Category Archives: numbers

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Behind the numbers

Looking at a royalty statement for the first time can be a little confusing. While the math is never hard, certain terms like “reserve against returns” and “subsidiary rights” can cause headaches where there needn’t be. The layout of a royalty statement is important too—an unorganized format can make reading a royalty statement ten times harder. Since there is no standard format though, I’ll just touch upon some basics.

Reserve against returns. Yes, most publishers don’t pay authors all the royalties they earn in the one period covered by a statement. The reserve against returns shows the amount withheld by the publisher for a limited period of time against the expectation of returns. This reserve is then released on later statements (assuming the book continues to sell).

Subsidiary rights. This is the section of the royalty statement that lists the revenue accumulated from rights that the publisher has sold to third parties. For example, this could include any earnings accrued by foreign editions of a book.

Unearned balance. An advance is simply that ladies and gentlemen. An advance. In order for a book to start earning royalties, it must first earn out the advance payment. Only then will an author see a positive balance. Negative balances are usually portrayed in parentheses.

Royalties earned. This amount depends on both the net units sold, as well as the terms stipulated in the author’s contract. Royalty rates range, but earnings are generally calculated based on the net or retail price of the book.

So those are some basics. Have more questions about royalty statements? Bring ’em!

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50 Years in 10 Books?

 

I realize that this infographic is not new, but I found it a little staggering.  Granted, an infographic is only as accurate as the data from which it was created, but even taken with a generous grain of salt, the “top ten most-read books of the past 50 years,” are surprising. It’s interesting to note that a good number feature magical thinking; Hobbits, Harry Potter, teenage vampires, an Alchemist, and in a slightly different vein, Think and Grow Rich.  Funny to see Margaret Mitchell and Mao Tse Tsung occupying the same shelf, or Anne Frank and Napoleon Hill.  Trying to draw conclusions about the era in which we live based on the primacy of these ten books is probably an exercise in absurdity or despair, better left to philosophers, practitioners of literary mash-up, or the list-makers at Buzzfeed.  And yet.  

 A year or so ago the BBC and the British Museum did a fascinating book and accompanying radio series called A History of the World in One Hundred Objects  available here—I wonder if a similar project—the history of the past 50 years–could be undertaken in ten carefully selected books.  What’s omitted would be as important as what’s included, but I’d be curious to see the upshot!

Any nominations?

For another, slightly longer list, you can check http://entertainment.howstuffworks.com/arts/literature/21-best-sellers.htm#page=22

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The Times it is a-changing

For the first time since 2004, the New York Times has made changes to their children’s bestseller lists. Up to this change, there were picture book, chapter book, paperback and series lists, with ten titles on each list (see here, though you’ll have to scroll down and click on the link for each list individually). There were complaints about the list (there are always complaints about the list), and publishers had been pushing for more space, especially as children’s sales increased dramatically. For comparison, the adult hardcover fiction list has fifteen slots, plus twenty on the extended list, for thirty-five slots total. In addition, many of us in the industry have complained about non-fiction titles dominating the chapter book list, particularly some licensed, toy-based books. The bestseller list is an important sales tool, not just an indicator of sales, and we know that the “New York Times Bestseller” designation for a book and author mean more attention from stores, libraries and consumers. Those of us bothered by the inclusion of those books felt that there were other titles that would benefit more from the attention that making the list brings, whereas these branded books would sell the same number of copies, with or without the designation. It’s not that they don’t deserve to be on a list; the chapter book list just seemed an odd fit.

So, when I heard from a source that the lists would be changing, I was hopeful. Sadly, this is definitely a case of “be careful what you wish for.” In their statement that proceeds the new list, the Times says they’ve made these changes in the list to reflect the changes in the book world, i.e. e-books. So now they have a picture book, middle grade, young adult, and series lists. The lists are format agnostic, so all hardcover, paperback and e-book sales on a title are included in the count. In addition, the MG and YA lists now include a short, five-slot extended list.

