Friday, October 21, 2016

Can publishers see my sales numbers?

So, here's the deal. I live in a fairly rural area, but am lucky enough to have a decent writers group nearby. This group is one of the largest in the state and as a part of its function, acts as an independent publisher for many of the authors involved with the group. Aside from publishing an anthology of work from authors "with ties to the state," I have seen several of my ...peers... publish their work through this imprint.
I hesitate on the term peers for two reasons: First, I am the youngest member of the group by roughly 25 years. Second: Unlike the other members of this group, I am much more interested in trade publishing than in self-publishing, specifically because of your blog post on some hard numbers.  and this post also on sales figures.
That being said, one of my fellow writers was excited to report at our last meeting that he was close to selling 500 copies of his book. An accomplishment, to be sure, but a far cry from the 20,000 copies referenced above. During that conversation, the group turned to me and asked when I'd be ready to publish my work.
While the idea of seeing my work in print excites me, I'm not ready to jump into something just because I can. With that in mind, I asked the head of the group (the woman in charge of the imprint) whether she had a way of tracking book sales, or (more importantly) what numbers would a trade publishers see if they were to look at the books out group publishes?

The short answer was, she didn't know. The book my fellow writer is selling does have an ISBN, but is printed through Amazon's CreateSpace, and most of his sales are to local book stores, book fairs, or individuals at other events.

Are these numbers a trade publisher would be able to find later on if he eventually wanted to sign with an agent and ultimately a publisher? I told the group I'd do some research, and your blog was the first place I headed.

Short answer: If it has an ISBN. sales will get tracked (most likely).  

Longer answer: Sales numbers are collected by a company. They don't get info from every cash register in the world, nor do they have agreements to collect that info from every store that sells books. That means  their data is incomplete, thus you need to factor in a margin of error.

Generally we think of Bookscan numbers (that's what they're called) as about 70% accurate, but that can skew all the way down to 30% accurate with some kinds of books.

For example, books that are sold to libraries don't get counted. Books that speakers sell in the back of the room don't get counted. Books sold at some indies don't get counted.  This article gives more detail on what gets missed.

So, if your book is sold at county fairs, and the local chamber of commerce, chances are that Bookscan will not pick it up.

However, there's another thing I always look at, and that's Amazon rankings. Amazon doesn't measure volume, it measures volatility. Not numbers but how how the book is selling in relation to other books in its category (and Amazon has some WEIRD categories.)

A book can sell 3 copies and be #1 in the category if the category is esoteric enough.   

What I do though is look for OTHER books in the category and then search them on Bookscan. From that I can triangulate in on a number of sorts.

But truthfully, if we're looking at sales of anything less than five digits, I'm probably only looking up this info to amuse myself. 

What this means for you: anything you publish on CreateSpace and has an ISBN number can be tracked, and the fewer the sales, the less accurate the reporting which is bad news for you.  

If you want to publish professionally, you're better off to do anything like this under a pen name and then burn that identity like you are Jason Bourne on the run.

Any questions?     


Theresa said...

I always hesitate to look at Bookscan because I know it doesn't count everything. I keep working on getting more reviews posted on Amazon. I know how important these thing are, especially now that I'm working on a proposal for my next book.

AJ Blythe said...

Thanks for the explanation, JR. I'd always wondered how the number of sales were tallied (having never heard of Bookscan before).

OP, sounds like you already know the answer to the question and just need our Queen to confirm. If the agent route is your plan good luck in staying strong and resisting the urge to rush to publish.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

OT, sort of, kind of, maybe, I don't think so?

No idea why but I woke up this morning thinking about GOOD WILL HUNTING and how exciting and wonderful it must have been for Affleck and Damon when their amazing journey took off. I imagined the whoops and hollers when Robin Williams got on board and when Minnie Driver was chosen.
And then, within minutes, I hop over here and “Jason Bourne on the run,” jumps off the page. For me, it’s a heads-up kind of thing.

Opie hold on, because you are right on.

“While the idea of seeing my work in print excites me, I'm not ready to jump into something just because I can.”

Though your writer’s dreams may be big, and the process daunting, success is possible. Two regular guys from no-wheresville, with hard work and big dreams, made it as big as big can get.

Colin Smith said...

Frankly, this side of the business is scarier for me than querying. It's one thing to get published, it's quite another to stay published. That first novel has to do well for a publisher to pick up the next. And then the next has to do well, then the next, until you've reached the point where your name is enough to sell sufficient books to make everyone a happy profit. It would be lovely if publishers would publish books simply for the love of it. I guess the day they start giving out food and electricity for free, that might happen... :)

Thanks for asking the question, Opie. All the best with your writing journey!

