Curious about whether you'll get rich
overnight once you sell a book? Wonder exactly how authors might
hit bestseller lists? Teh following are a few articles I've written
on those very topics, as well as a few other links that might
be of interest to authors or aspiring authors.
which Julie reveals the Secret to Building a Wildly Successful
Career as a Romance AuthorThis article talks
about addresses the "money question" (How much do romance
authors make? Do we get rich overnight? Can you instantly quit
your day job? And all those other questions that make me fall
down laughing), and discusses how a writing career is a profoundly
In Which Julie Anne Long explains Bestseller
ListsEver wonder how bestseller lists are
compiled? Or whether an author has any control over whether you
hit that list? Check out this detailed article about velocity,
print runs, distribution, and fate. :)
For a quick look at how you life will change once you
sell a book, check out my speech
from the San Francisco Writer's Conference.
Writers of America is the national organization
for those of us writing romance, or aspiring to write romance.
Gabaldon has some great advice for writersclick
on "Writer's Corner."
which Julie reveals the Secret to Building a Wildly Successful
Career as a Romance Author
Would you like to know the secret to
building a wildly successful career as a romance author? All right,
then. Lean in and I'll tell you:
Marry a rich man first.
Ha! I jest.
Um, but then again, not really.
Let me back up. A while back a reader
and aspiring romance author suggested I blog a bit about money
what kind of money do we romance authors make, in other
words? because apparently we authors are all pretty circumspect
about it. The truth of the matter is, advances can vary widely
and the concept of "money" is outrageously relative
and subjective. For instance, the kind of advance that might send
an author living in Cincinnati gleefully shopping for a brand
new house might have a certain other author living in San Francisco
(where studio condos near the freeway can run a cool, oh, half
million bucks or so) carefully clipping coupons and contemplating
the benefits of becoming a mail-order bride.
There are a million variables, of course.
But do you have a trust fund? A rich spouse? Because it would
be helpful to acquire at least one of those things before you
set out to become a romance author.
OK, kidding aside, as I thought about
ways to approach a discussion of money as it relates to romance
writing, I decided that it helps to think of a career as a romance
author as a profoundly entrepreneurial endeavor, like opening
a shop or starting a restaurant. It carries with it attendant
start-up costs, risks, speculation, uncertainty, time demandsand
a corresponding deep satisfaction and joy, if it works out.
And of course you hope to make money at
ityou hope to one day make a fabulous living at it,
actuallybut in order to get to that point, you need steely
nerves, great organizational skills, a tolerance for ambiguity,
boundless energy, an almost absurd sense of faith, a good deal
and above all, love. In fact, love had better
be your primary motivation for doing it. Because if you don't
love what you're doing, you'll never get beyond the first stages
of your career.
As an example of the entrepreneurial
nature of the biz, let's construct a scenario involving make-believe
author Jane Jones. Let's say Jane Jones just sold two historical
romances, her very first sale. Hurrah for Jane! This is a triumph!
And let's say her total advance is $14,000, or $7,000 per book.
This is probably a very realistic advance for a first two-book
contract for historical romancesneither very high nor very
low. I'm not certain whether you guys know this or not, but an
advance is typically paid out in chunks over the life cycle of
the book: a percentage upon signing the contract, a percentage
upon delivery and acceptance of the first book (which could be
many months after Jane signs her contract), a percentage upon
delivery and acceptance of the second book, and possibly, as is
more and more often the case these days, a final percentage of
the advance will be paid out upon a book's publication (which
might also be many months after acceptance of a manuscript).
Let's say Jane's deadlines are nine months
apart. In short, Jane's advance will be paid out over eighteen
months to two years, or perhaps a bit longer. And as Jane's agent,
who made the sale, gets 15% of this advance, the total advance
she'll receive for her first sale is $11,900again, paid
out over this two years or so.
Let's say Jane gets 50% of that advance
(this percentage is offered is for the sake of our storypercentages
upon signing vary; often it's 30%) of her total advance upon signing
her contract. So her first check is for $5,950. And it's taxable
income, of course.
will Jane be quitting her day
job at this point? (That's the question I get asked most frequently,
probably: "When can I quit my day job?") Probably not,
unless her hubby can afford to support her, or unless she has
that trust fund we mentioned, or a pool of venture capital (LOL).
In all likelihood, Jane will be working at her day job, possibly
raising kids, dealing with pets and extended family, and writing,
too, as well as attending conferences, answering emails, updating
her website, coordinating promotional activities, etc. In other
words, for the foreseeable future, Jane will have what essentially
amounts to about three or four full-time jobs. LOL.
