How Do You Count Lifetime Book Sales?

A key element in a book proposal is your sales history. Of course, you can ignore this if you’ve never published a book before. But if you have published, either with a traditional publisher or independently, your sales history must be included in your next book proposal. Here is an example:

Sales History:
The Bestest Book Ever (XYZ Publishers, 1996) – 12,449 sold
The Other Bestest Book I Wrote (Independently Published, 2014) – 1,028 sold
An Even Better Book (FYI Publishers, 2016) – 6,699 sold

Seems pretty straightforward doesn’t it? Many authors only list the titles but not the numbers for fear that the poor selling title (see the above example) will hurt their chances of a book deal. It might be true, but if the numbers are left blank the editor will always ask for the numbers anyway. Some will try to hide the poor performing book by leaving off the sales numbers and instead say, “Over 20,000 of my books have been sold.” We know that trick.

What about Author Purchases?

If you publish with a traditional publisher you have the opportunity to buy copies to sell at your speaking events. The royalty report from your publisher does not include those purchases in your royalty report because they don’t earn royalties. For example, I know one author who bought over 10,000 copies to use as a fund raiser for his ministry but the royalty report only showed sales of 2,000 copies. Those 2,000 copies were sold to stores and through online retailers.

This means the book did not sell very well in the marketplace. But how should you show that in the next book proposal? Can you claim 12,000 sold or only 2,000 sold?

There isn’t any one right way to do it. I would not recommend claiming 12,000 sold because most of them were not through a normal sales channel. If you or your organization is able to make a large buy, then I recommend making your guaranteed author purchases a feature of the proposal…as long as those number are significant (5,000 or more). Maybe include that buy back guarantee as part of your marketing section.

But if you are not buying thousands of copies it won’t help your proposal to mention it. In this case I recommend reporting only the sales shown in your royalty report.

If you independently publish you get to include all sales! A major publisher may ask where your books were sold in case yours sold in special circumstances.

What about Kindle Unlimited Sales?

KU (Kindle Unlimited – part of Amazon) ebook sales are a challenge to report in a book proposal. KU sales are the number of pages that a KU subscriber has read in ebook form. To be a part of KU the ebook has to be exclusively sold on Amazon. The author is paid a set amount of money per page read. (Last September that rate was $0.0044253 paid per page read.)

The statement from Amazon may show 20,000 pages read. How do you report that? Do you divide the number of pages in your book against the number of pages read? If your book is 200 pages long and they report 20,000 pages read, do you count that as 100 copies sold? No. Technically no books were sold at all, at least how it has been traditionally defined. Subscribers pay a monthly fee (currently $9.99 a month) and can read any book enrolled in KU, no limitation. Individual books are not sold, per se.

The point of sales history in a book proposal is to show a book’s performance in the marketplace. Since a book (or ebook) as a unit is not sold in KU it really cannot be counted as a unit sale. Note that none of the major publishers have their titles enrolled in KU because of the exclusivity requirement and the potential for reduced revenue on titles that are only partially read.

For your book proposal I don’t recommend showing KU pages read since they don’t correspond to a traditional sales channel that a major publisher currently uses. But If your KU numbers are very sizeable then mention it. For example:

The Other Bestest Book I Wrote (Independently Published, 2014) – 1,028 sold [2.5 million KU pages read]

What About E-Books?

Another question that comes up with ebook sales in a book proposal is the retail price issue, primarily for those who independently publish.

If you sold 10,000 copies of your self-published ebook, congratulations! Recently editors have been asking, “They sold 10,000 ebooks, but at what price?” If all the sales were between 99¢ – $3.99 a major publisher isn’t as excited because they are hard pressed to sell their ebooks at a higher price. [Please don’t turn the comments below into a discussion of how to price ebooks, that is a conversation for another day.]

What publishers are looking for is a one-to-one corresponding sales record which they can replicate or improve upon within their own sales channels.


What publishers are looking for is a one-to-one corresponding
sales record which they can replicate or improve upon
within their own sales channels.


Note that in the sales history examples above I did not distinguish paperback, hardback, e-book, or audio sales. Just a grand total. The complete number is often all you need. There are times where the break-down information is requested, so keep track of it, just in case.

Keep a Running Total of Lifetime Sales

While I’m on the subject, keep a spreadsheet or document that tracks the lifetime sales of all your books. Not every royalty report will keep a running total for you. It is up to you to keep records. As soon as you get a new statement, spend a few minutes updating your records. You will be glad you did!

Your Turn

Do you keep track of your sales? If so, what software do you use?

What questions do you have related to this topic? I’ll try to answer them below.

30 Responses to How Do You Count Lifetime Book Sales?

  1. Hope Ann January 22, 2018 at 4:32 am #

    Will a small amount of independent sales hurt an author? If an author self-published while growing their platform, and didn’t even sell over a few hundred books, would their submission for traditional publishing be rejected out of hand or would they have a chance to be considered on the same basis as someone who hasn’t published before.