E.M. Goldsmith said...

OP I totally understand where you are coming for. Years, ago, well before I was fortunate enough to run into our sharkly Queen, an indie publisher offered me a deal. No advance, no marketing, no bookstores – basically an ISBN and a go in cyberspace, little more than self-publishing as I would have to do most of the work which involved a lot of stuff I plain did not know how to do or have the time to do.

I would get some editing and such, but still. My determination that my book bless the shelves of bookstores nation wide saved me. The publisher explained that you basically had to be published by a “big” publisher to have any chance of finding shelf space. I declined without any trepidation at all.

That publisher was gone less than a year after making the offer.
I am so glad that I made that decision. The book would not have been my best work, especially at the time, and it needed a lot more revision. So I spent a few years doing that and then was hooked up with an agent from my cousin’s agency, and it was ultimately rejected. During this process, I met our Queen. Clarity. I shelved the book this year after a few nibbles from the traditional publishing community. I decided I could do better. And I am loving writing new material.

Which isn’t the point. It is one thing to just have the work in print, and for some that is enough and all that is wanted, but for me, I have big dreams and prefer to go through the traditional route, hopefully making a bang with my debut and having several follow up books so I can stay published.

Colin is right. It is one thing to get published. Staying published is a whole other game. Which is why I want an agent as well as a publishing contract with a reputable publisher. I am in this for the long game, and OP, it sounds like you are too so just keep chugging. You will get there, even if you must be Jason Bourne for a time.

CynthiaMc said...

I realized the other day I had over 300 hours of vacation time so I'm taking a long weekend and doing my own WIR of sorts as Janet's blog comes out as I'm doing my hair but I don't often have a chance to read the comments. Yesterday's were wonderful. Congrats to all.

Went to a book signing for one of Daughter's high school friends (also one of my stage kids). I am so proud of her and all she's accomplished. She is still as sweet and gracious as ever. She didn't write the book, but it's based on her Star Wars character. The author seems very shy and said she never would have survived such a thing on her own. Ashley, being an actress was all cute, sweet, and bubbly and they made a great team.

And then I went home and felt like a complete failure, old, washed up, wondering if Don Quixote felt like this (no, he was crazy and living his delusion. I, alas, am sane and fully aware of hours spent at work vs. hours - moments really - I am able to spend on what I still hope will be my future work. Darned responsibility gene, ruins everything).

But today I am off, in my garden with the pups and kitties, squirrels and birds. I am sipping coffee and making a longer story out of one of my flash fiction entries that won't leave me alone. Lives are lived a moment at a time and we do the best we can. Books are written a word at a time and we do the best we can there, too.

Lennon Faris said...

The line about Jason Bourne made me laugh out loud, which isn't something I do often when I read.

OP, I'd think about what your end-game is, what you really want. A lot of Reiders have expressed many different reasons for wanting to write and/ or get published.

If you already know what your ultimate goals are, and trade-publishing is the best to offer those, have the patience and buckle down and don't just do something to see your stuff in print.

Good luck!

Michael said...

Bookscan is mostly irrelevant for self publishers because the vast majority of self-publishing sales (95%+) are ebooks. In some cases, it's more like 99%.

Look at overall rank, not category rank, and you can get a snapshot of Amazon's sales, at least. Also, a lot of books are tracked over time. Volume of reviews can be another clue, but is not sufficient in and of itself. Some books attract a higher percentage, some reviews are fake, etc.

One thing to keep in mind is that the numbers are simply different for indie publishing. This is why so many old Harlequin writers have made a mint with their backlist. They took books that HQN sold 100K copies of, paid them 5 grand, and re-release them. They might only sell 10,000 copies on their own, but at 2.99 that's $20,000 in royalties.

I'm not a big fan of small press. My feeling is go big or go indie. If you go with a small press, they're unlike to sell more books than you could do on your own, and they'll pay less and tie up your rights at the same time.

Susan said...

Thank you for the addition to the Treasure Chest, Colin! My Amazon wishlist just keeps getting bigger ;)

OP: I agree with what Janet and everyone else is saying--it sounds like traditional publishing is where your heart is. If it aligns with your goals, have confidence in your convictions and keep persevering. What may look like the right path for one person may be wrong for another.

