How Can You Tell How Well Your Book is Selling?

Mark Polino asked: Can you suggest ways for an author to tell how well their book is selling?

This is sometimes a tough one for authors. The most reliable way to keep track of sales is through your royalty statements, but as you know, those come infrequently, and it can be frustrating having to wait so long to get a solid idea of how well your book is doing. You can keep track of your Amazon rankings, but that’s completely useless when it comes to hard numbers.

The best way to find out your sales is from your publisher. Periodically, your agent can request a sales update from them, although we want to avoid being an annoying pest simply because the author is curious. Also, authors need to be aware that any “sales figure” you are given apart from royalty statements needs to be taken with a grain of salt because they can be inaccurate.

First, “sales figures” can refer to different things – either the “sell in” or the “sell through,” which are two entirely different figures. You need to know what you’re asking for, and what you’re getting. (See this post for explanation of sell-in and sell-through.)

Second, sales figures given by the publisher could be accurate for the moment, but in the long run be entirely wrong, because (for example) the publisher may have sold-in 3,000 copies to Barnes & Noble, but in two months, B&N could return 2,000 of them. For obvious reasons, publishers are hesitant to give out a number to an author that could very well end up to be totally wrong, leading to the author having unrealistic expectations, and frustration (or even anger) when those expectations aren’t met.

Besides the publisher itself, the best way to track book sales is through Bookscan, the company that tracks book sales. It’s far from a perfect system since it doesn’t track every single copy sold, and there are some major outlets that Bookscan doesn’t track, but it’s the best we have. However, Bookscan is prohibitively expensive to subscribe to, so it’s unlikely you as a writer will find it worthwhile to pay for it just so you can know your sales week to week. I am aware that certain writers’ organizations such as RWA offer less expensive Bookscan subscriptions to their members, so if you’re a member of a writers’ group, it wouldn’t hurt to ask.

So, how do you know how well your book is selling? The answer for most writers is that you can get a general picture by watching Amazon, bestseller lists, and maybe getting an update from your publisher every couple of months; but you’re never going to get exact numbers until your royalty statement arrives.

(c) 2010 Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

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  • Jody Hedlund

    >Was just wondering about this, Rachelle. Maybe in some ways, the inability to easily access sales stats is a good thing. If we could readily track it, then I could see myself getting worried about it, or even getting carried away with checking all the time! Perhaps in this case, ignorance is bliss. One less thing to take our attention away from writing good books.

  • Katie Ganshert

    >I always wondered about this. Can any Joe Shmoe look at sales rankings on Amazon? Or only the authors? Just curious. :)

    • http://www.vglee.co.uk V. G. Lee

      Anyone can see the ranking on Amazon. Just scroll half-way down the relevant page.

  • Sharon A. Lavy

    >Good questions. I wait for Rachelle's answers along with you first commenters.

  • Timothy Fish

    >I suppose they finally gave up trying, but a few years ago there were some people who spent a lot of time trying to equate Amazon.com sale rank to actual book sales. There’s simply no way to get that information from that one little number. Self published authors have access to actual books sold whenever they want to look at it. So an author can keep track of how many books he has sold each and every day, if he wants to, but it seems to me that being that concerned about how many books are selling is a complete waste of time. It is hard to know which marketing campaign produced the increase in book sales, so I see little point in worrying about it.

  • Ishta Mercurio

    >This is a great post. I agree that if I knew how to check my sales numbers, I'd probably do it constantly, so it's probably better for me that I can't do that. I imagine that there is something liberating about knowing that your book is on the shelves, out there, and you don't have to worry about it anymore, so you can really move on to the next book.

    To answer Katie's question, if you're talking about Amazon's Sales Ranking, then yes, any Joe Schmoe can look at that. Anytime you click on a book icon on Amazon's website and go to the page for that book (the one that gives a brief description, the cost, has the button so you can buy the book, has customer reviews, has publisher and media reviews, etc.) it's there, at the bottom of the list of industry info (number of pages, ISBN number, publisher, etc.).

  • Richard Mabry

    >If you'd like to keep a running track of your book's Amazon sales ranking, you can use the free utility, Title Z (you can Google it for the exact URL). After setting up a free account, you can see the position of your book in graphic display, and can even compare it with sales of other comparable books. (Unfortunately, that action may cause deep depression if your friend's book is outselling yours).

    One further word of caution: the Amazon ranking doesn't include all the other avenues of sales, so it's just an incomplete indicator.

  • Marla Taviano

    >A sweet gal at my publishing house has always given me my most recent sales figures anytime I ask. I do try not to ask more than once every two months or so. And, now that I think about it, I probably haven't asked in over a year.

    And yes, finding out that your sales figures have gone DOWN is nothing but depressing.

  • Phoenix

    >For obvious reasons, publishers are hesitant to give out a number to an author that could very well end up to be totally wrong, leading to the author having unrealistic expectations, and frustration (or even anger) when those expectations aren't met.

    Wow. Um, just wow. The business world runs on sales numbers and data. Even stockholders get more frequent updates than do authors. As long as the data is accompanied by the usual disclaimers of forward-looking statements, et al, why houses don't more readily share business data with the affected parties is beyond me. The thinking that it might make someone who is naive about the process angry has no real place in a business.

    And precisely because that information is not available is why any marketing campaign the author launches can't be accurately tracked. Without being able to determine when book sales spike after which campaign or be able to attach campaign indicators to the books (special urls or passcodes for online ordering or whatever), is why marketing does feel like shooting in the dark. To place the onus of marketing on the author and then deny them the tools to do it well? How is that justified?

