Monster Hunter Nation

Ask Correia #17: Velocity, Releases, Rankings, and Remainders

 

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.

Velocity

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.

Rankings

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.

Releases

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.

Remainders

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. 🙂

Ember of the Past: free short story from Mike Kupari
Sad Puppies Guest Post by Chuck Gannon
Kate Julicher
Guest

I’ve been trying to preorder the ebook for a while now but it’s not available on Amazon or iBooks yet. I was surprised because the Monster Hunter Legion ebook, if I remember correctly, was available a couple weeks before the dead tree version. (Not the eArc, I bought it off iBooks and was pleasantly surprised by the early release)

I’ll just keep checking til it’s there because I really really want to read this book…

Mark Minson
Guest

This definitely will make me think more about how I go about launching book 2. Thanks, Larry!

Francis W. Porretto
Guest

For me, the revelation here is that given the breadth of their inventories, retail booksellers can track and employ all that information. I know, I know: computers. All the same, making intelligent use of so much data is never automatic nor guaranteed to work as expected…which, come to think of it, might explain the steady decline in the number of retail booksellers.

Bugmaster
Guest

FWIW, I just attended a talk that was a case study of exactly this problem: tracking inventory over space and time. It involved graph databases with NoSQL backing storage and automatically provisioned clusters of thousands of machines. So yeah… computers. Really big ones. 🙂

Were-Puppy
Guest
Wally World has extensive ways of tracking inventory. They track what comes in and out of regional distribution centers. They track what went on that truck, and what came off it to the local stores. They track what came from the back of the store onto the shelf. Then they actually track the shelfs and match against sales, which the difference is usually shop lifting. If you ever see people in those stores with scanners scanning one thing after another on a shelf, that might be what is going on there. Or it could be a rival store gathering intel… Read more »
Zsuzsa
Guest

I have a friend who worked in retail for a while–games, rather than books, but the idea of the inventory tracking was the same. As far as making intelligent use of that data…well, my friend and several of her co-workers debated the idea of kidnapping the boss, locking him away somewhere for a year, and demonstrating how much better things would work if he wasn’t “helping” with his allegedly data-driven instructions.

Dave H
Guest

Tell your friend to be sure to take the mobile phone away from the boss before locking him up. It’s astonishing how much damage a “helpful” boss can be from halfway around the world. It’s even worse than when he’s in the office!

Were-Puppy
Guest

One place I worked had an almost weekly emergency that would happen late Friday or on Saturday. My manager would go in and fix it, and then he was thinking he was seen as a hero.

After a while I discovered he was logging in and diddling with files, causing the emergency.

Uncle Lar
Guest
Had such a manager. He would come in, spend the morning with coffee and the newspaper, take a long lunch, then mid afternoon would look at the stack of emergencies he’d let gather, roll up his sleeves, and declare “everyone pitch in, we’re here until this crisis is averted!” Lots of overtime and lost weekends. Finally figured out to do as much as was possible working around him so he never saw anything important. His boss finally figured out what was happening and transferred him to a cushy dead end slot where he was much less harmful. Civil Service, so… Read more »
Ed
Guest

So is it better for you if we pre-order “Son of the Black Sword” ? If the sale counts a week or two early rather than on opening day it may lower your velocity.

Jeff Prunkard
Guest

Excellent post, Larry. I really appreciate the transparency you provide with regard to the book world.

Already pre-ordered Son of the Black Sword on Audible. Can’t wait to hear it.

Jeff Hendricks
Guest

I’d be really interested in learning how e-book sales for releases impact paper copy orders. I mean, does a book that sells extremely well as an e-book have any sway over hard copies in stores? How does that translate? It should still count for overall sales and Bestseller status, I’d imagine?

Bugmaster
Guest

I am not an author or an accountant, but I still found this post very interesting — thank you ! I have a question though: how does the concept of velocity work with ebooks ? They don’t need shelf space, and they don’t need to be remaindered, but can they still get on bestseller lists ? In general, how is the size of the the ebook market changing relative to the paper book market ? Is piracy really as big of an issue as DRM companies would have me believe ?

Elizabeth Creegan
Guest

How do the Baen bundles intersect with this? I’ve preordered the entire month, but not any one work in particular.

