Why Sales Numbers Don’t Matter (Much) for Your First Novel

Why Sales Numbers Don’t Matter (Much) for Your First Novel

My publisher sent my second quarter sales report at the end of August. As discussed previously, it’s pretty standard for those to come in long after the quarter ends — in my case, two months after.

Folks, it was not what I hoped.

Because my book released halfway through March, and based on my Amazon rankings during this period, I believed my initial launch surge of sales would go at last two weeks into Q2, which was about half of that launch surge. Thus, I expected to see Q2 sales about on par with my Q1 sales (which encompassed presales and two weeks of my launch).

Turns out: Nope.

Between April and June, I sold a whopping 118 copies of my novel. So, still not a bestseller.

This made my heart sink, because I now realize that I am not going to make my initial goal of selling 1,000 copies in my first year (which will end in March 2016).

Not only is this number far below what I’d need to be on pace for my 1000-copy goal, but I’ve only seen my Amazon ranking continue to sink since this period ended, so my sales trend is going in the wrong direction.

So yeah, it stings.

Unfortunately, a sales dip is normal, particularly when you only have one book on the market, and particularly when you’re with a small press.

Demystifying debuts

The debut novel holds a lot of reverence.

For writers, it’s a symbolic step that takes them from “aspiring” to “professional.” For readers, it means an exciting new voice to check out, and they can be the first to discover it.

For a lucky few who manage a major publishing deal for their debut, and who are chosen by that publisher for a large marketing investment, the debut can shoot a writer straight to stardom.

For the rest of us, this only the first step in a long road ahead.

  • Books in a series tend to hit sales “critical mass” at book three, according to my publisher. Which makes sense, because every true fan is now three potential sales, instead of just one.
  • As a result, there are certain promotional steps my publisher won’t take until the series has three books in it (like run a BookBub promotion). My publisher has strongly discouraged me from spending my own budget on this, too. I have taken this advice, and I find it a wise approach.
  • Many authors report seeing a “tipping point” in their sales trends around book eight to 10 (series or not), where they are discovered by more readers, each reader buys more books, and there is an overall upward shift in sales trends. My own observation of authors at every stage backs this up.

In other words, if you want a long-term career as a writer, the debut novel is not a sales machine. It’s a first step for growing a readership.

Platform over profit

Based on this conclusion, I’ve chosen to approach my debut launch as a tool to grow my platform, rather than a product for immediate profits.

This means I am prioritizing my investments (time and money) for ways to use my book as a credential to take actions that will support my more long-term goals.

These are:

  • Get an agent and major publisher for my next book after my current series.
  • Grow a readership who will want to buy my future releases.

To this end, I am active on social media, I blog, I send out a newsletter.

I invest in Facebook ads to grow my email list and recently started giving away a free novella as an incentive.

And I’m pitching to speak at relevant events on panels and on my own.

Shift your thinking

I may not make my sales goal for year one, but let’s be real: it was pretty lofty. There’s actually a silver lining in all this, and it’s nothing to sneeze at:

Just four months into the launch of my first book, I have surpassed the “average” mark for first-year book sales.

The average book, measuring everyone from that self-pub guy who throws his book on CreateSpace and does nothing else, up to JK Rowling, sells 250 copies a year (and only 2,000 in its lifetime). As of June, I’m at 322.

Between this fact and all I’ve learned about debuts in general, rather than beat myself up, I am choosing to shift my thinking. Instead of stressing over short-term goals, I am setting myself up for future success.

How are you investing in your writing future?

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56 comments

  • WoW, What a great Post it is.

  • Great! I am going to check out the article its very informative thanks to share this.

    • So how often do you feel we should do FREE BOOK giveaways? or have online ‘sales’ of our books?

      • Good question, and I don’t have a solid answer for you. Roughly, my gut would be to offer promotion pricing a few times a year, but not more–or why would anyone pay full price ever? Long-term, I’d focus on quality over low pricing.

