Monday, April 15, 2013

Adirondack Books: A Best Seller or A Local Seller?

Adirondack Books at Hoss'sWould you rather have a book on the New York Times Best Seller List, or a top seller in the Adirondack region?

If you’re an aspiring author, I know, I know … stupid question. But humor me, and before you answer, let me further define the question in this fashion: your book appearing on the New York Times list was produced, marketed, and sold by one of the world’s largest publishing companies. Your regional book, on the other hand, was self-published, which means it was funded, marketed, and sold by you.

I recently asked my partner that question, with the answer appearing obvious to both of us―but it isn’t. Actually, your reply depends on your goals: bragging rights for making the Times list, along with a semblance of fame and a profit; or regional popularity and a larger profit.

Modern technology’s incredible impact on the world of publishing has drastically changed the game, introducing choices that no one could have foreseen (which is why the industry remains unsettled, still trying to find its way).

The question of New York Times list versus regional best seller was never a consideration until recently. It would still be impossible to answer except that an author who promised to reveal profit numbers if she ever made the list did, in fact, follow through. And how often does it happen that actual sales numbers and authors’ net profits are revealed? Certified miracles in the Catholic Church are far more common. Seriously.

Access to this sales and profit information allowed comparison to regional numbers, which confirmed what I have shared with several Adirondack authors in the past. The results will surely amaze at least some of you.

In 2008, fiction writer Lynn Viehl’s sixth book, published by the Penguin Group (#2 in the world), debuted at #19 on the New York Time’s list. About 9 months later, she received her first royalty statement and made it available to the public. Here’s a brief summary of the numbers.

As a known author, she had received a very large advance: $50,000. But don’t roll your eyes. This is very relevant, valuable information, as you’ll see.

The advance was provided in two stages: two-thirds initially, and the final third when the book became available for sale. Here’s a simplified description of what followed.

The initial printing was 88,500 copies, and the statement revealed sales of about 44,000―earning the author royalties totaling $40,484. To determine the actual value to her, begin with the advance ($50,000). Subtract 15% agent fees ($7500); income taxes (approximately $15,000); and $1594 for expenses (Viehl described these as office supplies, shipping, and promotional materials).

Those expenses come to about $24,000, which, when subtracted from the $50,000, yields a net profit of about $26,000. That means the 44,000 book sales earned her a check for―$0. Why? Because the book hadn’t “earned out” yet, meaning it hadn’t brought in enough author profit to surpass her advance.

Stage 2: the next statement, which arrived about six months later. Additional sales and book returns were factored in. The author then combined the numbers with those from the first statement to reveal the overall results.

Total books sold: 61,663. Total earnings for the author: $45,182―so still no royalty income. She expected the book would earn out in about another six months. Her final assessment: “After paying taxes, commission to my agent, and covering my expenses, my net profit on the book currently stands at $24,517.36, which is actually pretty good since on average I generally net about 30–40% of my advance. Unless something triggers an unexpected spike in my sales, I don’t expect to see any additional profit from this book coming in for at least another year or two.”

And Penguin Group? The publisher’s gross earnings from that book were estimated at $453,840. Net earnings, about $250,000.

In comparison: during the same time that Lynn Viehl’s best seller was making the rounds, a book of regional interest began selling in the northern Adirondacks. Total printing, 2040 copies. Cost to the author for producing the book, approximately $5500. During the same year that Viehl’s book was selling 44,000 copies, the Adirondack book sold 2000 copies.

Now brace yourself: net profit for the regional author―$32,000. Nearly all 2000 sales were conducted within the Adirondacks, a miniscule market by most standards. The yield? About $8000 more for the author than a Times best seller, which during the same period outsold the regional book by 22 to 1.

Consider this: that’s without selling the regional book via Amazon or any chain bookstores; without employing any social media; without selling through a distributor; without any advertising expenses; and without taking advantage of e-book sales (even today, printed books still comprise about 78% of all book sales).

That’s one example of technology’s impact on book publishing. To ignore technology is to ignore the future. Producing one’s own book and attempting to sell it was once a guaranteed losing proposition. Unrealistic sales numbers were needed to even approach breaking even.

That’s no longer true. Various forms of technology are available, and there are many factors to consider, but even selling 1000 copies can now result in net profit of a few thousand dollars.

There’s nothing wrong with dreaming big, hoping to become the next Stephenie Meyer or the hottest new author on the scene. But where it was once the only dream, it’s now one of many that are possible, aided by the advent of e-books, blogging, social media, and new publishing technology.

Tread carefully if you hope to write and self-publish: it can be very challenging, and it involves financial risk, probably in the range of $6000 to $8000 if you pursue printed books. But know that if you produce a good product, carefully assess your market, and apply real effort to selling, the rewards can be far greater than pursuing what was once the only option available: working hard at being “discovered” by even the smallest of traditional publishers.

That has changed, and is still changing. The proof is in the numbers.

Photo of the Adirondack books on the shelf at Hoss’s in Long Lake (courtesy Hoss’s).

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

4 Responses

  1. Peter Klein says:

    Your question and your numbers are interesting and informative but….
    As posed I would still prefer being on the Times list for the following reasons.
    Getting on the list is like winning an award. It’s recognition. It doesn’t rule out selling your book locally.
    Finally, the bottom line.
    As you must know, there are no promises made no matter how a book is published or marketed unless, of course, you have a national or internationally known name (politician or actor).
    Then you don’t even have to write the book. Someone else could write the book for you and you will get a guaranteed advance because the $ million or more advance will be part of the marketing campaign.

  2. Larry says:

    The point was not just selling locally. Getting on the Times list requires being part of the traditional publishing/distribution system. Even if you make the list and gain great recognition, it doesn’t matter if your book sells locally or in Timbuktu: the result is a ton of profit for the publishing company and a comparable pittance for the author. Only a relatively few elite authors are big earners.

    Here’s the value to the author who made the Times list (and this was her 6th book): nearly 62,000 books sold; over a quarter million in net profit for the publishing company; and a level of personal profit (under $25,000) described by the author in these words: “Yep, we’d almost qualify for food stamps.”

    If earning income is important to an author (it isn’t to all), then by far the best bet is to target a small market, work at selling, and reap the benefits of one’s own work. Technology has made it possible for self-acknowledged “nobodies” selling 2000 copies to out-earn authors on the NY Times Best Seller List. Who’da thought?

  3. Adirondack Chump says:

    I loved what you reflected to me in what you wrote about publishing and getting published. I will soon be introducing the smaller world to my self-published niche book that is “Adirondack” in its composition. The more I have looked into being published traditionally, the more I view it as not fitting what I want or hope this book might do. I cannot quote who said it but I had to agree with this; “I had to write it anyway”.
    My heart and home is in the Adirondacks. My book is humor but based on the Adirondacks. If it makes a few folks laugh then I have my success. If this book helps local business and local economies at the same time, it will top my list. My hat is off to anyone who is striving for bigger or broader but this region is where my book needs to be.
    Adirondack Chump

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