Monday, June 6, 2011

What Happens When The Chains Won't Carry You

In the last few months I’ve seen a number of authors worried about what it means for their career when the Big Chains don’t carry their book. Many fear it sounds the death knell for their future, so I thought I would show a couple of actual, numerical examples of where it didn’t sound the death of a career. Namely, mine. One will be actual sales numbers, the other percentages.

[Please note, exposing my own sales numbers is not my idea of fun, but I have no one else’s to go by. Also? You will quickly see that this is by no means a brag-fest. Far from it. But, I am a true believer in the power of information and solid data as a vital tool in helping an author manage their career. Your mileage may, of course, vary.]

THE FORGING OF THE BLADE came out in Oct of 2004. It was envisioned as a young chapter book geared toward 2nd – 4th grade boys who wanted to read fantasy adventure books; a Lord of the Rings for the 8 year old set. Suffice it to say, it did not set the publishing world on fire. One year later, the hardback had sold a whopping 3,500 copies, 500 of those through the chains. So even with those paltry sales numbers, the chain percentage of overall sales was pretty small (14%).

However, the way to publishing success is often paved with happy accidents. About a month after that royalty statement, the (rather startling) announcement was made that FORGING OF THE BLADE would appear on that year’s Texas Library Association’s Bluebonnet List. I know you have heard that those state reading lists can breathe life into a book, but let me show you just exactly how much life . . .

The book went into a 3rd printing and I ultimately ended up selling nearly 15,000 hardback copies of the book. Which are still not Middle Grade Rock Star numbers, but they are a heckuva lot better than 3,500! Even so, only about a third of those were through the chains.

The paperback went on to sell over 26,000 copies and unfortunately my royalty statement for the paperback sales doesn’t break down the chain numbers. However, 11,000 of those sales were through a book club (for which I earned a whopping $773—or seven cents per book. Yes, that’s right, seven cents. Book club sales are terrific for exposure, but not exactly money makers.) Overall paperback sales were just under double of what the hardcover did.

This particular book has sold very few copies over the last couple of years and I expect it will be going out of print any day now, which is one of the reasons I’m so willing to share all the sales data. ☺

With THEODOSIA AND THE SERPENTS OF CHAOS, because it's still in print and selling strongly, I don’t know how kindly my publisher would take to me broadcasting the numbers far and wide, so for this one I’m going to talk in percentages rather than hard sales figures. But the point will still be made.

When the book first came out, one of the chains had placed a big initial order for the book while the second chain ordered zero copies. Of course, I panicked. Surely I would be handicapped from the starting gate!

But once again, that did not prove to be the case. To date, my chain store sales of that title are about 7%. Yep, 7%. And the paperback is now in its 5th printing. Clearly the less-than-stellar performance in the chains did not kill the book. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago I found out the books are going to be published in Turkey! That's the seventh or eighth foreign country Theo will be visiting, and I think it's really interesting when you realize the book's been out since 2007, but happy accidents keep happening.

In order to hit a bestseller list such as NYT or the PW bestsellers, yes, you would absolutely need to be well represented in the chains. But as we talked about before, that is not the only path to success for middle grade books.

So please let this be heartening to all of you who worry and fret that without the chains your careers are in a deadly downward spiral! It is most definitely not the case.

Also, if there are any other authors with similar stories and percentages, feel free to leave an anonymous comment with your percentages/numbers if you’d like. Although of course, there’s no requirement. ☺

Next week we’ll talk about what does sell middle grade.


Tonja said...

It is really sweet and brave to share this with us. I laughed out loud at 7 cents a book, but I would be thrilled to make 1 cent right now. It's good to keep all the measures of success in perspective. Thanks! :)

liz michalski said...

I second Tonja - thanks so much for sharing this. Shrinking Violets is such a fabulous source of information of all kinds, and I really appreciate it.

vaughnroycroft said...

Liz (above) turned me on to Shrinking Violet Promotions, and I'm grateful. So appreciate the look behind the veil this post provides. I'm still unpublished, but given the shrinking size of the Fantasy/Scifi sections, and their growing proximity to the rear/bathrooms of the chains, I have never had much faith I would be able to rely on them for sales (at best an endcap visible to folks returning from relieving themselves?). Thanks for confirming the chains aren't the end all/be all of sales performance.

Gerri L said...

* Wow, Robin, I appreciate you sharing your book experiences. Although I'm a long way from having to deal with all that I'll keep your sound words in mind.

Jocelyn said...

Thanks for your bravery in sharing this. Though I'm still unpublished, I love these glimpses into the way the business runs. I think it's helping me go in with realistic expectations.