Now let's look at a few of those startup
and ongoing costs. Does Jane have a website? If not, she'll need
one. And a website might cost her nothing but time if she, or
perhaps her kid, have web design skills. But if not, a decent,
professional website might cost anywhere between, say, $2,000
to $10,000. How about a good photo for that websitetaken
by a professional photographer, and not her mom or hubby, both
of whom thinks she looks beautiful no matter what? A professional
photo could cost a couple of hundred dollars or more.
Will Jane be attending conferences this
year, like RWA or RT? She'd better factor in a couple of thousand
dollars per conference (airfare, hotel, registration, meals) unless
she lives within driving distance.
What else? How about professional fees,
the dues for belonging to local RWA and national RWA chapters,
or Novelists, Inc., or other organizations? Depending upon how
many associations you belong to, those costs can total several
hundred dollars a year. Other fees include contest entry fees
(for the Rita, Bookseller's Best, the Holt Medallion, etc.), which
range from $25 to $40 per book entered, and then there's the cost
of mailing your books to the contest coordinators.
Which brings us to postage costs, which
can really add up. There's the cost of overnighting your final
revised manuscript and your copyedited manuscript to your editor
in New York, which will vary depending upon where you live, probably.
(For me, it's about $50 each time, from San Francisco to New York).
There's the cost of mailing contest prizes and ARCs and bookmarks
to booksellers and book groups, and the cost of renting a P.O.
Box, and various other postage-type expenses. Postage expenses
can and do run into the thousands.
Then there are costs for promotional
materials like contest prizes, bookmarks and web promotions (like
web banners, serialized excerpts, bulletins)you can spend
a couple of hundred to several thousand dollars a year on those
kinds of things. And then there are office suppliespaper,
toner, envelopes. And so on.
In short, writing-related expenses are
ongoing, and they add up pretty fast. For example, my expenses
during my first "official" first year as an author several
years ago, when I still had a day job, totaled more than $10,000.
And let's just say my expenses haven't gotten at all lower since
then. I know authors who routinely spend much more. And granted,
these are tax-deductible expenses, but "tax-deductible"
doesn't mean "free." You save a modest percentage. And
all of your expenses must come out of your pocket first.
In other words, in the absence of pre-existing
wealth, Jane might very well plow her entire advance back into
her business, the way any entrepreneur might.
Another consideration: Advances are just
thatan advance against royalties. And unless your book earns
back its advance in sales, you won't see another penny from it
in royalties. Royalties are a whole other beast, and you may not
see any until up to a couple of years after your book is published,
as publishers are allowed to keep a percentage as a reserve against
any returns. In other words: only God and your publisher know
when or if you'll see any royalties, ever.
There are other variables, of course.
Jane might sell another book, in a different genre, during this
time, which might enable her to quit her day job more quickly.
But the best possible scenario for Jane is that her books do well,
a new contract is forthcoming based on the strength of her sales,
and her next advance will be appreciably higher. But in 90% of
all circumstances, success in this fieldin terms of both
name recognition and financial compensationis cumulative,
something that builds over a span of years. And publishing is
a very changeable industry. The one thing you can count on
that you can't count on anything. You need to get comfortable
with shifting sands, so to speak, and with taking it one day at
Sabrina Jeffries has a great article
on her site, if you guys haven't seen it yet: "The
Big Misunderstanding About Money." She does a good
job of explaining some of the money issues. And as Sabrina says,
only a very small percentage of authors are making a fabulous
living at writing. Most authors are just sort of getting by. Some
make a good living, good enough to quit their day jobs. Others
never quit their day jobs.
So as you can see, building a career
as a romance author is an entirely entrepreneurial endeavor. And
when you're first starting out, there's really no way of knowing
whether the time, energy, risk and money you invest in it will
pay off down the road. It's an enormous leap of faith. But if
you love writing, and if you find yourself holding that all-too-rare
brass ring in the form of a publishing contract
of owe it to yourself to go for it. The beauty of being an entrepreneur
is you never know where it might lead. And every NYT author once
took that leap of faith, too.
~copyright 2006, Julie Anne Long
which Julie Anne Long explains Bestseller Lists
Gather round, children. Im going
to tell you a story.
Once upon a time, two (this is all hypothetical,
mind you) historical romance titleslets call them
STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT (a print run of 200,000) and A NIGHT FULL
OF STRANGERS (a smaller print run of 75,000) written by
two different authors, were released by two different publishers
during the same month. Both books were showered with unanimously
ecstatic reviews, and both went on to rack up very respectable
65% sell-through rates (the percentage of a books total
print run actually sold) a publisher-pleasing figure, indeed.
To ice the cake, both books were subsequently nominated for a
whole slew of awards. All in all, by anyones definition,
both books were resounding successes, and both authors (and their
friends and family and publishers and agents) should be pleased
But heres where their destinies
diverged: One of those books appeared both on both the Nielsen
BookScan and USA Today bestseller lists. The other book didnt
appear on any bestseller list.