Zsuzsa
Guest
As far as the “returned books” goes, I remember back when I was a kid reading the disclaimer in many of my books: “If you purchased this book without a cover, you should be aware that it is stolen property. It was reported as ‘unsold and destroyed’ and neither the author nor the publisher has been paid for this ‘stripped book.'” At the time, it made me freak out every time a cover fell off one of my books, fearing that I was some kind of evil, book-stealing outlaw. It’s kind of cool at this point to learn just what… Read more »
Dave H
Guest

I remember that. It made it sound like losing the cover of the book was a Federal offense, just like tearing the tag off of a mattress.

patrick w.
Guest
When I was quite young there was a small Mom and Pop convenience store near me that actually SOLD books with the covers ripped off. Seemed weird to me, but I was more than happy to give them my money. I think I read most of the Conan books — the crappy 1970s re-issues “improved” by deCamp and Carter — in that fashion. Had no idea it was anything nefarious. It later turned out the place was a front for some sort of gambling operation, with the proprietors ultimately led off to do some time at the cross bar Hilton.… Read more »
SJW5150
Guest

No one has ever remainders a John Scalzi book in all of recorded history. Ever.

Zsuzsa
Guest

Are you being sarcastic or trolling? Sometimes, it’s hard to tell.

60guilders
Guest

I suspect sarcasm. I think he’s parodying SJW51276 or whatever that string of numbers was.

Zsuzsa
Guest

I’m leaning that way, but the problem with a pitch-perfect parody is that it’s sometimes difficult to tell from the real thing.

Joe in PNG
Guest

Original Numbers is pretty much Poe’s law in action, so any parody will be kind of hard to spot.

patrick w.
Guest

5150 is the call number police in California use, or used to use, to indicate they were dealing with someone insane.

Source: Owned the Van Halen as Van Hagar album of the same name in cassette format. God I’m old. 🙁

Kevin Findley
Guest

The number part of his name is the title of a Van Halen album. His ID itself is sarcasm (or irony, I always get those confused).

Were-Puppy
Guest

OU812 ?

Dave H
Guest

5150. It also refers to a Peavey guitar amplifier model, and a section of California law authorizing law enforcement or medical personnel to confine a mentally disturbed person.

detroyes
Guest

Maybe not, but a shit load of them keep wounding up used on the shelves of Chicago area Half Price Books. Especially in the dollar clearance racks.

detroyes
Guest

errr, wounding = winding

detroyes
Guest

Something which I rarely see happen with Mr. Correia’s books.

Captain Comic
Guest

I only have two Scalzi HCs.

Zoe’s Tale bought at the bargain shelf of B&N.

The Android’s Dream I got at (I kid you not) the Dollar Tree.

I’ve also found Butcher and Card and (just yesterday, in fact) Allen Steele.

I’ve found I’m willing to risk a dollar plus tax on a hardcover.

Weber I pre-order at a local brick and mortar.

Sorry, Larry, SotBS sounds interesting, but fantasy isn’t my normal read…

jungshin
Guest

Sample Chapters available at Baen, read em, get hooked, by book, Larry gets paid.

Captain Comic
Guest

Every MHI novel, Nemesis in HC, both Dead Six books. I help Larry get paid.

Just that I probably won’t buy SotBS.

Monster Hunter Guardian?

My two favorite bloggers will BOTH get paid on that one.

Uncle Lar
Guest

Yep, love the MHI series and Dead Six. SotBS is very well written, but I just could not get into it.
But then all that Conan or Fafyrd stuff always left me cold too. Just seemed pointless to me.

Al
Guest
Yeah! Don’t forget the library’s importance. I picked up hard magic there because it had an interesting cover. Now, I’ve purchased all your books several times over in various formats and turned most of my friends and family on to you too! They’ve all bought and read all your stuff too. Wes tried to turn me on to your stuff back when you were still self published, but I never got around to reading you and forgot about you until I found your book at the library. Keep writing books I like and I’ll keep trying to funnel money your… Read more »
Jason Juroff
Guest

So does a banned book that sells like hotcakes have good muzzled velocity?

James
Guest

Bought the eARC earlier this year, had the hardback preordered since July, and I preordered audio book later this month on Audible. I think I’m set. 🙂

Brad R. Torgersen
Guest

I just pre-ordered two copies of Mike Kupari’s solo SF novel (trade paperback) and two copies of Son of the Black Sword (hardback) and for the halibut, four copies of my own book (mass market paperback) all of which will find eager homes over here in the Joint Task Force.

richard mcenroe
Guest

Want a real hit over there, write “The Fobbit’s War”! ;D

Were-Puppy
Guest

That reminds me of a recent post by Larry about having to go home, break into his secret stash of books, and then take them back to a con to sell.

Do you guys stockpile books for such an occaision?

TXRed
Guest

OK, you’ve pushed me to do a pre-order on the next book. I’d been holding off because of release date questions, but this decided me. Thanks for your take on things!

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Carbonel
Guest

Most authors don’t realize just how big a market libraries represent, but they purchase a huge number of books.

Or as my best friend (library system selector) is wont to say “Million dollar budget. No returns”

Not to mention we pay through the nose for the right to circulate e-books.