R.L. LaFevers said...

Thank you for your supportive words, everyone! It does feel a bit like standing on a street corner in one's your kind words are much appreciated.

Vaughn, I'm laughing at your observation of the shelving strategies for SF&F! Although honesty compels me to admit my knowledge is really limited to MG books, so adult genres might be different. BUT SF/F does have a lot of specialty indie support, and I also think that because that readership demographic is so technologically oriented, that e-sales are a big part of that particular pie.

kathrynjankowski said...

Thanks for sharing. I had no idea Book Club sales were so discounted!

I will confess I'm ignorant as to why a publisher would object to your posting sales figures, though.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this information!

I think sales figures are what they call an "open secret" anyway. I have seen numbers for books that were stocked by chains that were not as high as yours!

I'd like to know how you know what percentage of your sales came from the chain stores. I haven't seen any source that breaks it down that way. My royalty statements aren't that detailed, and Bookscan isn't either. Did your publisher tell you that? Did you have to request that information?

Kim Baker said...

Thanks for sharing, Robin! I won't know for a while whether the chains will carry my book or not, but of course I'm already thinking about it. This was a heartening post!

Crystal-Rain Love said...

Thanks for sharing this! It's so hard to find this kind of info! Were either of your books released in electronic format? It'd be interesting to know how those sales figured in.

Robin L said...

Kathryn, I think a publisher might not be keen on it because so much of marketing is smoke and mirrors and there is nothing that takes the allure and mystery out of that as much as cold, hard figures and I don't want to do anything that makes them feel as if I'm fighting their efforts or making their jobs harder for them. :-)

Anon--you're right about the open secret part. Anyone who has unlimited access to Bookscan can find out a good estimate. Also, PW publishes an annual list of bestsellers with sales figures attached.

As for how I know, the royalty statements from both publishers break out sales by discount (at least on the HC) and then I was further able to confirm when I saw the big initial orders, and subsequent big returns! come through on those discount lines. And since they were only carried by one chain, it made it pretty easy.

So glad you found the post heartening, Kim! That was exactly my intent!

Solvang Sherrie said...

What a bummer to only make 7¢ per book! Geez!

It's amazing how much of a difference it made to have The Forging of the Blade on the Bluebonnet List. I'm thrilled to say I own a hard cover copy of it. I need to remember to have you sign it sometime. Make it more of a collector's item :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this info! Like you say, information is power.

Since I'm posting anonymously, I'll share that my two MG books released in the past few years (from one of the "Big 6") did not end up in the chains either. Both of them had HC sales around 3500 for the first year.

But since they haven't ended up on any big lists, I don't expect they're going to sell much more. I've already been told they won't be put out in paperback because of low sales. It's definitely a tough and disheartening market!

But it's fascinating & heartening to see the effect of one of the big state lists! I tell myself all I can do is keep writing and hope I hit on something that is strong enough to get more attention and word-of-mouth. I really do think that's what can really give a book life.

It is reassuring to see careers like yours that have been continuing to build and flourish! It gives me hope!

Vonna said...

"It does feel a bit like standing on a street corner in one's underwear.." You look fabulous! Thanks for sharing this!

kristinwoldennitz said...

My books haven't made it into the chains, but I have to say that making it onto a couple of smaller state lists made a very nice little sales bump. In my case, it was less than 4000 additional copies. But it was so cool to know that my books would be on a special shelf where kids would be more likely to reach for them.

R.L. LaFevers said...

I will be happy to sign it Sherrie! And thank you for being one of the few who bought TFOTB!

Anon, that is SO hard when they don't bring the book out in paperback! The funny thing is, whenever this has happened to me, I've been told it was due to lack of sales. Yet, whenever my book has gone on to be published in paperback, the decision was made before the HC even came out, so I'm perplexed by the whole thing. And thank you for letting me know this sort of information is helpful (hopeful!) for you. That makes sharing it much more comfortable for me!

LOL Vonna! You are such a Miss Smartypants! :-)

Kristin, you are right--there is really nothing that compares to the knowledge that kids will be reaching for our books. Whether in large numbers or small, that is the whole reason we are doing this! And congrats on your state list!

Kimberley Griffiths Little said...

Thank you SO much for sharing your private numbers with us, darling Robin! I'm praying with all my might for some of them good ole state lists for The Healing Spell. They make a huge difference for keeping a MG alive. So my theory is that I don't think chains make a big difference for MG, but I do think they can make or break a YA novel. YA's are not picked up by libraries or book fairs as much so authors/publishers rely heavily on the chains for YA.