date of publication. Of that $50K, my agent received $7,500.00 as her 15% (which she earns, believe me) the goverment received roughly $15,000.00, and $1594.27 went to cover my expenses (office supplies, blog giveaways, shipping, promotion, etc.) After expenses and everyone else was paid, I netted about $26K of my $50K advance for this book, which is believe it or not very good — most authors are lucky if they can make 10% profit on any book. This should also shut up everyone who says all bestselling authors make millions — most of us don’t.

My next royalty statement for Twilight Fall probably won’t come until October or November 2009, but when it does I’ll post copies of it so you can see what a top twenty Times bestseller does in the first year after it’s released.

In Publishing telling the truth about earnings smashes the illusions publishers and writers want you to believe and, like breaking mirrors, it never brings you good luck. Thing is, when I was a rookie I wanted to know exactly what it took to have a top twenty Times bestselling novel, because that was such a big deal to writers. Everyone I asked gave me a different answer, told me a bunch of nonsense, or couldn’t/wouldn’t tell me at all. For that reason I want you to see the hard figures, and know the reality, and the next time someone asks you what it takes, you can tell them the truth.


Phantom of Pulp said...

The truth never hurts as much as drip fed illusion.

Thanks for posting about this, Ed.

The film biz is pretty much the same deal.

Only a few are making millions.

Dave Zeltserman said...

Ed, it shouldn't be that much of a surprise. For a paperback it's about 50 cents a book, so you sell 80K copies, that's about 40K royalties. That's why Hardcovers and trade paperbacks can be better--gives you a better chance of selling foreign rights, plus larger royalties per unit. Anyway, 50K advance for a mass paperback isn't anything to sneeze at.

RJR said...

I agree with Dave. $50K for a paperback is damn good, but I know Lynn had to write a butt load of books before she worked her way up to $50K. Non-writers should not think that a writer STARTS a career getting $50K for a paperback original. Not many do, and not many ever work their way up that high.

Good for Lynn, and congrats to her for getting to #19.


Ed Gorman said...

Absolutely, Bob. Lynn is not only a fine writer but one hell of a good person. Congratulations again, Lynn!

charlie stella said...

I netted about $26K of my $50K advance for this book, which is believe it or not very good — most authors are lucky if they can make 10% profit on any book. This helps explain my netting -$10K on my $8K advance ... then again, I sold about 11 books.

Actually, thanks for the info (not that I'll ever see those numbers) but it is very interesting (and educational) to see it's as screwy up there as it is down here.

And Congrats for making the list!

Martin Edwards said...

I must admit I've never heard of Lynn or her books before, but I found this a truly impressive and fascinating article. Thanks to her for being so frank and to you, Ed, for giving it space on your blog.

Rabid Fox said...

Great post. Aside from realizing the chances of getting published are somewhere in the range of 20,000:1 (I think that's the going ratio), I have no delusions of striking it rich with the first novel either. It's all about perspective, I suppose. :)