This all seems like it should be positive. I’ve been arguing that e-book sales should count towards the list, and there are ten new slots. But looking at the results for the first week, it’s disappointing. In splitting the books onto MG and YA (I can’t wait for when the Times puts a book on the “wrong” list), all of the children’s non-fiction, including those licensed books that drive me nuts, moved to the MG list. As such, eight of the top ten are nonfiction, and only two of those are narrative. The YA list is free of non-fiction, which is great. And it’s nice to see the quality, depth and breadth of the books on the list. But digging into the sales numbers a bit, it’s clear just how disadvantaged MG books are. Without the non-fiction to compete with, the YA list features titles on the main list that aren’t selling as well as some of the titles on the MG extended list. I’m basing this on one list, but from what I can see, it’s going to be much more difficult to have a MG bestseller than a YA one.

Though we know the times is now tracking hardcover, paperback and e-book sales for each title, it’s also unclear how the sales are weighted (and the Times guards their formula closely). The biggest question in this regard are about e-books. Are they tracking self-published books that are categorized as YA or MG? Does the price of the book effect the weighting? Could a publisher put an e-book on sale and watch their book jump onto the list? Making the list has always had an element of gamesmanship (colleagues and I like to joke about which book will magically land in the #10 spot, oftentimes despite dismal sales), but I think we’re in for an intense period of experimentation to see how e-book sales impact recognition.

And, I have one last complaint. With the start of the new MG and YA lists, the Times has reset each title’s “weeks on the list” count to 1. That means that Markus Zusak’s THE BOOK THIEF went from 272 weeks on the list back down to 1. It’s going to make it awfully tough for the next few months to easily see which books have been successful in the long run. Over time, this would cease to be an issue, but I hope the Times figures out a way to restore those “weeks on” counts.

End of rant. Any thoughts about the new lists and their impact?

3

Who’s Buying Your Book and What are You Going to Do About It?

While stuck on the bus (again) this morning on my way in to work, I was thinking about publishing, and royalties, and authors, and all the things I think about each day as a literary agent. When I finally got to my office, half an hour late for my 9:30 meeting and after over 2 hours of commuting fun, I found this article by Laura Munson who I’ve blogged about before Rejection inspiration when I shared her amazing journey to published, and now bestselling, author. She brings up in a sometimes crass but humorous way questions that many authors have about obtaining sales figures after their book is published. As she puts it: “Any businessperson should be able to see sales reports to judge how to proceed in peddling what she’s peddling, shouldn’t she?” Since publishers still (for now) only report earnings on average twice a year, and usually several months after the statement period closes, and they don’t include any sort of breakdown on where books are selling, how are authors supposed to help tap into new markets or take advantage of popular markets? It seems a basic almost obvious question, and one that doesn’t have a great answer in the publishing model.

In the past, if you had several thousand dollars a year to spend on Bookscan, a database that tracks actual book sales that has been around almost 10 years, or had an agent or editor with access and willing to share numbers, you could access real sales information by location, but it still didn’t track all accounts, only the major retailers (B&N, Amazon, Target etc.). Independent bookstores, for examples, and libraries, don’t report sales to Bookscan. Presumably publishers do have access to more accurate and specific sales data, but they don’t generally share it with authors or agents. I recall hearing that Random House has a ”policy” not to share numbers with authors in between royalty statements. It’s really tough to get answers about where a particular title is selling, and that can be confusing and frustrating for an author, especially a first time author, who is trying to figure out where to focus their marketing and publicity efforts.

The Amazon service which Munson describes, which is pretty cool for authors, especially since it’s free (I wonder what kind of deal Amazon and Bookscan worked out to be able to do this!), offers authors data derived from Bookscan (you can have increased access for a fee). It includes sales figures, updated each week, as well as geographic data, which, as Amazon describes on their website, “can help you plan and measure the effects of your next book tour”. It still doesn’t give you information on which retailers are selling in which quantities, but it’s more than authors ever knew before.

In this highly competitive and difficult market, any advantage you have in learning more about how and where your books are selling is a good thing. It makes me wonder what authors are doing with this information since this program began, and how many are taking advantage of it. If you are a published author, or if you aren’t but can imagine being one someday, what are you doing or what would you do with this sales feedback? Munson talks about considering events in places where her book isn’t selling. Can you think of cool ways to take advantage of this previously proprietary sales data?