    The technology is in place to revolutionize the way publishing has traditionally worked. Freer exchange of information and competitive intelligence and more visibility into available data is a big part of what's driving other industries forward. It's really time for the blinders to come off. I for one would be happy to see this industry hauled into the 21st century.

  • Timothy Fish

    >"(Unfortunately, that action may cause deep depression if your friend's book is outselling yours).
    "

    In that case, I've been doing my public service of keeping other authors out of depression.

  • Britt Mitchell

    >I'm not published, so I have thousands of questions. This was one of them(rather presumptious, don't you think?)

    If I were published, and had a simple, counter-type gadget to magically tally my sales, I'd never get anything done!

    So I guess this complex process is for the best.

    ~Britt Mitchell

  • Rachelle

    >Phoenix: Sorry, I may have been unclear. It's not like anyone's trying to hide information from anyone else. The fact is, accurate information is hard to come by, especially in the first couple of months after a book releases. Yes, there's plenty of technology in place so that we can theoretically have up-to-the-minute sales information. However, you must remember that unlike almost any other industry out there, the book business allows RETURNS. This is the wild card that makes the sales figures fluctuate constantly.

    In this environment, where many authors ARE naive and/or have unrealistic expectations, publishers have to be careful about what numbers they toss around.

    But like Marla said above, most publishers will give you the latest figures if you ask.

  • T. Anne

    >I plan on obsessing over my Amazon rankings as much as possible once my novel hits the shelves. I'm nurturing my OCD for just such an occasion.

  • Beth

    >Curious about the agent take on this:

    In Jim Denney's book, Quit Your Day Job, he suggests that if you already have an interested publisher who wants to sign a contract for your book, that you immediately contact an agent if you desire one and don't have one already. I confess, this never occurred to me. He thinks at this juncture you should:

    1. Call or email an agent (rather than writing) immediately.
    2. Offer them 10% to negotiate the contract only, since you already got a publisher interested so part of the work is done.

    I'm very curious to find out what an agent would think of this. Jim Denney said it was like found money for the agent. Do you agree?

  • Rachelle

    >Beth, I don't agree with Denney on all counts. It's not "found money" for an agent – it's still a bunch of work. Selling that initial proposal to a publisher is only the first step in an agent/client relationship. There is a LOT more to it, starting with negotiating that contract, and going all the way through the publishing process and hopefully beyond, to subsequent books.

    Most agents take this kind of situation on a case-by-case basis. I still evaluate the project and the author, and consider whether I'd represent it even if it weren't already contracted. I look at whether I think the author has long-term potential, etc. I often say "no" to these situations.

    Some agents will reduce their percentage if the project is already sold, and some won't. I typically won't reduce my percentage from the standard 15%. Either we're in it together for the long haul, or we're not. That's my take.

  • Randy Susan Meyers

    >Not sure how entirely accurate it is, but novelrank.com correlates one's Amazon ranking (Kindle and Books) to numbers sold.

  • Erin MacPherson

    >Thanks for this Rachelle… I always wondered how to find out how a book sells.

  • Phoenix

    >Thanks, Rachelle. I do understand about the returns conundrum. What I don't understand is why at least the larger houses don't make the numbers not only readily available to agents and authors, but make them available on a periodic basis so that they can be analyzed for marketing impact. Returns would show up as minuses and actual sales as pluses. It doesn't take an MBA to figure out the fluctuations whether you see them happening in real-time or every 6 months.

    It's like the stock market. You don't expect to earn out except over the long haul, but the day-to-day fluctuations, if read properly, can tell you a lot about the state of the economy or what the general public is feeling.

    You shouldn't have to feel like you are "bothering" them to ask for sales numbers, should you? It doesn't take much to create a simple tool that automatically emails out individualized reports on a weekly – or even daily – basis. Authors would see only their numbers; agents the numbers of all their clients.

    Or make the tool web-based and let authors and agents have access to their personal information ad-hoc. If publishers are getting numbers from somewhere, those numbers must be feeding into their systems. Feeding them back out securely and on an eyes-only basis is a fairly simple software trick. And, compared to the time spent answering author and agent pleas for data, since the process is automated once it's been set up, the cost would be repaid quickly in man-time saved.

  • Amy Dawson Robertson

    >Still waiting on my first royalty statement… I agree that it's difficult to tell much from your Amazon ranking — but there are a bunch of ways to view the data — I wrote about this topic on Elizabeth Spann Craig's blog a while back — take a peek if you're interested. :-)

    http://mysterywritingismurder.blogspot.com/2010/04/writers-obsessions-with-amazon-sales.html

  • Anonymous

    >Genial post and this mail helped me alot in my college assignement. Gratefulness you on your information.

  • harold willett

    A publisher can tell you that your book hasnt sold one copy,so how would i find out if thats the truth since he seems to be the only one that can find out that info.I would think the author should have the same rights as his publisher in finding out about his own book sales,but im told he cannot,is this true and if not how can i as the author of that book find out.My book could have sold 1000 copies and i could be told its sold none right?So what can authors like myself do?Thanks.

  • harold willett

    I would like to know what i can do because my publisher tells me i havent ever sold any books and i know this to be untrue.I havent ever received anything showing me that and have made several request.What can i do to find out and then to take this into my own hands.Thank you.

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