    • Steve Laube January 22, 2018 at 1:20 pm #

      Hope,

      Your submission won’t be “rejected out of hand” for poor Indie sales, but it is a factor.

      There is a sense where placing your book on Amazon or other public online retail sites is a form of Test Marketing. And if it doesn’t sell that could be interpreted as a failed test.

      It’s not fatal…but it is a factor when a major publisher evaluates a project.

      If the project is amazing and the writing terrific and the platform effective, then past sales are not as important.

      Dan wrote about this “test marketing” idea here: https://stevelaube.com/test-marketing-books/

  2. Brennan S. McPherson January 22, 2018 at 4:51 am #

    Very helpful post. Thanks, Steve!

    • Brennan S. McPherson January 22, 2018 at 5:35 am #

      Now that I’ve thought about it more, would it ever be helpful to state the total consumer $$’s spent on a book alongside the unit sales volume? And what amount of consumer $$’s do you think would make an editor perk up?

      • Steve Laube January 22, 2018 at 1:22 pm #

        Brennan,

        A good question. I do not think stating total revenue dollars is going to help. I’ve yet to have a publisher speak in those terms.

        Unit sales has been the default metric that is discussed. For some editors they do not have access to the financials of their employer so may not know the specific dollar revenue number. Therefore unit sales are more commonly discussed.

  3. Steve Watkins January 22, 2018 at 7:16 am #

    I read consistently from literary professionals that a self-published author who makes less than 5,000 sales on their first release will have a difficult time breaking into the traditional publishing world. Though it may be fact, and seasoned professionals surely know, it seems so disheartening.

    Why was John Grisham’s initial release such a low seller only to be followed by a blockbuster called The Firm? On the other side, Elizabeth Gilbert comes out with an initial smash hit, and the follow-up pales in comparison.

    So, the generalized rule confuses me.

    It’s possible that I may love selling more than writing and I self published my first book. Though I have a mature platform and a strong following for a self-published author, breaking through to 5,000 seems almost insurmountable. It’s as if self-published authors are punished for trying, when there may be a reality that a traditional organization backing them could change everything. Of course, it all comes down to the text.

    There is nothing I wish more than to break into the traditional realm, but it feels as though I may already have a capital “S” emblazoned on my forehead.

    • Steve Laube January 22, 2018 at 1:30 pm #

      Steve,

      John Grisham’s story is interesting, but it is an old story. His first book was published in 1989. But you do bring up the point that there is NO science for bestselling books. One author may have only one book to ever sell. Another might have a long and successful career. There is no rhyme or reason to it.

      What we try to do is find some common ground…the “generalized rule” so-to-speak. That way we can present something in a format that does show the benefits of a particular project. But that book must stand on its own merits.

      I remember one manuscript being rejected by an editor in less than an hour with the phrase, “There is nothing new here.” A week later a different editor at a different publisher wrote “This is the most amazing book of the year! This writer is another Philip Yancey!” Obviously the second editor acquired the book and published it.

      If your next project is extremely well written, on a topic that captures enthusiasm, and your platform can help support the success of the book, “then” a traditional publisher may ignore your past self-published numbers.

  4. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser January 22, 2018 at 7:26 am #

    I had wondered about Kindle Unlimited.

    I don’t track sales. I’ll never be represented nor traditionally published, so there’s no point. If the numbers are good, they’ll go to my head, and if not, lay a dead hand on my writing heart.

    Writing’s a bit like shoveling coal into a firebox. Just keep going at a steady rhythm, don’t look at the pile behind you, and the shovelfuls you’re moving are quickly consumed.

    • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser January 22, 2018 at 7:37 am #

      My foregoing comment is as it may be; but some of the stuff I wrote was read, and some of it helped the readers. It’s why I wrote it; if I started tracking the numbers I’d learn quickly to hate the works that, despite their low sales, did the most good (albeit for a mall number of people). I don’t want to leave this life in that frame of mind.

      I did my very best; I can’t and would prefer not to try to put a number on that.

      • Kayleen January 22, 2018 at 7:48 am #

        That’s how I write too. I’m happy giving it my best and enjoying my projects and not getting too caught up in what I should be selling to look worthy.

  5. Kayleen January 22, 2018 at 7:46 am #

    I have written 15 books for 2 established children’s book publishers– both have told me they don’t know the sales figures. I never understood that and I gave up trying to find out.

    • Carol Ashby January 22, 2018 at 8:19 am #

      They don’t know their total sales figures yet they are still in business?? I find that beyond the realm of believability, Kayleen. Someone in the financial wing of the company should be tracking that info on a monthly basis, but perhaps they don’t pass that info along to the people who interact with authors directly.