Mary W. Quigley is a journalist who writes about women and work issues. Her most recent book is Going Back to Work: A Survival Guide (St. Martin’s Press, 2004). She is also the co-author of And What Do You Do? When Women Chose to Stay Home. Wildcat Canyon press, 2000). She started teaching as an adjunct in 1979 after she received her master’s in journalism from NYU. She teaches research, reporting and writing courses on both the graduate and undergraduate levels.
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From the Vault: By the numbers

Happy summer, everybody!  For the next while, there are going to be some absences from the blog as we take vacations, but we’d hate to leave you guys hanging.  It’s no secret that we blog much more now than when we started this baby, and there are far more of you reading than there were way back when.  So we thought we’d bring back some blog entries of days gone by that you may have missed if you just joined us in the last year.  If you have any favorites you think your fellow readers might enjoy, give us a shout below!

by Lauren

Numbers don’t mean a whole lot to me. I was always much better at the arts/humanities portion of my education than the math/science one. That’s not to say I don’t find math absolutely fascinating—I actually do, I swear!—I just don’t get it the way I do literature and language.

Without a ton of context, statistics don’t tend to make an impact on my brain. But there are some numbers that even the biggest numerophobe in publishing really ought to know. Here are some you might find interesting:

  • U.S. publishing is a $35 billion industry, the Book Industry Study Group reported at BEA last year—net revenues reached $34.59 billion in 2005, which was an increase of 5.9% over the previous year. We may tell ourselves that in this age of video games, technology and instant gratification people are reading less and less—but if that’s true, we’re certainly paying more and more for the books we’re not reading. That same report projects that revenues will break $40 billion by 2010.

  • How many books does it take to bring in that kind of money? Well, approximately 200,000 new books are published each year, reported PW in 2004.

  • And how much paper does it take to print so many books? According to the New York Times (via the Authors Guild Bulletin in Summer 2006), Random House buys 110,000 tons of uncoated paper to publish books each year. 

  • Many of us know that the Bible has more copies in print than any other book, but what’s number two? Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care, with more than 50 million copies in print and still going, according to Publishers Weekly from 2/12/07.

  • In 2006, Bowker, the self-proclaimed “world’s leading source for bibliographic information,” published a survey based on 13,000 novels published in the U.S.

    • 1,550 of those with a location that could be identified were set in England, Scotland, Wales or Ireland.

    • New York and London were the two most common cities used as settings.

    • The same study showed that 65% of romance books, 61% of science fiction titles, and 58% of mystery/detective novels were published in paperback (meaning both mass market and trade).

  • And just how long were those books? The average for sci-fi was 329 pages with romance on its heels at 324. Mysteries were just shy of 300 at 292, followed by westerns at 261.

  • So just how long does it take to write those 13,000 novels anyway?

    • Tom Perkins, ex-husband of Danielle Steel, wrote Sex and the Single Zillionaire in 100 hours over 30 days.

    • Compare that with Donna Tartt and Shirley Hazzard. Tartt published The Secret History in 1992, then spent the next decade writing her second novel, The Little Friend.

    • Hazzard’s follow up took even longer—2003 saw publication of The Great Fire, 23 years after her debut, The Transit of Venus.

  • And do they sell well? The standards for success really do change from book to book based on any number of factors—category, author’s platform, size of the advance, size of the marketing budget—but everyone agrees that the majority of books fail to earn out their advances (meaning that the author’s royalties never accrue to the point that they actually earn more than they were paid up front). What percentage? An exact number is probably impossible to pin down, but it’s said that 80-85% of books published don’t earn out.

  • And how can we know how many copies of a book have sold? The closest we get to reliable public information is via Bookscan, a tracking database operated by Nielsen, the same people who tell us what everyone’s watching on TV. (As you may know, it’s not a perfect system since Bookscan only reports sales from certain segments of the market. If a book sells a large percentage in the “special sales” category—i.e., via outlets other than traditional book channels, including stores like Wal-Mart, which declines to report—Bookscan might not give a particularly good idea of how well that book is selling.) Just how accurate is Bookscan? They claim to be 70-75% accurate, according to a Publishers Weekly article from 2004. Of course that also changes depending on what type of book you’re talking about. Bookscan is more accurate for books that sell primarily via traditional book retailers, and less accurate for categories—like mass market fiction, cookbooks and children’s—that sell a large volume outside those channels.

Some numbers are critical to understanding how publishing works, and others are just an interesting way of looking at what seems like a completely abstract world. What statistics do the rest of you find fascinating? Which sets of numbers comfort or terrify you? What numbers do you wonder about?

Originally posted in May 2007.