As far as the rankings go: I don't put much stock in Amazon rankings, either--and that article was pretty validating for why. When my book released, I amused myself by looking at the numbers, but they're so fluid it's hard to see how they can be an influencer. Last week, the Kindle edition of my book was ahead of The Fault in Our Stars (the Spanish edition, thank you very much) in the juvenile fiction-illness category. Today, it's in the six figures. Correct me if I'm wrong, Janet, but I think it depends on the saturation of the category and the timing of sales for your book as relative to sales of other author's books. Though it could present a good indication for how it's doing in general, I don't necessarily think of it as the barometer for success.

But then again, my barometer looks a little different, too.

Colin Smith said...

This is totally off-topic, but look who's made it to the Huffington Post!:

Huffington Post Fall Book Pick


Brigid said...

Colin, I think our Donna gets an upgrade to vstbnytba.

Panda in Chief said...

I'm jumping in on Colin's off topic post to say a giant HUZZAH for Donna and her Dixie Dupree!

Beth Carpenter said...

Congrats, Donna. You rock.

An old book of mine written under another name is in a category of eight on Amazon. Sometimes it's #1, sometimes #8.

Colin Smith said...

Brigid: Our Donna might be on her way to (stbppw). See if you can figure that one out. ;)

JulieWeathers said...

OP, go with your gut on this one.

I would run as fast as I could from this group pushing me to publish with them. They are nothing short of a vanity press. I think it's awesome they are fulfilling the dreams of the members who might not otherwise ever be published. This is not a bad thing. You're also smart enough to realize what the pitfalls are with this type of publishing.

I noticed Jolly Fish went under recently. When I was doing the pitch contests on twitter I was contacted by them every time for Far Rider. There's no guarantee they would have picked it up, but having read the first 50, they were very interested and contacted me repeatedly asking me to send it.

After an acquaintance's debacle with Night Shade, I confess I'm head shy.

That being said, I have certainly flirted with self-publishing or going with a friend who has a small publishing company. Every now and then someone pops up on Books and Writers looking for advice. B&W is a pretty safe place. You won't find anyone handing out harmful advice though we don't always agree and personal attacks are shut down pretty quick. Even so, once in a while someone who comes seeking advice gets their tail over the dashboard when people offer genuine and helpful advice. It often devolves to, "I've had five books published with rave reviews. How many do you have published?"

I have to admit I am unpublished and at that point I bow out. Usually the five published books are self-published and they have five rave reviews, but I still think, the person has a point. At least they're published.

It all depends on what your goals are. Like Curly says, it's up to you to figure out what that one thing is.

JulieWeathers said...


I am excited for your daughter's friend. How exciting. I also empathize. When I joined AOL Books and Writers a very nice lady named Marsha Skrypuch made me very welcome in the kid's lit section. She has about 50 books out now, most of them award winners. Actually, it's only 20. *weeps*

Another very nice lady named Diana was kind of a big deal because she had some monster book out everyone was going crazy over.

Jo Bourne was talking about writing, and I hung on every word. Her craft discussions were fascinating, as were Diana's and Beth Shope's. Jo has seven books under her best, RITA award winners among them. Add in Darlene Marshall who now has eight books out.

Meanwhile, here's Julie. I'm in the acknowledgments of five books. Does that count as being published? I think it's sort of like I stayed in a Holiday Inn last night.

I just keep plugging along and hoping I live a long time.

JulieWeathers said...

B.J. and Janice I'm not sure if you'll have time to check in here, but if you do, look for the Compuserve crew. BJ, you should know Kathy Chung. If you see her, ask her to point them out. They usually sit together at the back of the restaurant in the mornings. Look for Beth Shope or Spesh Bowers. Tell them Julie sent you and you need to be adopted.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...


Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God.

Thanks Colin. Jeez man you are on top of this stuff.

Joyce Tremel said...

Yay, Donna! Congratulations!

Donnaeve said...

Tracking books sold is weird. For instance, if I buy my own book, it doesn't count against my permanent sales record. (super important)

That's why my friend, who wants to stock/sell the book at the deli worked out a way to order from Penguin Random House Distribution - so what she orders CAN go against that.

Thanks to all about the HuffPo article! I've known about it for a while, but it's still thrilling to see lil ole DIXIE in such high falutin' company. :)

Colin I can't even begin to guess... stbppw??? Soon to be published peon writer? ...published pitiful woman? published (&) poor writer? Do tell.

Colin Smith said...

STBPPW: Soon-To-Be Pulitzer Prize Winner. :)

Donna: All this great publicity shows you've not only got one heck of a book, but you've got a wonderful team working for you. I'm adding your agent to my list. I'll get to meet him on 11/1--yes? :)

Lennon Faris said...