        However, personally, I intend to probably always have one free work that I use strategically as an offer to my best leads (so people likely to want my type of writing anyway) because it is such a great way to offer easy entry and get a new reader hooked.

        Bottom line: Always have a strong strategic reason for offering content free or on sale, don’t just do it because you’re scared you won’t make sales otherwise.

        • Thanks Emily. I have NO CLUE how to market, to be honest. I am a relatively new author and just love writing. It is also a healing thing for me to do *Writing my Memoir too.

          I am almost done editing book 3 now:)

  • Aleta Dye says:

    Thank you so much for sharing and encouraging beginning/struggling writers. I am just now learning how to choose keywords and choose the correct genres for my book. Now I just have to implement it and see how it goes. My book isn’t doing near as well as yours, but I just had a giveaway and in less than 24 hrs. gave away ten copies. Think I’ll do another around Christmas time.

  • Emily Rose says:

    Hello, Emily! I have a question regarding ebooks. I hope you don’t take it as criticism. It really is just an honest question!

    Anyway, I understand why one would give away free copies of a novel in order to make it more vastly available since it serves as a promotional step. However, is there a danger in doing so? I feel terrible in saying this, but as a reader who is conscious of the media I’m consuming, I have ingrained in my mind that if I don’t have to pay for a book, there wasn’t a lot of care put into writing it. I myself know how labor-intensive writing can be, so I would never want to think that about someone else’s book, it just seems i have a pre-ordained assumption regarding free ebooks: is something free isn’t good, and someone who gives away free work isn’t someone I would buy a novel from later on. Like I said, I’m certainly not saying you work is bad! I just wonder if free e-books are a wise choice, and if they’re effective, or if it just has too much of a stigma against it?

    I truly hope that this doesn’t offend you! It’s just an honest question coming from someone who has only a few poems published in literary journals and wants to eventually enter the world of novel publication!

    • Not at all, Emily. It’s a good question, and a good thing to be thinking about.

      There are a lot of opinions out there on this topic, and not everyone will agree with my approach. However, in my experience and observation, generosity is rewarded, particularly online.

      But that doesn’t mean you should give EVERYTHING away. It means, be strategically generous.

      I have experienced what you are talking about before, where I got a book for free (in this case, in conference totes and throwaway tables) that I did not take seriously because they were given away for free. But I think a key part of this is that I did not seek them out – they were just there.

      So a more strategic way to offer free content would be to be selective. Offer it on your website, for readers who are seeking it out. Or on Amazon with the same approach, where it is available for those who are looking for your type of writing. I also target fantasy readers on Facebook — but these readers have to give me something first. They have to be willing to give me their email address. This won’t filter out everyone of course, but it will do some of that.

      I also think that general presentation comes into play big time here. Is your promo content and book cover professional looking? Your website and headshot? If you present yourself in a way that shows you take yourself seriously, readers are more likely to take you seriously, too.

      This could be an entire article on its own, and people have certainly written about it before me, so I will stop rambling now.

  • I’m happy to hear this, because this is exactly what I came to myself (though not with your same sale number, alas!).
    Many people told me there is no point in promoting just one book, so I shifted my goal from selling books to graw my readership… and write the next books in the meanwhile 😉

    I think having a book out is such an achievement for any author that we instintively feel there should be a rewarding. Sadly, reality is very different. But the future is bright, so I think we should celebrate that 🙂

    Thanks so much for sharing.

    • Maybe it’s the marketer in me, but I can’t help but wonder if there’s any real harm in promoting your first book while working on your next one. Surely the resulting increased sales and visibility for the author would help sell the second book. Although, I totally agree that writing that next book needs to be the main focus. 🙂

    • I agree with Bailey — I have a bone to pick with the idea that there is NO point in promoting your first book. I think it’s more just about how you focus your efforts (and I’d save some things, like Bookbub, for later on).

      I’ve had a lot of success with guest blogging, which is totally free to do, and Facebook ads (target carefully!) to grow an email list. This is a great thing to focus on, because it builds an audience that will already know you and be ready to buy when your next book comes out!

      • Jim says:

        I tried to promote my book and sold around 400 copies over the last year (stopped looking or caring back in April). Most from friends and stuff but very few reviews and of course the sales started drying up.

        It always seems to be 50/50 on promote or write. I was just disheartened with trying a lot and not really seeing any movement. So I decided to go all in on the just keep writing and hope the says will eventually start coming.

        Like I said early, I also am trying to write a screen play so hoping that will be some heavy duty marketing if I ever get them to go for it. I also think it really does wonders to the story.

  • Thanks for sharing your story. I can totally relate. My small-press published novel came out last year and has yet to hit 100 copies. I haven’t put nearly enough effort into promoting it or seeking reviews, but I’m trying to work on that now while I query my next book.

    It’s definitely a marathon, not a sprint. But the good news is you only lose the race when you stop running 🙂

  • I went the completely self-publishing route. I’ve done pretty much everything on my own and without spending a dime. Although I have taken a LOT of webinars from writers, bloggers, and business people, which have helped out a ton along the way, showing me new ways to do things, and free apps and what not to accomplish my goals.

    My first book sold a whopping 12 copies within the few months that it’s been on the market, though, to be honest, I hadn’t really done anything TO market it.

    I finished editing and formatting a series of books recently that are my real babies, my debut novel was really more of just a way to say, “yeah, I can totally do this!” Since then, I’ve gotten all my ducks in a row and I’m about to go on a serious marketing campaign, putting all of the little tips and tricks I’ve learned into place.

    I’ve already found that making my first novel free has jump started that promotion and I see a new download every day, so I’m on the right track!

    Good luck to everyone out there, do whatever it takes, and don’t give up!

  • This is a great article on the realities of publishing. I will be sharing it with my online writing group on Facebook. I’m at work on my third book and have noticed this to be true. Thanks for the encouragement — it reinforces my idea to keep producing and doing the blogging/newsletter/workshop thing to build platform.

  • Hello Emily,

    I love your articles. Drop me a note, please? I’d love to connect.

    Thanks!

  • This is really inspirational and grounding at the same time. Thank you for sharing this and all your other previous stuff too, Emily.

    I too have heard the ‘things only really happen after book 3’ argument and am holding back on spending money on marketing till then. Book 2 should be out this side of Christmas and then on to writing book 3. This means I can concentrate on writing (the bit I love, like you) and put off the worrying about marketing till later!

    I love Jim’s idea RE art books – one to keep in the back pocket.

    • So exciting! Good luck!

      Ever since I started reading about this phenomenon, I’ve been itchign to just GET. MY. RELEASES. OUT. and have had to remind myself over and over that it’s still necessary to take the time to write the books RIGHT so that they are worth readers’ time. You’re a few steps ahead of me, way to go.

      • thank you Emily. Get. OUR. Releases. OUT! haha YES! I agree with you. Honestly at this moment I am creating more content and have no real CLUE how to market..yet.

        🙂

        I have a poem in my new book called ‘LONG HAUL’, because I am in this for the long haul not a short run. I love writing and will write forever.

    • Jim says:

      Thank you Barford & Harshit (above).

      To add a little to the idea of ArtBooks.. So when you work up your background, create your world, do it in short stories. Instead of writing out notes on how something came out, create a myth story or have a story teller tell it..

      Hope you don’t mind my reference Emily. Here is a story I wrote about some of the background of my book: https://jegrimm.wordpress.com/2015/05/10/wall-of-destruction-background-on-matters-military/

      In the ArtBook idea, I would have probably look at having the story on the left page with a smaller header picture about something in the story. Two or three on the right pages for the 1-3 pages it would take for the story. Then maybe a nice full color one on the page between this story and the next one. So do 3-4 stories (maybe more) in the book with enough art work for each story.

      Emily I imagine you could think this up for your books.

      I also wrote my book into a screen play. I modified the story like crazy for the screen play. Loved it. That might be another way we indies can get out there.. If a movie is associated with it or even a Hollywood studio leasing the rights to your movie. Put that on your blog and all over FB/Twitter, etc.. and people will take notice. At least that is my hope 🙂

  • Thanks for sharing your publishing journey, Emily! So much importance gets placed on just publishing the first book that many don’t realize that building a sustainable writing career is a marathon (full of more books) — not even the Big 5 publishers are seeing many huge blockbuster books anymore. The powerhouses are brands, the big name authors, who’ve built their backlist.

    • Agree! There is so little out there about what it looks like to be a first-time author without a major publisher fully behind you. Hopefully I can provide some helpful context that I was unable to find for myself when I was pre-launch and desperately searching for it.

  • I was of the Ray Kinsella mindset, build it and they will come. I did next to nothing before the launch of my book. Between stage fright and being overwhelmed with the task(s) to create a marketing plan, be present on social media, blog, etc., I lapsed into my writer’s head and wrote two more books. Good, but not really. Since I’ve kicked by backside hard. While I am editing the books, my focus is divided. I write and edit (important) and I am working on the platform, building my social presence, connecting with other writers, and building trust. There is no ‘right’ way to create a plan, each is as unique as the writer, but I’ve learned waiting for them to come isn’t the best plan.

    • Bailey! I totally hear you. Most of my book sales are to freids and family but Hey how else are you gonna start? ya know? I dont mind that. I think thats just the way it is when we start writing books. I am also starting a Kindle EBook promotion in a few days. We’ll see what happens. For now, like you most of my sales are to my own circle of friends and family.Like you Id like to learn more about marketing to people outside that circle.

    • Absolutely! Even as someone who works in marketing and PR, when my debut released, I totally lost my mind in something between overwhelming excitement and sheer panic, and as a result I didn’t do nearly as much as I wish I had (there’s always more!)

      But each release is an op to learn as much as it is an op to reach readers, so pick up all the lessons you can and just apply them to future efforts!

    • ‘Build it and they will come’ lol. Not a great plan? lol Thanks for the laugh. We are all individuals so we all must build our own plan. I’m glad I love writing so much. Was it Stephen King who said in his book ‘On Writing’, ‘Never put one word down for the money?’ 🙂

  • Thank you so much for this. I just published two poetry books. I KNOW it is not about sales (haha) so I am working on my next books now. I have decided that I am committed to writing. I am in it for the long haul not short haul.
    A fellow author just messaged me saying: ‘Just went to buy your book. You’re ranking is amazing. Did you get a bookbub?(Dont even know what bookbub is!) I said ‘NO. HOnestly I have no idea what I’m doing with marketing. I am just concentrating on the writing now’. She added : ‘WOw your book is ranked 11,000 right now which is amazing for an indie book esp poetry and even more so bc it’s $10′.

    Should I be overly excited? What does all this RANKING stuff mean? Anyone know?

    My book one titled “Catch a Poem by the Tale’, has received 50 reviews and it has been on Amazon for less than two months. Anyone know if that means anything?

    I just love writing so I will keep on keepin on!
    Thanks for your wonderful blog. I love thewritelife.com.

    • Wow, Michelle! 50 reviews in just a couple of months is amazing! My book was released one month ago, and, despite my best efforts, I only have 5 reviews so far. (Getting reviews is like pulling teeth!)

      I did hear that when you hit 50 reviews, Amazon starts recommending your book more when people are making other purchases. It’s a magic number I hope someday to hit.

      Really, you’re doing amazing!

      • ahh thanks Bailey. HONESTLY I have no friggin CLUE about marketing!!! I just asked some friends to review it. Funny but I’ve had to send a lot of free PDF’s of my book to people. Some said ‘Yes they would read and review’ but never did. I hear you about pulling teeth. I decided not to solicit reviews any longer. I did hear that when you get to 50 reviews something happens?? haa.

