I’ve been procrastinating writing this post for a while, but since I’ve got a new book out at the end of the month, I figured this is the perfect time to explain how much a big release week helps an author. Hint. Hint.
These terms have come up a few times in various other discussions and I’ve been asked why they are important. When I do these writing posts I either go artsy or crunchy. This stuff is all crunch. I’ve talked about them a little before, but today I want to get into the nuts and bolts of books sales. This isn’t about how to marketing, I’ve done other posts about that, but rather this is background about why we have to do marketing.
The impression I get is that many traditionally published authors think that this is the stuff the marketing people will handle for them. Maybe. But it helps for you to have a clue because for most authors, even traditional, you are your own marketing department. Self-published authors have to figure this stuff out in order to differentiate themselves from the herd. However, this post is going to be aimed more at the traditional, physical stores side of publishing, because you can’t rip the covers off and return electrons.
When we talk about velocity we mean the speed that a book sells. Books that sit in inventory forever have poor velocity. Books that sell quickly and get reordered have good velocity.
Ending up on bestseller lists is all about velocity, not total sales, but I’ll talk more about that later. Getting reordered and restocked is all about sales velocity. Basically, velocity is why I do Book Bombs for people. Selling more in a short period is better, because the book gets noticed more as a result.
In order to continue existing bookstores must move product. Their shelf space is for selling. Any shelf space that isn’t selling is a financial waste to them. If Author A’s books are selling, then that store is making money off of the section of space they’ve allocated to him. If Author B’s books aren’t selling, then they are making zero money. And when that happens, they will take some of B’s space to give more to A. If B doesn’t hurry and sell books, then pretty soon he’s not going to have any shelf space because they’ll allocate it to those authors who sell.
It is better to sell quickly than slowly. This is basic accounting (which is probably why I love it). It takes money to buy inventory. Inventory that turns over gives you more money to do things like pay the rent and order more books. Inventory that sits there longer represents money that is tied up. (and yes, for the hard core, I know that publishing is far more complicated with really weird distribution models between publishers and stores, but I’m trying to keep this simple).
So if you turn over constantly, stores tend to like you, and will order more. The more shelf space they give you, the more new people are likely to see your stuff. Success breeds success.
Here is an example. A bookstore orders 3 copies of your first novel. If all of them sell in the first week, then the bookstore is probably going to reorder 3 more. Then when your second novel comes out, they’ll look at their prior sales, and instead of ordering 3, they’ll order 6. Do this for decades, and it is why new James Patterson or Dean Koontz novels are delivered to your local book stores on pallets.
But if those 3 copies of your first novel sat on the shelf for months before selling, then the store probably didn’t bother to restock when it finally does sell. They may or may not order 3 copies of your second, but either way they’re not super excited about you.
I’ve been inside about 300 book stores since I started my professional writing career in 2009. I can usually tell how well I’m doing at any particular store even before I talk to any of the employees, just by going by where my books are and seeing how much space they give me on their shelves. A couple of books means that I don’t do well at that store. Five or six books tells me I’m okay. Eight or ten tells me I’m kicking ass in that town. If the books are faced out, that means I’ve got somebody on staff who is a fan (and that is incredibly important).
Having fans working at book stores is amazing. Take for example B&N. I’ve been in literally hundreds of B&Ns. In a store where nobody on staff is a fan, I might sell tens of books a year. In a store where I’ve got fans, I sell hundreds. Staff hand selling books to customers makes a huge difference. I’m talking order of magnitude difference. So be nice to your book store employees!
Then I can look from the Cs over to B, and see that Butcher has his own shelf, if not a shelf and a half. Why? Because he consistently sells everywhere. That is good, safe real estate for the store that will turn over and make money for them. Back when True Blood was the big thing on cable, I saw authors complaining how much space those novels took up on the shelves. Well too damned bad, because those books sold like hot cakes, and got customers in the door.
Velocity tapers off. But the bigger the initial impact, the longer it takes to taper off. After a bit the hotness cools, then hopefully the book just keeps selling (I think MHI is in its 9th printing). But normally an author makes most of their money during that initial burst. However, as we’ve talked about before, you get a mini boost for all your existing books each time you turn out a new one.
This is how velocity gets extra tricky. It also determines most of the rankings and bestseller lists. Books that show up higher in various rankings get more attention. More attention means more new eyeballs on it, which equals more sales.
The thing you need to keep in mind is that all of these lists are aggregated over a limited period of time. Yes, there are some that look at the bestsellers for the year or whatever, but most of the ones that people pay attention to represent one week of sales. Or in the case of the Amazon sales ranks, they’ve got a secret rolling average algorithm that updates hourly (with about an eight hour delay as far as I can tell). So on those lists it isn’t about totals, but it is about totals over a short period of time.
A book that is a slow burn, selling constantly but continually, is awesome, but it is going to get artificially limited exposure because it isn’t ever going to be ranked that high on the bestseller lists. Hypothetically, if you sell about a thousand books a week for a year, that’s freaking solid. However, that book probably won’t ever show up on any of the bestseller lists. But you can take another book, sell five thousand copies in one week, and never sell another copy again, and that book will be a “bestseller”. The first book sold ten times as many copies, but the second author gets to put “bestselling author” after their name for the rest of their life.
