Self-Publishing Part 11: How Many Books are You Selling Anyway?

Going it Mostly Alone: the Publishing Path of A Perfect Blindness

When talking book sales, the recording industry analogy provides a last insight: regional sales. Each of the three most important recording industry bodies handles international sales differently, sometimes giving some hint to that in their name: The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) handles, unsurprisingly “recorded music produced and sold in the United States.”  The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) “is the organisation that represents the interests of the recording industry worldwide,” meaning some of the world’s countries: “IFPI represents the recording industry worldwide with some 1,400 members in 66 countries and affiliated industry associations in 45 countries.” Think NOT the US.

Finally Impala | The independent music companies association, which represents “ European independent music companies.” So the rest of the world’s Indy recording artists need to find shelter elsewhere.

This regionalism is true for books as well. Not faulting the industry—not all countries respect intellectual rights the same way, if at all, and not every place is transparent, so negotiating this collage of laws, numbers, products, etc. is damned difficult.

Still, I’m writing books to sell and to make some money, and so I gotta know if my book sells and how much, right?

Now, I’ve one sale that’s a complete mystery to me.

I’d been in contact with a UK based blogger (redheadedbooklover), who eventually reviewed my book. This was the first stranger to respond in writing to my book (the post lives here), and so I was rather excited, as can be expected.

As I she’d offered to post a review on Amazon.com, and as that verified buyer reviews count more than others, plus with the costs of posting a physical copy to her, it’s was cheaper to have her buy the book there. So I arranged for that.

After I sent the few Pounds to cover the costs of purchase, I would visit Author Central, and look at “the Sales by geography” function, and find—only a map of the US. I checked back several more times and found nothing about the UK, though her post did go up. She clearly purchased and read A Perfect Blindness.

But, where was the sale?

Not on Amazon.com.

So where does it show up? I don’t know.

Another international oddity first: she did post a review— on the Amazon.uk.co site. It doesn’t appear on the .com (US) site, and the US reviews don’t show up on the UK version. Nuisance that, but what am I gonna do?

It’s still unclear how foreign sales are counted, by anyone—I’m trusting it’s counted by iUniverse, smushed up with all other sales.

It occurred to me that I could take the total sales on iUniverse and subtract all the sales in AuthorCentral to find the book (or books.) But that doesn’t work.

          Why?

This is where I can hear the rising chorus of objections to the claim there is no authority that counts book sales—“But what about Nielsen BookScan?”—grows so loud.

Well, what about it?

“They count books from all sales sources,” I hear the derision. “It’s on Amazon, right there in the Author Central page. And the NYT and WSJ both use it for their respective Bestsellers lists.”

Somewhat true. But not really.

Yes, those sales figures do appear on the Author Central page on Amazon. And yes, the NYT and WSJ start with the Nielsen BookScan numbers before massaging them according to their own secret formulae to come up with their own unique rankings. Using simple Bayesian analysis will tell you there is something about Bestsellers lists that shouts it’s not a ranking of books that sell the most units: if these lists were strictly reporting on the total number of books sold and nothing else, they would be the same. Yet they’re quite different. This shows THAT the newspapers (and Amazon) do something other than simply count the number of units sold and display that list, but it does not reveal WHAT they do.

Granted, Nielsen BookScan is the closest an author can get to a third party confirmation of what a self-publishing company reports as sales for a given book, but it’s quite far from representing all copies sold, at least for most books.

What does Nielsen BookScan actually show? Roughly 85% of retail PRINT books in the US.

Ah-ha! No wonder my UK blogger’s purchase never showed up, nor will any ex-US sale, ever, apparently.

As written right in Author Central:

“Figures are provided by Nielsen BookScan and include approximately 85% of all trade retail print book sales in the U.S., including most of Amazon print book sales.” (Emphasis mine.)