David Lang
Guest

In “onward drake!” there was some discussion on the sell-through rate. from what was said there, industry average was ~50% with Baen consistently doing ~65%

I don’t know how much this has changed in recent years

xavier
Guest

Hi all,

If anyone’s interested, there’s a blog by Mike Shatzkinidealog
He covers a lot of the business side of publishing especially with regards to ebooks.
I often have problems following the posts but he’s talking shop and inside baseball which is fine by me. I still learn a lot as I try to make sense of the articles
In any case, posts complement nicely with Larry’s present post

xavier

Michael Atkinson
Guest

Thanks for the explanation, that was very interesting.

Were-Puppy
Guest

Very interesting. This reminds me of when I was a kid, a comic delivery guy would come once a week to a local convenience store. He would give me the comics being taken away after ripping the front cover off.
Now I know why 😛

Dave H
Guest

I was a newspaper distributor in my home town for a while and the old guy who ran the newsstand in town insisted that I leave the carcasses of the returns with him. (I only needed to turn in the datelines from the front page to get credit for them.) I found out later he was clipping the coupons out of them.

patrick w.
Guest
I’m curious what it takes for books to get bought by a library. (I’m poor so that is how I do most of my reading. I can afford to buy very little.) I’ve noticed that books by Tor tend to easily available for the most part within my local network, and books from Baen, well, not so much. As in, there’s 21 paper copies plus a borrow-able e-book of Old Man’s War # 1, and three copies of Monster Hunter International #1 — paper only — within said network, consisting of around 75 to 100 local libraries in central and… Read more »
Dave H
Guest

I suspect it’s because Tor is a unit of Macmillan, one of the larger publishing houses, and thus has access to more/better marketing resources. Baen is a much smaller shop.

Expendable Henchman
Guest

Have you heard of the Baen free library? It’s free e-books.
https://www.baenebooks.com/c-1-free-library.aspx

I haven’t looked at it in a while. There’s a ton of new stuff there.

60guilders
Guest

Also, your local librarians tend to make the decisions about who to buy from.
Your local librarian tends to be more enthused about literary fiction.
Baen is not literary.

Richard McEnroe
Guest

It’s Massachusetts, Jake

Gbm
Guest

This essay by Eric Flint from 2001 might be of interest.
http://www.baen.com/library/prime_palaver6.asp

Expendable Henchman
Guest

I read a huge number of coverless SF in my formative years too. The first I heard about the cover ripping thing was JRR Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. The first page explained what the ripped cover meant, and I read it from a coverless book. After that, I didn’t like reading coverless books at all.

Thanks very much for the insights into publishing.

RedJack
Guest

When I was a kid, my grandfather worked as a boiler operator in a local State home for troubled and orphaned kids. They got piles of books without covers, and he would bring home the extras for his grandkids. I read a lot of old SciFi that way. When I realized that the books were listed as destroyed, I did feel a little guilty

Brian McGoldrick
Guest
Hey Larry, I’m curious if you have every managed to get any idea how far back in terms of hours or days that hourly updated ranking on Amazon factors in. The Amazon sales rankings confuse the hell out of me, with how they calculate them overall. I had put a book up on Amazon and after being out for about 3 weeks it took off, and I got what seemed like some good sales for an unknown author. The odd thing was my overall ranking on Amazon spiked up higher on average the week after my biggest sales spike, when… Read more »
Airboy
Guest
My Baen monthly bundle just unlocked. I can now download Larry’s latest to my Kindle. Looking forward to several other books in the list. For those of you who do not know about them, the Baen monthly bundles are an incredible deal for the reader. If you are going to buy just one of the bundled books in hardcover, you usually wind up with 6-7 more books in the bundle. Not everything will be to your taste, but you occasionally get some really awesome pleasant surprises. But these bundles must be purchased in advance of the major release. The bundle… Read more »
Iridium
Guest
First, thank you for the insight! I always like hearing about the ‘insider baseball’ of the book industry. I am sort-of curious though, why you say “As an accountant my reaction was how does this industry stay in business?” I have seen a lot of others express this thought. I don’t give the book industry a whole lot of credit for business sense, but the return rate is one of the few things where the industry’s actions make sense to me. I would think that the HC itself costs only 5-8% of list price to print. Every other expense of… Read more »
Matt
Guest
I do most of my book shopping online, but after reading this post I decided I wanted to see how you’re doing in my local B&N (which is just outside of Philadelphia, PA) by your own metric. I saw 9 copies of your books total, all mass market paper backs, and it was books from both Monster Hunter and Grimnoir Chronicles. You must have a fan that works at the store, because one your books was facing out. Obviously you’re doing pretty well here… and this is probably the most liberal area in PA other than Philadelphia itself, so (not… Read more »
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