I’ve made the NYT list a few times, but overall as far as I’ve made my money it has been on the slow and continual sales side of things, but you still want to make the lists whenever possible, just because of the added attention it brings you. Each time I’ve gotten on there it has given me a bump the next week, found me new readers, and also gotten more attention for the sales of ancillary and foreign language rights.
The NYT is big and famous, and everybody who has made it uses it in our bio because regular people have heard of it, but it isn’t a particularly accurate list. Just ask Ted Cruz. The one that most people in the business look at is the Nielsen Bookscan. I’ve talked about its shortcomings on here before too, but it is still probably the most accurate measure of book sales available. However, Nielsen isn’t watched by the public, it is watched by the book business. So getting on there helps get you attention with the people who stock and sell books.
The online lists, like Amazon, are fantastic because new people browsing genres find you. So if your initial big sales week can put you up in the top 10 of the “Scottish Time Travel Romance” list, that’s going to mean more a bunch of new people are going to click that link and check it out. Get on the top 10 list for “Fiction” and that equals millions of new eyeballs on it.
For most books, the first week is almost always its biggest single sales week. Every now and then a book that has been out for a while will get some amazing marketing boost later, but that’s rare. For most of us, you either make the lists the first week, or not at all.
The release week is the single most important week of a book’s life. This determines that initial velocity. It helps establish how many of your next book that store is going to stock. For online sales, this is probably as high as your numbers will spike (barring Book Bombs obviously).
This is why most big publisher’s marketing efforts are geared toward pushing the book before and right around its release. The bigger the initial spike, the longer the tail. The more books that are preordered, or go out the door during the release week, the more initial readers, more reviews, more word of mouth, and more attention you get.
Preorders are fantastic because all those sales and shipments count during release week. Plus, the more books that are preordered, the more likely the stores are to increase their overall orders, because they take that as a good indicator of total demand. So as an author, the more you can get your fans to preorder, the better.
This is also why author’s book tours coincide with the release of a new book. It is all about that initial push. Even library sales help. If people are asking for their library to stock an upcoming book, and there are a lot of requests, then the libraries will order more to meet the demand as well. Most authors don’t realize just how big a market libraries represent, but they purchase a huge number of books.
Books have “street dates” of when they’ll be available at retail. The books are actually shipped well in advance of that release date, but for any book that might show up on a bestseller list, the publisher is going to be adamant that the book stores don’t actually put those out on the shelf available for sale until that specific date. Why? Imagine that you have a release date of the 10th. The books arrive at the stores on the 7th.. Some book stores are excited and put out the books immediately, but those sales go into the 1st week of the month. Then the on 2nd week of the month, the book has its official release, and just misses making the bestseller lists, or doesn’t rank as high, because of the books that were sold early. Or worse, the bookstore that doesn’t put the book out until a week late. For them it is an inconvenience, but for the competitive author it is a nut kick.
Either way, your initial spike has been spread out instead of concentrated. So if you sold 1,000 books a week early, 4,000 books during your official release week, and 1,000 a week late, that 4,000 is going to be your highest showing. Congratulations, you made #23 on the NYT extended list. Too bad those others weren’t stuck in there, because you would’ve made the short list and gotten more attention.
So what happens to those books that are taking up shelf space and not moving? They get remaindered.
This is the ugly side of the book business. Most people don’t realize how many books get returned to the publishers. On paperbacks, the bookstores rip the covers off, throw the books away, and mail just the covers back for a refund, because the unsold paperbacks aren’t even worth the cost of shipping them again.
This is the killer deal breaker that keeps most small presses from having distribution through bookstores. They simply can’t afford to eat all the returns. It is actually a complex system, with publishers, distributors, and the bookstores having contractual agreements.
Our contracts talk about an Allowance for Returns. Basically, they ship a bunch of books, stores sell as many as they can. However, your publisher doesn’t pay you royalties on everything they shipped to the stores. Once the royalty period ends, then they wait a little bit after the close before figuring it up to see what percentage of those books they shipped get returned. Sadly, for many authors that is a really high percentage.
When an author gets their royalty statement there is a section called Sell Through Percentages. It gives the breakdown of books shipped versus books returned. This is an extremely important number, because this is how your publisher is going to determine the size of your future print runs. Say, if they shipped 10,000 books, and 5,000 came back, they aren’t going to print 10,000 books next time. They aren’t going to spend as much marketing money on you, or if you do really badly, you don’t earn back your advance and they see you as a financial loser.
Ideally, you don’t want the stores to return any of your books. I’ve heard different numbers tossed around for industry averages, it varies by publisher and genre, and I’ve not seen them officially stated anywhere, so I’m not actually sure what is considered a normal industry rate. However, every percentage I have heard from an industry insider as a suggested average rate sucks and they are worse than you’d think.
As an accountant my reaction was how does this industry stay in business? But as an author luckily, this is one area where I’ve personally done really well. For most of my books my sell through percentages are excellent, way above average, but if I shared them my publisher would probably murder me.
Basically, getting remaindered is what happens when the velocity runs out.
So now you know why authors get so hung up about release weeks. I hope that was educational. 🙂