    • Steve Laube January 22, 2018 at 1:33 pm #

      Kayleen,

      If your books were contracted as work-for-hire, meaning you got paid a one-time fee, then you will not receive sales statements from your publisher.

      But if you signed a royalty-bearing deal with your publisher it would be highly unusual for them not to tell you the number of books sold in your royalty statement.

  6. Sami A. Abrams January 22, 2018 at 8:05 am #

    Since I’m new to the writing scene, I’ve been wondering about this. I appreciate the insight. I love the idea of a spreadsheet and running total. Thank you!

    • Steve Laube January 22, 2018 at 1:34 pm #

      Sami,

      Glad to catch you at the beginning! Keep good records, you’ll be glad you did one day.

  7. Carol Ashby January 22, 2018 at 8:10 am #

    Another interesting blog, Steve, and it raises some questions in my numbers-oriented brain. When examining past sales records, do publishers consider not just totals but sales trends? For example, what if a book started slow but accelerated to a respectable sales rate and then continues to sell at a healthy rate that might even keep increasing for months or even years as fans spread the word? Sales versus time, even versus month or season of the year (summer break has a 2-3x effect), are easy numbers for an indie to track.

    To what extent do they pay attention to readthrough (getting the next book after reading one by an author) for a series? Ratings at Goodreads, which are identified by reader name, are an indication of readthrough. And what about “readback,” where readers of a later book who have just discovered an author go back and read all the earlier work? Rating dates at Goodreads also provide some measure of that.

    • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser January 22, 2018 at 8:43 am #

      Carol, I’d be interested in hearing Steve’s answer as well. An example that illustrates your point is Edward Abbey’s ‘Desert Solitaire’, published in 1968 and originally ignored. It eventually garnered interest from the nascent environmental movement, and it’s been a steady seller since…and I believe it’s still in print.

    • Steve Laube January 22, 2018 at 1:40 pm #

      Carol,

      A book that increases in sales over time is great. But most authors are not approaching a publisher 10 years after their last book was published. The units sold show lifetime sales up to a point in time.

      Feedback on Goodreads is one indicator among many that a publisher will look at.

      Remember it this way, if you send in a book proposal to an agent or an editor who does not know you…they WILL google you. I do it all the time. I go to the author’s web site. I go to their Amazon Central page. I look for their name on the Internet (you’d be surprised what stuff floats around).

      If you are curious, do the same for yourself and see what an agent or an editor will see. Will I find an abandoned blog where the last entry is from 2012? Will I find a book you published but failed to tell me about?

      I may find your past work on Goodreads. All that is well and good. But it only helps flesh out the author in my mind as I review their proposal. If that proposal is AMAZING and I think it has potential, the rest of vetting begins.

      • Carol Ashby January 22, 2018 at 2:17 pm #

        You’ll find first my Roman history site and then a link to my filmography that includes Chariots of Fire and two James Bond films. No, wait. That filmography was for Carole Ashby, the British actress with an E at the end of Carol. Too bad. I suspect she’s made more with residuals than I’ll ever make with royalties.

  8. Martha Whiteman Rogers January 22, 2018 at 8:24 am #

    I’m working on a book proposal for Tamela now, and this sales thing has me stymied. I publish through a royalty paying small publisher, but I can’t make heads nor tails of the royalty statement. I have over 20 books with the company, both novels and novellas. Some are in collections with six to eight other authors. Most are in KU as well as paperback and e-books. The royalties have been good, but I can’t figure out exactly how many were actually sold in the US and UK.
    I’m sorry I didn’t keep better records from the beginning with my traditional publisher so I’m not sure about those numbers now. It may take a while, but this post helped me figure out a few things. Thanks.

  9. Carol Ashby January 22, 2018 at 8:45 am #

    I use Excel spreadsheets for tracking everything related to sales (total numbers and numbers versus time). I can track format (print and ebook), performance by different sales outlets, domestic vs. international sales, royalties paid and those earned but not yet paid, and anything else I might want. It’s completely user friendly when I want to track numbers with text to clarify what the numbers mean.

    Whenever I think of something new to track, it’s just a matter of adding a new column or starting a new worksheet. I prefer the freedom of something I made myself to canned software that won’t let me modify it if I want something it’s not designed for.

  10. Sheri Dean Parmelee January 22, 2018 at 8:46 am #

    Thanks for unpacking a difficult topic, Steve.