Awesome, Congrats, Donna!!

Donnaeve said...

AND... I meant to comment on this.

"For example, books that are sold to libraries don't get counted." WHAT???

"Books that speakers sell in the back of the room don't get counted." Okay, that on makes sense.

Books sold at some indies don't get counted. WHAT???

This article gives more detail on what gets missed. I'll be checking out that article.

OP, like others have said, go with your gut. This reminds me (in a way) of whether or not I should get a flu shot. Years ago, most of you don't know this - maybe none of you do - I had Guillain Barre Syndrome. I won't go on about it, but let's just say I ended up in the hospital and then recovery took weeks.

What's the comparison re: should I get the flu shot or not? It's like damned if I do, damned if I don't. Don't get the shot, risk getting the flu. Get the shot, risk triggering GBS. The chances of GBS are smaller than getting the flu...yet, the idea of GBS again scares me so bad, I risk the flu every year.

So for you, if you go indie publishing, and achieve some sales, what's the chances they are less than 20K - or not. Who knows right? Or bide your time to do traditional publishing - and then it's the risk of not knowing if it will happen - or not.


Joseph S. said...

Following up on the Donnaeve interview Colin linked, my university’s quarterly magazine arrived yesterday with a one page story about two of my former students (they married while in law school). Their third year in law school Lauren worked the front desk at the library. She and I talked frequently of her work with groups fighting Human Trafficking (mainly women). He had spent the previous summer with a group in (I believe) Romania trying to educate young women. I’d find articles on human trafficking from Houston Chronicle (I read it to follow the Astros) and worldwide and print out copies for her. She told me human trafficking and prostitution was really bad in Birmingham, even though I in my Pollyanna lifestyle was totally unaware of it. Here’s a snippet from the quarterly magazine (P.S. the referenced 7 minute video is worth watching) :

Lauren Hartin is president/CEO and cofounder [with husband Jay] of Blanket Fort Hope, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. It exists to assist child trafficking victims and provide human trafficking prevention education. According to Hartin, human trafficking is the second-largest criminal activity and the fastest growing crime. Children in the foster care system, children receiving child welfare and runaway homeless youth are all particularly
vulnerable to becoming victims of trafficking, she said. Because it is a hidden crime, it is very difficult to quantify the impact the crime has on our state, she added. Hartin is devoting her time and attention to serving her community.

For more information on Blanket
Fort Hope and to view the
educational video, go to and

Donnaeve said...

Oh, Colin! Yer a hoot. Hey, I hope your karma works.

I wish John would come to Raleigh for my book launch, but I doubt that. It's so funny, I've been with him/his agency for 4 years - never met him.


Thanks, again all!

Donnaeve said...

Good stuff, Joe Snoe - I'll check out the video.

Colin Smith said...

John's links: and

Donna: How long have you been regularly commenting? I ask because just the other day I was trying to think if I knew you before you had an agent. I seem to recall the first time I looked you up, your blog bio listed your agent, and I was impressed that you still hung out here even though you already had representation. Of course, there are plenty of agented and published writers here. But we now know there's more to this blog than learning how to query... :)

Claire Bobrow said...

Critique group meeting coming up in an hour, so I'm keeping it short and sweet: Yay, Donna!!! Way to go!

Colin Smith said...

Claire: Say HI to your critique group from us! Tell them to go easy on you... ;)

Claire Bobrow said...

Colin: learning how to survive critique group has been a fabulous lesson over the last 9 months. While it's flattering when people like a MS, I almost enjoy it more when they rip into one because I learn so much. I'll pass along your hello, though, and tell them if they get too mean I know a reef where I can send them :-)

Have a great weekend everyone!

Susan said...

Donna: Congrats!! What a wonderful article/review!

Julie: I read the announcement about Jolly Fish when an agent tweeted about his anthology needing a new home. They had a great catalog, so it's sad to see when that happens. It looked like some other small presses were willing to pick up the authors, but it makes me wonder (and feel for) the authors who might be left in the lurch. What would their next step be, and would it halt any momentum of success they had with their books? This puzzles me.

Similarly, there was an article from PW today about celebrities starting their own publishing imprints. It makes me wonder if/how this affects agents, editors, small presses, and the publishing industry as a whole. A question for Janet, really. There are so many moving pieces to this industry, it kind of makes the head spin.

JulieWeathers said...

Donna I am over the moon for you. That is a great review and in a wonderful venue for authors also. You should be very proud of what you've accomplished. It's quite remarkable.

Karen McCoy said...

Mucho congrats, Donna! Very well deserved.

I'm surprised books that sell to libraries don't get counted. Is it because they usually don't buy more than one copy unless it's a major author? Some other reason? I'd be curious to see what kind of success rates books have in libraries--it's probably based on circulation stats rather than cost. Thoughts?

Steve Stubbs said...

I did not follow up so do not know the details, but I have read that amazon makes it possible for some of their customers to access BookScan free of charge/

Karen McCoy said...

Just linked to the accompanied article and answered my own question. Yup, end users are definitely hard to measure in libraries. Very interesting data, though!

Colin Smith said...


In case you missed it, here again are the details for Donna's launch party in Raleigh, NC: Quail Ridge Books, Raleigh NC, 7:00pm, Nov 1

I plan to be there (as well as some of my family), but don't let that deter you! :)


Theresa said...

Congratulations, Donna!!!!!

Donnaeve said...

Thank you so much everyone Y'all are all special to me...that's for sure. This is one of the first places I want to come and share my news b/c it's like everyone gets about as excited as I do.

Colin, I think I've been commenting four years, maybe a little longer. I can't recall if I found QOTKU in 2011 or 2012. When I looked at one of her links above, I fully expected to see myself in the comments, but I wasn't....then again, I wasn't as much of a blabbermouth at first. :)

I remember one of our first direction interactions - you wanted a FF contest, QOTKU didn't have one, so you said, (something to the effect of) okay, here's five words, and here's my story. I played along with you, as did others...

Gosh, that seems a long time ago.

Donnaeve said...

DIRECT interactions not direction...(was typing fast, waiting on a phone call that's got me in a nervous knot)

CynthiaMc said...

Julie -Thank you!

Donna - Woo hoo! Awesome!

Claire - Good luck - and take my Tai Chi sword that I unearthed in the garage just in case.

Yard work done, garage work started, cream soda obtained. Reading the Game of Thrones 4-book bundle in the breaks before the library yanks it back tomorrow. Guess who's going to be up all night?

CynthiaMc said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I've never heard of BookScan (no surprise there) but also didn't know library sales wouldn't count towards something. I mean, it's still sales, isn't it? There's one book in my library system which will buy 10+ copies of certain titles when they're new, then weed them out after the inital furor. My library did that with THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN and then rolled it into a book club kit once the holds list was more manageable. I mean, I get it, library checkouts are not customer purchases, but it still seems odd to me that the initial purchase isn't counted.

(also, and please forgive me Madame Sharque, but in your third from the last paragraph, when you say "ISBN number", my blood runs cold...)

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Nothing more to add to what's already been commented about with bookscan and the Queen's expertise.

However, I did want to give a big woo hoo to Donna on the Huffpost article! And also add my thank you's to Colin for taking on the task of listing books authored by our commenters here.

This is a busy community and its wonderful to come here each day.

Anonymous said...

Opie, good for you! I've occasionally expressed some hopelessness at this ever working out, and aside from encouragement, a pretty common thing I hear is, "Why don't you self-publish? [Insert all the reasons this is easier thanks to the digial age, excluding all the reasons jumping into self-publishing as a last resort because you're bitter about traditional publishing is a bad idea]."

I always love hearing about people looking into the options and deciding what works best for them. Because far too often, you'll hear mug-slinging on either side of that line, when the truth is it's different methods for different people. For me, I need traditional publishing because I'm so woefully inadequate with the other skills necessary for self-publishing (and there are SO many) that I'd never get anywhere.

Awesome, Donna! (It also reminded me to tag your book on Goodreads, which for some reason I hadn't done yet. Silly.) And I'll cross my fingers that Colin didn't jinx it. :P

Beth Carpenter said...

Steve, bookscan is available on Author Central, which is part of Amazon. Authors can edit biography and Amazon webpages there and see reviews as well.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

Oh dang, I meant to thank Colin for his Treasure Chest efforts in my first comment. So now I'm thanking Colin for his Treasure Chest efforts in this comment! Thanks, Colin!

Colin Smith said...

Jennifer: You are very welcome. I just updated the list, so be sure to check it out: The Published Works of Janet's Blog Readers. Any more? Please email me (see my Blogger profile for the address).

MA Hudson said...

I'm so glad I found Janet's blog before I finished my WIP. Almost everyone I speak to about my book asks if I'll self-publish. I always wanted to try traditional but with all I've learnt here I know that if I'm not successful the best option for ME is not to self-publish but to query a new book.