That is a lot it doesn’t report. As in ZERO digital sales, so if you have a digital-only book, you’re completely out of luck here. If it does well outside of the US: can’t check here. So, what all else DOESN’T it tell you (again taken from the Author Central page):

  • Sales to libraries
  • Purchases by wholesalers such as Ingram
  • Sales of used books
  • Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA) sales
  • Pre-orders—orders for a book before the book is released

Drilling down a bit further in the Amazon caveat estimating 85% of “trade retail print book sales in the U.S.,” and all “of Amazon print book sales) one finds this further elaboration:

Sales reported depend on which retailers selling your book participate in Nielsen BookScan, and whether your book is registered with one of the companies from which Nielsen derives its list of reported ASINs. […] If your book is Print on Demand, your publishing company may not report ISBNs to Ingram and you may not see sales information.

To be reported, a book’s seller must participate in Nielsen BookScan and the book must appear in BookScan’s bibliography. This bibliography is generated from a number of third party sources including the Ingram Book Company. (Emphasis mine.)

There is one last note from Amazon of interest: “If a disproportionate number of your books are sold by stores that do not report to Nielsen, your sales information may underestimate your total sales.” Weird wording. What if it’s proportionate? Like 50% of the stores don’t report to Nielsen, and 50% do, 1:1—wouldn’t that underestimate total sales? Of course, they do use “estimate” total sales, not “report” total sales (just being peevish here).

Of course, any books that the author sells out of the back of a trunk or at signings when the author brings his or her own books aren’t included. So the Nielsen BookScan is hardly the unimpeachable source we authors would like to keep everyone honest, including our publishers and various bestseller lists.

It’s also true that some publishing houses release their own numbers for lifetime sales of self-published books, which might be useful, or not. Sarah Disabrow, a former head of Author Solutions (current owner of iUniverse), once remarked in an interview that the average book they publish sells under 200 copies in its whole lifetime. Then, in an email she sent me early in the process of submitting A Perfect Blindness, she said only 5% of the books they publish belong in bookstores. Certainly, many people don’t intend to sell, but many that do don’t invest the time, money and effort to create a high-quality book.

A friend recently read A Perfect Blindness and said he was very surprised at its quality—there were no proofreading errors; he’s read a good number of self-published books and said most are full of blunders and mistakes.

That’s what the Editor’s Choice designation from iUniverse means: a book earning that designation is of the same high quality that a Traditional Publishing house would publish, including professional quality proofreading, thus sans errors. The other 95% that don’t belong on bookstore shelves don’t usually get this attention.

If we were to average the sales of only those books that are of a high enough quality to have appeared on a Traditional Publishing house’s list, such as those that earn the Editor’s Choice designation from iUniverse, the number of titles drops dramatically. My contact at iUniverse didn’t have access to the average sales figures of every Editor’s Choice earning book, but all the books that earn Star (500 physical book, 4,000 ebook sales) MUST have the Editor’s Choice designation.

The only self-publisher that offers such a designation (that I know of) is iUnverse with its Editor’s Choice designation. Which is a precursor to A Perfect Blindness’s Rising Star designation, putting it into an even more rarefied collection of books. Those that are not only well written, but have an identifiable market, with a clear path to it, and an author that seems capable of doing what’s needed to get it there.

This then is an even more exclusive club: books that are of high quality and have a market and support to reach it. If only these titles are included, the average sales per book would likely jump upwards, especially once we then add the books the author purchase (at a discount) and eventually sells, plus other excluded categories, like the rest of the world, etc.

That doesn’t mean these high-quality books with markets will necessarily sell enough to leap onto bestsellers lists, nor bring in enough money to quit a day-job. An author still has to do the hard work of selling the book, bringing it to the identified market, and the market actually has to like it. Editors and writers do make judgment errors. A well-written book with a clearly defined market and a motivated author may well flop for myriad reasons. Many of which are beyond the author’s control. Things happen.

But, we can be sure that poorly-written books generally don’t sell, with or without a market, and well-written books that have no market don’t either. This needs be kept in mind when viewing average sales per book, as most are firmly tilted to the lower end of the range as well as the difficulty in coming by reliable numbers in the first place.

 

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To ask a question or follow along with the self-publishing adventure, join the “Publishing Path of A Perfect Blindness” here.

 

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