Have I succeeded?

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!

2 Responses to Have I succeeded?

  1. Kevin A. Lewis says:

    OK,interesting subject-I just got off the Deals section of PW where one of the burning news items is an Intermediate book about a suffering kid in the Sudan who learns to write and value herself through art, and it’s of course written in verse… Now we have to factor several things into this phenomenon; No.1 being that the agency which signed this thing is one of the biggest in town and doesn’t need the money that a financially succesful book would bring, and thus tends to select it’s authors on a totally whim-driven basis. No.2, they just might be cynical enough to figure that a lot of insecure parents and teachers might be guilt-tripped into buying this book, regardless of what Bart Simpson and Milhouse might actually think of it. And if this the case, we’ll have yet another bestseller which everbody buys and virtually nobody reads, which by our original calculus still spells success! Although I honestly think their motivation doesn’t go past No.1, to be honest.

  2. Lynn says:

    As you said, Jim, success is in how much money a book can make. I’m not sure about patience, however, I heard it was Rowling’s publisher who leaked the story because her book was doing so poorly. It was ranked No. 4709 on Amazon – 24 hours later it’s No. 1. The writing didn’t change, the book didn’t change, but the dollars are now rolling in. Too bad they didn’t wait awhile longer to see if the book could have gotten momentum on it’s own rather than the Rowling name. After all, there was a reason for her to write under a pseudonym in the first place.

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