Care to hazard a guess which one became
A NIGHT FULL OF STRANGERS. Yep. The book
with the smaller print run.
If this seems counterintuitive, welcome
to the world of publishing.
It all begins to make a little more sense,
however, when you understand 1) the purpose of bestseller lists,
and 2) how various bestseller lists are compiled.
In essence, a bestseller list (loosely
defined as anywhere between 10-150 titles ranked by sales figures
accrued during a particular timeframe, usually a week) such as
those compiled by USA Today, Borders, Nielsen BookScan, or the
New York Times are marketing tools invented either by booksellers
as a means of promoting and selling books or by publications as
a means of selling ad space. Publishers also happily use bestseller
lists to promote titlesscan your bookshelf and note the
prominence of the words NYT Bestselling author or
USA Bestselling Author across the top of some of your
favorite authors books, and youll see what I mean.
Why is this marketing technique effective?
Humans are social creatures, and studies done at Columbia University
show that we tend to make decisions about what we like based on
what other people like, whether we do it consciously or not. If
a book is a bestseller, we tend to think it must be
worth reading, since so many other people seem to have found it
Authors, on the other hand, tend to view
bestseller lists as goalssomething we can achieve
and, whether or not we care to admit it, we also tend to view
them as measures of our worth as authors.The problem with this
is that the word goal implies something that can be
gained through, say, hard work and focused effort and perhaps
a series of defined steps something controllable, in other
words. After all, one becomes a piccolo virtuoso or an Olympic
Equestrian or a Black Belt in karate or an MBA through application
of consistent, determined, systematic effort.But such is the delightfully
ambiguous nature of publishing that no amount of hard, ongoing,
systematic work, nor unanimously stellar reviews, nor award nominations,
nor copious self-promotion, nor those profoundly subjective factors
talent and qualitywill ensure an
appearance on a bestseller list.
The combined underlying factors influencing
whether a book appears on a bestseller list such as BookScan or
USA Today include the size of your print run, your distribution
(where are your books are being sold?), sales velocity (how fast
are they being sold?), consistency and timeliness in shipping
(are your books being sold in bookstores a whole month ahead of
release date by various retailers? Or are they shelved right on
the date of release? Do they show up in stores late? Do they show
up in stores at all?). And, because a bestseller list rank is
determined relative to the ranks of other books, we need to factor
in the distribution, print runs and lay down of all the other
books released during the same timeframe as your book. Its
lovely if your reviews are good
but it isnt imperative.
An ideal confluence of all of these factors
might lead to your books triumphant appearance on a bestseller
list. Then again, all of these factors are acutely sensitive to
even the minutest changes, and one minor event might be the thing
that either keeps your book off a list or launches it to bestseller
list heights. And unless someone like Kelly Ripa spends airtime
extolling the pleasures of your book, its nearly impossible
to traceor ever knowwhich event or events made the
difference in either direction.
Lets talk about some of the factors
involved in bestseller list appearances. To understand how distribution
affects bestseller lists, Ill compare two bestseller lists,
Nielsen BookScan (available by subscription) and USA Today (available
online and in copies of USA Today). According to data passed on
to my agent by a member of the Avon salesforce in 2004, most national
and regional bookstore chains report sales to BookScan, but BookScan
estimatesthey guess, in other wordsthe sales for some
booksellers, including one major chain and some independent bookstores.
Online retailers like Amazon and B&N.com also report to Bookscan,
as do Costco, Target and K-Mart. Significantly missing, however,
are Wal-Mart, Sams, BJs, and all of the supermarkets,
drugstores, etc., jobbed by Levy, Anderson News and the News Group,
and so on. And Wal-Mart is an increasingly major player in mass
market romance sales.
The USA Today list is compiled from sales
reported by 4,700 independent, chain, discount and online
booksellers, among them Walmart. As of last year, according
to a paragraph posted above USA Todays online Top 150 list
(which apparently no longer appears above the website list), the
reporting stores included: Davis Kidd Booksellers (Tennessee),
Doubleday Book Shops, Hudson Booksellers, Joseph-Beth Booksellers
(Lexington, Ky.; Cincinnati), Little Professor Book Centers, Powells
Books (Portland, Ore.), R.J. Julia Booksellers (Madison, Conn.),
Scribners Bookstores, Tattered Cover Book Store (Denver),
Waldenbooks, WordsWorth Books (Cambridge, Mass.), Amazon.com,
B. Dalton Bookseller, Barnes & Noble.com, Barnes & Noble
Inc., Books-A-Million and Bookland, Books & Co. (Dayton, Ohio),
Borders Books & Music, Bookstar, Bookstop, Brentanos,
Schuler Books & Music (Grand Rapids, Mich.).
So some overlap exists between these two
bestseller lists, and changes in accounts may occur, but significant
differences remain between them. Depending upon what percentage
of a books print run is distributed where (maybe your book
is being sold at Borders but not Wal-Mart), a book may show up
on the BookScan list but not on the USA Today list. It might show
up on both lists. It might not show up on either list, even if
sales are stellar and the print run large. And where and how an
authors print run is distributed varies author by author
and publisher by publisherand is continually subject to
change based on an authors sales history and other reasons
unique to the publisher.
What about shipping and lay-downin
other words, when are your books showing up in stores and on shelves?
These are the things that strongly influence sales velocity, and
selling a lot of books in a short amount of time is how you make
a bestseller list. But heres the thing: you might know when
your books are being shipped. Then again, you might not. Instead,
anecdotal information might trickle in from a reader who was delighted
to find your May release in her favorite bookstore
5th. Or you might hear from readers whove tried desperately
to find that May release in major bookstores and cantand
its already May 20th. Or they might show up on the shelves
the official day of release. Online retailers such as Amazon and
B&N often ship early, too, but online sales constitute a very,
very small percentage of overall romance sales. The reason for
early shelving is that bookstores are, naturally, in the business
of selling books. If a bookstore thinks they can sell a decent
number of copies of your book and its sitting back there
in the stockroom a few weeks ahead of its release date, odds are
good theyll put it out on the shelves. Other publishers
seem able to exert a little more control over the preciseness
of release date, but how this is accomplished remains a mystery,
too. Anything can happen to prevent those books from making it
into stores on time, too, or at all, from computer glitches to
How much will you be able to learn from
your publisher about things like distribution and shipping? Well,
philosophies on how much and what kind of information to share
with authors varies from publisher to publisherand these
philosophies are also continually subject to change. This is simply
a fact of the publishing world that authors must come to accept.
So you might be privy to precisely where your books are being
sold (Wal-mart? Airports? Supermarket checkouts?); you might not.
Or you might only ever have a very general idea of where your
any of your books are being sold.
And how about print runs is there
a sort of bestseller list print run minimum threshold?
Well, since bestseller lists are snapshots in time and books on
those lists are ranked relative to all the other books released
during that timeframe, any print run threshold will be determined
by the print runs of other titles released during a given timeframe.
And, as I mentioned earlier, of course,
every single factor contributing to the appearance of a book on
a particular bestseller list is mind-bogglingly sensitive to lifes
vicissitudes. A blizzard might close major bookstores across the
Midwest the week of your books release, for instance. All
the other conditions that facilitate a bestseller list appearance
might be in placedistribution, timely shipping, etc.but
because of store closures, the book will instead sell somewhat
erratically, denied that crucial initial velocity that launches
a book onto a list. Ultimately, over its life, the book might
ultimately sell very, very well
but it might never show up
on a bestseller list.
As for The New York Times Bestseller list:
unlike BookScan and USA Today, it doesnt track sales of
all books. The times has a unique and pretty proprietary (meaning,
they wont divulge precisely how they do it) approach to
compiling their list. They send a list to bookstores indicating
which books theyre tracking as potential future best sellers
and ask booksellers to provide sales information on those books
(and any other books the bookstores think will sell well or want
to report on). The Times says this tracking list is drawn from
information provided by bookstores, but publishers say they also
call the Times as a matter of course to alert them to books selling
with increasing momentum so that they can be added to the tracking
list. They attempt to keep their focus on new books, too, which
means perennial bestsellers, like, say, Catcher in the Rye, might
show up on the USA Today bestseller list but not the Times list.
By this definition, its conceivable
for a book to realize NYT bestseller list-caliber sales volume
and still not appear on the list.
So do bestseller lists provide an accurate
or comprehensive picture of the total sales of a given book? No.
Are they accurate indications of the size of a books print
run? No. Are they lists of the best (a subjective
term, of course) books available for sale, or indicators of the
quality or value of an authors work? No. Is it constructive
for an author to attempt a methodical approach to becoming a bestseller?
no. You simply cant mount an expedition up a bestseller
list the way you would up Everest. Because, as you see now, its
quite simply beyond an authors control.
What is within an authors control?
Probably the only thing truly within an authors control
is the quality of her work. You cant go wrong if you use
your intention to do your very best work as a sort of rudder to
steer yourself through publishings unpredictable seas.
Regardless, making a bestseller list is
cause for rejoicing. Its a milestone in your career, after
all, and henceforth you and your publisher will have a very effective
marketing tool to use to sell your ensuing books. And if one Thursday
morning you wake up to find your book on the USA Today list, you
should happily trumpet the news far and wide, and at the very
least, have some chocolatethe traditional food of celebration
of authors everywhere.
Copyright 2007, Julie Anne Long