Recently Brad Martin, the President and CEO of Penguin Random House Canada, was quoted as saying the following:
“I’m not interested in a book that is going to generate less than $100,000 in revenue unless the editor or publisher [division] has a compelling vision for the book and/or the author…If the person that’s championing that book in the acquisitions meeting doesn’t have a compelling view of it, it’s just trying to fill a slot, then I’m not interested in doing it….I don’t subscribe to the, ‘Well, it’s not going to cost us very much.’ I don’t care what it’s going to cost you – what’s your vision of this book? Because, no, we can’t afford to do a lot of small books without a vision, because they take as much time to put through the system as a big book does.”
In other words, for this publisher, unless there is a threshold of $100,000 in projected revenue, they won’t publish it.
Publishing Economics 101
Before your eyes glaze over with another discussion of publishing economics, think on this – publishing is a business. A business must have money left over after expenses – or they go out of business. This principle can also affect a non-profit ministry that is involved in any enterprise, not just publishing. If their revenues are exceeded by their expenses it begins to drain resources designated for other parts of the ministry. I know of one large denomination that, many years ago, dropped their publishing division because its losses were draining funds intended for their clergy’s pension plans.
Back to the $100k proclamation. On the surface that sounds like a very high, if not impossible, number. But if you look more carefully you’ll see that it isn’t as nefarious as it sounds.
Let’s say the retail price of the book is $20. The publisher sells that book for $10 to a bookstore or an online retailer like Amazon. To have $100,000 in revenue, using this scenario, the publisher needs to only sell 10,000 copies to hit that magic threshold. And that is a very doable number!
Note that the $100k quote was from the Canadian branch of Penguin Random House. The Canadian book market is not quite as large as the U.S. Market which makes that 10,000 unit sales threshold a little more challenging.
Be careful not to apply these numbers to all publisher and all genres. Fiction and non-fiction are different. Although the costs of production are quite similar, sales channels are different and expectations vary. In non-fiction a book on raising kids is different than an academic tome on the nature of electricity.
Every publisher is different. Each one has a different expense structure and different definitions of success.
A few years ago I had a major-sized publisher tell me that their in-house threshold was $250,000 so this isn’t “new.” In that case the editor was basically saying that they needed to project sales of about 30,000 units in the first year to consider a project viable.
Publishing is an unusual business in that it is the “Business of Art.” Art has within it an emotional component and thus a book can often be acquired because of the intense belief, on the part of an editor or publishing group, in the power of the story or the power of the message. This gives hope to many aspiring authors that their book (fiction or non-fiction) will captivate an agent, and editor, a publishing exec, and the public. It can happen, and it does.
It is a little rattling when the art form is reduced to numbers by a powerful person inside a publishing house. It suggests that numbers trump art… (That mathematical formula looks like this: $$ > !! )
And yet there remains optimism at every turn. Deals continue to be made, even in these “dog days of Summer.” (We did three new ones last week!) Great writing and great ideas will always be paired with great publishing.
In generating the $100,000, does Brad take into account e-books? Or is that icing on the cake?
Yes, the number includes ebooks. They are not “icing” anymore, they are simply another format that a publisher uses…hardback, paperback, ebook, etc.
Thanks so much, Steve.
I’ll be thinking about your post for a while. Do you think 10,000 readers is a reasonable goal for most authors? Or is this a good goal for a new author?
If your book sells 10,000 copies in its first year then that is generally considered an okay number. Of course 20,000 would be much better!
Be careful not to get caught up in the numbers or the comparison game. The danger is thinking that your book is a failure if is sells “only” 8,000 copies or thinking it is a raging success if it sells more than 20,000. Each situation bears its own merit. For one publisher, selling 10,000 is cause for celebration. For another publisher, selling 10,000 copies might lose someone their job. It is all a matter of perspective and expectations.
Thanks for your kindness in answering my questions.
I hope you have a great day!
I love the mathematical equation.
This is rather depressing information, Steve, for someone who has only published scientific nonfiction, where the numbers are at least an order of magnitude lower. When I make presentations proving the statistical necessity of a designer of living systems based on molecular biology and the statistical impossibility of the origin of species by undirected random processes, I stress the need to ask for numbers when data is given in percentages and percentages when given in numbers. So, in the Christian publishing world, is the number still a near-certainty of selling a minimum 10-15K copies the first year? What percentage of published novels achieve those numbers? Are the numbers and percentages the same for larger and smaller publishers? Assuming excellent writing, what are the odds that a debut fiction author can get anyone to take the gamble without a proven track record? Is it roughly equivalent to the odds that a living cell will spontaneously form anywhere liquid water exists? I still plan to shoot for the traditional publisher route, but I would appreciated your analysis of the odds of success.
Carol, I think your questions are right where a lot of authors are at this time. It seems that traditional publishing is becoming harder to “break into,” and yet the number of authors is multiplying. Perhaps this is why Indie Publishing is expanding at such a phenomenal rate.
There is a dramatic difference between scientific non-fiction and a commercial novel.
Using any sort of “number” as a hard and fast threshold can only apply to a specific situation.
I’ve sold highly academic projects to academic publishers whose “numbers” reflect their situation in-house.
In other words, each publisher is going to evaluate a book based on their sales and profit projections. For one publisher it could be 5,000 copies, for another it could be 50,000.
There is no “one size fits all” in publishing economics.
Thanks for the more encouraging info, Steve. There is a factor of 10 difference in cost, too. The optimist in me can hope that the future fans of my $10-14 novels might want to follow me at Amazon to a new genre and buy the $100-$140 semiconductor monograph. Then again, I seem to remember a recent blog post about many people restricting their reading to a single genre. Perhaps I had better not get my hopes up too high for any effect on my backlist, but maybe my gallium arsenide fans might like to read a good romance. Maybe…
Maybe “write what you know” and have the scientist in your novel be an expert in gallium arsenide. Or maybe a thriller about the silicon industry sabotaging the gallium arsenide (GaAs) industry because of its threat to their economics.
Or just write something related to Skynet…
We tried to create an “apprenticeship in a book” by revealing many practical tips that you only learn by doing. Maybe we could increase sales by remarketing it in the “arts and crafts” and “do-it-yourself” genres. As far as a romance set in a clean room…everyone looks alike in the bunny suits.
It’s interesting to see what the cash number looks like in book sales. When I view Brad Martin’s words from that viewpoint, it sounds much more do-able than simply saying, “$100,000 in revenue.” It makes a lot of sense that a publisher is looking at every aspect of publishing a book. They must if they want to stay in business. I appreciate your perspective.
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
I love us.
100K Canadian is roughly 124K American, right now.
Still a doable number.
But old Brad is probably from Toronto and thinks only of the perimeter of that city. Trust me, that mindset is hard fact in Canada. Much like arrogant New Yorkers wondering what is beyond their city. Only worse.
Surprisingly, Canada has a very snooty literary culture that snorts and sniffs at anything less than Margaret Atwood bleeding all over a page. The prestigious Giller Prize is all that and a bag of chips, braggy flavoured.
(Do I want the Giller someday? You bet!)
Will Brad be proven right? One would hope not, because not as many people buy art as they do a good book, whatever their perception of good turns out to be. We have healthy bookstore chains up here called Chapters, and Indigo. They are owned by the same company and the lines are always long!
10,000 units? Do-able, and hopefully achievable by many.
Don’t shoot me for seeing the upside of this. Yes, that’s a lot of books, but isn’t that the dream? For our work to be fruitful – read and spread throughout the country, if not world. If we’re trying to be a light in the world… even if our audience is Christians only, to share a message of love, redemption, second chances, worthiness in Him or whatever our message may be (those are just mine), then I want to dream big. I want to see God move mountains. So, yay! I pray some publisher sees that in my writing. Sees 250,000 people reading and hearing God through the story or Christian living books I write. God is bigger than 100,000, 250,000.
It is 100,000 dollars…not 100,000 readers.
For most publishers, if they think they can sell 10,000 to 15,000 copies of a book in its first year they may give it a shot. For some houses and for some types of books that first year target is higher.
But I agree. Put 10,000 readers of your book into a single room. That is an extraordinary number. It would fill most major university basketball arenas.
Yes, I realized that after I posted… 10,000 seems like a fair number for a publisher to want as an investment. I just wonder if that means we have to a platform of over 30,000 followers. While working on a ghostwriting project, I read somewhere (apologize for not having the source handy) you should have a minimum of 3 times the followers, if not more, as the number of books, etc. you expect to sell.
Actually there isn’t any sort of “rule of thumb” or social media metric like you’ve described. I suppose someone could claim that but it is a bit of a misnomer.
30,000 followers could mean 30k likes on Facebook or 30k Twitter followers or 30k blog readers per month. Or some combo of them all…assuming they are all unique and not the same people in all three places.
But then what does that mean?
However I can say with no uncertainty that if you have 30,000 opt-in readers of your regular newsletter? That is a significant number nowadays.
The reason is that Facebook no longer has the reach it once had unless you “buy eyeballs” i.e. pay for viewers. And you can buy Twitter followers very easily. And claiming readers of a blog can be sort of verified by some services like Alexa.com that tells you the impact of a web site.
Wow. The geek in me loves the mention of Gallium Arsenide in an article on writing. I spent my doctorate immersed in such experiments.
Hey, there! True kindred spirit! There are 10 types of people in the world…those who understand binary and those who don’t. Bet we’re the same type.
Steve, I’ve always appreciated your mathematical analysis of the business of publishing, but in this post you take it to a higher level. Well stated!
Write Along Radio
Your formula made me laugh “$$ > !!”
True enough about the business approach. In Canada it’s said to be far more difficult to hit 10,000 for book sales, particularly in an area such as literary fiction. It does make me wonder whether we’ll see migration of the area to smaller publishers, or if all will remain the same.