I asked my Twitter followers for blog ideas because, hey, I’m just back from vacation and a little swamped, so stop judging me!
My favorite was from @KatieNewingham who said, “Define what a successful book means in industry terms.” It’s an interesting request and one where the answer is both simpler and more complicated than might be expected.
Let’s take the simple answer first: a book is a success if it turns a profit. It’s really that simple. If your publisher makes more money than they spent on you? Success. Of course, it’s impossible to really know when that happens because it’s not as straightforward as looking at advances, but by and large, that’s the easiest gauge.
I don’t know whether this still holds true, but I remember hearing a few years ago that only 20% of books published earn out. So would that mean that 80% of books failures? Well…yes and no. Because some books are published to earn houses prestige—whether that means going for books likely to win awards or publishing notable figures—the sort of things that will help draw other authors into that fold. Others are published because a house believes in an author and thinks that holding onto them is important. Look at Jonathan Franzen—his first two books were well-reviewed and probably performed nicely. Then THE CORRECTIONS happened, and…well-played FSG!
As far as the new JK Rowling, which Katie brought up? That novel looked like it was failing. It had gotten nice reviews across the board, but the sales were abysmal. It never even broke 100 copies a week on Bookscan. If Robert Galbraith were, in fact, a debut author, he would have had to hope that his publisher remained optimistic that he had the potential to break out on a future book because on its own, those numbers were never going to support another release.
Now that we know who he is? It’s supremely smooth sailing.
In the end, publishing, like any business, just wants to turn a profit. So we gamble on books. Sometimes that gamble pays off; and sometimes we just keep plugging away until it does. Because of that, it’s a business that rewards patience, or at the very least determination and tenacity!