  11. Angela Breidenbach January 22, 2018 at 12:06 pm #

    I struggle with understanding royalty statements. One is so convoluted it makes no sense. I couldn’t begin to know how many books were sold because the audio and hardback rights were sold as subsidiary rights. Those numbers are not on the statement. I did not know to even try so several years of sales are not known.
    On KU sales, the numbers have been so high in some collections that those KU Reads alone paid my bills for a year, before the high numbers of sales were taken into account. The fact that a book generates repeat revenue is crucial. The problem is the traditional publishing and self-publishing arenas don’t talk the same business languages and so have trouble comparing apples and oranges. It’s important to dive into revenue to help the other party understand. Mass sales to big box stores, subsidiary sales, samples, free, KU borrows/reads… those are only a few things that can cause havoc on finding a real number. Consider factoring in collections, whether in one book or a series by different authors that can skew read-through of a specific author.
    Now with the algorithm changes, things are swinging in odd peaks and valleys. AMS ads make some difference.
    I had a friend mention she kept track of her book titles and best-seller status on each book. So I started doing that, but honestly all this is tough to keep up with when you’re trying to do all and be all in your own writing business.
    I feel that hitting best-seller lists can help. But who knows. I’ve been on 4 traditional with novella collections (ECPA) and a stand-alone (my agent mentioned a list for publishers that wasn’t available to the general public), and have been on at least 8 Amazon lists (From Top 100 to category) with indie books and collections.
    I’ve also purchased remainders from a publisher. The low cost of remainders offers a high return income. That book has sold at speaking events and hand-sold to retailers continually. Remainders may not count on a list anywhere, but since that publisher never distributed the book, and I’ve sold 2,000 myself before getting the rights back, I was able to turn it into real income and still do that today. I think people sometimes get so caught up in the flurry to make numbers to impress that they forget books are supposed to make an income for them. It’s also important to note if the publisher went under, closed a line, or never distributed a book. That is completely out of an author’s control. I’ve had that happen a couple of times. That isn’t a reflection on the author’s ability. So noting that on a proposal may help the new company understand why your book didn’t get released. I no longer worry about how high sales or hitting the best-seller lists. I concentrate on building the income within my business instead. My income pays my bills. Much less crazy-making (book sales numbers are not you and will not determine your value as a person or a writer) and much less constant stress about things that are out of an author’s control. Tracking income and expense is a good idea for any business. But realize that in this business, there are a ton of variables that mean you will never know the exact number of book sales, especially if it’s left to a standard unit of sale. Just do the best you can with what you know, and let go of the “unworthy” scale. Then keep getting educated in the industry. But don’t get so focused on one element that it pitches you into the dark, cold belief that you aren’t good enough to publish. An educated, craft-skilled author is worth more than someone’s subjective judgement can know. Think about all those authors and artists whose work became world-renowned after they died. We’re so caught up in needing the accolades while we can see them, aren’t we? Write because you’ve been called to write. Hone your skill because that’s the best way to honor God’s gift of your talents. Then do what you can do to get that message out by being as educated in the marketplace as is humanly possible for your place and time.

    • Brennan S. McPherson January 22, 2018 at 2:46 pm #

      While it’s certainly difficult to keep accurate numbers, you can tally up what you do have access to and say, “I sold no fewer than these.” I don’t think publishers tend to make very much off of subsidiary rights unless the title is already selling like hotcakes domestically through its primary ISBN’s, which you should always be able to get a pretty accurate number on. Even as an indy author, Author Central (through Amazon) gives you access to BookScan physical sales on all your titles for free (even traditionally published titles). While that doesn’t include e-book sales, it’s not too difficult to piece it together after that. You make a good point that as business owners, we should always be making sure our business pulls a profit. But you’re right that because a self-published author has a completely different business model than a traditional publisher, it is like comparing apples to oranges. I think that’s part of the reason why there are few authors who drive down both lanes. But how cool is it that both models are still valuable today? More opportunities for generating income as a writer today than ever before. And what good advice to make the focus be on honoring God with our gifts. Thanks for that! Blessings. PS: That’s some seriously impressive KU income! 🙂

  12. Vanessa Burton January 22, 2018 at 12:22 pm #

    Great info. to know going into this field! Thanks for the tips and advice!

  13. Yvonne Saxon January 22, 2018 at 11:00 pm #

    What about being traditionally published in an anthology? The success (or failure) of the book is shared by a number of authors. Would lifetime sales still be relevant?

  14. Angela Breidenbach January 25, 2018 at 10:55 am #

    Thank you, Brennan S. McPherson 🙂

  15. Amber Schamel January 25, 2018 at 12:12 pm #

    Thank you for this post, Steve. It answers several questions for me. I too had heard that a self-published author would have a hard go of it, but lately I have been encouraged by seeing how many hybrid authors are out there.

    I have been using a fairly simple excel spreadsheet to track my book sales, but it isn’t my favorite method. I’d love to know what other authors use.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Writing Links…1/29/18 – Where Genres Collide - January 29, 2018

    […] https://stevelaube.com/count-lifetime-book-sales/ “A key element in a book proposal is your sales history. Of course, you can ignore this if you’ve never published a book before. But if you have published, either with a traditional publisher or independently, your sales history must be included in your next book proposal. Here is an example:” Interesting what counts. […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *