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An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2007-08-21 19:51
Subject: [writing] Various things
Security: Public
Tags:books, escapement, mainspring, process, publishing
Partway through what will almost certainly be my last pass through Escapement before sending it back to casacorona. I am simultaneously tackling micro and macro issues. I'm also reading each plot thread straight through, skipping the alternating POVs. This is interesting but challenging.

I seem to be committed to about five short pieces now, several of them novellas or novelettes. Once I'm back from Japan I'm going to be jiggy on that for several weeks. I'll probably start Black Tulip after that.

People ask me about Mainspring Powell's | Amazon ] all the time — at the post office, at the coffee house, at work. "How's the book doing?"

One of the weird things about this business is that I have no real idea.

It's not Tor holding out on me. Some information is business confidential — print runs, shipping breakdowns, etc. — but even I know roughly what the book needs to do be at least minimally successful. Tor understands much better than I do what those numbers need to be. They just don't know the data yet either.

Here's one of those things pros and industry types worry about which doesn't make sense outside the people who work directly with this stuff. It doesn't matter how many books shipped, it matters how many books were returned. And because of the lead time on returns, it takes months to really understand how this works.

Others have certainly explained this much better than I can — I presume pnh or alg, for example. Suffice to say that the book retailing industry has accounting and inventory practices which would drive most bookkeepers bananas. So maybe I'll know in December how the book is doing, with two exceptions. If it got huge returns so fast it was tanking like Guy Ritchie's acting career, somebody might mention it to me sooner. If it went into multiple printings, somebody might mention that to me sooner. As it stands, I think it's doing okay, but I can't tell. And I won't know for months.

Remember me mentioning the concept of trading up to a better class of problems? This would be one of them.

Coming soon...my early-career followup to paul_m_jessup's post on being a newbie.
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User: sheelangig
Date: 2007-08-22 03:10 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)

So, I know Amazon has a best seller rating system, would it not make sense to also have a "we've sold 87 bazillion copies, better get one before we have to go print more and then you'd have to WAIT!" feature? I'd think the marketing people would be all over that aspect. And for the book that only ever sells 87 copies, they might not want to publish that data, but surely, somewhere, somebody has got to be *counting*. Is there a reason that those numbers are confidential?

(thus speaks the non-writer, please pardon my optimistic ignorance)
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-08-22 03:38 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Sure. People are counting. People with incredibly expensive reporting services.

The problem is the count *today* is not what the count will be in December.

Let's say Tor shipped 1,000 of my books on June 20th. There's a 180 day window for them to be returned for full credit. (It's more complex than that, but just for the sake of discussion.)

Right now let's say 100 have been returned. They could tell me, "hey, we sold 900". If there were 0 returns between now and December 20th, that would be true. If there were another 100 returns, the number would be 800. If there were 800 returns, the sales number on that shipment would be *100*. (Which would suck mightily indeed.)

In other words, there's no way they can tell me how my book is doing, since they don't know. Nobody does, until the returns are in.

Now, if they shipped 1,000 copies, and got reorders from all the stories they shipped to, they could reasonably presume to have sold most or all of those 1,000 copies. Hence my comment about if it did very, very well. If they shipped 1,000 copies and had 900 returned in the first 30 days, they would already know it had tanked badly. Hence my comment to that effect.

Otherwise all God's chillun's got to wait for the returns window to expire.
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User: sheelangig
Date: 2007-08-22 03:59 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)

So, the numbers from the bookstores are bigger and/or more important than the numbers from online sellers like Amazon? Considering my penny pinching tendencies, that surprises me, because I get better deals online, even including shipping, than I do in most bookstores.

So, then, how do they determine if something is a "bestseller" for all those lovely lists that show up in the Sunday paper, if they won't really know for 6 months? Is that just marketing puffery?

I know about returning books, some 20 years or so ago, I used to co-manage a discount bookstore that was part of a chain. Mostly our issues were about the softbound books, though. And that was back before the invention of the internet, too.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2007-08-22 04:25 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Oh, yeah. Amazon's total sales are equal to a handful of BN or Borders stores. They have enormous mindshare, but very modest marketshare.

The bestseller lists are heavily laced with marketing puffery. For one thing, they have to narrowly define the books eligible for the lists, or every bestseller list would be papered with SOMETHING FOR DUMMIES and THE IDIOT'S GUIDE TO BREATHING. Some bestseller lists measure new hardcovers, which may in fact be moving a few dozen copies a week compared to the floods of the latest STAR WARS paperback. The NYT bestseller list is based on a telephone survey of recommendations from a very select group of independent bookstores. The Salon.com bestseller list was (at least at one point) being picked up straight from Powell's Books internal list. I've been told the USA Today bestseller list has the most direct relationship to what's actually moving by the numbers.

Remember also that bestsellers, or even major authors, are accounted very differently from new writers like me. The game changes at that level.
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Erin Hoffman
User: zhai
Date: 2007-08-23 01:47 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"How's the book doing?"

What would be the potential consequences to always answering that question: "FANTASTIC!" ? ;)
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