        Thanks for your support Bailey. I’m just going back to edit my next book. I have the mindset that the more I write the more successful I will be in the longrun. Plus I love writing. Not so sure I love the whole marketing aspect of it.:)

        Also I am well aware of the mysteriousness of this whole damn book writing busienss is. Id love to stay in touch

    • 50 reviews is fantastic, and that alone will really help with your visibility to readers on Amazon. Nice work!

  • Emily, first thank you for being so open and transparent about how your first book is selling. It’s encouraging to other writers, like me, who may be struggling with making sales on their first book!

    I self-published my debut middle-grade novel about a month ago. I’ve had 62 sales in that time, which some people say is quite good. But, frankly, those sales came from my book announcement on my Facebook page. Most of those people know me. Now, I need to reach the people who DON’T know me!

    Nothing sells book one more than book two. And three. And so on. So, I am pouring most of my energies into writing the next book in the series. But, I’m also experimenting with some advertising to try to get my book in front of more people. I’m setting a budget, so I don’t spend more than I can afford.

    I’m also running a free Kindle eBook promotion right now. My hope is to get more reviews and maybe even some sales from it. In just one day, nearly 800 people downloaded my book, so the results have been encouraging.

    But I know that writing more books is the only way to sell more books. So, that’s my main focus.

    • Bailey! I totally hear you. Most of my book sales are to freidns and family but Hey how else are you gonna start? ya know? I dont mind that. I think thats just the way it is when we start writing books. I am also starting a Kindle EBook promotion in a few days. We’ll see what happens. For now, like you most of my sales are to my own circle of friends and family.Like you Id like to learn more about marketing to people outside that circle.

    • Yes, breaking past your own immediate social circle to reach NEW readers is a huge challenge — that’s where so many authors stall out around #250. For me, guest blogging and targeted Facebook ads have been a great method, with a focus on growing my email list so I can introduce people to my series with a free prequel novella, and to me as an author with a monthly update.

      I like your thinking with the free Kindle promo – after I get book 2 of my series out the door, my next project is another novella, with the intention of giving away free on Amazon–developing those sales funnels is key. Good luck!

  • Whew! Thank you, Emily… I expected you to write “… I only sold 2,000 copies in Q2…” or something to that effect. Get excited, you’ve got at least 322 people just wait’n for your next book. By book 3, it’ll be over a thousand, waiting for *you* to write that next story. Buckle up and push the red button…

  • You have articulated exactly where I am — sold more than the 250, but things aren’t going to budge until I get my second, and third books out there. I have two agents waiting for my second book, which I am editing now, and know exactly what I’ll do for my third. I have wasted a fortune on the advice being handed out on the internet, and would have done far better to have waited until my second or third book to splurge on a publicist or book promotions. I’ve appeared on many radio shows, and have a healthy mailing list, Facebook presence, and blog (except my website has been down for a too many weeks). The first book has been a chance to test my act, see how it plays. I’m encouraged and will do better next time.

  • Harshit says:

    Hlw Emily,
    First of all, i would like to thank you! For sharing this content.And yes, #Jim said it right. I totally agree with it.

  • Jim says:

    Hello Emily,

    Something you might want to consider is creating art books for your “world”. Like you created the novella, Rain. Make some short stories with 10-20 drawings and make that into a smaller book. Using the same theory that the more books you have out the more chances that readers will find your works.

    I plan a trilogy for my Atlantis novels and want to include 2-3 art books as well. If I do everything I am expecting, I would have 5-6 books out there for readers to find me.

    Good luck!

    • Thanks Jim, that is a very interesting idea, I like it a lot. I’ll have to keep that in my holster.

      Are you doing your own art? No one should ever have to pay for MY artwork, it is horrid, but perhaps down the line I’ll reach a point where I can justify investing in an artist to create some for me! Perhaps I’ll do this instead of one of the novellas i was planning.

      • Jim says:

        Glad you like it. I plan on finding an art student. See if they will trade artwork for putting their name on the book, less cash and a reference. Plus I figure I would also show some of the art work on my blog or even get them started on a blog and reference that in the book, my blog etc…

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